The Superior Spider-Man – Tristan Balbin
The Superior Spider-Man: Rewriting a Modern American Pop-Cultural and Literary Icon
In many ways, in the almost century-long history of the super-hero comic-book genre, Spider-Man is a figure of interest and a milestone of sorts. Not only was the character the first teenage super-hero that was the protagonist of a series, but he also became one of the most famous figures of the genre, with a popularity on par with that of D.C. Comics’ Superman or Batman. Its titular series, The Amazing Spider-Man, contributed to the history and evolution of the genre, notably signaling the end of the Silver Age of Comic-Books in 1973, with the death of Gwen Stacy, the lover of the protagonist.
Critics and famous comic-book writers, such as Stan Lee, as well as illustrators, agree that the super-hero genre is one of the most modern instances of the American myth – and indeed, the effects that super-heroes have had, historically, culturally, and even politically, are ample proof of this. Captain America was created in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, to oppose Hitler’s regime and ideas. Comic-book connoisseurs all admit that the first issue of the Captain America series in March 1943, which depicted Captain America punching Hitler in the face, made history. Similarly, the Amazing Spider-Man series also made history, with the most striking example being the Stand Tall storyline in December 2001, a few months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It depicts the aftermath of the attacks and how super-heroic figures coped with the events, going as far as to show super-heroes participating in the relief efforts of an event that had taken place in reality.
In December 2012, The Amazing Spider-Man series officially came to an end, with the title character dying in the Amazing Spider-Man #700, as one of the series’ earliest villains, Doctor Octopus, had successfully managed to swap bodies with the super-hero, trapping the real Spider-Man in the agonizing body of his nemesis. In the process, however, Octopus had gotten to experience all the memories of the super-hero, which prompted him to mend his ways and become a better Spider-Man than his predecessor ever was, jumpstarting a new series called The Superior Spider-Man.
The Superior Spider-Man comprises 33 issues that were printed from January 2013 to August 2014 and depart from the original 50 year-old Amazing Spider-Man series. It depicts a Spider-Man that is completely different from the somewhat mythical figure: the first departure from the earlier series is visual, the iconic red and blue suit giving way to a darker, red and black suit, adorned with electronically-enhanced optical lenses and claws. The original suit, which features the colors of the American flag, has a slightly reassuring, non-lethal feel to it – it includes boots, while the new suit replaces them with clawed appendices.
Another visual cue to the departure is the bloodier depictions of fights, as the Superior Spider-Man either punches or uses his claws to slash his enemies, depending on the situation, and resorts to another trademark of the character, the webbing, in much more aggressive ways. The first issue of the series[i] depicts the Superior Spider-Man stopping a foe, who possesses the ability to run at extreme speeds, by using his web to strike the opponents neck, taking the risk of killing the villain. Not only that, but the Superior Spider-Man, in the same first issue, is clearly shown to have murderous intentions towards his foes, as the issue ends with him preparing to deal a lethal blow to an already-beaten villain, before stopping involuntarily. Given that the original Amazing Spider-Man is known not to use or condone the use of lethal force in any situation whatsoever, this inclination of the Superior Spider-Man to kill his enemies certainly constitutes the most important change to the character.
This departure, or this rewriting of the original character, was initially not welcome by the readers, who perceived it as an outrage – in retrospect, this is hardly surprising, as comic-book readers are known to be extremely sensitive to change in an aspect of a super-heroic character they like. The death of Gwen Stacy, in 1973[ii], had Marvel Comics flooded with hundreds of letters of protest. Similarly, fans strongly disapproved of the publisher’s decision to rewrite the marriage of the protagonist to Mary-Jane Watson, which had happened in 1987, into having never happened in 2007.
The rewriting of the character into a colder, much more ruthless and murderous Spider-Man, however, eventually won critics over, in part due to writers making the Superior Spider-Man a relatable figure. Readers are introduced to the childhood memories of Otto Octavius (the real name of Doctor Octopus), and discover that he is as a former victim of bullying and of child abuse, which provides an explanation for his vengeful and ruthless temper. In particular, it is because the reader learns of Otto’s circumstances as having been beaten by his father as a child that he can empathize with him when Otto enters a state of extreme rage against the Vulture in The Superior Spider-Man #3.[iii] Indeed, the Vulture, a former ally of Dr. Octopus, and an old foe to Spider-Man uses children to fight for him, prompting Otto, now reformed, to enact a harsh punishment upon his now-enemy, by blinding the latter permanently at the end of their fight.
