George Bernard Shaw’s play “Arms and the Man” is about Raina who hides an enemy soldier, Captain Bluntschli, during a battle, only to have the Captain return after the war to win her. Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Spidey story “Arms and the Man” is not.
Randall Andros, a noted writer of “celebrity life stories” (his previous book being on Tony Stark) wants his last book in his current contract to be on Dr. Otto Octavius. “[N]ot just Dr. Octopus,” as he tells his editor, “Otto Octavius. He was a respected scientist before he got his extra arms and went cuckoo. People talk about Doc Ock all the time. I want to let everyone know who Otto Octavius is.” After getting his okay, Randall decides to call his new biography, “Requiem for an Octopus: The Life of Dr. Otto Octavius.” He freely admits he “stole the title from Rod Serling.” (Serling’s teleplay is “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”) He researches Otto’s career from respected scientist to arch-criminal, leading up to his recent plan to poison the ink “that the New York Daily Bugle was printed with” (which occurs in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, 1981. (The Continuity Guide tells us this story takes place right after that.) His next step is to interview friends and family. He tracks down “a paternal uncle named Karl Octavius, living in Detroit, Michigan and a maternal cousin named Thomas Hargrove.” Thomas previously worked with Otto at the United States Atomic Research Center, which has since been shut down by the Department of Energy. First, he interviews former USARC employee Brian Huss who tells him about Mary Alice Anders who dated Otto “but he broke it off. Rumor has it that he got her fired, actually.” After interviewing a number of former USARC employees and getting no consensus on Octavius, Andros decides he must track down Mary Alice Anders.
Soon after, Randall learns that Mary Alice (Anders) Burke and her husband Ronald “had been among the victims in a nasty car accident on the West Side Highway a month previous. Mary Alice had survived; Ronald hadn’t.” Randall contacts the doctor at the hospital who agrees to let her know about his interest. He puts his research assistant to work tracking down Thomas Hargrove and Karl Octavius and goes to the Bugle to interview Ben Urich, Charley Snow and Jacob Conover, then J. Jonah Jameson himself (who tells him how Peter Parker once disguised himself as Spider-Man to save Betty Brant from Doc Ock). This process leads him to an old article on Octavius detailing a press conference by brain specialist Kevin Hunt who had reported that Otto had suffered brain damage. “But only three weeks ago, Hunt was interviewed on a local news program right after Octavius’s most recent capture, and he hedged a good deal more about the apparent brain damage.”
Andros contacts Hunt who tells him that “while it could have been brain damage, it could also have simply been his cranial chemistry rewriting itself to accommodate these four new limbs.” He talks to Thomas Hargrove and learns little. Karl Octavius tells him, “My brother was a fat slob who married a fatter slob and they had a far slob of a kid who grew up to be a psycho chicken.” Peter Parker then contacts Randall and tells him that he not only dressed as Spider-Man against Octavius but that his Aunt once took Otto in as a boarder. Randall assesses what he has so far. “Was [Otto] insane or not? What kind of person had he been before the accident? What kind of person had he become afterward? Had he ‘become’ anything, or had he not changed?” Suddenly, these questions are in danger of remaining unanswered as the lawyers move in. Mary Alice Burke’s lawyer tells him she is suing Otto and shouldn’t talk. The Vulture’s lawyer also tells him his client will not speak. And Octavius’ lawyer gets a court-ordered “cease and desist with my research” because it could prejudice Otto’s trial.
Soon after, Randall’s editor calls to tell him that he must pick another subject for his book but that Octavius wants to talk to him. “No tape recorders, no lawyers, no notes, just a conversation.” Even with the book cancelled, Randall can’t pass this up. He goes to Ryker’s Island where he meets Dr. Octopus. After demanding to know why Randall wants to write a book about him, Otto agrees to answer some questions. In the short interview, Octopus implies that the explosion that fused him to his tentacles was no accident. When Randall brings up Otto’s mother, the criminal quickly ends the conversation.
Heading home, Randall decides that “the man I had talked to was many things, but crazy just was not one of them.” He tries to get a handle on Octopus but cannot. “Maybe it wasn’t possible,” he thinks, “Maybe you had to be like him to understand him. And I did not want to be like him. The very idea made my flesh crawl.”
When Randall returns home, he finds a man in his apartment. The man pulls a gun, says, “My name’s Niner. We got a mutual acquaintance in common, Mr. Andros. Name of Otto. He wanted to send a message to people who mess around with his life,” and then shoots. Randall lies bleeding on the floor, expecting to die. But then Spider-Man shows up at his window. As Spidey explains, “My old buddy Peter Parker said you were writing a bio of Doc Ock. I came by to chat about it – and tell you to pick another subject. Looks like I’m too late.” Randall asks Spidey why he’s always fighting Octopus. Spidey replies, “[P]art of it’s a kind of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God thing. I got my powers from radiation just like he did, but it didn’t make me nuts.” Randall grabs Spidey by his costume and tells him, “Listen!...Ock’s not nuts. I talked t’him, I listened t’him. Not insane. He’s aware of actions, he just doesn’t care.” Then he passes out.
