No matter how you’ve felt about the storytelling structure of The Clone Conspiracy and Amazing Spider-Man and the downright baffling portrayal of Ben Reilly as the Jackal, its hard not to be enticed by Alex Ross’ beautiful cover for Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #23. The retro-flavored painting, rendered in soft, muted pastel colors, shows a classically-attired Gwen pealing back Spider-Man’s mask, revealing Peter’s gaping, shocked mouth. There’s so much promise to this one image and the story it implies. Ever since Gwen’s demise in Amazing Spider-Man #121 fans have wondered what it might mean to bring the character back to life and reunite her with Peter/Spider-Man. Would she accept her fate, his dual lives, his role in her death? What would it mean for him to see his first true love back for real?
The story contained within operates like an extended, deleted scene from The Clone Conspiracy #4, detailing Peter’s brief reunion with Gwen and her father George. The idea to use the Amazing Spider-Man title as a supplemental title to the main story within The Clone Conspiracy remains a strange, disjoined storytelling technique, but I at least appreciate the attempt to retain a level of artistic consistency throughout each “story”. After reading each chapter of this tale, I can’t help but repeatedly imagine how much stronger of a story The Clone Conspiracy would be if these character-oriented tales were seamlessly inserted into the overall story.
But this decision is secondary to the great successes of this particular story, which delivers solid answers to many of the questions fans have been asking themselves for nearly forty years. Here, Peter finds himself in some sort of underground city built by Ben Reilly to safeguard his clones until they are ready to be reintegrated back into the world. The city itself is weirdly reminiscent to the dream-realization of Forest Hills Peter saw on the verge of death in Amazing Spider-Man #700. There’s a disquieting, idyllic atmosphere to the environment, most pronounced by a sequence featuring the Lizard playing soccer with his family. The how and why of this town’s existence are best left to be discussed elsewhere and will likely be filed into the folder of strange Spider-Man story contrivances, right alongside the time Aunt May inherited a nuclear reactor.
After Ben Reilly gives Peter a quick and weirdly jokey rundown of the small town and its inhabitants, Peter and the Stacys slip off to have a much needed, private conversation. From the start, co-writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage absolutely nail the characterizations of the two characters, specifically in how frank George Stacy is about not being a totally honest cop, especially in how he treated Peter. Gwen, too, is treated honestly, without the decades of 20/20 over-idealization of the character that often painted her as some kind of virginal saint, more an object of Peter’s guilty past than a fully-formed character.
This Gwen, who asserts that she’s the “real deal,” is struggling to forgive Peter after feeling a sharp betrayal about having to learn his secret in such an unfortunate way. Her questioning to Peter, “How many madmen? How many bridges? How many-” stings in the exact way Gwen intends it to. As a clone, she’s both worried about her future, but also that her role in Peter’s life is a disposable one of many loves cut short by his damaging dual lives.
Peter’s reaction to Gwen is the most interesting part of this story and underlines the key appeal of the clones stories in the Spider-Man mythos. After years of reliving his guilt regarding Gwen, mostly through his encounters with the numerous Gwen clones and alternate dimension versions of the character, Peter refuses to allow himself to see this Gwen as the “real deal.” Gwen is stung by his denial, as she’s seeking his validation for herself, but she allows his reaction to paint a detailed portrait of who Peter has become since her death.
In one of the most striking portrayals of Peter’s guilt and loss yet, Gwen verbally recognizes that Peter uses his dual personas as a way to prevent himself from getting attached to any one woman, lest they become the next Gwen Stacy. It’s a moment that provides so much color to Peter’s scantly-detailed romantic life post-“One More Day.” From Black Cat, to Mary Jane, to Carlie Cooper, Peter has seemingly sabotaged his relationships using his Spider-Man persona so as to avoid allowing himself to wallow in his pain regarding Gwen’s death.
So, while there is perhaps a bit too much equivocating about whether or not the Gwen presented here is the real Gwen, this issue of Amazing Spider-Man might be the most honest and frank portrait of Peter Parker that the title has seen in years. It should come as no surprise that all it took was spending an issue with Peter, his supporting cast, and some solidly-written dialogue. Take note Spider-Man creators, stories like this should be the bread and butter of the series, not a rare gem (place this issue alongside the excellent Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War II stories as two solid wins for Gage in one year).
Long-running Amazing Spider-Man artist Giuseppe Camuncoli lends his blockier-figured, retro aesthetic to a tale that is greatly benefitted by having one foot solidly in the past. Amazing Spider-Man #23’s script highlights both the things Camuncoli does best and his shortcomings. At times his characters’ emotions are subtly portrayed, specifically a shared moment of joy between Gwen and Peter and the marriage-like opening splash’s creative layout, but other moments are a played a bit too large. Camuncoli’s characters do tend to look visually indistinct and stiffly posed, but he’s improved substantially in regards to how he renders his characters’ emotions.
Yes, The Clone Conspiracy has been a bit of a mixed bag overall, but in an era of deceptive covers and misleading solicits, Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #23 delivers on the promise of both. That it adds an interesting wrinkle into one of Peter’s greatest romances while offering an honest and unflattering portrait of Peter as a flawed man attempting to deal with grief in the only way he knows how is greatly to this title’s benefit.