Alright, here we go again. With this installment I’ll be finishing up what Marvel apparently considers “the complete Clone Saga”, but I’ll only be halfway through what everybody ELSE considers “the complete Clone Saga”. This thing just won’t end.
In case you’ve forgotten, in our last review we covered the “Maximum Clonage” debacle. In that storyline, Peter Parker learned he was the clone while Ben Reilly learned he was the original all along. Also Jackal died, so I guess some good came of it. You’d think that would be the end of it, but no, we’ve got 500 pages of “aftermath” to get through…
(Collects: New Warriors #62-64, Amazing Spider-Man #405-406, Amazing Spider-Man Super Special, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #228-229, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special, Spider-Man #62-63, Spider-Man Super Special, Spider-Man Team-Up #1, Spider-Man Unlimited #10, Venom Super Special, Web of Spider-Man #128-129, Web of Spider-Man Super Special)
The first dangling plot thread (New Warriors #62) to be tied up was the one nobody cared about: The New Warriors and Helix, a man with shape-shifting powers that are driving him insane. Scarlet Spider teams up with the New Warriors to take him down while about 10 other subplots from the New Warriors series play out in the background (such as the nefarious machinations of Admiral Protocol and General Admission and what designs they have for Kymaera). It’s really dull and nothing much to talk about, except it ends with the New Warriors extending a membership to Scarlet Spider and Ben eagerly accepting it. Wow, a membership in the New Warriors. What, were the Champions all full up?
Next is a big 5-issue story arc with about a single issue’s-worth of plot. “Growing Pains” (spread across all 5 Super Specials) features the return of classic Spider-Man foe the Lizard and it couldn’t be more boring. You see, a few years prior to this, Todd McFarlane had updated the Lizard in his popular “Torment” story arc, eliminating the villain’s diabolical intellect from the Lee/Ditko era and reducing him to a blood-thirsty man-eater. That diluted characterization persists into this storyline, but with some new bells and whistles. Apparently, while hibernating in quicksand down in the Florida Everglades, the Lizard underwent some spontaneous new mutations to give him a fresh look and some bonus powers (such as the ability to glide with his underarm flabs). Honestly, he kind of just looks like D-list Toho kaiju, Varan. And he’s about as interesting.
What’s funny is that “Growing Pains” doesn’t even realize it wants to *be* a story arc about the Lizard until the second chapter. The first issue is a mostly standalone story called “Ghosts” without any of the “Growing Pains, part whatever” labeling attached to it. That story deals with Scarlet Spider battling a new team of villains: SHADOWFORCE ALPHA! And with badass codenames like Shell, Shot, Bombardier, Flare, Stampede, Clash and Cordite, you better believe this for-hire terrorist organization means business.
Actually, they totally fucking suck and halfway through “Ghosts” the story seems to become actively embarrassed by them. As if during the scripting process, writer Terry Kavanagh started to realize, “Ohhhhhhh, this was a bad idea. Maybe… Maybe I’ll just write something with the Lizard, instead”. The remaining four issues consist of the same shtick the Lizard has had since McFarlane “updated” him: He runs amok across New York, trying to hunt down Martha and Billy Connors “though he can’t remember why”. A plot that thin couldn’t carry an 8-page back-up strip, let alone a full story arc.
If “Growing Pains” accomplishes anything, it’s less that it offers an interesting threat for Ben to conquer and more that it lobs his new supporting cast and status quo at us. He works at a hospital now, there are a few competing love interests, a jerkwad coworker we’re conditioned to hate… the usual. There’s also a new superhero ally named “Strongarm” who seems to be a veiled parody of the Stretch Armstrong toy (his real name actually IS “Armstrong”), with Aryan features and the dullsville power package of super strength and invulnerability. He costars all throughout this arc as Reilly’s chum in crime-fighting and rival in love. It’s pretty bad, if you haven’t figured that out, yet.
Now that we’re out of that pointless mess, we can move on to the next story arc, “Exiled” (Web of Spider-Man #128, Amazing Spider-Man #405, Spider-Man #62, Spider-Man Unlimited #10). As for this one, it’s actually… I can’t believe I’m saying this… But it’s actually pretty good!
Since the last volume ended on the revelation that Ben is the original Spider-Man and Peter is the clone, this volume has been doing nothing but waste time with insipid diversions and distractions. “Exiled” gets us back on track, as Ben and Peter come to terms with their new identities and decide “who will wear the webs”. In reality, though, the story isn’t even about that decision, as Ben magnanimously concedes that Peter has invested too much into his life as Spider-Man for the past 5 years to just give it up, and agrees to remain Scarlet Spider.
