Saturday, March 31, 2012

Clone Saga Revisited, Part Eight

It took a little while, but eventually the writers of the Spider-Man comics became comfortable with stories featuring Ben Reilly in the lead role. As a result, the stories in this volume of the Clone Saga collections (Complete Ben Reilly Epic, Book 3) are an improvement over some of the stuff we've seen recently. The problem was it didn't matter. Fans at the time were still livid about how Peter Parker had been pushed out and Ben pushed wouldn't have mattered if the stories were on par with Watchmen because the readers were still having to put up with a massive change to the continuity that nobody had asked for. Most of us were still hanging in there, though at this point I remember buying fewer comics than usual each month.

With "Spider-Man: The Final Adventure," Marvel attempted to give Peter Parker a proper swan song. Written by Fabian Nicieza, this four-part limited series follows Peter and Mary Jane as they move to Portland, Oregon. Peter begins working at GARID, the same research facility that sponsored the radiation experiment that created Spider-Man. However, one of his experiments unintentionally creates a new supervillain, the monstrous Tendril. With Ben Reilly on the other side of the country, it's up to Peter to get back in the Spidey costume for one last hurrah. Needless to say, Mary Jane is extremely pissed off and flies back to New York in a huff. There she finds that Daily Bugle reporter Ken Ellis is trying to find proof of what he has suspected for some time - that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The web-slinger's sudden appearance in Oregon at the same time that Peter happens to be there tips him off that he may have been on the right track.

Nicieza does an excellent job with this, but it was a thankless task. The story ends with Peter losing his powers after using radiation to defeat Tendril. (If you're wondering about the Ellis situation, it's Ben who manages to throw him off the trail). The narration is careful to hint that the loss of powers may not be forever, but the intent is to basically take Peter out of the running and compel readers to stop complaining and just accept Ben already. "See, now he can't be Spider-Man even if he wanted to!" It didn't achieve that goal.

Nicieza must have enjoyed writing in the Spider-Man universe, because he's back in the author's seat for a Ben Reilly story called "The Skull Jackets." A murder in Manhattan appears to implicate the Black Cat and the two of them team up to find the real culprit. As it turns out, working with his clone's ex-girlfriend proves to be an awkward experience for Ben. The next story is a team up between Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer, which sounds like more of the filler that's bogged down some of these Clone Saga collections. However, working in this story's favor was that Roger Stern was doing writing duty. Stern is my favorite Spider-Man writer of all time, he enthralled me as a child with the mystery surrounding the identity of The Hobgoblin (other writers eventually screwed it up). He makes this story enjoyable enough, but it won't blow your mind or anything.

We get back to the proper Clone Saga with "The Return of Kaine." If you recall, Kaine was the Jackal's failed first attempt at cloning Peter Parker, which resulted in the duplicate having bizarre versions of all of Spider-Man's powers. Kaine was presumed dead after getting impaled during "Maximum Clonage," but he's been successfully revived and is now an unwilling participant in the "great game," a high-stakes battle of mercenaries that Ben has dealt with in the past. Another strange plot twist gets introduced in this story - a charred skeleton wearing a Spider-Man costume is found in a smokestack, the same smokestack where the original 1970s Clone Saga concluded. This revelation threatens to undermine everything both Spider-Men believe about themselves. Kaine ends this story on better terms with Reilly but escapes justice. Meanwhile, Peter and Mary Jane have returned to New York.

Our old pal J. Jonah Jameson witnessed Reilly stealing the Spider-Man skeleton from the morgue and has called Peter back in to use his mad photography skills to find proof that can go on the front page. I don't think Jonah would appreciate the irony of all this if he knew the truth. It's interesting to see Peter back in the comics so soon after "the final advanture." He's still without his powers, but it seems that the writers were hoping that maybe fans would calm down a bit if they reintroduced him as a supporting character. In a fun single-issue story called "A Show of Force," Peter and Mary Jane reunite with Ben while the whole "Seward Trainer in an internet-induced coma" subplot is resolved. Seward's daughter, Lady Octopus, returns for another scuffle but Ben's had enough of her. He totally blows his stack and hands her a defeat she won't soon forget. It's pretty awesome.

After this is the "Web of Carnage" crossover, and there's a LOT going on here. First, genetic testing done by The Avengers reveals that the skeleton belongs to a clone of Spider-Man, possibly the original clone. Peter Parker begins to suspect that the original test conducted by Seward Trainer, the one that concluded that Peter was the clone and Ben the original, may have been compromised for some unknown reason. Ben trusts Seward implicity and rejects this notion. Meanwhile, his new girlfriend Jessica Carradine has a secret of her own. Her father was a in The Burglar, the one that shot Uncle Ben. Years later, that burgular confronted Spider-Man again and was so frightened by his foe's righteous anger that he suffered a heart attack and died. So Jessica is no fan of Spider-Man, which could have some nasty ramifications for her relationship with Ben.

