Amazing Spider-Man #698-700 Review:
Well, it's finally happened. Peter Parker is dead. The bad guy wins. Happy 50th anniversary, Spider-fans! Hope you enjoyed watching your favorite hero kick the bucket on his special day!
I'll be honest with you. I've been preparing for the worst. I was really uncomfortable with the idea of this arc just from reading about its details, that Doc Ock was going to swap brains with Spidey and assume his mantle. It sounded very gimmicky and contrived. Ever since "One More Day" happened, the Amazing Spider-Man comic seemed less like a character study of Peter Parker, with each story becoming a product the writers pitched as the next big thing to draw the readers of tomorrow and keep the book afloat for the next 10-20 years. Even Straczynski's run spent more time exploring the kind of person Peter was as a husband, adding new layers and depths to the hero, instead of turning each book into the blockbuster of the month.
That being said... it's a good story. Not a great one, but certainly not the horrible nightmare some of us had hyperbolically generalized in a fit of panic. Somewhat disappointing, but not worth writing death threats about. And honestly, after reading an insightful article written by Cody Wilson of the ever-reliable Spiderfan.org, I realized that we were partially to blame for this "new direction" anyway. It's partly on us, the death of Spider-Man.
We can gripe and complain about the writers, editors and Marvel's entire company all day long, but when it comes down to it, we have to face the facts: Spider-Man is a product, and business was booming in spite of all the supposedly "terrible" creative decisions they've made. And like any product, we the customers are a key source of how the business will be run. Over the years prior to ASM #700, Marvel had been selling us different ideas by introducing story elements that would later be used again in "Dying Wish," and our feedback to those elements in earlier stories was what ultimately led to the "Superior Spider-Man," the book that would replace "The Amazing Spider-Man" title for better or worse - at least for a year and 33 issues.
Through this review, I hope to address these "elements" and analyze which of them worked for me and which merely raised my anxiety levels.
ANYTHING YOU CAN DO, I CAN DO BETTER
This wasn't the first time a supervillain stole Peter Parker's identity. Back in ASM #602, Chameleon seemingly "killed" Peter in an acid pool and subsequently went about the rest of the day being him; even interacting with Peter's acquaintances and friends. Having the eccentric behavior of improving the lives of whomever he had disguised as, Chameleon did a few selfish things, including punching Mary-Jane's stalker (with the butt of a gun), calling Flash Thompson "Puny Flash" the way he called Peter years ago, and moving Harry's homeless butt into Peter's home.
These "improvements" Chameleon made in Peter's life were well-received by readers, myself included, thereby providing Marvel the first piece of the puzzle they needed. I have to admit, Peter calling the ex-bully "Puny Flash" was a guilty pleasure on its own, giving payback to the football star after so long. On the other hand, he's a crippled war hero, so it was still a scummy thing to say.
And while it could be fun to see someone carry out these naughty deeds in Peter's favor - doing and saying things some of us wish Peter would just have the guts to do - it could also lead to some really creepy scenes. Let's not forget, these were bad people taking over Peter's life, Octavius the sociopathic egomaniac included. In ASM #602, Chameleon made out with Peter's roommate, who wasn't aware who she was really kissing under that mask; this lack of consent was tantamount to an act of rape.
And then in #700, Otto (in Peter's body) was clearly thinking of having sex with MJ, a woman who would be unaware of the real person she's really sleeping with. This would eventually lead to some even more sleazy storyline in the "Superior Spider-Man," which I'll touch on in the future.
Playing devil's advocate for a bit, one could argue that crippling a woman and stripping her naked to show how evil a villain is was in poor taste too, yet Killing Joke was held by millions as some gold standard of storytelling. What Dan Slott wrote seemed trivial by comparison.
KILL HIM TWICE, SHAME ON YOU
There's a reason why "Death of Spider-Man" worked in the Ultimate universe: Peter Parker died being known to his world as a hero, giving us a fitting finality. In the 616 universe, on the other hand? He died leaving a villain perving on his ex-girlfriend! What kind of finality was that?! What a way to shit all over our favorite hero!
Of all the feedback Marvel took into consideration, this had to be the dumbest. It's like simple math to them: "People loved Ultimate Death of Spider-Man, therefore they must be okay with killing off 616 Peter Parker and replacing him with a murdering sociopath on his 50th birthday." Unfortunately, the best storytelling is anything but simple math.
And unlike USM, the moments right before Peter's death here felt rushed. Ultimate Spider-Man had the benefit of "Ultimate Fallout", a mini series dedicated to addressing how everyone reacted to the death of such a great hero. Amazing Spider-Man didn't have that advantage and had to slap together several "closures" to end the book, including MJ finally confessing to Otto-Peter her love for him, Jonah Jameson finally approving of Spidey as a legit hero, and Peter experiencing a dream sequence where everyone he cared about who died came back to greet and thank him - all within a single issue. These "closures" should have been, in my opinion, focused on in an entirely separate issue of their own, not crammed together with the already crowded plot of #700. It ended up reading like a last minute homework assignment written hastily to beat the deadline.
