In the Face of Death: Confusing the Limits of Power in “Superior Spider-Man #12”

Superior Spider-Man #12 may be the middle, action-packed chapter of a three issue arc leading into a larger summer spectacular, but it certainly goes out of its way to further the character development of the Spider-Universe’s recent breakout character: J. Johan Jameson. While Spider-Ock further dovetails into the arrogant state-of-mind that will be his eventual undoing, Jameson’s development, though stunted at times in this title and the previous Amazing Spider-Man volume, shows a powerful man in grief with little power to do anything about it. Until now that is.

When stripped down, the last issue of Superior Spider-Man was a meditation on whether criminals have the ability to reform. The answer is no according to this book, but the villainous often have the opportunity to act heroic if only for a short time. It’s been a recurring theme for much of Superior Spider-Man. Otto says it all himself, even as Spider-Man he’s proven that criminals are incapable of fully reforming. Curt Connors and his Lizard alter ego are another example. He had to have his mind wiped of his lizard personality to be reformed.

Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. The world is rarely seen in black and white terms, and with Otto acting as Spider-Man we see the shades of gray that are often our reality. Superior Spider-Man has been, as a whole, a testament to what it really takes to be a hero, in some loose ways a redefining of the hero archetype. Someone such as Otto can act heroically at points, but the underling motivations for their actions are what define them as a hero or not.

Jameson is no hero, he’s never meant to be one, but his days as a pure antagonist have long since passed. In the previous volume of Amazing Spider-Man, writer Dan Slott did a commendable job relaying Jameson’s grief over the death of his wife Marla in terms readers could understand. One of the most politically powerful men in the United States was powerless against someone like Alistair Smythe, the super villain who murdered Marla. While that understanding of power, echoed here in Superior Spider-Man #12, is a rather juvenile understanding of politics and the authority of office, it is nonetheless a relatable position for anyone who has lost a loved one. It is also within the characterization of Jameson for him to confuse his political power with actual power.

For all our intelligence and technology we will forever be at odds with our mortality. We are powerless in the face of death. And while it is rarely illustrated in comicbooks, taking that power back is largely impossible. We can adjust to it, do more for our betterment in the face of it, but death is a villain that we will never truly overcome.

Jameson is disinclined to accept that, or rather his consolation is to see his wife’s murder executed. With Smythe’s attempted escape, Jameson’s confusion over how much power he has becomes even more confused. He accepts that Spider-Man is the most logical and likely to bring Smythe to justice, but that doesn’t mean he will sit on the sidelines as the events around him unfold. More than likely there will be a sacrifice for Jameson’s unwillingness to stay removed from the action. He’s already made something of a deal with the devil.

That’s not to say Jameson’s overall endorsement of this Spider-Man is a deal with the devil, though it certainly could be seen that way. It is to say in this issue that the agreement Spider-Ock forces upon Jameson, the granting of permission to do whatever it takes, is that sort of agreement. As Jameson struggles with his understanding of his power limits, this permission will certainly have its consequences.

It’s curious, however, that Spider-Ock would seek Jameson’s permission to do something (or not do something in this case). He’s never sought permission before. His arrogance (and belief of superiority) would seem to absolve him of seeking the blessing of authority figures. He’s never asked Max Modell for permission to use Horizon Labs’ resources. His arrogance seemingly has him believing that he is entitled to do whatever he wants in the name of his semi-heroic pursuits. Spider-Ock’s dealings with other super villains would seemingly contradict his interaction with Jameson in this instance, but maybe there is something else at work here?

While Superior Spider-Man #12 has its problems – the absurd villain monologues could be seen as taunting but are just shortcuts to tell us what’s happening as to showing us – there is laudable work by writers Slott and Christos Gage and artists Giuseppe Camuncoli, John Dell, Terry Pallot and Antonio Fabela to take the requisite action installment and do more with it. Jameson and Spider-Ock are, for lack of a better term, two peas in a pod (or two arrogant semi-heroic men on a raft). We’ve definitely seen the evolution of Otto, despite the reliance on the clichés of super villain dialogue, but really Jameson has been the breakout character of recent Spider-Man comics. His grief, compounded with his confusion over the limits of power, show the hopelessness many of us confront in the face of death. That relatable quality is vital for reader engagement, and if for nothing else, Superior Spider-Man is engaging.

RATING 6 / 10
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