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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Was He Really the Superior Spider-man? A Retrospective on Spidey's Most Controversial Series


Back when Amazing Spider-man #700 was about to make its big debut, few people who were not reading the title at the time could have guessed what shocking events were about to take place in the long-running comic.  Over the years, the readership of Amazing Spider-man had gone down, mostly due to fan outrage at the poor handling of the effects of Peter being outed as Spider-man during Civil War.  In other words, Marvel was desperate for something to reignite the fanbase, especially when not even a new Spider-man movie could bring in new readers.  Enter Dan Slott, the man who was writing the Wall Crawler at the time, who would do something which would gain him much notoriety in Spider-man's history as well as vilifying the writer to much of the Internet.

The sheer idea that Peter Parker's mind would be switched with that of arch-nemesis Otto Octavius was enough to gain quite a bit of flack from fans, hardcore and casual alike.  


Slott was taking a character people loved (just not enough to regularly buy the comic) and effectively doing away with everything that made him special.  Much of the fan reaction to the news would prove to be, unsurprisingly, quite the amount of hyperbole.  What would follow would become what will likely be one of the most memorable Spider-man stories ever told.  But was Superior Spider-man really worth the effort?  With the series now finished and Amazing Spider-man about to return to both comic shelves and movie theaters, it's time to take a look at the series: the highs, the lows, and all the anger and villainy in between.

I've gone back and re-read all thirty-one issues of the controversial series and I am going to give you my opinion on each segment of the story.  There will also be letter grades given for each of the issues (NOTE: Some grades may differ from those given in the initial review).  Whether you use this as a way to determine if Superior Spider-man is worth your time, or if you want a place to express your feelings (kindly), I hope you'll come along on this ride with me.

Hero or Menace? 
(Issues 1 - 5)

Say what you want about Dan Slott's writing abilities, but the man starts off this comic incredibly strong.  In fact, Superior Spider-man has arguably the strongest opening five issues of any series in the initial Marvel Now relaunch.  Dan Slott understands one thing very clearly with this series: the demands of both new and old readers.  New readers can be VERY skiddish about approaching a title with a lot of continuity behind it.  While Marvel eases some of this with a summary of previous events at the beginning of their comics, Slott takes it one step further by waiting until the fourth issue to tell a story that lasts for more than a one shot.  Sure, there are connective plot threads throughout Superior's opening issues, but it is easy to see how someone could hear word of mouth about the quality of the series and pick up any of the first four issues without worrying about missing too much.  It is actually quite a brilliant writing strategy for superhero comics that more would be wise to follow.

It also doesn't hurt that these five issues are incredibly strong in terms of both art AND story.  Slott starts things off quickly with no meandering.  The pacing of these issues is actually done quite well, hitting that fine middle area between too short and too long.  Otto Octavius is now in the body of his most hated foe and he is desperate to prove that he is a better Spider-man than Peter.  Using his scientific mind, Ock takes a number of measures to decrease the amount of time he spends patrolling NYC and increase his focus on threats worthy of Spider-man's attention.  His new costume also comes with quite a few awesome add-ons that help to make Otto a more effective crime fighter.  It is easy to say that, by the end of issue three, with the vulture's broken body lying in a large Spider-signal, Otto has definitely made a vast improvement over Spider-man's usual heroics.  What makes these opening issues exciting is not just the way Otto improves crime fighting, but that Slott writes him in a way where it doesn't just feel like a mustachio'd villain laughing maniacally behind Spider-man's mask.  One can definitely get the sense that Otto wants to make some genuine improvements in his life, even if many of them are quite selfish. Dan Slott also does an excellent job of making reference to Spider-man's long history, this time from Otto's perspective (something the series would do quite well throughout its run).

Ryan Stegman and Giuseppe Camuncoli do a great job of providing the artwork for these opening issues, though Stegman's art is far superior (pun intended).  This is a story that opens strong, seeking to show the reader that this new Spider-man is a force to be reckoned with.  When he's not making minor tweaks and improvements to Peter's personal life, Otto is increasingly becoming a larger threat to his enemies as Spider-man.  The violence continues to build until a shocking panel towards the end of issue five, which sees Otto crossing a line he can never come back from.  Even having Peter's Ghost as a conscience of sorts fails to stop the increasing fury from Spider-man.  Fan outrage aside, Slott shows big time in these first issues that, once Peter finally does return, things are going to be VERY different for Spidey.

