A few months have passed, now, since Marvel comics unleashed their “not a reboot” renumbering of all of their main titles–a response to the now eighteen-month-old “New 52” reboot of the entire DC universe which broke down the wall of fifty years of backstory which was keeping new readers away from comic shops. Like DC, all of Marvel’s titles switched down to issue #1, a very approachable number for a new reader, around the start of the year. Marvel’s stories haven’t started over, though. Some are continuing onward as if nothing has happened, some used the renumbering to bring a story-arc to a conclusion before starting a new one, and some are actually new titles–though they still draw from the long and endlessly convoluted history of the Marvel universe.
“Amazing Spider-Man” came to an end in December. I heard that this was going to happen and I jumped on the series a few issues before the end, thinking that a series that was about to die was a perfect place to start because there would be no long-term commitment. As someone who would describe themselves as “new to the series,” the issues were remarkably stale; and even though I haven’t had a Spider-Man adventure since the animated series from the nineties (other than the three movies), it all seemed played out. Everything that happened felt like it had happened a million times before with writers and illustrators just going through the motions. It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, as the series was racing towards its seven-hundredth issue, but I expect companies to put their best resources into their most popular products. Business-critique aside, Spider-man was boring. The series came to its (current) end with the death of Peter Parker after his nemesis Doctor Octopus traded bodies with him, becoming the new Spider-man. This isn’t a spoiler. It’s old news, now, and it’s the first thing of which any issue will remind you if you decide to pick it up.
So began “Superior Spider-Man,” the brave story of the supervillain, inside the body of a superhero and with all the hero’s memories, trying to be a good guy. It’s a pretty obvious place for the renumbering to take place. So much changed with the launch of “Superior…” even though the creative team didn’t. The first several pages of each issues of “Amazing” would always waste time with Peter Parker’s inner monologue letting the reader know who he was, who other characters were, and everything that had happened which might be significant to your understanding of the insignificant events which would follow on the next few pages. If you read much about Marvel, you’ll soon come across Stan Lee’s (creator of Spider-Man) saying that “every comic book is someone’s first.” It’s reasonable to keep a book, especially a popular one, accessible, but it’s insulting to readers new or old to spell out everything bluntly as if they weren’t capable of learning what the story is through natural behavior of the characters.
“Superior…” has cut out this waste of time. With each issue so far, almost every page has been important to further developing the story. The story has also been much more personal. Instead of focusing on the typical structure of the hero facing a villain and learning how to overcome the odds, no villain has had a chance against the revamped hero with the huge intellect. The reader instead becomes engrossed in the dramatic tension of Octopus keeping his secret–not actually being Peter Parker–from Peter’s loved ones and from Spider-Man’s associate heroes, the tension of Octopus skirting the line between heroics and villainy waiting for him to fall to the dark side, and the tension of Peter Parker keeping his continued existence within his own brain a secret from Octopus as he works to try and regain control.
That is the first shortcoming that I should point out. I’ll backtrack to state that the reason that Octopus, the villain, is trying to be a hero instead of using his spider-powers to ruin the planet is that in stealing Peter’s body, he gained access to Peter’s memories. So his brain was merged with all of the good thoughts and moral lessons that made Peter a good-guy. In issue 1 of the new series, though, the new Spider-Man tries to kill some people and Peter Parker shows up as a ghostly presence inside of the spider’s mind to stop him and declare that he will get his body back and everything will return to normal. It wouldn’t have been a big shock if everything were to undo itself, and I don’t think there was any question that Octopus would go bad again, eventually, but I expected them to roll with the reformed villain story for a bit longer and work to convince the reader that maybe this villain is better at being a hero than the old guy. Maybe the backlash of angry fan-mail after Peter’s death was too big of a scare for the creators.
The second bit of criticism is one that I’d throw at almost any serialized comic. The storytelling doesn’t make very good use of the medium. The illustration in “Superior…” is definitely a few steps up from what I saw in the final issues of “Amazing…,” but that is hardly significant when you consider of what the medium is truly capable. (All of that is a post for another day.) The pacing is consistently too fast and at times too erratic to logically follow. This title puts out a new issue every two weeks, so the creative team is constantly in overdrive. They have a few different pencillers who alternate issues so that they can produce the comic quickly enough. This causes Spider-Man and other characters who make continued appearances to look different across issues and have different body language and facial expressions which leads to feelings of inconsistency in the characters’ identities. The characters are flattened by this, and it’s a much less engrossing experience without that deeper resonance and empathy that the reader can share with well-developed character.
A last bit of criticism would be to point out the split philosophy that the series is presenting. “Amazing Spider-Man” ended with the deterministic statement that with Peter’s experiences and moral lessons he had no choice but to become the selfless hero, as is shown by Octopus’s instant reform when he inherits these experiences. “Superior Spider-Man” shows him falling quickly from the moral path, too strongly connected to his angry feelings of superiority to and spite for the rest of humanity; so he has the heart of the villain, and he is destined to be an irredeemable character whom cannot be changed from his nature by any lessons or experiences. In this story, though, we have, for what may be the first time, a good chance to look around this character’s brain. The writer, Dan Slott, is trying to make use of this opportunity by using determinism to foster empathy for the villainous behavior of Octopus by linking it to events in his childhood. Several times the story has jumped backwards at his violent outbursts to either excuse, justify, or explain it by showing us that he was bullied as a child because he wore thick awkward glasses–the current situation is only drudging up those feelings of powerlessness and hate that he felt back then. A character hits him and makes a few jokes at his expense, this conjures unresolved feelings from the past which have defined him, and then he brutalizes the character in an uneven return. He has Peter Parker’s memories and experiences as vividly as he has his own–they are actually meant to be the same person now–but his character is only defined by the memories and experiences of Octopus. In the vein of determinism, in which his past experiences would define his character now, the experiences of Peter would play a huge role in creating who he is. He would still be affected by his own history, but he would come out of the mix as a more complex character than either of them were before. Determinism is defied and free will is embraced by showing him as a character who is unaffected by having Peter’s history and who chooses to still play the bad guy in light of them. Free will is defied and determinism is embraced by depicting Octopus’s character as direct result of his past and excusing his villainy as being a result of his own victimization. So which philosophy is embraced by the narrative? If these two are a true binary, the answer can’t be both and it can’t be neither; so the character simply doesn’t make any sense.
All-in-all, “Superior Spider-Man” isn’t too bad of a comic, as far as the industry standard goes. It’s certainly not the best series that Marvel is putting out right now, but it’s definitely not the worst. It falls somewhere in the middle, which I think is probably where Spider-Man belongs. It is effectively Marvel’s most approachable series, so it can’t be too heady or dark lest it alienate new readers who are giving comics a shot because they liked a movie, but it has to be engaging enough to grab hold of those new readers and keep a grip on the old ones. That is exactly what this series has managed to be so far: A series for everyone. If you walk into your comic book store on Wednesday without an idea of what to pick up, you won’t go wrong starting off with the latest issue of this series; and if you’re a hardcore collector and fan of Marvel comics, this title should probably have been on your subscription list from the start. Dabblers who only read loftier, more challenging titles should probably pass on this series. With its widespread appeal, though, it’s likely that this series will be one of the main titles that people will want to discuss.