Comics : Superior Spider-Man #6

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This review was first published on: Apr 2013.

Background...

Otto ‘Doc Ock’ Octavius has transferred his mind into the body of Peter ‘Spider-Man’ Parker. While Peter’s now-disembodied consciousness swims about Otto’s subconscious, looking for a way to reassert control, Otto leads a new life as the ‘Superior Spider-Man’. Otto has taken Peter’s maxim that great power brings great responsibility to heart, but he’s executing his mission to protect the innocent with all the ruthlessness and brutality you’d expect from a former super-villain.

Readers got a taste of those qualities last month, when Otto executed a helpless Massacre, but arguably there were extenuating circumstances. Still, it’s an open question how long Otto can conceal the fact that his code of honour is far narrower and starker than Peter’s ever was.

In Detail...

"Joking Hazard"
Superior Spider-Man #6
May 2013 : SM Title
Summary: Screwball, Jester
Writer:  Dan Slott
Pencils:  Humberto Ramos
Inker:  Victor Olazaba
Lettering:  Chris Eliopoulos
Colorist:  Edgar Delgado
Executive Producer:  Alan Fine
Publisher:  Dan Buckley
Chief Creative Officer:  Joe Quesada
Editor In Chief:  Axel Alonso
Editor:  Stephen Wacker
Assistant Editor:  Ellie Pyle
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Articles: Green Goblin IV (Phil Urich)

We open with Mayor J. Jonah Jameson giving a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Jameson tells the assembled press that he intends to shut down the Raft, on the totally-reasonable grounds that housing a super-villain prison on the outskirts of New York City is a terrible exercise in risk management (made worse by the fact that, as per Marvel’s storytelling requirements, that prison might as well have a revolving door built into it). Daily Bugle videographer Phil ‘Hobgoblin’ Urich, who is recording the conference, expresses via internal monologue his concern about Jameson’s new tough-on-supercrime agenda: the Mayor also intends to impose mandatory 10-year sentences for use of super-powers to commit a crime. Phil is feeling cash-poor these days, and will presumably be going on a supercrime-spree in short order, which makes Jameson’s new edict bad news. It’s the good old Urich luck!

But enough foreshadowing of future stories! Let’s get down to the business of the present story. Jameson’s conference is interrupted by Screwball and her new partner in crime, the Jester. Screwball seems to have upped her game lately, as she can move so fast the mayor’s security detail can’t get a bead on her, and - if the artwork is to be believed - she’s strong enough to shatter concrete with her hand. But she’s not here to commit a robbery, just a pranking: poor JJJ gets a pie to the face courtesy of the Jester, and Screwball adds insult to injury by pantsing the poor guy. Apparently JJJ is a boxers man. Having humiliated the mayor, the two depart, mission accomplished. What mission is that?

“Wanna see more exclusive headcam footage? Go to screwballed.com!”

The press corps assembled wasn't able to capture any of that footage, thanks to Screwball’s tech, but they’re laughing so hard they don’t care. So too are the many New Yorkers who have visited Screwball’s site, including Otto Octavius, who’s watching it via laptop at Horizon Labs. He’s enjoying it so much that he’s disturbing his co-workers: Sajani and Grady both find Otto’s new supervillain-inflected laughter to be creepy. But no time for lab work now, because Spider-Man has to answer a call to arms from Mayor Jameson. JJJ wants Jester and Screwball apprehended, and while Otto is initially resistant, seeing the pair as too low-priority to justify his involvement, he has a change of heart when he remembers all the times he himself was humiliated by Spider-Man. “Bullies like that need to be put in their place”, says Otto, and “I’m just the man to do it”. Dispatching his Spider-Bots to find the pair of miscreants, he swings off to Empire State University, where he’s obliged to meet with his physics tutor, Anna Maria Marconi, and his professor Don ‘the Schnoz’ Lemaze.

The point of the meeting is for Otto, with Anna’s help, to smooth over the bad first impression he made back in Superior Spider-Man #4. As per that issue, Otto finds it intolerable that Peter abandoned his graduate studies, and has resolved to fix that situation... and Lamaze is, according to Otto’s inner monologue, “the one man standing between me and earning Peter Parker’s doctorate”. Now your humble correspondent has a doctorate of his own, and take it from me, it’s not that easy to get a degree, especially after walking away from grad school for years, but if I can suspend my disbelief to accommodate radioactive spiders and brain-switching robots, I guess I can tolerate this too.

