If you have been following Marvel’s Secret Wars thus far, odds are good that you’ve heard that Peter Parker is about to sell out and go corporate, as Parker Industries becomes an international juggernaut. With Parker Industries likely being the biggest lasting result of Doctor Otto Octavius’s brief time as Spider-Man, it would be a mistake to not familiarize ourselves with the company’s not-so-humble beginnings. To that end, let’s return to the Superior Spider-Man saga, which, if you have read my other review, started off spectacularly. But did it keep its quality? More importantly, is it worth shelling out $34.99 for the hardcover?
This collection collects issues 6-16 of Superior, written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage, who also helped with 11-13. While it’s only 11 issues (collected in volumes 2 and 3, paperback), a lot gets done here, and it would probably be easier to break them down by their arcs:
Issues 6-10: Troubled Mind
This story starts off fairly light, as we encounter Screwball and Jester, two practical jokers whose ambush pranks go viral (and who steal the information from everyone who views their videos). They go too far when they prank Mayor J. Jonah Jameson, who summons Spider-Ock to take them down; Ock, having been bullied all of his life, agrees. However, he snaps and in rage almost beats these pranksters to death, which makes the Avengers intervene and try to figure out what’s gone wrong with him. All the while, the ghost of Peter Parker looms as he struggles to regain control of his body, which winds up leading to the fight we’d all been waiting since issue 1 for, as he and Ock duke it out in Peter’s mindscape in a fight to the death that does not disappoint.
From start to finish, this arc is a page-turner that flows smoothly from issue to issue. The one-off villains Jester and Screwball are fun and provide an interesting foil to Ock’s previous life. The sense of horror at the escalation of Ock’s handling of the light hearted crime sets up the Avengers interrogation smoothly, as well as providing validation for those baffled that no one has noticed something amiss with Spidey (well, there was Carlie in volume 1, but she doesn’t really count). Fans of the Avengers might find them a bit dumbed down, but fortunately, Ghost Peter is there to voice your frustrations, which helps make it easier to suspend disbelief and just go with it. It also brings in Cardiac, an antihero surgeon that runs an underground clinic for those that can’t afford medical procedures or medicine, who runs afoul with Spider-Ock while attempting to steal some of Doctor Octavius’s tech for a procedure. While perhaps over-idealized and a tad one-dimensional, Spider-Ock’s unpredictability and development is enough to balance it out, and only makes the emotional stakes of Ock and Ghost Peter’s battle that much higher.
Not gonna lie: the fight is not an easy one to read. Not gore-wise (granted, Ryan Stegman’s pencils of Peter and Ock ripping their flesh off to reveal their Spider-Man costumes is creepy as hell), but emotionally, as the two hurl their darkest, lowest points at each other and Peter is chipped away, slowly and painfully. It’s hard to watch as Peter’s very identity fades away with each blow, his mental world crumbling until he forgets his own name before vanishing. It’s excellently paced, and the issue-long fallout sets the stage for the rest of the series quite well.
Issues 11-13: No Escape and Issues 14-16: Run Goblin, Run!
These issues keep the emotional payoff of the previous arc going as Spider-Ock is summoned by Jameson to attend the execution of the Spider-Slayer Alistar Smythe, the man who killed his wife, to make sure all goes smoothly. Naturally, things go wrong as Smythe manages to lock down the prison while releasing some of Spidey’s previous foes and attempts his own escape. With vengeful, psychotic enemies at large and a gang of civilians to protect, Spider-Ock and Jameson both have to cross some lines to make sure justice wins the day. Only this time, “justice” leads to Ock extorting Jameson to get his own headquarters and, in true supervillain fashion, an army of minions to wage war on organized crime with. The ensuing conflict—which leads to the downfall of the Kingpin, a hunt for the Hobgoblin, and a dramatic standoff at the Daily Bugle—only further demonstrates Ock’s differing and escalating style that may just seal his self-destruction.