Randall wakes up in the hospital, brought there by Spidey. While there, he receives roses from Spidey with a note, “Best wishes for a speedy recovery. I hope you’re wrong.” When he leaves the hospital, Randall quits biography for fiction, never writing the last book in his contract. “And when I think back over my life – a frequent occurrence since almost losing it – I come to the same conclusion: the dumbest thing I ever did was tell my editor that I wanted my next book to be on Dr. Otto Octavius, aka the super-villain Dr. Octopus.”
Full disclosure. I am acquainted with Keith R.A. DeCandido. Keith used to be on the Spiderfan staff. I met him once at a very pleasant lunch in Manhattan a number of years ago. Not much contact between us but enough for me to know that I like him. Do I like him too much to give him a bad review? No, I think I could give him a bad review if he deserved one. But part of the reason I like him is that he is smart and comic-knowledgeable and a good writer. So, the chances are that any story he’s going to bother to write for an anthology like this is going to be pretty good.
There are a number of things I really like about this story, starting with the first-person narration by a brand-new character. This narration immediately signals to us that this story is going to be different from the rest in this book because this story’s main character is not Spider-Man. Or even Dr. Octopus. In fact, this story is really about a man who finds himself in the dark belly of the super-hero world, a man who thinks he’s a super-hero world expert because he’s written a book about Tony Stark, a man who doesn’t know what he has gotten himself into. One of the things that are cool about this approach is seeing familiar characters in unfamiliar roles. Peter Parker is so peripheral that Randall doesn’t recognize his name when Jameson mentions it. Rather it is Jacob Conover who Randall admires, saying “[Conover] is, in my humble opinion, the Bugle’s best columnist” (and I have to believe that Keith knew that Conover would be revealed as the Rose when he wrote that line). The obscure doctor from Amazing Spider-Man #3, July 1963 who says, “The x-rays show an uncertain amount of damage! I’m afraid his mind has been permanently damaged!” is given a name and an interview here while Mary Alice Anders who is such an important part of Otto’s pre-Doc Ock life, as shown in Spider-Man Unlimited #3, November 1993 is a bit of a cypher here; a nut that Randall is unable to crack. In that SMU #3 story, Octavius does indeed break off his engagement to Mary Alice and arrange for her to be fired because his suffocating mother coerces him into it. Randall, only catching glimpses of Otto’s story, learns enough to bring up his mother’s death as an incentive to becoming Dr. Octopus but not enough to realize that Ock’s mother’s influence is so oppressive that this comment is enough to induce Ock to try to have him killed.
In fact, Randall never imagines that Octopus is capable of such an act (even though he knows that Otto just attempted mass murder with the Daily Bugle’s ink) until he meets him. Before then, Randall views Ock as a romantic figure, an accident victim, a comic book character. Then he meets the villain: “I’d been training myself to think of him as ‘Octavius,’ just another person whose life I was trying to understand, so it wasn’t until I sat face to face with him that I realized that this was not a comfortable place to be sitting.” Fortunately, Randall’s immersion in the super-hero world exposes him to the good as well as the evil and Spidey shows up to save his life (and is, fortunately, wrong when he says, “Looks like I’m too late.”) In the aftermath, Spidey can still live in the super-hero world while Randall cannot; not because Spidey is a super-hero but because he still views that world as the comic book land where people get powers from radiation but some go “nuts” from it. Randall has seen the dark reality; that some people are evil, powers or no. There are no easy answers given. No “the explosion made him crazy,” no “his mother made him crazy.” Life is more complicated than that. And, as Randall says, “Maybe you had to be like him to understand him. And I did not want to be like him.” Spidey sends his flowers and hopes Randall is wrong. Randall, who knows he isn’t, cannot face that world anymore. He can’t face any form of reality. He now writes only fiction instead.
All of this makes “Arms and the Man” one of the best stories in the book but I’m not giving it five webs, partly because I wanted to see more from the secondary characters than just sound bites or silence but mostly because I don’t want to give Keith a swelled head. And because Keith stole his title from Shaw. I know it’s a natural for an Ock story and I appreciate the symmetry of Randall also swiping a title for his book but “the man” who deserves to be mentioned in the title is Randall Andros. Unless “the man” mentioned in the title is Randall Andros. Hmmm. Oh well. Four and a half webs.
Next: Spotlight on J. Jonah Jameson.