Friday, December 28, 2012

My So-Called Review: The Amazing Spider-Man #698 to #700

"...I think for years to come the shadow of Peter Parker is going to be draped over the book. There's nothing you can do about that. But new cast members will come in. Life goes on. Peter Parker fans will sort of fade away over the months and years, and you'll have a bunch of people who only know the new cast." --Marvel Senior Editor Steve Wacker from an interview with Comic Book Resources, December 14, 2012

So Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, is dead…again.1

And after 50 years of publication, the comic book series that bore his name has published its last issue…again.2

This time, Spider-Man didn’t perish at the hands of a vampire-like monster dressed in Victorian garb,3 or in one last battle with his arch-enemy, the Green Goblin. This time he was the victim of a diabolical "Freaky Friday," his mind transferred into the decrepit, terminal-ill body of his other arch-enemy, Doctor Octopus.  And having failed to get his body back, Peter died alone, hated and feared by the very loved ones he promised to protect--but not before teaching Doc Ock the value of human life and that “with great power comes great responsibility.”  Thus the reformed Doc Ock, now in Spider-Man’s body and having complete access to all of Peter’s memories, will live on pretending to be both the wall-crawler and Peter Parker, with none of Peter’s friends, family or loved ones being any the wiser in the new series, The Superior Spider-Man, part of the Marvel NOW! relaunch designed to attract new and dwindling readers.

Of course, if you Googled “Amazing Spider-Man #700” or “Superior Spider-Man” during the past two weeks, you may already know this.  Summaries of the Amazing Spider-Man #700 and even the entire issue itself leaked online, and the reaction towards this news, and towards it’s author, Dan Slott, is what you would expect.  Many outraged fans demanded to know “what the hell was Marvel thinking killing off it’s flagship character on his 50th Anniversary?”  Some have pledged never to pick up The Superior Spider-Man or any Marvel comic book ever again, unless Peter Parker returns.  A few have even crossed the line into the realm of the morally bankrupt and stupid by issuing death threats towards Slott on Twitter.  Others, however, have praised Slott for having the guts to do something so controversial and provocative to such a beloved comic book franchise and are eagerly waiting to see what weird events lie ahead.

Yet most of these reactions were visceral, not based upon reading the issue itself.  Slott and other spokespersons from Marvel advised that, to get the full effect, one needed to read the story in its proper context; those that did read the issue before its official release date were advised to remain silent and not ruin it for anyone else.  Both fair and reasonable requests.

So now that the issue has finally hit the stands to be properly judged on it’s own merits, what is my own humble assessment?  That so much about Amazing Spider-Man #700 is fundamentally wrong on almost every conceivable level, that to just describe it as “bullshit” isn’t only inadequate but far too kind.  Hell, by even talking about it, I’m probably giving this issue far more attention than it deserves.

Amazing Spider-Man #698, p. 18

I’m not saying this because I happen to be an unashamed Spider-Man “fanboy” who considers Peter Parker one of the greatest comic book superheroes of all time.  I’m also not saying this because Peter is supposedly dead and Doc Ock is now the new Spider-Man.  Like it or not, interesting stories could be derived from such a set-up. (Besides who really stays dead in superhero comics anyway, other than Uncle Ben or Gwen Stacy?)  Nor do I have anything against Dan Slott; he's proven time and again to be a very talented, clever comic book writer, and having personally debated with him online, his love for all things Spider-Man is irrefutable.  If anything, the "final" issue of Amazing Spider-Man may be further proof that Slott is in a creative slump and has been ever since the conclusion of last year's Spider-Man epic, "Spider-Island."4 Hey, it happens to the best of us.

