I’m pretty sure the best Marvel story of the year just ended in Amazing Spider-Man. I asked some friends and they mentioned Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Iron Man: World’s Most Wanted and Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham’s Fantastic Four: Solve Everything. Those are perfectly fine whiz-bang superhero stories, which I overall dug, but Amazing Spider-Man: Keemia’s Castle, a Fred Van Lente and Javier Pulido joint, with able color art by Javier Rodriguez, is the real deal.
The covers suggest that Keemia’s Castle is about Sandman vs Spider-Man in a knock-down drag-out battle. Well, it is, but that’s just the dressing the story is wrapped in. It’s really about Keemia and her father, Flint Marko, better known as Sandman. Keemia lives on an island with her father, and he does his best to make all of her dreams come true. Keemia’s Castle is a tragedy in two parts.
The conflict comes when Keemia’s mother and the person who wanted to develop the island end up murdered, with Sandman being Spider-Man’s #1 suspect. Spider-Man, in attempting to do the right thing, sets out to rescue the little girl and return her to her grandmother.
And in the end, after the fighting is done and Spider-Man is feeling good about himself, the rug’s pulled out from under him, leaving him feeling less than heroic. It’s like something out of Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil, where heroism isn’t as simple as punching a dude and calling it a good day’s work. Sometimes the heroes lose and win at the same time.
Spider-Man approaches the Sandman fight as if it’s just another supervillain battle, coming equipped with special webbing to counteract Sandman’s powers and essentially ready to throw down. In actuality, though, Sandman is trying to protect his daughter and hold on to the only good thing in his life. He wants to provide a safe haven, and Keemia means everything to him. And though circumstances end up keeping him from being able to fulfill his goal, it never seems like he’s lying. He’s genuine about what he feels.
At the end of the book, Spider-Man delivers Keemia to Glory Grant, who in turn notified CPS. Keemia’s grandmother, who was watching TV when Keemia was kidnapped, was found to be an unfit guardian. So, the little girl gets to go into the system and placed in a foster home. The kids are mean and there are a lot of them.
Maybe it’s because my mom was a social worker when I was younger, but I’ve always been aware of child abuse and DFACS-related issues. I know that the job involves constant misery for all involved and that sometimes good people just aren’t good enough. I know that my mom quit doing it and switched careers entirely, in part because working as a social worker means that you’re going to want to cry or you’re going to want to strangle someone until they die, and both reactions are equally valid and acceptable.
Being put into foster care doesn’t always work out how it should, even when people mean the best or there’s no other choice. Kids don’t get the childhood they deserve. All I can think of is how Keemia is about to go through it and come out the other side different. She still has the image of her father in her mind, and that’s a bright light for her, but even that can dim over time.
Van Lente ending the story there, with Keemia facing an ugly future, a hero who was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and a family left torn apart, is a kick in the junk. These stories aren’t supposed to end like this. The cape has to save the day, everyone is supposed to smile, and we can close the book, content in the fact that being a superhero is awesome and life is good and simple and safe.
Except it isn’t. And that sucks, but it’s true. It’s nice to see the Amazing Spider-Man gang dig into it without getting preachy. It gives you a little bit to think about and digest. It’s something Spidey, as a franchise, hasn’t done in a long while.
Definitely my pick for the best Marvel story in ’09. Van Lente and Pulido snuck it in under the wire, I’ve gotta say, but it was great. If you’re at your store, pick up Amazing Spider-Man #615 and #616. I was reading comics in bed, dozing off, and ASM made me hop back out so that I could talk about it with Uzumeri and some other dudes. That’s kind of a big deal.
(In an odd coincidence, my first issue of ASM was #316, the big Venom comeback issue. That’s three hundred issues gone.)