The Superior Spider-Manalysis (pt. 1)
Comic book fans are a strange crowd. We expect writers and illustrators to keep crafting stories of our favorite heroes on a regular basis over the course of fifty, sixty, seventy years without straying too far from the characters’ roots or tampering with their pasts too much. Hence why we throw hissy fits, complain on the internet, or send hate mail to creative teams whenever Captain America says “Hail, Hydra!,” Batman kills a few crooks in a movie, the Mandarin turns out to be just an actor, or the Joker suddenly looks like an angsty thug with too much body art. Granted, most of those concepts were in the films, but the underlying concept is that most fans hate, hate, hate change, for whatever the reason.
Spider-Man, being one of Marvel’s trademark characters, is no stranger to weird concepts and strange moves by creators that have been accorded with less-than-stellar receptions. Over the past five decades, he’s grown four extra limbs, died several times, discovered his powers were magically derived, learned his girlfriend gave birth to his arch-enemy’s twins before being dumped off a bridge by this same foe, forsaken his marriage to save his dying aunt, and most recently got turned into Marvel’s version of Batman with a massive corporation, metal armor, and spider-shaped gadgets (all of which Marvel is, gratefully, actually dismantling in the comics as of now). All those happened, and I’m not a huge fan of any of those options. Is change good? Sure. Are new ideas fun and exciting to explore? Heck, yes. As a writer, I love the freedom crafting characters and exploring their lives and worlds offers. Is there, however, a point that can this “exploration” can go too far?
Yes. Heck, yes. Double heck, yes.
One of those changes to Spider-Man I failed to include was when one of his foes, dying in his own decaying body, decided to switch his mind with Peter Parker’s, thus allowing the fiendish Dr. Octopus to run around in Spidey’s body for two years real world time, becoming a superior Spider-Man in a storyline called, well, The Superior Spider-Man. When this decision was first announced about five years ago, I hated it. Writer Dan Slott had just gone the “too far” route that we hadn’t since J. Michael Straczynski ended his otherwise amazing run with the whole “Peter and Mary Jane make a deal with a literal demon from literal Hell to save the life of his frail, aged Aunt May who was shot by a sniper sent by the Kingpin because Peter revealed his identity on live television to the entire world to back up Iron Man during a superhuman Civil War after a human bomb blew up a school.”
Solomon was right. There’s nothing new under the sun. Just stupider and stupider ideas that burn under its heat.
For the past five years, then, I’ve been an incredibly vocal dissident towards this idea and Dan Slott. I joked about the storyline, bashed it in writing when I could, read the Wikipedia page and laughed as the story went on, and basically badmouthed about it to anyone who would listen. I hated Slott, I hated the story, and I was exceptionally happy when they brought Peter back.
Recently, though, I realized something: I made an error.
Flashback several years: it’s Christmas, and I receive as a gift a CD with the first 531 issues of Amazing Spider-Man (and, yes, I’ve read them all). Following that, I acquired, either through gifts or purchases, the rest of the ASM volumes and issues leading up to #700, where Slott made the change to Superior. About a year after buying and reading the final volume of my collection, I discovered all six Superior volumes at a bookstore. I’ll admit, I had already asked for the first volume as a gift this Christmas, my desire to continue the Spider-Man saga driving away my hatred and inhibitions, but seeing the whole run, all 31 issues, clumped together won me over. As I texted a friend shortly afterward: “I’m weak. I caved.” I bought the whole thing.
That was when I realized my error. I had fallen prey to the whole “Don’t judge a book by its cover” trap, or in this case, the whole “Don’t judge a comic storyline by its idiotic premise” trap. Without reading much of the story (I’d seen a few issues, out of curiosity), I’d discarded it as rubbish, like a man who finds a golden lamp covered in soot and tosses it away because it’s filthy. Well, I finally cleaned the lamp. And maybe no Robin Williams-esque genie popped out, claiming to be my best friend, but a sparkle of gold shimmered underneath. In comic speak: maybe this story isn’t to me what The Long Halloween is (the greatest comic ever, in my opinion) and maybe it will never be as good to me as Brand New Day or The Gauntlet or the Straczynski run in Amazing Spider-Man history, but it isn’t absolute garbage. It's bad, but not the worst story in the history of comics.
Would Spidey be better off without this story? Yes. Do I feel like I wasted my time and money purchasing and reading it, though? No. Is it a worthy addition to my collection? Yes, even if only for the fact it continues the story and leads into Slott’s renewal of the Amazing Spider-Man.
Like with every story, there is good, there is bad. Allow me to step into the spider’s web and pluck out the good that gets trapped and the bad which gets away.
This blog shall be divided into two sections, the first covering the disagreeable portions of the Superior run, the second covering aspects that were enjoyable.
Starting off with the negative comments, I want to get these out of the way first. There are really, I think, two ways to combine and positives and negatives together when talking to people, perhaps putting a compliment and suggestions together. Here’s an example:
“Dan, that was a really great story you wrote, but man, why the heck did you have Aunt May get turned into a whiny old woman by her gang lord/humanitarian boss?”
