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.

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