While it’s easy to crack wise about how Superior Spider-Man writer Dan Slott promotes every upcoming issue as being “huge” and the one “you can’t miss,” it’s equally amazing to read a comic like Superior #21 and realize just how much things have changed for the series and its characters over the past few months. In late July, I bemoaned just how easy things seemed for Spider Ock, as my interest for all things Superior seemed to be waning from the sheer exhaustion of watching the “bad guy” win, week-in and week-out. Now, less than five months later, I’m witnessing a titular character whose dominance is merely a footnote from issue’s past, as he circles the drain of his superhero existence.
When Marvel released its solicitations for November a few months ago and promoted 90s villain extraordinaire Stunner as the baddie du jour in Superior #21, who honestly thought we were going to get a comic of legitimate consequence? A fun and somewhat interesting one-and-done that offered yet another unique character dynamic based on the fact that Doctor Octopus is now operating as Spider-Man? Sure. But a “can’t miss” comic? Doubtful.
The Superior Spider-Man’s battle with Stunner may be my favorite Spider Ock/non-Peter Parker confrontation since the series took off earlier this year. Slott manages to give us the best of all worlds with this issue: another instance where, given the villain’s prior relationship to Otto, pre-Superior, the interplay between Spider Ock and his adversary is inherently more dramatic; and also further pushes the overall Superior storyline closer to what appears to be the inevitable end game against the Green Goblin in a few months.
I’m not the least bit shocked by how well-written the Spider Ock/Stunner story is given Slott’s firm grasp of Spider-Man history and continuity – especially the “Clone Saga” era, which is something Slott has shockingly mined some gold from in the past, such as the Jackal’s role in “Spider Island” two years ago. In Superior #21, Spider Ock is as vulnerable against a super-powered adversary as he’s ever been, struggling to match Stunner’s physical might, and clearly not being on his game based on the love the two of them shared a lifetime ago for Otto.
Despite my unabashed glee for Otto’s imminent downfall at the end of Superior #19 last month, Slott manages to actually make Spider Ock sympathetic during the Stunner encounter by illustrating two things: how Otto needs to calm Stunner down in a way that doesn’t reveal his secret identity; and that Stunner is much more powerful than Spider Ock– especially as the character struggles with his focus because his personal life and quest for a doctorate are in shambles.
In one scene, Slott and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli (who is on his “A” game again in this arc) call back to another classic scene in Spidey history when the “Spectacular” Spider-Man rips off Doc Ock’s tentacles during the famous “Owl/Octopus Wars” arc. Just as it was in “Owl/Octopus Wars,” it’s equally dramatic and shocking to see Stunner so casually pin Spider Ock to the ground and rip off his costume’s extra appendages as if they were the legs of a bug. I don’t know if this is an intentional callback from the creative team, but given the Black Cat/Spider Ock encounter last issue, perhaps “Owl/Octopus Wars” has been on Slott’s mind a lot lately.
Slott goes as far as to imply that Spider Ock is only saved by a stroke of good fortune in Superior #21. Otto looks to be plainly defeated until Stunner’s virtual reality technology short circuits (thanks to the diligence of some Spider-Bots). Gone are the days when Spider Ock is 20 steps ahead of Alistair Smythe. Instead, Otto is reduced to a position that should be familiar to those who follow our “mom and dad’s” Spider-Man – lucky to be alive.
Otto’s final interaction with Stunner via the virtual reality machine is Slott doing what he does best – calling back to the past while simultaneously moving on in a dramatically different direction. Earlier in the issue, Otto overhears Anna Maria defending “Peter” to Doctor Lamaze and realizes that this is a woman who “gets him” (despite the fact that he is not who he says he is). Using a lover from Otto’s past as a way to advance his relationship with a current flame is tried but true storytelling tactic, and I completely buy into how Otto officially breaks his ties with Stunner so he can dedicate his entire romantic focus on Anna Maria. As an added bonus, in this moment of rare tenderness from Otto (but is totally consistent with how his relationship with Stunner was characterized in the 90s), he manages to reveal some semblance of his true identity to Stunner without completely outing himself or his master plan. It’s probably the most honorable Spider Ock has been since the “Troubled Mind” story with Cardiac.
Meanwhile, more and more pieces are put into motion that set up the very-much-hyped “Goblin Nation” arc that kicks off in February. At this rate, I’m not even surprised by the maddening stupidity of Carlie Cooper and her investigation – she knows a murderer is disguising himself as a superhero and her first instinct (after leaving a voice mail with Mary Jane last issue) is to pick up flowers and visit “Peter’s” grave?
The Carlie subplot is a great example of a frustrating habit Slott has exhibited as a writer. He has such big, wonderful ideas and game-changing end games, but he has a history of struggling with the set-up. Carlie’s scene raises a lot of interesting questions: Why is Doc Ock’s grave empty? Based on the Green Goblin’s familiarity with Carlie, what does that tell us about his identity? What did the Green Goblin read in Carlie’s journal that has him smiling like a Cheshire Cat (or for a comic book analogy, like the Joker)?
I have no doubt that Slott’s payoff here will be the usual fantastic stuff we’ve seen him pump out in nearly all of his other “major” storylines from the past. But the path to the payoff is convoluted. Carlie should be taking the information she has about Spider-Man and Doc Ock to the authorities or the Avengers. Period. No voicemails. No graveside visits. The fate of millions potentially rests in the information she discovered. Having Carlie dilly-dally doesn’t create tension, it mounts frustration. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a better way to introduce these new ideas about the Goblin subplot, but it’s not my job to do that.
Of course, part of what has made Slott’s run on Amazing/Superior Spider-Man so mesmerizing is that while I may be sitting here right now getting all worked up over this Carlie scene, since his payoffs are so good, I’m certain that this level of minutia will be long forgotten by the time we’ve experienced the end game.
In other words, Slott has me right where he wants me. And you better believe I’m not going to miss what comes next.
All images from Superior Spider-Man #21: Dan Slott, Giuseppe Camuncoli & John Dell