In my previous review, I took a look at the massive tome titled The Original Clone Saga, which collected all of Spider-Man’s stories from the 70s and 80s that acted as a foundation for the 90s Clone Saga.
And so now that that’s over with, I can begin my journey through the entirety of the infamous 90s event… A journey that will take 11 freakin’ volumes because Marvel just couldn’t decide when to say “enough is enough”.
Before I leap into the swirling miasma of convoluted comic book retcons and contradictions strung together in the form of The Clone Saga, I should probably light a few scented candles and set the scene for you all. The 90s had heralded in quite a few changes for Spider-Man’s dynamic, and by “quite a few” I mean that there were symbiotes. Holy shit, the symbiotes.
David Michelinie had struck marketing gold with Venom, and never one to let the creative well run dry, he produced as many symbiote characters as possible, as quickly as possible. First came Carnage, then the five Symbiotes birthed by the Life Foundation (including Scream, AKA “the one from the Universal Studios ride”). Then there was the Maximum Carnage event, but the less said about that, the better.
Whether you can lay the blame on Michelenie being the ultimate one trick pony or not, the point I’m trying to make is that Marvel’s editorial policies at the time were “take an interesting concept and milk it until the udders bleed and the cow has to be shot to put it out of its own misery”. (And we haven’t even reached that point with the Symbiotes, yet. Just wait until we get to “Planet of the Symbiotes” in Part Four of this article series.)
Killing him was the only worthwhile thing Sentry ever did.
And when you spend two years trying desperately and embarrassingly to recapture lightning in a bottle, what you get is the Clone Saga of the 1990s. What starts out as an interesting callback to a storyline from the 70s winds up getting stretched out so thin you can actually see clear through the pages and glimpse Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco mindlessly drooling as he tries to determine which sock goes on the left foot and which one goes on the right.
But hell, I have little business righteously pointing my finger at anybody; I was a stupid kid in the 90s and I thought Carnage was the coolest thing since Cable. The Clone Saga only lasted two years, despite its tremendous girth, and I read my Spidey comics at a rate of maybe one issue a month (out of five or six titles on the rack). So Peter Parker’s identity crisis didn’t seem nearly so cumbersome and drawn-out at the time. It’s only when you go back and attempt to read it all that you come to grips with how bloated, confused and witless the entire endeavor really was. And like most things you remembered being awesome when you were 9 (I’m looking at you, Carnage and Cable), you were probably wrong.
So let’s put on our Starter Jackets and Nike Air Pumps and take a trip through the 90s-est of Spidey storylines. We can get through this…
Contents: Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #394, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man vol. 1 #217, Spider-Man #51-53, Spider-Man Unlimited #7, Web of Spider-Man #117-119, Spider-Man: The Lost Years #1-3, plus several back-up serials and relevant pages published in other issues.
The first story in this collection, written by J.M. DeMatteis with art by Liam Sharp, is a 4-parter called “The Double”, originally published as a back-up serial in Web of Spider-Man #117, Amazing Spider-Man #394, Spider-Man #51 and Spectacular Spider-Man #217. “The Double” takes place “5 years ago”, before Amazing Spider-Man #149, where Peter faces the clone of himself at the stadium, and both the clone and Miles Warren (the Jackal) are killed in an explosion.
As a prelude to the big event (originally published concurrently with the start of the event), “The Double” offers a pretty good hook. We see the “behind the scenes” action as the Jackal creates the Spider-Man clone, explaining just how he was able to get a perfect clone of a great hero to do his evil bidding. The story ends just after the events of #149, showing how the clone survived and why he went on the run instead of showing himself to Peter.
Like I said, it’s a great hook and leaves you with the lingering excitement of “Oh shit, the clone’s back!” While you have to try and ignore the silliness of the Jackal rocketing around on a jetpack in one of the chapters, it’s a dark tale that shows a lot of dramatic promise in the story to come.
This is harder to ignore than it sounds.
DeMatteis continues the story of the clone (this time with artist John Romita Jr.) in another back-up serial. “The Parker Legacy” (Amazing Spider-Man #397, Spider-Man #57 and Spectacular Spider-Man #223) is another great follow-up, establishing how the clone could take on a different personality and philosophy from Peter Parker, ending with his decision to rename himself Ben Reilly (after Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s maiden name).
“The Parker Legacy” is an even better back-up serial than the first, partly because there’s no Jackal on a jetpack, but mostly because of how dark and torturous it is. People look back at Ben Reilly now as a joke thanks to that awful Scarlet Spider costume and because he had the audacity to try and replace Peter as the real thing, but DeMattais’s serials inject the pathos and experience into his life that make him more than just a “bad idea”. My favorite moment in the story is when Reilly gets drunk and convinces a divorced, middle-aged man to commit suicide. Then he trashes a bar because “Fuck power and responsibility! That’s the other guy’s problem!”
It’s like the reverse of that All-Star Superman page. Marvel’s characters really ARE grittier and edgier!
What starts out like a super villain origin, however, quickly turns around into something much better and we get to see how Ben chooses to maintain Peter’s core values while still striving to carve his own path and identity.
