Every Wednesday we take turns to delve into our trusty longboxes, pluck out a dusty back issue at random, and give you our thoughts. We’ll also try and place it in the context of the time it was originally published.
If you thought that Brand New Day was the first time that Marvel had tried to restore Spider-Man to his “classic” elements and get rid of such niggling details as oh, you know, an entire marriage… well, then you’d be wrong. And you’d never have encountered The Clone Saga. Please, sit down. You’ve got some catching up to do.
It’s not worth going into all the ins-and-outs of that seemingly interminable period in Spider-lore right now – might we suggest you have a read of the excellent Life of Reilly some time, though – but for the sake of examining this particular title, let’s look at the basics. Deciding that Peter Parker had, essentially, become ruined beyond repair by not only his marriage, but a succession of early ‘90s storylines that turned him somewhat grim and angry, Marvel editorial decided to push the “reset” button by revealing that the Parker we’d seen in the previous fifteen years or so of comics (described as “five years” in-universe) was, in fact, the clone version originally created by Professor Miles “The Jackal” Warren – and a man now living under the name Ben Reilly, whom we’d previously believed to be the clone (and, er, dead) was the real Peter all along, and alive and well to boot.
This wasn’t a hoax. It wasn’t like The Death of Superman or Knightfall, where the intention was always to reset the status quo after first making readers appreciate what they’d been taking for granted by yanking it away from them. At various times in the development of the story – although the whole thing went backwards, forwards, up and down on multiple occasions – it was genuinely intended that Ben Reilly, seen as the “true” Peter Parker without all the baggage that the stories of the ‘80s and ‘90s had dumped upon him, would be the man under the mask for evermore.
Amid the general shakeup that the Spider-titles were given once a now-powerless Peter and pregnant Mary Jane were packed off into the sunset, a new book was created (replacing Web of Spider-Man) that would be the centrepiece for the development of Ben’s new setup and supporting cast. And brought in to write and pencil the book was former DC mainstay Dan Jurgens. On the art front, at least, this was something of a coup – Jurgens was in excellent form at the time, and his version of Spidey was nailed-on from day one (it helped, of course, that the new costume – designed by Mark Bagley – was superb); while there was some continuity with the general look of the Spidey books by having Klaus Janson on as inker.
After an issue #0 (hey, it was the nineties), which saw Ben taking over the Spider-mantle and established the basic setup of the series, the series proper began with a three-part storyline “Media Blizzard” (parts two and three of which would appear in Amazing and Adjectiveless (later to become Peter Parker :) Spider-Man). And it’s… well, it’s not particularly special, to be honest. Jurgens has always been a very by-the-numbers kind of writer, and this is fairly decent, unspectacular fare, involving Mysterio hypnotising the city with a new TV channel. Yeah. Jurgens’ unfamiliarity with writing the character shows, in that he never really gets the hang of the trademark internal Spidey monologuing – veering too often into out-and-out to-nobody-in-particular exposition of the sort that really should have died with the Silver Age.
Still, there’s some passable material involving the supporting cast that Jurgens was building – including Jessica, the photographer with whom Ben became involved before discovering that she was the daughter of the burglar that killed Uncle Ben, and blamed Spider-Man for her father’s death – and it’s quite interesting to note, from the perspective of a present-day in which Brand New Day is currently running, that whenever writers get round the table and decide to make Spidey “classic” again, it always comes down to him being skint and running out of web fluid.
For all the countless mistakes made during (and for a while after) the Clone Saga, there were hints of potential here and there – Ben Reilly as a character himself was certainly one, as was the prospect of a long and fruitful run with Jurgens on pencils. Sadly, things never really worked out (less than ten issues had passed before Jurgens, frustrated at not getting the chance to draw the “original” Spidey and unhappy with the general direction, walked; while the “new era” of Ben as Spidey lasted only until December of the same year), and as a consequence it’s quite difficult to really throw yourself into reading the Reilly era, with the knowledge of how quickly it was curtailed and how meaningless all the character setup would become. As far as mid-90s Spider-Man comics go, this certainly isn’t a bad one – but it’s also, sadly, pretty irrelevant.