I love Peter Parker.
I mean, I love Spider-Man too, but my loyalty really lies with Peter Parker, the man under the mask. How many superheroes can you truly say that about, that the secret identity is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the hero?
Growing up I lived in a lot of places, but my prime adolescent years were spent in Queens, New York. I bought my comics in Forest Hills, at Little Nemo’s, which was on Ascan Avenue. Every time I went to Little Nemo’s I thought about two things: how The Ramones had come together in Forest Hills, where they went to Forest Hills High School, and how Peter Parker had grown up just five blocks south of that store, on 20 Ingram Street. Sometimes after buying my comics I’d walk down Ingram Street and think about Pete climbing out of a window, swinging away into the night, leaving behind a sleeping Aunt May.
I understood Peter Parker. He was a nerd, and a real one at that. But he wasn’t defined by the nerdiness, and he was still funnier and cooler than all the kids who picked on him. Even when he got older, and hipper (at one point he had a Nagel print hanging in his apartment), he still was always having problems. I grew up without much money - sometimes the electricity would be turned off for non-payment and I’d be doing my homework by the light of a street lamp - so I really identified with Pete’s issues. I even understood his women problems; while I was no Casanova as a young man, I identified mightily with the damning distance at which Peter was kept from the women in his life.
Most of all I identified with how hard it was for Peter to do the right thing. He was broke and he was unhappy and he was unloved, and he was always tempted to just say fuck it and take care of himself. Being selfless was a struggle for Peter, a daily thing he had to work at. It would have been very easy for him to be as bad as J Jonah Jameson thought he was, and it would have been easy for him to ignore the cries for help around him. He always chose the harder way, though. To me that’s true heroism; not the driven nature of Batman or the inherent goodness of Superman. Peter Parker’s heroism was reluctant and a slog. I understood that.
Over the years Peter changed. He had to, I guess. Writers came along and wanted to do their own thing with him. Eventually he joined The Avengers, a move I’ve always seen as the biggest betrayal of his character ever - Peter’s a loner at heart. As a fellow loner, I always appreciated that. I always understood that. The final straw for me, though, was the decision to retcon Peter’s marriage to supermodel Mary Jane Watson through a hare brained deal with the devil (or Mephisto, to be more specific). Some in charge at Marvel felt that having Peter married to such a beautiful woman not only ruined the audience’s ability to identify with him, it also made it harder for the writers to create interesting stories.
I stopped reading Spider-Man comics. It was easy to do; ever since the Clone Saga, the stories had been one big irritating shitshow after another. I mean, there were good comics in there, but when something like Sins Past* happened it became tough to remember why I liked this character in the first place. I still had the old stories, and I had Sam Raimi’s movies, which I think perfectly captured the spirit of Peter Parker. Then came this summer's new movie The Amazing Spider-Man, and I began to wonder if I was even a Spider-Man fan at all anymore. The Peter Parker in that movie is a douchebag, a jerk and a pain. The film ends with him smiling about breaking his promise to the dying Captain Stacy. What the hell kind of Peter Parker is that?
Anyway, that’s the prologue. Sorry for the length of that, but I wanted to let you understand my mindset as I began reading Amazing Spider-Man #700, the last issue of that series. A comic that I expected to hate.
The storyline in the final issues of Amazing Spider-Man has seen Doctor Octopus, on death’s door (again), swapping minds with Peter Parker. Doc Ock is in Spidey’s body while Spidey is trapped in Doc Ocks’ decrepit, dying husk. The wrinkle is that both men maintain each other’s memories - Doc Ock knows everything about Peter Parker, which makes imitating him day to day much easier.
In the final issue Peter, trapped in Ock’s body, makes one last attempt to reverse the situation. In the midst of this he dies for three minutes, and we see Peter Parker in his heaven. It’s Ingram Street, and he’s surrounded by all the people he’s loved who has died - Gwen Stacy, Marla Jameson, his parents... and Uncle Ben. Peter, ever convinced he’s letting everybody in the world down, is reassured one after another by his dead loved ones that he did his best, and that’s all they could ask**. Finally Peter speaks to Uncle Ben, the man whose death haunted every moment of Peter’s superhero career, and he gets ultimate absolution. Ben tells him that he has done well, and that after he accomplishes one more thing he can rest. He’s earned it. He’s fulfilled his great responsibility. Someone else can be Spider-Man now.
