Today, Taylor and Spencer are discussing The Superior Foes of Spider-Man 12, originally released June 4th, 2014.
Taylor: The excellent blog kottke.org recently brought to my attention a video on visual comedy. In this short feature, Tony Zhou makes a strong case for the lack of visual comedy in your typical comedic film. He also highlights a lot of movies, like Hot Fuzz, which make excellent use of visual comedy. It got me to thinking about how difficult it is to pull off visual comedy in film, much less in comics. Like in writing, something about pulling off a comedic still frame is surprisingly difficult. As with movies, I think we often aren’t treated to great visual comedy. However, Superior Foes of Spider-Man 12 bucks this trend and shows just how funny a comic can be based almost entirely on its visual elements alone.
After having convinced the Owl that the Chameleon was the one who originally stole his maskless picture of Dr. Doom, Frank encounters the teammates he doubles crossed. Beetle and Overdrive are not too pleased with Frank and both don’t buy his story about the Chameleon. Just as they’re about to walk away, the Owl shows up and offers Frank and his compadres a job — the return of the stolen painting. They take it, not because they want to give Frank a second chance, but because they’re petty criminals. With the help of some loaned thugs, Frank and crew infiltrate the Chameleon’s lair. As it turns out, however, Frank has another plan up his sleeve…
I’ll come out and say that nothing about the plot of this issue is incredibly original — it’s much the opposite, in fact. We’ve seen Frank hoodwink his crew several times over in this series so seeing him do it again is almost beginning to feel a bit tired. However (and it’s a big HOWEVER), this issue is chalked full of great comedic sight gags, so much so that the tediousness of the plot isn’t really that big of an issue.
Throughout the issue, artist Steve Leiber provides an amazing amount of humor with his pen. Again, I feel like this is something that’s hard to do and even Leiber isn’t always on when it comes to comedy. Here, though, we get great visual jokes on almost every page. A lot of this comedy is based on the way Leiber sets up his panels. Often, he’ll set up a joke with 2-3 panels and deliver the funny on the fourth. A perfect example of this comes when the Owl tells Beetle and Overdrive about his job offer to steal back his picture of Dr. Doom.
Quick to walk away from Fred, they’re fast to turn around when they here mention of a job. What makes this set of panels so comical is the specific way Lieber shows Beetle and Overdrive returning. The way Beetle is hanging around in the third panel doesn’t make any sense. By keeping her body off screen we’re left to wonder what the heck is happening with the rest of her body making it a weird and funny scene. Overdrive is riding a Segway (ever a funny machine) and seeing it in reverse is similarly comical. He’s supposed to be a master driver and seeing him reduced to backwards Segway driving is just plain entertaining.
Lieber continues this trend later in the issue when Frank and his borrowed henchmen show up at the Chameleon’s hideout. Again, we get a couple of panels which set up the joke and a final panel that acts as the payoff.
We basically all know what’s coming in the final panel given that we were introduced to this crew on the previous page — again, the plot of this issue isn’t revolutionary — but Lieber makes up for this again by giving a nice fish-eye lens view of Frank and company. It represents the view from the peephole in the door which has the benefit of making Frank front and center and larger than his cohorts. This distortion makes Frank’s smile all the more obnoxious and also makes his henchmen, packed into the shot like sardines, hilariously crammed together. Add in Nick Spencer’s clever Amazon joke in the build up panels and it makes for a funny scene.
Lastly, I greatly enjoyed the description of the Chameleon’s hangout. Instead of having a character just talk about it, Spencer trusts his artist and the payoff is delightful. To get the picture of Dr. Doom, our heroes (er, villains) will have to get past dogs, thugs, sharks, knives and much more. Typically, Fred underplays the danger.
I love all of the comedy portrayed in each of these rooms but in particular I like the Matryoshka dolls full of giant spiders. It’s just plain weird but it fits in so well with the rest the Chameleon’s lair. The inclusion of Frank saying all of this will be a piece of cake up in the left hand corner makes his assertion all the more apparently false that it’s hard not to laugh when viewing this scene.
Spencer, I sure like the art in this issue. What do you think? I also thought the story was a little thin, did you find it more full than I did? Also what do you think is in that safe that Fred wants so much?
Spencer: Y’know, I’ve been sitting here for a while trying to think of a clever joke about what might be in that safe, but after seeing the dismembered head of Silvermane and the painting of maskless Doctor Doom, I just don’t think there’s anything I could come up with that would top Nick Spencer (I’ve been out-Spencered!).
The plot of this issue probably is a little thin, but I think it’s a purposeful decision on Spencer’s part; after all, even several of the characters within the story remark about how similar this plot is to the Sinister Six’s earlier jobs. In many ways, this story is the perfect encapsulation of the 11 issues that came before, and after a brief hiatus and two fill-in issues that ignored the ongoing plot entirely, I can see why Spencer might think such an extended recap would be necessary (it was also smart to make a joke about this in the very first panel).
Moreover, the repetition highlights how utterly futile the lives of these villains actually are. They’re stuck in a rut, trapped in their roles, making the same moves over and over to the point where they’re now almost literally recreating earlier crimes to a T. These petty thieves all have the skills to do a lot more with their lives — either as better people or as better criminals — but as long as they remain the kind of criminals who immediately backpedal the second they hear the word “job”, they’re never going to break out of this endless cycle of “job, betrayal, jail, etc.”
Actually, if Spencer’s saying anything though this series, it seems to be that the life of a criminal isn’t anywhere near as glamorous as most media makes it out to be. There’s no honor amongst thieves, no camaraderie or family, and very little actual success; the Sinister Six’s lifestyle doesn’t help them escape the grind of everyday life as they might have once hoped.
It’s a rather dark message for what is so often an irreverent, lighthearted series, but it’s actually that jovial tone that allows Spencer to get away with the more somber underpinnings. In the same way, it’s the humor that keeps the (purposely) repetitive nature of the plot from becoming too much of a distraction — if you’re laughing, then how much of a problem can you really have?
Taylor, you’re right to praise Lieber’s art, especially the way his pacing sells a joke. Personally, I’m continually impressed by how Lieber can turn a throw-away background event into one of the issue’s funniest jokes:
Actually, it’s super hard for me to resist just letting this discussion devolve into nothing but screenshots of my favorite jokes; that’s how much fun I had with this issue. Admittedly, I didn’t quite get every joke — there’s a gag where Speed Demon is sad about a dog or something that I feel like I’m missing some important context for, and another panel of a bunch of expressions running through Boomerang’s head that still kinda throws me — but there’s so many legitimately funny moments in this issue that I can easily overlook the ones that don’t quite land. Superior Foes is a fun book with some surprisingly complex themes lurking beneath its surface, and I’m quite grateful to have it — as well as Spencer and Lieber — back on the shelves again.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?