Welcome to Spider-Man Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers were asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer Alistair, who chose number 616 for the roulette!

Last time round we watched as Spider-Man actively protected the drug smuggling industry, and this week he’s splitting up a father and daughter for the sake of no apparent greater good. This is “The Gauntlet”, a long-running storyline which saw each of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains “level up” and take him on, one at a time. This came towards the end of Brand New Day, and acted as a final celebration lap before the whole enterprise headed into an endgame. This was the point where I first started reading Spider-Man myself – he’s got a great rogues gallery, and it was exciting to get to jump on at a point in time where they’d all show up in a row and show their contemporary selves.

Issue #616 brought about the second villain for Peter to face up against, as Sandman plodded back onto the scene – but this time he apparently had a daughter. It turned out the daughter wasn’t actually his own, but the daughter of a woman who he’d been corresponding with from prison – when the women turned up dead, Sandman decided he would bring the girl up as his own, with the girl hero-worshipping him through the whole thing. Her name is Keemia, and “Keemia’s Castle” is an utterly wonderful comic book story. If not one of the most heartbreaking.

Everything Sandman does here is to protect the girl, but that doesn’t mean he’s not abusive. His latest power is the power to split himself up into a series of Sandmen, who run around in a gang. The thing is that he’s not as in-control of himself as he might think he is: it turns out that the sandies each have half a mind of their own, and tend to subconsciously act out each small desire that pops into the corner of his brain, even if for a minute. That means whenever he has a paranoid fear that someone is trying to take Keemia away from him, one of the sandies breaks off and acts out his fantasy revenge for that trespass: it was one of his personas that killed Keemia’s mother.

There’s quite a lot to unpack in that, and I’ll struggle to do a full job with it. Even though Sandman is fully sincere that he wants to do right by this girl, his subconscious doesn’t accept that he should get something like this and acts to sabotage him. That could handily lead to a comparison between Marko and Peter himself – “Parker Luck” is only ever an excuse for Pete’s self-sabotaging nature – but I think it’s more interesting to consider Sandman by himself, here. I’ve always been drawn to the character, but he doesn’t have that notable thing to him which lets him stand out. Norman Osborn is crazy, Doc Ock is self-deluded, and Electro is aggrandising – but Sandman has always felt like this standard-level criminal who just so happened to get dynamic powers. His visual as a villain is so engaging (thanks in no small part to Javier Pulido, who was still making a name for himself at the time – but doing so in strides) that it’s almost an asset how he doesn’t have a strong personality.

If you’re famously a member of a six-part villain team, it helps to have someone just be bog-standard whilst everyone else can monologue to stadiums. But Keemia’s Castle finds that missing part of Sandman’s personality, and gives him an actual motivation for anything he does: he’s fighting for his daughter. The sincerity of that fight is what matters, despite the fact that Keemia isn’t actually his daughter. Because he believes in what he’s doing, it’s all the more crushing to find out that his subconscious is betraying him all along: even worse, when he questions what’s going on, the other Sandmen gleefully tell him everything. They think he’ll be happy about it! That’s how little self-belief Marko has in himself after all those years.

Now, it’s stated that Sandman would never let a hair on Keemia’s head be harmed, but again the story makes it pointedly clear that Sandman is causing a potentially huge amount of damage to the girl as the story concludes. She believes wholly in him and loves him as a father, so when he is ultimately beaten by Spider-Man and she is handed over to the authorities (literally – Spider-Man naively hands her over to the police, who promptly put her into the foster system where the other kids bully her) she views it as the good guy losing and the villains winning. The final shot shows her waiting for the day her real dad will save her again and she can be a Princess in his sand-castle once more, and it’s the opening part of a villainess storyline. Sandman wants nothing but the best for her: it’s that approach which gives her a really dangerous mindset.

But really it is Spider-Man’s fault. Yet again he tries to punch a problem out the way, and once again the problematic systems in place all around him leave his acts of “heroism” as anything but. If anything, the more Spider-Man acts within the system, the more he comes across as a vigilante. At least when he’s fighting against the system he seems to be doing the heroic thing. Here, as happens often throughout The Gauntlet storyline, he’s causing more problems than anything else.

Still, the issue truly does stand out. It’s one of my favourite Spider-Man stories, and it manages to tell an authentic and gripping story whilst renovating Sandman: scooping out all the sediment and giving him a solid core for other writers to work off. He’s a fascinating piece of work here, and it’s a shame we haven’t seen more of his father-daughter dynamic in the years since.

Amazing Spider-Man #616: Keemia’s Castle
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Javier Pulido
Colourist: Javier Rodriguez
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

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