Next up are “The Lost Years”, again by DeMatteis and Romita Jr., collecting the 3-issue Marvel Select miniseries of the same name. In this story, Reilly tries to make a life for himself in Salt Lake City amongst the Mormons, but winds up getting involved in a revenge plot by the mobster Vince Tannen. Defective Peter Parker clone Kaine shows up, having been on the hunt for Reilly, and after he has a cellular meltdown, goes completely berserk and tries to kill everyone.
I knew Alan Moore was pissed about Before Watchmen but DAMN!
Three full-length stories rather than a bunch of back-up shorts, “The Lost Years” tries to establish the character connections that would play an important role in the Clone Saga… already in progress in the pages of all the other Spider-Man titles.
And that’s sort of where we come to a setback, reading these stories chronologically in these trade collections. When “The Lost Years” was originally published, the Clone Saga had already begun and readers tuning into this mini were expected to know certain facts and references dropped in the other books. So when a disfigured Peter clone pops up, screaming about never being happy and that his ulcers totally suck, the narrative presents it very matter-of-factly because you’re expected to already know this guy’s deal. It’s also stated in the narrative text that Ben Reilly is the REAL Peter Parker and the one that’s been in New York for five years is Miles Warren’s clone. Except I don’t think we’re supposed to know that yet. Oops.
DeMatteis writes the story with three combating inner monologues: Ben Reilly’s, Kaine’s and Detective Raven’s. We flip-flop back and forth between these narratives and it gets a little tiresome. This is a terminally bleak miniseries, so each character is whining about something all through their inner monologue: Reilly wonders if a clone has any business finding love and settling down, Kaine hates Ben for not being defective like him and being able to pick up chicks so easily, and Detective Raven is angry at God for blowing up his house, killing his wife, maiming his son and getting him beat up.
There’s so much whining you’d think “J.M. DeMatteis” was a pseudonym for Woody Allen.
I had no idea Ben Reilly was Jewish.
Next are a whole bunch of miscellaneous pages from Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man and Regular Spider-Man; basically, all the pages from those issues that featured Ben Reilly skulking in the shadows. Of course, the mystery and suspense of the “big reveal”, when Ben and Peter have their first encounter on the roof of the hospital (Aunt May had a stroke), sort of loses its impact when we’ve just read all the prelude material explaining in detail the life of this mysterious shadowy figure.
While the volume finally catches up to the present and gets all the flashback stuff out of the way, we’re only reminded of what an awful time in Spider-Man’s creative history this was. This is the era where Peter’s parents came back as robots built by the Chameleon, and in his grief over being duped, Spider-Man discarded his identity as Peter Parker and became “The Spider”, a vengeful creature of the night.
It’s pretty terrible. I mean, these are just a handful of selected pages, not even full issues, and you’ll be writhing over how many times Spider-Man can melodramatically declare to either himself or the world at large, “I am THE SPIDER!” And speaking of melodrama, in his inner monologue he refers to Peter Parker as a separate entity (“Peter Parker’s parents”, “Peter Parker’s Aunt May”, etc), which just makes the idea that much more ludicrous and insufferable.
No matter how hard you try, Spider-Man, you will never be Batman.
Now, Wolverine, on the other hand… YOU can be Batman.”
“Power and Responsibility” (the main stories from Web of Spider-Man #117, Amazing Spider-Man #394, Spider-Man #51 and Spectacular Spider-Man #217) is the official start of the Clone Saga. It was fun to finally read this notorious story, as when I jumped into the Clone Saga back in the day, it was a little after this storyline, so I never got to see how things began.
In this arc, Peter and Ben Reilly come to blows (mostly due to Peter being an angsty asshole), but their confrontation is postponed when the terribly mysterious and terribly named Judas Traveller takes control of Ravencroft (Marvel’s rip-off of Arkham Asylum). He challenges both Spider-Man and Reilly to run a gauntlet of insane patients for his own personal study, or else he’ll execute all his hostages.
It’s funny, we have a story featuring Peter Parker and his clone… but no Spider-Man. Peter Parker is still knee-deep in his “I am the Spider” bullshit and is behaving like a sadistic maniac. Reilly, meanwhile, spends the story whimpering about how he’s just a copy and doesn’t deserve the mask and shouldn’t try to pry into Peter’s life by becoming a hero. Authors Tom De Falco, Howard Mackie, J.M. DeMatteis and Terry Kavanagh succeed in writing a story starring two Spider-Men, neither of whom act a thing like Spider-Man. Bravo.
Still, there’s a purpose to the characterization I can’t willfully ignore. In a way, it seemed like the entire idea behind the “I am the Spider” shit was to make Peter as utterly unlikeable and un-Spider-Man-like as possible. He’s detestable and obnoxious and you just want him to go away forever. Then in steps Ben Reilly, a throwback to the “classic” Spider-Man of the less angsty and more carefree 1970s. He spends the arc lecturing Peter on power and responsibility while simultaneously making all the clever wisecracks because Peter is too preoccupied with announcing “I AM THE SPIDER” to make them himself.
What happened to you, Spider-Man? You changed, man. You used to be cool!
