THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #9
“Troubled Mind Part Two [sic]: Gray Matters”
WRITER: Dan Slott
ARTIST: Ryan Stegman
COLOR ART: Edgar Delgado
LETTERER: Chris Eliopoulos
- Ghost Peter, Otto explains, is a consciousness manifested from the remaining memories in Peter’s brain. Using the brain scanning helmet he retrieved last issue, Otto attempts to erase Peter’s memories, thereby destroying Ghost Peter. Doctor Octopus and Ghost Peter battle within Peter’s mindscape. Ghost Peter summons the memories of his friends to aid him, while Ock calls upon a mental army of villains.
- As the war turns against Ock, Ghost Peter makes Otto admit that stealing Peter’s life was bad. Otto, however, starts rationalizing his actions as giving the world a “superior” Spider-Man. Otto turns the tables by forcing Ghost Peter to admit that, in issue #8, Ghost Peter attempted to halt Otto from performing life-saving brain surgery on a child because in doing so Otto would gain access to the brain scanning helmet and discover Ghost Peter.
- Ghost Peter collapses, allowing Otto to purge Peter’s memories and seemingly delete Ghost Peter. Otto awakens, claiming he is free.
Superior Spider-Man #9 provokes considerable controversy, but thankfully little of that controversy concerns the notion that Peter Parker actually “died” this issue. I guess we all finally know better. Rather, folks mostly seem mad that Ghost Peter, to protect himself, obstructed Otto’s curing a dying little girl. Who enjoys seeing their childhood role model jeopardize an innocent life to save his own non-literal skin? I get it.
But I loved this issue’s ending.
Yeah, I see you there, hitting your caps lock button, ready to verbally crucify me in the comments section. Hear me out. I perceive at least three factors that mitigate this plot development’s so-called travesty.
Mitigating factor 1: Ghost Peter isn’t REALLY Peter. Otto defines Ghost Peter in the panel below. We can trust Otto’s conclusion because this is a scientific matter within the story’s context, and therein lies Otto’s expertise.
Thus, Ghost Peter represents a “version” of Peter Parker that was not “created” until after Otto removed Peter’s consciousness from Peter’s body, but left Peter’s memories intact for Otto’s access. Peter Parker’s original consciousness died inside Otto’s body in ASM #700. Ghost Peter is a distinct entity–he’s all those leftover memories taking on their own life. So if you’re upset that the Peter Parker we know and love tried to let a little girl die, don’t be. He didn’t.
Nevertheless, I do think Otto’s line “it seems we are the sum of our experiences” suggests that Ghost Peter, being the product of Peter’s memories, is cut from the same cloth as the original. I suspect that Ghost Peter mirrors Peter such that they’d behave identically under identical circumstances. Any characterization of Ghost Peter characterizes Peter by extension. I prefer that interpretation because I have no interest in Ghost Peter independent from what we can learn about the real Peter through him.
Mitigating Factor 2: Ghost Peter wasn’t CONSCIOUSLY looking out for himself. Let’s look back at #8’s key scene:
Notice Ghost Peter’s words here, stating that his reason for stopping the operation is that Otto is arrogant, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Pop quiz: to whom is Ghost Peter speaking? He addresses Doc Ock, but he can’t intend for Doc Ock to hear him, not if Ghost Peter’s real objective is to evade Ock’s detection. No, the true answer is that Ghost Peter is talking to himself, and that means he has no reason to lie. So the reason he gives in the moment for hindering Ock is what he consciously thinks at the time. Only later, after forced introspection, does Peter realize that he had the deeper, subconscious motivation to protect himself. And as soon as Ghost Peter realizes that he, like every living thing, possesses an unconscious drive to survive at all costs, the knowledge immediately destroys him. So if you’re upset that Ghost Peter actively formed the thought “I need to kill this girl to save myself,” don’t be. He didn’t.
Mitigating Factor 3: Ghost Peter’s hand shook for SECONDS. Examine the previous image again. By the next panel, which I cropped out due to size, Otto appears fully in control. Accordingly, this hubbub is over Ghost Peter quivering Otto’s hand for less than one page. On the podcast, my friend Kevin argued that Ghost Peter must have expended great willpower to accomplish even that. I disagree. The stories chronicle Ghost Peter’s controlling Otto’s limbs starting with Avenging Spider-Man #15.1, when Otto’s hand inexplicably jutted out to topple a fleeing criminal. Ghost Peter’s first on-panel appearance in SSM #1 displayed him holding Otto’s hand still with no apparent exertion. We’ve only seen Ghost Peter straining to control Otto’s arms when attempting complex tasks like writing a note or drawing a picture. Slightly trembling Otto’s hand for seconds is nothing; Ghost Peter has had less trouble doing far more. So if you’re upset that Ghost Peter exerted himself to sabotage the surgery, don’t be. He didn’t.
