It’s Superior Spider-Man #29, page 20 panel 4, the last panel of the issue. Spidey and Spidey 2099 are being throttled by Spider-Slayers with Norman Osborn’s face on them. That’s where this issue begins. And it doesn’t get any farther than that.
The sight of Osborn’s face on the Slayers reminds Otto of a past time, when he was still Dr. Octopus and he received a letter to come to Europe. He enters a mansion and the butler, Andrew, leads him to the office of a man who is supposed to be dead: Norman Osborn. Shocked by seeing Osborn and suspecting that the Green Goblin plans to eliminate him, Otto lashes out, using his tentacles to wrap Osborn up. Andrew enters with a drink for Otto, defusing the situation. Releasing Norman, Otto tells him, “If I had killed you it would’ve been your own fault.” Norman replies that he “wasn’t the least bit worried,” mainly because he has several guns hidden behind a mirror pointed right at Octavius.
Norman proposes an alliance to eliminate Spider-Man. Though the two differ on which one is the web-slinger’s greatest enemy (I vote for the Goblin but not the way he’s been portrayed in recent years), they agree to team up and shake hands on it.
The two super-villains work together in the lab, creating new, superior weapons to challenge the wall-crawler. “Not to mention, it began to be fun,” Otto tells us, “It became clear that we were better off as a team.” In a moment of relaxation, Norman sits in his Goblin costume, speaking to the mask draped over his hand like Hamlet addressing Yorick’s skull. Otto plays chess, apparently pitting one tentacle against another. Norman admits that he and Otto may have become friends. “The only friend I ever had in my whole life was my wife, Emily,” he says, “then a year after our son Harry was born, she fell ill and died.” When Otto expresses his sympathies, Norman retorts, “Aw hell, It’s one more friend than you had.” After laughing heartily, Otto admits that he was engaged once. This makes Norman do a Danny Thomas spit-take. “What, was she blind?” he blurts. Otto is offended but Norman smoothes it over (sort of) and gets Otto talking about his former fiancée.
“Her name was Mary Alice,” he says, “She was a co-worker at the research center I was working at.” He goes on to tell how his clinging mother forced him to break off the engagement, then “met a suitor of her own and left me in the dust.” Norman asks if Otto has thought of looking Mary Alice up. “Maybe one day,” says Otto, “When I’ve reached my goal of being the greatest scientist that ever lived.” This sets Norman off. “Your goal should be the destruction of Spider-Man!” he says, and starts ranting as he puts on his mask and goes all-out Goblin. The two brawl with Otto noting, “The thing about ‘crazy’ is it rears its head whenever it wants.” Realizing that the partnership is worthwhile even with Norman’s insanity, Otto emphasizes that he also wants Spider-Man’s destruction and, just like that, “crazy disappears.”
The two get back to work. Even as Spidey is spending months battling “Spider-Slayers, the Scorpion, and then that gooey alien named Venom” as well as Carnage (so, from about Amazing Spider-Man #368, November 1992 to about Amazing Spider-Man #380, August 1993), the “superior adversaries” concoct “the Octo-Goblin,” combining the Green Goblin’s costume and tricks with metal tentacles. (“Spider Slayers?” says Norman at one point, “What kind of idiot would be seen in one of those things?” A cool counterpoint to page one of the story.) “I have to confess, Otto. I think we make an incredible team,” says Norman and Otto agrees. He returns to the States to pave the way for their plan where he gets a phone call from Norman saying, “It’s time.” Except that Norman is a week early. Norman tells Otto to meet him at “the hospital.” When Otto gets there, Norman, dressed in his Goblin suit but without the mask, tells him there is a change of plans and begins rambling that “I haven’t felt completely right ever since our whole ‘soul vs. science’ argument.” As Otto tells us, “the thing about crazy is, it rears its head whenever it wants,” Norman tells Otto, “I found Mary Alice…I wanted you to feel the kind of pain and loss that I was talking about so, I had her car run off the road.” When a panicked Otto grabs him, Norman continues with, “She’s fine. Just a little banged up…mostly. The doctors gave her a blood transfusion and she’s expected to make a full recovery.” “Oh thank God,” Otto says. Norman puts his Goblin mask on and says, “Yes, I’ve learned my lesson. Which is why I then infected her blood with a deadly virus.” He pulls back a curtain to reveal Mary Alice, unconscious, in a hospital bed.
