Of the many tropes to regularly wind their way through the Spider-Man comics over the years, the one that always wears on me is when some chain of events cause the “friendly neighborhood” attitude to drop from Spidey’s modus operandi and we see Peter become a dark, serious vigilante. What can I say? I like my Spider-Man to be a light, happy, inspiring character. If I wanted glum and grim I’d read more Batman. However, Dan Slott (who I’m learning more and more is nothing if not an inventive writer (who really loves Spider-Man)) upended this approach with The Superior Spider-Man. One of the many things to happen to the web-head during the nineteen years I wasn’t reading his comics was Doctor Octopus stole his body and life for a time. With Ock wearing the webs, we find our angrier Spider-Man but wrapped inside a tale of transformation and redemption.
However, my point here isn’t so much to explore or analyze The Superior Spider-Man in isolation. I’d rather consider the merit of darker Spider-Man stories in general.
While I don’t ever enjoy these stories per se, I go back and forth on the necessity of any storyline that causes Peter to descend into the darkness. The joy, optimism, and hope Peter Parker embodies is one of – if not the defining trait of his character. I’d argue this perspective is even more important to who he is than his “With great power, comes great responsibility” mantra because of the way in which he carries that responsibility. Despite all the pain, all the losses, all the struggles, all the tragedy, Peter never lets it take him down. He always gets back up, cracks another joke, and continues to hope against all odds. You can realize with great power comes great responsibility and be a dark, brooding, even macabre character. But Peter Parker isn’t and when we think of Spider-Man we tend to think of his wit, levity, and lightheartedness more than anything else. So, on the one hand, these stories that “break” Peter (for a time) and cause him to become a somber, angry vigilante (for a time) feel like a contrived, clichéd attempt to give Spidey the same sort of “cool” characters like Wolverine, Venom, the Punisher, and Batman posses while tossing aside what makes him him.
On the other hand, seeing Peter Parker break reminds us that we all have a limit. There’s only so much any one of us can carry. When we hit that limit, when we become overwhelmed, when we break, we are faced with decisions. What do we do? How do we heal and move forward? Can we? As a hero that so many people love/connect with/identify with, there is great mythic potential (a potential, admittedly, not always realized in these stories) in having Peter fall. As I cite often, Joseph Campbell tells us myths are tales for spiritual instruction. To show the reality of our breaking points, to show what happens when we go beyond them – how we fall, how we struggle, and how we may ultimately rise again – can be a paramount story.
There’s is a stark difference however between a dark Spider-Man story and one where Peter Parker descends into the darkness. Perhaps the most iconic example of the former is 1987’s “Kraven’s Last Hunt” by J.M. DeMatteis. In it, Peter is forced to confront his own mortality shortly after his marriage to Mary Jane as Kraven fights him, beats him, drugs him, and buries him alive. Peter spends two weeks in the grave before he comes to and claws his way out. During this time Kraven becomes a “superior” Spider-Man, wearing Spidey’s costume and brutally hunting criminals, to prove he’s the best. Another example would be in 1996 when Norman Osborn has Alison Mongrain poison Mary Jane while she’s pregnant (in The Sensational Spider-Man #11) forcing her to go into labor and deliver her stillborn daughter (in The Amazing Spider-Man #418). That is fucked up. Pardon the unexpected profanity but it is fucked up. I hated reading this as a kid and it disturbs me even more now. Of all the shit Peter and Mary Jane have dealt with in these comics, that one crosses all sorts of lines. Despite the incalculable emotional tolls, neither losing May nor Kraven “killing” him, cause Peter to break. But he’s certainly been pushed to his breaking point.
Miles Morales is learning this for the first time in the current story arc of Spider-Man. Beginning last month in issue #17, his friend and superheroing partner Lana Baumgartner (a.k.a. Bombshell) is severely injured during a fight with Hammerhead. Miles is driven to the edge by his anger and lust for revenge and unleashes a side of himself he’s never seen before in his battle with Hammerhead. He fights Hammerhead and those around him with a demonic ferocity destroying the nightclub they are in and part of the street outside. This leaves him scarred, scared and deeply afraid of his own power and what he has the potential to become.
