[Major spoilers for Amazing Spider-Man #700 and Superior Spider-Man #1 ahead!]
I’ll admit it. I’m confused. For a Spidey fan, I haven’t been following AMAZING SPIDER-MAN closely enough, though it would have been impossible to avoid becoming caught up in all the mania surrounding number 700 and the “death” of Peter Parker if you’re into superhero comics. I tried to steer clear of some of the hype leading up to #700, but for me it started fairly early hearing writer Dan Slott confirm that he was already receiving death threats and the rumored death of Parker at New York Comic Con 2012. It seemed absurd, and perhaps, well, like a superhero comic for someone to receive threats over plotting the death of a heroic icon. When I realized what the “death” of Parker actually entailed, a body-swapping and paradigm-shifting nexus of confusion surrounding Otto Octavius, I thought “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and was intrigued.
[AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #700 Cover]
I thought it was worth a shot, and certainly had that ring of originality, something superhero comics hadn’t seen in exactly that form before. Surprisingly, the big outcry on social media was that Otto, in Peter’s body, might get to make a move on Mary Jane Watson, not the idea that a villain might be able to walk around the streets with a superheroic safeguard for his covertly dastardly actions. Putting aside the media frenzy, which also entailed plenty of speculation about how altering the Spider-Man mythology might impact the newly rebooted Spider-Man films, I picked up a copy of THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #1. I’ve never fallen for the idea that a renumbering meant that it was going to be any easier to “jump on board” with continuities that were already immense and tangled, so I was prepared to be confused.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #1 is actually confusing for different reasons than I expected, and not always in negative ways. It fired my imagination and impressed me with the nuances it explores in superhero and villain roles. Though many talented writers and artists in quite a range of superhero tales have tried to tease out that fine line between what makes a hero a hero and a villain a villain, SS#1 feels like an escalation in that investigation with more on the table and more to win, or to lose, in the gamble.
SS#1 defies expectation in small ways at first. It opens with Otto, in Peter’s body, visiting Otto’s grave. You learn little of Otto’s motivations in that initial sequence, merely his exultation that he has cheated death and his intention to now operate as Spider-Man. You might assume from this that Otto’s received memories of Peter’s life have shaped his behavior and now he’ll simply be a new Peter Parker, and a new Spider-Man. Thankfully that’s not the case, since it wouldn’t lead to any particularly remarkable story-lines. You might get some interesting humor as the new Peter encounters the elements of his life for the first time and learns the ropes of his identity and “great responsibility”. That’s fine but hardly “superior” storytelling.
When a new “Sinister Six” team unleash some devastation and Otto/Peter rushes into action as Spider-Man, you do get a twinge of the unfamiliar. A former villain fighting a team of villains: that’s the beginning of a good story. It’s logical, but not predictable, that Otto/Peter now knows far more than Peter alone knew about the strengths and weaknesses of said villains, and seeing him rip apart a large team of tech-heavy villains by using that knowledge is very satisfying. Spider-Man’s known for his quips, and rather than hearing any same-old insults, readers get a new spin. Otto/Spidey is disgusted by the ineptitude of his foes and their “gall”. That “superior” attitude is pretty refreshing. You begin to see the features of Otto’s personality and knowledge that are actually helpful in a violent conflict, features that might even trump Parker’s natural instincts or qualities. Otto/Spidey’s steely confidence is the most impressive quality, one that serves him well.
Some other impressive qualities that Otto/Spidey displays are doing things that Peter/Spidey never would have done for moral reasons or simply would never thought of doing. He gleans insider information on the Sinister Six’s plans by scratching Boomerang and injecting him with nano transmitters. But this is around the point where things start to get confusing. Otto/Spidey finding himself outnumbered and at the hands of superior weapons tech decides to take off and protect himself, a retreat. That’s unlike Peter/Spidey but you could attribute this to a former villain’s self-serving attitude. Something happens to interfere with this escape, a sudden and rather selfless attempt to save the life of a police officer. At this point, even Otto/Spidey comments, “Why on earth did I do that?”. Is the hero role, a combination of situational factors, shaping Otto into a better person already?
That’s the crux of the question in SS#1 if you want to pry it loose from the intricate story-line: what makes a hero? Is it nature or nurture? Does the same combination of factors shaped by differing environments cause a person with the same potential to become either a hero or a villain? And what are those factors? Otto has been given an established reputation as a hero, the powers to enforce that role, and the enmity of a city-bashing group of super-villains to prove himself. It’s an ideal situation for him to warm to the adulation and knowledge of a job well done and find himself, well, converted into a new life with higher ideals. Slott does a great job of making you feel like this might be happening to Otto.
This is immediately thrown into doubt when Otto/Spidey slashes at Boomerang, and Boomerang exclaims, “Since when does Spider-Man do that?!”. Well, exactly. Confusing. But if SS#1 contained only the simple lesson that a positive environment quickly creates heroes I don’t know, to be honest, if I’d bother to purchase SS#2. It’s not a bad point to make, but it’s simplistic and I’d rather have something more, well, confusing, to read. Let’s add that Ryan Stegman’s artwork is very well-suited to this sense of disorientation in the story. It’s sharp, punchy, and in action scenes demands full attention to disentangle vivid conflicts from multiple angles. He does a great job of raising questions about Otto/Peter’s personality through ambiguous facial expressions and Otto/Spidey’s actions through a slightly sinister agility. Kudos to Stegman for bringing questions out so substantially through his depictions.
