Alright, I’ve built up enough fortitude to tackle the next volume of Marvel’s infamous ’90s blunder: the Spider-Man Clone Saga. (I’ve already reviewed three volumes, which you can find here, here and here.) In this round we relive the soap opera of Peter Parker and Ben Reilly as they face classic villains (Hobgoblin! Shocker! Mysterio!), shitty classic villains (the Beetle!), shitty new villains (Scorpia! Judas Traveller!) and symbiotes. A whole lot of symbiotes (an entire planet of them, in fact).
It’s time to get our ’90s on and maybe get through this…
Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic Vol. 3
Contains: Amazing Spider-Man #400-401, Amazing Spider-Man Super Special #1, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #222-224, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special #1, Spider-Man #57-58, Spider-Man: The Clone Journal #1, Spider-Man Super Special #1, Spider-Man Unlimited #9, Web of Spider-Man #123-124, Web of Spider-Man Super Special #1, Venom Super Special #1
The volume opens with a special one-shot publication: The Clone Journal #1. This one is basically a collection of highlights that summarizes everything of value that has occurred during the Clone Saga up to this point, recycling art from relevant issues and slapping on new narrative captions. Incidentally, it reads a LOT better than the actual stories-themselves, which are bloated and full of meandering nonsense. It makes me wonder why I even bothered reading the first two volumes at all…
Our first actual story arc begins with “Players and Pawns” (Spectacular Spider-Man #222, Web of Spider-Man #123), a two-parter that picks up right where the Smoke and Mirrors arc left off. And like Smoke and Mirrors, it’s all about muddying up precisely which Spider-Man is the real Spider-Man. It’s all kind of annoying.
The Jackal manipulates Kaine and Jack (a midget imperfect clone of Peter dressed in a Jackal costume) so that both bring Peter and Ben data confirming that THEY are the true Spider-Man and the OTHER guy is the clone! Just to be a dick. Meanwhile, he releases another Parker clone into the wild and HE may or may not be the real Spider-Man. Just to be a dick. Then he talks to Scrier and realizes that Judas Traveller learned something of value at Ravencroft, so he organizes a fight with Ben Reilly in order to be captured and sent to the sanitarium. Also, he’s a dick.
Not that I disagree with his assessment of Ben’s fashion choice.
And that’s really what these past few arcs and a good helping of the upcoming Clone Saga arcs are going to boil down to: The Jackal being a dick. Encounters with him all end up the same way, with the Joker-wannabe delivering some bad one liners while teasing both Ben and Peter as to their true identities. And Jesus, this goes on for nine more volumes. You kind of get the impression that the writers felt they’d struck solid gold with Smoke and Mirrors; the idea that Peter might be the clone and Ben might be the real deal. But the suspense turns to tedium pretty quickly as they milk the concept dry for thousands of pages.
Other stuff happens, too! Aunt May comes out of her coma, though time is short. Detective Raven, whose subplot has been on the back-burner since for-ev-er, finally goes forward with his murder charges against Peter Parker. Kaine and Peter have their very first showdown and Peter loses like a punk (keep in mind, we aren’t supposed to know that Kaine’s a clone of Peter yet). And last but not least, Mary Jane is worried that their upcoming child may be born disfigured or diseased thanks to Peter’s radioactive DNA. Throw in all the bullshit with Scrier and Jack’s annoying preoccupation with his impending mortality and that’s a lot of subplots for two issues. It gets to the point where every time you flip a page, it’s another storyline and the back-and-forth scripting leads to dissatisfaction in every one of them.
Next up is one of the most notoriously awful storylines in Spidey history and brother, that’s one hell of a statement. “Planet of the Symbiotes” (Amazing Spider-Man Super Special #1, Spider-Man Super Special #1, Venom Super Special #1, Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special #1, Web of Spider-Man Super Special #1) is… well… contrary to what those titles may imply, there is nothing “super” or “special” about this storyline. It does, however, prove that “Maximum Carnage” wasn’t the absolute bottom of the barrel. There’s always a lower level writers can sink to if they try hard enough.
