After the mammoth success of Sam Raimi’s first SPIDER-MAN film in 2002, a sequel was a foregone conclusion. Even before the second film had been officially announced, speculation was running rampant about who the villain would be for SPIDEY 2. All kinds of rumors were flying around, everybody from old-school originals like the Lizard and the Sandman to ‘90s favorites like Venom or Carnage. Personally, I was pulling for an old favorite, probably the second most popular and prolific Spidey-Villain after the Green Goblin, and damned if Uncle Raimi didn’t make my wish come true with the introduction in next week’s SPIDER-MAN 2 of Otto Octavius, better known by his nom de plume of Dr. Octopus, or just plain “Doc Ock” for short. One of Spidey’s earliest adversaries, Doc Ock has almost as long and storied a history as Spidey himself, so we’re going to take a rare trip to the dark side this week and explore the highs and lows of the criminal career of one Otto Octavius. Let’s get started.
Dr. Octopus made his debut in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #3 (July 1963) in the reasonably named “Spider-Man Versus Doctor Octopus,” by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko. We first meet the good doctor toiling away at the U.S. Atomic Research Center, where Otto Octavius, the nation’s leading authority on radiation and atomic power, has invented an ingenious contraption which allows him to deftly control four mechanical arms that can grasp and manipulate items from a safe distance and behind heavy shielding.
Already nicknamed “Dr. Octopus” by his co-workers, Octavius is the victim of a devastating accident at the lab, when a sudden surge of radiation causes a massive explosion. Trapped in the heart of the blast, the accident permanently grafts the arms to his torso, and somehow links them to his mind, granting him complete mental control over his four impossibly strong mechanical arms.
Unfortunately, the radiation also seemed to affect Octavius’ mind, instilling in him a dangerous paranoia and bitterness.
As word of Octavius’ accident spreads, the story becomes hot news, and Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson assigns to Peter Parker the task of finding a way into the hospital to get a photo of the injured scientist. Sneaking into the hospital suite as Spider-Man, Parker is shocked to discover Octavius holding the hospital staff hostage in exchange for the equipment necessary to continue his work. When Octavius moves to attack one of the hostages, Spider-Man bursts in and the two are soon locked in combat. Much to Spidey’s surprise, Doc Ock’s mechanical arms are not only blindingly fast, they’re also stronger than anything he’s ever faced, able to tear through his webbing with relative ease, a feat never before accomplished.
Before he realizes it, Spider-Man, who only minutes before was remarking to himself how no one was ever able to give him any competition in a fight, has been utterly defeated by Doc Ock, and thrown aside as if he were nothing.
Doc Ock returns to the Atomic Research Center and takes it over for his own purposes, while a despondent Peter Parker wallows in his defeat. Parker’s attitude is changed by a school assembly featuring a lecture by Johnny Storm, otherwise known as the Human Torch, who exhorts the students to never give up in the face of adversity. All fired up by the Torch’s pep talk, Spidey makes a beeline for the Atomic Research Center, determined to take down Doc Ock. After getting past Ock’s initial traps, Spidey makes a stop in the chem lab, then confronts the crazed scientist, throwing his makeshift chemical bomb at two of Ock’s metal arms, fusing them together.
Realizing that the only way to stop Ock is with a strong offense, Spidey comes in close and fires a faceful of web fluid onto Ock’s glasses, blinding him.
Then, when Ock pulls reflexively pulls Spidey in close with his two remaining mechanical arms, Spidey takes advantage of his window of opportunity, knocking Doc Ock unconscious with a right cross. Here we would see for the first time a weakness that would trouble Doc Ock time and time again: a glass jaw.
In his debut appearance, Doc Ock made quite an impact. Steve Ditko’s design combined the scheming and nebbishy qualities of the classic mad scientist character with the sleek, cool lines and unstoppable strength and power of the vintage robot designs from the pulps of the 1940s and ‘50s. The result was a unique mix of technological might and human frailty, and a character that would return time and time again to bedevil Spider-Man.
