In his last appearance in this book while still 100% Peter Parker (Avenging Spider-Man #14), Spidey met up with Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy. Since that time, the Otto Octavius-dominated Superior Spider-Man has teamed with more traditional heroes. Time to get a little crazier. Sleepwalker, anyone?
Let’s start with the cover because I want to get back to it later. Drawn by Paolo Rivera, it shows a giant Sleepwalker, his eyes glowing, holding up both ends of a hammock made of webbing. Spidey is asleep in the hammock with his right arm dangling over the side. Below him is a pack of creatures that look very much like the Jackal, only with sharp teeth. The creatures reach up toward Spidey and one of them has grabbed that arm that is dangling down by the wrist. It is a nice creepy symbolic image, particularly that one creature grabbing the sleeping Spidey. But my favorite part of it is the sleeping Spidey himself. His feet are crossed at the ankles, his other hand is draped across his midsection, his head is tilted just so. Even with a mask completely covering his face, he is clearly asleep and this is all wonderfully done with body language. So, a great cover except for something I’ll get back to later.
The story opens with a two-page grid. (Since the site of the traditional splash page is taken up with the recap page.) Forget about the content of these panels for a moment and just look at their configuration. None of them are a standard square. Those on the left hand page tilt to the right seeming to bend up from the bottom left where Spidey (his back to us) stands upright, as if unaffected by the change in perspective. But he looks at a house that seems to bend unnaturally which leads to the path moving from bottom left to top right, like a hopscotch grid. What’s odd about this is that the panels actually have to be read in the opposite direction. This feels like a mistake but is carefully planned, I think. It puts us off-balance, just where you want to have a reader when conveying a dream. The right-hand page doesn’t quite conform to the left-hand page, though it does have black swirled designs that remind me of fancy wrought-iron gates to connect the panels from one page to the other even though they don’t fit right. The rest of the issue is not quite as innovative as this spread but that’s okay. This sets the tone, the rest of the pages only have to remind us.
So, the story. Spidey wakes up in the middle of the street, not having remembered falling asleep. He casts a long shadow in the shape of Dr. Octopus. He recognizes the neighborhood as Schenectady where he, as Otto, grew up. He finds a little boy with a bowl haircut and bowtie, crying because he can’t find his glasses. The little boy’s mother comes out and says, “Come back inside, Otto. You’re going to get hurt out there. You know how fragile you are.” But she’s May Parker in her wedding dress from when she was going to marry Otto back in Amazing Spider-Man #131, April 1974. The “ghost” of Peter Parker attacks SpOck, demanding “Give me my body back!” Otto decides, “this can’t be real.” The young Otto intervenes, disrupting Peter, saying, “You have to run. He’s coming. He’s going to hurt us!” Just then a gigantic octopus attacks. It has glowing eyes and looks like Cthulhu. Spidey realizes he’s “never been more scared” even though he “seen monsters before.” The octopus attack sends ghost Peter floating away. Spidey rescues boy Otto and flees with him.
Suddenly the scene shifts to a New York City subway. Sleepwalker is tangling with Spider-Man and yelling at him to “Wake up!” The full-page illustration is sideways so that you have to turn the book to read it. It gives the impression of Sleepwalker yanking Spidey out of the dreamworld with all the energy of the page going from bottom to top (which becomes left to right) including the movement of the subway train and the people fleeing the station.
Sleepwalker uses his “warp gaze” to try to subdue Spidey but hits a girder instead causing part of the ceiling to collapse. He turns away from Spidey to rescue some bystanders and Spidey attacks him from behind. Sleepwalker takes a beating, telling Spidey, “You are not in control of your actions!” and “You must fight this!” Spidey responds in some alien tongue.
Back in the Mindscape, the giant octopus continues its attack but then becomes human-sized and human-shaped. It snags Spidey with Venom-like black tendrils, serving as tentacles, lifting him high in the air. The distorted octopus head peels away, again like Venom’s symbiote, to reveal Otto’s father underneath. “How could you lose your glasses again? How could you be so stupid?” he asks Spidey. “Why are you so weak?” he says as he punches SpOck back to the ground. Otto realizes that the boy he was saving is he and he recalls that the kids at school crushed his glasses when he was young. His father beat him afterwards, telling him, “You need to learn to fight like a man.” (This incident, and more of Otto’s sad childhood, is shown in Spider-Man Unlimited #3, November 1993.) Now the black-octopus-Venom father continues the beating until a hooded man jumps in and knocks the creature away. Hooded like his alter ego. Removing his hood, he declares to Spidey, “You can call me Sleepwalker. I’m here to help.”
Back at the subway, Sleepwalker strikes Spidey with his warp gaze, forcing a black viscous creature out of him. The creature looks like the “costume” worn by Otto’s father in the dream. The creature tells “the last Sleepwalker” that his prey “has such fears…his body has such power…and I will not let go!”
In the Mindscape, the man (who is Sleepwalker’s alter ego Rick Sheridan, though we’re not told his name here) tells Spidey that he’s trapped in a dream in his own mind. SpOck is snide, as usual. Rick asks him what he last remembers and he tells him that he entered a subway station and found a man with a knife, ready to murder people. Then, “everything went black.” Rick explains “a fearworm, a nasty other-dimensional parasite”, has attacked him Then he asks Spidey, “What’s with all the Doctor Octopus imagery?” Spidey notices that he now wears Ock’s tentacles and is in Ock’s radiation lab. As Otto tries to explain the Ock-stuff away, the fearworm attacks again, yelling, “Where are your glasses?!”
