Dec 30, 2012

On Amazing Spider-Man 700, Superior Spider-Man, and Being a Mark

So just after Christmas day, Amazing Spider-Man #700 came out. And for those who haven't been keeping up with the comics interwebz, the ending, which was leaked way around two weeks before its release, presumably by retailers who couldn't wait to show their readers the ending even though they technically shouldn't have (my retailer wouldn't show it to me before the 26th, and he wouldn't even look at it himself), caused a lot of uproar among hardcore fans, prompting Dan Slott to get death threats.

For those not in the know, in Amazing Spider-Man #698, it was revealed that Otto Octavius, also known as Dr. Octopus, had switched bodies with Peter Parker, Spider-Man, in a situation where they both had their own memories and each other's memories smooshed together. The issue itself was like a magic trick. You had to read it twice in order to really get it, because there was no way you were going to get it right off the bat.  It started of with a pretty generic "This is your life" version of Peter's current status quo, and then turning the tables around and showing that Otto had been in Peter's body through the whole issue.

The thing is, the moment that happened, everything fell into place. For weeks, fans had been wondering what would happen in Superior Spider-Man, the January launch replacing Amazing Spider-Man in the Marvel NOW! lineup. Marvel had made it clear that it wasn't going to be Peter Parker, that it would be someone else, and that Peter himself would be nowhere to be found. And the moment 698 happened, it was pretty obvious that that "someone else" was going to be Otto.

(In 697, also, Norman Osborn escaped the facility in which he was being kept, so I immediately thought "Ock vs. Goblin!" and I will not rest until I see that story.)

Once all the pieces were in place, there was really only one possible course of events in between 698 and Superior Spider-Man #1 (barring a scenario in which Peter got his body back, but enough of Otto's influence stayed in there to make him feel "superior"), which was to get Peter off the stage so that Otto could be free to have his spidery adventures. And that's what Slott did: Peter Parker, in Dr. Octopus' body, died, but not before he got into Otto's brain enough to influence Otto (the exact opposite of the scenario I just posted) to get Otto to rededicate his life to good and altruism, although, clearly, because he's Otto Octavius, it's not going to work. In fact, just a week before 700 came out, this happened in Daredevil:

I legitimately chuckled at this scene.

So the whole path of Superior Spider-Man seems pretty clear to me: Octavius will try to be the best Spider-Man he possibly could be; he'll fail miserably, because he's Otto Octavius and he's naturally, ahem, sinister; someone will figure out what happened, probably Carlie Cooper because Peter already told her in 700 what the deal is; and Peter will come back after a few months, probably via the out that he's "in there, somewhere," where "there" is his/Otto's brain, until such time that we can restore Otto to his body and things can get back to normal somehow. And honestly, I think it's going to be fun, and very entertaining. I just finished Slott's Arkham Asylum miniseries, and I thought that hit the right amounts of fun and disturbing, and it was economically paced.

(And also, Slott says so here: "But we all know he is that arrogant, egotistical Doctor Otto Octavius. What's going to happen now? He's going to try to be a superhero. He's going to try to take this new lease on life and use it for good. But he's Doc Ock, so of course he's going to do it through his own lens.")

That's what I thought while I was reading it. That's what I thought after reading it. That's what I think now, as I'm writing this. And the thing is, it struck me as so obvious, that it was incomprehensible to me how there could be fans thinking it was permanent, and how there could be fans who took it so seriously as to send death threats. After all, it's happened so many times before. In 1992, they killed off Superman and replaced him with four prospective candidates, with DC stating that one of them definitely was the real Superman. I didn't buy it then, either (I was 10), because I'd kind of cottoned to how superhero comics work, especially the big ones, so when Batman got his back broken a year later and replaced with Jean Paul Valley/Azrael, I knew it was only a matter of time before he came back, despite articles in Wizard that said Azrael would be Batman for a long time. Hal Jordan came back in 2005, and Bruce Wayne was shuffled off again in 2008, as was Captain America at pretty much the same time, to be replaced by Dick Grayson and Bucky Barnes. This is essentially the same story; comics have been doing this for a while, and now that I think about it, this is really nothing more of an inversion on a story that's kind of becoming a cliche (everyone remembers that year where Bruce Wayne wasn't around and Dick Grayson filled in for him, but does anyone really remember that that was the same year that Clark Kent could only be found in World of New Krypton, while you had Mon-El and a new Nightwing and Flamebird take center stage in his books?), because in this case the villain is trying to be the hero.