Even in the case of Amazing Spider-Man #700 and the overall story,“Dying Wish,” it’s clear what Slott’s attempting to show: that Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus are two sides of the same coin, and how, under the right circumstances, they could’ve have been just like the other--literally in this case.  That being a hero doesn’t just mean punching bad guys and protecting people; it also means doing the right thing when everyone else is against you, to forgive your enemies and reform them even if you feel they don’t deserve it.  And to some degree, Peter did die as he had lived: a misunderstood loner who kept to his promise to use his powers for the benefit of others instead of personal gain.  All this has the seeds of an emotionally compelling and dramatic story--if only Slott hadn’t botched it's execution.  And the story's problems begin not in Amazing Spider-Man #700, but in the two issues before it. (Although the way Slott builds towards the surprise ending in Amazing Spider-Man #698 is extremely well done; considering how "Dying Wish" ends, one could probably just read that issue alone and save the extra $12 by skipping the next two issues if they so chose.)

In Amazing Spider-Man #699, Slott explains how Doc Ock learned Spider-Man’s true identity and gain complete access to his mind every time Spidey used the same technology Doc Ock uses to mentally control his miniature octobots and mechanical arms, as seen in Amazing Spider-Man #600 and in “Spider-Island.”  Prior to his own capture in“Ends of the Earth”5, Doc Ock managed to create a gold octobot programmed to seek out Spidey and switch their minds via re-writing their brain patterns.  Now even those with a passing knowledge of Spider-Man knows all about his “spider-sense,” the precognitive ability that instinctively warns him of incoming danger.  So how does this gold octobot get around this and get the drop on Spidey to rewrite his mind?

Amazing Spider-Man #699, p. 9

Spidey just ignores his spider-sense.

That’s right--Doctor Octopus’s entire plan, his one last stab at revenge, completely hinges upon Spider-Man purposefully ignoring the very ability that helps to protect him from being taken by completely by surprise. 

“Now hold on,” says the continuity obsessed reader. “Spidey had to ignore his spider-sense because in the previous story, the Kingpin had devices built that overloaded Peter’s spider-sense to the point where he had such debilitating headaches, he could barely move.  He had no other choice but to use his martial arts training (yes, Spidey knows kung-fu now) to block out the pain.  Besides, it was just a coincidence the octobot got the drop on him, and coincidences happen in real life all the time.”

True, but Doc Ock wasn’t a part of the Kingpin’s plan.  Since he’s prison, Doc Ock couldn’t know this was happening to Peter at the time.  Unless he can see into the future, Doc Ock had no way of knowing at that precise moment Peter would be forced to ignore his own spider-sense.  After all, it’s not as if Doc Ock is unaware of Peter’s spider-sense considering how he essentially read Peter’s mind beforehand one than once.  Plus, how difficult would it have been to establish that Peter couldn’t sense the gold octobot because it contained a copy of Peter’s brain patterns and thus would not be regarded as a potential threat?  It certainly would’ve made more sense than the alternative. In any case, the entire basis for the story rests not upon a mere coincidence but an utter contrivance.

“Dying Wish” is also illustrates what is popularly known as “the idiot plot.”  Because it order for this story to advance toward it’s desired conclusion, almost every character--particularly Spidey himself--is forced to toss aside all logic and common sense because “the plot says so.”

For example, in Amazing Spider-Man #698, Peter, upon first finding out he’s in Doc Ock’s body, utters the words "Peter Parker" and nothing more.  This is assumed by the Avengers that “Doc Ock” has somehow learned Peter is Spider-Man and wishes to see him before he dies.  Thus the Avengers wait for “Spider-Man” to show up at the very same prison “Doc Ock” is being held at for presumably several hours.  Keep in mind that Peter, despite his weakened state, is perfectly capable of speaking in complete sentences, and that Doc Ock has been running around as both Peter and Spider-Man for all that time. 

Peter has yet another opportunity during Amazing Spider-Man #699 when he gains mental control over the very same gold octobot responsible for the mind-swap.  And even though Peter actually considers going to the Avengers for help, he opts instead to run a fail-safe program in the octobot that offers a $6 million dollar reward for any super-villain to break “Doc Ock” out of prison.  Why?  Because Peter thinks the Avengers would find his situation “too unbelievable.”  Never mind that the Avengers have members like Captain America and Thor who have dealt with nefarious schemes involving mind-swapping in the past, or that they have heroes like the Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange, and the super-genius leader of the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards, on speed dial.