More so than most of Spidey’s villains (save the Green Goblin), Dr. Octopus has had an unusually high level of involvement with Peter Parker’s friends and family, starting in his second appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #11 (April 1964), “Turning Point,” again by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Here Dr. Octopus, having served his sentence and released from jail early for good behavior, is immediately followed upon his release by a suspicious Spider-Man, who is shocked to see the villain picked up from jail by Betty Brant, Peter Parker’s would-be girlfriend.
Thanks to his newly invented Spider-Tracer, as well as a conveniently discarded road map, Spidey is able to follow the car to Philadelphia, where, it turns out, Betty is taking Doc Ock so that he can break mobster Blackie Gaxton out of jail, all at the behest of her brother Bennett, a crooked lawyer looking to get out from under past-due gambling debts. In Philadelphia, Peter finds Betty and gets the whole story, but is unable to reach the jail in time to prevent Ock from breaking Blackie out. Spidey follows Ock and Blackie to the docks, where Ock, Blackie and his gang are continuing to hold Bennett and Betty at gunpoint.
Although Spider-Man is nursing an injured ankle, he still attempts to protect Bennett and Betty from the mobsters, but an errant bullet from Blackie’s gun goes off in his struggle with Spider-Man, claiming the life of Betty’s brother. Betty, naturally, blames Spider-Man for her brother’s death. Everybody remember Spider-Man’s primary motivation, kiddies? That’s right, guilt.
Spider-Man pursues Doc Ock, but his injured ankle proves a liability, and he manages to escape. Betty soon realizes that Spider-Man wasn’t truly at fault for her brother’s murder, but still can’t bear the sight of him, reinforcing Peter’s resolve to never confess his double life to Betty.
Ock’s supporting role in “Turning Point” was followed up in the very next issue by a star turn in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #12, “Unmasked by Doctor Octopus!” Following his escape in Philadelphia, Dr. Octopus embarks on a cross-country crime spree, outwitting the authorities at every turn. Hoping to finally destroy Spider-Man, Ock returns to New York and heads straight for the Bugle to kidnap Betty Brant, figuring Spider-Man will intervene to save her as he did in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Peter Parker has been struck down with a mother of a 24-hour cold virus, strong enough to actually cause his spider-powers to go into remission. Regardless, Peter changes into his Spider-Man costume and attacks, but is easily beaten and knocked unconscious by Doc Ock, who wastes no time in unmasking him in front of Betty and J. Jonah Jameson, who had arrived to try to get the exclusive for the Bugle.
Doc Ock (as well as Betty and JJJ) naturally assumes that Parker was merely an impersonator, thanks to his dismal and all-too-human showing in battle, and quickly flees before the police can arrive in greater numbers. While Peter receives a boost in popularity thanks to his perceived bravery in “impersonating” Spidey, Doc Ock considers himself a laughing stock over being outwitted by a mere teenager, and sets off on a rampage in order to attract Spider-Man’s attention, including releasing wild animals from the zoo and overturning cars in traffic. Spidey arrives and a wild six-page fight sequence ensues, with artist Steve Ditko providing some of his most dynamic layouts to date.
The battle ends with Spidey and Ock trapped in a sculptor’s studio accidentally set ablaze by the fighting. Ock winds up pinned beneath a giant stone statue, with Spidey unable to rescue him. The webslinger manages to escape the blaze, while New York firefighters extricate the half-conscious Doc Ock.
Again, Doc Ock made a quick return, this time in the 1964 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL, “The Sinister Six!”
Here it’s revealed that prison doctors had discovered a way to remove Octavius’ mechanical arms, and the presumably powerless prisoner was no longer deemed a threat. What the doctors did not know was that Octavius still retained a psionic link with his arms, and was able to control them remotely from some distance. Like a faithful dog, the arms swiftly return to their master and bust him out of the clink.
Once he’s out, Ock decides that there is strength in numbers and organizes the first meeting of the Sinister Six, an alliance of Spider-man’s greatest enemies, including Electro, Mysterio, the Vulture, the Sandman and Kraven the Hunter.
Reasonably, the Vulture suggests that they should attack Spider-Man all at once. Makes sense to me. But no, instead Doc Ock elects to go with his own plan, which is to attack Spidey separately and individually in the hopes of wearing him down. Kind of an odd plan morale-wise, as it presupposes numerous losses for your team, but hey, I don’t have four robotic mechanical arms, so what do I know?
