There will always be a certain warmth I feel for the way the Marvel Novels slid me into comics, filling me in on a lot of backstory fast. Once I started reading the actual material, I raced through it eagerly because I knew what I needed to. I knew what stories I needed to read.
The last Marvel novel I read before I started reading comics was Secret of the Sinister Six, the third novel in Adam-Troy Castro’s trilogy of Spider-Man novels. I greatly enjoyed it but there was an inescapable sense I was ready to move on at the end. I’d finished four years of training. I graduated.
Of course I’ve still read the new prose books as they arrive. I greatly enjoyed the Venom: Lethal Protector adaptation. I really loved the Spider-Man PS4 tie-in and told the author as much. I’m not ceasing that side but it is a side now.
But it wasn’t always that way. In a strange way this trilogy provides a perfect bridge between dabbling in tie-ins and embracing the comics. The first book was published by Boulevard as a mass market paperback in February 1999 and with the rapid collapse of that contract looked to be an unfinished series. Two years later iBooks picked up the Marvel contract very briefly (and rather poorly) and published the second and third books in hardcover over 9 months. I picked up all 3 at release and still have my original copies along with a combo MMPB of the last 2.
The three books tell a basic story. A mysterious villain with ties to the death of Peter Parker’s parents assembles Mysterio, Electro, Doctor Octopus, The Chameleon, and the Vulture to form the new Sinister Six along with his ward, a mysterious (get used to that word) babywoman named Pity. At the same time Peter finds evidence he might’ve had a sister. Thus Spidey has to stop a plot to destroy New York at the same time he tries to crack the mystery of his possible sister.
I remembered the trilogy this way: Book one was great, mostly a killer Mysterio story that showcased how great he could be. Book two was really solid, mostly focused on a single day of attacks. Book three was good but the gas was out of this engine and it felt redundant next to the previous book.
For the first time in 17-20 years I reread all three books and that’s still my review. As a whole this is a solid trilogy but it misses great due to two major issues. However that’s not enough to write off a set that is heavily steeped in the thin window between the Clone Saga and JMS. The atmosphere is dead on.
A lot of the strength comes from how hard Castro nails Peter and MJ. They’re real partners. Their love is immense. They get each other. She’s not a damsel in distress. Even when the book flags it’s revived by just cutting to them. Marriage makes Spider-Man better.
There’s also some great villain writing. The 5 existing villains are a blast to read with their personalities drawn from the page. These are vain crooks. And wow are the fights just kickass. You pick a book like this up for fights and you get them. Maybe so many that it gets tiring in book 3. But they’re still good.
There is also a robust sense of humor. Castro peppers the trilogy with references to famous people and other media works. Notably he gets an Unbreakable reference in under a year after that great film. He also throws in a reference to a “red-eyed chain smoking young man with a passing resemblance to Charlie Chaplin,” a clear reference to Robert Downey Jr., which for obvious reasons made me laugh. Spidey’s quips are A-grade throughout.
So obviously most of the book is good and overkill isn’t that bad when you consider these three books are dense. What issues keep me from going all in?
The first is unavoidable due to what this is: an out of continuity trilogy of books. Simply put, we won’t learn Peter Parker had a sister here. The book has to cop out. It’s not canon. So to have so much of the work centered around a nonmystery is an insult to the reader. It’s waiting for the inevitable reveal. Not cool.
But here’s the big sin. Pity is given the Poochie treatment so hard. She’s so powerful. She can control darkness. She’s a great fighter. Electro is in love with her. She’s also mysterious. She doesn’t talk. She’s so cool.
No she’s not. She’s a walking emblem of the despicable trope Luc Besson unleashed, Leeloo without Jovovich’s astonishing performance to make her great. She’s Cassandra Cain without literally everything that makes her interesting. And we are sold her so hard even though we know she ends here. I swear: tie-in writers, you are not hired to write about your own creations. If you can’t make their toys hum, find new work.
But the good really outweighs the bad here. By a great margin too. This is a dense work and a fun ride for Spider-Man fans. Seek it out.