Aug 24, 2010

The Spider-Man Clone Saga: What Went Wrong (a selective summary)

So I've got this friend who mentioned the Clone Saga to me, and I said, "The Clone Saga was a ridiculous ridiculous mess, made more ridiculous by the fact that it COULD have been so good." I then pointed him to The Life of Reilly, a blog that covered what went wrong with the Clone Saga in 35 parts. Plus comments. Likening it to a legal brief, my friend then told me that a summary would be nice. So here's my attempt at summarizing a really really long and convoluted period in Spider-Man's history.

I have this poster by Tom Lyle. Yes, I liked the Scarlet Spider. You'll see why.

 Needless to say, even with a selective summary, this can get rather long, so I'm putting a jump break in.

Ready? Set? GO!

The Clone Saga came from a story from the 70s, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru, and which ran from Amazing Spider-Man #147-150. The climax was in #149, when the Jackal (Peter's college professor, Miles Warren, who was in [creepy and disgusting] love with Gwen Stacy), who had already cloned Gwen Stacy, cloned Spider-Man. The conceit of the issue was that there was really no way to tell which Spider-Man was Peter, since they both had the exact same memories and feelings.

At the end of the story, one Spider-Man was dead and thrown to the bottom of a smokestack, and then the other one decided that he was in love with Mary Jane, and since he was in love with Mary Jane, he had to be the real Peter Parker, since the clone would be in love with Gwen, since the Jackal was obsessed with Gwen. Or something. Yeah, I never bought it either.

Anyway, around June 1994, the Spider-Man books (of which, at the time, consisted of four monthlies [Web of Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man, and Spectacular Spider-Man] and one quarterly [Spider-Man Unlimited], so things could be quite expensive if you were a Spider-Man fan) started a "Mystery Man" storyline, in which some brownhaired guy in a leather jacket and a ring kept calling Aunt May. Here's the only issue I got (Spider-Man #48) where the subplot ran:

And I have to say, because of my wonderful Spider-Man expertise, I knew right away that it was the Spider-Clone. Well, okay, maybe not so much expertise as a sense of "Why go to all the trouble of hiding everything but his face?" and also collecting the Mark Bagley 1994 Spider-Man Trading Cards, where I, coincidentally enough, got the Spider-Clone card at around the same time. So I was really more lucky than anything.

I wasn't what you'd call a regular Spider-Man reader at the time, so I didn't think they were leading to a big event or anything. I did collect the random scattering of issues though, and in them, Peter was going through some very dark changes, which I thought were ridiculous, out of character, and potentially worse than the entire Clone Saga. Check out Amazing Spider-Man #391, when, after some dark moments, Peter decides to wrap himself in a cocoon.

Really? Seriously? Really?

And then later on, when he confronts Shriek and Carrion:

"I am anger, I am madness, I am the Spider"? Is this Spider-Man or bad Batman fanfic?

When I saw Web of Spider-Man #117, as a lad of eleven-turning-twelve, I absolutely had to get it, because I am a sucker for "I'm fighting my worst enemy-- myself!" stories. And, as it turns out, my guess as to who the mystery man is was right.

I also want to take this time to plug Steven Butler's artwork.

This story kicked off "Power and Responsibility," which reintroduced us to the Spider-Clone (who had been living under the name "Ben Reilly"). A month later, Ben took over Web and the adjectiveless Spider-Man as the Scarlet Spider, and I thought he was awesome.

I still love this costume. It's Spider-Man in a sweatshirt!
Even back in the day, I gravitated toward the absurd.

Keep in mind that, as I said before, Peter wasn't really acting like the Spider-Man I knew and loved. He was all "I'm dark and brooding and Peter Parker is dead and I am the spider," while Ben delivered more straightforward Spider-Man stories than Peter was doing at the time. And at the time, Steven Butler in Web was doing the sepia-colored memory flashbacks and emulating Steve Ditko so well that it really did give us that more traditional, more classic Spider-Man.

Steven Butler does Steve Ditko.
And the Scarlet Spider adventures were just so straightforward and clear and crisply done, and it really established Ben as a competent superhero rather nicely.

Awesome? Yes. Yes, quite.

Peter, meanwhile, was going through melodramatic, uh, crap, about how life wasn't so bad, oh, and Mary Jane was also pregnant. Seriously, if there was anything the Clone Saga taught us, it really was that a single Peter is so much more interesting than a married one. Ben had snippets of fresh and interesting romances in his short career, while Peter's next adventure with Mary Jane was wondering whether or not the baby would have Spider-powers. Which guy was closer to the intended concept of Spider-Man as an everyman that everyone - especially younger readers - could relate to?

At the same time, we were also introduced to a bunch of new characters. Two of them, Judas Traveller and Scrier, were supernatural. Traveller was an immortal who was always learning via experimentation. He was, if I may, the closest thing Spider-Man ever had to a Ra's Al Ghul, whether or not it was intended, and he had mystical powers.

