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.

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