Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why Is Doctor Octopus Spider-Man's Greatest Foe?

The Sinister Six establishes a canonical list of Spider-Man foes. These six baddies will continue to oppose our hero for as long as the series lasts. Only the Lizard (who is sort of kind of not really a villain at all) and the Green Goblin (who has only appeared once at this point, and is too mysterious to be part of a team) are absent. The Execrable Eight would have been a rotten name for a team, in any case.

Although the Vulture declares himself to be Spider-Man’s most dangerous foe, there is never any question that Doctor Octopus is the leader of the gang. The Vulture, Sandman and Electro are bank robbers and thugs. Mysterio is much cleverer, but even he only used his powers of illusion and misdirection in the service of a safe-cracking career. Kraven, the only one who is not a crook; is a crazy man who hunts Spider-Man for the challenge. But Doctor Octopus is a proper super-villain. He is a brilliant scientist. He lives in a gothic castle and has giant fishbowls lying around in case he ever needs to drown anyone. Granted, in issue #12 he was springing gangsters out of jail in order to raise venture capital to become King of Crime, but he is still in a different class to the other five. Clearly, he is being positioned as Spider-Man's worst enemy, or indeed, Arch-foe. (He will eventually be replaced in that role by the Green Goblin, who is at this point still only a gangster with a gimmick.)

What makes him such a dangerous antagonist? He is simply a normal human being with four extra arms. The arms are very strong; strong enough to lift three adult human beings off the ground at once. But he himself is of normal strength:  Spider-Man can easily take him out with a single punch if the arms will let him get close enough.

But he has an effect on Spider-Man out of all proportion to his actual powers. Doctor Octopus won their very first fight, and this defeat demoralized Parker sufficiently that he seriously considered giving up being Spider-Man. Spider-Man tried to prevent Doc Ock being released from prison at the end of his first sentence, which he didn't do (so far as we know) for the Enforcers or Mysterio. The second time they meet, Spider-Man weirdly under-performs due to a sprained ankle, causing the Bugle to mock him as an over-rated hero. The third and fourth times, Spider-Man inexplicably loses his powers -- due to a virus in #13, and "psychosomatically" in the annual.

The “sprained ankle” thing is a little weak. Spider-Man jumps from great heights all the time; would a coil of rope on a ship really put him out of action if he tripped over it? (And if the injury is so bad, why isn’t he still limping when he gets back to New York?) And the virus thing is obviously nonsense. How does a cold stop you sticking to walls? We might say that a virus “left you weak for a few days” but that’s not literally true. If I had to spar with [insert name of famous boxer here] while the latter had ‘flu, it is just barely possible that I would win — because my opponent fainted or threw up during the fight. If he actually punched me, well, it probably be a below par punch for him, but it would easily knock me flat. If I punched him it would be just as ineffectual as if I punched him when we were both perfectly germ free. The ghost of Spider-Man pops up in Pete Parker's dream to warn him that "virus" is to Spider-Man as Kryptonite is to Superman, a plot device which has thankfully never been mentioned again.

The explanation for the power-loss in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 is hardly any better: “it was psychosomatic, brought on by a deep rooted feeling of guilt due to Uncle Ben’s death”. What? It is possible for psychological states to have physical symptoms — a patient with severe stress might find themselves unable to see, even though there is nothing wrong with his eyes. But the idea that you can psychsomatically trip up, psychosomatically dangle from a flag poll, and then psychosomatically get better and dodge a lightening bolt doesn't even make comic book sense. 

So what is really going on?

Doctor Octopus was a Scientist. There was an explosion in his laboratory, during which he absorbed a great deal of Science. This is, of course, a lot like what happened to Peter Parker, although his exposure was indirect: he got bitten by a spider that had previously been exposed to Science. The medic at the hospital says that the Science has permanently damaged Doctor Octopus's mind. He is certainly paranoid and megalomaniacal; his first thought on waking up is "they are jealous of me" and his second is "I am stronger than any of them." Once he realizes that he can now control his mechanical arms directly he thinks “I’m the supreme human being on earth” which doesn't seem to follow. Sure, he can do some cool things with his arms: which of us has not wished he had an extra arm when lighting a cigarette or pouring tea for the old lady we have kidnapped? -- but this hardly puts him in the Galactus league.