I am no fan of retcons or “untold tales,” if you will. Continuity is complicated enough without muddying the waters. On the other hand, I’m always open to a good story and I’m willing to cut the retconner a little slack if he/she tramples a few minor continuity points. Sometimes, however, the trampling is too extensive to ignore. Then, the story loses me as I spend more time worrying about the damage than I spend appreciating the content. This issue had such a big trample for me. Now, I recognize that we’re halfway through the story and next issue might fix things. Also, my memory may be flawed. Let me know if it is. Here’s my problem. The whole story of Otto Octavius, his mom, and Mary Alice appeared in Spider-Man Unlimited #3, November 1993. In that story, the flashbacks are stitched together with Otto trying to come up with a cure for AIDS because Mary Alice has the disease. Otto fails and Mary Alice dies at the end. The implication is that Otto has not seen her since his break-up until he reads about her in the Daily Bugle’s AIDS Awareness Series. Is this firmly established? No. Does this mean that Otto can’t have encountered Mary Alice between the flashbacks and the current events of that story? No. But it certainly undercuts the tone, texture, and emotion of that story if he has. And when Norman says here that “I then infected her blood with a deadly virus,” the implication is that the Goblin gave Mary Alice AIDS. I hope that is not the case. If it is, that is not only appalling but it really messes up everything. We’ll find out next issue.
So, there’s all of that which makes me instinctively hostile. But then there’s the cleverness of the issue itself. It’s a cool idea to create a time when Doc Ock and the Goblin were allies as counterpoint to Otto as Spider-Man versus the Goblin Nation. But, more than that, it allows Kevin to distinguish the two villains even when they are both villains. One of the fascinating things about this issue is that Otto still feels like the hero, even as Dr. Octopus and not as SpOck. It’s more than that we’ve become conditioned to Otto as hero. As compared to Norman’s insanity, Otto is rational, almost likable. His laudable goal is to be the world’s greatest scientist (a goal consistent with his time as the Superior Spider-Man) although he must pacify Norman by claiming he mainly wants to destroy Spider-Man. Other things attract our sympathy. He is the brunt of Norman’s ridicule and derision. (Though sometimes deserving of it; I love the bit where Norman asks Otto if he “answered the phone with those $%&@ arms” and Otto, who has, lies and says, “No.”) He is the cool chess player who appreciates the worth of the partnership and the fun of it all and the need to follow the plan. And he is the one who, fooled by the friendship, lets his guard down and tells the story of Mary Alice, earning our sympathy by forgetting what “crazy” can do.
That’s all good stuff but what makes this issue truly inspired is the artwork. After one page of Marco Checchetto (a current Spidey artist doing the current Spidey sequence), the flashback is turned over to Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema, two of the artists who defined Spidey in the 1980s. Their artwork feels comfortable and right; like the return of an old friend. Doctor Octopus looks like Doctor Octopus, Norman Osborn looks like Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin costume is the one you know and love. Instead of a retcon, the feel is of an issue you somehow missed when it came out 20 years ago. It’s not just nostalgia that makes it work, either. There are Ock’s tentacles flailing about, seeming to come from all over; crystalizing in the page 7-8 spread where the tentacles seem to cross and mesh across panels, creating borders and designs. There’s page 19 where the first panel showing Norman Osborn in half shadow with insane eyes is balanced by the last panel (same postion, same distance from the “camera”) showing Norman with his Goblin mask on; the shadows in the same place, the insane eyes now Goblin eyes. But, yeah, mostly it’s the nostalgia. And isn’t that nostalgia great?
Kevin does another great character study. Ron and Sal are in top form making you feel like you’re back in the 80s. But, argh, that whole Mary Alice thing, that whole mess in the service of a retcon. That I can’t ignore, try as I might. So, I can’t do better than three and a half webs.