Thought this was over, eh? I did too.
Well, it turns out these Clone Saga collections are still being put out, but after the fifth one, the name was changed to "The Complete Ben Reilly Epic." I see what you did there, Marvel. I suppose it makes sense, given that Peter Parker retired from Spider-duty after finding that he was the clone and Ben was the original. The only time we see him in this volume is at the start, during the "Spider-Man: The Parker Years" one-shot. This is mostly just a recap of the last 15 years or so worth of Spidey-history up until that point, though readers following the Clone Saga will surely appreciate Mary Jane's zinger that "self-pity can be endearing in small doses, but after a while it can really suck." MJ, why didn't you speak up during "Maximum Clonage?!"
After that is an issue of the New Warriors, who the Scarlet Spider was somewhat affiliated with. He appears in about five panels. After that, we get a massive story called "You Say You Want An Evolution" which is definitely the lower point of this collection. It seems to exist solely to provide a lengthy answer to a question asked by The Jackal right before his death in Maximum Clonage - "Don't you want to know about Joyce Delaney and the High Evolutionary?" The correct answer was "No, just go away." This story goes on forever and is quite a chore. In general, a grandiose villain like The High Evolutionary is better off in the pages of something like The Avengers or X-Men.
Next is the four-part "Virtual Mortality" story, another crossover between all the Spider-Man titles. This time, it's a twist because all the comics have been renamed. For instance, "The Amazing Spider-Man" became "The Amazing Scarlet Spider." Still, if we're basically establishing a new status quo with Ben Reilly as our main man, I'm not sure why we still need the "event" crossovers. If you were a kid in the 90s with a limited allowance, this constant pressure to get four comics a month rather than one could get rough.
Anyhow, the funny thing about this story is that the travails of Ben's personal life are far more interesting that the ludicrous stuff going on while he's in the costume. He's got no money and winds up working at a sleazy club. He meets a potential love interest who has a different hairstyle every time she appears (you figure the artists would coordinate crap like that) and of course, keeps having to worry about getting mistaken for Peter. The main story is a high-tech gang war between the new female Doctor Octopus (aka Carolyn Trainer) and a mobster named Jason Tso, who is in the employ of longtime Spidey nemesis Alistair Smythe. Keep in mind, we're in the mid 1990s here and the "internet and virtual reality will kill us all" paranoia is in full swing.
This plotline continues in another crossover called "Cyberwar." Starts out promising, but when characters start talking about "reality merging with virtual reality," you know we've gone off the rails. At least we find out an interesting twist about Stunner, who you may remember as the girlfriend of the late Dr. Octopus (the original). She herself is a virtual reality projection. Yeah, we need a Keanu Reeves-esque "whoa" right about now. In this collection, the Cyberwar storyline is interrupted by an issue of the short-lived but underrated Green Goblin comic (the heroic Phil Urich incarnation) and another New Warriors issue. The Goblin comic dovetails nicely with the main plot. The New Warriors story is almost totally irrelevant.
The Lady Octopus character is not very interesting, but she's smart. Using her virtual reality technology, she frames the Scarlet Spider for a lot of destruction and utterly tarnishes his fledgling reputation. What to do now...why, it's time to go back to the original. Yep, Reilly is going to take on the mantle of Spider-Man. This transformation is showcased very well in "Ultimate Commtiment," a debut story from Dan "Death of Superman" Jurgens. A new title, The Sensational Spider-Man, was crafted just for him.
Jurgens is no slouch - within this one issue, he deftly introduces a bunch of new characters and builds a solid foundation for continued Reilly adventures. Ben also dyes his hair blond to try and further distance himself from Peter Parker. A new version of the Spider-Man costume is sewed (after a lot of mishaps, poor Ben just doesn't have many resources) and we're good to go. I have to say, these stories are a lot more pleasant with the knowledge that Ben's tenure as lead character was only temporary. At the time, however, we really had no clue what was going to happen with all this and even though Ben was a likeable guy, he wasn't the guy we had gotten attached to for so long.
This isn't the end of the Clone Saga by a long shot. Still plenty more, and now that I know to look for installments of the "Ben Reilly Epic," more analysis will follow.