All in all, it's a pretty classic setup: show what's special about our hero by shuffling him off the stage for a while.

There's an inverse relation between permanence and popularity, and these characters, for all their changes, eventually return to their iconic forms. (That, and Slott basically said that this story was an Amazing Spider-Man story until the marketing guys asked them to come up with something for Marvel NOW, and he basically just told them to repackage the book because they already had a story going with what they were looking for).Peter Parker will be back as Spider-Man; the seeds are already actually planted (read 700 again; not only is there an easy out as to how he gets back --which is not to say that Slott will use that particular out-- but someone already knows and can help him get back). The only question is how long it'll take. The one time I believed someone would stay dead forever was Barry Allen, although when Hal Jordan came back, that was only a matter of time; and of course Bucky Barnes stayed on as Captain America longer because Brubaker had a longer story to tell. (For my part, I can't imagine them running with this story for more than three story arcs, which rougly translates to about eighteen issues, which, at two issues a month, is nine months long.)

And don't get me started on the solicitations. When DC and Marvel merged for a week-long event to produce the Amalgam Comics in 1996, they said the old DC and Marvel Universes were gone forever. DC promised that one of the four Supermen was the real Supermen, and there are still people today who think that DC chickened out by making the "real" Superman none of them, even when, reading Reign of the Supermen, it's pretty obvious that that was the point and the theme all along.  Azrael was never going to stick as Batman, even when DC said he would, because the whole point was to show what made Bruce Wayne essential as Batman and comment on 90s tropes while they were at it.

What's more, Slott's been on record that this story's been in the works for a long time, that it was going to be one of his plotlines for Amazing, and that the whole "ending" thing just kind of wrapped into Marvel NOW ("We already have this major upheaval happening in the book that makes it a completely different thing, and that in its own way kind of fits into the world of Marvel NOW!."), so it's not like it was a hotshot move, and at least marketing is giving this enough of a push that it's actually getting through to the non-comics audience. That said, I'm worried about marketing making it last longer than it's planned to, ala the Clone Saga. (The Clone Saga was another storyline where Peter Parker was replaced as Spider-Man. It wasn't well-received, but it started off strong, increasing sales, and just kind of petered out when, by all accounts, the marketing department stretched it out longer than it had to. I hope the same thing doesn't happen here.)

And all of this -- the lack of permanence, the coming plots -- seemed so naturally obvious to me that when I thought about the death threats and all the outrage, I really didn't get it. Had these people not been reading superhero comics for a long time? Do they not know the patterns? And if not, how could they not know the patterns? How could anyone buy the spiel that 700 was the end of Peter Parker's story? Of course it wasn't. Of course he'd be back. That's how superhero comics work. Of course 700 wasn't a good ending to the story of Peter Parker, because it was a lead-in to the next chapter. That's how it works. It doesn't end, and it all reverts to the classic setup. How could they not see this?

Isn't it obvious?

A few days ago, while at the beach, I got my answer as I received texts about the whole thing, some wondering how they could do this to Peter Parker. And while it was easy to dismiss the reactions as overreactions when it came to the naturally overreactive atmosphere of the Internet, it was not so easy doing it when it came to people I respected, people who sometimes read comics, people who love these characters, if not the material. Intelligent people, who nevertheless buy, at least for a while, the idea that Peter Parker would be gone forever.

At that point, exactly three things entered my mind:

(1) This is getting massive press. It's all over on the news, and people are expressing how much they love Spider-Man, even if they don't, you know, read Spider-Man. This might actually succeed in getting new readers.

(2) That led me to wondering whether or not the 20-page monthly issue is outdated. Most of my friends who sometimes read comics never read single issues; they read trade paperbacks. Maybe they should just scrap single issues altogether and go straight to the book market and---

(3) And I stopped right there, because that's when I realized that I am no longer a mark. A "mark" is a term used in professional wrestling to describe the target audience (the lingo has its roots in carny and vaudeville). Professional wrestling, as you know, is scripted, with the moves (ideally) not actually hurting but making it look like it hurts. To believe it hurts, to believe the wrestlers actually hate each other, is to be a mark. I stopped being a pro wrestling mark a long time ago, unable to see the events without considering the external aspects ("Is it good for business?", "Will it make them money?", "What does this mean for this wrestler?", "Will this draw an audience?") not in addition to the actual product presented, but over the actual product presented. I can still mark out (think something being presented is inexplicably awesome), but I was no longer a mark for pro wrestling.