And Scrier was a mystery guy, also with supernatural powers.

As was proven later on, when they finally explained who these guys actually were, it was evident that they had no idea what they were going to do with them anyway. No, folks, I'm really not kidding. They really had no clue. It was that evident. When the time came to explain them, it became a case of "Oh crap, how do we explain this?" and then gave us the most lamebrained explanations.

But even going beyond that, Spider-Man, a down-to-earth street-level character, simply does not fit in this kind of world and atmosphere. Traveller and Scrier were out of sync with the whole concept of Spider-Man from the get-go. Granted, not as out of sync as Mephisto, but still out of sync.

Another character that was introduced - or, in this case, reintroduced - was the Jackal, who had died in the original Clone Saga. Somehow, for whatever reason, instead of dying, he decided to spend the next five (in comic book time) years in a regenerative pod, so he could look like a mutated Jackal-Man-thing, whatever. Or the Joker. Really.

Jackal. Or Joker with green make-up?

Also, the Jackal now went from "sad little scientist with a crush on Gwen Stacy" to "mad scientist with a crush on Gwen Stacy who wants to kill the human race and replace them with clones." Be-cause that's... a much... better.... concept. Except for the fact that it's not.

The one bright addition to the Spider-Man mythos (aside from Ben) was Kaine, who had just a cool visual and was played off as such a badass mystery man.

Yeah, the design is typically 90s, but it's like total badass 90s.

Kaine wrought havoc for a while, even killing Dr. Octopus (we knew he'd be back), and he had this whole complex where he hated Ben Reilly and wanted to protect Peter Parker. He was eventually revealed to be the first (failed) clone of Peter (which I want to say on record that I also predicted way ahead of time), and his powers were the logical extremes that Peter's could go to. For example, he was much stronger, and instead of a spider-sense to warn him of danger, he'd actually get precognitive flashes. He also had "The Mark of Kaine," which he would leave by burning a pattern onto someone's face, which was a logical extension of Peter's own wall-crawling power.

Kaine was cool (remember what I said about me being a sucker for evil twin stories?). The others? Not so much.

So anyway, with those players in place, the original plan for the Clone Saga was simple. So incredibly simple, that it boggles my mind that it didn't happen this way. So basically, we get what we actually got for the first six months, which were separate adventures of Ben and Peter, and then they finally converge. We got that, and the point was made - Ben was more like the classic Spider-Man than Peter was, and doubt was planted in everyone's minds.

By Amazing Spider-Man #400 (dated April 1995), six months after the Clone Saga officially started, Ben would be revealed as the original Peter Parker and take over the reins of Spider-Man for about three months. Now, this may not seem like big numbers, but remember that the Spider-Man titles at the time were four monthlies, one quarterly, and whatever "special" they had at the time, so nine months of comics in Spider-Man would equal 40 for any other property.

After Ben had his day in the sun, Peter would come back, be re-revealed as the original, and then Ben would be spun off into another series with a different superhero identity. It's not a surprising strategy, since this was at a time when Marvel just did the same thing for Thor and Iron Man, giving us Thunderstrike and War Machine, which, according to Tom DeFalco, were profitable titles, even when they were cancelled.

It's also got to be said that this was right after DC Comics did "Death of Superman" and "Batman: Knightfall," which shoved the World's Finest team off the stage for a while, got them replaced with people, and then, when they came back, their replacements were spun off into their own series.

So it's not like there wasn't a creative or business precedent for this sort of thing. Hell, War Machine just got put in Iron Man 2, and Thunderstrike's about to be relaunched.

So there's a sound plan, and I've never been the type to think that powers make a character, so I know there's some debate that goes along the lines of "But if Ben got his own series, wouldn't that dilute Peter as a character?" I never bought it then, and I still don't buy it now. If such an assertion were true, Batman, Superman, and Captain Marvel would have lost everything that made them special years ago.

So what happened? Well, as you might guess, we finally got to Amazing Spider-Man #400, but instead of Ben being revealed as the one, true Peter Parker (which they teased in the Web issue just before this), we instead got Aunt May dying. Now, this was an especially touching story, and it damn near brought me to tears when I read it as a kid, and I still think it's incredibly powerful now. It can, however, be specified as the point when everything got out of control.

For one thing, you've got the cover.

Do you know what that is, kiddies? That's a tombstone. You see, Aunt May dies in this issue, so you can see a tombstone. Oh, and the tombstone is the cover. The blue stuff you see on the top there? That's on the inside. Yeah, I know. Also, Spider-Man's figure is embossed on the cover. Having a hard time seeing it? So did I when I bought it. It sucked.

