Sergei Kravinoff, a.k.a. Kraven the Hunter, was created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for The Amazing Spider-Man #15. The son of a Russian noble family who fled to America in 1917 in the wake of the February Revolution, Kraven’s self-identity was defined by being a big game hunter. In an attempt to prove he was the world’s greatest hunter, Kraven became obsessed with defeating Spider-Man. He hunted the web-head from his creation in ’64 until his death in 1987’s critically acclaimed “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story arc. As with many comic characters Kraven would ultimately be resurrected, in this case by his family in 2010’s “Grim Hunt” storyline. In the fifty-four years since his creation, Kraven has featured in some of Spider-Man’s most iconic storylines and stood among the web-slinger’s fiercest foes. But which is the greatest Kraven story ever told? To my mind, dear reader, there is only one answer. (Oh, there will be spoilers, obvs.)
In 1987, J.M. Dematteis delivered one of the boldest stories ever featured in a Spider-Man comic. Dark and foreboding in its tone, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” was unlike anything done in Spider-Man comics before. Shortly after their marriage, Mary Jane would wait in her apartment for Peter to come help move her stuff to his place. However, Peter would not arrive that night. Haunted by the reality of his own mortality, Peter is attacked by Kraven the Hunter as he swings through the city on his way to Mary Jane’s. At point blank range, Kraven shoots Spider-Man with a rifle, buries him on his estate, and takes up the mantle of Spider-Man himself. Kraven seeks to prove he isn’t just capable of defeating Spider-Man but of being a superior Spider-Man. Simultaneously world-weary and increasingly losing his grip on reality, Sergei Kravinoff serves as a silent, brutal Spider-Man.
Perhaps most terrifying of all, Kraven doesn’t really kill Spider-Man. Rather he drugs him and buries him alive. Two weeks after his burial, Peter – fueled by thoughts of Mary Jane – fights through the drugs and digs his way out of his own grave. He lets Mary Jane know he’s alright before going to confront the man who left him buried. After Peter reclaims his identity, Kraven puts his rifle in his own mouth and takes the life he’d prolonged with mysticism and drugs for so many decades.
Not wanting to risk undercutting the power of killing Spider-Man in one comic while other adventures simultaneously played out, Marvel ran the story across all three Spider-Man titles; Web Of Spider-Man (#31-32), The Amazing Spider-Man (#293-294), and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (#131-132). The entire story is isolating and unnerving. When Peter finally returns home to Mary Jane their reunion is a tender moment in an oppressive and mostly silent story. Yet it isn’t the “happy” of good triumphantly defeating evil. Rather it’s the ghost of happiness that colors survival after tragedy. There’s true joy in your safety but you remain indelibly marked by what you’ve experienced.
It is easy to see why “Kraven’s Last Hunt” has received consistent fan and critical praise for over thirty years. But it isn’t the greatest Kraven story of all time. It’s not even close.
GASP! What?!? SURPRISE TWIST!!!
The greatest Kraven story of all time comes to us care of Ryan North and is found in the pages of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #32-35. Now that I’ve (probably) surprised you (unless the featured image on the post allowed you to correctly infer this twist), here’s why Squirrel Girl beats out Spider-Man for the best Kraven story of all time.
When I opened The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1 (Vol. 1) I had no idea what would be waiting for me. I knew I loved Ryan North as an author but I wasn’t ready to find the best comic Marvel’s publishing. Perhaps the most unexpected surprise of that first issue was Doreen Green and Tippy-Toe (her best squirrel friend) facing off against Kraven the Hunter on her first day as a student at Empire State University.
Then the Unbeatable Squirrel did something I’d never seen in my 30+ years of reading comic books. She doesn’t defeat Kraven in battle. Rather, she empathizes with him. She sees Kraven’s inherent dignity as a human person and she helps him find a new purpose in life – directing him to hunt far more dangerous game (like giant underwater monsters) than Spider-Man.
This wouldn’t be a one-off appearance either. Over the course of her series’ forty-six issues so far (and one original graphic novel!), Kraven’s relationship with Squirrel Girl has continued to develop as he’s became a recurring character. Issue #32 (of Vol. 2 (Vol. 1 went to eight issues if you’re curious)) begins with Nancy Whitehead (Doreen’s best human friend) and Doreen talking about Kraven as they walk home.
Nancy – “Hey, speaking of ‘defeated’ – you heard from Kraven lately?”
Doreen – “Nope. I’m kind of worried about him.”
Nancy – “Yeah. He was a great help in the Savage Land, against Shannon Sugarbaker, and in your zine, but, I mean, he is a guy who enjoys repeatedly hunting Spider-Man.”
Doreen – “Right? I don’t know Nancy. I feel like he’s a good guy deep down, and when he’s with us he certainly is, but – there’s always bad influences out there. I see him when I’m Squirrel Girl but I never see him the rest of the time. And he was a bad guy for years before I knew him! I worry he could slip back to his old ways.”
