Thursday, June 10, 2010

Clone Saga Revisited, Part One

So I may have found some use for the blog in the non-Oscar months.

The Clone Saga ended my tenure as a Spidey fan for several years, and even when I came back I could no longer stomach the main continuity and instead went for the "Spider-Girl" alternate universe. I think I made the right choice, this "Brand New Day" bullshit makes the Clone Saga look like Shakespeare.

I look back on the storyline with a mixture of frustration and nostalgia. These were my prime comic reading days...and some parts of the story were good. So when I heard that a series of volumes would finally collect this massive plotline within several books, I was pretty excited. After all, I never did read the entire could I? Almost every story was a crossover, meaning that you had to buy at least four comics a month to get everything. My allowance couldn't quite support that.

So right away, I was grateful for the idea to finally fill gaps in my knowledge of this saga which had lingered for years! As these trades come out (probably will take 6 or 7 books to encompass this whole was LONG, son), I'll look back on this maligned storyline and see what we can salvage from it. Spoilers will abound, so if you don't want 15-year-old story twists ruined for you, turn back now.

So let's kick this off with some context: Peter Parker was really depressed following the revelations of the "robot parents" storyline, and was swinging around all dark and moody and calling himself "The Spider." Aunt May was in the hospital for a stroke, which didn't help things. Most of this is recapped quickly in the collection (official title is "The Complete Clone Saga Epic") using random pages from various issues to help get us up to speed.

We start with "Birth of a Spider-Man," which was a supplemental story published in other issues that serves as a retelling of the very first 1970s Clone Saga from the clone's point of view. At the end of that first confrontation, Peter believed his clone was dead. Not so. This short story is really dark and kind of ugly, but it does help capture the most essential points from the 70s tale - the entirety of which is in a trade called "Clone Genesis," not sure if that's still in print.

Next is "The Parker Legacy," another short story about the clone's existential woes upon learning he is not the real Peter Parker. I always liked this story. Despite the fantastical subject matter, there was something very human and poignant about what the character was dealing with. It also introduces the clone's chosen name for himself - Ben Reilly.

The same creative team from that story (J.M. Dematteis and John Romita Jr) did the "Spider-Man: The Lost Years" mini-series, which touches on Reilly's adventures while living the nomadic lifestyle in Salt Lake City. I had never actually read this until now, and it was impressive. This is barely a superhero story, it's more like a straight up crime drama involving a few superpowered characters. The character of Kaine, an early attempt at cloning Peter Parker that went awry, was ubiquitous during the Clone Saga and he was never cooler than he is in this story. This three-issue story is some of the best stuff that came out of this whole saga.

Following that, the "Power and Responsibility" storyline that officially kicked off the new Clone Saga is a disappointment. Peter meets his clone, who returned to NYC to visit the ailing Aunt May, and the two of them get wrapped up in the sinister machinations of one Judas Traveller. Right from the first chapter of this, the writing was just weak. Of course, that may be the fault of Terry Kavanagh, who wrote "Web of Spider-Man" for quite a while around this time. Even as a kid, I knew this guy's writing was bad. Almost every bit of dialogue is a run-on sentence that stretches on through at least two panels. Hard to explain without showing you an issue, but trust me when I say it gets very repetitive. During "Maximum Carnage," which ran a couple years before this, Kavanagh was the genius who had the poor, unedcuated Cletus Kasady spitting off ham-fisted lines like "Your pathetic arrogance, fools, will be your very downfall!" *groan*

Still, the story has plenty of other problems. Traveller is just kind of a lame villain, his motivations about understanding the nature of evil or whatever are really boring and trite, and the scene where Spider-Man has a full-on whimpering meltdown in front of him was just embarrassing. I winced when I read that in the 90s and it made me wince now. By the time the four-part story ends, it doesn't seem anything all that important happened, except for Reilly's return.

The final story in this first collection is "The Exile Returns," a Ben Reilly solo adventure. This story has a lot going for it. I really like what the clone has to deal with - the cheap, homemade costume, the sense that he has to lay low or else risk messing things up for Peter. It was fairly compelling - plus the clone (who would be named The Scarlet Spider) got to beat Venom! Venom was ludicruously overexposed during the 90s, he deserved the beat down he got in this story. With that, the first installment of the collected Clone Saga ends on a triumphant note.

So what have I gotten out of this first re-examination? By itself, bringing the Spider-Man clone back was a good idea. Having two Spider-Men running around was kind of cool, and Ben was a good character. It's a shame the promise seen here would be ultimately undone by horrible writing decisions down the road, and indeed symbols of that decline are visible in this first book.

I already have the second collection, so a follow-up should come soon!