The No Escape arc is handled well, as the locked-down prison setting helps keep the reader feel as trapped as the characters. While it does not really go as whole hog with the horror element as it could, the fights get more intense as Smythe becomes more desperate, and Ock is as unpredictable as ever as he has to choose whether to save the civilians or stop Smythe, only to create a third, more brutal option. A team-up with the Lizard and Jameson facing off against the Scorpion proves satisfying, and the final moments of Smythe’s escape attempt have a twisted irony that closes the arc on a satisfyingly bittersweet moment.
Ock’s application of supervillain methods to the hero business proves intriguing and, like most of his behavior up to this point, only makes one more curious about what he will do next. Whether it involves waging war against the Kingpin with giant spider-bots and an army of mercenaries, or utilizing TV broadcasts to publicly urge citizens to help him hunt down the Hobgoblin, Ock’s bag of tricks lends a layer of intrigue that Peter honestly just couldn’t have provided, which only further justifies the Superior saga’s existence.
While these are perhaps just nitpicks, the Avengers’ brief involvement feels a tad under-utilized (Black Widow’s shoe-horned “ledger” lines to Ock aside) as they put Spider-Ock on probation and then disappear until a brief cameo at the end of issue 16; likewise with Carlie Cooper’s investigation of Ock. Clearly it’s setting the stage for future story development, but the brief snippets that we do get from it don’t really sell it from a character standpoint. Yes, Carlie is naturally looking into why her former love interest is acting like a supervillain, but we don’t really get enough into her head to make the investigation all that engaging, even with its brief appearances. Here’s hoping that the payoff will be worth it.
Artwork-wise, the team from the first collection returns, with Humberto Ramos for issues 6-8 and 14-16, Giuseppe Camuncoli for issues 11-13, and Ryan Stegman for issues 9 and 10. Much like the first volume, their styles contrast in interesting ways, from Ramos’s more manga-influenced, kinetic style to Stegman’s creepier, more angular character models. Decide for yourself which one you prefer, but tonally, each respective artist balances their respective arcs well.
Ramos’s lighter style fits the Jester and Screwball story, but also manages to sell the drama of Cardiac’s dying girl equally well. He also introduces some distinctive character designs, with the one-off Jester and Screwball’s being an interesting blend of jester and roller derby gear, and even Spider-Ock’s new suit that is introduced in issue 14. An impressive blend of the iconic outfit and Ock’s more tech-based fighting style, its only drawback is the fact that the familiar weblines are consistently crooked. Yes, it’s supposed to represent that Ock is a more unstable Spider-Man and that’s clever and all, but given the perfectionist that Ock is supposed to be, the look doesn’t fit with his character and, ironically, seems off in its own way. On the plus side, those spider-mechs make for some epic fight scenes, and the uniform of the Spider-minions is distinctive and helps contrast them from the Kingpin’s army of ninjas during the exciting-if-slightly-hard-to-follow war sequence.
Stegman’s creepier style is surprisingly fitting for Peter and Ock’s mindscape battle and again, them tearing their own faces off to reveal the Spider-Man mask underneath makes for a distinctive, if horrifying few panels. Plus, let it be said that Stegman can draw a heck of a scary Green Goblin, which only makes the inevitable future showdown all the more exciting. While Stegman’s heads tend to be a tad too triangular, it’s hardly distracting and his fight scenes, both verbal and physical, are easy to follow.
Among the three artists, Camuncoli’s style arguably gives the characters the most visual dimension. The other two are more kinetic and exaggerated, while Camuncoli’s character models feel more rounded and, well, meatier or girthier, which makes them pop out in a more somber way than the more intense Ramos or dark Stegman. As a result, the emotional tension of Smythe’s execution, the monstrosity of the Lizard’s scaly form and Smythe’s minions, and the wounds the characters suffer resonate very well; whatever your artistic preference, it can’t be denied that the artists were cast to their arcs perfectly. Sure, Camuncoli’s characters’ eyes still seem to walk the line of psychotic at times, but given that he draws the best Spider-Ock out of all three, it’s not a particularly big deal.
All in all, solid work all around and even if you’re not their biggest fan, the styles effectively blend enough with the story that it should still be an enjoyable read anyway.
Before we get to Spider-Ock and Peter, let’s discuss the supporting cast.
