Today, Ethan and Drew are discussing The Superior Foes of Spider-Man 1, originally released July 3rd, 2013.
Ethan: It’s easy to make snap judgements about people when you’ve only known them for a short time, whether it’s a new face at a house party or a new coworker or neighbor who’s just moved in. Once you get to know someone better — say you decide to start renting with your partner, or you share a cubicle with the new guy long enough that he’s no longer the new guy — your opinion of them shifts, often for the better and the worse all at once. You learn about their ambitions and family and past experiences, and little things you didn’t even notice at first become pet peeves or endearing quirks. In Superior Foes of Spider-Man #1, writer Nick Spencer is betting the farm on that phenomenon with a more personal look at the day-to-day lives of the latest Sinister Six.
Er- Sinister Five? It doesn’t matter, don’t worry about it. Boomerang (aka Fred Myers) has cobbled together a new team and is ready to paint the town red. Only trouble is, he’s in jail, thanks to a red-and-blue intervention by the Spider-Man. Not that that Fred is worried about being in the slammer; really, he just wants to make sure that his pet bird gets fed. Thankfully, teammates Speed Demon (James Saunders) and Shocker (Herman Schultz) are there to lend a helping hand — but only after giving him hell for getting caught, while speculating about how he should switch to a pirate theme for his super-identity. Against all odds, Speed and Shocker make the trip to the pet store for the birdseed after all, only slowing down long enough for James to get into a fight with a pre-teen and steal her puppy. When they arrive at Fred’s apartment, all becomes clear: there is no bird. Hammerhead was just using Fred — thus, his colleagues — as mules to deliver a bunch of diamonds hidden amongst the seeds. The delivery goes great, except that Shocker ends up in a neck-brace after Hammerhead eyeballs the diamonds and finds the total wanting (Speed Demon isn’t one to stick around when things get sticky). Long story short, Fred is running a big job from jail, but he needs the team to spring him. They do, but only after we see Fred exchange words with resident russki and Hammerhead impersonator Chameleon (aka Dmitri Smerdyakov). So Fred is out, the team is in, and the diamond-smuggling job is a lie.
Boomerang is a familiar face for Spider-Fans, but we’re used to seeing him on the receiving end of a well deserved, proportional-strength-of-a-spider punch. Boomerang isn’t a person; he’s just a thing that Peter Parker hits when there’s a lull in his schedule. Let’s be honest: Spider-Man’s enemies have been pretty flat. The Osborn family, Doc Ock, and Venom have been oases of substance in the desert of forgettable, petty thieves, so when it’s time to start a new title starring Spider-Man’s “superior” enemies you might expect one of those three to be a starting point. You’d be wrong. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Fred Myers might be a thief, but Spencer spends his time alternately challenging and reinforcing our definition of “petty.” It’s that tug-of-war between vice and virtue that carried this issue for me. Before, Boomerang was just a faceless thug that served to fill up Peter’s dance card, and Superior Foes embarks on the admittedly uphill battle to put a face to the name by zeroing in on the events that pushed him into his current line of work, and how he’s handled himself since then. Thanks to some flashbacks, we see a younger Fred as a kid, not-quite fighting the allure of dollars and dames. He trips and falls hard into a life of crime. Debts are established, poor decisions are made in order to make good on those debts, and the miraculous windfalls from those first few bad decisions become the new norm. Tossed directly from the tadpole pool of naivete into an ocean of sharks, the reader might be inclined to side with the Aussie ex-pat at first.
Thankfully, Fred’s true cutthroat colors cure us of that pretty quickly. Ok, he had a rough start, but it would be a whole lot easier to feel sorry for him if he hadn’t warmed to the dark side quite so quickly. When we meet up with him in this issue, he’s progressed to the point that he’s compelling a cadre of equally rotten teammates into transporting smuggled commodities via guilt. See, he’s got a pet bird back at his apartment, and unless someone picks up some birdseed from the pet store and drops it off at his place, the bird won’t make it. Even if his “friends” are willing to knock over a bank or two, it’s not like they’d condemn a poor helpless animal to starvation, right?
