7 Jan 2013

Thought Balloon: A Superior Spider-Man; With Great Potential And Controversy Comes Great Risk And Responsibility

Stewart R: Christmas 2012 marked the end of the Amazing Spider-Man comic book series which had been running for 50 years.  This coming Wednesday, the Superior Spider-Man series hits the shelves of local comic book stores around the globe.  The ending of the former series and the creation and reasons for the production of the latter have set various corners of the internet abuzz with hot debate.  The main storyline running through Amazing Spider-Man #698 to #700 will probably keep many a fan conversing on the repercussions and their personal grievances or reservations for months to come. But is all of the debate, controversy and upset that has been caused all a little unnecessary? Well - and there are going to be spoilers of those mentioned issues throughout this article - let’s just go over the facts and see where the land lies...

Peter Parker, outcast teenager in 1960s America, excelling when it came to his education yet struggling through his social time in high school is constantly bullied, put down, ostracized for being smart. He’s then bitten by a radioactive spider and his life changes forever.  Following heartbreaking and fatal trials of character he becomes a superhero. While imbued with great strength it is more often or not his intelligence or even his belief in doing the right thing that sees him through against seemingly insurmountable odds. He grows as a man, learns that his social isolation through his teen years need not hang over his head any longer, discovers incredible love, true friends and camaraderie with similarly gifted vigilantes and heroes. He also loses people he trusts and loves and is forced to keep secrets from many who would confide in him. As the years move on he makes unbelievable sacrifices in order to hold himself true to his slain uncle’s brilliantly simple philosophy as well as protect those closest. He struggles financially and with any kind of career, whilst being hunted and pursued by lethal foes, bloodthirsty maniacs and local law enforcement thanks to his masked actions.  As a superhero he’s cast almost as the ‘little guy who constantly could’, as a person he’s cast as an aspirational figure who is the epitome of putting others first and constantly doing good.

He becomes a comic book legend and an incredibly popular character through some 50 years of fluctuating - yet consistently high - standards of writing.  We love Spider-Man, we love Peter Parker and bestow icon status upon them.

And now this man, this hero, is dead. His life ended through the treacherous actions of one of his oldest and most relentless of foes. A promising genius who had suffered from a troubled home life during his upbringing which eventually cost him his shot at true love and the life of his mother. Then, at his lowest point, a tragic accident involving his area of expertise and his greatest creation changed his life forever. Following this unique transformation and embittered by the disappointment of his life he turns to crime, unleashing his intellect upon several dozen nefarious, yet occasionally brilliant plans of revenge that threaten many innocent lives, smothering the potential within those very machinations’ to actually help those now endangered.  He’s foiled time and time again, suffering physical bludgeonings as well as bruises to his inflated ego.  As the years, losses and beatings mount up his body begins to fail irreversibly.  For far too long he’s only ever known how to hate others or see them as beneath him and his choices are now killing him. He has no friends, no comrades and only the vaguest of allies and affiliations. He remains on the run and isolated from the world that has shunned him countless times and that he reviles and wishes only to punish or alter in his own, twisted image.  His brilliance has only ever been used for evil, his struggles and monumental efforts only ever used to destroy. In one final lunge to gain a dramatic victory over his greatest foe and ensure his survival, Otto Octavius, the infamous Doc Ock strikes out and takes literally everything that Spider-Man holds dear and in doing so learns everything about the man previously unseen and unknown to him behind the webbed mask.

And so here we all find ourselves, at a critical juncture for characters, title, writer, publisher and audience alike. The risks are quite worrying yet the potential is arguably huge. By taking such a direction with such a cherished and prominent property Marvel could see one of their larger reader bases gradually slip away for a multitude of reasons, yet at the same time it offers the opportunity to explore two prominent characters and a supporting cast in a creative way that hasn’t been done before. It’s brave, very brave indeed and it really does have the potential to be a success.

Peter may be gone, but the legacy of his life and hard work still persists.  As far as the surrounding Marvel Universe is concerned Peter is alive, Spider-Man is alive and Otto Octavius is dead.  Certainly Octavius has a deception to maintain, but he also has a life to learn more about and a future open to him with possibilities he seemingly never had before. Not only is he studying and making choices about the life he now has to fit into and the man he has stolen it from, but also about his own previous failures, shortcomings and wrong turns. In this new guise he now ostensibly has a clean slate from which to work and in assessing where both hero and villain failed to maximise their potential, he could, could move forward in a way that Peter is unlikely to have been able to (for a glimpse into that I recommend picking up Avenging Spider-Man #15.1).

