As a rule, Spider-Man stories which try go down the ever popular grim and gritty route just don't work. As much as tragedy is a core part of what makes the character so appealing, he's still a hero who benefits from a lightness to his stories. Which isn't to say that they need to be free of angst - Peter Parker is the ultimate everyman, and every life has angst in it. It's just that trying to put him in the sort of story where we'd expect to see, say, the Punisher, is usually doomed to fail.
So it's all the more surprising when a dark Spider-Man story comes along which is actually good. And indeed, Kraven's Last Hunt is generally regarded as one of the all-time greatest Spider-Man stories, largely because the darkness isn't there for its own sake but rather so that it can be explicitly rejected. The story's thesis is, essentially, that Spider-Man is not and should never be a "dark" hero.
Clearly the inspiration for the recent Superior Spider-Man series, in which Doctor Octopus took over as the web-slinger thanks to a mind swap, it sees Kraven the Hunter determined to finally best the one prey which has always eluded him - Spider-Man. To that end, Kraven decides not just to kill him, but to replace him and prove that he is the better Spider-Man. Only once he has done that, he believes, will his victory be complete and his honour restored.
When he puts the costume on and "becomes" Spider-Man, he is predictably quite a bit more ruthless and violent than the people of New York have come to expect from their hero. He puts several people in the hospital and sends at least one to the morgue - and crucially, this is flagged up as something the real Spider-Man would never do. He even saves Mary Jane from a mugging, and she immediately knows that it's not Peter behind the mask because of the violence of Kraven's methods.
When Peter eventually returns to confront Kraven once and for all (spoiler warning: Marvel didn't actually kill off their flagship character in the story's first issue), he makes it clear that he won't have anything to do with Kraven's methods. Where Kraven imprisoned and tortured the villain Vermin, the first thing Peter does after taking him to the police is to call Mister Fantastic to see if it's possible to cure Vermin's condition.
One of the last lines is “back in the light”, and that's what makes this dark Spider-Man story one of the greats. Published shortly after Watchmen, the influence of which can be seen particularly clearly in the quoting of William Blake's The Tyger, it's suffused with the grimness and self-conscious "maturity" of so many late '80s superhero comics, but actually uses them as a contrast to highlight what's important about Spider-Man. His world may be dark, bleak and tragic, but he will never stoop to the level of his enemies. As admittedly depressing as Peter Parker's life often is, he's still one of the most optimistic of all superheroes, and Kraven's Last Hunt preserves - and even enhances - that optimism.
Prefer your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, or is a darker side of Spidey more up your street? Whatever your thoughts, let us know below!