With almost 60 years of comic book history and often several monthly books at once, it’s only natural that some Spider-Man stories fall by the wayside. Some things get left out. They get forgotten. Classics like “Death of the Stacys” and “Spider-Man No More” and Kraven’s Last Hunt are more resonant than some random ‘90s issue in the middle of the clone saga where Spidey probably fought the Puma. But that’s part of the fun of digging back through so many years of history. There are so many gems that just never get talked about. Admittedly, I haven’t been a regular Spidey reader in a long time. It got hard to keep up with anything but the story lines I was told I needed to pick up, like Superior Spider-Man or Spider-Verse. The marriage of Peter and Mary Jane had meant a lot to me and I loved that relationship so I wound up becoming pretty lukewarm on the regular Spider-Man titles once that relationship was undone in One More Day.
So it completely surprised me when I was reading back through The Gauntlet, a story not even a decade old, and was reminded of a random issue, Amazing Spider-Man #625 “Endangered Species,” that centered closely on the Rhino, long perceived to be one of Spidey’s most one-note villains ever. And it struck me that not only was this single issue a great piece of comic storytelling, it was probably one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told. Not only that, it’s one of the most purely Spider-Man stories ever. Even if it’s about one of his silliest foes.
To recap a bit, The Gauntlet was more of a thematic thing than a specific ongoing arc. It just pretty much brought back every classic Spider-Man villain, all of them attacking the wall-crawler one right after the other. No rhyme or reason. They weren’t organized, it was nothing more than Parker Luck in full force. But it allowed for a lot of interesting stories featuring so many classic villains, and this one was my favorite of them.
In “Endangered Species,” the original Rhino, Aleksei Sytsevich, has retired. He has moved on with his life, has a legitimate job, and has even gotten married. He’s happy and Spider-Man is genuinely proud of him. But now there’s a new Rhino who believes that he can only truly claim the mantle after defeating the original Rhino in battle. Because of Aleksei’s thuggish instincts, he initially decides to take the new Rhino up on that offer, but Spider-Man begs him not to throw his new life away and promises to arrange for Aleksei and his wife Oksana to be escorted out of the city while he fights the new Rhino on his own. But the new Rhino interrupts that escort, and Oksana is killed while Spider-Man is only seconds too late to stop it. Aleksei blames Spider-Man for her death and is ashamed of himself for trusting him, and takes up the mantle of Rhino once more to defeat his successor in combat, throwing away his life in the process.
It’s a tragic thirty pages of storytelling, but everything I love about Spider-Man is on display in this issue. First and foremost, there’s the fact that Spidey always roots for his villains. Sure, he roasts them in the actual battles, but he wants them to be okay. Spider-Man always wants to see his villains get better, to recover, to be able to put the rage and anxiety that led them to becoming super villains behind them. That makes sense for mentor figures like Doctor Octopus and The Lizard, even for Norman Osborn, given that the guy’s his best friend’s father. But the Rhino is someone Peter Parker has no personal relationship with. He might even be the villain that Spider-Man has made fun of the most relentlessly.
But when Rhino elects to put his life of crime behind him, Spidey is fully supportive and even proud. He becomes a friend to him, and he will do anything to try and keep him on the straight and narrow. Which makes the fact that he is unable to do that all the more devastating.
One of the key components of Spider-Man’s character is that he blames himself for everything. The downside of his “great power” motto is that he assumes everything is his responsibility. Any longtime reader of the character, even anyone familiar with him from the movies, can tell that the second Spider-Man is too late to stop Aleksei’s wife from being killed, he’s going to blame himself for that. He made a promise that he was unable to keep, and his guilt runs strong and deep. But Aleksei makes it so much more devastating by blaming Spider-Man before the hero even gets the chance to blame himself. When we see that cold look on his face and realize what he’s going to do, it’s devastating to see him look Spider-Man in the face and say “What happens next is because of you.”
