Spyder! Spyder! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake, by way of J.M. DeMatteis
Kraven's Last Hunt is the name of a 6-part storyline that took place in the Spider-Man comics in late 1987. J.M. DeMatteis wrote the story, while Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod provided the art. Several major events occurred in Spider-Man's life around this time. The Foreigner killed Ned Leeds, one of Peter Parker's co-workers, who at the time was thought to be the Hobgoblin, one of Spider-Man's enemies. Mary-Jane and Peter's wedding ceremony had taken place so recently that they hadn't even finished moving in together. Spider-Man's life was undergoing huge changes.
But this story is not about Spider-Man. This story is about Sergei Kravinoff, known to the world as Kraven the Hunter. His parents were Russian aristocrats who fled Russia when the Czar's government was overthrown. After their deaths, Sergei became a hunter. He enhanced his senses and his strength drinking a secret mixture of herbs. With his new abilities, he was soon the best hunter in the world. But when he set his sights on Spider-Man, he found himself confounded time and time again. In fact, he was a bit of a joke. He ran around in a loincloth and furs, and never gave Spider-Man too much trouble.
Over the years, Kraven's repeated defeats created in him an obsession with the idea that Spider-Man was actually the Spider, an inhuman creature onto which he projected all of his hate and fear. The Spider was the only prey that had eluded him, and was responsible for all of Kraven's failings. Kraven was getting older, and would not let himself die under the shadow of his obsession, disgraced by the Spider so many times. So, as the story begins we find Kraven steeling himself for what he has to do. He must kill the Spider, and only then can he rest peacefully.
Peter Parker knows none of this. His mind is on his dead friend Ned Leeds and a dead informant he talked to as Spider-Man. With death weighing on his mind, he swings through the city. A dart strikes his neck and he almost immediately begins hallucinating. Kraven steps forward, throws a net on Spider-Man, and draws his rifle. Slowly coming to understand what is happening, Spider-Man panics. And then Kraven shoots him. No elaborate plans to be told, no hesitation. Just the crack of a rifle shot. Later, Kraven buries Spider-Man in a plot on his land. He even provides a tombstone.
The death of the Spider does not mean that Kraven's victory is complete. He assumes Spider-Man's identity, wearing his costume, usurping the power of the Spider. After cutting his teeth on a few street-level thugs, he fights Vermin, a feral man-beast. Spider-Man had defeated Vermin recently, but only with the help of Captain America, and even then it was a near thing. Kraven savagely beats Vermin and captures him, surpassing the Spider in every way.
Two weeks have passed. Peter wakes up. Not wakes up like "This has all been a dream" wakes up. Wakes up like "I've been in a drug-induced coma" wakes up. Kraven's rifle had not contained bullets, but rather, another drugged dart. Peter is, of course, shocked to find himself in a coffin. He claws his way out of his grave and runs home to his wife. She has been wrecked by his absence and is relieved to see him again, but he does not stay. Kraven buried him alive for two weeks and stole his identity. The experience has left Peter a little restless. He returns to Kraven's mansion and strikes Kraven, but Kraven just laughs. He knows that he has won, and now Spider-Man knows it as well. As proof of his triumph, Kraven displays the beaten Vermin. He releases Vermin and lets Spider-Man run after the man-beast to stop any innocents from being hurt. Then, he calmly walks upstairs. He achieved his goal, and has gained a new understanding of his long-time adversary. He beat the Spider. Now he has peace. He (still calmly) gets his rifle. And he shoots himself. His plot is next to Spider-Man's.
KRAVEN THE HUNTER
HE DIED WITH
As a sort of epilogue to the story, DeMatteis, Zeck, and McLeod returned for The Amazing Spider-Man: Soul of the Hunter. A one-shot, it details the aftermath of the ordeal. Two weeks dead is not easy for anyone to cope with, and it's hard to say that a suicide is an honorable death. While struggling with frequent flashbacks of being buried and their attendant terror, Peter finds himself visited by the spirit of Kraven. An otherworldly arbiter explains that only Peter can forgive Kraven and release his soul from its time on Earth. At first, Peter can't find any compassion for the man that buried him alive. However, in coming to terms with his fear of death, he realizes that he can forgive Kraven. He does, and a new epitaph can be read on Kraven's tombstone.
KRAVEN THE HUNTER
FREE AT LAST
I'm not sure that I can recommend this story highly enough. It is my favorite Spider-Man story, and in my mind belongs right up there with The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in terms of quality in comics. Peter Parker, Sergei Kravinoff, and Mary-Jane Parker are all presented as three-dimensional characters. You feel sympathy for Kraven by the end of the story. The fact that Peter is "dead" for two issues and the story doesn't suffer for it is amazing. Literary devices get a workout as well. There are a few leitmotifs, and the symbolism, although obvious, is effective. Spiders and rats make their presence known, almost acting as envoys for the characters they represent. I don't know if DeMatteis is a detailed scripter, or if the three main members of the creative team simply worked together very closely, but the integration of text and art in this story is done precisely, each reinforcing the other. Parallels are drawn effortlessly, it seems. I also love that they examine the impact the experience has on Peter. In Soul of the Hunter, he is shown suffering from what I take to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a realistic reaction to being buried alive for two weeks.
The idea of Spider-Man as the Spider is an interesting one. Throughout the story, DeMatteis seems to alternately accept and reject the notion that Peter Parker is the Man, but that sometimes he embodies the Spider. DeMatteis would revisit this theme in stories like "The Shrieking", in which Peter completely rejects his human life and retreats into the part of the Spider. At the time, it was interesting reading. But in light of recent developments about the nature of Spider-Man's powers, it seems remarkably prescient. J.M. DeMatteis and J. Michael Straczynski both seem to be fascinated by the interaction of the Spider and the Man in Peter Parker.
The closest thing I can tell you as an objective measure of the respect given to this storyline is this: Kraven is still dead. A few similar-looking sons have popped up, but Sergei is still in his grave. In comics, recurring characters are rarely laid to rest permanently. But no one will touch Kraven, because they know that it would cheapen an excellent story. If you can track this story down, do so and read it.
Kraven's Last Hunt is:
Web of Spider-Man #31
The Amazing Spider-Man #293
Spectacular Spider-Man #131
Web of Spider-Man #32
The Amazing Spider-Man #294
Spectacular Spider-Man #132
It can be found in trade paperback form as Spider-Man: Fearful Symmetry: Kraven's Last Hunt ICBN #9998314267
And as mentioned earlier, The Amazing Spider-Man: Soul of the Hunter is a one-shot comic.