Another characteristic of The Superior Spider-Man that led to its increasing popularity with the readership is that it displays a sense of continuity with the original series despite the important changes it brought. The sense of continuity essentially lies within the protagonist, but not so much on the visual level as on the psychological level. Peter Parker, the original Amazing Spider-Man, and Otto Octavius, The Superior Spider-Man, share many similarities. Both are geniuses with extremely high I.Qs, both possess extensive scientific knowledge and engineering skill; both were victims of bullying in school, and both experienced an event that dramatically altered their lives. The main difference is that Peter Parker did receive unconditional love and support from his aunt and uncle, while Otto did not, leading the former to have faith in others and turn to a life of super-heroics, while the latter was mistreated by his abusive father and smothered by the affection of his mother, eventually shutting him off from others and directing him towards a life of crime.
The continuity with the original series, along with its departure from it, is also shown through the apparition of famous characters and relationships derived from the original series. Much like Peter Parker, Otto Octavius feels strongly attracted by Mary-Jane Watson, and after recalling the memories of her that Peter Parker had, he expresses genuine love for her – although, unlike Peter, Otto takes the most sensible course of action by breaking up with her, understanding that he would otherwise always put her in danger, due to his being Spider-Man. In somewhat similar fashion, Otto, after being put under scrutiny on several occasions because of his ruthless and violent methods, decides to quit the Avengers team[iv] – a government-affiliated team of super-heroes. The continuity with the original series lies in the notion that Spider-Man, in his early years, was a loner – he had in fact, in 1965, rejected an offer to join the Avengers, and did not join them until much later in the series.
Another striking display of continuity with the original Amazing Spider-Man series is that Otto adopts and adapts Peter Parker’s motto: ”With great power, comes great responsibility”, which had been coined in the very first issue featuring Spider-Man, Amazing Fantasy #15, back in 1962, to suit his own ruthless crusade against criminals. The Superior Spider-Man considers that having powers means that he has the responsibility to eradicate criminality by whatever means necessary, including crippling and/or killing his foes. Surprisingly enough for a character originally notorious for refusing to kill anyone, The Superior Spider-Man has gained a measure of fame with the readers because of his willingness to end the life of criminals if necessary – in The Superior Spider-Man #5,[v] he ends up killing a psychotic mass-murderer known as Massacre, reasoning that the killer, who is utterly incapable of feeling any form of empathy towards others, can never redeem and will only keep on taking lives – killing him becomes the only sensible alternative to protect innocents. This moment is evidently controversial but it does make Otto Octavius relatable – his reasoning may well be flawed, but it is also defendable, and his decision to sacrifice one life to save many is a question that finds many echoes in real-life, especially in the United States, where death penalty is still legal in several states.
The Superior Spider-Man series is a rewriting, a recreation of the original Amazing Spider-Man figure; it both departs from and relates to it in various forms. Be it the costume, which is similar to the original one, yet ultimately, and noticeably different, or the way the protagonist interacts with other characters or with the universe he is a part of, every part of the Superior Spider-Man character illustrates the duality between departing from an original work and relating to it, a duality that is the basis of rewriting. Yet, what makes this short-lived series a worthy, if controversial, rewriting of the original Amazing Spider-Man one is its ability to weave social criticism within the story it tells. Much like the original series which, back in 1971, questioned the prison system, The Superior Spider-Man asks the necessary questions about the validity of using lethal force against criminals.
M2 – Anglais
[i] Dan Slott and Stegman, Ryan, The Superior Spider-Man #1. Marvel Comics, March 2013.
[ii] Gerry Conway and Kane, Gil, The Amazing Spider-Man #121. Marvel Comics, June 1973.
[iii] Dan Slott and Stegman Ryan, The Superior Spider-Man #3. Marvel Comics, April 2013.
[iv] Dan Slott et al, The Superior Spider-Man #26. Marvel Comics, March 2014.
[v] Dan Slott and Camuncoli, Giuseppe, The Superior Spider-Man #5. Marvel Comics, May 2013.