I don’t read Spider-Man, no matter how amazing, spectacular, sensational, or friendly of a neighbor he is, he’s boring. Anything with the Rhino though--I’m sold.
My love for the character comes from Peter Milligan’s story “Flowers for Rhino”, from Spider-Man: Tangled Web issues #5-6. A take on Daniel Keyes’ classic, Flowers for Algernon, The Rhino realizes life may not just be about breaking through walls with your head, and decides to get an operation to become smarter. The end result is he becomes too smart, and can’t find enjoyment in anything, so he turns to suicide. Seconds before ending his life, he makes the decision to go on living, but has his operation reversed, the effects rendering him even less intelligent than before, but happier because he's smashing through walls horn first, once again.
With the Rhino crashing through the three variant covers, picking up The Amazing Spider-Man #617 was easy. I was skeptical but the beautiful Milton Caniff-inspired art plays perfectly with the seriousness of what Spider-Man is---melodrama masquerading as a super hero comic. Ultimate Spider-Man worked so well because Bendis pumped-up the melodrama even further, superheroes were almost besides the point. Spider-Man is brilliantly bright against the darks of his surroundings, it’s the cartoony world Spider-Man lives in, while still being in the same city gritty-dude Daredevil runs across the roof tops of.
The Rhino, now out of his big rhinoceros suit and just plain Aleksei Sytsevich, has turned his back on his life of crime and has found something more valuable than breaking through walls or the money that lay behind them: love. Working a steady job at a casino on security detail, he’s decided to walk the straight and narrow, earning for him and his new wife and walking away from the life of crime he lead as a super villain.
Sick of running and tired of his dead end life, during the super hero Civil War, Rhino turned himself in. S.H.I.E.L.D. used their best scientists to remove his superstrong polymer rhino suit, allowing him to be transfer to Rykers instead of the jail Reed Richards had made in the Negative Zone. Ignoring break-outs and offers to join prison gangs, Aleksei serves his time as promised and is released into the world a reformed man.
One of the only success stories out of the Registration Act, Rhino is content to work and be with his woman. Unfortunately there is a new Rhino in town, determined to take the name for himself he challenges Aleksei to a battle of pride over the name, to which Aleksei declines, kneeling in front of the man begging to just be left alone.
Aleksei knows the kind of man that the new Rhino is, and nearly goes back to his old ways, but Spider-Man stops him. Spidey has seen so much bullshit in his day that he just can’t take seeing Aleksei putting on the Rhino suit again, and convinces him to keep on being a normal member of society, just a dude with a wife. Aleksei can’t understand why not his, but the Rhino’s, greatest enemy would want to help him or see him succeed. The short conversation between the two men shows what makes Spider-Man a human and why people relate to him, he’s not just looking to take down villains, he just wants people to be happy and safe. Understanding this, Aleksei turns the other cheek and goes home with his wife, having made a friend of an old enemy.
Although it’s in continuity, it’s really a stand-alone story, it has all the Spider-Man jumps and flips and big villains Web Head fans want, but it’s also sad and beautiful in this relatable way that's attractive to people who are much more into the deconstruction of well-established heroes, who want something deeper in their comics but still want them to read like comic books. Even the continuity aspects (Rhino's past, stuff like registration from "Civil War", etc.) adds emotional weight to the story.
It's really a Rhino story, allowing Spider-Man to take a backseat and become the hero, not for punching the Vulture in the face, but for talking someone out of something they'd regret. Allowing Peter Parker to take over a minute, to talk to someone, man to man, makes him way more of a hero than sticking to walls and fighting baddies.