Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 1
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #394, Spectacular Spider-Man #217, Spider-Man #51-3, Spider-Man Unlimited #7, Web of Spider-Man #117-9, Spider-Man: The Lost Years #1-3 (1994-5)
Released: March 2010 (Marvel)
Format: 424 pages / color / $34.99 / ISBN: 9780785144625
What is this?: Oh, the Clone Saga? You know, the ‘90s? Well, a duplicate Peter Parker, calling himself Ben Reilly, shows up.
The culprits: Many, many people, including writers Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, and J.M. DeMatteis and artists John Romita Jr., Steven Butler, Sal Buscema (really?), and Tom Lyle
When I first saw Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic, Book 1 in the solicitations, I thought, “Man, what a waste — who’s going to want to buy that?” Because as everyone reading comics in the ‘90s remembers, the Clone Saga was Marvel’s biggest misstep of the decade, and that’s competing against some intensely stiff competition: Onslaught, The Crossing, Marvel’s bankruptcy. … What I’m trying to say is that the ‘90s were a crappy decade for the company, and the Clone Saga was the crap cherry on top of the crap sundae — the crap de resistance, if you will. But Marvel, always trying to put a little polish on that turd, has labeled the story both a “Saga” and an “Epic.”
So of course a few months after its release, I’m reading Book 1 of the Clone Saga. In my defense, I can say it’s a hell of a bargain after an Amazon discount — that’s a lot of story for $23 and change. Of course, it’s the quality of the story that matters.
To be fair, the beginning of the Clone Saga was never what was at issue. Marvel has decided to tell the story in the order it takes place in the life of Spider-Man’s clone (Ben Reilly). This is an odd decision but a defensible one; rather than reading the stories as they were originally issued, Marvel is trying to tell a coherent story with the reprint.
That may be trouble later on, but for now, the backup stories telling about the clone’s awakening (from about Amazing Spider-Man #149 or so) are presented at the beginning rather than interspersed among the first real crossover of the Clone Saga. So much to the good; on the other hand, that means the Spider-Man: The Lost Years miniseries is presented next, which was written when the clone thought he was the original Peter Parker. This means there are several confusing references to Ben being the real Spider-Man when the story has him still as the clone (and that’s how he’ll end the Saga). There aren’t any footnotes or explanations, so it seems Marvel will trust everyone to stay calm and carry on.
The story begins in earnest when Peter (and Ben’s) Aunt May has a spell and has to be hospitalized. Ben rushes back to New York, the identical pair clash with each other, they find other enemies to fight. Peter has, at this point in the storyline, become a deranged ass, unhinged by the Chameleon passing a pair of robotic duplicates off as Peter’s dead parents. He calls himself “the Spider,” avoids May and Mary Jane, and generally is unpleasant and violent. (Thankfully, there’s a text page that describes all this.) It’s a great way to make Ben the sympathetic one, as Peter assumes Ben is there to replace him. But at this point these are still supposed to be Peter’s books, so making him unsympathetic is a risk — some would say stupid.
The stories themselves are unremarkable. The backups that introduce the clone, written by J.M. DeMatteis, are forgettable. The “Power and Responsibility” crossover, in which Ben made his debut, features Judas Traveller as the villain — the less said about Traveller, a ‘90s kind of villain with vague mental powers, ambiguous goals, and weird, slightly multicultural minions, the better. The whole Spider-writing staff — Terry Kavanagh, DeMatteis, Howard Mackie, and Tom DeFalco — grabs an issue each; each has done better work elsewhere (well, maybe not Mackie). The story that rounds out the collection has Ben choosing Venom as his first villain to fight, taking offense with Peter’s peace treaty with the villain. The choice is logical, and Mackie and Kavanagh establish Ben as having Peter’s moral code while putting a few new trappings on the character, but the issue is muddled with a second symbiote wandering around and a Bugle reporter trying to ride superheroes to the top of his profession.
The Lost Years miniseries is a bit of a standout, though; a younger Ben finds love in Salt Lake City, managing to eschew full-blown superheroics while still trying to do right. The story is as much about Kaine, another Spider-clone who is embittered by being an earlier, imperfect attempt at cloning; he too thinks he’s found love, only to find it being as imperfect as he is. DeMatteis manages to make parallels between the two clones without bashing the reader over the head and write a decent crime story. As DeMatteis writes in the afterword, the Lost Years setup — essentially Spider-Man stories without the Spider-Man, set around the world — seems like a gold mine of stories.
The Lost Years is also the winner in the art department. I’m not a big John Romita, Jr. fan, but his work for the miniseries is excellent — it is, by far, my favorite work of his post-‘80s portfolio. Credit has to be given to inker Klaus Janson and colorist Christie Steele; the pair give Romita’s art a gritty, washed-out look appropriate for a crime story set in a rainy city.
The rest of the volume mostly manages to avoid the crossover syndrome, except for “Power and Responsibility.” Still, most of it is forgettable ‘90s art. Exceptions are Sal Buscema, whose work I love dearly but is clearly miscast for this story, and Tom Lyle, who manages to give Ben a lithe and powerful Mark Bagley-esque look in his issues. On the other hand, his original design for Kaine is hideous in a very ‘90s way and in no way captures the menace that Romita gives him in The Lost Years. Liam Sharpe draws an empty-eyed series of backups, but he’s drawing unformed clones, so empty-eyed is appropriate.
Marvel has done some very good things here. The ordering of the issues is probably the best choice, as mentioned. The text page setting up the clone’s introductory crossover is much appreciated. The book also includes numerous fragments from many Spider-titles leading up to the initial crossover in which someone is rushing to New York to see May; Marvel wisely didn’t claim the book reprinted the comics the fragments came from. The afterword from J.M. DeMatteis (reprinted from the 1996 TPB of The Lost Years) is more vital than the usual nattering of a writer or artist; this is a disaster in the making, and it’s useful for readers to get a sense of how things started to fall apart.
I had a thought, while writing this review, that wanting to read this book not out of morbid curiosity or completionism — that you sincerely have a desire to read a Spider-Man story from an era that doesn’t get reprinted much — is a mark of a real Spider-Man fan. Not necessarily a better Spider-Man fan, since “real” fans can also disdain what they are pretty sure is going to be a steaming pile of Rhino scat. But someone could put that forward as part of their Spider-Fan bona fides.
Book 1 isn’t as bad as the Clone Saga is supposed to be. (Is it really that bad? Well, Book 2 is out, Book 3 has been solicited for August, and Book 4 already has a (possibly bogus) page on Amazon. (Reading the description for that last one makes me think that one’s going to be awful — and there will still be about a year of the Clone Saga to reprint. That’s one to send shivers up your spine.) But is Book 1 compelling? As a story, no. As a ‘90s artifact? Probably. As part of the anatomy of a disaster? Oh, yes — such a lackluster start to a major event doesn’t bode well.
Rating: (2 of 5)