The Clone Saga has always gotten a bad rap. Almost fifteen years later, Wizard magazine is STILL flogging it, having recently asked readers which is the worst Spidey sequence of all time: the Clone Saga or Brand New Day. (Which is amusing… but I’ll get to that in a minute.) Most of this venom seems to stem from people who are incensed at the idea that Ben Reilly could be the real Peter Parker and has little to do with the stories themselves. Recently, I went through the entire Clone Saga for the Official Marvel Index and came to the conclusion that it is not only good but that it may be the best Amazing Spider-Man storyline of the last 20 years. (The only thing that rivals it, aside from a few JMS stories here and there is Brand New Day, hence my amusement over Wizard’s question.)
Take a look at some of the other stories we’ve had during that time. “Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge,” “Maximum Carnage,” Peter’s robot parents, the aimless post-Clone Saga-Spidey-pals-with-X-Man time, “The Gathering of Five,” Mackie/Byrne’s restart, the incomprehensible Stalker storyline, the repellent Stacy Twins sideshow, “The (pointless) Other,” and, of course, “One More Day.” Now tell me those are better than the Clone Saga. Yes, the Saga has its blunders and its misfires but some of these come from truncating the story elements, not from story excesses. Spidercide, for example, is revealed as an evil Parker clone much too soon. The prospect that he may actually be the real Peter is a chilling one that should have been extended. The Maximum Clonage specials fail because the particular story chosen is too thin to support the number of pages, the Jackal and Spidercide are too quickly (and unrealistically) eliminated and the New Warriors are foisted onto the action (surely a marketing rather than a creative decision).
But the biggest letdowns come with the decision to wrap it all up, make Peter the real Parker again, and sweep it all under the rug as soon as possible which results in the destruction of the intriguing and mysterious Traveller-Scrier relationship, the dismantling and perfunctory killing of Seward Trainer, the elimination from the series of all the people in Ben’s life (Shirley and Devon and Buzz and Desiree and Jessica), and the disappearance of Peter and MJ’s baby. (Oh, and the return of Norman Osborn, which I don’t care for but could be argued is a good thing.) I have always maintained (and I should admit that I’ve always been a Clone Saga supporter) that, had fandom taken it easy and enjoyed the ride, Ben and his cast would have blossomed, that we’d have gotten much better stories than we did in the scurrying of the post-Clone Saga era, that Peter might still be married to MJ (let’s not forget that the whole point of making Ben into Spidey was to have an unmarried web-slinger again… something that was tried over and over with MJ’s supposed death, the Stalker abduction, the trial separation, and finally with One More Day)… and that Peter would have eventually been returned as the real Spidey anyway. (As Hal Jordan has eventually returned as Green Lantern, Barry Allen as the Flash, and Steve Rogers, I suspect, as Captain America.) So, all of the hue and cry, in my opinion, only deprived us of a slew of potentially good stories as the Spidey crew tried to right the capsizing ship pretty much until JMS assumed the wheel. Or more accurately, tried to right a perfectly steady ship that the passengers insisted was capsizing.
But now a mini-series comes along that purports to be the Clone Saga “the way it should have been told” (according to Tom DeFalco in the introduction.) Assuming this is accurate (and we might as well assume it), does it vindicate or reject my assertions? Let’s look at the first issue and start to find out.
It is sometime after Amazing Spider-Man #393 (September 1994) and Spider-Man rushes to the hospital after Aunt May has had an attack, leaving her comatose. Meanwhile, Ben Reilly, who was on the phone with her when May collapsed, jumps on his motorcycle and heads East. At the hospital, May’s doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. There, Mary Jane hurries to the bathroom and gets sick. Later, Spidey tries to locate the reason for his spider-sense tingle but can’t spot Kaine who is tailing him. As MJ consults a doctor about her “morning” sickness, Ben visits May’s room, fleeing when he sees Spidey coming.