In an introduction written by DeMatteis for the “Lost Years” trade paperback reprinted as bonus content for this collection, the author states that right from the very beginning of the Clone Saga, the intention was to write Peter out and replace him with Reilly. Their scheme seems all the more transparent in retrospect, as they succeeded in making Peter so utterly loathsome that you find yourself begging for a return to the “good ole days” when Spidey cracked jokes and wasn’t intent on becoming a grimdark cliché… Even if the only way to get back to those good ole days was to replace Peter with a clone (that might not be a clone, but we haven’t gotten to that part yet).
As for Judas Traveller’s gauntlet… Knightfall it most certainly is not. Peter and Reilly spend most of the arc battling Traveller’s forgettable henchmen, like Boone and Scrier and Medea (not the big fat black woman that’s actually a big fat black man, but can you imagine?). There’s a brief showdown with Carnage and some loser named Wild Whip who holds the distinct honor of being Ben Reilly’s very first exclusive rogue (he says he fought him during the 5 years he was on the road), but they’re aout as stupid as Traveller’s goons. The “gauntlet” aspect is wasted for the most part and would probably make a lousy video game.
Also, Aunt May is dying, but then again, when ISN’T that million year-old hag dying?
The volume concludes with “The Exile Returns”, a 5-part story consisting of four chapters and an interlude (Web of Spider-Man #118-119, Spider-Man Unlimited #7 and Spider-Man #52-53). This story focuses exclusively on the further adventures of Ben Reilly, as he comes to accept becoming a hero and dons the Scarlet Spider hoodie. His first challenge as Scarlet Spider is the return of Venom, who is engaged in a city-wide battle against Scream, the female symbiote, with innocent bystanders caught in the middle.
While this is an important chapter in the evolution of Ben Reilly’s character (his struggle to “not be a hero” has been ever-present since the start of this volume), it’s a crying shame how the writing team fumbled nearly everything about it. Reilly’s epiphany that clone or not, he MUST be a hero in order to protect the little guy was an important change in the character… and it is immediately marred by what’s generally agreed to be an embarrassingly terrible costume. They make the effort of showing how Reilly obtained the hoodie with the spider symbol on it, but the solid red leotard and mask just come out of nowhere.
The worst thing about “The Exile Returns” is just how little cohesion there is to anything going on. Venom is back in New York because he wants to settle Carnage’s hash for no particular reason. Reilly, hearing that Venom is back in New York, decides “I must stop him!” for no particular reason (Venom hasn’t even committed any crimes yet and has established a “hero” identity in California, so there’s little impetus for Reilly’s moral outrage). Then Scream shows up because she wants Venom to give her symbiote pointers on sharing and caring and that sure as hell comes out of the blue. Then Venom decides he wants to eat Scream because… You know what? This is ridiculous. I can’t believe anybody writing comics in the 90s actually got paid for their efforts (or lack of efforts).
I’m sure this is what every character forced to co-star with Venom has thought at one time or another.
The flow of the story, as you might suspect, is disjointed and sloppy, as characters do complete turnabouts just so they can fight for a few more pages. Reilly starts the arc doing his usual “I’m no hero!” routine. Then he dons the Scarlet Spider costume by the end of the first issue with the declaration of “I’m a hero!” Then he ignores and abandons Scream when she comes to him for help because, “I’m no hero!” Then when Venom starts wailing on her in Times Square, he valiantly protects her because “I’m a hero!”
Apparently, he’s only a hero when it’s convenient to the plot. And this was the guy giving Peter lectures on power and responsibility during the last story arc?
The interlude story, “Second Rate Choices” by Tom Lyle is pretty meaningless and only serves to drag this tedious arc out even further. Basically, it’s Reilly pulling a hell-turn right after the first chapter, which ended with him donning the Scarlet Spider costume and coming to terms with his hero-ness… as he ponders whether or not he should be a hero? Of course, he encounters a Politically Correct Multi-Ethnic New York Street Gang beating up a homeless guy and decides “I’m a hero!” for the millionth time.
It only serves to make his flip-flopping in the rest of “The Exile Returns” arc all the more frustrating.
On the bright side, he isn’t running around screaming “I AM THE SPIDER” to the Heavens, so Reilly’s still got an edge on the “real” Spider-Man.
“The Exile Returns” also brings Kaine into the present and starts picking up plot threads from “The Lost Years”, though we’re only treated to the tip of the iceberg. Like I said before, we aren’t supposed to know anything about Kaine yet, since “The Lost Years” was published later, so all the mysteriousness surrounding the character really loses its edge.
And there we have it: The first volume of the 90s Clone Saga is over and done with. Now, just 10 more to go. For all the annoying artifacts of 90s comic book storytelling sensibilities, I’m actually enjoying quite a bit of this. It’s great reading the actual stories I’ve only ever read about in second-hand accounts, and while his development is rocky to be sure, Ben Reilly’s already proving to be a fascinating character. And far more likeable than Peter Parker was at the time, to say the least.
A shame about that costume, though.
If you’re still morbidly curious, you can pick up Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 1 on Amazon.com, along with the other trade paperbacks and Clone Saga installments.