Unfortunately, no matter how great the prize, Otto is unable to turn on the charm - or even basic everyday politeness - for long. He’s just managed to explain to Dr. Lamaze that he intends to submit a thesis on neuro-activated cybernetics when his smartphone informs him that the Spider-Bots have located Jester and Screwball. With a muttered apology, Otto walks out of the conversation and changes into mufti.

Elsewhere, Screwball and Jester congratulate themselves on all the traffic that their site has pulled in. This is good for their bottom line, because the pair are using malware to phish incoming connections and acquire sensitive information, such as bank account numbers, etc. So it seems the pair are cybercriminals who only use their pranks as a tool to draw in their marks. Eager to max their pageviews, they look for a good target for another pranking.

“How ‘bout that guy?” asks Jester.

“Too old. We’d come off like jerks.”

“Her?”

“Too ethnic. It’d look all racist-y.”

Enter Spider-Man, come to arrest the pair. He, of course, is a perfect target.

With headcam live, the pair spring into action, dancing about and taunting the humourless Otto. “Come on, Spidey! Where are the quips? All the one-liners?” Otto lets his fists do the talking, and gives Screwball a mighty blow to the chest.

“Ow! You totally punched me in the boob!”

Embarrassed, Otto attempts an apology, and even here his stilted language calls attention to itself: “Oh, dear... Miss, I assure you, I had no intention of...”

Sucker. Jester takes advantage of Otto’s discomfiture and hits him in the crotch with a slingshot bullet. When Screwball raises concerns, Jester replies that “it’s the internet, kid. There’s no points for subtle”, and demonstrates his point by peppering Spider-Man with paintballs, leaving Spidey's costume decorated in blobs of bright colour, so much so that Otto is forced to wrench off his mask’s lenses to see. Jester raises the stakes by stomping on the lenses and smashing them to pieces.

This was a big mistake.

Earlier in the issue, we saw in flashback how much Otto was bullied as a child, and the searing memory he still bears of having his thick spectacles removed and crushed underfoot. Now, as he glares at Jester, the air is filled with the sound of mocking laughter, laughter that the reader is supposed to infer is in Otto’s head. Jester has crossed a line and is about to suffer the consequences.

Back at ESU, we get a taste of what those consequences are likely to be. As Anna Maria leaves campus, she comes across a crowd in the parking lot, staring at a trashed automobile that belongs to one Brad Beecham. It’s been smashed up and flipped over, and Brad and his friend Justin are trapped in the trunk. How did they get here? Well, we readers know that these two were bullying Anna Maria earlier in connection with her status as a midget, an act which Otto, in his civilian garb at that point, witnessed. He’d offered to Anna Maria to “make them pay”, but Anna Maria, who’s an emotionally healthy adult, hadn’t even registered, much less harboured resentment over, the pair's remarks. Seeing now what has happened to the two, she doesn’t feel even a flash of satisfaction: instead she’s filled with horror. As she calls 911 for help, she mutters to herself, “Dear Lord, who would do such a thing?”

We readers know. And we can infer that he did it while wearing a Spider-Man costume. And that he did it in cold blood. Well, back on the rooftop with Screwball and Jester, his blood is running hot.

Using his webs, Spider-Man incapacitates the pair, and then swings them into a nearby post. As the two lay on the ground, wind knocked out of them, Otto leaps on top of them, extends his new claws, and goes to work. We don’t see exactly what he does, but lots of New Yorkers see courtesy of Screwball’s headcam, and their expressions tell the tale. MJ is horrified, and is certain that Peter would never do such a thing. JJJ is gleeful. And the Avengers, who had earlier been debating whether the Superior Spider-Man, executioner of Massacre, had a place on their team, are now convinced that he doesn’t. The fact that Wolverine speaks for all of them says something; there’s a man whose tolerance for seeing one’s opponents sliced up with claws has to be pretty high.

Peter Parker drags himself up from Otto’s memories of past bullying to find Otto, his claws dripping blood, standing over a brutalized Jester and Screwball. Aghast, he silently screams, “What have you done?!”

Next: Avengers vs. Spider-Man! The parody of the AvX logo from earlier in the year is cute.

In General...