For Peter Parker, “The Death Of Jean DeWolff” – a 1985 storyline running through Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 – is considered one of the first major examples of his falling to the darkness. Here, one of Peter’s only true friends on the NYPD, Captain Jean DeWolff, is murdered by the serial killer the Sin-Eater. Spider-Man is brutal and relentless in his hunt for the Sin-Eater. When he finally catches him, Peter nearly beats the Sin-Eater to death. It is only Daredevil’s intervention that stops Spider-Man from murdering him. While Peter doesn’t kill him, he does leave the Sin-Eater permanently disabled.
To my knowledge, the longest consistent streak of Spider-Man’s descent into darkness and pain came in 1994. It was a rough time for Peter Parker and his near-yearlong descent into the darkness begins with “Lifetheft,” running in The Amazing Spider-Man #386-388. Peter has come to finally trust his parents, who mysteriously returned in The Amazing Spider-Man #366, only to learn they’re Life Model Decoys created by the Chameleon. Once Peter confided in them about his double life, their programming kicked in and they went to reveal this to the Chameleon. In the space of one evening, Peter learns his parents are truly dead, battles his “father” who wants to kill him, and watches his “mother” kill his “father” before dying while saving his life. This begins Peter’s descent into the darkness.
This story is followed by “Pursuit” running from April to May in Spider-Man #45, The Spectacular Spider-Man #211, Web Of Spider-Man #112, and The Amazing Spider-Man #389. Peter hunts the Chameleon with a blind rage, tearing the criminal underworld apart in search of any clue as to where to find him. He stops coming home. He doesn’t speak to Mary Jane, other than to yell at her, leaving her to mourn in complete isolation. Ultimately, he finds the Chameleon at Kraven’s old mansion. Spider-Man beats the Chameleon until he becomes a simpering mess. Then, with nothing in the Chameleon left worthy to kill, Peter looks to redirect his anger. He learns it was the Green Goblin (the Harry Osborn variety) who set the whole plan into motion before he died.
This all builds to “Shrieking” in The Amazing Spider-Man #390-393. As the story unfolds, Peter refuses to talk to Mary Jane or Aunt May. He can’t. He can’t emotionally process what’s happened. As the distance grows, he works to push down “the man” so only “the Spider” remains. Since it is always Peter Parker who hurts, he wants to be only the Spider. As he hunts the super-powered serial killer Shriek who has escaped from Ravencroft, turning Malcome McBride back into the creature Carrion, Aunt May suffers a stroke. When Mary Jane tells Peter of this he screams, rages, weeps, destroys their living room, and ultimately webs himself into a cocoon. He emerges having left Peter Parker behind – dead, rotting – and has become the Spider – a silent, rage-filled force of nature.
I hated these stories as a kid. I don’t like them now either. Is it any wonder I was sooooo happy when Ben Reilly took over as Spider-Man and Peter and Mary Jane went to live in Oregon?! They deserved a break! Mary Jane was pregnant! Peter was working in a lab! They could live happily ever after. And I really, really wanted that for them. That’s a big part of why I’ve always loved Ben Reilly as a character. He gave Peter and Mary Jane the gift of a happy life while still carrying the Spider-Man mantle. Sadly, they eventually returned to New York and the darkness, depression, hopelessness, and rage would eventually take hold of Peter Parker again too.
In 2007, Aunt May is gunned down in the wake of the first Superhero Civil War in J. Michael Straczynski’s “Back in Black” storyline running through The Amazing Spider-Man #539-543. As May’s in the hospital, Peter puts his black costume back on and mercilessly hunts her would-be assassin. Then The Amazing Spider-Man #634-637 in 2010 would give us “The Grim Hunt” storyline where Peter faces the Kravinoff family trying to resurrect Kraven the Hunter. Taunting Spider-Man to come after them with the murder of his clone/brother Kane, Spidey dons the black costume they leave for him and hunts them with a blind ferocity – tearing Sasha Kravinoff’s face off with his spider-grip.
