Saturday, December 22, 2012

Clone Saga Revisited - Conclusion

This is the last entry for this series, so I'm going to add a few links in case you stumble upon it first. Here are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10 and Part 11.

We're done going through the Clone Saga itself, but its impact was felt for a number of years afterward. The "Revelations" storyline ended with Peter and Mary Jane believing that Baby May was dead, when she had actually been taken to Europe by Norman Osborn's agent Allison Mongraine. As I said last time, this is a premise that could have led to some truly epic storylines. Imagine Peter and Mary Jane getting word from some mysterious source that the baby was still alive and Spider-Man adventuring through Europe searching for her. If they ever keep a series of Spidey movies going long enough without restarting it, that idea sounds like a winner. For a while, it seemed like Tom DeFalco was patiently building up to that.

In the "Identity Crisis" storyline, one of the last truly great Spider-Man tales before that rancid "One More Day" crap ruined the continuity, there was a subplot about all of this. Allison Mongraine met with members of the Cult of Scrier, who told her to hand May over and unsuccessfully tried to assassinate her. The Scrier cultists were ambushed by Kaine, who presumably rescued the baby. After all, as another clone of Peter, he's basically an uncle. Later, in the "Gathering of Five" storyline, Mongraine was killed and told Peter before she died that "May is alive." It all sounds pretty good so far, right?

Well, the brass at Marvel didn't think so. They intervened and tried to convince the readers that Mongraine was actually referring to Aunt May - you know, the ancient character who had passed away peacefully in a beautiful story during the Clone Saga? The writers were forced to bring her back, using the absolutely heinous rationale that the old lady who died was actually an actress who underwent plastic surgery to resemble Peter's aunt. Yes, I'm serious. This was one of the first salvos in a noxious campaign to undo Peter Parker's character development to try and appeal to the Johnny-come-lately fans who would have been more likely to make fun of comic readers on the playground until the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film made $400 million at the box office. This culiminated in the "One More Day" storyline (have I mentioned yet how much that one sucks?) but I was gone long before then. As an older fan, I could tell I wasn't wanted.

Years later, something caught my eye at a local pharmacy - an issue of "Spider-Girl." The cover featured a woman in the classic Spidey suit but also a visibly aged Peter Parker. I wondered to myself, "is this a series about Baby May?" There was only one way to find out, so I took a chance and bought it.

I loved it. Every panel of every page. With DeFalco at the writer's desk, this series was a lifeline to those fans who were left out in the cold and a chance for him to pursue storyline which had been wrested from him years earlier. It turns out Kaine really was the one who rescued the baby and returned her to the Parkers. He had a role too, as a mercenary working for the United States government who was often a mentor figure for May, now protecting New York City as Spider-Girl. Many readers latched onto this series as the "true" continuity. We were older and we were ready for Peter to be older as well.

I read the Spider-Girl comics faithfully for a number of years, but unfortunately a female heroine doesn't always inspire confidence in comics executives. The series was constantly canceled, un-canceled, and restarted until it finally vanished. Once again, I'm an aging Spidey fan without any Spidey comics that capture the stories I grew up with. So I wind up going back into the comics of the past, which is what I've done for the last 2+ years as part of this blog retrospective.

Since the Clone Saga ended, many of the creators have come forward with their views on why an otherwise promising storyline eventually imploded. "At its heart, the Clone Saga was a very simple story," DeFalco said. "[It] was a storyline designed to last a few months, but, for various reasons, kept getting extended and extended and extended."

J.M. Dematteis said that "it would have been a classic if the creators had been allowed to follow their original vision through to the end." Another writer, Todd Dezago, recalled when "we realized the train was being driven by indecision and sales figures." For an amazingly detailed look at what was going on behind the scenes during the entire Clone Saga, I'd suggest reading the Life of Reilly blog. It was a superb resource while I worked on this series.

In late 2009, DeFalco and fellow Spidey-writer Howard Mackie wrote a six-issue mini-series called, (what else?) Spider-Man: Clone Saga. This was an interesting attempt to do-over the Clone Saga and was likely very cathartic for the creators who watched that original storyline spin out of control. It's a fascinating, highly entertaining take on the storyline that basically fixes every wrong turn the first version made. Here's the list.

-In general, Peter Parker is much more reasonable. He does scuffle with Ben Reilly during their first meeting but is in a more sensible place by the end of the first issue. When it's "revealed" that Reilly may the original, Peter simply says "I honestly don't care if I'm the clone. The way I live is more important than the way I was born." Uh...yeah! Very refreshing indeed.

