Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.
This entry looks at Spider-Man: The Lost Years miniseries by J.M. DeMatteis and John Romita Jr.
Considering I spent more than a year of my comic book blogging life reliving the 90s “Clone Saga,” and even defending a number of storylines within the larger arc, it should come as no surprise that one of my “Lost Gems” would be, what many consider to be the very best “Clone Saga” related story of all time.
Spider-Man: The Lost Years, which was scripted by J.M. DeMatteis with art from the superstar team of John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson, is one of those rare 90s gems that values substance over style, despite the fact that it was marketed in full chromium, special edition glory when it was first published in 1995.
In recounting a “lost adventure” for the spider-clone, Ben Reilly (who actually turned out to be the real Spider-Man until Marvel changed its mind and made him a clone again), the three-part miniseries (which was eventually expanded to include an issue No. 0 consisting of a bunch of short “B” stories that have been previously published in the other Spider-books during 1995) represents the quintessential character-centric story that long-time Spidey readers should expect from JMD. Additionally, the miniseries does fill in a couple of storyline holes from the main “Clone Saga,” including material that is absolutely essential to the plot of the “Trial of Peter Parker” arc.
Basically, if you’ve already invested all of the time and money required to read the “Clone Saga,” you hopefully have already checked out The Lost Years and found it enjoyable to boot.
The Lost Years is unquestionably a gritty story, with far more murder and mayhem than one usually finds in a Spider-Man comic. In fact, the story is very VERY reminiscent of another, similarly composed Marvel miniseries from 1994, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, which reimagined the origins of Daredevil in total Frank Miler-fashion (aka, lots of mysticism, ninjas, mob bosses and hookers). DeMatteis’s script doesn’t go full-Frank in terms of its themes, but considering JRJR was the penciller for both stories, it’s hard for them not to both feel similar. And it’s not just an issue of aesthetics. Similar to Man Without Fear, Lost Years features a more grounded, realistic criminal element as its antagonists. These crooks are a far cry from the cartoonish underworld bosses featured in Spidey stories like Hammerhead, Silver Age Kingpin, or even Tombstone, who’s terrifying, but also an albino that’s like 7-feet-tall. The villains in Lost Years are targeting cops and are not afraid to murder women and children – something that feels very foreign in the pages of a Spider-Man comic book, even one that was published in the 1990s.
But beyond its similarities to what many consider to be one of the greatest Daredevil stories of all time, the true selling point of the Lost Years is how it characterizes Ben, and to a lesser extent, the demented Peter doppelganger Kaine.
Lost Years is not a perfect story in terms of how it paints its featured characters – it very frequently relies on some huge leaps of faith/deus ex machinas to move its plot forward, especially as it pertains to the romantic relationships of Ben and Kaine respectively. But it also manages to do something that none of the other “Clone Saga” stories successfully did, in that it makes me care and become fully invested in the lives of Ben and Kaine.
The world of mainstream comics is filled with reluctant heroes, but there’s something about the way JMD casts Ben in this series that sets him apart from others who have only shown up to save the day because they inevitably recognize it as the “right” thing to do. Part of that is derived from the fact that the reader understands that Ben has been “programmed,” whether it be chemically in a lab, or through his actual life experience (i.e., is he a clone or the actual Peter Parker) to honor his responsibilities as a superpowered hero. Yes, it’s another story of an iteration of Peter coming to understand that “with great power must also come great responsibility,” but with The Lost Years, the path traveled by the protagonist feels less predictable and linear. Ben, who flees New York after he’s been dumped in a smokestack by Peter because he believes himself to be a clone, is trying to fighting his heroic impulses every step of the way – at one point even bemoaning the fact that he was cloned from someone who is so idealistic and innately “good.”
Ben ends up being so nuanced and rich, he emerges as a character I really want to read about in his own solo series, which is precisely the direction Marvel went with him (unfortunately, JMD wasn’t around long to write him and his ultimate solo debut in Sensational Spider-Man #0 was botched by Dan Jurgens, a guy who is most closely associated with 90s Superman). Regardless, the pathos is palatable on almost every page, and when you add in JRJR’s trademark “gritty” illustrations to the story’s psychological-bent, it makes for such a compellingly despairing bit of comic book storytelling.
Contrast Ben’s internal struggle with Kaine, who appears to be innately good, but ends up traveling down a darker, more sinister path because he can actually recall his rejection at the hands of his creator, Miles Warren, aka the Jackal. There’s no question as to whether or not Kaine was created in a lab, so the direction his character takes is more of the “nature vs. nurture” variety. Kaine’s almost irrational hatred for Ben still comes across as a bit muddy, but when the character does the unspeakable and murders his former lover because she turns out to be a dirty cop (another Frank Miller Daredevil-ism), it functions as the final brick in the wall for a character that has been rejected and betrayed by those he loved his entire existence.
The Lost Years is the “Clone Saga” story for people who never liked the “Clone Saga.” And for people who do have a soft spot in their hearts for this period of Spidey comics, it reads like a cherry on top of the oft-maligned, but perhaps misunderstood sundae known as mid-90s Marvel. This should be considered a good comic regardless of the fact that it’s narratively connected to the “Clone Saga.”