“It won’t last!” is the comic book fan’s traditional response to a change in status quo with Marvel and DC books, usually relating to a character death, end of a crossover event or major rift in the fundamentals of an established superhero team.
Superior Spider-Man, then, was always a book that would anger long-term fans in much the same way, using the anniversary issue of Amazing Spider-Man 700 to have Doctor Octopus hijack the life of Peter Parker, essentially transforming the villain into the hero, stealing his identity and pushing the real web-slinger out of the picture for an all-new series, where Doc Ock would realise the true potential of Spider-Man while we all read on nervously.
Yet, of all the comics I pick up each month, writer Dan Slott’s reinterpretation of Spider-Man is the one I consistently look forward to, offering a fresh take on the Marvel icon that has yielded some quite fascinating character development, as well as a status quo change that is equally as compelling as the debut of Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.
In this series, we’ve seen a Spider-Man who has inadvertently alienated those close to him, devised a plan to spy on New York and, perhaps most surprisingly, shot the villain Massacre dead with no remorse. And then, just in case fans weren’t angry enough, issue 9 of Superior Spider-Man saw Doc Ock eradicate the last remnants of Peter Parker that lingered in his mind, operating as a kind of ghostly moral compass.
Suddenly, what seemed like a narrative solution to the Doc Ock problem was wiped from the picture! I can only imagine how enraged certain fans were by Peter Parker’s entirely depressing defeat. I found the whole thing rather riveting, if very sad, but with Pete removed I was even more engaged to see how Doc Ock would operate without access to his physical host’s memories.
I think there are several reasons why Superior Spider-Man is as compelling as it is. There’s a very basic wish fulfilment factor in seeing this character, so staunchly built out of these morally positive ideas of power and responsibility, become this twisted antihero who will slash enemies to the brink of death and put a bullet in them if it solves the problem. We get to see Peter Parker’s world from a different perspective, and how the good parts of his life can be exploited, while the negative elements of his existence can be augmented with a kind of cold logic that only a supervillain has.
You begin to think of this Superior Spider-Man with a satisfying anticipation of what horror show he might unleash next, as this obsessively brutal vigilante; once you’ve got over the large emotional roadblock of a good-natured character essentially experiencing the worst death scenario possible, that is.
But once you get used to that, you see the storytelling potential that Dan Slott is experimenting with in Superior Spider-Man. I’m pretty well-read on Doc Ock within Marvel’s 616 Universe, and as a general monthly reader of superhero comics, this represents the strongest evolution of a villainous character that I’ve seen from Marvel or DC in the past few years, perhaps tying with Geoff Johns’ take on Sinestro in Green Lantern or Grant Morrison’s horrifically ferocious Talia Al Ghul.
We get to see how Doc Ock makes his own morals compatible with Peter Parker’s established life (or not, in many cases), and witness how he explores Spider-Man’s personal life in a sometimes unpredictably sensitive way.
Doc Ock is frightfully erratic, and that lack of an easily guessable outcome in any scenario is a terrific source of tension for Slott. 12 issues in, there still seems to be a lot of mileage in the idea. It all works, and I’m just as interested to see how other writers play with the premise – a brief scene in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers illustrated how little Doc Ock likes to play with others, and three more Superior books are being launched off the back of the series’ success next month.
Superior Spider-Man‘s primary artist, Ryan Stegman, is as terrific a match for this title as Sara Pichelli was for Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, producing some amazingly inventive covers and reflecting the revamped personality of Peter Parker in the subtle hostility of his facial expressions. As an arc involving Spider-Man 2099 is coming up, I’m looking forward to the artist’s take on that side of Spidey lore.
It’s a bizarre, fascinating tale that has explored a whole range of narrative possibilities, even at the risk of putting off long-term fans.
Yet for the same reasons that veteran readers say, “It won’t last” in comics, I say fans should give Superior Spider-Man a try if they haven’t already – I’m sure that, like Dick Grayson’s run as Batman or Daredevil’s stay in prison, it’s a temporary period of change that will somehow see Peter Parker return to the fold, but so far I feel that Superior Spider-Men has defied any negative expectations, not due to the simple novelty of its premise, but rather because of Dan Slott’s genuinely interesting transformation of this villain into a unique kind of antihero that fans can’t help rooting for in some fashion.
You can get the first volume of Superior Spider-Man in trade paperback for £7.58 from Amazon.co.uk.