With the third volume in this new "Complete Clone Saga Epic" series, I've started to realize that Marvel is not kidding around when they say "complete." Every Spidey comic published during that era seems ripe for inclusion in these volumes regardless of whether or not it dealt with the core plotline. I certainly appreciate the throughness of this approach, but it works against them this time.
But where were we at the end of Volume 2? The original 1970s Clone Saga mastermind, The Jackal, had just returned and planted seeds of doubt about just who is the real Spider-Man - Peter Parker or Ben Reilly? We start this time with "Players and Pawns," a two-part tale featuring more of Jackal's shenanigans. There's also a third Peter Parker who emerges suddenly. Is he the real one? Spoiler alert - no. Jackal's smugness and puns get old quick, but at least this story is short. The most notable thing that happens is that Aunt May finally comes out of her coma.
But anyone who reads this volume is in for a serious endurance test before we get to see the emotional ramifcations of Aunt May's return. Specifically, it's time to wade through the five-part "Planet of the Symbiotes" storyline. This story was published outside the four main Spidey-titles in a series of "super special" one-shots. Special...this story is special the same way that Forrest Gump was special. Venom and Carnage were quite overexposed during the 1990s. I still think the over-the-top "Maximum Carnage" storyline is a guilty pleasure, but this story is one of the most absolutely godawful Spider-Man tales I've ever read. And keep in mind we're in the middle of the Clone Saga when we say this, so that carries some weight.
I'm not even going to try and summarize the sheer stupidity that passes for a plot in this comic abortion, but I will point out a fairly amusing mistake. At one point in this story, Eddie Brock and the two Spideys are chilling with Mary Jane as they hide out from the invading symbiotes (seriously, don't ask) and good old MJ is very cordial with her husband's duplicate. Nothing wrong with that on its own, except Mary Jane's first meeting with Reilly happens later on in this same volume and she's not exactly in the best mood at the time. So not only is the story terrible, it's not even placed in the right spot. Like I said, I do appreciate that Marvel wants to include all the stories where the clone appears, but honestly nobody would have cried foul if this one was missing.
So if you made it through that, you get rewarded with "The Gift," the story originally printed in Amazing Spider-Man #400. The "gift" of the title is the week that Aunt May gets to spend with Peter Parker before her death. Yep, this was the story when she bowed out of the Spidey universe (at least for a few years...let's not go there). It made sense. She had been in poor health since the early 1960s and it was probably time to send the old girl out with dignity.
That's exactly what J.M. DeMatteis did in this exemplary story. There's no action whatsoever and it relies totally on characters and dialogue to make its impact. As a pre-teen when this came out, it was easily the most emotional thing I had ever read...and it still holds it own when you read it as an adult. Once May has peacefully passed, this story ends with a big shock. There were a lot of "shocks" in the Clone Saga that felt as revelatory as Tuesday coming after Monday, but this was a big one. Just as May's funeral is over, the police show up and arrest Peter Parker. The charge? Murder.
The two-part "Aftershocks" story comes after this, and this stuff is decent enough. The only drawback is seeing that lame-o Judas Traveller show up again and do nothing but blow a few things up and then go on his merry way. The final storyline included in Volume 3 is "The Mark of Kaine." Remember him? Well, he was impossible to forget during this Clone business. We were told that this story would answer our questions about the mysterious figure, but it ultimately didn't answer much. The first half focused on Kaine's prophetic visions of Mary Jane's death, which he hopes to prevent by kidnapping her and hiding her underground. Naturally, neither of the Spider-Men are too happy with this. Parker breaks out of jail (assisted by Traveller...just go away already!) and even the moody third Parker joins in. In the second half, the story goes off the rails as the third Parker is revealed to be some genetic abomination who can shapeshift in the style of T-1000. Yeah, it's really weird...and some of the art is just ghastly. In the final part, Kaine picks fights with a bunch of Spidey's enemies...*yawn* The best part of this story is the scene where Reilly unselfishly decides to switch places with Peter and remain in jail so that he can be with Mary Jane while hunting the real murderer. It's pretty epic.
That does it for now. Next time, we get into the really bad Clone Saga stuff. At least we're done with Venom for a while.