Still, the two run into each other on the hospital roof. Seeing someone with Peter Parker’s face, Spidey attacks. Ben tells Spidey that he is his clone but Spidey doesn’t believe that. He saw the clone die (in Amazing Spider-Man #149, October 1975), and disposed of the body (in Amazing Spider-Man #151, December 1975) in an incinerator’s smokestack. Ben tells him that he wasn’t dead and later escaped the smokestack. He reveals that he left town but secretly stayed in touch with Aunt May “pretending to be a distant relative,” only coming back to find out what happened to her. Just then a Mini-Cooper, apparently thrown, comes flying at them on the roof. With Ben donning a Spidey mask, the two rescue bystanders before the car crashes to the street.
Watching from a water tower, Kaine can’t believe the two Spider-Men have put their differences aside so quickly. At the hospital, a doctor tells MJ that “congratulations are in order.” Back on the roof, globules of a fast-growing fungus attack Ben and Peter. Ben uses fire to free himself but Peter is engulfed in the fungus. Ben takes Peter to the smokestack and dives in with him. The incinerator burns off the fungus and both Spideys emerge. Kaine reports to a mysterious partner that, “They have both survived the bio-bombs and seem to have bonded exactly as you predicted.” The figure is not surprised. “No one knows his Spider-Men better than I,” he says.
Well, this is not what I expected. Spider-Man: The Clone Saga was solicited as “the Clone Saga as it was originally intended to be told.” I interpreted this to mean that the mini-series would cut away all the excess that entered into it when the consequent sales boost induced Marvel to inflate the storyline far beyond its intent. You know, the mini-series would start around the time of ASM #400 or so and give us six issues where we originally had sixty (or whatever we had). I didn’t think it meant that the mini-series would start at the very beginning and change details right off the bat. It’s one thing to say that everything in the Maximum Clonage issues, for example, were not part of the original plan but can we also say that about Amazing Spider-Man #394?
In the original issues, Aunt May is not on the phone with Ben Reilly when she collapses, Kaine does not attack Ben and Peter with fungus, Peter and Ben don’t bond within one issue, and Kaine is not allied with the Jackal (assuming that the mysterious figure is the Jackal). So, can we really assume that the Saga was not told the way “it was originally intended” from square one? I doubt it. But note Tom DeFalco’s comment again from his introduction. He says this mini-series is the Clone Saga “the way it should have been told.” (Emphasis mine.) That’s very different from “as it was originally intended.” Instead, we are apparently getting DeFalco and Mackie’s version of events or, more likely, how they wanted to craft the story before it was changed in Spidey committee to what it became. It’d be interesting to ask JM DeMatteis how he thinks the Saga “should have been told.” I suspect his issue would be quite different.
So, now that we know what this mini-series will actually be (DeFalco and Mackie’s …and possibly no one else’s… take on how they wanted to do this story), what about this first issue? I’m not sure how you’d feel about it if you’d never read the original Clone Saga (though I suspect it would just feel weird and abrupt) but, as a fan of the storyline, I expected more than a revised recap of the earliest events. It already feels built to end quickly, what with Kaine’s senseless attack and the instant bonding between Peter and Ben. I’m already getting a feeling that, as messy as the original was, I’m glad that it wasn’t written this way. Still, DeFalco is an accomplished writer who is capable of turning this into something special. (Perhaps I shouldn’t ignore Howard Mackie in this assessment since he is listed as co-writer but this issue feels mostly like DeFalco’s work.) Todd Nauck’s artwork is clean and well staged. (I don’t care for the brooding high-cheekbone look given to Peter and Ben but I like MJ’s sweaty worried look when she consults the doctor.) Pasqual Ferry’s cover of Spidey versus Scarlet Spider is terrific, conjuring up the best of the old Clone Saga excitement. And it’s fun to see Ben Reilly alive again and not shoehorned into a storyline as an apparent murderer. So, I’ll give Tom and the gang the benefit of the doubt and give this issue a modest two webs.