Trouble with Comics, It Takes A Villain: Putting The Octopus to Bed -...
It Takes A Villain: Putting The Octopus to Bed - Superior Spider-Man

It Takes A Villain is TWC’s (when I’m not a lazy moron) bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by your favorite sea monster, Mick Martin

Superior Spider-Man was refreshing in ways it had no right to be. At this point in the story of Marvel and of big company super-hero comics in general; an idea this mineable, this smart, this new yet classic, and this good seems almost criminally wonderful.

A dying Doctor Octopus does the ol’ brain-switch with Spider-Man. Ock’s mind goes in Spider-Man’s body, while Peter Parker’s mind is saddled with Ock’s dying shell. When Ock’s body dies, Peter Parker’s mind presumably dies along with it, leaving one of Spidey’s greatest enemies in control of the hero’s body without anyone realizing it. Octavius is transferred Parker’s memories and with the transfer comes at least a fraction of Parker’s sense of responsibility. Otto vows to live the rest of his life as Spider-Man, and as a better Spider-Man than Parker ever could be. The story of Otto’s attempt at the life of a hero is chronicled in Superior Spider-Man.

There’s a lot of great stuff in Superior Spider-Man I could talk about.

I could talk about writer Dan Slott’s masterful storytelling; how he knows our expectations, tickles them endlessly, and dashes them against the rocks. He knew, had to know, that as soon as the premise of Superior Spider-Man was announced that – along with the mobs of angry-email-writing fans who have been reading Marvel Comics for decades and somehow still manage to believe it when the writers tell them they’re killing off a headlining character for good – there would be mobs of nay-saying fans predicting the whole thing would last about five minutes before Peter Parker returned. So, Slott fed those expectations. By the end of the very first issue we learn that Peter Parker – or at least some remnant of his memories – has survived and follows Otto like an angry ghost. “I am Peter Parker,” the ghostly Peter tells us. “And I swear I will find a way back!” Ghost Peter follows Otto around the city, sometimes able to subconsciously affect his usurper and make him do good in spite of himself, and eventually is able to gain a fraction of physical control over his body and even make Otto hear his voice. Slott builds the story we’re expecting – the story of Parker regaining control of his life and his body through sheer force of will – and then he tears our expectations down around our ears, laughing. He stages a psychic battle between Otto and Parker in which Peter is not only defeated, but his memories are wiped from him utterly and we watch him die a second time, not heroically, but pathetically, stammering, unable to remember his own name as a psychic mountain crashes on top of him.

He does it again and again when the Superior Spider-Man clashes with the Avengers and later when he runs into Spider-Man 2099. We keep thinking, “Oh, this is it, he’s toast this time,” but Otto keeps the wool firmly pulled over everyone’s eyes. And what’s truly genius isn’t that Slott is keeping his new status-quo intact, but eventually we realize – like it or not – he’s got us rooting for Otto.

I could talk about how even though this is just about as new and refreshing a Spider-Man concept as you could expect, in some ways it returns the character to its roots. Over the years, plenty of characters have learned Spider-Man’s secret identity: lovers, allies, enemies and friends. Civil War made Spider-Man’s identity public, but then there was something with Mephisto where it all got rebooted, I don’t know, I blinked for that. Regardless, with Superior Spider-Man we get a Spider-Man who is once again juggling the dueling responsibilities of his personal life, his professional life, and his crimefighting life with literally no one in his life who knows his secret. Hiding your secret identity? It’s been done to death. But hiding your secret identity’s secret identity? That’s new. Otto may not share Parker’s sense of good or responsibility, but just as Peter was in the beginning, he is utterly alone.

I could talk about the art which, especially considering how quickly artistic teams shift these days, was remarkably consistent. Most of the series is penciled by either Ryan Stegman, Giuseppe Camuncoli, or Humberto Ramos. Stegman’s and Ramos’s styles are similar enough that in some cases when I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t realize the penciler was different. Camuncoli’s style is the most distinct of the three. Stegman and Ramos share a Superior Spider-Man who is thinner, lankier, more naturally bent into his unnaturally wild and cool mid-swing impossible poses. Camuncoli’s Otto-Spidey is more buff. The overall design of Superior Spider-Man’s outfit is impressive. I didn’t even really notice at first that there was that much of a difference. Rather than going all dark like the classic black symbitoe costume, they keep red prominent while shifting most of the classically blue areas to a black that could, without close inspection, very well be just a darker blue. The way Stegman draws the eyes of Otto’s Spider-mask is one of the most distinct and interesting differences. Otto’s Spidey-eyes aren’t just cloth, but some kind of goggles that display info or allow Otto to see in different spectrums; kind of reminiscent of Batman’s goggles in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Stegman draws the eyes more prominent on the mask than usual, and very white, and ironically in spite of the fact that this isn’t the “real” Spider-Man, it has the effect of making his eyes seem more like an insect’s than ever.