There's also another thing that bothered me about Peter's final moments. Using the last remnant of his energy in Octavius' dying body, Peter was somehow able to channel the memories in his own body and forced Otto to experience all the guilt and pain he ever felt being Spider-Man. Afterwards, he almost seemed content to pass on the mantle to Doc Ock. Why was he so content with letting this potential killer take over his role as Spidey, and why would his dying wish be for Otto to take care of MJ and his loved ones? He's a selfish and self-centered jerk who only ever cared about himself! Why would he trust him?! No matter how sympathetic Otto came across, and no matter how desperate Peter was, it just didn't make sense.
I wish there would have been at least a last desperate struggle on Peter's part to resist letting this psycho do whatever he wanted with his powers, not quietly accept his takeover. In fact, it would have made more sense if Peter had gone to the Avengers or the Fantastic Four instead, where he could have made it his last request to have them stop Doc Ock. Not to mention, they would have bought this "mind-swap" story a lot more than Carlie - who shot him multiple times when he tried to tell her the truth - did.
DRACO IN LEATHER PANTS
The third feedback Marvel collected was the sympathetic side of Octavius. There were a number of stories detailing this, depicting him as a frail young boy in the past who had aspired to be scientist (just like Peter Parker). And there's grounds for such sympathy too, for Otto never received the proper grooming Peter had, thereby being an ideal mirror of Spidey (much like the Joker and Batman). This ambiguous side of Octavius' morality was well-received, along with, of course, Spider-Man 2, where he was made into an even more sympathetic antagonist than his comic counterpart.
Yet, the decision to place a murderer behind the mask of the webbed hero for a long period of time is strange and definitely inappropriate. Octavius is tied to at least three deaths, two of which were intentional: Bradley Miles in "Peter Parker: Spider-Man" Vol. 2 #40, James Warden in "Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Negative Exposure" #4, and the accidental death of George Stacy in ASM #90. Would that be appropriate for the kids reading this? Spidey's been a huge recognizable icon all over the world, and now kids are going to follow in the footsteps of this scum who thinks it's okay to break the other criminals' jaws or just straight up kill them (the latter of which we'll see in "Superior" later on)? With the recent "racial/sexual diversity" movement a more political Marvel was trying to gun for, I'm surprised they would risk such an idea in our SJW climate, not to mention the aforementioned sexual aggression towards MJ.
Again, there is potential for a good story here... if it's a tale of redemption, which would only work if Octavius turns himself in. Unfortunately, a move like that could possibly end the Spider-Man books for good (unless Peter returns), which is the exact opposite of why Marvel shook things up with this brain-swap in the first place (to keep the sales of Spider-Man books from dying). And even if the books continue with Otto being some kind of anti-hero vigilante hunted by the law, there's no way Spider-Man fans (and probably many parents) could approve of a murderer remaining as the new face of the inspiring hero for long.
I think Marvel knew that. Marvel's not stupid. And we knew that Marvel's not stupid, so I'm sure lots of people have speculated Peter Parker's return long before he did. What I don't know is why Marvel even bothered to hide it. It's kinda an obvious eventuality.
But when all is said and done, I admit that the idea of a Spider-Man who's not so morally clean does intrigue me, somewhat. Over the years, Spidey cutting loose and unleashing all the strength and powers in him can be cathartic. While it was his integrity that made him an amazing character we could look up to, there was also an underlying pleasure in seeing him punish those who deserve it; in seeing him get a little dirty to get things done. So to have "SpOck" (god that's an awful nickname) stay for a while before Peter eventually come back? I'm actually okay with that. I wouldn't mind seeing a "dark and gritty" chapter for Spider-Man.
However, a key reason I would like this approach lies in a factor that applies to me: I haven't read the other darker Spider-Man spin-offs, which brings us to our final feedback and problem.
DARKNESS WITHOUT LIGHT BREEDS APATHY
There were two other Spider-Man spin-offs around the time this story arc was released. "Scarlet Spider" (Vol. 2) and Venom (Vol. 2), both of which received very favorable reviews (Venom, in particular), and were darker takes on the Spider-Man theme of power and responsibility (Scarlet Spider, in particular, since he's literally a clone of Peter Parker). If I want a darker story, I would read either of those. The only reason I didn't was because I only have enough time for Spidey alone. No time for the myriad amount of spin-offs out there.
And now a third dark Spider-story is introduced, filled with murders and bloodshed - and believe me, there will be blood. I've mentioned before that I love dark stories. I live for them. They can touch on our basest emotions and provide us a form of catharsis the lighter and warmer tales couldn't. But this is another case of businessmen blindly relying on the numbers without considering the context. Too much darkness can ultimately lead to indifference in your audience, not to mention the fact that the "lighter" stories have their place in storytelling too, offering something dark stories couldn't either: hope, and moral inspiration.
Batman is an amazing character. His stories (often through his rogues' gallery) delve into a complex analysis of the human mind; of our darkest and most frightening emotions and personalities. But not everyone likes reading Batman, and even Batman fans probably don't want every superhero to be like Batman either! That would just dilute his unique quality. Besides, would you want all your heroes to be brooding or morally complex? Did you enjoy the dark and morose Superman in Batman v. Superman or even Man of Steel? Sometimes, we just want heroes to be heroes! Not straight up kill criminals without offering redemption like The Punisher and Wolverine! We already have those in the Marvel universe! Sigh.