One of my favorite things about The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is how much happens in the dialogue. This exchange shows Doreen and Nancy genuinely care about Kraven. They’re worried about him because he’s their friend and they think about him even when he isn’t around. He’s never far from their hearts and minds. So they decide to call Kraven up and see if he wants to go to an Escape Room with them and their friends. As Doreen excitedly tells Nancy, “But who’s to say we can’t just hang out with Kraven? As us, as regular people? Why can’t a couple of regular, non-super heroes just decide to stone-cold kick it with Sergei Kravinoff? We’ll be good influences, Nancy! We’ll do fun activities with him so he doesn’t slide back to becoming a bad guy! Who doesn’t love a fun activity??” Not only are the worried about Kraven, they want to help him too.
When they pick Kraven up at the airport, Squirrel Girl tells him, “We’ve been through a lot together, and it feels silly having to say something that feels so obvious, but: you’re my friend, Kraven. I like you, I think you’re cool, and it’s been so great watching you become a better person on every adventure we’ve shared. And since you’re my friend, I want us to share a secret. Sergei Kravinoff, there’s something you should know…My name is Doreen Green and I’ve been the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl since I was ten years old.” Kraven replied, “Da. I knew.” Doreen’s shocked and asks why he never said anything but Kraven tells her, “I’d discovered it much by accident, but – it was your secret to tell me. I did not mean to interfere into your private business. However, Doreen – my friend – thank you for your trust. I will strive to be worthy of it.” Doreen takes Kraven into her confidence and, in so doing, we learn how Kraven’s respected and protected Doreen’s secret identity.
This is the foundation of an authentic, caring, compassionate friendship – mutual love, trust, and respect. It’s obviously important to see this expressed in a comic book (especially an all-ages comic book read by children (although, to be honest, I think adults need to learn (or relearn) these sorts of lessons as much (if not more than) children do)) but this sort of friendship is all the more incredible when we remember this is Kraven the Hunter. This is the man who buried Spider-Man alive before taking his own life after his brutal turn as Spider-Man. Now he not only fights alongside Squirrel Girl but respects her, honors her feelings, and protects her secrets. He has changed.
Their Escape Room experience ends up being a death trap run by Mojo II. After Doreen, Nancy, Kraven, and their friends – Ken Shiga (Koi Boi), Tomas Lara-Perez (Chipmunk Hunk), his girlfriend Mary, and Brain Drain – defeat him and save the day Kraven tells everyone, “I know I have had a – a checkered past. Today was supposed to be a diversion, a mere game in which we played at being heroes. But together, you gave me a real-life super hero victory. First Ultron, now Mojo. I am not above admitting…I like how it feels. I want to thank you all for today. For your trust. For everything. All I see before me are friends – old and new.” However the story doesn’t end there. On his way to his van – the Kra-Van I might add 🙂 – Kraven is arrested. Squirrel Girl and her friends try to speak out on Kraven’s behalf…and it only lands them in jail next to him. While the Kra-Van is beyond cool, landing in jail is difficult for Doreen.
Squirrel Girl becomes very disillusioned when the police chief shows her Kraven’s rap sheet while they’re in jail. As she struggles with all he’s done, Kraven tells her, “What you have there is history. The story of the old Kraven. The Kraven before you. And yes, it is true that who I was then – whether you knew of that man or not – hasn’t changed. How can he? He is the past. But the man who stands before you – the man I am today, in the present – he has changed, and that is because of you. I am the proof that one can make amends after being ‘bad’ for so long.”
They all go to trial with She-Hulk representing them. When it comes time for the verdict the judge says, “In the case of The City of New York Versus Kraven, Squirrel, Girl, And Their Various Friends, the jury has found all the defendants not guilty – except for Mr. Kravinoff. Mr. Kravinoff, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury have concluded that you are beyond redemption, and you are therefore remanded to custody, pending sentencing. It is their opinion that you should spend the rest of your days behind bars.”
What’s so important here is the choice of words. The jury believes Kraven is beyond redemption. What is redemption, exactly? I’m not being clever here – it’s an actual question we all have to ponder. And how do we know when someone’s been redeemed? We’ve clearly seen in this story and several others over the 40+ issue run of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl that Kraven has become a better person. He is choosing to do good. He has allowed himself to be transformed because of his friendship with Squirrel Girl, believing he is and can be what she sees in him. This is an important point too. What others see in us affects how/what we see in ourselves. So as much as this is a story telling the tale of a man who wants to be better, it’s also showing us the vital importance of our always working to see the best in others. We can all be transformed, if we open ourselves to the process. This is true and this is important. But we’re also all capable of helping others transform, if we’re willing to see what they can be and treat them accordingly. This is just as true and just as important.