Basically, at this point, the marketing and sales departments had way too much say in what was going on in the creative departments. Marvel was downsizing, and their comics had a "Spider-Man division," an "X-Men division," an "Avengers division," and so on and so forth. All with different editorial teams. So there wasn't a centralized leader in Marvel, and the only thing sales and marketing knew how to do was sales and marketing. That included embossed covers and gimmicky hologram covers.

Mainly, Marvel was living under the shadow of X-Men's Age of Apocalypse, a four-month long event that thrust all the X-Men into an alternate dimension, and where titles and books were changed.

Chromium! Chromium!!

Age of Apocalypse was very successful, both critically and commercially. The difference when it came to Spider-Man was that it became a case of the tail wagging the dog. Where the X-Men story was carefully and meticulously planned out (so I hear; I've never read it, and would appreciate if anyone would lend me their collection) as a big event, the Spider-Clone saga was not. Marketing wanted more of it, because it was selling extremely well. (Like I said, the set-up was really good.) So they took a conceptually finite and limited story and stretched it beyond its limits. I think they wanted to milk the Scarlet Spider for all he was worth.

So by the end of Amazing #400, Peter gets arrested (presumably for something Ben did, but actually for something Kaine did), and that starts off a whole chain of ridiculous reactions where (1) Peter breaks out of jail, (2) A new Peter Parker clone was introduced, (3) Ben volunteers to take Peter's place in jail, (4) Peter wears the Scarlet Spider costume for a while, (5) the new Peter Parker clone mutates into something freakish, which is then called "Freakface."  Uh, yeah, you see what I'm getting at here? Not only were things getting confusing; they started getting inane.

By Spectacular Spider-Man #226 (dated July 1995, so three months - or twelve issues - later than originally planned), they finally went with the reveal that Peter was the clone. So Peter kind of loses it, gets into a scuffle with Ben, and then when Mary Jane tries to stop him, this happens.

Now I thought it was pretty clear that Peter didn't know it was MJ, but apparently to a lot of people, this became the scene where Peter Parker hit his pregnant wife, and it's still decried in a lot of message boards today. Personally, I think you see what you want to see, but it sure didn't help matters.

This then kicked off the six-part (sigh) "Maximum Clonage" saga. The title is a tribute to "Maximum Carnage," a story they did in 1992 that was critically bashed all around. (Although the game was awesome.)

In this story, the Jackal (sigh) decides that he's going to start killing the human race and replacing them with clones! But more importantly, look at the wonderful holofoil cover!!

Maximum Clonage: Alpha had a holofoil cover.
So did its ending, Maximum Clonage: Omega.

Isn't that awesome? When you turn the page of the holofoil, you'll see the Scarlet Spider and Kaine!  Ho ho! I want all you 90s kids to realize that you paid extra for this crap.

Anyway, in Maximum (ugh) Clonage, Peter Parker, so distressed that he's the clone, decides that he's going to join the Jackal and his plan to (sigh) kill the human race and replace them with clones.

Seriously, does that sound like Peter Parker to you?? AT ALL?

We're also reintroduced to Freakface, who is now calling himself Spidercide. I call him "completely and totally unnecessary." Yes, I love "evil twin" stories, but come on.

Sigh. Just... sigh. This is like a TV show that ran too long.

And so, later on in the story, Peter fetches the original Gwen Stacy clone, who, because things weren't complicated enough, wants to kill the Jackal, and Peter just looks like a total douchebag.

(And if I may interject, what the hell was the point of all this "Take your identity back, Ben" talk anyway? It's not as if Mary Jane would be going, "Hey, I married you, but you're a clone, so I'm going to ditch you now and sleep with this other guy who looks exactly like you.")

So, at the end of Maximum Clonage (sigh), Peter and MJ were still around, the Jackal was dead (thankfully), and they still didn't resolve the issue of putting Ben on center stage.

So right after Maximum (sigh) Clonage, two things happen.

Remember when I said that Marvel split into many divisions? One title, The New Warriors, a book about a team of younger superheroes, didn't fall into any division. So they got assigned to the Spider-Man group. So, of course, to bolster their sales, what's the solution?

Yep, put the Scarlet Spider in the group. I actually don't mind this, on the whole - it got the Warriors, a genuinely well-done book at the time, written by Evan Skolnick and drawn by Patrick Zircher - some good exposure and it boosted their sales for a while. But the fact is it made zero sense, and it was just another example of marketing calling the shots. Or the tail wagging the dog.

Another thing that happened is that, in Web #228, Ben and Peter finally have their conversation about who gets to be Spider-Man, five months (and 21 issues) after Ben was already scheduled to take over. And what happens?

Ben. turns. it. down.

And why does he turn it down? Because marketing wanted to keep the Scarlet Spider around just a little bit longer. In fact, the next month of stories in SPIDER-MAN titles was all about Ben Reilly.