(Ugh…why am I writing this post? I hate when Peter suffers like this. Since I re-read all these horrible Spider-Man stories I guess I have to finish writing this to make it worthwhile but…c’mon, this is terrible.)
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, these are certainly some of the most extreme examples of this trope. However with The Superior Spider-Man, Dan Slott is able to give us a darker, angrier Spider-Man without breaking Peter emotionally. Beginning in November of 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man #698-700’s “Dying Wish” story arc, Doctor Octopus successfully “switches places” with Spider-Man, leaving Peter’s mind in his dying body while his mind goes on to live in Peter’s healthy body. Ock gets more than he bargained for though. With Peter’s body, he also gets part of Peter’s consciousness and all of Peter’s memories, feelings, and experiences. As he takes in the pain and the tragedy, Otto Octavius learns with great power, comes great responsibility. He dedicates his new lease on life to becoming even better than Peter was at protecting New York City in The Superior Spider-Man. This would run from January of 2013 through June of 2014.
The difference that makes all the difference here is instead of breaking Peter Parker to the point where he’d become a dark, angry, violent character, Dan Slott takes Otto Octavius and puts him in a situation where he works to overcome his darkness, anger, and violence to be a true hero. Yes, he’s still kind of a pretentious asshat. Yes, he uses means that Peter would never accept. But he also finishes Peter’s PhD, founds Parker Industries, tricks out his Iron Man armor Spidey suit with all sorts of new tech, builds working relationships with the police and the mayor, and even falls in deep, honest love with Anna Maria Marconi. We have an angry, brooding character trying to transcend as opposed to an inspiring, happy-go-lucky character broken to the point where my heart hurts as I read. As a result, the stories achieve a similar goal (in giving us a tonally different Spider-Man) without having to crush my soul and break my heart into a thousand sad little pieces.
Not that The Superior Spider-Man is all happiness and witty banter. Far from it. In The Superior Spider-Man #6 we see one of the darkest moments in any Spider-Man title (and this is saying something given what I’ve written about above). Otto tracks the serial killer Massacre to a train station. After he’s been on a shooting spree, Otto manages to take him down and then wrestles with whether or not Massacre should be killed.
This is dark not only for the murder of Massacre but for the emotional turmoil that brings Otto to do it. Whether or not you saw it coming, it was still shocking to see Otto shoot Massacre in that train station. It raises all sorts of important questions we need to wrestle with about retributive justice vs. restorative justice. It’s also one of those scenes that forces the reader to put themselves in that spot and think about what they would do. The reason it forces us there is, in part, because Otto does the opposite of what Peter would do. We’re surprised! So we think. Peter would web Massacre up and hand him over to the cops, ready to take him down again should he ever break out. Otto shoots him, point blank, with the gun he’s taken from him to end his menace. As readers, we’re looking at the darkness without seeing Peter broken to the point where he participates. We see the darkness as reflected in a character who’s trying to rise above it but doesn’t know how to do so responsibly in a world of moral ambiguity.
The most important thing The Superior Spider-Man does, at least as far as I’m concerned, is its presentation of evil. With Peter in Otto’s mind, he sees the forces that made Otto Octavius the man he is. Otto spent his entire childhood being abused by his father, neglected and bullied by his peers, and suffering under an overbearing mother who scared away the slight chances he had at normal relationships. From isolation, neglect, abuse, and pain rose a great villain. Evil isn’t natural. Evil isn’t independent. Evil is created. This important realization brings with it both the potential for our compassionate understanding and the real ring of responsibility we have for how we act in the world. What do our actions, our relationships – with people and with creation – give birth to?