-Judas Traveller, Gaunt, Seward Trainer, and the Cult of Scrier are completely excised. The Jackal's role is also mercifully less grandiose. I'm sure Marvel got a lot of angry letters about this...maybe even one.

-Kaine defeats Doctor Octopus but doesn't kill him. This obviously means that Lady Octopus and all her "cyberwar" nonsense doesn't come up.

-The mastermind turns out not to be Norman Osborn, but Harry Osborn, who had been dead for far less time. As for Norman, he does show up as a clone. Interestingly, he winds up as one of the good guys. Perhaps because the clone was unburdened with the insanity that eventually twisted the original Norman Osborn?

-Aunt May survives her stroke and Baby May is returned to the family by Kaine shortly after her kidnapping. Ben Reilly also survives the final battle and eventually heads off to seek new adventures.

As you can see, there were many improvements but I don't think this mini-series is perfect either. If over two years worth of comics was way too much, six issues isn't quite enough. It feels a bit too breezy and there are pretty big time skips between the issues that you couldn't get away with in a main continuity. Twelve issues would have been just right...but I don't want to sound ungrateful, this was a very valuable effort!

I suppose that brings us to the end. It's been very satifying to get some additional insight by revisiting this saga and I hope these write-ups provided some of that same insight. But Oscar season is in full-swing once again, so this blog should remain busy!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Clone Saga Revisited - Part Eleven

The sixth and final "Ben Reilly Epic" collection, the eleventh in total with the five other "Clone Saga" collections, finally offers the conclusion to this storyline. Given how far this plotline had spun wildly out of control, actually ending it in a way that would satisfy frustrated readers (the ones who hadn't already left) would be challenging indeed. Did they pull it off? Well, kind of. We'll get to that soon enough, but first there are a lot of loose ends to manage.

This final collection opens with a two-part story that brings the subplot about Fortunato, a new crime boss and Jimmy Six, the thug who has been hiding out with Ben Reilly, to a climax. Turns out Jimmy is Fortunato's son, but he still can't condone his father's methods, so he works with Spider-Man (not knowing the Reilly connection) to foil his dad's plot. Daredevil helps out too. The next story's task is to get a handle on one of the saga's lamest characters, the demigod Judas Traveler. This is a much tougher problem although only one issue is devoted to it.

This story tries to convince us that Traveler isn't really all-powerful, he's actually just an X-Men-style mutant with illusionist powers. It sounds reasonable at first...unless you go back and check out the older Traveler stories - that heinous "Crossfire" story in particular. If you recall, that was the story where our buddy Judas supposedly took Peter Parker into a future where New York was destroyed but then had to be saved by Parker when he was too reckless with the space-time continuum (you really have to be careful about that!). So if we're now being told that all these incidents were illusions, why did Traveler want to fool Spider-Man into thinking he was an incompetent idiot? Oh well, the two Spider-Man save him from The Rose and in the process, they discover that his mysterious assistant, "Scrier," is actually just one member of a huge cult where they all dress like the Grim Reaper. This is kind of important later.

Next, we have to resolve the "Great Game" storyline where various super-powered folks fight each other and wealthy jerks bet on the results. Reilly's been drawn into this silliness a number of times and it's pretty satisfying to see him finally teach these guys a lesson. In a surprising twist, this story features the death of Nightwatch, Marvel's ill-fated Spawn rip-off. After this is some filler - team-up stories featuring Gambit and Howard The Duck. Yes, I'm serious. The Gambit story is actually pretty good, the Howard the Duck story is as terrible as you would expect.

However, after that is "Relevations," the four-part story that finally ended the Clone Saga. Right from the start, you know that things are dead serious. Seward Trainer, the genecticist who determined that Ben Reilly was the real deal and that the man we knew as Peter Parker was the clone, is on the run. We had found out that Trainer was in league with the mysterious Gaunt and the even more mysterious figure who they both answer to. After a lengthy chase, Trainer is killed by Gaunt, who is revealed to be Dr. Mendel Stromm, the "Robot Master" and an old foe of Spider-Man. It's up to Ben and Peter to defeat Stromm once and for all, but in the meantime the pregnant Mary Jane is in trouble. A con-artist named Allison Mongraine slips a drug into one of her meals that induces labor. Baby May was already almost full-term, so that in itself might not be a huge deal, but there's more trouble ahead.