It is unfortunate that we don’t get much of Carlie. Despite the fact that she’s suspicious that Doc Ock has killed and stolen the life of her former boyfriend, she just comes across as robotic. Sure, the “it’s personal” vibe has been done before, but the general impression that she and her captain (a.k.a. the Wraith) give off is that they are obligated to find the truth because it is simply what they have to do. As a result, it can be a bit difficult to care, especially given that thus far, they feel like they’re there to primarily set up a future plot point or conflict.
As mentioned, the Avengers do feel a little bland and Widow’s attempt to conform to the film version feels forced, but overall, they do their job and don’t feel radically out of character, so it’s not much of a detractor. The same goes for Cardiac, who comes across as being fairly one-dimensional, especially given the complexities of the medical care issue. Yet, he makes an interesting contrast to Ock that winds up advancing the former villain’s character, so it’s decent enough to still be engaging. Besides, the medical Robin Hood angle makes for a distinctive enough hook that he’d be worth revisiting. Mary Jane Watson briefly comes up and, while isolated to an issue or two, provides a more intimate demonstration of how Ock is pushing Peter’s loved ones away (besides Aunt May, of course). For longtime fans, this will likely prove heartbreaking as her faith in “Peter” is slowly diminished.
Jameson is one of the standouts for this volume, especially given his somber, restrained anger in the No Escape story; it’s enough to remind us of the man behind the comedic rants, as well as proving that he can have a working partnership with Spider-Man . . . which makes Ock’s blackmailing of him a legitimately sad but fitting twist. The other has to be Anna Maria, who quickly makes herself a distinctive character and love interest in her own right, between her “science cooking,” self-confidence, and ability to bring out some of the kinder parts of Spider-Ock. Their relationship is probably one of the brighter parts of this saga and will hopefully provide some great character drama in the future.
Finally, we get to Spider-Ock and Peter Parker themselves. Peter, for the earlier issues, remains his sarcastic, expressive self, which makes for some great running commentary of Ock’s actions that fans will find satisfying—at least until he tries to stop Ock from saving the life of Cardiac’s patient, in order to prevent Ock from becoming further aware of his ghost self. Some may find it out of character, but given the stakes and how impulsive Peter tends to be, it fits overall. The moment of weakness makes him feel more human anyway, especially compared to Ock, which makes his fading moments all the more painful to witness. Spider-Ock, on the bright side, actually gets some genuinely moving character development in this collection, primarily from his bond with Cardiac and Anna Maria, as he begins to appear like he’s helping people out of more than an obligation to responsibility. When these actual steps towards hero-hood occur, it’s surprisingly satisfying and does leave some hope for the future. Sure, his arrogant, villain-esque dialogue gets annoying after a while (there’s only so long one can tolerate their main character sounding like a jerk), but thus far, Spider-Ock is shaping up to be an unpredictable protagonist worth watching.
This volume, clocking in at eleven issues, is a bit on the light side for a hardcover, especially given that the individual paperbacks add up to being maybe $3 more expensive. It’s a shame that none of the Superior Spider-Man tie-ins or even the Scarlet Spider crossover were included to help flesh out the volume, as well as for completion’s sake (either way, try to acquire the Age of Ultron, Infinity, or Inhumanity tie-ins; they’re excellent and provide some of the most interesting character growth for Spider-Ock during his tenure). Still, the hardcover binding is solid, but some of the pages in my edition turned out to have a rough texture, and even had the bottom of a page ripped off somehow. Odds are that those are exclusive to my copy and hardly indicative of the entire printing. Still, something to keep an eye out for. On the plus side, there are a decent amount of special features that can be read with the Marvel Augmented Reality App, and there is a master list in the back of the book of the features and what page and panel they can be found on. You do need a camera-enabled device, but I have a feeling that won’t be a problem for most of you.
The middle portion of Dan Slott’s Superior saga proves to be as interesting and engaging as the first, with a reliable rotating team of artists and some fascinating plot twists. Despite some weaker character and art moments, Spider-Ock’s quest to be a hero proves satisfying with consistent plot twists and deviations from formula.