Amazing Spider-Man (1963–1998): The Massive Re-Read, Part Eleven — The Clone Saga I: The Fall and Rise
I’m going to try to do this as systematically as possible, looking at The Clone Saga on a whole first, then delving down into stuff I want to focus on. But you gotta understand — when collected as trade paperbacks, this whole saga still stretches over eleven hefty volumes in total. So, yeah, it might get messy.
The Clone Saga is the ultimate mixed bag, featuring some truly excellent stories, along with probably some of the worst Spider-Man stories ever. That said, I will always have a soft spot for it on a whole, and if that sounds like I’m clouded by nostalgia… well, you wouldn’t be wrong.
While I picked up comics semi-regularly during the Michelinie/Bagley run, it was around the time of the Clone Saga — when Ben Reilly was getting pushed as the new (and maybe only) spider-themed hero in town — that I threw myself in completely. So, while I had a slightly-more-than-passing familiarity with Spider-Man before this, I immediately became invested in Ben. He was a fresh start, just as I was jumping in. He was my guy.
Re-reading the Clone Saga in its entirety actually makes me appreciate how well the creative teams pushed him at the start too. He came in as the lighthearted counter to Peter, who started referring to himself as The Spider, and refused to acknowledge his human side after the events of “Lifetheft” and “Pursuit”. Hell, Ben outright calls Peter out on it too (“You’ve changed, Parker. You used to have a sense of humor. What happened? Why are you so angry?”). In a way, it puts my critique of JM DeMatteis’ treatment of Peter during “Shrieking” into context. I wasn’t a fan of how dark he had gotten — because I wasn’t supposed to be.
Peter eventually re-emerged from his angst-ridden shell, but the seeds had been planted. Ben stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter. He proved himself not just as a hero in his own right, but as someone familiar enough, yet still unique in his own way.
Objectively speaking, the saga actually started out all right — not the best Spidey stories, sure, but entertaining and certainly interesting. You even had mostly decent creative teams on the four main books, with DeMatteis and Mark Bagley leading the charge on Amazing.
Tom DeFalco produced generally good — albeit at times tonally inconsistent — scripts for Spectacular, but the title remained the solid sister book to Amazing almost entirely on the strength of Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz’s art. Pairing these two up may seem like an odd choice at first, but Sienkiewicz’s finishes brought out a very different side to Buscema’s style, one that fit the tone of the era.
Terry Kavanagh was on Web Of with Steve Butler, who I admit is an acquired taste, but I enjoyed his stuff well enough. Howard Mackie with Tom Lyle on Spider-Man was arguably the weakest of all four titles, though not outright terrible either.
As the saga went on though, things began to take a turn for the batshit insane and, even through the most rose-tinted of glasses, watching this saga go off the rails still makes me wince.
The fourth clone showing up was where the cracks started to show. Not so obvious that you could tell just how bad it was going to get, but enough to raise an eyebrow.
The subplot of Peter being wrongly accused for Kaine’s murders is where it all really fell apart. When it finally took centre stage with Peter’s incarceration, and Ben eventually volunteering to switch places with him, the story ran out of steam so quickly that the big revelation of Kaine’s true identity lacked any real punch.
The story was so bad, it even managed to ruin Judas Traveller, a character that a lot of people said was too mythical for the comparatively grounded world of Spider-Man. I’d argue that, at the very least, Traveller started off with the potential to be a neat, albeit risky, red herring. Having him hold court over Spider-Man in the basement of Ravencroft, however, squandered that potential completely and showed clearly, for the first time, that no one knew what to do with the guy.
When people talk about how bad the Clone Saga was, however, chances are they’re talking about the worst named story in Spider-Man’s history, “Maximum Clonage”, and the fourth clone’s return with the worst villain name in Spider-Man’s history, Spidercide. Together, they exemplified exactly what went wrong with the saga — a character that served no purpose after his initial “death”, resurrected for an epically poor story that was solely designed to prolong the saga beyond its original intentions.
There’s a scene in “Maximum Clonage” where Ben and Kaine are fighting off a horde of mindless melting clones (while Ben laughably tries to appeal to their humanity) and it feels like that’s the exact point where the creative teams just threw their hands in the air and gave up.
At this point, it’s easy to forget about the good that came out from all of this. I said at the start that I still have an immense fondness for this saga on a whole, and that fondness stems from stories like “The Lost Years”. This Man Without Fear-type mini-series by DeMatteis, complete with art by John Romita Jr., helped establish Ben as sympathetic and genuinely likeable, and reaffirmed Kaine’s development into not just a great villain, but a fascinating character.
Ben’s first battle against Venom, while not perfect, was still good ol’ superhero fun, and Peter’s (eventually temporary) farewell in Spectacular Spider-Man #229 was very nicely handled. Its callback to Amazing Spider-Man #33, with a last-minute assist by Ben, helped reassure us that Peter was still the Spider-Man we knew and loved, but that Ben was a worthy successor to the webs. This issue also does a great job of showcasing the camaraderie and brotherhood that developed between Peter and Ben, one of the best dynamics in the saga.
And, of course, there is Amazing Spider-Man #400. Hands down one of my absolute favourite single issues ever, everything about the main story brings a tear to my eye, even after all these years — May’s tender revelation that she knew about Peter’s double-life, Peter reciting lines from Peter Pan as a send-off to May, and my personal favourite part of this issue (and of the whole Clone Saga): Ben sitting on the roof of the Parker home, grieving completely alone. If there was ever a moment where Ben truly became my guy, this was it. It is one page, but it packs more of an emotional punch than most complete stories I’ve read. DeMatteis does a wonderful job with this issue, but the credit for this page has to belong to Bagley. This probably remains the best work of his entire career.
And that’s the thing. Yeah, I’ll readily admit that a lot of my love for the Clone Saga is steeped in nostalgia, but it’s also unfair to paint the whole thing as horrible. There is enough good (and at its very best, lots of heart) to carry me through the bad.
But fuck Spidercide though. Seriously.
(Originally published on 27 June 2018.)