Peter leaves to try and be with Mary Jane, while Ben is confronted by Stromm's boss. It's none other than Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, who had been presumed dead for 20 years worth of Spidey comics. Osborn kills Stromm and defeats Reilly without much trouble. In the meantime, newborn baby May is taken from the hospital by Allison Mongraine. It turns out Osborn engineered this whole situation and tells her to hide the baby in Europe. For whatever else he's capable of, Osborn isn't willing to kill a newborn. He's perfectly content just to let Peter and Mary Jane believe she was stillborn. It's brutal- any Spidey fan's heart will break for the two of them when reading these scenes.

"Relevations" concludes with "Night of the Goblin," which is a pretty great comic on its own. The art is superb and full of atmosphere, and however you might feel about Norman coming back, seeing his return is epic. He confronts Peter and explains everything - how he survived being impaled by his own glider years ago and has been plotting his revenge for years while hiding overseas. With Trainer's help, he made Peter believe he was a clone in a scheme designed to destroy his very identity. If that wasn't enough, he's also manipulated a group of Peter's friends and family into the Daily Bugle building, which he plans to destroy. Ben recovers from the beating Osborn gave him and the two Spider-Men are able to save the others and subdue him. However, the Goblin once again sends his razor-sharp glider at Peter while his back is turned. This time, it's Ben who intervenes and takes a fatal hit. He still believed he was the real Peter but was still willing to sacrifice himself for his "brother."

Peter hits the Goblin with a bag full of pumpkin bombs and he vanishes in a fiery explosion...but he just got back, so we know he'll be sticking around for a while now. Peter tends to the dying Ben, whose body suddenly undergoes the "degeneration" process, revealing beyond all doubt that he had always been the clone. One loss leads to another - the battered Peter finally arrives at the hospital only to hear that baby May is apparently dead. There's another issue after this where Peter and Mary Jane try to cope with the horrible loss of both Ben and the baby. The writers try to get some uplift in there, but it doesn't work. It's brutally sad. There's also a little subplot about the Chameleon, but that doesn't really matter because the Clone Saga is officially over!

Let's take a detailed look at the ending - what was done right and what didn't work?

The Good
-Obviously, the most important accomplishment of the finale was that it reinstated Peter Parker as the true Spider-Man. The Revelation that Nobody Wanted was finally undone.

-Bringing Norman Osborn back was actually pretty awesome. The Clone Saga had gotten so convoluted that there were precious few characters devious enough to pull off a scheme like that. In fact, Spider-Man himself had been lacking a real arch-enemy for a while. It's not like Venom has the intellect to manage something like this.

-The presumed death of Baby May would have been a truly epic story premise...

The Bad
...if Marvel hadn't completely botched it in the coming years. Despite the best efforts of the great Spidey-writer Tom DeFalco, the editorial staff squelched this subplot and then the absolutely terrible "One More Day" thing made it irrelevant. But more on that next time. Yeah, there's gonna be one more entry, we gotta talk about the legacy of this saga and how it has been perceived over the years.

-Actually killing Ben Reilly was a step too far. The fans didn't want him dead, we just didn't want him to replace Peter. We still liked the guy, he'd been in the comics for over two years at this point! One of the main problems with 90s Spider-Man was that the writers kept killing off longtime supporting characters to create "events" and sell more comics. The problem was that Spidey's world was a lot less interesting without all these folks. Ben could have helped turn that around, but now he was gone too. I suppose the rationale was that the writers wanted to assure the readers that under no circumstances would Ben be declared the original Parker again, but there were other ways to do that. Just another genetic test by someone of unimpeachable moral character - Reed Richards, maybe?

This collection has a few more goodies before it ends. The "Osborn Journal" attempts, with mostly success, to explain just how Norman Osborn planned the entire scheme. After that is "101 Ways to End the Clone Saga," an in-house parody of the difficulty Marvel writers had with the storyline. The final story is "Dead Man's Hand," a convoluted tale of the villain Carrion, whose continuity was in conflict with the events of the Clone Saga. This story was an effort to set things straight, but I think very few fans even thought about it with everything else going on during the saga.

It would be nice to say that the Spider-Man comics got back on track once the Clone Saga was finally over. Unfortunately, things eventually got much worse...but that's a story for another day. In the final entry of this series, I'll go into the saga's legacy and some of the important storylines that came in its aftermath.