And I realized, that day on the beach, a few days ago, that I wasn't a mark for Big Two superhero comics anymore either. I couldn't find it in me to be outraged about what "they did" to Peter Parker, my favorite character, because all I could see was how temporary it was, how it wasn't going to last, and wondering how they'd bring him back. I couldn't find it in me to even say that I was going to miss Peter Parker while he's gone, because I know he's gonna be back soon enough, and I want to see how Slott handles it -- and note how I phrase that; it's not "how it's going to go down," but "how Slott handles it." Maybe I've been reading too long. Maybe I've been running the Cube too long that I can no longer see the forest for the trees. Maybe I'm now incapable of appreciating the big characters on a surface level.

And I can't help but think, the people who are sending out death threats, the people who are outraged, the people who are going nuts about it -- I can't help but think that that's exactly what Slott wanted (fine, not the people sending out death threats). That reaction is so pure, so unimpeded. That's a reaction that's just centered on what's going on in the story, with no consideration to external factors like "What techniques did they use?", (700 was a real page-turner for me; I couldn't finish it fast enough.) or "Is this good for readership?", (Despite initial interest right now, I don't think it would matter, mostly because of format) or "How does this affect the movie?" (It doesn't.) And that was, honestly a pretty heady feeling, realizing at that moment that I'm not the target audience anymore. I'm not the mark. The target is the people who still buy into it, the people who still view Peter Parker as more than a fictional character. Not the people who buy it because they want to see what Dan Slott puts Peter through next.

I'm not there anymore. I doubt I ever really was. As Ben tells me, there's little a puppeteer can do for someone who can see the strings, and I think that's an apt analogy, because once you see the strings on a puppet show, it's difficult to un-see them. And that's kind of an eye-opener to me, and kind of encapsulates how I've felt about superhero comics from Marvel and DC for the better part of the last year. I still really enjoy the ones I buy (which are actually only two monthly titles, at this point -- Spider-Man and Daredevil), and there have been times, such as the aforementioned ASM 698, that I've been legitimately surprised.

But on the whole I find myself more and more uninterested in the rest of the enterprise. Marvel NOW came and is slaughtering the competition, and I can't bring myself to read any of it because I'm just not interested. I want things that end, things that have closure, things where I don't end up considering all the factors outside the story to judge the story, which doesn't actually make any sense, but that's just what it's come to, more and more, over the years. I'm not "outside" it anymore, though I'm not an "insider" either, so I end up unable to enjoy the product on a pure level, and just wondering how they're going to proceed with it.

And I just finished reading a novel, really excited and needing to know how it's going to turn out -- just how it's going to turn out, and nothing more -- and I'm remembering how much I enjoy just looking at the story as a story, and not as a product surrounded by many external factors. I was reading some TPBs, from the 80s to the early 2000s, and I was remembering how fun it was to read a story like that, without wondering about fan reactions, editorial shakeups, whether or not the story will be cancelled before it's even taken off.

In short, I remember what it was like to be a mark, and how fun it was.

So shit, I dunno what I'm saying, really. Maybe this is it, for me? Maybe Slott's Spider-Man is the last time I'm collecting Marvel and DC superhero comics? Maybe I'll switch to trades after this is done, so that I bypass all those external factors, so that when I finally get my hands on the story, I have little to judge it against other than the quality of the story? Maybe it's time to actively seek out stories, characters, and universes to which I can be a mark, fully and totally. Maybe I need to step away for a while from the universes that have become too familiar, give it some time to rest, and maybe I can come back to it later without involuntarily looking at the patterns, predicting where it's going to go, analyzing and overanalyzing the craft.

But that won't be for a while. Because that won't be for a while. And I still can't wait for Ock to fight Norman, and then for Peter to come back.

Because I'm still marking out for that.