Finally Peter, along with the super-villains who helped to break him out of prison, eventually heads to the Avengers Tower, believing that’s where Doc Ock is holding all of Peter’s family and friends.  And wouldn’t you know it? the Avengers aren’t there, having been sent by Doc Ock on a world-wide goose chase after a bunch of re-activated giant octobots.  Then again, Doc Ock needn’t have bothered since, according to Spidey’s own reasoning, the Avengers wouldn't have believed him anyway.

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 18
In fact at no time does any part of Peter’s plan to get his body back involve telling anyone close to him what‘s really happening.  The only time he does is the result of, yet again, mere contrivance--Spidey breaks into a police station along with his super-villain allies that just so happens to have the very same octobot he needs to switch his mind back in his body, where he's just so happens to be confronted by his CSI ex-girlfriend, Carlie Cooper, threatening him at gunpoint.  And, of course, she just so happens to not believe him when he tries to tell her the truth.

(And by the way, Peter, while your attempt to convince Carlie that you're the real Spider-Man by reminding her only she and Mary Jane know your secret identity was a good effort, you know what would’ve worked even better?  How about telling her she has a “Spidey tattoo” on the inside of her right hip, the one she got way back in Amazing Spider-Man #659 and 660?  Considering how intimate the two of you were, revealing such a personal detail about Carlie could’ve been pretty convincing, don’t you think?  Oh, but that’s right, you couldn’t do this because the plot said so.)

As for the other supporting characters and villains acting clueless during the story, perhaps some leeway could be given, considering this does involve swapping bodies, particularly towards J. Jonah Jameson since he has a history of being obtuse whenever Spider-Man's involved.  To his credit, Slott does have a few characters remark on how “Spidey” and “Doc Ock” aren't acting like themselves.  Then again, it’s not all that difficult for them to see this considering how Spidey and Doc Ock make almost no effort at acting anything like the person whose body they inhabit.  By the time things escalate to the point where “Spidey” literally punches the Scorpion’s jaw off, shoots impact webbing at his own “friends” and is about to kill “Doc Ock” by smashing a car on top of him, one doesn’t need the keen observational powers of Sherlock Holmes to see something is seriously amiss.  And yet everyone simply brushes all this aside and never seriously question why “Spidey“ and “Doc Ock“ are acting the way they are. 

One character who I cannot give leeway towards to, however, is Peter’s long time love interest (and prior to "One More Day", his wife) Mary Jane Watson.  As this issue reminds us, she has known Peter is Spider-Man almost since day one and should be the one person who should know Peter better than anyone else save God.  True, at the start of Amazing Spider-Man #700, MJ may suspect “Peter” might be an imposter (Or at least, I think that’s what Slott is suggesting when she pretends to come onto “Peter” and rips open his shirt, only to see that he is, in fact, wearing his Spider-Man costume underneath.  The way it’s written, it might as well be MJ be disappointed “Peter” is still Spider-Man it’s that unclear.) and even demands “Peter” to explain what's wrong with him.  And yet even she winds up falling for Doc Ock’s deception.

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 28
In the issue’s most egregious scene, MJ, believing that “Peter” is worried about the upcoming battle with “Doc Ock,” attempts to offer her support for him like she usually does.  “Peter,” apparently a firm practitioner of the "girls really want jerks" approach to romance, rudely blows her off, telling her that she’s useless and nothing but “the plucky best friend with the one motivational speech.”  Only instead of slapping “Peter” across the face like any self-respecting woman would do, she instead declares her undying love for “Peter” and the two of them “get back together” with a passionate kiss. It’s bad enough that Doc Ock throughout “Dying Wish” has been taking advantage of MJ’s love for Peter to try and have sex with her, but for him to successfully seduce MJ like this is pretty sickening.  

