Ock-o-mania is running wild! You’d think all this would have happened the FIRST time we were introduced to the Superior Spider-Man (the mind of Dr. Octopus inside Peter Parker’s body), but now that he’s back, it’s better late than never?
Superior Spider-Man was the highest-selling and likely best-regarded story in Dan Slott’s 10+ years on all things wall crawling, but Marvel Comics exercised rare restraint in not killing the concept and continuing the series when Peter returned. Now, with another universe-crossing event plaguing the arachnids, the opportunity presented itself to right(?) that wrong(?) and pick some of that money up off the table, courtesy of Christos Gage and Mike Hawthorne.
So of course the well-pumping can’t stop there — all old Doctor Octopus stories must also be resurrected and re-sold! This all sounds very cynical, but really, in the case of 2004’s Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One at least, it’s an opportunity to shine a light on an overlooked tale by underrated talents.
While Otto Octavius thinks he’s an unappreciated genius, Zeb Wells might actually fit the description. There’s a reason he barely does comics anymore, and is on the writing AND voice staff of the Emmy award-winning animated [adult swim] program, Robot Chicken. You might recognize him more from the Carnage and Carnage U.S.A. mini-series, and the certainly underappreciated Venom: Dark Origin, so you know he’s got a handle on this early villain material.
Oddly enough, in Year One, Wells crafts more of a horror story than any of that symbiote stuff. There isn’t a whole lot of Spidey here, as the name is really just slapped on the cover to sell books; instead we get an intimate look at how young and promising Otto Octavius becomes older and unhinged Dr. Octopus. As with many of these origin re-examinations, there are some continuity issues and forced connections between protagonist and antagonist.
If you can ignore (or at least compartmentalize) that, you get a truly terrifying glimpse into the psyche of someone who you might have thought just broke bad, but was in fact broken from the beginning and only went nuttier when radiation fried his brain and body. Young Otto, bullied by his peers and his father, often fantasizes about hot nuclear death, and his god/mistress is the driving force behind his foray into science, and the instrument of his destruction/empowerment.
The monster of Doctor Octopus (and after reading Year One, you will in fact see him that way) wasn’t just created psychologically, though his continued cracking after perceived betrayals from his mother and pseudo-girlfriend do resonate. The accident that fuses the famous mechanical arms to his frame makes for a scene that’s legitimate body horror, as Otto is forced to figure out how to interact with these new parts of him, in a scene like sci-fi Silence of the Lambs.
The art of fan-favorite Kaare Andrews is a little jarring at first, but it soon becomes clear his stylistic flourishes are a good fit for this kind of story. This is not hyper-realism, but intentionally distorted perspective to match that of the main character. The lack of detail (and muddled details) can sometimes make things difficult to interpret, but the panel layouts, alternately focusing on Otto’s face and then the scene at a distance, depending on the desired effect, likely make up for it.
José Villarrubia’s colors are judicious and deliberate, as much of Year One is appropriately dark and heavily inked. He dumps a bucket of red on the nuclear fantasies, keeping in the plain, “undetailed” style of the pencils. Spider-Man’s costume is handled much the same way, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s appropriate or not.
Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One is a hidden gem that’s getting some rightful shine thanks to a favorable publishing initiative. To be fair, though, the Doc Ock depicted here is far from the sympathetic Superior Spider-Man; it may in fact be the most demented and destructive Octavius ever put to paper. It’s still a great character study, and well worth the time if you like getting inside a villain’s head, despite the fact that there are no extras here and the story is all you get. Now please, give the man his glasses back.