Any sweeping behavioural changes from Peter would be unacceptable these days without proper explanation within the plotting and scripting and probably a long run up thanks to the weight of 50 years of back material and the experience that comes with such controversial decisions as 'Brand New Day'. With this new and unexpected status quo the actual concern for Otto has to be that he changes things too much, too soon causing others to possibly question why Peter is acting differently thereby threatening his cover. That should keep any alterations in that respect slight and measured in a very readable way.  Change, and hopefully growth, will happen gradually and the fun will be to see this unfold as Otto has to deal with the rather alien practise of maintaining friendships.  As for Spider-Man’s behaviour there’s a bit more leeway thanks to the separation of the mask and the anonymity of action that an alter ego provides. To this point in time Marvel seem to have been focussing on the fact that we’re getting a different Spider-Man and so I’m expecting his relationships with other heroes to be the crux of the new angle while the Peter/Otto dynamic will be more reflective of the past and the roads not taken.

Of course not everybody will enjoy reading about the stories of this familiar ‘life’ through the eyes of a villain trying to do right - the Thunderbolts comic vaguely trod this sort of line and didn’t always reach heady heights in terms of sales - or the consequences produced by actions of a man cast in a rather unenviable light throughout his history with the readership. The very idea of an odious individual revelling in the very worst of cruel victories over a true, honest hero and exploiting, even ruining everything that the hero has put his heart and soul into is probably enough to turn stomachs in some cases and has probably seen some say goodbye to the suggestion of picking up Superior Spider-Man comics. Having the protagonist, the very window through which we see the story progress, disliked by the readership is going to be an initial setback that even excellent writing may not be able to recover from, with or without the residual do-good muscle memory of Peter Parker in effect.

We’ve probably already seen the period of highest turbulence with some fans displaying their displeasure at Peter Parker’s role as a victim via reviews, blog posts, tweets and, in quite unacceptable fashion, even death threats to the architect of this shocking fictional scenario, the very talented Dan Slott. Those who have apparently taken such extreme offense to the course this plot has forged may have actually helped Marvel by providing additional publicity and stirring interest in what comes next thanks to their over-reaction, whereas simply walking away enmass in quiet disgust might have signalled the hitting of the reset button several months earlier than the publisher probably has pencilled into any emergency contingency plans.

In ending Amazing Spider-Man as a comic entity - some might say in heart as well as numbered series - and by starting afresh with the Superior Spider-Man it’s almost guaranteed that a small percentage of readers who were picking the comic up regularly for completion’s sake may walk away now. Fans who have picked up the regular exploits of Peter Parker and associated with the man perhaps more than the hero could feel that there’s now little here to keep them involved and with the unending Marvel NOW! bombardment of new comics there’s also a good chance that readers might have to make a choice between picking up Superior or another fresh $3.99 title on the shelves.

While I’m expecting the sales of Superior Spider-Man to be down compared to those of its predecessor I’m also anticipating the new title to be heralded as a critical success. There is simply no safe way to have this premise work; Slott has no middle line to walk down and keep his audience happy having put a despised villain in the place of a loved hero and with that risk I think will come the payoff. I’m sure he’ll be constantly reminding us that we’re witnessing a rogue gallery member playing hero in someone else’s actual shoes, getting it wrong, making us all scream out for one of Peter’s friends or Spider-Man’s allies to question what is going on.  I expect to be put through the emotional mill over the course of the next 6 months on a regular basis with some tense writing and that is the big part of the draw. If nothing drastic, dangerous or dramatic ever happened to Peter Parker through the course of 700 issues we’d never have reached that milestone in the first place. It’s when the boundaries have been pushed and the extreme ideas have been explored that some of the greatest Spider-Man stories have unfolded between the pages and had the audience gripped.