The Superior Spider-Man was certainly the easiest and most enjoyable to read of these stories of Spider-Man descending into the darkness. (Special thank you to Nancy and Kathleen of Graphic Novelty² fame and Green Onion from The Green Onion Blog for being such tireless and excited library advocates. While I enjoyed reading this title I can’t imagine ever picking it up again so I am soooo happy I just borrowed them from the library. Yay!) For me, I’d say it’s the most important of the Spider-Man-descends-into-the-darkness stories too. But, in saying that, it really isn’t a fair comparison is it? Here Otto Octavius begins in darkness and tries to rise above it and find redemption. In the others, Peter Parker is broken to the point where all that’s left is pain, suffering, and anger. So…is there merit to those sort of Spider-Man stories? Can it be necessary/helpful/a good idea for everyone’s favorite wise crackin’ wall-crawler to tumble down into the angry and aggressive territory of men like the Punisher?
Joseph Campbell tells us that there are four primary functions of myths – the mystical function, cosmological function, sociological function, and the pedagogical function. The pedagogical function is where we learn how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. This shows us how to live in accord with the natural world all around us and the divinity we glimpse. Confronting the pull of the darkness can be a central lesson in that journey. More specifically, myths, “are the archetypal dreams that deal with great human problems…The myth tells me about it, how to respond to certain crises of disappointment or delight or failure or success.” Most specific of all, myths show us that, “at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” So in taking Peter Parker to this bleakest moment we can reach this point of transformation and instruction.
While there is real importance to stories like this I still wonder…is Spider-Man the right character to teach these lessons? I don’t know. While adults love and read comic books, I tend to think they are (or at least should be) for children first. I love the memories I have of reading comics as a kid and I contribute a lot of my love of reading (and maybe mythology) to them as well. And as I went back and re-read all of these stories, I didn’t find anything on this list that I think would aid the developing heart and mind of a child. Life can be full of horror, heartbreak, and pain. But not all the time. There’s also optimism, joy, triumph, and love. I think that’s who Spider-Man is. I’m not saying there’s no place for stories about a superheroes dealing with such oppressive darkness but you expect that with the Punisher or Batman. You don’t expect that with Spider-Man.
I’m also not saying Peter Parker should never face adversity or heartache. That’s not an honest depiction of life either. But the stories I looked back at for this post – specifically how he handles that pain – is something else all together. I think certain characters are more suited for teaching certain lessons and someone with as broad appeal as Spider-Man might not be right to drag down to such a dark place. There is no reason EVER for a story where Norman Osborn kills Mary Jane and Peter’s child while still in the womb…all the less so in a comic as likely to be read by a seven-year-old as a forty-seven-year-old. Abandoning “Peter Parker” for the Spider can be intriguing for an adult to contemplate…but does a ten-year-old really want to read it? Should they? I don’t know. I know I don’t like these stories. I hated them as a kid and they hurt me now. But I do appreciate The Superior Spider-Man for being daring enough to look at the darkness from an angle that leads us to thoughts of redemption over revenge.
May the art we consume always lead us to thoughts of redemption and transformation, both for ourselves and for others.
Oooookay…I need some kind of mood-lifter and I need it NOW. Writing this was brutal! Maybe I’ll go binge-watch Dumb & Dumber followed by Anchorman and then 21 Jump Street or read a little Ryan North or see what’s happening in Stars Hollow or the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. Whatever I do…it has to be happier in tone than this. Here’s hoping I didn’t bring you down too much either. Sorry if I did! It wasn’t my plan!
 Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 71.
 Kraven actually calls himself “superior” on more than one occasion. No joke! I wonder if Dan Slott’s The Superior Spider-Man was meant to be an intentional homage to this storyline. Doc Ock literally kills Peter Parker (in his body) and takes over his literal life (living in Peter’s body). While he has access to Peter’s life lessons to guide his heroics he is certainly a more violent Spider-Man and he does call himself “superior” a lot too.
 Campbell and Moyers, 39.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 46.