Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week it’s The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man #5. Written by Nick Spencer (Morning Glories, Bedlam) and drawn by Steve Lieber (Whiteout, Hawkeye), this issue showcases the gut-busting ensemble comedy and slick cartooning that has made the series one of the year’s funniest comics and a top Marvel title. [Warning: spoilers ahead.]
After Batman, Spider-Man has the best rogues’ gallery in superhero comics. To name some of the big ones: There’s the Green Goblin, father of one of Peter Parker’s best friends who became his greatest enemy; Dr. Octopus, the scientist whose mad genius turned him into an eight-limbed villain; Venom, a rival reporter who found Spider-Man’s leftovers and gained all his power without any responsibility; and Kingpin, the man in charge of all New York City crime. Spider-Man attracts captivating villains like spiders attract flies to a web, but none of the aforementioned figures appear in The Superior Foes Of Spider-Man. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s ongoing series shies away from the A-list to look at the banal side of being a middle-of-the-road supervillain, and spotlighting the lower-tier villains has given this creative team the opportunity to make the book one the most distinct titles on the stands.
Spider-Man’s villains have traditionally gathered as a team called the Sinister Six, and the name sticks even though there are only five members in Superior Foes. Boomerang, Overdrive, Shocker, Speed Demon, and a new female Beetle haven’t had the best luck facing down the new Superior Spider-Man (who is actually their old boss Dr. Octopus in Peter Parker’s body), but their current sorry situation has given Spencer and Lieber the chance to examine the life of a supervillain from a humorous angle. Combining the gritty street-level aesthetic of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye with the “Bwa-ha-ha!” ensemble comedy of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire’s Justice League International, Superior Foes casts the supervillain as the everyman, with Boomerang serving as the focal point and narrator of the story. It’s a delightfully irreverent take on the bad guys, and especially refreshing when compared to what’s currently unfolding in Forever Evil, DC’s humorless crossover that has sucked the fun out of its books by putting the villains in charge.
As hilarious as the series can be, it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of the supervillain lifestyle. Superior Foes #5 opens with gang lord The Owl torturing a man who stole money from him by placing him under a horde of rats that are rapidly chewing through the net keeping them contained—it’s a ticking time bomb of rodents waiting for something more substantial to chomp on. When the thief suggests that he show The Owl how he swindled him, rather than paying back the money he’s already spent, The Owl delivers a monologue about the time he tried to convince a safecracker to work with him and Man-Bull by sending his horned partner to threaten the safecracker’s wife, a plot that ultimately ended with Man-Bull having sex with the woman and costing them their leverage. The moral? “I learned if you want to get a man to do something for you, best not show him a tape of a bull XXXX his wife.” Nobody wants to see the details of how they’ve been screwed over, so naturally The Owl ignores the thief’s offer and lets the rats go to work. The scene is a perfect balance of comedy and terror, building to a full-page splash of The Owl feeding on one of those rats, spotlighting just how gruesome the villain can be as he feasts on raw rodent like a piece of corn on the cob. That’s when Boomerang’s narration kicks in: “So, yeah—this guy, right? Let’s rob him.”
The rest of the issue looks at Boomerang and company executing their burglary, breaking into The Owl’s base in hopes of procuring the head of deceased Maggia mastermind Silvermane. Or at least that’s what Boomerang wants his teammates to think. Boomerang has his share of secrets, like the fact that he’s actually doing the Chameleon’s dirty work and is responsible for putting Shocker in the trunk of the car that he’s dumped off a bridge. That added layer of intrigue has ramped up the personal stakes for the team’s leader. Spencer’s dialogue in this title is the strongest of any of his superhero work, flawlessly capturing the tension that arises when these egos butt heads. When Beetle prepares color-coded binders providing individualized assignments, maps, fail-safes, alibis, and a glossary of terms to make the rushed mission go smoother, Boomerang tosses the study guides in the air, preferring to do this smash-and-grab the old-fashioned way. That leads to a great punchline later when Boomerang doesn’t know which way the loot is, giving Beetle the opening to fly one of the discarded binders over to him for some much-needed reference help.