Grades:
  • #1 - A
  • #2 - A
  • #3 - A+
  • #4 - A+
  • #5 - A+


A Troubled Mind
(Issues 6 - 10)

The saga of the Superior Spider-man continues with a very brief one-shot featuring Jester and Screwball.  Nothing too notable really happens in this issue aside from us seeing once more how brutal Otto is as Spider-man.  Although, after killing a guy just one issue previously, it's kind of hard to see a savage beating as being much worse.  Humberto Ramos steps in as artist for a few issues and makes the whole thing look a bit too much like a cartoon.  Where this next "arc" really gains some momentum is when the Avengers finally take notice of Spider-man's recent change in behavior, leading to a full on confrontation between Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Spidey.  Unfortunately, this is the part of the series where Dan Slott begins to try and spin quite a few plates at once.  Just the Avengers arc alone could have sustained the two issues it takes up, but Slott also throws in a story about rarely seen 90's villain Cardiac.

Where this arc really shines is when issue 8 ends with the utterly jaw-dropping cliffhanger of Otto finding out some part of Peter is still in his brain.  This leads to Superior Spider-man #9, which just may be the best damn issue of this entire series.  Both a celebration of Peter Parker and Doc Ock, the two foes battle it out inside Peter's mind, and the winner is not one fans cared for, but it was definitely important for the story moving on.  Brilliant artwork combined with Slott's best writing of this entire run makes the first 9 issues of this series a must read.  Issue 10 features one of the first of many "turning points" in the series, where everything is supposed to be fresh and different.  A few nice things happen, but it is not exactly a step in a new direction.

Grades:
  • #6 - B-
  • #7 - A-
  • #8 - A-
  • #9 - A+
  • #10 - A-


No Escape/The Tinkerer's Apprentice
(Issues 11-16)

No Escape features an interesting change in creative line-up which would be used regularly throughout the rest of Superior Spider-man's run: Dan Slott only provided the plot for this arc, while Christos Gage wrote the script.  Now, which one is to blame for this arc being a bit...bland, it is not clear.  The idea in and of itself is not terrible: Otto finds himself locked in super villain prison The Raft with a few of the people he has maimed along the way.  What makes this arc feel so disappointing is that it feels like it never capitalizes on its most interesting moments.  Otto, as Spider-man, acts hypocritical by refusing to believe a villain can change his ways, but this is tossed off in favor of more killing and a few villains being given ridiculous upgrades.  Plot-wise, a few changes occur which would last for the rest of the series, but that doesn't save just an okay arc.  Although perhaps Camuncoli's art is to blame as it is stunningly mediocre if not flat out bad in some places.

Following the events at the Raft, Otto finds himself with a new costume as well as a rather large batch of henchmen.  So what does he do with his new found recruits?  Take on both the Kingpin and the Hobgoblin, of course.  This small three issue arc is once again just...okay.  Slott relies a little too much on things from Amazing Spider-man, constantly referencing events like Shadowland as well as various things Hobgoblin and the Wraith have done.  While it could certainly come off as a writer keeping his readers informed, it more feels like strained references for the sake of an Easter Egg.  Ramos is back on art for the arc and the comic once again looks like a damn cartoon.  Ryan Stegman just may be the only great artist this series ever saw.

Grades:

  • #11 - B
  • #12 - B+
  • #13 - B+
  • #14 - B+
  • #15 - B
  • #16 - B

Superior v.s. 2099/ Lethal Ladies
(Issues 17 - 21)

If Dan Slott accomplished nothing else with this series, it can at least be said he tried to make you care about 90's Spider-man characters who haven't been relevant for decades.  First there was Cardiac, and this arc brings in the popular Spider-man 2099.  Time travelling stories can work really well if they are exciting and the story follows the rules it puts out.  Slott definitely does that in the writing of this story, but the first 2/3 of this arc are VERY exposition heavy.  Spider-man 2099 is re-introduced and then we get a lot of exposition about Horizon labs and all the things which are going on there as it becomes Alchemax.  If you're a huge fan of Spider-man 2099, you just may enjoy this story as the character is brought to the present seemingly for good.  For everyone else this is just...okay.  Nothing special.

The next arc features a (brief) appearance from Black Cat as well as yet another villain you probably forgot about named Stunner.  It is blatantly obvious while reading these issues that they were simply meant to be filler while Slott prepared the next big story, and not much really happens aside from Otto earning Peter his doctorate.  Camuncoli provides art again and, while doing a good job on action scenes and anything with Spider-man, his work with people's faces (particularly Peter's) is atrocious.

