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Clone Saga Callback: “The Trial of Peter Parker”

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Clone Saga Callback is a feature that looks back on the 20th anniversary of one of the most controversial Spider-Man stories in the character’s history — the “Clone Saga.” Every month, we will sequentially remember a different “Clone Saga” storyline until we reach the very end of the arc (or go crazy, whichever comes first). 

In this installment, we will spotlight “The Trial of Peter Parker,” which consists of Web of Spider-Man #126Amazing Spider-Man #403Spider-Man #60 and Spectacular Spider-Man #226

Trial of Peter Parker 01There are big “Clone Saga” storylines and then there are BIG ones, and after months of running in place and stretching the arc until it was as thin as a St. Louis-style pizza crust, the “Clone Saga” creative collective finally delivered some big and memorable moments in “The Trial of Peter Parker” — even if some of the content is memorable for the wrong reasons (we’ll get to that in a moment).

Despite the name of the arc, “Trial” is actually quite thin on any legit courtroom drama unless you count the dream sequence-esque Amazing Spider-Man #403, which features my all-time favorite villain Judas Traveller doing Traveller-type things to poor Peter. But rather than boring us with courtroom proceedings and doing a poor man’s imitation of a Daredevil comic, the storyline instead delivers one of the final appearances of Traveller while also revealing both Kaine’s identity and the fact that Peter Parker was actually the clone and Ben Reilly is the real Spider-Man. To think it only took four comic books worth of content to provide readers with all of that exposition. It’s uncanny!

In all seriousness, “Trial” ends up being one of the better “Clone Saga” storylines, especially for this point in the arc. The opening issue, Web of Spider-Man #126, is more in line with the needless filler readers had been getting for the past few months, including an odd bit of expositional jurisprudence where Peter/Ben’s lawyer lets Ben (who switched places with Peter after he was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit) know that it doesn’t matter whether he thinks he’s guilty or not, and rather it’s all about how he can convince the jury to acquit him. It’s actually a 100 percent true comment, but it feels odd and out-of-place in this narrative and only seems to function as a means to cast aspersions on the trial and Peter’s potential innocence. 

Things pick up quite a bit in ASM #403, but not before readers have to endure another Traveller story. This time around, he whisks Peter and Kaine (who had been beating each other up in an alley) into the Ravencroft mental institute so Spidey can stand trial by some of his former enemies like Carnage, Vermin and Carrion. 

Trial of Peter Parker 02The issue’s writer, J.M. DeMatteis continues on with his theme from the last arc where he uses Traveller as a means to openly question whether or not the presence of Spider-Man is what inspires bad people like Cletus Kasady to do bad things. Just as I said during my write-up of the “Crossfire” storyline, I just don’t see this “chicken or egg” type argument holding much water in a comic book like Spider-Man, which has long modeled its narrative around the theme of Peter feeling obligated/responsible to fight crime that is inherent to New York City, rather than having villains seek him out and symbolically break him a la Batman and most of his rogue’s gallery. 

What ASM #403 does end up doing is it gives us a truly great moment involving the mercurial Kaine, who had already started to show signs of being a multi-layered character with some interesting dimensions to explore. Here, despite having a violent hatred for Ben that led to him attempting to frame him for some brutal murders (that instead got pinned on Peter), Kaine shows an almost brotherly affection for Peter and attempts to protect him when Traveller sends all of Ravencroft’s loonies after Spider-Man. 

Kaine’s sacrifice is great on many levels since it not only adds some serious depth and intrigue for the character, but it also leads to Traveller’s disappearance from comics for a few years. 

Trial of Peter Parker 03Rather than letting Kaine’s intentions and motivations percolate for a few issues before following up, Howard Mackie and Tom Lyle drop their big bomb in Spider-Man #60 when he unmasks and shows himself to be Peter’s first (and deformed) clone. It turns out that Kaine was rejected by his “father” the Jackal, which explains his erratic and violent behavior. But as the first generation clone of Peter, it also provides clarity as to why Kaine had occasionally acted virtuously in the story – especially when around Peter or Mary Jane. 

And Kaine still ultimately does the right thing and clears Peter/Ben’s name when he turns himself in, thus ending the trial element of “Trial.” But that still leads one more issue in this arc, and boy is it a big one.

Today, 20 years after first reading Spectacular #226, I still feel a strong connection to how this comic affected me as a teenager. I remember feeling initially very angry when the comic shockingly reveals Peter to be the clone, though in retrospect I don’t know if it was truly THAT big of a deal. Yes, on the surface, it was a huge bit of retroactive continuity, but it’s not like it was an illogical development on the level of “One More Day” or “One Moment in Time” and the creative team left plenty of leeway if they wanted to reverse the storyline down the line. 

Still, this comic was the beginning of the end for me as a comic book reader in the 1990s. I made it through the far more terrible “Maximum Clonage” arc (can’t wait until I get to talk about THAT thing next month), and then found myself burnt out by the “weekly Spider-Man saga” that Marvel was pushing and dropped the book entirely. It wasn’t until J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. came aboard the comics in the early 2000s that I even picked up a regular comic again (and even at that, I only read ASM for at least 4-5 years because I didn’t want to get suckered into investing so much time and money into a hobby that could potentially betray me). 

Trial of Peter Parker 04So what is it about this comic that inspires such a visceral reaction? Well, for one, considering the huge revelation it continues, it could have been handled far more tactfully by its creators Tom DeFalco and Sal Buscema. By that I mean, they really ratchet up the insanity of Peter during his reaction to the news that his whole life is a sham to unprecedented levels, capping it off with him (inadvertently) knocking his pregnant wife halfway across the room during his tussle with Ben. Buscema’s pencil-work, which is chock-full of bug-eyed, goofy expressions, doesn’t do the story any favors. DeFalco has, on a number of occasions, explained how the scene with Peter “hitting” MJ was done a bit overzealously and thereby looks way out of line, but apologies after the fact don’t make the sequence any less preposterous.

Most of all, I think what irritated me most about this comic is the fact that the more I think/thought about, the more I came to believe that in trying to change everything, the “Clone Saga” changes nothing. What does Peter being a clone mean? Does it invalidate all of the things that happened between issues Amazing Spider-Man #150 and Spectacular #226? Not really. Those events happened, exactly as I remembered them. And if Ben was the original Peter, then it should just be like reading the original Peter during the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita Sr. days … except that’s not the direction Marvel wanted to go, especially when they gave Ben his own solo book in a few months. 

I guess I just didn’t want to buy into the hype, which was pretty much the main marketing strategy for the “Big Two” publishers during this era. “Buy into the hype … even if the hype isn’t really that extreme anyway.” I finally realized the emperor had no clothes and I felt more like a critic than a fan. It would be years before I could finally gain the maturity to be both.

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