Trouble with Comics
TWC Question Time #26: Anniversary Time

This week’s question: What’s your favorite anniversary issue?

Tim Durkee:  I’m glad that this question was given an extra week. I knew I could catch up with my reading and two anniversary issues would be a part of that. First off, I’m very far behind, so please don’t chuckle too loud when tell you I just finished Amazing Spider-Man # 690-700 including every point one and gimmick book in between. For all purposes issue 692 is the 50th anniversary issue, but that was overshadowed by the hype surrounding 700. The cat has been out of the bag for several years now, the question would have it been worth the cover price when first released?

I hate when a character dies in a book, not because my favorite hero or villain has perished, but because they never last. Give it a few months, maybe a year and they are back so I was I was in hurry as I knew what to expect. Did ASM 700 deliver to a reader who is very skeptical of deaths, anniversaries, and gimmicks? It sure did!

For a moment I actually thought this was it, the last story. No more Parker. The way the letter columns were filled it was more like a eulogy page rather that a celebration of one of the greatest super-heroes created. And I am reading this, believing this, knowing what happened. That’s what we call darn good writing, true believers! Now I’m on to Superior Spider-Man, which I stayed away from initially. I’ve never been known to have a favorite anniversary issue, until today.


Mike Sterling: Very early on in my comic collecting endeavors, I always went out of my way to pick up “special” issues. Extra-sized anniversary editions or annuals or the large treasury editions, even if they were from series or featuring characters I didn’t normally follow. There was just something especially enticing about these, even if the higher pricetags bit into my funnybook-buying budget. And, in the late ‘70s/early '80s, there was no shortage of fine books to choose from: Flash #300, detailing the origins of all the Rogues, Detective Comics #500, a monster of a comic featuring stories starring not just Batman, but several other characters featuring throughout the series’ long run.

And then there was Justice League of America #200 from 1982.

A great premise: the founding members of the League have gone out of 
control, and it’s up to their latter-day teammates to bring them down.
A great story structure: each confrontation is divided into its own short chapter, including one splash page punctuating the conflict between the characters.
A great collection of artists: each chapter is illustrated either by the artist most strongly associated with the characters involved (such as the Flash versus the Elongated Man by Carmine Infantino, or the Atom versus Green Lantern by Gil Kane), or by an artist that is most perfectly suited to said characters (such as Green Arrow and Black Canary versus Batman as drawn by Brian Bolland). The artwork for the framing and connective sequences is by George Pérez, who was then nearing the end of his run as the regular Justice League artist.
The story, by Gerry Conway, very nicely showcases each major character from the title’s history, as well as tying the plot into the team's origins. It is, in effect, a sequel to Justice League of America #9 (1962), where the League’s origin was initially told. Conway also contributes an extensive text history of the series on the inside front and back covers.

This is 72 adless pages of superhero perfection, presenting the almost Platonic ideal of how each character should be treated. Sure, maybe Pérez isn’t quite as polished here as he would become in short order, but there’s no denying his work’s power and enthusiasm. He certainly holds his own with the other featured artists. In addition to Bolland, Kane and Infantino, there’s Jim Aparo, and Dick Giordano, and Joe Kubert, and Brett Breeding, and more. If anyone’s taking suggestions for one of those giant tomes that features high-quality scans of original art, I nominate this book for the treatment.

Justice League of America #200 is the comic I think of when I think of superhero comics. It’s the one that reminds me of why I became interested in superhero comics in the first place. Not that it was my first superhero comic, by any means, but it still remains, at least to the part of me that still remembers that youthful thrill of seeing the week’s new arrivals on the newsstand racks, the best.


Scott Cederlund: My Legion of Super-Heroes fandom started out sporadically.  I probably read more reprints of older Legion stories in Adventure Comics or even the old Treasury Editions.  There’s one Treasury Edition that reprinted a Mordru story that’s still one of my favorite comic stories.  Those old Silver-Age stories were hokey but all of those super-powered kids running in those old fashioned costumes held a wonderful charm over me.  That’s probably why I had a problem with some of the more modern (at least modern circa 1983) Legion stories.  The characters kind of seemed familiar but with all of their updated, Bronze Age costumes, my mind couldn’t connect those old Legion stories to the current Legion stories.

Legion of Super-Heroes #300 is a suspect anniversary issue because the series continued the numbering of the original Superboy series after it became Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes with issue #197.  So maybe the 300th issue of Legion of Super-Heroes is a bit of a stretch but it provided the link for me between the Legion I knew from those old reprints and the modern day Legion as it contained a number of imaginary stories about possible timelines for the Legion, all written by Paul Levitz and drawn by a number of different artists.  

Levitz’s story touched on all of the eras of the Legion, all the way back to it’s earliest and corniest days in the late 1950s and 1960s, through the Bronze Age cynicism of the 1970s and all the way through the Keith Giffen technological utopia of the 1980s. These stories were “what ifs,” looking at the decisions that the Legion had made through those years and how they could have been different. And Levitz even framed it through the perspective of the brother of the late Ferro Lad.  All of these maybes and could-have-been were told from the point of view of one of the Legion’s first and greatest tragedies.