Written by David Michelinie, Marvel’s ultimate one-note wonder, Planet of the Symbiotes tries to up the symbiote count because “More of the same thing” = “Better writing”. You kids liked Venom? Well, here, have Carnage! Liked him? Here, have Scream and the Life Foundation symbiotes! Still not enough? Have a whole PLANET of symbiotes! Symbiotes for everyone! Hooray!
And Carnage is a hundred feet tall now because we’re not even trying anymore!
Anyway, following the events of the Separation Anxiety miniseries, Eddie Brock decides that the Venom symbiote is taking too much control of his life and rejects it. Crippled with sadness, the Venom symbiote howls at the moon and that “psychic shriek” summons all the other symbiotes on a distant planet to come invade Earth. The invasion begins and the symbiotes start possessing all Earth’s superheroes and burn Manhattan to the ground. Spider-Man, Scarlet Spider and Venom (Eddie forgives the symbiote once he sees how sad it has gotten) team up to try and stop the symbiotes, but wage a losing battle when Carnage begins absorbing all the symbiotes and grows a hundred feet tall (because he can do that now, I guess). Eventually, Eddie goes to pray in a church and his symbiote unleashes a psychic “suicide wave” that causes all the symbiotes on Earth (except Carnage) to kill themselves because this was the last issue of the arc and they were running out of time to wrap everything up.
Just… Holy shit, comics can be terrible sometimes, can’t they? It’s hard to decide which symbiote-centric, Michelinie-penned story arc is worse: Maximum Carnage or Planet of the Symbiotes. Maximum Carnage probably tips the scale for being so unbearably long, but Planet of the Symbiotes has an edge in the stupidity category. Michelinie attempts to create a wider mythology for the symbiotes and give Venom’s symbiote its own unique back story and personality. It turns out that it’s actually one of the “good” symbiotes because it would only bond with hosts that consented to having their every orifice flooded with sticky goo. The other symbiotes deemed the Venom symbiote “mentally handicapped” and imprisoned it in a machine (that eventually got sent to Battle World where Spidey thought it was an “instant costume maker” because comics can be terrible sometimes). But who the Hell cares? And anyway, Venom’s a guy who runs around clawing people to death, suffocating them in black semen and then dines on their brains. He’s beyond “sympathy,” though I’ll agree with the story’s conclusion that he’s “mentally handicapped”. “Mentally handicapped” is how I’d describe most of Michelinie’s writing, in fact.
Also, Venom looked like Grumpy Cat in this story.
Incidentally, The Complete Clone Saga Epic Vol. 3 mistakenly prints this arc out of chronological sequence. It features Mary Jane and Ben Reilly hanging out and talking, but in the very next issue after this one, they’re shown to meet for the first time. Maybe the editors thought they could stick Planet of the Symbiotes anywhere in the book because no one would read it. I wish they’d been right.
“The Gift” (Amazing Spider-Man #400) is the real heart of this volume and probably the only installment in the Clone Saga everyone should read. Because even though it’s deeply embedded in the ongoing narrative with cuts to Judas Traveller, the Jackal, the rogue Peter clone and a big role for Ben Reilly, it’s nothing short of one of the best standalone Spider-Man stories ever written.
It is, of course, the story where Aunt May dies. J.M. DeMatteis pens a touching tale that is focused chiefly around her (save for the aforementioned Clone Saga requirements) as we follow the last week of May’s life. It’s a real tear-jerker, as May is aware that she’s on borrowed time and needs to get her affairs in order. She offers some farewell words to MJ with encouragement for her upcoming child, spends time with her lifelong friend Anna Watson and, of course, drops the big bombshell on Peter: She knew it the whole time. That he was Spider-Man, that is. DeMatteis frames the big reveal as a final outing to the Empire State Building and artist Mark Bagley decompresses the layouts for a quiet, cinematic reveal. There’s some brief dialogue explaining why May never said anything until now and why she was always nagging on about “that awful Spider-Man” in the past, but the script wisely avoids dwelling on continuity patches and lets the drama of the moment play out naturally. Her deathbed farewell is a perfect sendoff, as Peter says his goodbyes with stalwart characters Anna Watson and MJ providing support. And that’s not even where the issue ends. There’s still the funeral and the wake (and a dramatic cliffhanger that finally realizes the long-simmering Detective Raven subplot) that takes time to mull over everything May meant to the history of the series and to the characters.