Now the interior battle matches the exterior battle in three sets of parallel panels. In the Mindscape, the worm attacks Spidey. In reality, Spidey, possessed by the worm, attacks Sleepwalker. Otto knows “I am superior to my drunken, stupid, failure of a father in every way” but still can’t shake the fear of him and can’t fight back. In the midst of this, with his hands around Sleepwalker’s throat, the possessed Spidey cries out, “Why can I not kill you?!” Rick tells him, “The worm will gain permanent control of your body! It will use you to kill everyone it sees!” Still, Spidey can’t fight back. As he is engulfed in the blackness of the worm, he thinks, “Maybe it’s better this way. Better that Otto Octavius is dead.” Then he realizes that Otto is dead and that, “I am Spider-Man now, do you hear me, Norbert?” (Actually, Otto’s father’s name was Torbert, but close enough.) As he fights back, he declares, “You may be able to strike fear into the heart of Octavius but you are nothing to the Superior Spider-Man!” And he pounds away at the dream-image of his father until it turns into the fearworm and begs for mercy.
At the subway station, Spidey yanks the worm off of his face and flings it away. Sleepwalker kills it with his warp gaze. “My apologies,” says Sleepwalker, “The fearworm is an ancient creature long thought dead. My kind battled them millennia ago. We began policing the mindscape for just such a reason.” Otto is not pleased. He grabs Sleepwalker and shoves him up against the wall with such force he breaks the tiles. “This was your fault, freak!” he says, “Do you realize what I went through?! You deal with this kind of thing? Do a better job.” Otto’s narration tells us, “The alien muppet creature apologized and floated away like some kind of sick dream.”
Later, Otto puzzles it all out. Sleepwalker has told him “the vile creature that possessed me nearly killed Sleepwalker. He believes that I stopped it.” (That moment when Spidey cried out, “Why can I not kill you?!”) But Otto knows that while he “found the strength to defeat it,” he didn’t “stay the creature’s hand” in that moment. So, then, what did? “All of it, a dream, perhaps,” he thinks but recalls (for our penultimate panel) the ghost Peter that demanded his body back. “But some of it seemed so real,” thinks Otto.
This is one that takes more than one reading to fully appreciate. When I first finished it, I thought, “So Spidey is fighting in a dream, that’s not only nothing new (see Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #35, October 1979) but it was just done in this series (see Avenging Spider-Man #12). And the guest-star is Sleepwalker, of course, because if you’re going to use Sleepwalker, then you’ve got to place the action in a dream. And the villain is a fearworm. Yeah, sure, whatever.” I was going to give it two webs. Then I read it again.
And the first thing you notice is the art. I’ve already said a lot about Marco’s work on this issue but I should add that the only pages with standard square and rectangular panels are those that take place in reality. The rest are all skewed in one way or another. The giant octopus fills an entire double-page spread with panels tumbling down from top to bottom imitating the carnage that SpOck and boy Otto are avoiding. The panel borders on page 8 seem to bleed out from the black of the fearworm’s Venom-tendrils. Even the parallel panels on page 15 don’t quite match up on the bottom so that the dream-segment is still just a little bit askew.
The next thing you notice are the details. And the details are important because this is the Superior Spider-Man’s psyche, not the Amazing Spider-Man as we’ve seen in previous dream issues. Here, Otto sees his mother as Aunt May in her wedding dress, showing us without a word why Ock was so interested in May to begin with. May’s line, “You know how fragile you are,” may be something Ock’s mother said to him but it is primarily a line that May has said to Peter time and time again, showing that the two sides of the personality are closer than we suppose. (Or perhaps that the Peter side of the personality is channeling this part of the dream.) When ghost Peter tries to take his body back, the only real thing that happens in this dream, it is, ironically, the thing that convinces SpOck that “this can’t be real.” (Ghost Peter is overused and annoying in Superior Spider-Man. This is Chris’ first use of the concept in Avenging and he uses it to great effect.) The struggle Otto has with his abusive father is a bit clichéd but his victory serves to physically demonstrate the psychological truth that this Octavius is no longer that Octavius; that the amalgam of the Superior Spider-Man can overcome the frailties and wounds of Ock’s old self. Perhaps step one to the healing of the character. There are a few enjoyable Ockisms here, too. When Rick asks, “Are you okay?” Spidey replies, “No. Perhaps more idiotic questions will help.” SpOck’s angry reaction to Sleepwalker at the end is priceless. And his reference to Sleepwalker as “the alien muppet creature”…heh. I love that.
Still, by the last page, Otto is aware that, while he defeated the creature, he does not have the code against killing that would have prevented him from sparing Sleepwalker. It brings that flash of memory of ghost Peter and, perhaps, gives Otto his first inkling that he is not alone in Spider-Man’s mind after all. The final panel shows a close-up shot of Spidey looking straight ahead. His left eyepiece is opaque but we can see his right eye through the other lens and it is pensive and determined.
As for Sleepwalker, we don’t learn much about him, not even Rick’s name, but we learn enough to appreciate his role in this issue. A good team-up issue begins with a strong idea and then uses the guest-star best suited to that idea, and this one certainly qualifies. As I’ve mentioned, I love obscure guest-stars. Devil Dinosaur four issues ago and now Sleepwalker? I can’t complain. Except about that deceptive cover. (See? I got back to it.) Or one deceptive part of an otherwise terrific cover. Remember how the creatures at the bottom of the cover look like the Jackal? You may recall that the Jackal appeared at the end of Avenging Spider-Man #16, setting up a subplot that has not yet seen the light of day. When I saw this cover, I was sure that the Jackal subplot was going to continue and I was excited. I was also wrong. Sure glad I didn’t buy this for the Jackal’s appearance.
Great cover (except those Jackal creatures), imaginative artwork, carefully laid details, and the hint that Otto may become aware of ghost Peter. It’s not two webs after all. It’s four webs!