Superior Foes is a comedy book, and as such, Spencer fills the book with great jokes. When Boomerang sees the in-line skate Speed Demon is using to support his broken ankle, he says, “You look like the wrong half of Dazzler.” When The Owl makes his escape, he tells his henchman to ready his Prius, and as they drive away he remarks, “Listen to that. You can barely hear the engine. Love the Prius.” And when Shocker kicks his way out of the car trunk and runs into a boy in the middle of a junkyard, the only things he can think to say are stock platitudes like “stay in school” and “don’t do drugs.” The cheeky dialogue combined with the high-risk suspense of the central heist makes this an incredibly well-rounded issue that seamlessly shifts from comedy to drama.
Like Daredevil’s Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, Spencer and Lieber aren’t individually labeled as writer and artist, but instead share a storyteller credit, a distinction that spotlights the heavy collaboration between the two creators. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Spencer details his relationship with Lieber: “So many of the visual gags and jokes in this book are added in by Steve. He takes the script that I give him and puts additional layers on it that make it twice as good. Without Steve, the book wouldn’t be half as funny and it wouldn’t be half as good.” The first panel showing the Sinister Six (now numbering a grand total of four) in #5 showcases these visual details with balloons showing Overdrive reading IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly and Beetle putting her phone on airplane mode, and Speed Demon drinking milk to accelerate the heeling of his broken ankle.
The visual ornamentation is what garners a lot of Hawkeye comparisons for this book, but Lieber’s work takes influence from newspaper comic strips to give Superior Foes a far lighter tone than Fraction and Aja’s title. Speed Demon’s quick movements are captured with white clouds containing a “PEW” sound effect, and when Boomerang complains about the Beetle’s paperwork, a thought bubble pops up over her head showing her teammate being devoured by piranhas. Lieber’s onomatopoeia is particularly excellent; nowadays sound effects are usually added by computer rather than drawn in by the artist, but Lieber puts all the onomatopoeia in himself to maximize the expressive value of the visual sound. The thin letters of each “PEW” contrast with a big bold “WAM” when Speed Demon’s injured ankle causes him to crash after taking out two guards; the “WHUPWHUPWHUP” of Overdrive’s augmented toy helicopter emphasizes the intense volume of the enlarged machine; and the increasing size and deepening color of each “THUD” shows the growing force of Shocker’s attempts to get out of the trunk he’s been locked in.
The highlight of Superior Foes #5 is a two-page spread detailing the dangerous path the team will have to traverse to get to the loot. It’s a fantastic cross-section of a building revealing that, despite Boomerang’s assertions, this heist will be no “piece of cake.” With its various levels of increasingly wacky obstacles for the Sinister Six (four) to overcome, the splash calls to mind memories of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s absurdist superhero comedy Nextwave. Once the group gets past the armed guards, there’s the metal body-masher, werewolves, scorpions, ninjas, a mustachioed martial artist, anthropomorphic plants, and a giant adorable loris they have to fight. While his partners make their way through the building, Boomerang tries the elevator, which works despite being labeled out-of-service, bringing him straight to the actual treasure he’s looking for: “The True Face Of Victor Von Doom,” the most sought-after piece of art on Earth.
The structure of the actual break-in sequence encapsulates the entire allure of this series in a few pages. As Beetle, Speed Demon, and Overdrive engage in the typical superhero-comic action by fighting their way through each room, Boomerang takes a simpler, subtler path by riding the elevator. He whistles on the way down and waves at the security camera to further patronize the man they’re stealing from. As the panels switch between the dynamic fight sequences and the static shots of the elevator interior, they illustrate the balance of the fantastic and mundane that has made this series such a welcome diversion from the usual superhero fare. Sometimes being a bad guy is a rip-roaring adventure and sometimes it’s a total drag just like any other job, but in Spencer and Lieber’s hands, readers can always depend on the supervillain lifestyle to provide plenty of laughs.