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 events..now, 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.