In Spider-Man Noir, we find ourselves in 1933, during the Great Depression. We open on a helluva situation: J. Jonah Jameson has been shot in his office at the Daily Bugle, and when police break down the door, they find the masked vigilante known as “the Spider-Man” inside. They immediately assume that the masked man has murdered the newspaperman and open fire, despite Spider-Man’s protests that “this isn’t what it looks like”.
And suddenly we flash back in time courtesy of our narrator, Ben Ulrich, a reporter for the Daily Bugle. While taking pictures for his upcoming articles, Ben comes across May Parker, an old woman with an indomitable spirit who stands atop her soapbox and gives speeches to a crowd with a rather socialist flavour. When a bunch of goons try to attack her, Ben diffuses the argument. This situation leads to a friendship between Ben and May’s nephew, Peter Parker.
The plot really gets in motion near the end of issue #2, and I really admire a lot about this story. The cleverest things about it is how it adapts the Spider-Man origin story. We all know it by heart by now: how Uncle Ben was shot and Peter could have saved him. Well, this mini-series gives it a unique twist, and not just by changing time periods on you. It knows it wants to do something different, and by gum it does. And the nods to the classic Spider-Man origin story are absolutely delicious.
The best part about this comic book is how it handles the villains. The Green Goblin becomes the ruthless businessman The Goblin, with the police and mayor in his pocket. The Enforcers also appear as the Goblin’s muscle in the city— they are your classic thugs-for-hire, working for the highest bidder. And the Goblin is accompanied by several baddies straight out of the carnival freak-shows. There’s Kraven, who used to be an animal trainer—a nod to Kraven the Hunter. And then there’s Adrian Toomes, “The Vulture”, who snapped during his years as a carnival sideshow and has lost all his humanity, becoming a monster with a taste for human flesh. It’s all given a tinge of realism, but due to the fantastic nature of the source material, it isn’t quite what Raymond Chandler had in mind.
It is such a shame, too, because everything else is done so nicely! The plot is exciting and convoluted, even if it isn’t a traditional fair-play mystery. The comic books are integrated so nicely into a noir universe! Felicia Hardy, for instance, is now a glamorous dame who runs a speakeasy called The Black Cat! When the series gets something right, it really smacks it out of the park. Unfortunately, it gets key points wrong, and the entire comic book suffers because of it.
As a fan of film noir, I enjoyed this comic book. I also enjoyed it as a long-time fan of Spider-Man. But my recommendation of this comic book comes with a serious caveat. The art and story and characters are generally quite good… but the occasional sloppiness and laziness really does hurt an otherwise terrific comic book.