…Then some asshole retconned her death a few years later so that the “May” that died was a genetically modified actress and the real Aunt May was chilling in Norman Osborne’s basement for years.
God damn, if Spider-Man doesn’t have the worst retcons of any comic book character ever. There’s so much promise in this story for a true departure into a future for the cast. The baby was on the way and… Oh wait. The baby got retconned out of canonicity, too. And now Peter and MJ aren’t even married anymore. Give it time and they’ll find a way to retcon Peter back into a high schooler, I’m sure.
But ignoring the larger scope of the comics, this issue reads beautifully by itself. The Clone Saga artifacts do get in the way, though, and I sort of wish that DeMatteis had just given Jackal and Traveller and Other Peter a break for just one story. I’d like to have seen other mainstay characters have their final moments with May, such as Flash Thompson or a real heart-to-heart with Anna Watson (she’s in the backgrounds but never speaks). The bits with Jackal and Traveller don’t serve to further their specific storylines and just remind us that they exist and are plotting something evil. It’s a waste of page space.
Also included is the short strip “The Cycle of Life” by Stan Lee and artist Darick Robertson. It focuses on Peter’s final words at May’s grave and then follows with him telling a story to MJ about how May molded him in his youth. In principle, I think it was a nice gesture to bring Stan Lee in and let him have a final word on Aunt May, but the execution is another matter altogether. The story is loaded with Lee’s typical melodramatic, stilted, unnatural dialogue that would make even the sappiest soap opera blush. The flashback story doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know and a brief action sequence is framed so awkwardly it brings the whole thing down, even on a symbolic level. It definitely reads like “classic Stan Lee”, which gives the story a sort of retro charm, but after the fluid scripting of DeMatteis’s farewell, it’s just a clunky afterthought.
The two-part “Aftershocks” (Spider-Man #57, Spectacular Spider-Man #223) is an exercise in slow-motion storytelling, as all the subplots stew for two issues and make minimal progress. Detective Raven continues his crusade to convict Peter of murder (which happened back in “The Lost Years” story arc), the Jackal continues his search for what Judas Traveller learned at Ravencroft (back in “Power and Responsibility”), the newest Peter Parker clone continues his search for his identity, Kaine continues his quest to make Peter the happiest girl on Earth, Ben Reilly continues to try and win a catty Mary Jane over and Judas Traveller continues to be mysterious. That may sound like a lot, but when you realize how little progress each of those subplots achieves during this arc, it really feels like “Aftershocks” would have worked better as a single issue.
MJ meets Ben for the first time (again, Planet of the Symbiotes was collected out of order) and man, she’s really acting like a bitch. She slaps him and insults him and accuses him of trying to ruin her life and calls him “half the hero” and “half the man” that Peter is… and literally the only thing Ben has been saying to her since he introduced himself is, “I want to help you”. MJ has really been grating in the Clone Saga thus far, doing little more than act like a worry wart and sob in the background. We finally have an opportunity for her to take a proactive part in the conflict (working with Ben to exonerate Peter) and all she does is go on an emotional rampage and set the pace back by two issues.
Don’t worry, Ben. At some point during this saga, Peter’s gonna clock MJ right in the jaw. Bros before hos and all that.
It’s good to finally see the Detective Raven stuff pay off, even if it doesn’t really proceed any further in this arc than where we left it at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #400. Well, except for the fact that Raven decides Peter’s the wrong man because Kaine marks his face. Speaking of Kaine, the whole “Lost Years” mini was published after this arc, so we aren’t supposed to know who he is yet or all the facts about the murder of Raven’s partner in Salt Lake City. As a result, all the veiled storytelling falls flat since we know the whole lowdown in advance. And man, all this “mysterious characters spying on our heroes” stuff is starting to piss me off. Kaine spies on Peter. Scrier spies on Kaine. Jackal spies on Scrier. And they’re all being watched by Judas Traveller, the most mysterious spy of them all! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’ll be a couple thousand more pages before we learn who the really real architect of the whole Clone Saga was (and it wasn’t any of those guys).