But rather than a pure pros and cons review, I want to talk about what Superior Spider-Man may very well be about even though I doubt Slott never meant for it to be.

See, from start-to-finish, there was something about Superior Spider-Man that I found simultaneously compelling, frustrating, and impossible to define. There was just something about it; something that I felt like it was telling me, that maybe it wasn’t necessarily meaning to tell me, but was coming through anyway. It was on the tip of my mind. It was only when I remembered the following story – a personal story that I will tell as briefly as I can – that I realized what it is that, more than anything, stands out for me about Superior Spider-Man.

I have an addiction and the object of my addiction was something I was trying to avoid when, on the way home during heavy, traffic-killing snow in the winter of 2013, I stopped at a liquor store and bought a bottle of crème liqeur and a bottle of tequila. To be clear; I have an addiction, but I am not an alcoholic. I have never been a habitual or heavy drinker. I had no conscious purpose to buying the liquor. I just had money and it was on the way home. By the end of that week, I had been drunk at home, alone, every single night. One morning, at the end of the week, finally honest with myself that what I was doing was scaring me, I dumped the remaining liquor in the sink.

When I talked to my therapist – a recovering addict herself – she said it was more than normal; it was expected. When you put one addiction down, you try to replace it with something else. It was like, she said, “putting an octopus to bed.” You tuck one arm under the covers and seven more pop out.

Now I’m not saying Superior Spider-Man is about addiction. I don’t think it is about addiction.

I think it’s about insanity.

The series opens with a scene that quickly becomes a joke. Not funny ha-ha, but just plain ridiculous. Otto Octavius in Peter Parker’s body stands over his own (Otto’s) grave. “I’ve come to say goodbye to my old life,” he tells us in the narration. “From now on my name is Peter Parker.” Otto’s symbolic rebirth is interrupted by an emergency alert that draws him into his first super-battle with the newly formed Sinister Six, and his reaction to the new Six is just the first of many signs that Otto’s promises that he is letting go of his own life are empty. Rather than a heroic battle cry or a Spidey-quip, the Superior Spider-Man swings into action pissed off that the name of his old team has been co-opted: “Well, I guess they’re letting ANYONE call themselves the Sinister Six these days.” He battles the vigilante Cardiac to a standstill – almost causing the death of a little girl in the process – when he learns Cardiac has stolen one of his old Doc Ock inventions. He literally doesn’t know how to not act like a super-villain. On a date with Mary Jane he says about the date, like a Bond villain, “Everything’s proceeding according to plan.” After his first battle with the new Sinister Six, he commandeers their robot, The Living Brain, for his own personal assistant. He creates a horde of “spider-bots” to patrol the city, watch the populace, and alert him of any crimes. When he learns that Peter Parker never earned a doctorate, he shoves all of his priorities aside in order to get that D and R back in front of his (such as it is) name. When he takes on the Kingpin, he doesn’t accost Kingpin’s underlings or sneak into his home to snoop for clues. He attacks Wilson Fisk’s base of operations with an army of mercenaries supported by giant freaking spider robots. Toward the end of the series, when Green Goblin – who has learned Otto’s secret – offers Otto the chance at a partnership, Otto’s refusal has less to do with any moral dilemmas or even any grudges, but at the indignation of being offered the chance to be Green Goblin’s “second.”

Most interesting is the Superior Spider-Man’s takeover of The Raft. The villain Spider-Slayer is scheduled to be executed at the super-prison right before its decommissioning. Jonah Jameson requests Spider-Man’s presence at the execution. Just before he arrives at The Raft, Otto tells us in his narration, “I’m the Superior Spider-Man. And I will be free.” Otto was a prisoner aboard The Raft when he took over Parker’s body. Before the execution and the inevitable escape attempt, Otto tours the prison, remembering the indignities and pains he suffered there. Regardless, after the smoke clears, Otto blackmails Mayor Jameson into letting him keep The Raft as his own headquarters.

So, right after declaring his freedom, Otto not only willing goes to a prison where he was once an inmate, but he willingly makes that prison his home. He actually goes out of his way to blackmail a public official into making it his home.

