Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Megalomanical Spider-Man

In 2002, Marvel gave indie comic icon Peter Bagge (Hate) a one-shot issue, outside of normal continuity, to poke subversive fun at their flagship character, imagining everybody's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man as an angry misanthrope, out to cash in on his fame. It was a funny tweaking of the Spidey story, the kind of "What If?" that can only occur off to the side of the carefully shepherded status quo.

Companies like Marvel and DC are always mindful not to alter their core characters too much as so much rides on their ready familiarity. In comics - mainstream superhero comics, at least - creativity must always be juggled with the overriding directive to protect the brand.

That push and pull of art and commerce makes the never-ending tapestry of superhero narratives irksome to some and fascinating to others. As characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Batman, and Superman are forever denied a definitive end to their stories, there has to be the illusion of change in order to maintain interest.

They'll get married, or be injured (seemingly permanently), or be killed (again, seemingly permanently), or something dire will happen to a key cast member (over at DC, for example, the latest Robin just perished), or gain a new costume (in Spider-Man's case, a costume he gained on a distant planet turned out to be a sentinent lifeform). But no matter how seismic the event might seem, fans know that in time it will somehow be reversed, or glossed over, or something.

This circling back to status quo (or a close proximity of it) is accepted as the only way these characters can have ongoing adventures for decades upon decades. They have to change but yet still stay evergreen.

In the pages of Superior Spider-Man, Marvel is currently telling perhaps the most fascinating example of this type of status quo upset yet seen in superhero comics. Under the pen of longtime Spidey scribe Dan Slott, Spider-Man's enduring arch-foe Doctor Octopus, found a souped-up scientific solution to the impending death of his withering body - he switched brainwaves with Spider-Man. In one wild stroke, Peter Parker found himself trapped in the dying body of his enemy while Doc Ock had a new lease on life in Peter Parker's body.

In Amazing Spider-Man #700, Ock prevented Peter from reclaiming his own body and let Peter pass away inside of Ock's dying shell. The saving grace was that, in a Hail Mary pass, Peter unleashed a last-gasp info dump into Ock - forcing the melgalomaniacal villain to experience the various life lessons that had made Peter into a hero.

A transformed Ock vowed not just to carry on Peter's legacy, but to find a way to be a better Spider-Man - a superior Spider-Man, hence the launch of Superior Spider-Man #1.

I loved the perversity of the concept from the start. The idea of putting Doc Ock, even a slightly less amoral one, in the driver's seat of Marvel's most beloved hero - their "everyman" character - seemed like wicked fun. And it has been. But five issues in, it's also been so much more than I expected. The thing with these status quo upsets is that they always seem very easy for future writers to wiggle out of, so their long term impact on the character is never much in question.

This, however, is trickier to resolve. Whenever Peter is able to return from the dead and wrest back control of his body, Slott has it set up so it won't be a simple matter of triumphantly popping back in.

At the end of ASM #700, Peter realized that in trying to kill Ock (desperate not to let his body be used for evil, and with only seconds left to live, he threw both himself and Ock out a skyscraper window in a death plunge) he crossed a line that he swore he never would and that, even if he got his body back, that he could never be Spider-Man again. So even if he physically returns, his life as Spider-Man is over.

The real masterstroke of what Slott's been up to, though, is that Ock's attempts at being a better hero (and even a better Peter Parker, one that's more attentive to his Aunt May) are not all bad. Far from it. In fact, it's hard to argue that he isn't the superior Spider-Man as he puts his brilliant scientific mind as well as his gift for meticulous planning towards being more efficient in guarding NYC than Peter ever was. The catch is that even while working towards goals that are beneficial to others, Ock's core nature can't help but seep through. He is working towards the greater good but this is someone who can't hold his ego in check and who doesn't doubt his right to implement any strategy as long as it produces the results he's looking for.

This is a man who has been a global threat in the past. What will he do in order to be the absolute best in the superhero set? Based on what's transpired so far - including the shocking events of SSM #5, it's enough to make any sensible Spidey foe surrender on the spot. And it seems like we've only seen the tip of the iceberg so far.

While Slott had been dutiful in tending to Spidey's legacy in his solo tenure on ASM, the kind of gentle caretaker that comic writers are expected to be - keeping the book and the character as intact as possible until it's time to pass the torch again - SSM has him in terrorist takeover mode. Not knowing what this Spider-Man (dubbed "SpOck" by some online fans) will do next or whether Ock will be redeemed or be further damned has made the character of Doc Ock (usually simply the target of fat jokes) more compelling than he ever has been - a gripping, impossible to pin, bundle of contradictions.

And it should be noted that he's funny, too. Not in the smart alecky way usually associated with Spidey but in his impatient condescension towards those he considers less than his equal (virtually everybody).

In recent years, we've become more comfortable with villains as protagonists. Maybe it's a growing embrace of moral relativism that lets us be ok with a character like, say, Dexter. Or maybe we just find it hard to dislike goal-orientated characters who are really good at what they do. Whatever the case, Slott has still done something remarkably subversive - he's not only had a villain kill a beloved hero and take over their life but in the process turned them into someone that we're able to root for.

It's that kind of audacity that makes Superior Spider-Man the best roller coaster in comics right now - a status quo change that might just stick (for awhile, at least) as well as its title character sticks to walls.


Nigel G Mitchell said...

I don't know...I haven't read this series, but I'm really upset at them taking the character in this direction. Like you said, we expect change, but not too much. This seems like too much. Eventually, Peter Parker will have to return, and this series seems it's burning a lot of bridges, making it impossible to go back to the way we Spiderman fans wanted the hero to be.

Jeff Allard said...

Nigel, it does sound like an idea too nutty and out-there to work but the way it plays out, I think it simply kicks ass. Also, it seems like such a given that Peter will be back at some point that it's easy (for me, at least) to just enjoy this crazy ride while it lasts.

knobgobbler said...

I'm not a huge fan of the superhero comics... and even less a fan of Spiderman... but as soon as I heard of the turnabout with Dr. Octopus I thought, "That sounds cool!"... maybe because I had a Dr. Octopus action figure as a kid... maybe because I'm rooting for the bad guy to be 'better'. Either way, I'm enjoying it.

Jeff Allard said...