Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The "Vile" Peter Parker Vs. The "Virtuous" Otto Octavius (Superior Spider-Man #9)

Even before the series debuted, Dan Slott’s The Superior Spider-Man has been rife with controversy.  How could it not be, considering that the premise involves Peter Parker being dead and his body taken over by his archenemy, Otto Octavius, aka Doctor Octopus?  Some readers have given Superior Spider-Man overwhelming praise, saying this is the most interesting Spider-Man has been in years, and enjoying the constant roller-coaster of a supposedly reformed super-villain playing the part of a supposed hero.  Others have decried the series as being a betrayal of Spider-Man’s legacy, saying that Dan Slott is ruining one of the greatest comic book superheroes of all time.  But regardless how one may feel about Superior Spider-Man, no one can deny that, at the moment, it’s proving to be one of Marvel’s most popular titles, proof positive that controversy does indeed sell.

Last week’s Superior Spider-Man #9 is par for the course in maintaining and promoting that controversy; even the very solicitation of the tile promised readers that after reading this issue, they would be even “angrier” than they were after reading Amazing Spider-Man #700.  Maybe that’s because the outcomes of both stories are almost the same: Peter fights Doc Ock to get his body back, and Doc Ock defeats and kills Peter Parker.  The difference is that this time, Peter and Doc Ock’s battle literally occurs within each others minds, and the Peter who dies this time around is “Ghost Peter,” the remnants of Peter Parker that still resided in his body who could only float around and watch (and be very annoying in the process) how Doc Ock was screwing up his life and reputation.  

To be brutally honest--Peter losing to Doc Ock yet again shouldn’t have come to a surprise to anyone.  Not only are there subplots still in place that are dependent upon Doc Ock pretending Spider-Man, but Marvel’s own promotional material and solicitations for future issues didn’t exactly obscure the fact that Doc Ock was still in the driver’s seat.  To those who are upset over the fact that Peter Parker was killed yet again and, if you believe the hype from Marvel, is never coming back (despite comics being a medium notorious for bringing characters back from the dead), then with all due respect your anger is misplaced, although perfectly understandable.  Rather, if you want to get upset about this issue, then I recommend focusing it on how Peter was portrayed in his supposedly "for real" last moments.

To understand what I mean, you have to go back an issue earlier to Superior Spider-Man #8.  In that issue, Doc Ock learns about an “anomaly” in his brain patterns which, readers know to be Ghost Peter.  However, to get more conclusive results, Doc Ock has to retrieve his "neurolitic scanner," which had been stolen by the doctor-turned-vigilante Cardiac in order to operate on a little girl with brain damage.  Doc Ock is able to track down and break into his secret underground medical care facility, where we then get the following scene:

Superior Spider-Man #8, p. 14
It's then explained to Otto that the little girl’s condition is a result of what Otto did during last years Spider-Man event, "Ends of the Earth," (Amazing Spider-Man #682 - 687) in which he blackmailed the world by demonstrating he had the technology to increase global temperatures.  Faced with the consequences of his own actions, Doc Ock declares that he has to make things right, thus decides not only will he help to map the girl’s brain patterns, but that he, much to the objection of the medical staff, perform the operation himself:

Superior Spider-Man #8 p.17

The surgery goes off without a hitch, Doc Ock is congratulated by Cardiac and the little girl, and Doc Ock, perhaps for the first time in his life, feels proud to be a hero and that he has finally found the greatness he has always longed for…and then he uses the scanner to discover Ghost Peter and proceeds to erase him (one step forward, two steps back.)

Which leads us right into Superior Spider-Man #9, in which both Peter and Doc Ock essentially have a “winner take all” battle literally within their own minds.  And for most of the comic, it’s absolutely spectacular.  The gorgeous and stellar imagery by artist Ryan Stegman; Peter summoning mental projections of his loved ones past and present, while Doc Ock counters with projections of all of Spidey’s rogues gallery; the clever usage of in-jokes from past Spider-Man history; the philosophical debate over what defines a hero; the despair Peter feels as his memories are wiped away as each manifestation of his supporting cast is “slain” before his eyes, including Uncle Ben--and his failure to even recall their name--all of it is shaping to be the best issue of Superior Spider-Man Dan Slott has penned to date.

And then, this happens:

Superior Spider-Man #9, p.18

That’s right--Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel's flagship character and the guy we've been told for 50+ years is "the hero who could be you," admitted that he was so desperate and afraid of Doc Ock, that he was willing to risk the life of an brain-damaged, helpless and innocent little girl just to save his own skin.

Now some of you will be quick to point out that, technically, this is not the real Peter Parker.  At the beginning of the issue, Doc Ock observes that “Ghost Peter” is really just Peter’s memories that Doc Ock decided to keep in order to reference and better pull off his deception, and that somehow, these memories have gained self-awareness and thus only think they are the real Peter.  Which also blunts some of the earlier criticism that Slott brought Peter back too soon after his death.  Unfortunately, Doc Ock also states in this issue that the nature of “Ghost Peter” proves that people “really are the sum of their experiences,” which means that even though “Ghost Peter” is, for lack of a better phrase, another Spider-Man clone, he might as well be Peter Parker.  Thus the implication is that everything “Ghost Peter” did is what the real Peter Parker would’ve done.   

