The Superior Spider-Manalysis (pt. 2)
When we last left our intrepid writer, he was scouring the heart and soul of the comic known as Superior Spider-Man, scourge of Spidey fans the world over, nitpicking the fiendishly droll dialogue, the pathetically corrupted characters, and the flawed core concept. However, fear not, dear reader, lest you think complaining and whining be his signature style, for there is some good in the heart of this dragon. It need only be exposed to the sun.
Okay, with the over-the-top hyperbole out of the way, let’s dig into the dirt and see what actually grew from this story. What did Slott do right in the midst of so much wrong?
A quick remark before I delve into the details: overall, the series is fairly enjoyable. It’s not brilliant, it’s not the best written, it’s constructed on a ridiculous premise that makes reading it uncomfortable at times (back to the whole “dad who isn’t your dad” metaphor), but it has its moments. What makes for an awful concept does not, somewhat, reflect on the individual stories or issues themselves. At the core, yes, there's the irritation that Ock is Spidey, but even an awful book can have good chapters. Ultimately, here’s what I believe: if Slott had taken these good parts and added them to Peter Parker instead of Doc Ock (which he has sort of done, thankfully, in his more recent ASM issues), the series would have been great. When it’s good, it’s a fun read. But when the dialogue is dull, the characters are weird, and Doc Ock is a terrible Spidey…you beg for Peter to return. Or for another writer.
In his quest to become the “superior” Spider-Man, Ock, as I’ve said, changes himself quite a bit. As mentioned, he’s far more brutal to his adversaries and takes a harder stance on crime. In doing so, he tackles problems in ways Peter Parker never did and, though I’m a huge fan a how Ock’s more violent tendencies sully Spidey’s good name, he does some things Peter never did that are actually quite cool.
In being both Spidey and Peter Parker, Ock is a lot more tenacious. He builds an army of spider bots that patrol the city for him and keep an eye on crime, and say what you will about Big Brother, but there’s no denying it’s a much more effective system than simply patrolling the streets waiting for crime to happen. Now, I know how key Spidey’s patrols are, but the one thing that always bothered me was how he could go by any given street and—surprise!—someone’s getting mugged, or a bank or is being robbed, or the Rhino or Lizard are on the loose. Coincidences abounded, so having Ock devise a system that would alert him to crime instead of finding it by accident was a nice touch on Slott’s part. Likewise, Ock purposefully targets his enemies, whether it’s going after Massacre, destroying the Kingpin’s Shadowland base, or exposing Phil Urich as the Hobgoblin on live television. Again, Peter Parker Spidey would occasionally go after his foes, but he never took them down this completely. As Spidey, Ock completely ends Kingpin and Hobgoblin. I still don’t approve of Ock’s violent methods—Spidey doesn’t and should never kill anyone, for example—but his more direct approach is an interesting idea. And bringing down a building or exposing Phil isn’t terribly violent; it’s a more sinister approach, certainly, but it makes sense in the story. Bad guy has a large fortress? Bring it down. Bad guy hiding as a civvie? Expose him on live TV. Peter would just run and run and interrogate guys, but Ock’s approach is more direct and dramatic.
Thus, Slott enables this Spidey to be more of an adventurer. Maybe establishing a base on a former supervillain prison and hiring thugs to be part of his goon squad is a bit over the top, but Slott makes it clear this Spidey is trying new methods the previous “owner” hasn’t. And, as much as I hate the change in “ownership” over Spidey’s brain, Slott uses these methods well and makes it enjoyable to read.
The Peter side of Spidey also gets a facelift. While Peter had already began working as a scientist for Horizon Labs since the beginning of Slott’s run, Ock decides to take Peter’s genius even further, finishing his doctorate and starting up a company. It has since become, as I mentioned in the intro, too close to a Batman-style direction, but there was promise at the beginning. It made sense that someone as smart as Peter could use his talents further, and while I would have preferred Peter doing this on his own, I suppose the additional boost by Ock was the shot in the arm Peter needed to start achieving a higher standard of greatness. Overall, while the core concept is idiotic, some of the changes which happen aren’t all that bad and funnel into Slott’s post-Superior Spidey stories; with Peter back in the driver seat, these changes are even better.
One biographical footnote I once read on Slott called his knowledge of the Marvel Universe “encyclopedic.” His time on the book amply proves that. Perhaps Slott’s biggest strength is crafting conflict, and he does that well here, pulling from his own work and previous eras of stories to craft a world chock full of references to the past. One of the early arcs brings in Elias Wirtham, the vigilante from the 90s known as Cardiac, reintroducing him into the Spidey world as he tackles the hero. Another story brings in Stunner, a former girlfriend of Ock’s who now wants Spidey dead after Ock's "passing" (which is a fairly comic situation). Obscure villains like Jester and Screwball make appearances, a new Sinister Six debuts with classic foes such as Shocker and Boomerang and newer foes like Overdrive. The Avengers are also thrown in the mix from time to time, with Slott exploring how they deal with these newer, more brutal Spiderman (they do a pretty garbage job, actually).