Granted, no intercourse has taken place between them as of yet, but the possibility that MJ is in danger of becoming a victim of rape by deception is the Sword of Damocles looming over the new status quo.  Because anyone with any ounce of common sense knows that if MJ knew “Peter“ was really Doc Ock, she wouldn’t reciprocate any of his advances towards her, let alone be anywhere in the same room as him.  For someone who even Slott has insisted is “the most important person in Spider-Man’s life,” this is a huge disservice to her character and towards fans of her and Peter’s relationship. 

This also echoes a controversial subplot by Fred Van Lente from three years ago6, where the Chameleon, also disguised as Peter, made advances on Peter’s then roommate, Michele Gonzeles, which resulted in what appeared to be them about to engage in sex on their kitchen floor (though Marvel clarified they were just “swapping spit.”)  Now with “Spider-Man” and Mary Jane's “new-found romance,” Marvel’s on the verge of venturing into the same treacherous waters, only a thousand times more turbulent and destructive.  And DC and Marvel wonder why they still have trouble courting female readers.

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 42
The one character who doesn’t seem to have his intellect affected in any way is, of course, Doc Ock himself.  Although "Dying Wish" wants you to believe that Spidey and Doc Ock are intellectual equals engaged in a battle of wits, it's Doc Ock who is given every possible advantage to succeed, always presented being one-step ahead of Peter, outsmarting him at every scene, and always having a ready-made contingency plan that literally seems to come from nowhere.  He’s even a better web-slinger than Peter when he creates a giant stuntman-like airbag out of webbing to cushion his and Peter‘s fall from several stories, to which Spidey even wonders why he never thought of doing something like that before.  

Compare this to Peter, who becomes so desperate to stop Doc Ock he abandons his vow of using not resorting to attempted murder, resigned to the idea that his life as Spider-Man is over no matter what the outcome.  By the time Peter tries to use the gold octobot to get his body back only to learn Doc Ock has conveniently protected the back of his skull with armor plating hidden underneath the Spidey mask, it’s excessive salt poured into an already festering wound.  The message is obvious: Doc Ock not only thinks he’s a better Spider-Man than Peter, he actually is one. 

Furthermore, one cannot help but conclude that Slott identifies more with Doc Ock in this story than the titular character of the comic he’s been writing for.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, consider the following quote Slott gave to USA Today:

"Doc is kinda like me: He's short and schlubby. This is a guy who now gets to be in the body of Peter Parker. This opens up whole new things."
Now there's nothing wrong with identifying oneself with a fictional character; readers, as well as writers, do this all the time.  Also, every character in a fictional work contains some element of the author in them.  Unfortunately, identifying with a character too much runs the risk of having those characters labeled as “Mary Sues."  Based on how “Dying Wish” has played out, Doc Ock as the new Spider-Man is already dangerously close to becoming just that.  I also find it particularly odd that Slott would identify more with Doc Ock than the titular character he's been writing about for the past five years.

As for Peter's demise, comparisons to Brain Michael Bendis’ “The Death of Spider-Man” in Ultimate Spider-Man are unavoidable.  In that story, Peter, even though wounded and with his secret identity exposed, nevertheless stands up to the Green Goblin and protects the people he loves with every last breath, refusing to even entertain the possibility that all is lost.  In the end, he is properly mourned, having made peace with himself and made amends for failing to save his Uncle Ben, and is finally recognized as the genuine hero we readers always knew him to be.  

By contrast to Amazing Spider-Man #700, one cannot help but think that Peter goes out like a complete chump.  Yes, the issue tries to make the point that Peter, his surrogate body utterly broken, has exhausted all other options and has no cards left to play, except he's been dealt a loaded deck from the start.  Moreover, when one thinks of the oft repeated scene of Spider-Man trapped underneath tons of debris, using all of his strength and will to free himself, knowing he has people who depend and count upon him, it doesn't ring true this same person would just abandon all hope and quit as he does here.  The only reason why he even has one last card to play is due to a deus ex machina rather than by anything of his own merit.