Oh yeah, Carnage's name is in the title so what's he up to? The Carnage alien symbiote (an offspring of Venom's symbiote) has separated from its host, Cletus Kasady, and now roams the streets bonding with people at random. During a battle, it actually bonds with Ben himself. That's right, Spider-Carnage! Once this happens, the story gets dark quickly. The symbiote is just as psychotic as Kasady himself and is constantly feeding thoughts of violence and murder to Ben, who manages to resist. Thanks to John Jameson (Jonah's son), the Carnage symbiote is separated from Ben but still manages to reestablish its bond with Kasady. Like they were going to get rid of Carnage after the money they made off him a few years earlier!

So things are starting to get very mysterious once again. All the revelations Marvel was using to try and establish a new status quo are suddenly in question. There was definitely something else big on the horizon.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Clone Saga Revisited, Part Seven

At this point, it seemed like the more turbulent parts of the Clone Saga were over. Ben Reilly, with his new Spider-Man costume, was now in the starring role in all the Spidey comics. Despite that, most of these stories were still crossovers that required readers to get multiple comics each month if you wanted the whole thing. Before all this clone business, crossovers were for major, they had become the status quo. I imagine this eventually got frustrating for the writers, who could no longer tell their own self-contained stories and always had to coordinate with the others. It was especially egregious in the case of Dan Jurgens, who was in charge of the brand new Sensational Spider-Man comic but had to adapt to these crossovers from the first issue on. Why bring on a big shot writer like Jurgens if you're not even going to let him be in charge of his own stories?

Despite all that complaining just now, there are a couple standalone stories in this volume (Complete Ben Reilly Epic Book 2, if you've been keeping track), but not many. "Blasts from the Past" is an interesting look at how awkward it is for Reilly when he meets other superheroes that were friends with Peter Parker, such as Silver Sable and the Human Torch. None of them know all the drama that's been going on, they just see the costume and wonder if it's the same man they know. The Torch catches on to the difference immediately and vows to expose the "phony" at some point in the future. "The Game of Life" is another standalone tale in which Reilly once again confronts vicious mercenaries competing in a high-stakes "game" of violence.

The New Warriors, who were showing up a lot during the Clone Saga, are also quite confused about all the switcheroos in the Spidey world. The Scarlet Spider was a tentative member of the group but then he vanished. In the three-part "Nightmare in Scarlet," they are forced to confront an evil version of their former ally, thanks to some wacky genetic technology left behind by Lady Octopus in the "Cyberwar" storyline. Ben, now back in the Spider-Man costume, joins them to stop the impostor but only Firestar seems to recognize his personality in the new outfit. After this is one more standalone, "Brother's Keeper." This is actually a pretty strong story if you're on board with its strident environmental commentary - Todd Dezago's dialogue for Ben is excellent and he comes off very well.

Once again, Marvel has been VERY thorough with these Clone Saga collections and this volume includes a two-issue miniseries called "Family Plot," where Spider-Man teamed up with the Punisher. Well, maybe "team up" is not the right word, since both Parker and Reilly can't stand this bloodthirsty excuse for a "hero." Nevertheless, they find themselves on the same side against Tombstone. For whatever reason, the Punisher (aka Frank Castle) is working for a mafia family. I have no idea what this is about, but it seems that all the superheroes were just going through some weird crap in the 90s.

Next up is another miniseries, a four-part Venom story called "Along Came A Spider." The nicest thing I can say about this one is that it's better than "Planet of the Symbiotes." Other than that, it's a mess. Venom is trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, Anne Weying, but is in trouble with the police and Spider-Man gets involved. The art is awful (for some reason, Venom is perpetually surrounded by a thick green fog of drool), the character of Anne, who actually had a lot of dignity when David Michelinie introduced her in the Spider-Man comics, is butchered. I'm not sure if this is intentional or not, but the story also drives home once again just how much of an unstable lunatic Eddie Brock/Venom is. Besides an inconsistent preoccupation with "innocents," he has almost no heroic qualities and can rationalize any despicable action to further his own goals. Like a lot of kids my age, I thought he was awesome in grade school because he wore black and had teeth and claws. A guy like this doesn't have to go to bed unless he feels like it! As an adult, however, I'm really quite embarassed that this psycho was the kind of comic book hero that was popular in the 1990s.

Enough about Venom, let's get back to Reilly. His next adventure is the three part "Media Blizzard" crossover which pits him against longtime foe Mysterio. This story is very good - in fact, it's the kind of classic Spider-Man tale a lot of us fans were missing in the midst of this clone craziness. It's just a shame that our man Parker was out of the picture. Still, it's a good read with some good character development - Reilly gets to know a woman named Jessica who seems to have an obsession with photos of Spider-Man. Hmm...

The final issue in this volume is a Christmas special which resolves the problem between Reilly and the Torch. It turns out Johnny Storm had a tradition with the Parker Spider-Man of exchanging gifts at the Statue of Liberty, which we see in a flashback (Torch's gift to Parker is hilarious). Reilly stumbles onto the tradition by accident and the Torch gets an understanding of what's happened in the last year of comic time.

Marvel kept up their efforts to establish Ben as a new permanent Spider-Man and some of the Ben stories weren't bad at all. Still, fans were waiting for Peter to return...somehow.