I'm merely playing devil's advocate here. As I've mentioned, 'Spotto Octavius' wasn't going to stay for the long-term, so it's fine. A temporary period of dark Spider-Man stories is fine. For me. But I do have to put my foot down and lay out what a darker Spider-Man means for the world, and why both writers and business executors alike must be careful not to push the scale too far. Balance. There must always be balance in all things. Take it from Thanos.
WAS THIS STORY ANY GOOD?
I talked a lot about the aspects that came to piece together this Frankenstein monster. But was the story entertaining in its own right? The short answer is yes, especially #698. That first part of the story was truly like Doc Ock said, a magic trick. It began with an ordinary day in the life of Spidey. Nothing seemed unusual. But by the end of it, I was left slack-jawed and so utterly impressed by Slott that I had to read the ending twice to see if I had misread something.
The second and third issues went a step further. Essentially, the entire story arc could be summed up with "Peter trying to get back into his own body." But after we knew Peter was running out of time, the pacing of the story started to pick up really, really quickly. The readers would be as concerned as Peter, and at that time, nobody knew what was really going to happen because there was an announcement around that time that "The Amazing Spider-Man" book would come to an end. It's a real page-turning thriller in spite of its simple premise. Most gut-wrenching of all, they made Peter plead for his life. On his birthday.
Talk about a punch to the gut. Brings back tearful memories ("I don't want to go, Mr. Octavius").
Humberto Ramos' art really didn't help things. His depiction of Peter trapped in a dying body was a horrifying sight to endure for me. You could see all the horrid details; his skin decaying, his eye-socket popping out, and blood spilling out everywhere. I could only imagine how painful Peter's final moments were. No wonder many fans were outraged. This wasn't an honorable death in the arms of his loved ones like Ultimate Spider-Man; it was pure torture. Does Dan Slott actually hate Peter Parker?
Still, I have to give credit where it's due. It's an emotional story (albeit for the wrong reasons at times), and it's a really ballsy one too where the bad guy actually won. And it wasn't just any bad guy either - it was one of Spidey's biggest bads of all. Since Norman Osborn had already became an Avenger villain, it made sense for the next biggest Spider-Man villain in line, Doc Ock, to be the one who would finally do him in.
Now onto the other question: do I like the overall story? No. I don't hate it as much as certain stories in the past (marriage and The Devil come to mind), but on principle, I can't accept this story. I know why they made this story. It's almost the same thing as One More Day. I'm guessing the sales for ASM must have been dropping. And even if it wasn't, even if I'm completely wrong about the comparisons to OMD, I still don't like how shoddily his death was treated. I don't mind a Spider-Man death - I LOVED "Death of Ultimate Spider-Man." It respected and really reminded us why Spidey was the hero we loved. This story felt like just another rushed effort by Dan Slott to clean up the book and move onto the thing he seemingly loved more, Spotto Octavius "The Superior Spider-Man," a book that he's written far better than his entire run in ASM. Are we sure Dan is a Spider-Man fan? Or did he just like Otto?
To clarify, I don't begrudge Dan. It's more of the corporate decisions of Marvel executives that I'm so infuriated about. It's always the executives at one point or another whenever we are talking about a creatively-skewed story. And while his work might have been sloppy throughout most of his run, I was reminded recently that it might be due to Marvel pushing him with agendas and deadlines, so again, not his fault.
What's done is done. And I've already began reading "Superior", even as I'm writing this. It's not bad, and it's everything I expected: an extremist Spidey willing to cross the line to get things done. I like it, just not how we got there. I mean, give me a break, Peter was my hero. Is it too much that I wanted a death that wasn't as insulting? At the least, I wish that "dream sequence" I mentioned was more than just a dream, and everyone Peter cared about actually came to pat him on the back for doing a good job, that it was time for him to rest. The fact that it was only a dream felt like the final slap to his face. "Good job, hero. Now get the f*** out of here."
Recommendation: Read ASM #698 alone if you could find it, and maybe the first back-up story in #700 too ("Spider-Dreams") if you could grab that issue for a cheap price. Both of these feature great writing; the former's clever plot-twist was executed so magnificently that it's worth the price, while the latter tells the tale of an older and wiser Peter Parker (in an alternate universe) who has learned about his responsibility to his own family as well. If you're interested in "The Superior Spider-Man," just jump straight to "Avenging Spider-Man #15.1" and read the recap. Don't bother wasting your time here with this book.
I was going to give this story three webs initially. I really did. But looking back now at how Peter's death was treated, I feel more infuriated than satisfied, and also annoyed that it was just another corporate decision that never stuck, since he would come back later anyway. It cheapened the already cheapened idea of the comic book death. Now, even one of the most iconic heroes of all time suffered from the tired cliche of meaningless death.
Next time, we shall finally witness the birth of this supposedly "Superior Spider-Man" and see if Otto could truly surpass our lovable Pete as the hero we deserve: