Allright, allright, I just started to read the clone saga, and it all went to crazyville. I opened Web #117, which Marvel reprints as the first installment of The Clone Saga in their 11 volume, $440 retail reprinting crusade, and was flustered: The first page is Peter meeting his clone. Cast back into earlier issues [a theme of this saga], I reached earlier into some Spectacular Spider-man issues, and found that in Spectacular #216, Spider-man and Ben Reilly share the twenty two pages almost equally, and it ends with their shocked faces meeting each other. Someone at Marvel really should actually read the books they are reprinting.
But, never fear, this astute Comic Reader read them for you, and is ready to offer summary, analysis, and a reader’s bibliography for the Spider-fans out there.
I can sympathize with everyone who has ever mentioned the clone saga with undertones of anxiety and frustration. It has turned loyal Spider-man readers into nostalgic back issue searchers and it has stopped new readers in their tracks, making people think Spider-man comics are silly. I have seen every level of Spider-man reader detested, at some level, with the clone saga arc, and it has rippled across Spider-man’s history differently in all of his parallel universes: Tom DeFalco kept Ben Reilly alive in Spider-girl, there were two Spider-men in Spiderman 2099’s past, and Marvel published another version of the Clone saga rewritten by Howard Mackie while Brian Michael Bendis rewrote the clone saga into the fabric of Ultimate Spider-man’s history.
It at least has a little bit to do with characters who appear in it such as Vermin. He appears in the comics with almost no reference to his rich backstory, and certainly no issue numbers given by the editors who are so keen to asterisk some captions and let us know “it all happened last issue!”. This is perhaps because it is J.M. DeMatteis who wrote Vermin’s entire history starting from a backup character in his early 80s Captain America run, Vermin is an innocent enough young adult turned into a violent and obedient henchmen by Baron Zemo. Freed from his captor, DeMatteiss writes his second best Spider-man story tying in Vermin’s blind vengenace with Harry Osborn’s blind vengeance on Spider-man. Vermin is able to give up his rage and listen to his therapist, whereas Harry can only bottle his rage inward, and he ends up dying in a battle with Spider-man. The theme of Psychiatry’s place in these heroes and villains lives will not end here.
The clone saga has a scene early on where Vermin is brought again, and turned into the monster he was. DeMatteis, with more than a little care for his creation, had Vermin turned back into his human self, and sent on his merry way with a mindwipe of his life as Vermin. It’s nothing more than three pages, and it makes absolutely no sense if you didn’t follow DeMatteis’ wonderful run with some of Sal Buscema’s best art of his career. He also gets to protect his epic, and keep other writers from bringing Vermin back and undoing all the story that he has spent so long working on.
The problem is, if you opened up the issue before, you’d find out that it had a wealth of references to the issue before it, and so on, and so forth. It was exhausting collecting all of these comics, but, I do have to say, it is an absolute pleasure reading them. What we are really looking at here is the Spider-man epic for the ages, tying in every single plot thread of his life into a sense shattering story of what makes Spider-man tick. And they have just about the perfect goofy Beyonder/Metron level of cosmic goon tying it all together.
Judas Traveller brings even the silliest cosmic comic book characters to laughter. Born a normal human, Judas is a latent mutant who begins his graduate studies in psychology with no clue as to his hidden power. After a nervous breakdown, his vast telepathic and telekinetic mutations reveal themselves, and with his increased powers comes an increase in the power level of his psychiatric subjects: he wants to see exactly what makes Spider-man Spider-man, a trait he shares with a lot of readers. And now, he threatens his goons if they don’t take copious notes about the psychologies of the heroes he’s tormenting. Talk about threats! Read one of the more hilarious moments of his intimidation:
Namely, he wants to see what makes Spider-man tick. He wants to know why, after all his years of pain and failure, does he continue to fight the good fight? On one hand, it’s the age old question of why Batman doesn’t kill the Joker, but it’s done about in a bigger style than that plotline has played out, because he gives Peter a real chance to give up the conflict. He finds the clone of Spider-man and connects them to see how they interact: do they fight and try to be the only Spider-man, or can they handle the stress of multiple identities?
And, in usual clone saga style action, after this character’s introduction, we have more references that compel the astute reader to search for more comics: Judas Traveler has also been following and experimenting with The Chameleon, a Spider-man villain, who was the center of the last Spider-man multi-year epic: Two years before Spider-man’s clone was brought into the picture, Peter Parker’s parents were brought back as robots by The Chameleon, and they grew to have a firm grounding in Peter’s life.
We can read them making their son Breakfast, and getting to know their daughter-in-law Mary Jane. The length of their stay turned what could be a hokey story with a Silver Age Back To The Status Quo ending into a real unhinging moment of Peter Parker’s life, which is the real reason to read the couple years of Amazing Spider-man before the clone’s reappearance.
We see Spider-man wish to ditch his identity while more and more of his villains learn it. He’s tired of feeling pain about his lost parents, tired of feeling pain for Gwen Stacy and the clone whose reappearance stirs up his emotions again, and tired of feeling responsibility for his Uncle Ben’s death. Even more startlingly, he’s tired of seeing Aunt May hurt so much and on her deathbed after a stroke that he barely even visits her in the hospital: he’s even afraid to. He’s afraid to face himself and the consequences of his actions as a masked vigilante, too.