Or, you can say it this way:
“Dan, y’know, that whole relationship between Peter and Carlie Cooper may have been a little weak, but you did a nice job giving them both human qualities that I could relate to.”
You can tell I’m venting, can’t you?
Point is, I feel like the latter example works better. I think offering praise first puffs up someone, only to let them down with a bit of a suggestion or something that bruises the ego a little, whereas the second example starts with the suggestion and then follows up with praise to not sound completely heartless or overbearing. I think it works better. So that’s what I’m doing here. Alright, clarification out of the way. Let’s answer the question of “What didn’t work with the Superior Spider-Man?”
Let’s get this straight. I hate the idea. Did when it first became a thing, still do three years removed from its ending. Well, it isn’t the idea itself I despise. A few years before this event, a writer named Fred van Lente did something similar in Amazing Spider-Man when he had a supervillain named the Chameleon kidnap Peter and replace him for an issue. He didn’t know Peter was Spider-Man, and that ultimately allowed Peter to escape. But notice what I said here: “an issue.” Not a two-year-long story, but an issue, and a well-written issue where the Chameleon got to digest Peter Parker’s life and make his own interpretations, often to some hilariously misguided results. Yes, Peter shocks people by acting out of character, but it’s revealed that he’s actually a bad guy and it all gets resolved. That was good. It was a fun issue, a fun idea, but it got resolved quickly.
The brevity of it worked. Now, take that idea and apply it to a two-year-long arc where the villain not only replaces Peter Parker but then proceeds to wipe out the remnants of his memory, thus attempting to cement Peter’s destruction for good. Silly. To his credit, Slott does make this a redemptive arc for Doc Ock as Spider-Man, who at first decides to lay waste to Peter’s life until he remembers the same “With great power…” lesson Peter’s lived his life by and chooses to be a heroic, albeit darker, version of the hero. It does make sense (and I’m pretty doggone certain that if Ock’s Spidey had gone straight-up villain, the fans would have rioted) in the context of what Slott does, but ultimately, it’s beleaguered by the fact that this never needed to happen at all.
This would have been better relegated to a storyline, or a shorter arc within Amazing Spider-Man. Taking the entire book and altering its fundamentals like Slott did was weird even before I read it. Having read the storyline, it’s impossible to shake the “This isn’t Peter” feeling. It’s like if you had some random guy come to our house and replace your dad for a week. He acts like your dad, he does things your dad would do, and he expects you to call him “Dad” and treat him like you would your own father, but he's not your dad. That’s the feeling this series leaves. As clever and interesting as the individual stories within this series can be, the core concept constantly leaves a bad taste in my mouth. You cannot overcome it.
Here’s the other thing I generally don’t like about comics. Dialogue. So, so many writers seem to write whatever comes out from the top of their head, put pen to paper, and decide not to edit it. It’s not that these comics are full of grammatical errors or anything like that (though I have occasionally seen speech bubbles attributed to the wrong speaker), but it doesn’t feel like the writer tried to see if what the character said made logical sense. Slott is, sadly, one of those guys, one of those writers whose characters don’t read like actual people. You just look at the dialogue and go “Nobody would ever talk like that.”
This is mostly seen in the way Spidey/Doc Ock talks. Even though he’s Spider-Man, his dialogue is chock full of his grandiose villain statements that characters react to as “Okay, that’s a little weird” and then shrug off. And the thing that bugs me about it, despite the fact that Ock talks like a megalomaniac all the time, is that Ock should be smart enough to realize he can’t always be talking that way. Yes, it’s supposed to show the reader how this version of Spidey is different; yes, it’s a defining characteristic of who Ock is; and yes, it’s one way Slott tries to show how, at his core, Ock is still this arrogant crazy jerk who can never fully be Spider-Man. But come on. Ock is brilliant. While he is misguided, while he is evil, he should be more than capable at formulating speech patterns equivalent to that of a late-twenty something/early-thirty something young man. Heck, as Peter, he even wishes MJ farewell with a quick “Toodleloo!” and later says “Good heavens!” as an exclamation. Really? It’s like Slott was thinking, “Hmm, what’s the geekiest, dorkiest exclamations I can put in here to remind my readers that Ock is a genius and has to talk like a British person?” Not that I have anything against the way British people talk, their dialects are awesome, but he went for the stereotypical phrases instead of really thinking through what Ock should say.
