‘Superior Spider-Man’ #1: An Aggressive New Approach [Review]
The biggest accomplishment of writer Dan Slott and artist Ryan Stegman's Superior Spider-Man #1 is, quite frankly, that's it's something different.
It's not the first time a super-villain has taken over for Spider-Man (Kraven did that a while back, you'll recall). It's not even the first time we've seen something akin to the twist at the end of the issue. But it pretty vastly changes the tone of Spider-Man comics to something I've never seen before. Just like the big-event issue that led into it, Amazing Spider-Man #700, it isn't perfect or transcendent. But it's fresh, and in superhero comics, freshness may just be the most valuable currency there is.
SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Superior Spider-Man #1.
A large part of why that tonal shift works can be laid at Stegman's feet. From just the first few panels of the comic, the reader gets an immediate sense that this is a more aggressive Spider-Man comic than what we're used to. Tight close-ups of the characters, Spider-Man himself and the bad guys, a new version of the Sinister Six, lend a certain immediacy and intensity to this book that just hasn't been a part of Amazing in recent years. Peter Parker allowed readers to take in his stories at a certain degree of remove; Doc Ock won't allow that.
The slight redesign of Spidey's costume -- which was actually Ed McGuinness' doing -- does a great job of making some noticeable tweaks, such as reshaping Spider-Man's eyes so they also look a bit like Doc Ock's goggles, while leaving Spider-Man recognizable. Likewise, Peter-Ock looks like Peter, only a little more slimy, a little more sinister, and much more d-baggy.
If I'm reminded of any Spider-Man art style, and this is going to sound like a criticism when it isn't, it's the early-to-mid-'90s look of Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen. Though it's often maligned now, the art of that era had a kineticism and, you might say, hyperreality that Stegman's art also has here. Also, there's lots of spaghetti webbing. It looks great, and does a lot to imbue what's happening with a sense of instability.
That's the big tonal difference: You just don't know what this Spider-Man's going to do. His heart is in the right place (sort of), but he'll certainly let his ego get the best of him -- he's livid that anyone not led by him could live up to the name of the Sinister Six, and this time, he's pretty much right -- and his morality is unconventional to say the least.
Of course, that factor is tempered by (and here comes the big spoiler) the issue-ending reveal that Peter is still alive in that brain somewhere, subconsciously directing some of Spidey-Ock's more heroic actions. Last night, Slott tweeted that the reactions to the reveal were either that it's a "big surprise" or "totally predictable." I don't think it's either, given that it was foreshadowed not only earlier in this issue, but near the end of ASM #700. I'd be surprised to find out some part of of Peter wasn't in there after those big hints. But that's not being predictable. That's following through on story seeds.
The situation itself seems to be a bit like Rick Jones and Captain Marvel, particularly the psychopathic Genis from Peter David's run about a decade ago, sharing bodies. Only Peter can't wag his finger at his morally challenged headmate (that's right, I used the word) quite as openly, at least not yet.
If he could, he would almost certainly have done so during the date scene between Peter-Ock and Mary Jane, in which he ignores everything she says and stares at her boobs while listening to the new Sinister Six making plans over a Bluetooth headset (the Bluetooth detail may actually be my favorite thing in the comic, because it does more to make Peter-Ock an obvious d-bag than anything else). I'd be lying if I didn't say the notion of Mary Jane being duped into sex by someone who isn't who she thinks is still the story point that comes closest to sinking this book for me, but this scene is a step above the one we got in ASM #700, at least. There, he was this close to date rape. Here, he's just a jerky and insensitive boyfriend, something Peter himself has been a number of times.
However, there are a number of things Peter-Ock does and says in this issue which are very clearly things Peter Parker would not do or say, particularly in the scene between he and Horizon Labs boss Max Modell. The trouble isn't that Peter is acting out of character; he isn't Peter. But you would think Modell might pick up on Peter's sudden ego boost and propensity to refer to his boss by his full name. That characters don't seem to notice Peter's entire personality changing, basically overnight, pushes the believability envelope just a tad too far. (And yes, I know I'm saying this about a comic that's based on the concept of a man switching brains with another man using a robot octopus.)
At least the villains notice some changes in Spidey, and how much more violent he's become. Because Spider-Man isn't really the type to tell jokes now, it's kind of up to the bad guys (The Shocker, Boomerang, Overdrive, Speed Demon, Beetle and The Living Brain) to be the comic relief. That's yet another tonal difference, and a neat one. I'd love it if Spidey-Ock only ends up fighting third-stringer villains with goofy senses of humor, and getting flustered about it.
I'd even forgive The Living Brain trying to pass off a line asking why it was programmed to feel pain like that wasn't something from The Simpsons.