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 49
This occurs when Peter's life literally starts to flash before his eyes, and that because the gold octobot is establishing a wi-fi link between their minds, Doc Ock begins to experience Peter's memories as if he himself had lived them.  From this scene, we're supposed to understand that because Doc Ock has now essentially lived and felt Peter's life within a matter of seconds that he has somehow seen the error of his ways.  We’re supposed to take away from these issue’s final pages that Doc Ock, having been forgiven for his actions by his mortal enemy, will now follow in that enemy's footsteps on a path of personal redemption.  And it all rings hollow.  For even though Doc Ock promises he will carry on Peter’s legacy, to no longer be a villain and to protect the people Peter loves, he isn't so much motivated by the words of “with great power comes great responsibility” bur rather spite, envy, and self-loathing, fueled by a desire to outperform the late Peter Parker in every respect.  

Nor, as we see in the follow-up to this story, Avenging Spider-Man #15.1, does Doc Ock express any sense of remorse or regret over having been responsible for Peter’s death--he actually laughs in triumph over having finally defeated him.  It’s also rather telling that someone who is supposed to have learned the value of human life and the virtues of heroism makes no effort to try to save the person who taught him those lessons.  Moreover, this new Spider-Man will continue to use and manipulate every one of Peter’s friends, family and loved ones as they remain oblivious to the person they really cared about is no more.  Some "hero" this is shaping up to be.

This also raises the question as to why Peter would be so willing to forgive and trust Doc Ock merely because he played for him his own “greatest hits?”  After all, Peter never forgave the Green Goblin for killing Gwen Stacy and the Lizard for eating his own son; yet here, he’s willing to let bygones be bygones to someone who, in shown his previous appearance, threatened every man, woman and child on the face of the Earth, who wanted to go down as “the greatest mass murderer of all time.”  Furthermore, why would an egotistical megalomanic like Doc Ock,
prior to his eventual "conversion," even want to take over the body of Spider-Man, much less pretend to be him?  Even if it was to save his own life, wouldn’t he find the act of essentially becoming both Peter and Spider-Man degrading, especially since everything he would be doing as both Peter and Spider-Man would be giving them “credit” for his own accomplishments?  Considering how Amazing Spider-Man #699 reveals one of Doc Ock’s contingency plans was creating “robotic duplicates” one has to wonder why (other than because the plot said so) didn’t he just transplant his mind into one of those instead and save us the trouble.         

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 12
Is there anything at all to like about “Dying Wish” and Amazing Spider-Man #700?  As a matter of fact, yes.  While artist Humberto Ramos is an acquired taste, this is, in my opinion, some of his best work, and that even though the character design choices are sketchy, the way he depicts the action sequences and panel layouts is comprehensible and fluid.  Every scene Slott writes with J. Jonah Jameson is also pure gold, with his standing up to the Scorpion being the high point, reminding readers that, for all of his bluster, he cares enough to lay his life on the line for his family.  I also particularly liked the ironic role-reversal in that Jonah finally recognizes "Spider-Man" as a hero, unaware that he is now championing Doc Ock who, hours earlier, Jonah had branded a failure and a loser.  Finally, Peter’s momentary out-of-body experience where he encounters all the people who have died over the course of the series, including his parents and Gwen Stacy (although I find it rather dubious that the Rhino is also in Heaven) is touching, and Peter's obligatory reunion with Uncle Ben is quite poignant, already preparing the reader for Peter's adventures as Spider-Man to have a genuine sense of finality.