No, what attracts me to “Exiled” is that it finally offers what I’ve been waiting to see since this whole fiasco began: Ben and Peter getting along and acting like bros. In the first chapter, they team up to save Black Cat from the machinations of D’Spayre and they trade quips and banter and good-natured jabs all the while. There’s no whining about identity nor any bipolar mood-swings where Peter is friendly toward Ben one panel and then a raging maniac toward him the next. It’s the interaction between them that I’ve been waiting 4 1/2 volumes to see: Two Spider-Men working together and bouncing insult comedy off each other.
But that was just the first chapter. Chapters 2 and 3 are a Ben Reilly solo adventure that provides a long overdue explanation as to who Dr. Seward Trainer is and how Ben met him during his time on the road. Until now, Trainer has just sort of… existed, without origin and scarcely any personality to speak of. Ben has talked about how vital their relationship is and he was used as a convenient means of providing a proper DNA test to prove who the real Spider-Man was, but thus far he’s been more of a plot device than a character (and, honestly, has scarcely appeared at all). The story also sets up a new octopus-tentacled foe, but we won’t learn their identity for a few more issues.
Sadly, “Exiled” runs out of story after part 3. Part 4 is a completely unrelated adventure, as Scarlet Spider battles the Vulture while also trying to save the son of a friend of Uncle Ben’s from walking down a criminal path. Like all Spider-Man Unlimited issues, it is ridiculously bloated in order to pad out the double-length page count and the thing just feels like it’ll never end.
But hey, let’s talk about the Vulture for a second!
Adrian Toomes is one of Spider-Man’s oldest villains (he first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #2 in 1963) and it seems like Marvel has done nothing for the past 50 years other than try to get rid of him, somehow. Only 5 years after introducing Adrian Toomes, they replaced him with a newer, younger Vulture named Blackie Drago. He lasted all of two appearances before Adrian came back. In the 1970s, they tried replacing Toomes again with a newer, more monstrous Vulture named Clifton Shallot. Once again, this Vulture’s reign was short-lived and Adrian reassumed the title. Then in the ’80s they tried bringing in a group of Vultures called the Vulturions. Their biggest claim to fame was that they battled Spider-Man at the bell tower before he lost the symbiote. They were forgotten quickly and Adrian took over as the one and only Vulture YET AGAIN. More recently, there was a new monstrous mutant Vulture named Jimmy Natale who featured in “The Gauntlet” story arc. Punisher killed him a little while later. And now Adrian is the Vulture AGAIN.
Jeez, Marvel keeps trying to get rid of Adrian Toomes, yet in the end they always go back to him. Maybe they’re embarrassed by the visual of an old man in a fluffy green bird costume? I dunno. During the ’90s, they tried to circumvent getting rid of Adrian by simply making him unrecognizable. This was the “youth vampire” phase for the character, where he traded in his feathered longjohns for a suit of armor and started sucking the electromagnetic energies from the brains of pedestrians so he could briefly regain his youth (it would always wear off after a few hours and he became “hooked on youth” like a heroin addict). Once again, this change didn’t last and he went right back to being a silly-looking geriatric in a Mardi Gras costume.
Is there anything about Spider-Man’s mythology Marvel has been more embarrassed of and tried to eliminate more times than the Adrian Toomes incarnation of the Vulture? The answer is yes and I’ll get to that at the end of this review.
Anyway, no sooner do I start to like Peter again, here comes the two-parter “Time Bomb” (Spectacular Spider-Man #228, Web of Spider-Man #129). Remember back when Kaine was having visions of Mary Jane’s death? No? Well, the writers finally remembered it, anyway. In this arc, Peter falls victim to a post-hypnotic suggestion from the Jackal, forcing him to hunt down and kill Mary Jane. Scarlet Spider and the New Warriors team up to try and stop him and its two consecutive issues of Spider-Man chasing his wife around New York, screaming, “Run! Before I kill yoooouuuu!!!”
Man, Peter can’t keep his head on straight for more than an issue during the Clone Saga, can he? He started out with that whole insipid “I am the SPIDER!” routine going on. Then, once he got over that, he found out he was the clone and joined with the Jackal in a plot to exterminate mankind (before coming to his senses at the last minute). And now that he’s finally made peace with his clone status, he goes berserk from a mental trigger and tries to murder MJ. Can we have “fun Peter” back for more than five minutes? Please?
Anyway, MJ coaxes him back to sanity with the power of memories and hugs and everything turns out for the better. We also get to see how inept the New Warriors are, as all of them combined aren’t enough to so much as delay a Spider-Man that is trying his absolute hardest to lose. These guys suuuuuck.
