In a convention charged with psychological significance, superheroes frequently fight distorted mirror images of themselves.
Spider-Man battled other “animal men” from the start, defeating the Chameleon in Amazing Spider-Man 1 and the Vulture in ASM 2. But Dr. Octopus, in the third issue, was the most clearly mirrored of the villains (spiders and octopi both being multi-limbed, somewhat creepy creatures). And Otto Octavius also provided an opportunity for dramatic development unique in superhero comics at the time.
For The Amazing Spider-Man was not just a series but a serial, a soap opera, and at first its teenage protagonist was really too immature to handle the dangerous responsibilities thrust upon him by his guilt over his uncle’s death.
Peter Parker got a lesson in life’s unfairness in the first issue, when after rescuing J. Jonah Jameson’s son from certain death, the Daily Bugle publisher still trashed Spider-Man.
In the second issue, Spider-Man’s challenges escalated from a master of disguise to the Vulture, his first fully super-powered foe. Acquitting himself well in that showdown, Spidey regarded his victory the way many inexperienced young men would.
He became overconfident.
“It’s almost TOO easy,” Spidey mused. “I’ve run out of enemies who can give me any real opposition. I’m too powerful for ANY foe. I almost WISH for an opponent who’d give me a run for my money.”
In ASM 3 (July 1963), Lee and Ditko fulfill Spidey’s wish by confronting him with Dr. Octopus, who gives him a beat-down that shakes his confidence to the core. However, inspired by the Human Torch, a sadder but wiser Spider-Man returns to fight another day…
Comics historian Don Alsafi noted that Dr. Octopus, too, is characterized with subtle sophistication.
“When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he seems a genial sort of man: well-liked, respected by his colleagues, and miraculously unscarred from the trauma of having been named Otto,’” Alasfi wrote. “However, an explosive accident during his atomic research causes the metal arms he uses in his experiments to fuse to his body — and Doctor Octopus is born!
“Although we only get to see Octavius for about a page before his mind becomes deranged, what’s interesting is just how abrupt this change is, and the idea of a man suddenly enslaved by his madness. In an era where most villains were evil just because, the astute reader quickly realizes that this isn’t the way Otto has always been, and the tragedy of that original mind trapped within the broken one is poignant.”