Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.
This entry looks at Amazing Spider-Man #615-616, aka “Keemia’s Castle,” by Fred Van Lente and Javier Pulido.
Because I like my Spider-Man stories with an extra helping of punches to the gut, “Keemia’s Castle,” the tragic two-parter crafted by Fred Van Lente and Javier Pulido in 2011 is probably my favorite story from the “Gauntlet” era of Amazing Spider-Man.
At this juncture, the book is a few years removed from the debacle known as “One More Day,” but is still publishing thrice-monthly with a rotating cast of creators. Fans notoriously turned away from ASM in droves post-BND, as they were distressed by the new status quo mandated by Marvel’s editorial team, but those that stuck around were treated to a flurry of really exceptional Spider-Man stories. And while the constantly shifting creative teams sometimes hurt the ASM’s overall through-line, especially when it came to its narrative voice, I was (and still am) a big fan of most of the creators that were a part of the “brain trust,” especially Van Lente, who deserved a longer stint with ASM then he ultimately got.
What “Keemia’s Castle” does better than the vast majority of its contemporaries is feature a very socially aware message that relates to the real world while also balancing its political-nature with a well-balanced superhero story. In other words, despite the all-too-real tragedies that befall its cast of characters, “Keemia’s Castle” never betrays the fact that it is a comic book story featuring guys in spandex with fantastical powers.
The storyline stars one of Spider-Man’s more emotionally nuanced rogues in Flint Marko, aka, Sandman, who had gone back and forth between good and evil so many times over the years, that it’s actually mind-numbing to think about where his allegiances stood at that moment in time. Still, if someone is going to create a Spider-Man story that wants to explore the idea of “do the ends justify the means” and “can a bad decision be made for a good reason,” there’s no better character to be the focal point than Marko, who has long been portrayed as being a crook desperate to go straight, but constantly being sucked back into a life of crime.
All the same, a facet of this story that seemingly bothered a bunch of people when it was first published is how it winks and nods at one of Sam Raimi’s retcons of the character featured in the “Spider-Man 3” film. Cinematically, Marko reverts to a life of crime in an effort to make a better life for his daughter — I guess you can call it a more cynical-version of Scott Lang’s “I steal from the rich to support my daughter” Ant-Man shtick, which of course was made into a major motion picture this past summer. In “Keemia’s Castle,” Marko becomes infatuated with the daughter of a woman who wrote to him while he was stuck in prison. The little girl, named Keemia, grows to think of Marko as a father figure, even calling him daddy. When Marko realizes that he can give this girl a better life than her mother or grandmother (“abuelita”), he decides to murder them and to treat Keemia like a princess in her very own (sand) castle on Governors Island.
What some have criticized about the story is that “Keemia’s Castle” never really establishes how such a strong bond could have been forged between Marko and the young girl and that the overall premise of the comic relies on context from “Spider-Man 3.” I understand where that argument comes from, but at the same time, I think Marko’s passion and devotion to Keemia is developed well enough for the ending of the story to still hit me as hard as any Spider-Man comic has ever hit me.
That drama is derived from Spider-Man’s involvement. Spidey initially becomes intrigued by Keemia when he discovers that her mother (along with her mother’s lawyer and a club promoter) are murdered, and the murder weapons stunningly disappear. This (illegal) development gets pinned on the detective investigating the cases, Carlie Cooper, who Peter is clearly smitten with at this stage of the game. As part of his vow to get Carlie off the hook, Peter/Spider-Man follows the trail to Governors Island where he finds the girl living in a palace made out of Marko. Marko also has learned some new tricks since he last tangled with Spider-Man, now having the ability to make copies of himself (including some fun doppelgangers that resemble his awful costume from the 70s) and the power to control all of his sand molecules to the finest degree.
The following conflict is a fairly standard Spider-Man/Sandman affair, though with the added element of Spidey being pretty well cheesed-off that Marko’s latest scheme involves destroying a child’s life. And while Spider-Man is taking off the kid’s gloves when fighting his long-time adversary, Sandman is strangely hesitant begging Spidey to just leave he and Keemia alone.
The drama and ultimate heartbreak of this issue is enhanced greatly by Pulido’s amazing artwork. Sandman’s new powerset lends itself to some creative spreads, including some double page Escher-esque visuals involving Sandman and his castle creations. But one of the most haunting images comes towards the end of ASM #616, after Spider-Man successfully defeats Marko by luring him into a ventilation tower that blows his body off the island. As Sandman’s particles are sent skyward, his face looks so mournful as he cries out for Keemia. It’s in that instant where I first got a feeling of doubt as to whether or not Spidey truly made the best decision in rescuing this little girl — even if she was being help captive (though not unwillingly) by a criminal.
The creeping doubt becomes searing when we witness Keemia’s fate with Marko out of the picture. Without a mother and a father and with her grandmother being deemed irresponsible, the girl is absorbed into the “system” and has to live with a foster family. From there, it becomes clear that the girl is going to have to live a life of, at the minimum, verbal abuse, as opposed to living in the lap of luxury with her doting, yet, sociopathic, surrogate father Sandman.
It’s a cutting statement from Van Lente on the foster care system in New York and the United States, which is further punctuated by how rooted in fact it is. In many instances, a person’s love for a child is not enough in the eyes of the state if that person doesn’t have a legal claim to that child. It’s a reality that actually hit me harder than the ending of the far more famous “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man” (though the latter is probably the more elegantly told story).
The emotional wallop makes “Keemia’s Castle” a memorable story for me, even if its premise is built off of a characteristic first introduced in an otherwise terrible Spider-Man movie. Goes to show that sometimes good things can come from bad decisions — basically the moral of “Keemia’s Castle” in the first place.