Meanwhile, Spidey has mysteriously lost his spider-powers, this time while deeply depressed and guilt-ridden over the death of his Uncle Ben. While Peter adjusts to his new life without Spider-Man, a concerned Aunt May calls on Betty Brant to discuss Pete’s depression, which just so happens to be when Sandman and Electro had been dispatched to kidnap Betty, in Doc Ock’s tried-and true manner of getting Spider-Man’s attention. One of the funnier gags in the story is Aunt May’s utter obliviousness in the face of her dire situation, barely realizing that they’ve been kidnapped, and even chastising Betty Brant for badmouthing Doc Ock, saying “We mustn’t be prejudiced against the poor man just because he seems to have some trouble with his arms.”
The Vulture heads to the Bugle and tells Jameson where Spider-Man has to go if ever wants to see Betty Brant again. The powerless Peter Parker, who’d been summoned by JJJ, heads off to his appointment as Spidey, knowing full well that he doesn’t stand a chance. At the first sign of danger, Spidey’s powers return, and he eventually realizes that his power loss was psychosomatic, brought on by his guilt about the death of his uncle. Spidey fights his way through the Sinister Six, all while Doc Ock serves coffee and danish to Betty and Aunt May, who compliments the good doctor on his manners.
Finally, Spidey reaches Dr. Octopus himself, where first Ock tries to trick his opponent by removing his arms and commanding them to attack Spider-Man from behind. When that doesn’t work, Ock goes for his final stratagem: to put on a wetsuit and scuba gear and fight Spidey underwater, while Spidey is fighting for air. I guess it’s not a bad plan, but I still think Vulture’s six-on-one idea had a lot more merit…
The “Ock Cousteau” plan has Spidey briefly on the ropes, until Spider-Man releases all the webbing in his webshooters at once, hopelessly entangling Doc Ock’s tentacles until he’s unable to free himself, at which point Spidey rubs his nose in it for good measure: Spidey finds Betty and the confused Aunt May, who’s still wondering where that “well-mannered Dr. Octopus” went, while the Sinister Six are collected and locked up, in New York’s apparently overcrowded prison system:
Perhaps realizing the perils of overexposure, Lee and Ditko shelved Doc Ock for awhile, with him finally making his dramatic return in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #32 (January 1966), in “Man on a Rampage!”
Ock’s return came as a surprise, as he was revealed to be the mysterious “Master Planner” whose minions had encountered Spider-Man in the previous issue. Here he and Ock are at odds over a vial of ISO-36, a rare and expensive serum that Spider-man desperately needs in order to save his Aunt May, who bloodstream had been poisoned by a radioactive particle she was exposed to when Peter had earlier given her a blood transfusion. Ock wants the serum for his own research into radiation and sends his goons to swipe it.
Spidey tracks them to Octopus’ underwater lair, and after a devastating battle, Spidey winds up pinned beneath tons of steel, as the structure itself begin to collapse atop him. This leads up to probably the most famous sequence in Spider-Man’s publishing history, Lee and Ditko’s bravura five-page monologue from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #33, in which Spider-Man rallies himself, refusing to give up, and ever so slowly finds the strength to free himself from the wreckage.
It’s great stuff. Despite the big revelation of Ock’s identity in the previous issue, after the drama and stirring soliloquy of Spidey’s struggle, Dr. Octopus seems little more than an afterthought, and Lee and Ditko wisely let him vanish until his next appearance.
As it happens, his next appearance wouldn’t come until after the departure of one of his creators, Steve Ditko. Replacing him on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was John Romita, no slouch in the art department, but certainly a different style. Romita’s lush, more realistic art was certainly a change from Ditko’s stylized, exaggerated approach, and Romita’s version of Doc Ock reflected those changes as well.
While Ditko tended to portray Doc Ock as a tall, yet stocky fellow with a squared-off head and a crewcut, Romita slowly altered the character, consciously or otherwise, giving him the shorter, pudgier look and Moe Howard haircut that Spidey readers brought up in the ‘70s and ‘80s are so familiar with.
Come back next week as we look at Lee and Romita’s first lengthy Dr. Octopus arc in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and some other notable Ock moments from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with some recent appearances thrown in for good measure.