It’s well-known that the 1990s weren’t kind to comics. A wave of 80s-inspired grit washed through the industry, and Spider-Man in particular suffered ridiculously under the weight of it. As increasingly dark storylines brushed his supporting cast aside and sent Peter himself into a downward spiral, the convoluted and editorially botched Clone Saga was conceived to try and fix things – but what was it that was so bad that they felt they had to take such radical steps as to REPLACE Spider-Man?
Well, there’s the events of Amazing Spider-Man #393, for example. A sort-of sequel to Maximum Carnage, it sees Carnage’s former allies, Shriek and Carrion going on a rampage, with Spider-Man tasked with bringing them in. Shriek is an insane goth-inspired villainess with a maternal complex, straight out of Ravencroft Asylum, and Carrion is her murderous “son”, an ordinary man transformed into a cold, super-powered killer by the Carrion Virus.
This issue is the last of a 4-part story – Shriek has gone to kill Carrion’s real mother so that she can replace her, leading to a stand-off as she’s trapped inside her own house. It’s night, naturally, because at this point all Spider-Man stories took place at night, and while Peter tries to sort the situation out. Mary Jane sits by Aunt May’s hospital bed, the old coot having had yet another stroke, and explains that she’s going to leave for a while because she can’t deal with how depressing life is.
It’s all quite unrelentingly bleak. After he attacks Peter to protect both of his “mothers,” Peter pounds the crap out of a confused, psychologically torn Carrion while shouting about how he should just let the Carrion virus destroy Malcolm (the unwitting host) for what he’s done. Shriek eventually saves Malcolm’s life by absorbing the Carrion virus to prove that she loves her “son,” and Spider-Man takes her to a hospital – though not before he takes a moment to wonder whether he should just leave her to die.
What we’re learning here is that Spider-Man doesn’t have much sympathy for the criminally insane. A pity, really, since he’s clearly not all there himself at the moment – the arc is littered with moments when Peter has an internal dialogue with two sides of himself – The Man and The Spider. Seeing Aunt May in the hospital, he plans to go home and beg MJ for help… but she’s already left town. The issue ends with perhaps the one panel that sums up this entire era for me – Spider-Man perches atop of a stone Gargoyle at night, hunched over and glaring down on the city, the captions declaring: “Never again will he allow the man’s voice to sway him; the man’s hopes to seduce him. Never again will he show his face to that cruel and merciless world down there. The mask stays on, the heart stays cold. Now and forever, he vows…’I AM THE SPIDER’”
Creatively, it’s not quite as bad as things ever got – Bagley’s artwork is immediately familiar as being one of the definitive Spider-Man artists, and in fairness to DeMatteis, it’s a fairly well-executed story for Shriek and Carrion. The problem is, really, that this unremittingly dark, psychological tone was ever considered good Spider-Man reading, because it’s so far from the character’s origins as to be almost unrecognisable.