Doctor Octopus is not a cyborg: the arms are attached to a metal harness, not welded to his body. He says after his accident that they are almost a part of him; and that “just a suggestion of a thought” causes them to move “as though they have a will of their own.” In the Sinister Six story, he is still able to control the arms after they have been detached from his body; indeed, when he confronts Spider-Man in the castle, he voluntarily removes them so he can attack his enemy from behind. That is: his power over his arms is telepathic or telekinetic. It's the power of Doctor Octopus's mind that makes them so strong.

Some of Spider-Man's other enemies -- the Green Goblin, for example -- are very probably insane. Some of them -- the Lizard, perhaps -- are powered by Magic as much as by Science. But Spider-Man's Arch-Foe is the one who was simultaneously driven mad and given telepathic powers as a result of the same kind of accident that made Spider-Man Spider-Man. 

In Turning Point, Spider-Man’s meeting with Doctor Octopus depends on a fairly improbable chain of events; and Stan Lee specifically speaks as if an external force is drawing them together…

“Our cast of characters come closer to a date with destiny…” 

“…but sometimes fate has other plans” 

“…but once again capricious fate has made the teen-aged crusader minutes too late.”

In The Sinister Six story Sandman and Electro accidentally kidnap Aunt May while intending to kidnap Betty Brant. If it hadn't occurred to Aunt May to go into town to call on Betty at Peter's workplace -- if she had, for the sake of argument, made a telephone call instead -- she wouldn't have ended up as Doctor Octopus's guest. A year from now, the evil Master Planner will suddenly realize that the one bit of Science he needs for his evil Master Plan will be the exact same bit of Science that Curt Connors needs to brew a potion that will save Aunt May's life. (As the years go past, Aunt May and Doctor Octopus will get increasingly closely entwined: the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #131, which we mercifully don't have to consider, depicts them apparently getting married.) It almost starts to looks as if what Doctor Octopus controls is the power of coincidence. Not only do his and Spider-Man's paths keep crossing, but something always causes him to hurt someone Spider-Man loves, whether he consciously intends to or not. 

If you accept my theory that Spider-Man has no physical strength of his own, but is channeling some external power-source — and I think you have to accept my theory for the stories to make any sense at all — than everything falls into place. 

Doctor Octopus has been consumed by the Dark Side of the Spider-Force. He can channel the Spider-Force to give his flimsy metal arms incredible power. It may be that he is consumed with hubris and paranoia due to brain damage; but it may be that at some level he sees that his link to the Force does potentially make him the most powerful human being on earth. And if that is correct -- well, it is at all surprising that the Spider-Force keeps drawing the two of them together? And is it surprising that the Dark Side of the Spider Force draws Octopus to places and circumstances that will hurt Peter Parker? And is it in any way surprising that Doctor Octopus is completely obsessed with Spider-Man, and Spidey is equally obsessed with Doc Ock?

And it seems clear that the mere proximity of Doctor Octopus somehow disrupts or interferes with Parker’s ability to channel the Spider-Force. So that when Spider-Man is about to fight Doc Ock his powers are radically reduced, or go away altogether.

In his seminal 1982 essay “The Well Tempered Plot Device”, Nick Lowe memorably argued that coincidence, destiny and capricious fate are all devices which The Author uses to nudge the Plot in the direction he wants it to go without all that tedious mucking up with logical chains of cause and effect. He points out that Star Wars makes a good deal more sense if every time someone mentions the Force you mentally substitute the Plot. ("The Plot is what gave the Jedi their power." "I sense a great disturbance in the Plot." "You must learn about the Plot if you are to come with me to Alderaan.")

Aye: and that’s true too. 

Later continuity revealed that Doctor Octopus had an alcoholic father who beat him.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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Mike Taylor said...

"If I had to spa with [insert name of famous boxer here] ..."

One of your more amusing typos. I believe you mean "to spar with"; to spa with someone is a very different thing: the next example I know is Hot-Tubbing with C. S. Lewis.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I hate you.


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