The title lacked star power in terms of characters (Spider-Man's name is in the title, but that was very nearly the full extent of the character's participation in the comic) and it fell into a genre that, for whatever reason, doesn't connect with readers all that often: the superhero universe comedy.
Yet, until it ended late last month, it was one of the best comics on the stands. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber's tale of a group of C-list villains (and that's being generous) grouping together to be the new Sinister Six (despite there only being five of them) had more character, personality, playfulness, inventiveness and wit in its pages than most other comics coming out.
You, yes you, the reader reading this article right now, should have been picking up and reading every issue. And I'll tell you the reasons why.
So much of what takes Superior Foes from good to great is in the details. Lieber, who does an amazing job with the panel-to-panel sequential storytelling, loads up each issue with visual gags and cartoony thought balloons that aren't entirely necessary to the story, but add immensely to a look, feel and tone unmatched in other superhero comics of the past couple years.
There are also great gags involving balloons showing what Beetle is looking at on her phone, a painting of Dr. Doom's face that the reader never actually gets to see because of obstructions, and obstacles that the protagonists imagine having to encounter in a multi-level building (including a giant scorpion).
And then there are the jokes that are entirely embedded in a character's facial expression. Without giving it away, there's a plot in the last two issues that involve a key character being disguised as someone else, and communicating with other characters via expressions over the TV. In the hands of so many other artists, that would be a disaster. Lieber makes it look easy.
You might call this reason 1b, since so much of why these bits work are contingent on Lieber's art, but the quite a few scenes of physical comedy in the series -- many of which feature bumbling superhero and parole officer Mach VII -- are a clear marriage of writing and art, working together beautifully to create sincere, laugh-out-loud moments.
Comedy is all about timing. In a medium that allows the reader to take things in at his or her own pace, that's exceedingly difficult. Spencer and Lieber succeed at it almost every time.
Quick, tell me everything you know about these characters: Boomerang, Beetle, Overdrive, Speed Demon, The Shocker. In years and years of Marvel history, what readers got was a whole lot of not much.
A lot of times when villains like that come together, they're nothing but the butt of a joke, with the single note of, "Hey, don't these guys suck?" repeated over and over. Not here.
Superior Foes managed to give every single one of those characters an understandable and compelling backstory, a voice, and most importantly, personality. Boomerang, the ostensible lead, certainly gets the most time and attention, but it's really something seeing just how much fleshing out, say, Beetle (a character who only made a couple appearances before this) gets throughout the run of the series. One focus issue about her past and some well-placed dialogue throughout the rest of the series, and I feel like I know her as well as most other Marvel characters.
Sure, some characters get changed a bit. The Shocker isn't necessarily the version you may remember from the Spider-Man comics of the past, but what could you really say about The Shocker from those comics? This one is a distinctive character, with a personality and motivations and sympathetic edge. I'll take this version.
A big part of what makes the characters in Superior Foes so distinctive and enjoyable to read is the distinct voices Spencer gives each of them.
And that's not just true of the (fast-talking) Boomerang, the (abrasive) Speed Demon, the (sad-sack) Shocker, the (over it) Beetle or the (earnest, often quiet) Overdrive. Boomerang's lawyer, his love interest, and a whole bunch of other secondary characters have a real sense of voice to them. They're all incredibly sharp.
Even the (usually) interchangeable mob bosses -- Tombstone, Hammerhead, The Owl, Chameleon and Mr. Negative -- all are very distinct. Spencer goes above and beyond to make the words pop off the page.
I've long said one of my favorite character types is the "ineffectual scoundrel," and the beauty of Superior Foes is that it offers up five very distinct characters that fall into that category. They're all different kinds of scoundrels, and they're all (mostly) ineffectual in their own ways. (Sometimes they do manage to succeed at something.)
And of course, they're constantly double-crossing each other. They're duplicitous, greedy, two-faced liars throughout, and that's often way more surprising and enjoyable than reading about people who constantly work together and are honest with each other.
Comic fans love their continuity, but generally that has to do with stories accurately depicting the events of previous (or sometimes concurrent) stories.
Superior Foes has that, but what's really great is how consistently it sets up jokes early in its run and then pays them off later. For instance, each issue starts with the question "This guy, right?" (or a variation thereof) and Spencer figures out new ways to make that funny and interesting throughout the run.
There are a handful of great jokes involving a dog. A story that's waved off as nonsense becomes a a major punchline. Boomerang even comments on the series' three-issue fill-in interlude, in the dialogue.
I can't recall a Marvel comic that pays off on jokes as well as this since Nextwave. It's only appropriate that this book took that one's penchant for censoring curse words with skull-and-crossbones symbols.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man is one big story told over 17 issues. Sure, it's divided up into fairly distinct arcs, but the whole thing really is one long narrative, and the way it wraps up in a beautiful little package in the end, with elements introduced in issue one becoming integral elements of the climax, shows a level of care and investment in the storytelling that few comics seem to have.
Spencer and Lieber cared about making this comic. You can see the passion on every page.
That's why you should have read it.