I liked this issue, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a done-in-one. Sure, it plants seeds for future stories, including the succeeding issues, but this issue alone has a beginning, middle, and end: the Rise and Fall of Screwball and Jester. I think comics need to do more of these, rather than always subjecting us to oft-interminable arcs, so I salute Superior Spider-Man for giving us a complete story here.

Secondly, ‘Joking Hazard’ (hereafter JH) takes on two subjects that comics typically choose to avoid discussing, precisely because the superhero medium is so complicit in them: the depiction of violence as simply a dramatization of conflict, and the revenge fantasy. Peddling these two is the superhero’s stock in trade, but this issue takes thoughtful aim at both.

On the subject of violence, JH makes it clear that dealing out violence is a horrible business, and encourages us readers to sympathize with its victims, namely Screwball, Jester, and the two ESU bullies. It is no accident, of course, that Slott gives us a pair of supervillains and a pair of civilian bullies; we need to look at their cases in parallel. It’s important to remember that the two bullies hadn’t dished out any violence of their own, and had restricted themselves to verbal abuse. There’s no excuse for that, of course, but the story makes it clear that by escalating a situation from words to blows, Spider-Man crossed a significant line.

The Jester and Screwball sequence proceeds on a similar track. The pair of them are normal people without weapons (I think Screwball’s seemingly super-powered antics at the press conference were simply artistic license taken by penciller Humberto Ramos). Both are dressed in light-hearted fashion, and their antics are deliberately ridiculous rather than threatening. In the real world, of course, being pantsed or getting pied in the face are frightening and constitute serious assaults on a person’s dignity; but in a comics context, we readers see what the pair are doing as simple conflict-without-consequences, as we’ve seen so many times in the comics pages. The hit to Spidey’s crotch seems to me to be a call-out to America’s Funniest Home Videos. which used that gag endlessly, and never showed any aftermath.

But any reading of Jester and Screwball’s antics as simply lighthearted comedy changes when we see Otto’s response. In real life, there’s no such thing as violence without consequences. This is one comics story that makes that clear, even if, to make that point, writer Slott has to make Otto whip out the claws. Pummeling is too commonplace in the comics to have dramatic impact, but cutting skin, that’s another level of violence. Using Wolverine as the voice of the Avengers was not an innocent choice on Slott’s part.

By showing violence as a serious business, and depicting those who use violence casually as dangerous and non-heroic, JH takes solid aim at the revenge fantasy, a story comics have been peddling at least as far back as when that nebbish Clark Kent transformed into mighty Superman. We’ve all felt powerless in some points in our lives, and we’ve all fantasized about gaining great power and using it to put our enemies in their place. Reading comics, or some of them anyway, can satisfy that desire, as can watching most Hollywood popcorn flicks, and so on. Big media knows there’s money to be made in this field. So too does Slott: look back at Amazing Spider-Man #665, to which JH seems to me to be a thoughtful reappraisal. Issues like JH are a salutary reminder that emotional maturity consists in developing the mental shock absorbers to look past the slights and indignities of everyday life, rather than seething privately and holding grudges. Dark emotions like that, if kept, will often erupt in the wrong places at the wrong time and against the wrong people. Just ask Otto; or ask Jester and Screwball.

Overall Rating...

A solid done-in-one that dares to rush in where most comics fear to tread. Four webs.

Footnote...

Let me add a few notes here where they won’t disturb the flow of the argument I’m making above:

  • So Otto is going to submit a thesis on the subject of neuro-activated cybernetics? No doubt he’s got the knowledge to do that, but how’s he going to demonstrate his theories? Based on the story so far, I’d imagine it’s going to be a prosthesis for Aunt May’s leg.
  • Have we seen this Jester before? According to Wikipedia, there have been three Jesters so far in the Marvel Universe, and two of them are dead, and the third is in a coma. The latter one was formerly possessed by a demon in the pages of Bendis’ Daredevil, so even if he did wake up, I’d imagine he wouldn't be light-hearted enough to team up with Screwball. So I think this is a new Jester, but if any SpiderFans know different, please let me know.
  • I’m glad to see Screwball back. Others disagree, but overall I thought the Brand New Day villains had potential, and she had the most - certainly more than Freak or Paper Doll. I wonder if we’ll see her again after this? Hopefully the wounds Otto inflicted on her were superficial.