I won’t lie to you - this made me really emotional. I know, I’m a 39 year old man reading a funny book and I’m getting tears in my eyes. It’s pathetic. But it’s also a testament to how much this character has meant to me over the course of my life, and how well writer Dan Slott understands him. This is the best end for Peter, to be forgiven and to be hugged. To find the simple comfort in having the guilt lifted.
But like I said, Uncle Ben told Peter it wasn’t over, and so he wakes back up in Ock’s body, and makes one last go of it. He tries to switch minds with Ock, but it doesn’t work. Instead some sort of psychic connection is established and Doc Ock and Peter take a trip down memory lane, with Ock starring in all of Peter’s most influential life moments.
And then Peter Parker dies.
Doc Ock is profoundly changed. He has experienced another life in whole, and he has learned from the way Peter lived. He is a villain no more, and he will honor Peter’s memory by being Spider-Man. But he won’t be any old Spider-Man - he’s going to put his genius and his willpower to work being an even better Spider-Man. He’s going to be the Superior Spider-Man.
End issue, end Amazing Spider-Man, cue up Superior Spider-Man #1.
I expected to hate the comic, but I came away kind of loving it. Slott not only understands the meaning of Peter Parker, he perfectly understands the tone of a good Spider-Man story. This comic has some harsh moments - Doc Ock punches Scorpion’s jaw off, for the love of God - but it’s not played as dark and gritty and grim. In fact, in that moment Ock realizes that Spider-Man has been holding back all those years, that he could have punched Ock’s head clean off long ago. Slott uses this bit of violence to explain how much Spider-Man does not engage in serious violence.
There’s also a sense that Slott understands the value of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. There are no superhero guest stars in this issue, but between the hereafter and the main story most of the important characters show up, if only for a moment. While the story does end at Avengers Tower, the Avengers are away, so Slott acknowledges Spidey’s status as a member of the team while not making it central to the story. A good compromise, I say.
As for the death: I’m torn. On the one hand I kind of love that Peter Parker’s life experience reforms Otto Octavius. As someone who has taken moral strength from this fictional character, that’s great. Peter Parker dies, but he wins, because he’s reformed Doc Ock. Maybe it’s a touch quick, but it works for me. This is Spidey’s greatest triumph, that the way he lived his life moves another enough to change himself.
But the death is also semi-pointless. Not only is it obvious that Peter Parker will return (it’s a question of when, not if), the story itself sets up the MacGuffin that will bring him back a little too plainly. When Peter and Ock mindmeld at the end it’s almost a repeat of the ending of The Wrath of Khan; Peter’s consciousness almost surely lives on within Doc Ock.
That’s actually one of two possible MacGuffins. The other is that because Doc Ock has Peter’s memories and is in Peter’s body, he’s essentially Peter. It’s possible that over time Peter’s personality will assert itself, getting rid of Otto Octavius. I find that sort of troubling because it feels like something that could be trotted out in a couple of years for the next generation version of the Clone Saga, where we realize the Spidey we’ve followed for 15 years isn’t really Spidey at all. What a clusterfuck that was.
I do like that Peter Parker ‘dies’ without fanfare. He won’t get a hero’s funeral, he won’t be eulogized by Captain America. That feels right. That feels like how Peter Parker goes out, his death profoundly impacting one person, just as Uncle Ben’s death profoundly impacted him. And I like the idea that we’re going to see Otto Octavius struggling with being a good guy, just as Peter struggled so mightily over the years. After five decades changing the guy in the suit allows the same old stories to have a little bit of freshness to them.
Still, this is just a temporary thing - how temporary is surely dependent on reader response - and that takes away some of the punch. Eventually Peter Parker will be back. This is the new status quo of comics, taking the status quo and making it seem like there’s been change. If there’s a good story in it, I’m all for it. The death of Captain America seemed like a cheap gimmick, but it resulted not only in years of good stories, it actually ended up with me kind of regretting Steve Roger’s return - that’s how much I liked Bucky bearing the shield. Could I feel the same way about the inevitable end of Superior Spider-Man? That would be cool.
As far as temporary gimmick stories go, Slott has done well. It’s a story that’s firmly planted in the best traditions of Spider-Man, a story that understands who Peter Parker is and why we love(d) him. After seeing how royally the latest Spider-Man movie bungled even that, I’m happy to see it here.
* It was revealed that Norman Osborn raped Gwen Stacy and she secretly had his kids. UGH.
** Except Silver Sable, and really, fuck Silver Sable.