As I was writing this piece, I thought about how much more excited I would be for this plotline if it were happening in Superman. They tend to do "powerless Superman" stories to emphasize that it's not the powers that make Superman special, so a brainswitch with Lex Luthor would be just taking that a step further, and be the natural evolution of this whole "Lex wants to prove he's greater than Superman" theme. It would also, based on the publicity this is getting, be the shot in the arm that I thought Superman comics has needed for a while. 


Ian Miller said...

There was a discussion recently on Comics Should Be Good about whether or not the internet with its ubiquitous ability to spread information quickly and easily is ruining comics. It used to be you could only find info on comics through Wizard or fanzines. Growing up I was the only kid I really knew who read comics, and I had no one to speak to about them or find out more from them. It was kind of a cool feeling, I felt like I was the only comic fan in the world, and this made the comics more special to me.

But the internet has given everyone a voice, and it's usually the people who have the most negative things to say that speak the loudest (Look at most Yelp reviews). Controversy brings about fanboy hatred, and it gets people talking. If they weren't killing Spidey off in this issue, would anybody be talking about it? It seems that in this day and age it really is true that bad publicity is still good publicity.

I was also disappointed reading the spoiler a week ago. Before the internet it was a genuine surprise when a huge event happened. I remember crapping myself when X-Men 25 ended with Wolverine losing his adamantium, or the Onslaught one-shot where half the Marvel universe "died". What's the point in buying a comic with a big twist ending when you know what's going to happen?

Duy Tano said...

The thing is that Slott's said he's been building up to this for a hundred issues, so basically the whole being-spun-off-into-Superior and being a big publicity deal just so happened to coincide with Marvel NOW. If he didn't have this planned, he'd have probably had to rush something. I'd take the coincidence any day, but if it didn't coincide, would it be this big of a deal? It'd just be another arc!

Unknown said...

I agree with you on this one. When I finished reading #700 there was no outrage from me whatsoever. It's just another story and a brave new direction. Probably because changes of this kind will be retconned or ignored by another writer and that eventually all properties like Spider-Man are restored to its most iconic settings.
Still I enjoyed this one and I actually returned to the biweekly floppies for ASM. I've been a trade waiter for the longest time mostly out of convenience.

Daniel Best said...

Well written article. Mind you, after reading it, I'm left with even more faith in my choice not to read mainstream comics anymore. The scenario that you've just outlined is one of the worst since, well, One More Day. How anyone can attempt to justify such crap is beyond me, but then Marvel and DC have no end of people wanting to cash cheques these days for plot lines that wouldn't be accepted anywhere else.

What ever happened to just writing good, solid stories, with character development and storytelling that doesn't fall back/rely upon old, tired cliches such as 'shock endings', usually the death of a character, which we know won't last. These stories are crud - you know that the status quo will be maintained, no matter what the hype machine might want to say.

I guess that doesn't sell anymore.

Duy Tano said...

Fair enough, Daniel. I don't think anyone reading comics for a long time really buys into the "death" - and like I said, it's surprising to me that people do. I think it's important to separate the marketing from the actual storytelling, and from everything I've gathered, it's just a story -- and really, that's all it is, a simple brainswitch story, one we've seen a lot of times -- that marketing pounced on. I don't really see what's objectionable about the plot, and I think the direction is worth pursuing for a few months. (I say 9 in the article, but 6 would be too much, I think.)

Rick Diehl said...

I'm sort of mixed feelings about the whole plotline in Spider-Man. On the one hand it's sort of fun to see Doc Ock, one of comics most egotistical badguys jumping around inside of Mister Neurosis himself, Peter Parker. But on the other hand I have never once read one of these badguys take over stories that ended up being worth a darn. Slott is a decent writer, and he has written some great Spider-Man stories, but he's also written some truly "eh" Spider-Man stories as well. I am amused that so many people are getting as worked up about the story as they are. As if this is some amazingly original comicbook idea and it isn't just standard comicbook plot #352.

Wyokid said...

I for one am really looking forward to Superior Spider-Man. While I haven't been a fan of Slott's run and found Dying Wish horrible, I view it as a band-aid of sorts that needed to get ripped off for a fresh and exciting story to be revealed. I'm especially looking to seeing Otto Parker interact with everyone in Avenging.

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