And on the subject of these piece of shit characters, we’ve got an untitled two-parter starring them to get through next (New Warriors #63-64). Basically, Scarlet Spider gets caught up in an adventure with his new team battling the likes of Helix, the Eugenix and the Psionex. This comic series was brought to you by the letter X, by the way.
The story isn’t worth talking about, though it does reinforce how terrible all these people are. Not just because they can’t win a fight and mess up all the time (Scarlet Spider has to take control from Justice to lead the team in defeating Helix and they let the Eugenix escape because they fight the anti-hero team the Psionex by mistake), but because they’re all insufferable jerks. They keep Helix, a victim of the Jackal’s Carrion virus, illegally imprisoned in their “Crash Pad” headquarters and beat him up all the time, they treat their resident non-super powered mechanic Carlton like garbage because he’s “normal”, and they refuse to listen to anything clairvoyant character Timeslip has to say until she changes out of her civvies and into a revealing skintight getup to parade around her lady parts.
Even Scarlet Spider could do better than these fuckers.
This volume ends on “The Greatest Responsibility” arc (Amazing Spider-Man #406, Spider-Man #63, Spider-Man Team-Up #1 featuring the X-Men, Spectacular Spider-Man #229), which consists of 3 parts that matter and an interlude that’s totally pointless (guess which one of those issues was the pointless filler interlude). It’s an extension of “Exiled” and feels like it could have just been combined with that arc to no ill effect. The Clone Saga has been all about decompressing the storyline, so it’s just par for the course, I guess.
“The Greatest Responsibility” sees the new female Doctor Octopus launching an all-out attack on Peter and Ben in an attempt to get information from her father, Seward Trainer. MJ is in the hospital with a deadly illness contracted from Peter’s irradiated sperm and it threatens the life of both her and the baby. Lady Octopus steals the antidote and offers it in exchange for Trainer and after an embarrassing recreation of the “lifting heavy stuff” scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33, Peter gets the antidote, saves MJ and officially retires, passing the role of Spider-Man onto Ben.
You know. Thus making the entire identity crisis labored over during the “Exiled” arc utterly pointless. Good show.
Like “Exiled”, this arc features Peter and Ben finally getting along as bros and that’s pretty much the highlight of the whole thing. It’s great to see them working together and trading banter and getting along and Peter NOT acting like a massive douche. And of course it ends with Peter quitting and crushing that dynamic as soon as it started. Wonderful.
So this brings me to what I wanted to talk about earlier when I was droning on about the Vulture. When Marvel let Peter and MJ get married it was a big event and no doubt scored a huge increase in sales and they loved every minute of it. Then, maybe a year or two later, the writers/editors at Marvel started having some serious regrets. And so they’d spent the next two decades trying to undo the marriage by any means necessary. Any. Means. NECESSARY.
“The Greatest Responsibility” was their first attempt at restoring Spider-Man to bachelor status, but rather than try to annul the marriage, they just tried to change Spider-Man’s identity. Turns out the Peter that got married was never the “real” Spider-Man and thus he’s brushed under the rug so the “real” Spider-Man can take back the mantle. And it just so happens the “real” Spider-Man is unwed. That was convenient.
Of course, it didn’t last and a year later Peter had his status restored as the “real” Spider-Man and suddenly Spidey was married again. Do’h!
A couple years after this, during the rather lousy Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 2 era, Marvel would once more attempt to make Spidey a bachelor. This time, they achieved their goal by killing off MJ in a plane crash, but only after spending several issues prior writing her into an uncharacteristic bitch that “no one would miss” when she died. Well, people apparently missed her anyway, so there was a hasty arc explaining that she was kidnapped just before the plane took off. And whoops, Spider-Man was married again!
The most recent attempt to get Spider-Man back to bachelor status was the “One More Day” arc and the less said about that, the better. Though it has managed to stick for a good seven years and doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon, so I guess Marvel finally got what it wanted.
The point is: Marvel has ALWAYS regretted hitching Peter and MJ. And when you look back with the context of all the other stories hellbent on undoing the wedding, the Clone Saga just looks like nothing more than their first attempt to regain a bachelor Spider-Man. They jumped through a ton of ridiculous, tedious hoops for no other reason than to get Spidey back on the dating scene.
You can say there were other motivations for the saga, but the editorial at the beginning of “The Lost Years” trade makes it perfectly clear that the impetus behind this whole mistake was to get Spider-Man “back to basics”. And “back to basics” essentially just means “not married”. That’s all this whole Clone Saga boils down to, really. Marvel’s first of several attempts to get Spidey unhitched. And considering those other stories that would try the same thing, this may actually be the best of them. Unfortunately, that’s like coming in first at the Special Olympics.