The premise of one of Marvel Now’s flagship titles, The Superior Spider-Man, may initially come across as a classic sci-fi plot: two characters having their minds magically “switched” to create fish-out-of-water scenarios. But within the series’ first five issues, the creative team –Dan Slott as writer and a rotating cast of illustrators – have also explored some unique perspectives on how human memories are recalled and accessed, resulting in a comic book story-arc that is as much about psychology and neuroscience as it is fighting crime and body-snatching.
Starting in Amazing Spider-Man #698, readers learned that Spider-Man’s arch nemesis, Doctor (Otto Octavius) Octopus, used advanced technology to swap minds with the hero, thereby trapping Peter Parker in the villain’s dying body. The entirety of ASM #698 is told by what the reader is thought to be Peter’s perspective as Spider-Man. Accepting that Peter is telling the story, there are a few scenes that sound foreign – for example, the hero wondering nonchalantly why he was no longer seeing Mary Jane Watson (when the dissolution of their marriage has been a major plot point for more than 150 issues). These scenes all make much more sense when the big twist is revealed at the very end of the issue. From there, the reader can ascertain that not only does Doctor Octopus have control of Spider-Man’s body, he also has access to his memories, including his emotional connections to other characters such as Watson.
In Amazing Spider-Man’s “final” issue, #700, Peter’s mind is believed to be “dead” within the deceased body of Doctor Octopus while Otto’s mind is alive and well within Parker’s. But not before Peter mystically presses that last bits of his moral code – “with great power comes great responsibility” – into Doc Ock’s mind. This spiritual transfer completes Otto’s conversion from villain masquerading as a hero to the “Superior” Spider-Man, a character he believes will be physically and intellectually better than his predecessor in every way.
Once the story transitions from Amazing to Superior, that’s when Slott and Marvel’s artists start to really push some far out ideas about human psychology, especially as it is represented in a super-hero comic book. If the reader chooses to scratch well below the surface of the more simplistic “mind-swap” trope, they will discover protagonists experiencing varying degrees of amnesia and agnosia along with an absence of proprioception. Furthermore, by examining some of the neuroses exhibited by the comic’s main characters, it can be speculated that the entire premise of Superior Spider-Man may not actually be a recycled plot from a D-level science fiction film, but instead a neurological breakdown by one of the comic book medium’s most celebrated characters.
Sigmund Freud said, “neurosis is reminiscence.” One of the devices Superior Spider-Man’s creative team has deployed on multiple occasions is the actual physical displacement of Peter Parker in his own memories with Otto Octavius instead. In Superior Spider-Man #2, Octavius is thinking about his romantic history with Mary Jane, and is physically placing himself at the scene of numerous iconic moments between Peter and Watson – their first kiss together (as seen in Amazing Spider-Man #143), Mary Jane caring for a battered Parker, even their cinematically iconic “upside-down” kiss together from the Sam Raimi film. But if Octavius has total control of Peter’s physical, mental and emotional state, how can he be seeing himself at the scene of a memory that he had not actually experienced?
Renowned neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote about visual agnosia in the titular essay of his 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In this case study, Sacks’ patient has lost the ability to recognize physical objects from one another. However, an examination of his brain revealed no tangible memory loss. During one meeting, Sacks presents the patient with a red rose and asks him to describe the item. The patient sees a “convoluted red form with a linear green attachment” but is unable to confirm the item is actually a rose until he is asked by Sacks to smell it. “Visually, he was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions,” Sacks wrote. “He could speak about things, but did not see them face-to-face.”
In the case of the Superior Spider-Man, Otto Octavius has seemingly found a way to identify Peter’s memories abstractly, but is unable to project them in a way that accurately reflects the physical reality of the moment. These reminiscences are not portrayed by the comic’s creative team as some kind of wistful wish fulfillment by Octavius, imagining himself in the place of Peter Parker. They are deeply personal moments from the recesses of Parker’s mind that only he should be able to recall. And yet they are physically projected as Otto’s memory instead. Maybe this is a case study of the “Man Who Mistook Himself for Doctor Octopus?”
Additional psychological intrigue is added to the Superior Spider-Man series with the reveal at the end of the title’s first issue that Peter Parker’s mind, originally believed dead with Doc Ock’s body, still exists in some kind of astral/spiritual form that is constantly in the physical vicinity of his old body, keeping careful watch to see if Octavius lives by Parker’s old moral code. This Astral Parker presence is able to physically interject in some instances (at one point preventing Octavius from dealing a fatal blow to a fallen villain) and in other moments is portrayed as a nagging voice of sorts in the back of the Otto’s/Superior Spider-Man’s mind.
In another case study by Sacks, “The Disembodied Lady,” the patient finds herself physically able to see her body, but unable to feel or sense anything whatsoever. Again, this condition was brought on psychologically, not due to an accident or spinal damage. The patient’s doctors conclude that she has lost proprioception, or sense of position.
While the Superior Spider-Man’s situation shares some characteristics with dissociative identity disorder, or multiple-personality disorder, the physical interaction between Astral Peter and Octavius is quite minimal. Rather it seems more likely linked to the disembodied lady’s issues with proprioception. Especially when Slott introduces the idea that Astral Peter can also mentally share Octavius’ personal memories in Superior Spider-Man #3.
In this issue, Octavius is recalling an early encounter he had with the super-villain the Vulture. Astral Peter is immediately transported to the scene of this memory, but unlike Otto, he has not displaced the villain in the sequence, but rather is able to observe the reminiscence as a third-party bystander. The key idea here is while like the disembodied lady, Astral Peter may feel physically disconnected from his body and mind, he is still psychologically plugged in enough to share in this reminiscence.
Of course, all of these psychological phenomena outlined in Superior Spider-Man may not be a result of some kind of medical disorder. It may be something far more abstract than that. In his introduction to the “Transports” section of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Sacks talks of transports as being:
“of poignant intensity, and shot through with personal feeling and meaning – tend to be seen, like dreams, as physical: as a manifestation, perhaps of unconscious or preconscious activity (or in the mystically-minded, of something ‘spiritual’) not as something ‘medical,’ let alone ‘neurological.’”
In one of these case studies, a woman hears old Irish songs inside her heads that reminds her of the past. The music cannot be recorded or recognized in any tangible way, but multiple psychological screenings from Sacks and others determine that the patient here is undoubtedly telling the truth. With this patient in mind, perhaps in Superior Spider-Man the recall and exploration of memories may not be the result of agnosia or a lack of proprioception but instead a completely random and inexplicable psychological condition. But that does not change the fact that there is still enough physical evidence that links Peter Parker to his body and mind in a way that shows his condition is much more complex than a deus-ex-machina mind switch.