We learn more about Otto/Peter’s motivations once he’s at work at Horizon’s lab. Firstly, he’s perfunctory and mildly insulting toward those around him, who he deems to be less intelligent. Typical Doc Ock megalomania. When Max asks him, rightly, whether “explosives” and “lethal biological elements” are really necessary to his research, things get a little uncomfortable. You begin to realize the kind of position Otto/Peter is in. The balancing act, or maybe tug-of-war between the hero and the villain could result in radical danger for those around him. Otto/Peter makes a good point, and one that satisfies Max, though it may not satisfy the reader. He’s working toward results. If the end result of his deeds, his “success” lies in the outcome, does it matter how he gets there? Another confusing question to throw into the mix. Maybe Otto/Peter can operate successfully as Spider-Man but in different ways, and are those ways necessarily a problem? The rest of the book seems to bear out the argument as Otto/Peter manages to listen in on every plan the Sinister Six are forming and rather ingeniously arrange an environment in which he can counter their tech and take them down. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? It’s success, isn’t it? And a success for Spider-Man.
Meanwhile, fans get what may be their most uncomfortable scene, the dreaded interaction between Otto/Peter and Mary Jane. Yes, he’s leering, and creepy, but nothing that untoward happens. Mary Jane’s a good litmus test to judge the ways in which Otto/Peter’s methods change from the former Peter Parker’s working methods. She’s shocked that, knowing the location and plotting of the Sinister Six, Otto/Peter is biding his time. But the truth is, he really does, as he assures her, have it all under control. It’s not a flattering arrogance on his part, but it’s well-founded. Maybe the former Peter Parker could have done with a little more of that forethought and confidence. If he had, wouldn’t he have had a little more time to dine with Mary Jane? Maybe many of his relationships would have been slightly more developed, though Otto/Peter’s less charming qualities may have also gotten in the way (staring at Mary Jane’s bust during dinner for one).
During Otto/Spidey’s show-down with the Sinister Six, his remarkable foresight and planning (which entailed plenty of hard work) is very impressive. This is confusing. You can’t help but applaud at a job well done. But what about the execution of his plan? Nothing short of ruthless, really. Slott lulls the reader into a sense that things might actually work out pretty well in this new paradigm. Otto/Peter gets things done. Otto/Spidey is rather bad-ass, in fact. If it stopped right there, and there were no further twists, would readers buy SS #2? Maybe if they suspected there must be some further twist coming, but simply pursuing the ways in which a supervillain makes good using his mad scientist wits can’t keep a book running indefinitely.
Bravo to Dan Slott for not leaving us with the first possibility: a Doc Ock converted by a warm and cozy environment in which he can blossom into a do-gooder, or ever with the second possibility: that a supervillain makes a pretty successful superhero under the right conditions, in favor of a rather human truth. It all comes down to the mantra of Spider-Man mythology. With great power comes great responsibility. Otto comes so close you can almost root for him, but in the end, he can’t handle the power. He tries to kill Boomerang, and make an example of him on live media stream. If you thought the death of Peter Parker was the big story in Spidey mythology, this might have been one step further: Spider-Man murdering a pleading man on live TV. That would have been the death of Spider-Man in many ways, and no amount of taking over Parker’s body could have resurrected Spider-Man in the SS storyline. The reader is meant to be thoroughly unimpressed by Otto/Spidey’s attempt to kill Boomerang in gritty, repeating panels of pummeling and blood-spatter. Just to make sure, Boomerang gets to plead for his life. If, at this point, Otto/Spidey relented, you might be confused enough to reconsider the former possibilities, that he’s been converted to being a hero, that he just needs time to adjust. It’s much, much more interesting and satisfying that the specter of Peter Parker himself stops Otto/Spidey from this act, preserving open conflict and keeping the story- you guessed it- confusing.
There’s the whole tail spin of questioning: who or what is this ghostly being capable of influencing Otto/Spidey’s actions? Is he a hallucination? A mental imprint? And yet, for the reader, he is self-aware and direct. He seems to possess autonomy. Could he potentially take Peter Parker’s body back from Otto? His declaration, “I will find a way back”, leaves open that possibility. More importantly at this point in the story, he’s supplying the “responsibility” to go along with Otto/Spidey’s “great power” and completing the equation. Would it really be a Spider-Man story without both?
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #1 could have been a real loss to Spider-Man mythology, and, not surprisingly, the easy storylines would have been the ones to put the nails in that coffin. Only a complicated guessing game, and a dramatic tug of war could keep the pulse of the comic moving under such extreme circumstances. How can Spider-Man exist without Peter Parker? He can’t, we only thought he did for a few pages. But in those pages, readers got plenty to chew on, including several scenarios to explore and reject about the nature of a hero or a villain, and the dangers inherent in blurring that line. Thankfully there weren’t any simple answers, and that’s why I’m prepared to read Superior Spider-Man #2, to see just how confusing this story can possibly get.