This may not be the Scarlet Spider some wanted, but this first issue goes a long way toward showing that this is a Scarlet Spider worth having. Christopher Yost and Ryan Stegman bring Kaine to Houston in a storm of violence and show that, no matter what the DNA may say, this is not Spider-Man.
Admittedly, Spider-Island didn't do much for me as a reader. I found it goofy in its premise and overblown in its execution. But what I can appreciate about it is that it at least restored Kaine to a state where he was usable as a character again. As many faults as the Clone Saga had, there were some gems in there too, and Kaine can be counted among them. Kaine always knew he was a clone, but he represented a dark side of that acceptance. Knowing he was not Peter Parker led him to aggressively reject the copied qualities of Peter inside him. Having no one to care about and a degenerating condition, he gave into his anger and power to become a killer. Fortunately, this interesting premise for a character seems to be what Yost is focusing on rather than any kind of follow-up to the events of Spider-Island.
We catch up with Kaine well into his fugitive flight from New York already, fearing pursuit from law enforcement and superhero alike. The opportunity for some much needed cash and violence arises when he comes to Houston, leading to Kaine unintentionally busting a human trafficking deal gone horrifically bad. Yost's choice of human trafficking here is perfect, because it needed to be something truly awful to make it believable that a killer like Kaine would be shaken enough by it to care. He may not be as bad as he once was, but you still wouldn't expect him to bat an eye at things like drugs or illegal weapons. This makes it genuine when Kaine becomes uncharacteristically heroic, even if it is only for a moment.
One of the most impressive parts of this issue is how Yost actually manages to sum up Kaine's past in a simple and understandable way. Explaining anything related to the Clone Saga is no small task, but Yost pulls it off by boiling it all down to the need-to-know elements of Kaine's character. He was the defective clone. He resented the perfect clone. He died for Peter Parker's sake. He was brought back and cured. While that does skip over a lot of important or interesting details, it does succeed at familiarizing new readers with the basics that they need to know to understand Kaine. It may be interesting to know more about his relationship with Ben Reilly and how he unintentionally framed Peter Parker for murder, but none of that is necessary to know this early in the series.
Setting this book in Houston may seem like a random choice at first, but it fits organically with the story of Kaine's run for the Mexican border. It also furthers Marvel's endeavor to branch beyond the New York area, which has already proven to be very interesting for books like Moon Knight and Uncanny X-Men. Going so far as to reference the different weather, it's clear from this issue that Yost and Stegman aren't simply treating this as Houston in name only.
Stegman proves he has what it takes to be an excellent Spider-Man artist. His action scenes are wonderfully fluid and dynamic, and my personal favorite page is the flashback splash of Kaine fighting with Peter Parker and Ben Reilly. That said, his style is unfortunately a total mismatch for Scarlet Spider. His very clean and pleasant art really just doesn't suit the dark and gritty character Yost is writing about here. There is a cartoonish quality to some panels that badly clashes with some of the more violent and serious moments the story aims for. What's worse is that Stegman's portrayal of Kaine is pretty bland. This is not entirely his fault, though. Marvel clearly made a mistake by completely healing all of Kaine's distinctive scars, because now, Stegman is left with almost nothing to work with. The best he comes up with here is showing Kaine as a beefier Peter Parker with short hair. The big reveal of Kaine new look is a rare moment that falls utterly flat.
One thing made clear in this issue is that Yost is going to have to carefully walk the tightrope as the series progresses balancing out Kaine's redemption with his less than admirable qualities, because there are some signs that Yost may be leaning a little too far toward redemption. We already have Kaine refusing to kill, and some of his previous actions are excused away as resulting from mental instability caused by his clone degeneration. People already have Spider-Man for reading about a truly heroic character. The hook of Scarlet Spider will be Kaine's dark and sometimes anti-heroic nature. Yost needs to make sure he doesn't stray too far away from that.
Basically, Kaine needs to kill some folks.
Scarlet Spider gets off to a strong start. It definitely has some kinks to work out, but both the premise and the character work extremely well together as a worthy and unique addition to the Spider-Man franchise. All the book really needs is for Yost to make sure to lean more toward anti-hero than hero with Kaine and an artist with a style more suited to its darker and more violent tone. There is a lot of potential here for Scarlet Spider to have its own unique presence in the Marvel Universe, and I have little doubt that Yost, one of the writers of X-Force, will be able to pull it off.