In this latest volume, Spider-Man’s *ahem* superior foes face off against one of the necessary evils of the comics industry. The Fill-In Issue(s)! Tossing out an issue by creators other than the people who regularly work on a title to keep it on a monthly schedule has become an increasingly rare sight in the industry these days. Runs on superhero comics have become increasingly defined by their creators. So while it’s a simple matter to find multiple artists to keep a writer-driven series like Hickman’s “Avengers” on track, it’s much harder to do when a writer/artist team is delivering the magic as was the case in the glory days of the Millar/Hitch “Ultimates” and the current Fraction/Aja “Hawkeye” run.
“The Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is defined by the writer/artist team of Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber. Unfortunately, the title doesn’t sell well enough, or have the necessary amount of Eisners for the company to put it on hiatus while the two get back on schedule. That means we get two whole issues of fill-ins by other creators in this volume. I realize I’m making a really big deal about this, but it has been a while since I’ve read a creator-driven series that has featured these kinds of issues. Even more surprising is that the stories being told in the two fill-ins collected here are actually pretty entertaining.
Writer James Asmus gives us an appropriately titled story in issue #10 called “Filling In” as we catch up with Beetle, Speed Demon, and Overdrive as they grab a few drinks at a bar they’ve just robbed. Well, “will rob” anyway because the safe is on a timer and to kill time until then they decide to swap stories about the most impressive superhero they’ve managed to beat. True to form, Overdrive bests Hercules through failure, Speed Demon camouflages his defeats to clever wordplay, and Beetle… well, the way she tricks Daredevil is actually pretty clever.
In fact, the other two shorts are pretty fun as well and the framing sequences in the bar actually capture a good deal of the title’s subversive spirit. That’s mainly because Asmus is good with the details like Overdrive being creeped out by the Hercules poster over the men’s room urinal, the hostages berating the villains for being unable to open the safe themselves, and Speed Demon’s questionable attempt at getting revenge on Hercules by giving him the clap. It’s the little things that matter in a series like this, and Asmus didn’t just beat my expectations he also delivered a pretty entertaining issue overall. I wish the art for his stories was a bit more memorable, but the artists involved get the job done.
Next up is issue #11’s “Don’t Feel Bad, You Can Be Good” which goes back to the supervillain support group Boomerang attended in one issue from the previous volume. Two writers are at work here: Tom Peyer and Elliott Kalan, and they both deal with how two of Spider-Man’s villains have dealt with his “Superior” incarnation. They both have their moments, though they also suffer from a “Spider-Man is so scary and not fun anymore” vibe that suggests they were taking Dan Slott’s story at face value. Peyer’s has the Grizzly bonding with a guy he mugged, which is played straight for amusing effect. I’m less sold on how two grown men can have such affection for songs like “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “The Itsy-Bitsy-Spider” to go running off towards their sources. Kalan’s is the more amusing of the two as the Looter, tired of being beaten up by Spider-Man all the time decides to hone his craft in the midwest before returning to New York to claim his destiny. I wouldn’t go so far as to say hilarity ensues, but seeing him face off against the terror of St. Louis known as The Plainsman is good for a couple laughs.
Even though the term fill-in has (rightfully) earned a negative connotation over the years, these two issues were actually pretty entertaining on their own terms. Both captured the spirit of “Superior Foes” to a better extent than I was expecting, even if the art wasn’t as memorable as the writing in both cases. It would seem that the title’s irreverent and occasionally dark humor was the right fit for these writers, particularly Asmus.
That being said, there’s still no mistaking the work in these two issues for the genuine article. There are still three issues here written by Spencer and his skewed take on the most pathetic of criminal lowlifes in the Marvel Universe is still a winning one. In these issues alone, we get to see an incredibly random “Thanks Obama” cutaway, Boomerang being tortured by a jack-in-the-box, Shocker getting to know the head of Silvio Silvermane, and Chameleon almost making out with himself. There’s even a full issue devoted to fleshing out Beetle’s character as we see that she’s more than the woman who plays the straight man to the idiocy of the men in this series. She’s an assured, capable, and utterly diabolic person who wants nothing more than to follow in her daddy Tombstone’s footsteps as a supervillain and the ways in which she does this are gleefully nasty.
There’s so much stuff, be it character details, visual non-sequitirs, stylistic experimentation, crammed into these issues that they risk feeling overstuffed and underdeveloped. That they don’t is a credit to regular artist Steve Lieber and guest artist Rich Ellis, who handle’s Beetle’s story. Both have great storytelling skills and know how to present information on a page in a way that makes the best visual sense. Their work here isn’t overly flashy, but it’s perfectly suited for the style and tone of the story being told here.
Even with the fill-ins, this volume is still worth picking up if you liked the first one. I can still understand how its particular take on the criminal element of the Marvel Universe or its sense of humor won’t be for everyone. It works great for me, however, and even though this series is ending with issue #17, I think that’s a good run for this kind of project. Better to quit while things are still firing on all cylinders than risk losing the right thread of tone and humor. If the final six issues are as good as the ones collected here, the “Superior Foes” will have had a good run. Fill-ins and all.