Superior Spider-Man #12 and the Mark of Death

Superior 12 coverSince its inception, the Superior Spider-Man reading experience can best be compared with reading the Amazing Spider-Man series while wearing darkly-tinted glasses. Despite lifelong supervillain Doctor Octopus serving as the titular “hero,” the series still shares a number of commonalities with the Peter Parker-centric ASM – with a twist. And Superior Spider-Man #12 may be the most darkly twisted take on the Parker mythos yet.

Death and loss has always loomed over the world of the Amazing Spider-Man. The death of Peter’s Uncle Ben in Amazing Fantasy #15 set the entire Spider-Man premise into motion, and later on, the loss of Captain Stacy, Gwen Stacy, Jean DeWolff and countless other characters are watershed moments for the character and comic book history. And yet Superior #12 is the first time I can remember where a Spidey comic takes death, puts it on a pedestal and all but celebrates it.

Even the opening page of Superior #12 feels dramatically different than its predecessors. There’s a character ruminating about a life-altering loss he’s experienced, but it’s not Peter reliving the night a burglar shot Uncle Ben, or the time the Green Goblin threw Gwen off a bridge and he couldn’t save her in time. It’s J. Jonah Jameson thinking about the death of his wife Marla at the hands of Alistair Smythe, the Spider Slayer. And while Jonah thinks back to his wife’s dying advice – “Don’t waste any more of your life on hate” – JJJ knows he can’t grant her this wish. The page is the equivalent of Jonah hearing “with great power comes great responsibility,” and spitting in its face in an act of defiance.

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As Spider Ock and Smythe trade blows, Smythe is nonchalant about ending Otto’s life if he has to – “I’m the Spider Slayer. Your death is the reason I exist!” The confrontation is arguably Spider Ock’s most brutal battle to date. Despite Spder Ock’s “orating like a Bond villain,” Smythe almost lands a knockout blow when a gun-toting JJJ temporarily saves the day.

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Jonah berates Spider-Man, but not in the comically blustery way he’s done in the past –calling him out as a “public menace” and a “fraud.” JJJ almost emotes a variation of paternal disappointment in Spider-Ock, noting that Spidey is off his game and is attending the planned execution of Smythe at the Raft with a “job” to do. Jameson then gives Spider Ock explicit directions to do “whatever is necessary” to make sure that today is the day Smythe dies for the crime he committed against the Jameson family.

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It’s an incredibly significant moment in the history of both characters for many reasons. For one, while Jameson has been warming up to his once mortal enemy since the status quo switchover in January, hearing him speak to Spider-Man with such candor and trust is jarring. While I’m obviously not speaking from personal experience, there is such a bond that is formed when a man asks another to do something so morally questionable as kill another living being – even a convicted murderer – that I would have to imagine that even if the status quo is one day returned and the wise-cracking “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” is back to taunting Jonah, Superior #12 marks a true turning point in the JJJ/Spidey dynamic that can not be brushed aside.

Additionally, we are now seeing just how disengaged and cold-blooded Spider Ock can be without the influence of Astral Peter doing everything he can to steer his body’s occupant on the straight and narrow path. After getting his marching orders from JJJ, Spider Ock is not conflicted about the task at hand. This isn’t a case where he’s contemplating the “right” or “wrong” decision to make about ending the life of a villain like he did at the end of Superior #5 with Massacre. In fact, there are three examples of Spider Ock’s prior “leniency” in the Vulture, Boomerang and Scorpion running around the Raft serving as backup for Smythe. “You never should have left us alive, bug,” Boomerang tells Spider Ock,. Peter has made a career of never intentionally crossing the line (except, as it’s been pointed out to me by true sticklers to details, in a few very rare cases), but Otto has experienced nothing but regret following the same superhero career path as Peter.

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With all these little facts in mind, the revelation of Spider Ock’s “choice” on the last page may be meant as shocking, but it’s not. Despite there being innocent “prisoners” inside the Raft who are about to be hunted down and killed by Smythe’s gang as a way to lure Spider-Man away from apprehending the Slayer, Otto chooses to honor his promise to Jonah above preventing the deaths of people like Norah Winters and Glory Grant.  Giuseppe Camuncoli lends the last splash page with an almost Ditko-esque aesthetic of showing multiple characters and multiple points of action with Spider-Man in the center, dramatically leaping out towards the reader. So much of the Superior series has been a tip of the hat to the Stan Lee/Ditko era by Dan Slott and the rest of his rotating creative team, and this page is yet another example of the Superior team adding dark and twisted tints to this otherwise classic motif.

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Christos Gage, who gets another scripting credit for Superior #12 (with Slott getting credit for the plot) has managed to ratchet up the drama and the intrigue in the second chapter of this three-part arc. While so much of Superior #11 felt like set-up and exposition, the events of Superior #12 have considerably more emotional weight and feel like they’re about to set up something very important in the near future. And that would make sense since Marvel has been promising yet another status quo change-up in time for Superior #14 next month.

All images from Superior Spider-Man #12: Dan Slott, Christos Gage, Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell & Terry Pallot

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