Seeing Double

In case you missed my post last week, I’ll be part of a panel with the always awesome Red Dot Diva, and film reviewer Jedd Jong, where we talk about Spider-Man: No Way Home.

In the lead-up to that, you can read my review for Into the Spider-Verse on the Diva’s blog, but since No Way Home miiiiiiiiiight be a movie with multiple Spider-Men, I figure it’s also worth sharing a post I wrote a couple of years ago, when I was rereading the whole first volume of Amazing Spider-Man from 1963 to 1998. This particular post covered the first half of the infamous Clone Saga, a story that I maintain has more good in it than people tend to give it credit for.

Fair warning: while this is a slightly edited version, it’s still lengthy—and very, very nerdy.

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 David Michelinie and Mark Bagley’s 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.

Rereading 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 was referring to himself as The Spider, and refused to acknowledge his human side after stories like Lifetheft and Pursuit.

Hell, Ben 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?”). I disliked J.M. DeMatteis’ treatment of Peter during Shrieking, another story leading up to this saga, but this put everything (probably retroactively) into context. I wasn’t a fan of how dark he had gotten—because I wasn’t supposed to be.

Peter eventually reemerged 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, particularly Amazing and Spectacular Spider-Man. DeMatteis and Bagley led the charge with Amazing, while Spectacular remained a solid sister book, based 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.

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 saga ran out of steam so quickly that the big revelation of Kaine’s true identity lacked any real punch.

Even Judas Traveller wasn’t spared. Traveller was a character that a lot of people said was too mythical for the comparatively grounded world of Spider-Man, but I’d argue that, at the very least, he 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 though, 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 and a story that were solely designed to prolong things beyond their original intentions.

At this point though, 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’s send-off for 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 wordless 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.

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.