There’s only a handful of comics from 1983 (or even before that) that I can actually remember buying and reading for the first time. I got the issue from a shop called All American Comics in Evergreen Park, Il, on a summer night. And I read the comic in the lobby of the Christ Medical Center on 95th Street. My father had taken me to the comic shop as a mild bribe before going to visit my grandmother in the hospital. I can remember the lighting still being dim in the waiting area while my father went up to my grandma’s room. I probably went up to her room for a little bit but I was probably quickly allowed to go down to the lobby to read my comics while my dad spent time with his mother.  

The comic means as much to me about the contents of it as it does about the summer of 1983 when my grandmother died of cancer. When the question was posed about anniversary issues for this column, I immediately thought of this issue but it took a while to sink in about what the comic means to me and why I still have it in my collection.  The comic is full of possibilities and things that never happened in the Legion continuity, but they all could have happened if the writer and artists had made different choices along the ways. For this anniversary issue, Paul Levitz tapped into some of that potential that exists in all comics within the boundaries of continuity.


Joe Gualtieri: This week’s question is borderline impossible. It would have been tough enough if we could pick five, but one anniversary issue? Especially as someone who was a young teen during the prime years of anniversary mania (Marvel made a way bigger deal about the thirtieth anniversaries of their various superheroes than they did the fiftieth), this felt like a nigh-impossible task. Outside of material reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (“To Kill a Legend” from Detective Comics #500 is a contender here), my first anniversary issue was likely Detectve #627, celebrating Batman’s 600th appearance in the title (yes, it’s actually his 601st, an error pointed by many letter writers in subsequent issues). It reprinted the very first Batman story, “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate” by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, and a retelling of the story, “The Cry of the Night is- ‘Kill’”, from #387 by Mike Friederich, Bob Brown, and Joe Giella. It also contained two new reinterpretations of that first story by essentially the then-contemporary teams on both Detective and Batman: Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, Steve Mitchell, and Roy. The Grant/Breyfogle tale was a little gruesome for my tastes at the time, but getting four variations, retold over time, has always left an impression on me as a great way to do an anniversary issue.

My favorite though? In the end, it comes down to two issues, both from the same storyline, Spectacular Spider-Man #189 (the first of four issues celebrating Spider-Man’s thirtieth anniversary in 1992, each with a hologram on the cover, because 1992) and #200. My first Spider-Man comics were Amazing #347 (Venom!) and Spectacular #175 (Doc Ock!), both purchased from Robinson’s Convenience Store on the same day because they had villains I liked from Marvel trading cards. Funnily enough, I came in as a classic creator left, as Spectacular #175 wrapped up Gerry Conway’s final Spider-Man story-arc (though it was written by David Michelinie). The next two issues were fill-ins by some guy named Kurt Busiek, and then in #178, J.M. DeMatteis’s run started with a sequel to his already legendary Kraven’s Last Hunt, with Sal Buscema on art. Despite not having read that story, his run worked really for me, in part because the story was something of a thematic sequel, focusing on Harry Osborn and his struggles with his father’s legacy as the Green Goblin. By the end of that initial arc, Harry had fallen to his worse impulses, becoming a villain again.

After a detour involving the Vulture, DeMatteis brought Harry back in #189 for “The Osborn Legacy.” Deranged after using his father’s super-strength formula, Harry kidnaps his own family and starts psychologically torturing Spider-Man. At the end of the issue, Spidey actually turns Harry over to the authorities, despite the threat of Harry revealing his secret identity as Peter Parker. Over the next year, Harry would occasionally show that he could still reach out from prison, but he was released in #199. The next issue, “Best of Enemies!” sees Harry up his war against Spider-Man, his family struggling to deal with his instability and Harry fighting himself, caught between wanting to do what his evil father would want and his long friendship with Parker. The issue is tense, and features one of probably only two scenes returning to the scene of Gwen Stacy’s death that is actually any good, as Harry takes Mary Jane Parker there to assure her he will not hurt her. In the end, Peter and Harry come to blows, Harry poisons Peter and leaves him to die in a death trap before Mary Jane talks him into going back. Then the super strength formula he used a year earlier turns to poison and kills him (a simple metaphor, but beautifully done, and perfect for the genre). Harry Osborn’s death is absolutely stunning, a scene so well done by Buscema that DeMatteis deviated from his original plans and left the final pages silent.

Spectacular Spider-Man #200 is everything an anniversary issue should be: it wraps up the current creative team’s story-lines, but beyond that it truly builds on the history of the characters involved. “Best of Enemies” gets its impact not just from the artistry of DeMatteis and Buscema, but from everyone who came before on the Spider-Man comics. It’s a story that demands a mature Spider-Man, and is inconceivable without him being married to Mary Jane. Marvel has, inexplicably, just reprinted parts of it, and the only way that makes sense to me as vindictiveness over how it shows how wrong nearly everything the company has tried to with the character since has been, as Marvel’s flailed about, trying to de-age him, believing kids couldn’t relate to an older, married Spider-Man. *Ahem* Anyway, it also has a foil cover, and being 11 in 1992, I confess to having a weakness for those when they’re well done.

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.