Also, it’s evident that Doc Ock is exploiting Peter’s tendency to blame and doubt himself as a means of bullying him into submission.  His chastisement of Peter isn’t just throwing stones in a glass house--it’s an avalanche of giant boulders plowing through a glass suburb.  After all, it’s not as if Doc Ock was the only person who could’ve performed the operation, especially since Cardiac (who is a licensed doctor) is also in the operating room.  Not to mention that the little girl was only hospitalized to begin with because of Doc Ock, nor did Doc Ock consider the little girl’s safety and welfare when he was initially so hell-bent on getting back his scanner. (Come to think of it, when has Doc Ock ever cared about the safety and welfare of children before Superior Spider-Man?)

Superior Spider-Man #9, p. 16
Furthermore, the scene is also attempting to remind us that Peter, as a character, is someone who, despite all the good he does, is still capable of making mistakes that result in unintended consequences.  After all, Peter does try to defend himself by saying he never would’ve really allowed the girl to come to harm before Doc Ock cuts him off.   In interviews following this issue, Dan Slott and editor, Steve Wacker, remind us that “There are plenty of examples over 700+ issues where his behavior was less than exemplary,” and that just because Peter learned that “with great power comes great responsibility” when his Uncle Ben was killed, it “didn't magically baptize him and make him flawless.”  We've seen over the years, many times,” Slott says “that when Peter Parker really wants to do the wrong thing; he has that moment, and then he shuts it down.”
But are we expected to believe that this also means that Peter, after all his years as Spider-Man, would be the kind of person who, when his back is up against the wall, be capable of, let alone even think about, risking the life a child if it meant saving himself?  The answer, according to this issue and its creators, is an unequivocal yes.

Also, in this particular instance, this wasn’t just an instance of Peter “having a moment” and then “shutting it down;” the page from issue #8 coupled with the one from issue #9 shows that Peter was actually in the process of doing the wrong thing and that it was Doc Ock shutting him down through his sheer force of will.  The intention may have tried to convey that Peter is an imperfect human being who had a moment of weakness, but it also winds up saying that, deep down, Peter is a morally weak, self-righteous hypocrite--which is exactly what Doc Ock accuses Peter of being.

Understand, I’m not advocating, nor do I expect, Peter Parker to always be exemplary or not make stupid decisions.  Part of his appeal and popularity comes from the fact that he, just like the rest of us, is an imperfect human being who tries, and sometimes fails, to do the right thing.  After all, as Slott points out, Peter, as a teenager, “let that burglar run by, he could have done anything to stop him and he didn't” and thought about using his powers to punch Flash Thompson, or consider doing nothing when Flash was in danger.  And that’s just it--he was a teenager, someone who didn’t know any better, who was still learning that the world didn’t revolve around him.  To still characterize Peter as someone who, as an adult, is still that self-absorbed and that willing to put his own welfare ahead of others makes him someone who hasn’t learned a damn thing since his uncle got shot.

So although the issue is supposed to make us feel sorry for Peter, it inadvertently winds up doing the exact opposite.  It makes the superhero no better than the super-villain--which is absurd on it’s face considering that Doc Ock has often endangered countless lives, including a deliberate attempt at killing billions of people just to prove that he could.

Superior Spider-Man #9, p. 17
Then again, given how various writers have depicted Peter in recent years, should we be at all surprised?  In his review of Spider-Man: One More Day, Lewis Lovhaug (aka Linkara) made the astute observation that, for all his “great power and responsibility,” Peter Parker is actually the most self-centered, irresponsible human being on the planet precisely because of the writers’ insistence on making Peter repeatedly make the same mistakes over and over, and giving him the same outlook on life that he had back in high school in spite of decades of stories showing him as an fully-grown adult.  Likewise, Colin Smith, in his very excellent essay comparing Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original run on The Amazing Spider-Man with Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man, goes as far as to suggest that “Making the adolescent Peter Parker the adult Peter and giving him most if not all the same qualities while placing him in comparable situations to his youth” goes against what the original creators had always intended.  Even comic book writer/artist John Byrne has been ranting about the problems of a "grown-up" Spider-Man for years on his own forums. Well, if the death of “Ghost Peter” results in Peter’s depiction as an emotionally-stunted man-child being forever expunged, then I say “hip hip hooray!” 

And there's another potential silver lining.  During their battle, Doc Ock claims that Peter is unworthy to be Spider-Man because Peter is willing to show mercy towards his enemies, and that doing so puts more lives in danger and makes him just as guilty of murdering innocent lives as the murderers themselves.  The irony is that Doc Ock fails to see that he is the beneficiary of that very mercy.  It was Peter who choose to rescue Doc Ock from drowning in the Ends of the Earth.  It was Peter who, in the last moments of his life, tried to instill in Doc Ock the value of “power and responsibility” in trying to change him for the better.  Even in this issue, Peter tries to give Doc Ock another chance to prove that he has changed for the better.  And yet Doc Ock not only refuses to give that same “quality of mercy” not only on Peter’s enemies, but also on the man who was willing to give him a second chance in the first place.

Likewise, this is another instance which the hero falls while the villain appears to triumph, with nothing to stand in their way, only for the hero to miraculously return and glorious triumph in the end.  Doc Ock may have succeeded in killing Peter yet again but at the cost of having Peter’s memories to fall back on.  Not only does this make Doc Ock’s task of pretending to be Peter and Spider-Man that much harder, but he has also removed the closest thing he had to having a conscience.  After all, it was those very memories that started to change Otto for the better.  Without them acting as a guide, he may have unknowingly sabotaged his own journey in finding redemption just as it was about to begin.  More and more, the Superior Spider-Man is shaping up to be a series in which both Peter Parker and Otto Octavius are deconstructed then rebuilt as characters to examining what really makes Spider-Man Spider-Man.

It's just a shame Peter wound up looking like "the bad guy" in order to get there.

Superior Spider-Man #9, p. 19