These factors develop the following picture: a sort of psychic echo of Peter Parker experiences a fleeting, unconscious, selfish impulse that causes his hand to vibrate for a few seconds and quickly stop. And when confronted with even that minuscule of a lapse, Ghost Peter’s entire psyche literally crumbles in on itself. If that’s character assassination, then you must expect Ghost Peter to be some kind of Spider-Christ. We love Peter in part because he isn’t a saint, he deals all the same passions and impulses that everyone deals with, but he doesn’t let them get the better of him. They didn’t get the better of him (or the “ghost” version of him) here, they merely caused a moment’s hesitation. He would never go through with it, and when push came to shove the hesitation did pass, but that one weak fiber of his being is there.
This character beat is not gratuitous. No less of a lapse could serve the storytelling purpose accomplished here. Ghost Peter needed to confront a truth about himself so disturbing that it could unmake and unravel his entire sense of self so that Otto could finally erase him. It fits the bill that a part of himself, however small and buried, would instinctively value his own survival over a completely innocent person’s wellbeing. Anything less would have not felt significant enough to carry the story through this transition, and anything more really would have been out of character. This issue walks a narrow tightrope and gets it right. It’s a challenging story, and it tells a difficult truth about the Peter Parker, but I wholeheartedly endorse it as a compelling read.
As an aside, I would add that letting that girl die would have been the rationally correct ethical decision. Quite frankly, Peter’s life is more valuable than the life of a chronically ill toddler. Sorry, but looking cute and snuggling penguin dolls will never save the world from Firelord. And face it, Doctor Octopus with Peter’s body and powers is a threat to everyone. The “Superior” Spider-Man has already committed murder once, and the only reason the body count isn’t higher is because Ghost Peter has actively prevented Otto from killing others. As a general trend, Otto is directing his violent outbursts toward progressively less deserving targets (from Massacre to Screwball to Cardiac) and there is every reason to believe that truly innocent victims are next. I realize that Peter himself would not actually rationalize it like this, but it needed to be said.
Anyhow, my friend Don wrote that “we are supposed to be left with the idea that Ock is morally superior than Peter.” I disagree. In order to support that conclusion the issue would have to imply that if the roles were reversed, then Otto would have sacrificed himself to cure the girl. To the contrary, the current status quo exists precisely because Otto killed another to save himself. This issue demonstrates that when required to face the selfishness of his choice, Otto reacts by rationalizing and twisting the facts to place himself in a positive light. Ghost Peter also enters denial mode when facing his inner selfishness, screaming “I’d never…” until the guilt kills him. I don’t think this issue declares one rival morally superior to the other so much as it highlights the parallels between them. To answer whether Otto actually qualifies as the better man would require an essay, not merely a “yes” or “no,” and reasonable people could defend opposing conclusions. That said, the final panel showing Peterpus grinning is clearly intended to be frightening. We aren’t being told that Otto winning this battle bodes well for the world.
At this point, I realize that I’ve written much more than usual, yet I’ve only covered the final few pages. That goes to show this issue’s depth. I find the bulk of the comic interesting, if not as provocative as the ending. Normally, I dislike stories taking place in a character’s imagination, dream, vision, or etcetera. Such stories usually seem too abstract and incorporeal. This issue avoids those pitfalls by establishing a concrete rule governing the consequences for the inner-happenings of Peter’s brain: whenever the embodiment of a person or thing gets destroyed in the mental battlefield, Ghost Peter loses the memory of that person or thing. I find this mechanic effective. When Peter struggles and fails to remember Uncle Ben, it feels like Otto has violated him like few villains have.
The art team clearly worked hard to make this a standout issue. The cover, particularly, should go down as an all-time classic. Inside, Ryan Stegman draws mobs of supporting characters and villains, and he does so using the classic design for each character. One must also praise Stegman for his creative panel layouts. Some individual images are particularly memorable, including Peter’s ripping his face off to reveal his Spidey masks underneath, a later image of Otto doing the same (solidifying the parallelism theme and depicting that Otto views his inner self as Spider-man now), and a beautiful fight between the Superior and Amazing Spider-Men. I love the contrast between their costumes, especially in how they’re colored. Unfortunately, Slott’s corny dialogue occasionally mars the pretty pictures.
Although I like how Edgar Delgado colored the Spidey vs. Spidey sequence, truth be told I do not care for the coloring overall. SSM #9 should delight enthusiasts of pea green and beige, but for me these colors egregiously dull down such a visually-driven story. I understand the purpose behind tinting the visual representation of Peter’s psyche the color of Doctor Octopus’s old school costume, but the pallet sometimes comes dangerously close to making Ryan Stegman’s work look boring.
I do think the cliffhanger is repetitive of ASM #698 and ASM #700, issues that also end with Peter’s apparent death and Otto’s “permanent” claiming of Peter’s identity. But this comic offers so much more than a shocking status quo change. No Spider-Man comic has made me think this much in a long while.