Tangled Web isn’t your typical Spider-man book, comprising a collection of short stories from diverse creators. These were stories focused not only on Spidey, but also giving face time to supporting cast and villains. It resulted in a 22-issue run that included some brilliant issues, completely atypical of what you’d expect. In the first volume alone we get a peek into the life of the Kingpin’s middle-management while another two issues are dedicated to Rhino contemplating the concepts of intellect, body image and identity.
Writers: Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan, Greg Rucka
Artists: John McCrea, Duncan Fegredo, Eduardo Risso
Tangled Web is a supplemental book to the main Spider-Man releases, with each story wrapping up in under 3 issues. These quick tales weren’t even necessarily about Spider-Man himself, instead focusing on his supporting characters and sometimes his relationships with them. It’s a good way to broaden Spidey’s world and also to flesh-out the rest of the cast. This was also an opportunity for Marvel to bring in an assortment of creators whom you wouldn’t typically associate with Spider-Man or Marvel’s superhero books. Instead we get a rotating crew of writers and artists who’re more closely linked to alternative or mature comics, much like the recent volumes of Strange Tales.
The first story features the team of Garth Ennis and John McCrea, fresh off of their stint on Hitman. This was right around the time that Ennis first transitioned to Marvel from DC, to take over the Punisher franchise. We can view this short three-issue Spider-man story as a preview (at the time) to see whether he could make his style work at Marvel, incorporating his signature antics while still staying true to the character’s voices.
Thankfully Ennis succeeded in his migration, both with this book and with the Punisher. In this particular story he channels the best horror of his Hellblazer run, creating a genuinely unsettling threat from Peter Parker’s past. At the same time he captures a beautiful warmth between Peter and Aunt May, which also reminds me of his Hellblazer days. McCrea’s changes his art style from Hitman, using much cleaner lines and less cluttered panels. It gives the issues a cartoon-ish vibe, working especially well during fight sequences that become hyper-kinetic.
The second story is a single issue from Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso. Rucka’s best work is when he deals with the ancillary characters to super heroes, the ones working on the sidelines of the caped world. These are the cops who clean up after the crime sprees, as exemplified in the criminally under-read Gotham Central (with co-writer Ed Brubaker), and the minions who follow the orders of the crime bosses. This time we glimpse a night in the life of Tom, a planner in Kingpin’s organization who recently failed him.
It’s a chilling story, tense through the single issue and riveting to readers despite never having known the character before. It’s Rucka at his tightest and Risso’ noir style is the perfect accompaniment. The issue ended up with an Eisner nomination and honestly is worth the price of the TPB by itself.
The final story is “Flowers for Rhino”, an homage/spoof of Flowers for Algernon. After getting beaten and humiliated by Spider-Man following a “tactical error,” Rhino gets fed up and decides the solution is the get a mad scientist to make him smarter. At it’s core, this is a story about Rhino wanting to be smarter. This is pretty hilarious. Dig deeper and this is an existential tale about Rhino brooding on the concepts of intelligence and identity. This is also pretty hilarious.
The story is written by Peter Milligan, of X-Statix fame, so you know that it’s going to be a script that’s both smart and witty. He’s accompanied by Duncan Fegredo, better known as Mike Mignola’s replacement artist on Hellboy, who flexes his artistic muscles and creates a vibrant Manhattan. The two issues pack in a lot, featuring references and homages that are nice easter eggs to readers who notice them.
While overall this story may be fun it’s also pretty touching, especially for a character like Rhino. He’s been around for so long that he’s endeared to Spider-Man readers, but at the same time lacks respect to those same readers (and anyone who knows him) and isn’t a character that’s been given depth. This is one of the rare times where he’s in the spotlight, which is part of the joke, but is also quite refreshing. Reading a well done Rhino story makes me realize that I’ve already invested so much into Rhino that I can’t help but enjoy it. These quick little stories with characters we’ve grown to love are why Tangled Web is a welcome addition to the Spider-Man canon, adding depth to his world and giving us enjoyable side-adventures with the supporting cast.