Dan Slott steered the life of Peter Parker in some interesting and enjoyable directions that actually felt right following years in a rather bleak wilderness of unhappiness for the character. It hasn’t been for everyone, but I have definitely enjoyed his reign as premier Spidey scribe so far.  When it’s come to the collection of enemies at his disposal it’s clear that he has his favourites and has been dedicated and concise in their development while honouring the history that has become his playground. There is no way that a writer of this talent, with a truly massive love for this character would go down this particular rabbit hole without something breathtakingly glorious to be found at the end of it and I’ve no doubt that he possesses the talent to make even this unsavoury premise work and work incredibly well.  There may have already been the odd seed sown through the last few issues of Amazing that will lead us back to a more recognisable protagonist at some unknown future date and that demonstrates the preparation and thought that has gone into this dramatic idea and its execution.

Have we honestly seen the end of the Peter Parker we know and love? I very much doubt it. What we can be sure of though is that Slott takes his job incredibly seriously and of all of the writers who have taken over such a cherished property - and being the massive Spider-Man fan that he is - he understands the power that he is wielding and the responsibility that he has to deliver the best damn stories he can. In the same way that we have to give Dan Slott a chance to make this work and see what he has planned, we probably should give Otto Octavius the chance to become the best that he can be in whatever time frame the Marvel bigwigs have allotted. If he fails as a hero, and if Slott fails with his writing, then and only then can the judgements properly be passed down!


Ian said...

Interesting reading Stewart and I'm curious to see where Slott (and Marvel are taking this). The thought that first occured to me about all this though, is, what is it about Spider-Man that leads Marvel into making such extreme changes? At a time when Marvel and all of it's writers go to such lengths to avoid using the word reboot why are they taking the extreme step of killing Peter Parker and ending his long running title only a few years after wiping his marriage from history and re-booting his recent personal history? Certainly no other mainstream marvel character has had such repeated attempts to completely change their character and history in such a way. Obviously change is a constant part of the Marvel U and characters, personalities, costumes and allegiances change all the time, it just seems that poor old Spidey is getting the worst of it. Why do they keep picking on him?!!

Stewart R said...

I had a similar discussion with someone last night Ian and I can only think that due to the constraint of keeping Peter Parker perpetually young - through 50 years he's probably only aged 10 years in continuity terms - and writing stories that encompass 700 issues of Amazing, nearly the same amount when combining the various Web of, Spectacular and singularly titled Spider-Man comics, plus 100+ issues of Ultimate (not a major influence but it'll have some impact creatively) there are only so many stories you can tell before repetition sets in.

Marvel are in a position where the 50 year old origin of the character is still so strong, and the legacy of the clashes with villains still talked about so much that the errors they've made throughout the history of the character - The Clone Saga (loved by some, but hated by some as well) and One More/Brand New Day - must still run deep and linger in their minds. The greatest enemy to the comic and the character though has to be stangnancy. You have a character who, aside from jaunts out with the Avengers or Fantastic Four is pretty much limited to New York, to the familiar faces of his friends, co-workers and foes. If Peter was meeting new people every issue the fans would be crying out over a lack of cohesion. Introduce no changes and keeping everything familiar could see fans leaking away through boredom. It's very nearly developed into a no-win situation creatively.

And so trapped within this translucent bubble the writers have to try and spin invention within the limits that they are presented with - a somewhat inflexible history, a somewhat inflexible die-hard fanbase, a fixed locale, a recognisable 'modern' timeframe and a comic book reading world where it becomes harder to create villains to fight these iconic heroes.

Ian said...

Interesting point Stewart, I admit I hadn't really thought of it in that way - obviously it would be easier to keep the teams (X-Men, Avengers, FF etc) fresh by bringing in new members and that option is not available to individual characters. Although I suppose there is s alot that acn be done by tinkering with the supporting cast. But I still think that, in comparison with say The Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil even Cap who has also been killed, the changes made to Spider-Man's status quo are much more extreme and annoying to long-term fans.

Stewart R said...

Good point Ian. Somebody mentioned that Peter Parker is essentially a teenage character and I think this may be where it stems from. Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock; they're all adults when we're introduced to them and so their 'roles' and personalities are reasonably set and so any sweeping changes to these characters could possibly wipe away who we know them to be. Peter was a teenager and went through all of the problems and growth that comes with being that age. The problem is that perhaps Marvel and the various writers have found it hard to have Peter solidify into that adult role, tending to lead with him being a superhero first and an adult with a normal but undefined life second. There's also the argument that those other heroes have normal lives (or in the case of Banner perhaps not) that don't feature so prominently in the events of the comic when compared to Spider-Man?