Enter the Spider-man clone: not just a cool visual for Spider-man to get into a punching fight with, he enters the scene simply to hold Aunt May’s hand at her bedside and comfort her when her biological nephew can only face the death of his Aunt May a few moments.
It’s a quite relatable tale of envy: Ben Reilly has nothing to his name, no family and no love, and Peter Parker has too much to his name, a dying mother figure as well as parents he was just starting to trust that were ripped out of his life. Peter wishes to become a clone of himself, having no feelings over his past, and even before he meets Ben Reilly, J.M. writes some stirring Amazing Spider-man issues where he refers to himself as “The Spider” and he wishes “to bury Peter Parker” and “become the mask”.
It’s a trend that was happening to a lot of super-heroes. Batman was having his back broken and Jean Paul Valley replaced him in a mechanical suit a couple years prior, Superman died and a legion of replacements swarmed around his comics the year before, and now Spider-man was being replaced by a clone. It was a time for the commercially driven epic in comics, and by all accounts, the stories were made with the express purpose to make money at the expense of good stories. They also all made their heroes go down dark paths into violence and questioned what makes them heroes, and nothing does this more than the Traveller’s questioning whether Spider-man causes the insanity he and his loved ones face, or if he’s helping curb the insanity.
While some people bash these event comics of the 90s, they are a much different and exciting reading experience than any kind of comics before them. Whereas other comics were ably done in one stories or magnificent multi-issue epics, epic isn’t really the word for this multi-year worth of Spider-man stories. Being an epic would imply that they end. But these stories just continue. Without at least a cursory knowledge of Spider-man’s early history dating Gwen, the return of the clone means nothing. Without a cursory knowledge of Venom and Carnage, Ben Reilly’s first outing as battling Venom has so much less impact: he uses a new kind of webbing to great effect and defeats the monster with an ease Peter Parker never had. Without the story of Peter and Mary Jane’s happy marriage, the rocks that they fall onto when Peter spends more and more time under the mask than without it, their struggles don’t have nearly the gravitas that they can.
Mary Jane’s desire to run away has some positive benefits, though, and it’s a good story of not remaining trapped in a static relationship: she finds her father again, and finds some paternal love she thought lost, and she finds other relatives and shares the path of her life after her marriage.
These comics turn Spider-man’s life into a huge epic, and reveal stones left unturned by the earlier comic writers. In a much different move in literature, these comics show Spider-man writers fighting against an editorial will, and has multiple writers fight to keep their precious stories from other writer’s hands. We also see moves, such as Harry’s hypnotic therapy repressing his knowledge that Peter Parker is Spider-man, torn away by DeMatteis, who subtly comments on the stupidity of that plotline by having Harry menace Peter at every turn, giving Aunt May gifts that turn into explosive Jack in the boxes. It’s quite a tense and dramatic story about giving up on grudges or letting them rule your life, and it has a theme of domestic abuse thrown in when Harry plays with his five year old son in his Green Goblin costume. And it has a rare energy from having been denied by earlier Spider-man writers and festering in the subtext of twenty years worth of silence.
The whole clone saga, born out of Gerry Conway not fully finishing his earlier story, carries that same rare energy. Whereas Conway’s laziness may have given the original clone saga an unsatisfying ending, the way that 90s writers pick it up and revisit that story from the Clone’s point of view in the backups of the “Power and Responsibility” arc make the clone saga blur the lines between fan fiction and professional literature, and turn an unfinished story into an exciting prologue. The magic of serial fiction: everything is moving. And, more importantly, everything is fighting: if a comic story arc isn’t exciting enough, editors won’t give its writers time to finish it. DeMatteis slides the Vermin epic into multiple titles and different eras of Spider-man comics he wrote, and, always, the villain behind the pieces is not some costumed joker but the editors of the comics who wish them to make more money, and we have able comic writers pulling more interesting stories about Peter and his clone to keep it from a gimmick, and turn it into an epic of epics.
And it’s awesome. There are some leaks in the ship: for instance, Ben Reilly seems to remember battles with Venom despite having been cloned form Peter’s DNA before the alien costume bonded with him [which makes Ben’s spider-sense able to sense Venom and Carnage, whereas Peter’s cannot, hence the easy victory], and the early battle with the two clones versus Carnage is the most anti-climactic battle ever, but it even becomes its own plot point: Judas Traveller wanted to give the Spider-men a moment to bond and made the battle intentionally easy. Foils abound in all the Spider-men comics: The Vulture, facing a geriatric death, remakes himself in a younger person’s body and becomes his own sort of clone: one possessing all of the memories but none of the earlier appearance.
Everything is remade sleeker in this epic, Daredevil makes a new appearance as the broken man who forgot who he was and who faked his own death to start anew as simply “Daredevil” with no confusing secret identity to get in the way of justice.
These comics are also about the price of becoming something new and ditching the past. The Traveller watches as Mary Jane leaves town without telling Peter to find her father who long ago abandoned her. The Traveller watches as Daredevil gives Peter advice on how to bury his identity, and he instead leaves the last comic to visit Aunt May in the hospital and cry at how selfish he’s become. The Traveller watches all, and simply observes.
He’s a sit-in for the reader and editors, able to plop Spider-man in dangerous events and simply observe how it changes him with reckless disregard for his subject’s safety.
Coming next: the story of The Traveller continues!