The Superior Spider-Man and the challenge of Marvel “Legacy” Heroes
If there are two things that I remember about comics in the 90s, they would be unnecessary pouches and DC heroes being “replaced” by a new character.
The idea of super hero identities as legacies have been explored on both sides of the eternal comics divide (DC vs Marvel), but DC really leaned into the concept with the transition from the silver age to the, then, modern age of their universe. Hal Jordan went nuts and complete new comer Kyle Rayner was given the last Green Lantern ring. Batman was broken and passed his cowl onto Azrael. Superman died battling doomsday, only to see four guys pop up with flowing red capes. The list goes on.
That isn’t to say that Marvel didn’t take a few swings at this device (shout outs to Beta Ray Bill and Jim Rhodes), but the idea of a “legacy” hero has always struck me as a very DC gimmick. And a gimmick, that I at least, have always enjoyed. Back when I bought issues instead of trades, I was totally dialed in each week to follow the decent of Jean Paul Valley as he tried to reconcile his programming as the assassin Azrael with his new role as the Batman. I followed in the background as Bruce Wayne battled back from his injuries and Robin and Nightwing struggled to make sense of their mentors decisions. I was a Kyle Rayner, Wally West and John Henry Irons fan. The idea that there needed to be a Batman, a Superman, a Green Lantern… this made for good stories.
Which brings me to what I thought was a really good story: the 30 issue run of The Superior Spider-Man by writer Dan Slot and artists Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos and Giuseppe Cammuncoli. I was a few years late to the table on this one, so I knew where the story was going but, thanks to the Marvel Unlimited App, I finally sat down last week and dove in.
Right off the bat, I like the premise: Dr. Octopus is dying. So, as a final strike against his arch enemy, he swaps their consciousness, leaving Pete to die in his body, while he lives on. However, along with the proportionate speed, strength and agility of a spider, Otto always winds up with one other thing; the knowledge that with great power, must also come great responsibility. So, in a cool twist, Doc Ock decides that he will live on as both a better Peter Parker and a superior Spider-Man.
Without all the supplemental reading (Spidey has several on going titles, is an Avenger and has spin off books like Venom and the Superior Foes) the contained story line of this core title really gives you what you need to know: Otto is equal measures brilliant and arrogant. His approach to life as both Peter and Spidey seems, at first, to be working. Crime is down, Peter is making moves as a scientist and he meets a girl that really likes him.
Credit to the creative team should be added here for their bang on and easily accessible take on the world of Peter Parker. As a lapsed reader many years gone by (see Saga, Clone) I was right at home with Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson and Mary Jane. New characters, new to me anyway, were painted in perfect strokes where I got how they fit into Peters life and how his new attitude would affect them. Even the requisite visit from earths mightiest heroes to check in on their avenging ally and his new, sometimes brutal attitude was dropped into the story with just enough Wolverine to not be too much Wolverine.
Much could be said about the ins and outs of this story, but to me the great success of any story, Spider-Man in particular, is that its conclusion reminds you why you love the character in the first place. In the moment when events have spiraled so far out of control that Otto realizes his only option is to end his summer sublet of Spider-Man’s body and turn it over to the real deal, we get Spidey at his best. He suits up, faces impossible odds and makes jokes while hes doing it. So if the goal is to make you love Peter Parker, then this book was a success.
Of course, its other success, one currently shared by the creative team on Steve Rogers: Captain America, was pissing off a whole bunch of comic fans. Which is where my enjoyment of Superior Spider-Man intersects with my earlier thoughts on legacy heroes in the DC universe versus the same concept over at Marvel. I can’t say for certain that its the age of the internet that has made the voices speaking out against character revamps so much louder, but louder they are. And into this fray, Marvel has marched out replacements for nearly all of their major characters: Wolverine, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man to name a few. Reception has been mixed, but the venom is real.
So whats the problem? Its a different age of comics from the one I grew up in. When I was a kid, Bucky and Jason Todd stayed dead. The reborn gimmick was not a yearly occurrence. In today’s comicscape, it isn’t so much if a character will come back, but when. We are all conditioned to expect runs to end, with a new issue 1 and creative team waiting in the wings. Shouldn’t we be able to take a story, like Superior Spider-Man, for what it is and just enjoy the ride?
If heroic identities are indeed legacies to be passed on, to both new creators and new characters, it is our choice as the reader to get on board with a new direction or wait for the next thing to come along. It is worth remembering that a legacy is something that continues, it isn’t ours to have the way we want for as long as we want. The never ending journey our favourite characters go on is one we share, with fellow readers and the characters themselves.
The X-Men didn’t stay in Australia. Hulk didn’t stay smart. Aquaman got his hand back. With a lifetime of comics to read and endless possibilities, rather than grumbling through the latest take on Cap or Spidey, we can all just sit back and decide for ourselves which one is truly, superior.