Superior Foes of Spider-Man

We nerds aren’t so different from so-called ‘normal people’*. We like to feel connected. We want the security to pursue our ambitions without sacrificing the freedom to enjoy them. We want a place we can nest.

For most people, these concerns arise when you’re looking for a home. But for the comic-nerd, it’s just another Wednesday. Well, my choosy connoisseur of images sequential, look no further, The Superior Foes of Spider-Man is a comic that makes you feel at home, and it’s an interesting addition to Marvel’s lineup, to boot.

Those of you who read The Superior Spider-Man #1 are already familiar with our allegedly superior cast of dastards, but, if you didn’t, fear not; you’ll soon know Fred Myers and his off-and-on compatriots who currently form the Sinister Six. In fact, there are few books that do quite so good a job of introducing you to a relatively unknown character with such success and charm. Our sense of Boomerang does come at price though. It would have been nice to get to know the other four members of the Six (you read that right), but here’s hoping that that will be on the agenda in the coming months.

Those of you rolling your eyes, perhaps with bad memories of the drawn out meeting of the Justice League in their not so long ago reboot, put yourselves at ease. The team is already assembled when the issue starts, it’s just that we’re focused on their fearless leader this month and don’t have time to give them each a full profile.

We spend most of our time on a couple of the members of the Six, but there’s an entire world to explore (one with 50 years of Spider-Man comics to set it up) and we do get a peek at that. Make no mistake; this is a smart book. It’s not smart like Alan Moore is smart, or even like Grant Morrison is smart, but it’s clever in that way that tends to follow protagonists of the criminal inclination around.  In fact, while it’s no great intellectual task to get through this issue, the story itself shows us what kind of brilliance we’re dealing with on this title. Writer, Nick Spencer, clearly has a channel to that wolf-like cunning that keeps a career criminal like Boomerang licking his metaphorical lips as he plans his next score.

There are also inherent advantages to having a villain-centric book on the stands. At the bare minimum, it allows Marvel to build up some undervalued characters and establish their credibility a bit so the next time they run into Daredevil or Spiderman, they feel like a decent challenge, but that’s thinking too small. Heroes, as comics have endlessly attempted to justify, are inherently reactive, they respond to crises that appear around them. But with a series starring villains we get to see the proactive side that is all-too-often hidden. We get to see them drawing up the plans, funding their schemes, adapting on the fly, acting on their gut.

Better still, this comic has a natural out to one of the banes of the serialized format, escalation. Every week or every month our heroes are confronted with a problem and every time they solve it. It took less than a season for Team Rocket to go from this to this, after all. There’s no risk for the hero, it becomes the villain’s responsibility to keep up, to keep evolving. But when the villain is the hero…we’ll that opens a lot of doors. In the first few pages, Boomerang flat-out tells us that we’re dealing with a bunch of perennial losers. Our protagonists can fail in this comic! (Come to think of it, that was half the genius of Spider-Man to begin with.)

Some of you might notice that this last bit wasn’t really about this comic in particular, but it kind of was. This version of the Sinister Six makes no claim to status. They’re everyman villains; they’re the quintessential bad guys, neither too weak nor too strong, just tired of being cannon fodder every month. It’s clear that Spencer is aware of this, the first page of the comic practically calls out the reader for enjoying year after year of superhero comics without demanding the other side of the story, It’s a rather meta-textual moment, but one that I think works well.

Another priority seems to be humor. While it’s undoubtedly dark humor and there are fewer proper quips than you might expect, this is a very funny comic. A lot of it is just in the presentation. Inventive use of dialogue bubbles or unique brands of censorship are usually good for a chuckle throughout, but in this regard it’s really a focus on what’s strange and wonderful about comics, particularly Marvel Comics, that shines. (A quick jab at the CCA and a delightfully over the top editorial caption are highlights.)

Even better, the comedy is in service to the characters, not in spite of them. Though they aren’t all gems, Boomerang’s narration is full of jokes. They set the tone for the series. This whole thing is a rather grotesque comedy, dark and empty, a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s the kind of humor that you develop when life slaps you down a couple too many times, or a bit too frequently. Sometimes all you can do it laugh, even through the worst of it. That’s Boomerang, the eternal optimist, trying desperately to believe that he can pull this thing together.

I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself, but I will say that there is a truly wonderful sequence that tells you everything you need to know about Spencer, about Speed Demon, and about what you should expect going forward. It’s simple but it’s great.

If I had to say anything bad about the comedy in the issue, it’s that a lot of it seems to come at the expense of one Herman Schultz, the Shocker. I’ve always loved Shocker. He’s a working man’s villain and I respect that. He’s got some cool powers and an interesting look (or “Go, yellow Spiderman,” as my seven-year old self would put it). Herman has never made his many battles with Spidey personal and that makes him a really unique entry in the old rogues gallery. Unfortunately, fans of the Shocker will find that he’s not given all that much respect here. As the only member of the Six who could even have pretensions of A-Lister-dom , I hoped that this would be an opportunity to see Shocker make a name for himself again, but as of yet, that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going. A shame, but hardly a character assassination, and nothing that would dissuade me from recommending this issue (Spoiler: this is getting a decent review).

Steve Lieber provides the pencils, which are inked by Rachelle Rosenberg. The pair have a definite chemistry together. I often feel bad that my lack of knowledge about the artistic side of comics might shortchange the talented inkers, colorists, letterers, etc. that make these issues so wonderful. I usually just attribute the art to the penciler, knowing that they are hardly alone. I mention Rosenberg in this review because clearly she is a big part of the look of this issue. Though is seems more noticeable on pages where the villains are in costume (wonder if that was intentional?), the book tends toward thick heavy lines of ink and plenty of shadows. Shocker is clearly either Rosenberg’s best friend or worst enemy.

As for Lieber, he has a truly interesting style. There’s something to be said about being a reliable artist in the house style, but I always favor those who bring something distinct to their comics. Lieber is the latter. Lieber has a style that just lends itself to drawing crooks. With villains, problematic as it is, you don’t have to worry as much if they aren’t attractive. Now the Six are actually not a bad-looking bunch, but  that freedom allows Lieber to do much more with their design. Actual creases and lines in the character’s faces make it easy to notice the slightest shift in expression and the book clearly benefits from the added personality.

There are a couple of problems with consistency. The style changes its look along with the inking and there are definitely some pages and panels that don’t display the high standard that Lieber generally brings to the issue (check out Spidey on the first page). Overall, though, the art is attractive and distinct. It suits the tone of the comic and makes it instantly recognizable among the Spider-brand.

Despite the claim on the letter page that this will be the darkest,…book on the stands, you’ll find that The Superior Foes of Spider-Man  is actually a pleasure to read. Darkest is probably the wrong word, this book is about shadows. The shadows of Marvel’s New York. The shadow of Spiderman. The shadow cast between panels and issues. The shadow archetype to Spiderman’s villainous new identity. Shadows like this have free reign to be dark, but, as we see here, they’re only brought into focus by the light.

If you’re looking for something funny, charming, and/or different, I’d recommend taking a look at this. There’s essentially no need for previous knowledge of the Marvel Universe, and the House of Ideas has mercifully deemed this book unimportant enough to boast a $2.99 price tag. Spencer made a bold choice, eschewing the traditional opening arc for a cute little character building tale like this one, but I think this was a marvelous first issue and a promising debut for an idea I had high expectations for. If Spencer and Lieber keep this up, this could easily be another cult favorite run.

 

 

*Ignoring, of course, that normal people tend to also be nerds these days

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