Earlier in the series, Otto corners the mass murdering villain Massacre; a villain with no powers but also with no apparent capacity for emotion. After Massacre casually lives up to his name dozens of times, Otto incapacitates him and gets ahold of his gun. Massacre suddenly feels afraid, and in doing so is amazed he is capable of such an emotion. The Ghost Parker – not yet defeated at this point – tries to stop Otto from killing Massacre. But seeing Massacre’s fear and the resulting tears of joy, Otto says, “This changes nothing. You are who you are. The killer will always be hiding inside you. There is only one solution here.” And he murders Massacre, shooting him point blank.

When he says what he says to Massacre, it feels distinctly like Otto’s talking about himself. But how could there be “only one solution” when Otto is claiming to have solved the problem of his own life by usurping Parker’s and trying to be a better hero? How could he say this unless he knows that he’s living a lie inside a lie?

The tragedy of Superior Spider-Man is that, from start to finish, Otto Octavius is a prisoner. He’s a prisoner of his lies, a prisoner of the role he’s usurped, and a prisoner of his own identity. Even though he shows us good qualities, even though he genuinely cares for people like Aunt May and Anna Marconi, Otto can’t be the hero and his failure really has nothing to do with morality or weakness of character. Otto is the villain because Otto is the villain. He does not know how to operate differently. He is a prisoner of himself, he knows it, but he keeps going to the inevitable crushing end.

But he’s not the only one.

One of the most truly surprising and clever elements of Superior Spider-Man is just how valid that “superior” can seem at times. Not in terms of Otto’s more brutal style, we all expected that. But particularly in the beginning of Superior Spider-Man, Otto seems not only able to handle the hero/real-life balance better than Peter ever could, but he’s actually able to act as Spider-Man much more sanely than Peter in spite of his obvious insanity. He knows things Peter doesn’t. He knows that the world does not revolve around him and he can’t fix everything. When Otto races across the city to save MJ from the Vulture’s goons, Ghost Parker goes with him. Otto spots a mugger accosting a man in an alley, and while Ghost Parker characteristically invisibly urges Otto to stop the mugger, Otto pushes on saying “A petty crime at best. I must focus on the task at hand!” In spite of Ghost Parker’s constant urgings, Superior Spider-Man will contact the fire department about blazes or the NYPD about crimes rather than necessarily tackling them himself. Even in the middle of the manhunt for Massacre, Otto makes time for a dinner with Anna Marconi while Ghost Parker screams at him, “Go on patrol you idiot! Chase down leads! Do something! Nothing’s more important than this! Nothing!”

Otto, in other words, demands time for the personal life that Peter so quickly tosses aside for the sake of dropkicking another mugger. He knows he can’t save everyone. He knows he doesn’t need to. It is not what we expect from the Hollywood or comic book kind of heroism when heroes save – or at least try to save – every last person, puppy, and twig, but Otto’s approach initally is closer to sanity than anything from Peter’s own web swinging.

When Superior Spider-Man first came out, I saw it as something of a conceptual spawn of Kraven’s Last Hunt: the classic JM DeMatteis/Mike Zeck crossover in which Kraven the Hunter not only shoots Spider-Man and buries him in a grave, but takes his costume and briefly acts as Spider-Man in order to prove that he can be better than his prey. Now, I see it as more of a child of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke.

While I don’t guess it was Dan Slott’s intention, what Doc Ock’s hostile takeover of Peter Parker’s life most successfully exposes – like the Joker’s flashlight punchline at the end of The Killing Joke – is the mutual, endless, and futile insanity of the super-hero and the super-villain. Peter Parker’s life is so insane that even Doctor Octopus can run Parker’s life better than Parker can. Doctor Octopus is so insane that even when he finally defeats Spider-Man in every possible way, it isn’t enough, it’s never enough. Both are not only prisoners in their roles, they embrace their prisons. They demand their prisons.

There’s that quote that’s attributed to so many different people (Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein) that I may as well say it was Stephen Wright. Or even me. The quote about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That’s why addiction is insane. Because you keep doing the same thing you know is killing you, that you know will never produce the result you want, from which you eventually don’t even take even the most temporary pleasure. Otto describes something like it as early as the second issue of Superior Spider-Man. When he finally breaks things off with MJ, he says, “Because the two of us—together—it’s insane. I can do the math. You love me as Peter and Spider-Man. But you can’t be with me because I’m Peter and Spider-Man. It’s a recursive loiop. An equation that can never be solved.”

And so go the good guy and the bad guy. Round and round and round. And the octopus gets no sleep tonight.

  1. troublewithcomics posted this
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