Yet, the jury doesn’t want to see this in Kraven. They don’t want to see who he’s become or who he has the potential to be. They see only his past. This too is a challenge reflected back to the reader. When we look at others, what do we see? Do we only see the past? Do we see our prejudices? Or do we see who they are and who they can be? And if we fail to see the latter, aren’t we culpable in someone being beyond redemption?
Kraven snaps his handcuffs at this verdict and flees the courtroom, despite Squirrel Girl’s protests. As he runs through New York, Spider-Man shows up and Kraven angrily attacks him. It’s clear the force behind his aggression isn’t any hatred of Spider-Man but rather his pain at being so judged in the courtroom. Because if no one will see how you’ve changed, what’s the point in trying to change?
Squirrel Girl – and eventually her friends – show up and try to intervene. She wants Spider-Man to understand who Kraven’s become as much as she wants Kraven to stop battling Spider-Man and regressing into old habits. She tries to be the voice of reason, to help Kraven maintain his newfound integrity and to help Spider-Man see an old foe with new eyes.
During this discussion, Brain Drain drops a knowledge bomb on Spider-Man telling him, “But you and Kraven have a shared humanity. To believe he cannot become better than he is, Spider-Man, is to, at the same time, admit that you cannot improve yourself either. To give up on Kraven is to give in to the whisper. But this whisper we hear is not madness. It is nothing more than the insidious voice of our worst selves. And since it releases you from the responsibility of self-improvement, listening to it is not bravery. It is fear, cowardice. And it is not the hero’s way.”
How important is this?!? Do you see why I love this comic book so much?? THIS is a very, very rare instance of a superhero comic actually teaching its readers how they can literally save the world. The brave thing, the heroic thing to do is to believe in others and, in turn, to believe in ourselves. It’s only through this belief that we can all transform and, in those transformations, truly make the world better. We don’t fix the world by punching villains with the powers we got from a lab accident. We fix the world by always striving to make ourselves better and always believing others can do the same.
Unable to refute this, Spider-Man leaves Kraven but promises to come back if he doesn’t change his ways. Doreen invites Kraven to stay with her, to become her crime-fighting partner in real life…but Kraven refuses. He says there’s still work he needs to do to curb some of his instincts, like the ones that led him to lash out at Spider-Man. However he promises to keep working on it and to return to her one day. The final “bonus scene” after the letter page shows the police finding a criminal tied up outside the police station with a note…signed The Unhuntable Sergei. What a great ending!!! What a PERFECT story!
No matter how much (well deserved) praise J.M. Dematteis’ “Kraven’s Last Hunt” has received over the last thirty years, the story doesn’t hold a candle to what Ryan North’s delivered here. As a culture we tend to see darker, more tortured stories as being the most artistic. One need look no further than the annual Oscar nominations to see how many sad, heavy films end up in the running for Best Picture. It’s no different in the comic genre where stories like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or The Killing Joke or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or even “Kraven’s Last Hunt” receive the most consistent critical praise. I’m not saying stories like that aren’t brilliant or artistic and I’m certainly not saying they aren’t deserving of praise. I’m just saying something as somber as “Kraven’s Last Hunt” can’t do what The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #32-35 can. In those issue we laugh, we love, we’re lifted up. We’re also shown redemption and transformation are possible while being shown how we can do that in our own lives while helping others do it in theirs. What can be more important? As far as I’m concerned, nothing.
Given how much I love and admire what Ryan North has done with Kraven in The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I’m understandably nervous that Nick Spencer has teased/shown him in The Amazing Spider-Man #804, 805, and 806. Are we going to see the same Kraven we’ve seen with Doreen? Or, as Dan Slott appears to be doing with Doctor Doom in Fantastic Four, will Nick Spencer throw away the beautiful character development that’s happened with Kraven over the last three years and make him a villain again? All I can do is trust, hope, and pray that Nick Spencer – and all of Marvel’s other writers – understand the importance of Kraven’s relationship with Squirrel Girl, how it’s changed him as a character, and how it’s affected us as readers. To throw that aside for the return of a “classic villain” is to throw aside one of the most heroic lessons a comic book has ever taught us.
***Exciting note! This year I’ll be presenting a paper at the PCA/ACA Conference on Popular Culture in Washington D.C. and the paper’s going to be all about THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL!!! That’s right! So you can probably look forward to more posts on Doreen Green in the months to come as I do my research and work through what I’ll be writing. It’ll be just like what I did last year with Thor :).
4 thoughts on “The Greatest Kraven Story Ever Told”
I think Squirrel Girl has a real handle on the human condition. I was talking to a friend about understanding people through Emotional Intelligence. I think she has that.
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Oh absolutely, it’s one of the most brilliant things about her! We need more comic heroes like this for sure.
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Good solid characters in a crazy media world stand out.
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Right on – and those are the ones I want to spend my time reading about or watching!
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