That’s where we get into the real brilliance of this issue, though. The Rhino has always been considered one of Spider-Man’s most one-note characters. More than that, though, he’s one of the silliest super villains ever, at least in concept. He’s a man who dresses up like a rhinoceros to smash things with the giant horn on his head. He’s not generally written as a very intelligent man—there was even an issue titled “Flowers for Rhino” that was literally just Flowers for Algernon with the Rhino—but this issue does amazing things with him without ever betraying his character. Because it is so clearly set up that he is happy, that he is finally doing okay, the notion of him putting this ridiculous costume on once again becomes genuinely heartbreaking. It takes incredible storytelling prowess to pull that off, but that’s the magic of comics when they’re at their best.
There’s an entire three-act structure present in thirty pages of comic here. Everything’s told in an incredibly small amount of time, but it’s all balanced and nothing is rushed. We get that Aleksei is happy with himself and where he’s wound up and we get how proud of him Peter is. The new Rhino is just this terrible force of nature that shatters all of that balance and brings it crashing down. He’s exactly what Rhino was in his earliest appearances: pure, mindless demolition. And amazingly, this new Rhino never even gets a name. There’s no name given to the person in the new suit, because it doesn’t matter who he is. Being the Rhino is the only identity he wants to have, which is the polar opposite of Aleksei, who is trying to do whatever it takes to rid himself of that identity.
When Aleksei returns in the original Rhino suit, the emotional payoff is incredibly poignant because it’s so clearly the last thing anybody wanted him to do, including Aleksei himself. It’s even clear in the artwork that Spider-Man’s heart breaks a little seeing him emerge in that old suit once more. This is not what his wife would have wanted. This throws away so much progress, right out the window. The costume might be silly as hell, but it represents a man making a conscious decision to let his heart die. This is an uncomplicated man who proved to be a good man, but turns his back on it after realizing how painful a life of love and goodness and friendship actually is. Aleksei lost all of those things, but the Rhino never had them. This is a man who had proven himself more than a thug, throwing all of that progress away to return to being the bruiser he was when we were first introduced to him.
It’s completely in Spider-Man’s nature to blame himself for all of this, but watching Aleksei blame him as well makes it that much more devastating. At the end, once he’s returned to his life of eccentric costumed villainy, Aleksei tells Spider-Man “all of this happened because I tried to be something I am not. I will never forgive you.” It’s not inspired or insightful, it’s blunt. That’s Rhino’s nature. That’s who he is. And I love that this tragic sentiment is conveyed in a way that is exactly the simple, straightforward manner he would convey it. And it’s so clear in the way that he says it that he’s not just blaming Spider-Man for Oksana’s death. That’s an element, to be sure. But he’s specifically talking about this fantasy, now, that he could ever have been anything but the Rhino. He’s blaming Spider-Man for making him think that he could ever be a better person than he had been in the past, that he could ever be more than what he was, and that is so goddamn sad. That’s devastating as only the best comic book stories can be.
Joe Kelly and Max Fiumera did an incredible job on this issue. I’d forgotten just how good it was until I happened to pick a collection off the shelf and read it again. It’s one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told and it’s about the goddamn Rhino and that’s perfect. I’ve loved this baddie since I was a kid, but even then I thought he was a surface-level character. And even in this, he kind of still is. But that surface is exquisitely textured. This is what great comics are all about. Every character, no matter how silly, has a great story in them. It just takes the right people to bring it out. Rhino got to be at the center of an issue that’s much more about him than it is about Spider-Man, and yet it still represents all of Peter Parker’s strengths and weaknesses perfectly. There are so many great issues of not just this series, but dozens of long-lasting comics that kind of get buried by time. It would be such a disservice for that to happen to this one, though.
Whether you find it on Marvel Universe, buy the back issue itself, or pick it up in one of The Gauntlet collections, find it. Even though it’s nearly a decade old, it’s dynamite Spidey storytelling, one of the best we’ve had in a good long while. And it will make your heart ache for one of Spider-Man’s dumbest villains and that in itself is the highest praise I can give it. That’s why I love these stories so much, and I’m so happy to read “Endangered Species” again and be reminded of that.