What Slott manages to do really well is bring in elements (characters and plots) he introduced in his previous ASM issues, tying them up nicely here. The villain Massacre, whom he created several issues ago, comes back in brutal fashion to be taken down by Spidey. Alistair Smythe, the Spider Slayer, returns after getting a facelift from Slott, pitting him against this superior Spidey and ultimately dying. Aunt May injured her leg shortly before issue #700, so Slott has Ock fix that problem. He also made Phil Urich the Hobgoblin near the beginning of his ASM run, so he finishes that story by exposing Phil’s identity. Another nice reference is calling Spidey’s new base “Spider Island II,” a reference to the Spider Island story Slott did a few years before. Characters he didn’t necessarily create but played a lot with make appearances too—Carlie Cooper, Menace, the Lizard, the Jamesons, Mary Jane Watson—all adjusting to this new hero.
So while the transition from Peter to Ock is sudden and distasteful, at least the rest of the world is able to slide smoothly in. In that way, Slott creates a world both strange and familiar, foreign but fluid, which helps with the impact of this change. Story arcs are broadened, characters grow, plotlines are finished up nicely.
I’ll say it: the subplots are better than the main story. Heck, if you’d given me give me a book with only the secondary characters, I would’ve been happier.
Where would a comic book be without the art (it’d be called a novel)? Several artists have taken over the duties of drawing Spider-Man’s classic look and his star-studded cast; some (like John Romita Jr.) have done a better job than others, and some (like Terry Dodson) have captured his iconic costume perfectly, with the right amount of detail and texture. So where do the artists that Slott employs rank against these others? What do they bring to the book?
First up is Ryan Stegman, a newbie to Spider-Man and Slott. At first, knowing that Slott was bringing some artists he’d used on ASM already to the book, I was a little disappointed he was turning to new talent for his first issue. Gladly, I found out that Stegman is capable of holding his own. Stegman’s illustrations are definitely the most dramatic of the trio of artists Slott utilizes, with an emphasis on darker colors and details. There’s also a more realistic flair to his work, a nice proportion of body sizes (unlike some other artists; looking at you, Mike McKone) and a close attention to texture that stands out really nicely. Though he only worked on eight of the series’ 31 issues, he leaves a nice mark. It’s a new series, so having a new artist is a good idea to help cement it.
The second artist Slott turns to is Humberto Ramos, a collaborator Slott fans are definitely familiar with if they’ve read Slott’s previous work. Ramous does art for 11 of the issues, and it’s a lot of fun seeing an old face (or old art? old artist? eh, whatever) on the book. Ramos’ definitely brings a more cartoonish style to the book, one he’s kept since working on Spectacular Spider-Man in the early 2000s but also one that’s matured over the years. While cartoonish, Ramos’ art never strays into “Saturday morning cartoon” or “Looney Toons” levels of ridiculousness. For a book with this darker style, his art is pleasing to look at and packs in some nice details of its own. Heck, one might even argue that his more fun style almost heightens the book’s darker portions. While some might find it odd for his brighter colors and somewhat exaggerated style to be in a story this violent, I think it’s oddly appropriate that this more serious tale is told through the lens of Ramos’ work.
The third artist is Giuseppe Camuncoli, another artist Slott has collaborated with on ASM. While I would call myself a bigger Ramos fan than I am with this guy, Camuncoli has a way with action pieces. Maybe Stegman can pack in the details, and maybe Ramos is fun, but Camuncoli can craft fight scenes really well. His movements feel fluid, and he’s responsible for some of the biggest fights in the series, from Spidey vs. Alistair Smythe to the final showdown with the Green Goblin. And while all three artists have their own distinct styles, Camuncoli’s the only one that feels classic. Ramos and Stegman each make their art feel modern and new; with his character designs—especially in how he captures the Green Goblin—Camuncoli brings you back to the days of yore the way an artist like Tim Sale or John Romita Jr. would, bringing a classic style and feel to a modern comic.
So I’ve said my piece…and maybe I’ve made my peace as well. At the end of the day, Superior Spider-Man is like every other story: there’s good and there’s bad; there’s stuff to like and stuff to dislike; there are well-written moments and face palming moments; there’s great dialogue and horrible dialogue.
This will never be the greatest story I’ve ever read. It’s probably not even close to the greatest Spider-Man story I’ve read. Dan Slott is no Mark Millar or J. Michael Strackzynski or even late-90s/early-00s Jeph Loeb. And for all their great work, the artists fail to hit a depth created by artists like Terry Dodson and John Romita Jr. Stories like Straczynski’s run on ASM, Millar’s work on Marvel Knights or Civil War, and Loeb’s Spider-Man: Blue or even The Long Halloween have a level of quality, professionalism, and thought this tale fails to reach. You want some standard popcorn fare superheroics that comic fans love to devour? Read this tale. As a “comic,” it’s fun. You will be entertained. You’ll love the character designs, Ock’s war on crime, the return of fan-favorite characters, Slott’s deep reliance on mythos and his artists, and the resolution of some long-running story arcs. But if you’re looking for something you’ll want to read a multitude of times, or shelve next to classic Spidey stories like “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” or the Venom Saga or Ultimate Spider-Man, or suggest to long-time Spidey fans…go read Marvel Knights or Spider-Man: Blue or JMS’ run.
I don’t regret buying it, I don’t regret reading it. I knew I was going to, and I knew what I was getting into. Is it as awful as I thought it was going to be? Dumb, unnecessary premise aside, no. However, is it as good as I was hoping it would be? No again. Unfortunately, I just wish the inevitably of it all was a far more convincing reason—or that I even had a far more convincing reason—to put up with Otto Octavius in the driver’s seat for thirty-one issues.