In addition to this, his other characters, at times, speak in ways contrary to how an actual person would talk. Like Aunt May always going “Oh, Peter!” and worrying or doting over him in a way no real person actually would. Or characters who have to describe their actions, offer unnecessary exposition, make conclusions from the most random facts, or have epiphanies at odd moments. Now, this isn’t just true about this run (it’s a problem which has plagued most of Slott’s time on the book, actually) and Slott isn’t the only author guilty of this, but there’s a lot here. Most of the dialogue, I would say, gives off this cringey vibe to it. There are moments of hilarity (Slott still holds the award for “Best Joke I’ve Read in a Comic”), moments of creativity, and moments of common sense, but a lot is off. I’ve had this thought numerous times and I’ll say it here: if you removed Slott as principle writer, went with his story ideas, and allowed someone else (Mark Waid? Please?) to do the dialogue, Amazing Spider-Man would be ten times better than it is, and even Superior would've been more fun. He’s a clever, creative conceiver of concepts, as we will see in the next blog, but I’ve read stories that were written better. I’ve read worse, too, but that’s hardly praise.
This sort of tethers back into the ideas I was formulating above, but Slott’s take on some of his characters could have been written stronger. As you will read in the next blog, he introduces various concepts that I like, and others I feel work in small doses, but there’s the occasional head-scratcher that ends up in this series. Spidey is, of course, the big one, for all the reasons I’ve already outlined in the preceding paragraphs. It’s just really hard to like the guy, mainly because he’s a villain. Yeah, sure, okay, fine, he’s a villain who’s trying to redeem himself, and as a believer and a practitioner in a religion based on personal redemption, who am I to scoff at one man’s choice, fictional or not, to better himself, despite his previous errors? The thing is, however, is that he’s terrible at it. Granted, this is Slott’s point: as Spidey, Doc Ock is trying to do things his own way—in his mind, “superior” coincides with being more brutal towards his foes (like mutilating Boomerang, Screwball, and the Jester; punching the Scorpion’s jaw off; blinding the Vulture; and killing Massacre and Alistair Smythe, “The Spider-Slayer”), blackmailing Mayor J. Jonah Jameson, and improving Peter’s own life in ways I actually do appreciate—and these methods, as you can tell, are often darker and more violent. It shows that Doc is hardly the best fit for the role, thereby cementing Peter’s continued legacy at the end of the series.
But if the point of this series was to play around with Doc Ock as Spidey and therefore prove a point that anyone would’ve guessed at already—that Octavius is an awful substitute for Peter—why run with it? There doesn’t seem to be a “so what?” as various writing teachers of mine over the years would ask. Was it to make Spidey darker? Maybe, but we didn’t need two years of that.
Other characters receive some odd makeovers as well. I will say, right away, that some characters work well under Slott’s pen. Some actually either change well, or Slott brings them over from his work on ASM and slides them nicely into this little Superior world he’s created. There are, sadly, examples where this doesn’t work out well. Take the Green Goblin. Once again, it’s (SPOILER) Norman Osborn beneath the mask, but he suddenly has a flair for the dramatic…or, I suppose, even more so, cause this time he’s gone full medieval, branding himself the Goblin King and giving Goblin-esque characters like Menace and Phil Urich’s Hobgoblin medieval-style armor and weaponry. This is a change I’m not a huge fan of, for three reasons. One, the characters already have their personalities, their weapons, their looks…why change it? It has too much of a fantasy style that Goblin enemies, though based on fantasy creatures, never possessed. Maybe it seems like an obvious change, but it comes off a hokey, especially when Menace refers to Osborn as “lord and master” like he really is a king in some epic fantasy. Second, previous stories had been going for a more sinister, methodical version of Osborn (see Mark Millar's Marvel Knights: Spider-Man, Secret Invasion and Siege by Brian Michael Bendis, and Brand New Day stories by Marc Guggenheim and Zeb Wells--and, heck, Slott himself!--for good examples of that direction), and this was a sudden, kooky shift that tossed all that to the wind. Bye-bye formidable mastermind, hello crazy gang leader. Third, Osborn’s been posing as an executive at his daughter-in-law Liz Allen’s company, “Allen Chemicals,” a twist revealed near the end of this arc. Typically, this would be a great twist, and it’s a cool revelation, except for the part where Slott has two scenes in succession that feature the Goblin in one and this executive in the other, leaving me puzzled as how he could change so quickly (note: he can’t). It’s an error, a sad error, because it just muddles things up and shows that a little more thought and effort could have been put into this. Or, at least, better editing.
Clearly, some additional planning could have been put into this story. On the one hand, I will fully admit that I have no clue how comic book writing works, how a script is written or how long it takes Slott to write every issue, or how many hands it goes through before being made complete. For major events, I’ve heard terms like “years in the making” and “planning a long time” thrown around, but for any arc in a single mag, I don’t know what all goes into every stage. But on the other hand, there are just moments here where you go “Really? That’s the best you could come up with? Bizarre dialogue and a plot twist with a fairly sizeable hole?” As a writer, I’ve had hundreds of moments where I’ve read something I just wrote and thought, “This could be better.” And then I change it. Despite my deep dislike for the initial concept behind Superior, I can’t deny that we also get some of Slott’s worst dialogue on the book, and even if the idea turned out better, his writing gets in the way of making it less painful.
But enough moaning. I’ve cleared out the dross. What gold lies beneath the poor wording and silly ideas? Read on to find out.