Contrary to how Marvel is promoting this issue and forthcoming Superior Spider-Man, I'm not operating under any illusions that Peter Parker will be gone for good.  Too many comics, movies, cartoons, video games and toys showing a Spider-Man who is still Peter Parker suggest otherwise, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the comics have Peter make a “triumphant and miraculous” return just in time for 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2.  Also, I don’t see how a status quo such as this could be in any way sustainable.  During the Clone Saga of the 1990s, Marvel was forced to explain to confused readers who “Ben Reilly” was, how he was really the real Peter and that the Peter they followed for so many years was really a clone.  Here, we'll be  having a series staring a character who looks like Peter, has the same memories as Peter, who everyone believes is Peter, but who is in fact not Peter but Doc Ock.  Once again, Marvel faces the undoubting task of having to constantly explain what happened--why Doc Ock is now Spider-Man, how he got into Peter’s body, why he’s a good guy and what happened to the real Spider-Man--instead of moving forward.

Can a new Spider-Man series in which the protagonist is one of his villains who killed the original be successful?  As I said earlier, the concept behind Superior Spider-Man allows for some interesting stories.  Also Doctor Octopus is a great villain and, in my opinion, a much more fitting arch-nemesis for Spider-Man than Norman Osborn. However, the qualities that make Doc Ock a great villain also don’t necessarily make him into a potentially great hero, much less a "Superior" Spider-Man. There's a reason fans have identified and rooted for Peter Parker these 50 years.  Aside from being a superhero, Peter had to make ends meet, pay to bills on time, take care of his family, search for love and friendship--all the things we regular people have to deal with everyday. We saw Peter as one of us. 

Amazing Spider-Man #700, p. 51
Doc Ock, however, is an arrogant, petulant mad scientist who we can't wait to see his ass get beat so we can relish in his defeat. When bad things happen to him, we don't laugh with him and share his occasional misfortune like we do with Peter; we laugh at him because he deserves to lose and be humiliated for what he brought upon himself. To make such a character the "hero" of the story doesn't just mean you have to somehow turn a guy you loved to hate into object of pity, you also have to diminish all the qualities that made him such a great villain in the first place.

Regardless of our own personal feelings, however, we must except that what is done is done.  This is Dan Slott’s turn at the helm, and Marvel has put a lot of faith in him to tell this provocative spin on their flagship character.  And yet, no matter how hard I try to be rational and soothe the comic book "fanboy" within me, I cannot help but be reminded of how my first ever comic book was an issue of Spider-Man.  How Spider-Man was the first costume I wore for Halloween--not a store-bought knock-off, mind you, but handmade by my mom.  How I collected the Spider-Man newspaper strips to make my own “comic books,” or how I drew my own Spider-Man action figures.  How I used to wake up early every Saturday morning to watch “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” or reruns of the Nicolas Hammond made-for-TV movies.  How I followed his adventures through the Black Costume Saga to "Kraven’s Last Hunt," from robotic parents to crazy clones, and from wedded bliss to an annulment made via a Faustian pact, through the good and the bad.  Very bad, at times, but mostly very, very good.

Yes, my rational side reminds me that nothing's set in stone as far as comics are concerned, that Peter Parker is too big of a character to stay gone forever and fade away into obscurity.  That Marvel knows exactly what they are doing.  Even so, the “fanboy” in me cannot help but think, “Spider-Man deserved so much better.  And so did his fans.”

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In an earlier draft of this article regarding Dan Slott's identification with Doctor Octopus, I made what could be interpreted as a disparaging remark which wasn't my intention. This, having been brought to my attention and pointed out how this made me sound like a jerk, I've decided to edit out the comment upon careful reflection. Apologies to Mr. Slott in advance.
Avenging Spider-Man #15.1, p. 2

1 If you're curious, offers quite an impressive list of all the times Spider-Man has died in both mainstream and alternate timelines.
Yes, Marvel officially "cancelled" Amazing Spider-Man in 1998 with issue #441 as part of it's "Final Chapter" story, only to relaunch the title with a new first issue about a month later.
As seen in "Spider-Man: The Other"
Amazing Spider-Man #666 to #673
Amazing Spider-Man #682 to 687
Amazing Spider-Man #602 to 604