Having grown up in the early 90s, I was introduced to Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man during what’s often objectively described as “the worst era in the character’s history”. Granted, John Byrne turning MJ into a bitch just so he could kill her off in a plane crash and no one would mind, J. Michael Straczynski changing Spidey’s origin so that he’s the predestined avatar of a magical animal totem, Dan Slott mutating Peter Parker into a giant spider and then having him give birth to himself just so he could have organic webshooters like in the Sam Raimi films, and Joe Quesada being Joe Quesada have all created pretty solid arguments against the Clone Saga being “the worst era in the character’s history”. STILL. Being the lesser of several evils doesn’t automatically exonerate you from being terrible in your own right.
And yet, I freakin’ love it.
Well, ‘love’ is kind of a strong word, looking back…
It’s all in the nostalgia, I’ll admit from the get-go. Everyone has their own era of Spider-Man comics that they remember with the utmost fondness and the Clone Saga was MY era, for better or worse. I got into Spider-Man comics just after Maximum Carnage threw down the gauntlet, stating “Just TRY to suck harder than me!” For whatever reason, Clone Saga architect Howard Mackie’s response was, “Challenge Accepted”. But I read comics differently back in elementary school; I still bought them from the newsstand at Springfield Mall every Sunday with my meager allowance and I only purchased what I could afford. X-Men titles were still my first priority and Spider-Man was nothing more than a “bonus”. So I didn’t follow the Clone Saga every step of the way, but in random chapters here and there. As a result, I didn’t really bother with an ongoing story; I was satisfied enough watching Spider-Man punch bad guys in the face, even if he wasn’t always Peter Parker (or WAS he!?!).
Over the past couple of years, though, Marvel has seen fit to collect the entirety of their controversial Clone Saga across a grand total of TWELVE volumes, many of which skew close to 500 pages in length. With that in mind, it’s hard to believe that the Clone Saga only spanned 1994 through 1996 (but perhaps not so hard if you look at the glut of Spider-Man comics that were choking the racks at the time). The volumes are broken up like so: 1 volume collects The Original Clone Saga (the 1970s storyline that acted as the foundation for the 90s event), 5 volumes collect The Complete Clone Saga Epic (Peter Parker’s confrontation with Ben Reilly and eventual passing of the torch to Reilly-himself) and 6 volumes collect The Complete Ben Reilly Epic (Ben Reilly’s stint as Spider-Man and the eventual return of Peter to the role).
I’ve been a patient man, collecting each volume and waiting until the entire run has been released before I start my chronological read-through. With the final installment coming out in November, and realizing just how much I’m going to have to freakin’ read, I might as well start now.
And so the Clone Saga begins. Let’s just get through this…
The Original Clone Saga
Contents: Amazing Spider-man Vol. 1 #139-150, Giant-Size Spider-Man #5, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #25-31, 149, 162-163, Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8.
The single volume comprising The Original Clone Saga collects all the stories from the 1970s and 1980s deemed relevant to the Clone Saga of the 1990s. The collection is impressively thorough and these are probably some of Spidey’s most classic storylines of the eras represented. And having been published at a time before Spider-Man had a good half dozen “family” titles to confuse reader, and before multi-part crossover “events” were the order of the day, each storyline reads cleanly, concisely and intuitively.
The first storyline collected, and indeed there’s enough material covered in it to warrant a trade all by itself, covers Amazing Spider-Man #139-146, Giant-Size Spider-Man #5, Amazing Spider-Man #147-150 and 3 pages of material from Amazing Spider-Man #151. Written mostly by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru, if you’ve ever wondered what a good storyline involving Spider-Man and clones might be like, this ought to be your first stop. It’s one of Conway’s best contributions to the Spider-Man mythology, which is saying something considering the guy co-scripted “The Death of Gwen Stacy” (with Stan Lee) and wrote the storyline where Harry Osborne becomes the second Green Goblin.
This storyline features the enigmatic Jackal making his move against Spider-Man (he’d been introduced back in issue #129) by keeping his foe perpetually off-kilter via a volley of physical, psychological and emotional attacks. He recruits some of Spider-Man’s rogues to do his bidding, though they aren’t really the top shelf villains. We’re talking Danny Berkhart (the short-lived second Mysterio) and mother fuckin’ Grizzly, Cyclone and Tarantula of all morts. Scorpion is the closest to an A-lister in this thing, and he winds up getting the business from Aunt May by the time all is said and done:
Still not as degrading as having to be Venom.
The Jackal’s ultimate scheme involves a clone of Gwen Stacy, created to confuse Peter Parker (and indeed, his confusion makes up the bulk of this lengthy arc’s mystery and drama). The finale is fantastic, as Spider-Man dukes it out with a clone of himself and the Jackal’s identity is revealed to be genetics Professor Miles Warren (who had been around since issue #31). There’s a twinge of doubt as to Spider-Man’s identity at the close of this arc, leaving the door open for the Clone Saga of the 90s.
There’s also the Spider-Mobile.
In the middle is the King-Size special where Spider-Man goes down to Florida to fight the Lizard and team-up with Man-Thing. While this would normally qualify as a meaningless diversion, Man-Thing happens to be one of my favorite characters, so I’ll give it a pass. The Lizard is as boring and one-note as ever, but in a story arc that features guys like Grizzly and Tarantula, you almost forget how dull he is.
