Drew: Vigilantism. It’s the concept that best describes the majority of comic book heroes. They operate outside of the law, making them criminals. At least, an individual vigilante is called a criminal. Of course, many comics have found interest in growing beyond the individual vigilante — the Justice League, the Avengers, Batman Incorporated — but most of those groups have made peace with their respective governments. What do you call it if a vigilante becomes an army without making nice? In a word: war. Writer Dan Slott brings us right to the brink of war in Superior Spider-Man 14 as Otto unwittingly unites an army against Spider-Man.
With a new costume, army, and fleet of giant spider-bots, Otto is taking the hurt to the Kingpin, storming his compound in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s super effective! Otto threatens to kill Kingpin several times during the battle, but ol’ Wilson makes it out okay (though he also fakes his own death, so he’ll be in hiding for the time being). The Hobgoblin, the Kingpin’s right-hand man, also escapes, and — for whatever reason — is given a free pass by Otto’s spider-bots. Curiously, the bots seem to be ignoring any goblin-related criminals, which has allowed the Goblin King to absorb all of the manpower and territory opened up by Otto’s war on crime, giving him exclusive control of New York’s criminal underground.
It’s not entirely clear why the spider-bots are ignoring the goblins. Have they been hacked, or is this a tactical maneuver on Otto’s part? I’m reminded of Season 3 of the wire, where — facing a dead end — the unit takes a medium-level player in the drug trade out of the game, hoping that someone with less discipline will be promoted to fill his spot. Consolidating all of New York’s crime means big bucks for the Goblin King, but it also makes for one-stop shopping whenever Otto decides to shut them down.
Speaking of tactics, let’s talk about the new, bloodthirsty Spider-Man.
We’ve seen Otto kill as Spider-Man, but I don’t know if we’ve ever seen him set out to kill someone. He probably traipsed across that first degree murder line when he killed the Spider Slayer in issue 13, but that was complicated by the fact that he had already been sentenced to die — Otto was simply serving as executioner for a fully tried individual. Here, Otto is just rolling in to fight crime, but explicitly eschews any mention of prisoners, actually telling his men to “Leave no one alive!” J. Jonah Jameson is rightly pissed, but the best reaction comes courtesy of the Kingpin himself, essentially echoing all of the woe-betide Peter Parker fans:
He doesn’t recognize this Spider-Man, and he’s horrified, which should sound familiar to anyone who follows Slott on twitter. This should effectively put any criticism that this is horrifying to bed: that’s the fucking point. We’re supposed to find Otto’s actions as despicable and out-of-character for Spider-Man. Each issue drives that point home just a little bit more, but this single panel should make it clear to any lingering naysayers.
Of course, the horror of what Otto is threatening is tempered a bit by how ineffective other methods have been. Everybody knew that the Kingpin was there, but they were also powerless to do anything about it. The opening monologue — delivered by a father living in the shadow of Kingpin’s compound — suggests that an end to those horrors might be worth one night of violence. Indeed, the father refers to the attack as Bastille Day, suggesting that Otto’s actions have the public support, and are even seen as revolutionary. This is not a vigilante overreaching, it is an army for the people overthrowing an oppressive tyrant. The French accepted that you needed to break a few eggs, and maybe the citizens of Hell’s Kitchen do, too.
It’s hard to blame them — Humberto Ramos’ cartoony style makes even the most horrific violence feel kind of cute and approachable. Just look at this battle scene:
Sure, there’s a guy with a sword sticking out of his side, but look at the googly eyes on the figure in the foreground. Also, Otto refers to these guys as “spiderlings.” Adorable. Even the scene where Kingpin breaks the neck of his body double — an objectively horrific act — is softened by the art. Heck, I was still giggling about “Mibster Fibsk” when the deathblow landed.
So, Patrick, what did you think about Otto going on the offensive here? Is it actually any worse than killing in the moment? Does the reaction of the citizens of Hell’s Kitchen change your opinion at all? Or how about how cute everybody looks? Peter would have never hung his hat on any of this moral relativism, but I’m finding this more interesting than a hard line.
Patrick: The combination of Ramo’s cutesiness and the objectively victimized families of Hell’s Kitchen make it hard to argue with the results that Otto’s tactics are getting. Drew’s war analogy is pretty much dead on: Spider-Man’s been fighting a war against crime his entire life, but because he’s only ever engaged his enemies in half-measures, they always live to steal and plot another day. The second Otto marches on Hell’s Kitchen with an army of Spiderlings and giant robots, he’s abandoned the entire concept of vigilante-ism to be — as Drew points out — a revolutionary. There are a couple reasons that his plan doesn’t feel so good to the reader, and thanks goodness those reasons aren’t all “that’s not Peter Parker.”
The big thing that makes me the most immediately uncomfortable about Otto’s new approach to crime in New York is that he’s effectively militarized what is, in essence, a police operation. That’s what Spider-Man is (or was, anyway): a really effective cop. We’ve been praising Otto’s cooperation with the NYPD since the beginning of this series as one of the objectively Superior things about this new Spider-Man. Spidey working in concert with the police makes sense because their goals are the same – protect law-abiding civilians from criminals. Sadly, this is a strangely outdated model for American crime fighting. In the last three decades, police forces have become increasingly militarized – Peter Parker was born into a decade where being a crime fighter didn’t mean anything near being a soldier, but that is not the world we live in now. Slott’s not just playing this moralistic what-if game: he’s exploring the changing tactics of actual law enforcement agencies.
And that’s its own heavy conversation – one I’m not quite ready to have in the context of a Spider-Man comic simply because I don’t totally know how I feel about the issue. Obviously, there’s tons of gray area and the country is still deciding how much civil liberty to give up to ensure our safety. On the one hand, I really like being safe. But on the other hand: what the fuck? You can’t just march around a neighborhood in New York City an army of hired goons and Spider-Mechs to pursue an enemy just because you want him caught. Right? This an amazingly complex moral question raised by the SSM team, and I find it a lot more challenging to comment on the morality here than in just about any other book I’m reading. I’m even more excited to see where this is going, because it looks like Otto’s Army is going to be a necessary force once the Goblins have been mobilized. Pointedly, the Goblin’s army only exists because Spider-Man has taken on these violent, warlike tactics. He’s treating symptoms and not the root causes of crime, creating pockets of insurgency all over the city and codifying a unified resentment toward Spider-Man in the process.
Uh, sorry – I slipped into it again. There’s a whole lovely comic book story in here under all that metaphor – let’s talk about that.
Drew, we’ve seen the Goblin King tinkering with the Spider-bots in the past – back in issue 10, he grabbed himself one and futzed with the circuitry until he was able to give it a blind-spot to all things Goblin.
So, intriguing as it would be for Otto to be giving the Goblin King a pass, it looks like someone’s actually smart enough to pull one over on him.
Hahaha: Mibster Fibsk.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?