No medicine can mend this mess.
Typhoid Fever: Spider-Man from writer Clay McLeod Chapman and artist Stefano Landini attempts to emulate a fever dream — the problem is that it does so too well. Dishing out a fever pitch’s worth of off-putting, irrational, erratic and inscrutable ideas that come and go, leaving the reader confused and grasping for clarity where there is none, this introductory issue then takes its leave hoping to have raised stakes that weren’t clear in the first place, lifted only by compelling art.
What’s it about? Marvel’s description reads:
Typhoid Mary is back in Manhattan and has set her sights on Hell’s Kitchen. With Daredevil preoccupied trying to take down Mayor Fisk, a power vacuum has suddenly formed in Manhattan’s most dangerous neighborhood, and Typhoid Mary aims to fill it with her own unique brand of chaos. But Daredevil isn’t the only guardian watching over the Kitchen’s residents… and SPIDER-MAN is going to prove it!
That’s the most succinct description of the plot you’ll get, too, because there’s little of that tangible here. I don’t mean to say that it’s hard to see what McLeod Chapman was going for as Typhoid Mary’s different personalities take control throughout the issue, as we jump between her fantasy and her grim reality, and even still to Spidey’s perspective emulating a fever-like nightmare that Mary probably lives every day — it’s that it’s not interesting, nor legible, to do so — there’s little actual narrative here. Instead opting for internal references, baits and switches, and a touched on but not explored point about Mary’s relative powerlessness in the face of men who control her autonomy, the issue ultimately feels muddled, as if it’s trying to make a point but still thinking of it while the pages turn (Mary may very well be doing just that, but we shouldn’t see it happening in media res). Multiple narrations, dialogues, and more don’t help an already belabored attempt.
It’s just not fun or particularly compelling to try and find the point McLeod Champan is trying to make amidst the noise, even when things come into clearer focus at the very end, Mary’s powers heightened, and Spider-Man put into what seems to be very mortal danger. Bringing up issues of the powerlessness of the mentally ill in large, impersonal systems without delivering on it or pivoting to instead portray those same ill people as the villains also seems off center and tone-deaf.
Landini’s art fares better, however. Dancing between a light, dreamlike state where Mary is in control and a stark, dark reality where she is not is a great touch that is heightened still by the grisly set pieces here: a burn-riddled body falling from a window, Mary drawing flames from a mutant’s skull, and more. It’s a compelling direction that makes the narrative more legible that it might otherwise be, smartly conveying certain aspects (the split between reality and not) through a keenly chosen visual language. Characters aside from Mary could stand to be more expressive, but that’s neither here nor there in an issue full of very smart artistic choices that make this a somewhat worthwhile read in the end.
In the end, I was left disappointed by this. Something so clearly predicated on a good idea but marred by an execution that splits its focus just too many ways. The story may cohere into something poignant in future issues, but I think it’s going to be a hard sell to get readers to come along.