Also included is a rather random epilogue where Spider-Man fights Smythe and his Spider-Slayer. I didn’t think they could find a Spidey rogue worse than Grizzly to focus on, but they did. Let’s just be grateful the Kangaroo wasn’t in this thing.
This opening arc is the highlight of the collection and, really, if all you’re interested in are “classic” Spider-Man stories than you have to pick it up. It’s a great, suspenseful read even if the villains peppering the story aren’t Spidey’s best. After reading this arc in the trade, I’d highly recommending snagging the collection titled “A New Goblin”. It picks up a thread from the end of this story (Spidey disposing of his clone’s corpse) and is one of the more famous Green Goblin tales.
The next arc, by Bill Mantlo and Jim Mooney, collects Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #25-31. While there’s a lot of questionably conceived stuff filling this one out, the overall tale (the debut of Miles Warren’s zombie clone, Carrion) is pretty great and it’s a worthy follow-up to Conway’s arc. Unfortunately, for all the menace of Carrion in these 7 issues, you also have to suffer through team-ups with lame-os like White Tiger (not the cute female version from the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, but her boring-as-Hell older brother) and Daredevil (years before Frank Millar wrung all the suck out of him).
If it has any saving grace, it’s that there’s plenty of hilarious weirdness in these stories which elevate even the lesser moments. I particularly like the opening, where Carrion is rejected by the Masked Marauder and the Maggia by means of a Mr. Burns-style trapdoor in the floor. The only way that could have been better is if a humongous Vaudeville hook had yanked him off-stage.
And though it sounds idiotic, the ending where Carrion and his stupid sidekick Darter get eaten by a giant tentacle-flailing slime-monster is pretty horrific:
Next, Conway returns (this time with artist Mark Bagley) for a self-contained story published in The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #5. This is where things start getting hairy, as Conway retcons the Gwen Stacy clone into not being a clone at all, but a woman named Joyce Delany whom Miles Warren poisoned with a genetic virus that transformed her into a Gwen Stacy doppelganger. The overall story involves the High Evolutionary (the epic Spider-Man villain I give absolutely 0 shits about) trying to capture the Gwen clone to inspect Warren’s handiwork and the Young Gods getting involved for absolutely no other reason than they needed to be promoted by editorial.
I’m not sure what the mission statement of this one was when Conway started out, but it seemed to have only one purpose: To undo the fact that Gwen was cloned. Unfortunately, this “fact” comes at odds with everything we’d seen before. The High Evolutionary claims that Warren never had the intellect to clone anything, hence why he “cheated” by simply mutating another woman into a duplicate. That excuse hardly holds up to a moment’s scrutiny, considering Warren successfully cloned Spider-Man and then himself. Conway would later jump through some more hoops to try and “fix” all of those oversights, which we’ll suffer through in a minute.
The Young Gods are probably the worst artifact of this story. The way they’re brought into the thing is pointless and their actual effect on the plot is minimal; they exist strictly to remind readers that they exist (and also that they’re young, hip and the Next Big Thing, for certain).
I wasn’t alive in the 70s, so I really have no idea who these people are or why they’re taking orders from a squirrel.
The last collected arc contains The Spectacular Spider-Man #149, 162-163, again by Conway but with art by Sal Buscema. In the first issue, Conway tries his hand at damage control after his High Evolutionary story, explaining away how Carrion and the Spider-Man clone could exist if Warren wasn’t capable of cloning. What we learn is that the Spider-Man clone was Warren’s assistant, Anthony Serba, and that the first Carrion was some other individual infected by Warren’s cloning virus. Then, a student named Malcolm McBride finds some of Warren’s old formulas and accidentally transforms himself into the second Carrion.
Like all comic book retcons, the more you try to clarify it, the more convoluted things get. It’s like picking at a scab until the whole thing gets so infected you have the chop the limb off (or in industry terms, a “reboot”). What this arc introduces is the zombie clone of the previous zombie clone of Miles Warren… but none of them were ever actually clones. We haven’t even gotten to the 90s Clone Saga and already things are getting muddy and stupid.
The last two issues feature a team-up between Carrion II and Hobgoblin as they attempt to get revenge on Spider-Man. This is the time when Hobgoblin was possessed by an actual demon and had pointy teeth and a forked tongue, but before Todd McFarlane made him into a religious nutjob out to cleanse the Earth, by the way. In the end, McBride overcomes the Carrion virus in order to save his mother’s life and kills himself.
I don’t know if this is Roderick Kingsley, Ned Leeds, Jason Macendale or that Spanish kid… and quite frankly, I don’t care.
Not a very strong note to end the collection on, but I understand the point of including these last few tales by Conway. The Original Clone Saga was released to act as a primer for the 90s Clone Saga collections, gathering all the stories those later issues drew inspiration from… regardless of their actual quality. I’m grateful that Marvel made the effort to throw in the lesser stories along with the stronger ones, as they certainly do help when reading the 90s stuff seeing as how they’re referenced all too frequently (and the retcons are inevitably retconned by more retcons, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there).
But before Conway’s second go around, where he starts messing with a perfectly good story that didn’t need to be messed with, the bulk of The Original Clone Saga is some great reading. The initial arc is some of Spidey’s best and the follow-up with the first Carrion, while it has some sucky guest stars, isn’t half bad, either.
Even if you aren’t looking to get into the 90s Clone Saga, this is worth snatching up. You can ignore the later stuff by Conway if you’d prefer, as the first 20 issues in this volume are worth the price tag all on their own.