For the last decade or so, it’s generally been agreed that the big three Spider-Man villains are Venom, Doctor Octopus and Norman Osborn. Doc Ock was the first to be introduced way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3. He’s had the most consistent reign as a top-tier spider-foe.
Doctor Octopus was a mad scientist with control over weapons so iconic these have inspired countless imitators, such as routine Wolverine enemy Omega Red. He’s become a fixture of the Marvel Universe, and probably appeared in more comics than any other Spider-Man opponent, partially because he’s such a fun character. He may just be the best mad scientist Marvel has.
Unlike Venom and the Green Goblin, it’s not the norm for Doctor Octopus to know Spider-Man’s secret identity. He still managed to hurt Peter Parker several times. In his second appearance, he was involved in the death of Bennett Brant, the brother of Peter’s girlfriend Betty. In his next appearance, he struck up a friendship with Aunt May, an event that led to the ridiculous story in which he tried to marry her to gain control of a nuclear power plant she had inherited. In the comics, he was also responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy’s father, as well as for Spider-Man’s greatest moment, when he stole a radioactive isotope unaware that it was needed to save Aunt May’s life. We all know how that ended.
He was the first Spider-Man villain to appear in two consecutive issues, although this arguably wasn’t a two-parter since Amazing Spider-Man #11 didn’t really end in a cliffhanger. He led the Sinister Six in the first Spider-Man annual. He was the primary antagonist of the Master Planner saga, the first three-part Spider-Man story, although he actually only appeared on-page in seven pages of the middle chapter. His next story was a four parter, unprecedented in Spider-Man comics. Captain America might fight the Red Skull for six issues—and the Fantastic Four fought the Inhumans for slightly more than four—but Spider-Man had almost always sent his bad guys to jail at the end of two issues, three on rare occasions. It would be almost a decade later when a member of the rogues gallery appeared in a longer storyline, when the Bart Hamilton Green Goblin was the bad guy for a five-part saga. Though a few years later, Doctor Octopus was the main villain in the eight part Octopus/ Owl war, considered the highlight of Bill Mantlo’s Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man run.
For a long time, battles between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus were special. When he appeared, it was a big deal. It may have been the Octopus/ Owl war that led to Doc Ock losing his luster, at that story ended with the villain suffering a humiliating defeat and a nervous breakdown. That became a defining part of his next few appearances, including what may have been his best appearance in an acclaimed issue of John Byrne’s Fantastic Four.
In the early 1990s, Doctor Octopus had recovered from his fear of Spider-Man, and peaked as the main villain of Return of the Sinister Six and Revenge of the Sinister Six. In the first tale, Doctor Octopus reassembled the Sinister Six as part of a mad plan. In the second tale, they wanted revenge against him. In those pages, Erik Larsen may also have had the definitive visual take on Doc Ock with the combination of tentacles and Armani suit.
The rest of the 1990s wasn’t quite as good for Doc Ock. He appeared in a three issue Spectacular Spider-Man arc. Tom Defalco and Ron Lim gave him a more detailed origin in Spider-Man Unlimited #3, exploring his childhood for the first time. That’s something Zeb Wells and Kaare Andrews built on in Spider-Man/ Doctor Octopus: Year One, and it’s been referenced in Dan Slott’s Dying Wish storyline.
Doctor Octopus was killed by the Grim Hunter during the Clone Saga, and resurrected a few years later. He probably continued to appear more often than any other Spider-foe, although his appearances weren’t particularly consequential. He was one of the few classic enemies to appear in J. Michael Straczynski’s run of Amazing Spider-Man, in which he fought against a businessman trying to duplicate his powers. In another storyline at around the same time, it seemed that he was in the thrall of Fusion, a new villain in Paul Jenkins’s Peter Parker Spider-Man run. In a contrast with the Clone Saga, this time the classic spider-foe revealed that he had been manipulating the promising new villain all along. The story ended with Doc Ock defeating Fusion, prior to his inevitable clash with Spider-Man.
The biggest problem with Doc Ock was that he became one of those bad guys Spider-Man would fight during the course of a normal day. He was often used to establish what life is like for Spidey, or for the people who live in the Marvel Universe, and have to deal with routine battles between superheroes and supervillains. He was dispatched in the opening pages of Greg Rucka’s Quality of Life mini-series, and in the background of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s Alias. He was a single-issue menace in Robert Kirkman’s Marvel Team-Up, as well as Sacasa’s Sensational Spider-Man and a flashback in Bendis’s Dardevil, three stories that were about something else: a team-up with Image Comics guest-starr Invincible, a boy’s discovery that his science teacher was a superhero, and events in the life of a mob figure.
There were a lot of Doc Ock appearances in the comics when the second Spider-Man film came out, and Otto made his film debut. The highlight was Brian K Vaughan’s Negative Exposure mini-series, set during the Lee/ Romita era, as he began to manipulate a rival of Peter Parker’s. But none of these stories mattered. It continued a pattern of inconsequential stories for one of the most important Marvel villains. Although it’s worth noting that the film remains the best of the Spider-Man series.
Doctor Octopus returned in a big way with Amazing Spider-Man #600. It was actually the first time a classic Spider-Man opponent was the bad guy in an anniversary issue. Ock later became the Big Bad of the Big Time era. Years ago, I wrote that Doctor Octopus’s remarkable consistency was one reason for his staying power. But Dan Slott had a different take on the character, depicting him as a dying man whose body was failing him. This provided the villain with a new sense of intensity and danger.
After the developments of Superior Spider-Man, I’m fairly certain that Doctor Octopus will survive (more on that later). Roger Stern, Peter David and JM Dematteis demonstrated that it’s entirely possible to have great runs on Spider-Man without one of his most notable foes, but he still has a lot of potential. The main rule is that, just as with Venom and Carnage, Doctor Octopus’s appearances in the Spider-Man comics should matter.