Grades:
  • #17 - B+
  • #18 - B-
  • #19 - B+
  • #20 - B-
  • #21 - C+

Darkest Hours
(Issues 22 - 25)

Marvel's decision to make Flash Thompson the new Venom was easily one of the best decisions ever made for that character.  Popular since his appearance in the late 80's, Venom has not ever really been much other than a large, slobbering, monstrous version of Spider-man.  Frankly, the character has never been too terribly fascinating, but that doesn't mean a conflict between Venom and the Superior Spider-man is not inherently uninteresting.  Slott plots this arc somewhat well, with the first half being pretty strong, or at least on par with the few arcs which came before it.  Otto's life as Peter is developed really well here, with quite a few more messes made for Peter to clean up after his return as well as a small hint at something which could quite possibly play a HUGE role in Amazing Spider-man (HINT: Go take a look at that scene with the glowing fish in issue 22).  About halfway through this story, however, things take a turn to stupid town when Otto gains control of the symbiote and becomes....Superior Venom.  The stupid name was just the beginning.  All this really means is a return to the boring, feral Venom, as well as showing that Otto with more power as Spider-man means more cruelty towards criminals.  This story does not do very much to add to the series' overall plot, though the set-up scenes with the Goblins are well done.

Grades:
  • #22 - B
  • #23 - B-
  • #24 - C+
  • #25 - C

Goblin Nation
(Issues 26 - 31)

Well.  Here it is.  The big finale to Superior Spider-man, which Dan Slott had been leading us to since practically the beginning.  In terms of the story itself, there are a lot of things which Goblin Nation does exceedingly well.  As a finale, on the other hand, there is one thing in particular which is done quite poorly (more on that in a second).  When this story is on point, it is VERY reminiscent of those early issues of this series.  Camuncoli surprises with how good his art is at times during this arc.  It is clear that much of this story is pay off that Slott has been waiting to tell for quite some time, and he writes the pay off very well.  Not only is the Green Goblin launching a full on assault on NYC, but he is fully aware of who is inside Spider-man's head, making this just as much a personal attack on Otto Octavius as it is an attack on Peter Parker/Spider-man.  The moments where that central conflict are developed are exceedingly well done.  As Spider-man, Otto does quite a bit of good despite his questionable morals, but it is all torn away by the Goblin.  Were it not for a few slight things, Goblin Nation could easily be the best Green Goblin story since the death of Gwen Stacy.

With the impending release of The Amazing Spider-man 2 looming ever so near, it was obvious that Marvel was under a lot of pressure to bring Peter back.  Any time a movie is released based on a Marvel character, at least some kind of work is done to make sure the most current issues of that character's series are approachable for whatever curious readers find themselves in a comic shop.  It is due to that tremendous amount of pressure that Superior Spider-man's finale becomes a bit of a mess.  Now, this is not to say that Goblin Nation had no business being the finale.  That part makes a bit of sense.  Where the problems with this story (particularly issue 30) lie is in just how easily Otto gives up  and allows Peter to regain control of his body.  For months this man has paraded around as Spider-man, constantly reminding others that he was the best Spider-man that ever existed, but because the Green Goblin blew up a few things he loved and kidnapped his girlfriend, Peter was suddenly better?  This just feels far too easy, and is a bit of a cop out on Dan Slott's part.  Sure, Peter is a million times the man Otto Octavius will ever be, but giving up the mantle of Spider-man came far too abruptly.  

Grades:
  • #26 - C+
  • #27 - A-
  • #28 - B
  • #29 - A-
  • #30 - C+
  • #31 - A

Conclusion

Had there not been a movie in the works, it seems like Superior Spider-man could have easily made it to that landmark issue of #50.  Perhaps with the extra 19 issues, Dan Slott could have made the change over to Peter Parker less abrupt, allowing for this journey we have taken with Otto to feel worth it.  It is useless, however, to focus on the what-if's.  As a whole, Superior Spider-man is not a terrible series (it's true, angry fan boys).  Had the series kept the quality of its first 10 issues, it could have easily become one of the all time greatest Spider-man stories.  Unfortunately, Dan Slott will just have to live with this only being one of the most memorable.  You may not like his writing all the time, but you have to give Slott credit for one thing: if you don't come away from this whole experience being much more appreciative of Peter Parker and what he means to the role of Spider-man, then you missed (part of) the point.

Welcome back, Peter

Amazing Spider-man #1 is on sale now!  You can find Superior Spider-man in trade or single issue form at your local comic shop.


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