The last major arc in this collection is the needlessly bloated “Mark of Kaine” five-parter (Web of Spider-Man #124, Amazing Spider-Man #401, Spider-Man #58, Spectacular Spider-Man #224, Spider-Man Unlimited #9). The point in this arc eludes me, as the actual progress made in it is minimal at best. The third Peter Parker gets his “memories” back and dons a Spidey costume while at the same time Kaine abducts Mary Jane in hopes to protecting her 24/7 so that his prophecy (her death) cannot come true. Judas Traveller breaks the real Peter out of jail so he can team up with Ben to save Mary Jane. The third Parker ends up mutating into a 50 foot tall behemoth called Freakface and Ben and Peter have to team up with Kaine to stop it. Freakface is incinerated, Ben switches places with Peter in jail and we learn no more about Kaine than when this stupid arc began. And that’s just parts one through four. Part Five is a double-sized issue in which the Sinister Seven (Hobgoblin, Vulture, Electro, Mysterio, Shocker, the Beetle and Scorpia) band together to take down Kaine before he can continue his quest to eliminate all of Spidey’s rogues (he’s only killed two thus far, one of whom was a brand new mort, but they make a pretty big deal out of it). Peter, disguised as Scarlet Spider, ends up teaming with Kaine again to take down the Sinister Seven, Kaine escapes and we’re right back where we started.
Spider-Gumby never caught on.
Pacing was one of the worst flaws of the Clone Saga, as you can probably tell by now, and every single plot point is decompressed, delayed and divvied out in such small portions that it’s a real strain on your patience to keep caring. A huge five-issue arc all about Kaine should have given us a greater insight into his character, but it didn’t (remember, we’re still not supposed to know that he’s a Parker clone). Instead, it gave us a scene where three Spider-Men stand around a room arguing over which one will get to bang Mary Jane at the end of the day. Also, since Spider-Man, Scarlet Spider, Kaine and Freakface are all the same guy, conversations between them can get pretty boring when you’re running the voices in your head (Spidey’s still voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes in my noggin because old habits die hard).
What’s worse is that Mark of Kaine actually runs out of story by the end of the fourth chapter, leaving the fifth to serve as nothing but a reminder that Spidey’s classic rogues still exist. I’ll admit to enjoying that segment of the arc more than the others because I’m a sucker for the classic villains, but they’re all played as laughable stooges who can’t compete with the new breed of Spidey villains that have usurped the book. I’m not sure which Hobgoblin this is supposed to be, but he’s an ineffectual loser that blunders his way through a mission he personally dubbed “Operation Kaine-Kill”. Mysterio is the only member of the gang portrayed with even a remote level of confidence. Mysterio!
“Also, why am I a shittier villain than Leap-Frog?!”
Volume 3 ends with another short strip by Stan Lee, “The Morning After”. Much to my dismay, it had nothing to do with The Poseidon Adventure. Instead, it chronicles the morning after Peter chased down and apprehended the burglar that shot Uncle Ben. It acts as an explanation for why Peter never told Aunt May about his secret identity, as she lashes out at the headline of Spidey catching the burglar, accusing the vigilante of using Ben’s death for his own selfish publicity. Lee’s script reads a lot easier than the other short strip included in this collection, even if the story it tells is a little unnecessary. On the other hand, considering how quick Amazing Fantasy #15 was to hurry through Spidey’s origin, it’s kind of neat to see Stan Lee decompress it a bit and give his own take on the more emotional moments that he glossed over back in the 60s.
So there you have it. Thus far, I’d say that The Complete Clone Saga Vol. 3 is the worst installment I’ve read thus far. The narrative progress has come to a screeching halt and the writers are spinning their wheels, trying to milk every issue they possibly can out of what little story content they’ve got to work with. If a five-issue arc isn’t acting as a distraction (Planet of the Symbiotes), it’s stretching the pace to a breaking point in a shallow attempt to keep anything from actually happening (The Mark of Kaine).
And yet, in the middle of it all is Amazing Spider-Man #400, one of the best Spidey stories I’ve ever read. Such a wonderful issue, though a shame about the company it keeps.