Finally, they do a story called "The Greatest Responsibility," where Peter realizes that if he's going to have a baby, then that responsibility takes precedence above all else, including superheroing. In an actually neat passing of the torch, Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkewicz homage the famous Ditko sequence where Spider-Man lifts a bunch of crap off himself (in fact, the entire issue is a tribute to that storyline), and instead of Spider-Man lifting it all off himself, he gets help from the guy who's gonna replace him.

So for all intents and purposes, Peter was off the stage. So he gives his costume to Ben. And what happens?


Because Marketing, in all their infinite wisdom, were still living in the shadow of "Age of Apocalypse," where, for example, for four months, the Wolverine title was Weapon X.

So they decided, "Hey, it worked then, why won't it work now?" (Because it doesn't make sense, you idiots.) And we get two months - that's ten issues of Scarlet Spider titles. Ten issues where you pretty much start a storyline, only to have absolutely no room to develop, because you just want our money.

At the end of this run, the Scarlet Spider was getting framed, so with the following reasoning, he decides to go back to being Spider-Man.

Now, never mind the fact that this reasoning is so completely ignorant of all his excuses for not getting the Spider-Man mantle prior to this. But it doesn't make any sense and is completely ignorant of the character's history. A large part of Spider-Man's mythos is that the public hates him! Changing back to Spider-Man changes nothing!

So anyway, Ben went back to being Spider-Man, but the damage had already been done at that point. Readers had already started leaving when they found out Peter was the clone, and the time to strike with Ben as Spider-Man would have been, oh, immediately. At this point, creators and fans alike knew that there was no way Ben was going to stick around as Spider-Man, and his fate was sealed before he even became Spider-Man.

Because of the involvement of marketing, we lost a perfectly good opportunity to make good money and tell a good story at the same time. I'll always look back on the Clone Saga with a sense of sadness and a sense of unfulfilled potential. It could have been something big. It could have been something to remember. It could have been something good. Instead, we got something sprawling, something that Marvel has made continual attempts to forget, and something unreadable. And the sad thing is, I have every issue of it. Even at its worst, I couldn't step away.

It's too bad. It's too bad.

If you do feel the need to read the Clone Saga, Marvel is reprinting them in TPBs right now. And you can check out the remake from last year, which condenses the intended storyline in six issues:


TomO. said...

Great post. As someone who's not that big of a Spider-Man fan, I can't really tell you why I'm fascinated with this period of his history other than for the "train wreck" entertainment value.

I've gotten lost for hours at a time reading the Life of Reilly blog you mentioned earlier, but I like how your post is written from a street level view of someone who lived it at the time, rather than just a straight-up autopsy.

Well done sir!

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, Tom. I like Life of Reilly fine, but I don't think you can read it if you haven't read the entire Clone Saga (which I have), since it's pretty much a commentary track.

I do have to admit that at the time I wasn't thinking things like "Ben Reilly is more like the classic Peter Parker than the current Peter Parker is," I just knew that I liked Ben more. Analyzing it now, though, that's exactly what it came down to.

sparts said...

Interesting article and great site. The scarlet Spider is one of the first characters I ever read as a kid. I always like reading peoples opinion on the clone saga in general. That said i am extremely jealous of that scarlet Spider poster by Tom Lyle. Any idea where to get one?

Duy Tano said...

Thanks, sparts! I thought the Clone Saga had such good promise, but then just floundered due to external circumstances.

I have no idea where to get a copy or even a scan of the Tom Lyle poster. The pic I have is actually a photograph of the poster on my wall.


You don't know how happy I was when I read this just now. I was eight or nine when I picked this storyline up and I have about 80% of the entire Clone Saga run. It's crazy now but I LOVED it then! This was what cemented me as a lifelong Spidey fan. It was so compelling with all the new characters - Traveller's group, Ben's mentor/accomplice - and I also LOVED the Scarlet Spider! IMPACT WEBBING is the shiznit!

Anyhoo, point is, it's pretty uncool that sales and marketing ruined what could've been a great storyline. I have yet to finish the reinvisioned 6-issue run last year. I have just the first one. Anyways, great read and hope to discuss this with you further. Kudos, Duy! :D

Duy Tano said...

Man, I loved it too, but there was that whole feeling of "When the hell will this end?" going on.


Yeah it did drag on for far too long. But i did shed an imaginary tear when Ben melted in Spider-Man #75. :( haha!

Duy Tano said...

It is SUCH a shame, I think, because the moments in the Clone Saga which had nothing to do with the overall story - like, say, just Ben on a solo adventure, or Ben and Peter hunting down Lady Octopus - were so good and really showed so much potential. It was the overall story that was just flat-out screwed up!


Yeah! It was REFRESHING to read those. It's like a whole different persona. Ah well, that was that.

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