Only, as it turns out, the bag of birdseed is just an excuse to move some diamonds — one peek into a big, new job he’s got lined up, just the thing to unify his team of unmotivated, contrarian criminals. Except that the diamonds are fake, and the job is just an excuse to get him out of jail. In just a dozen or so pages, Spencer manages to win us over to Fred’s underdog cause and then shove us back out to arm’s-length. Fitting, perhaps, for a guy who’s got a curved stick that reverses mid-flight as his defining symbol.
How about it, Drew? Were you ever taken in by Fred’s sob-story, or did you see the double-cross from the start?
Drew: No, I didn’t see Fred’s con coming, and it’s easily my favorite part of this issue. I’ve professed my love of confidence schemes before, and I maintain that they’re a great way to surprise the audience right up to the end of the narrative. Fred is true to the most important rule of conning — he made Speed Demon and Shocker think that the plan was their idea — even if, when you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. If he actually had a job for the Sinister Six, wouldn’t he just come out and ask them for help? Moreover, why would Fred ask them to get the birdseed in the first place if it would take the same effort for them to simply post his bail? Like, I get that Speed Demon throws the robbery in for fun, but that only speaks to how easy it should be to convince these guys to commit robbery.
I mean, don’t they team-up because it proffers them some kind of benefit? The kind that might be worth posting bail to maintain? It’s not even like we’re talking a prison break, here — they just need to put together a little cash to get their team up and running again. I’m not convinced a con should have been necessary, but “necessary” isn’t exactly this issue’s forte.
The cover for this issue finds the “Superior Foes” in Spider-Man’s shadow, and unfortunately, they never really leave it. I was struck initially at how much darker the tone here is than Superior Spider-Man, but the biggest difference is the lack of personality. People like Spider-Man because they like Spider-Man (see also: how pissed people were when Peter Parker was killed) — his adventures are as much about his personality as they are about web-slinging. Boomerang, as Ethan pointed out, isn’t nearly as dynamic — we don’t know him, and unfortunately, this issue doesn’t do much to change that. He’s still a kind of generic bad guy with a boomerang theme. Heck, even the descriptive blurb on the title page admits that there’s not much more to these characters than their bad guy-ness:
Boomerang, Shocker, Overdrive, Speed Demon, and Beetle are not heroes. They’re not loveable [sic] rogues and they’re not rebels with a cause. Make no mistake, the new sinister six are villains, plain and simple.
The message is clear: those looking for sympathetic characters should read no further. Unfortunately, that also means robbing these characters of much of their humanity. While Spencer does a quasi-admirable job of making Fred more than just a boomerang mask, he seems entirely content to pigeonhole Overdrive as “the driver.” In addition to driving, this issue shows him exploring his diverse other interests: thinking about driving, talking about driving, and reading about driving.
More unfortunately, Spencer also turns that non-specific disdain towards the audience, as well. He sets the final heist in a comic shop, of all places, and while he takes a couple fun digs at the impenetrability of comics, he also takes a cheap shot or two at comics fans.
Look, I get that there actually are some socially awkward, objectifying comic fans out there, but it’s a lazy, hackneyed stereotype, one that is particularly insulting to the very people buying this comic. I don’t want to come off as overly-sensitive — I have a sense of humor about these things, it just happens to be a good sense of humor. “She’s hot, right?” is such a stupid, unfunny way of enforcing a tired-ass stereotype, he might as well have pointed out that the one nerd is wearing glasses because he’s a nerd.
So…I guess I didn’t like this issue. It struck me as entirely generic while reading it, but the more I think about it, the more it bothers me. I suppose that’s the danger of getting to know someone in that way (and why people often discourage rooming with friends) — you might not like who they turn out to be.
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This felt very Venture Brothers to me. Like the villains are all sorta stuck in the mundane routine of crime and going to jail, etc. They’re almost unwilling villains, as though they don’t have any choice to go through the motions, even though they’d rather just be hanging out and bullshitting with eachother.
I liked this issue: I liked the opportunistic friendship between Shocker and Speed Demon, I liked the sense of humor, I even sorta dug Boomerang’s turn as a “fuck you, I don’t need to be sympathetic” evil mastermind.
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