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 “Maximum Clonage,” which consists of Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage: Alpha, Web of Spider-Man #127, Amazing Spider-Man #404, Spider-Man #61, Spectacular Spider-Man #227 and Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage: Omega.
Like it or lump it, “Maximum Clonage” is unquestionably a significant point in Spider-Man history as it is a living, breathing example of what it looks like when an entire line of comic books completely unravels and then proceeds to set itself on fire like a Shaolin monk. For months, in between moments of “greatness” (or, at the very least, good-ness), I’ve been talking about all of the “Clone Saga’s” excesses: the storylines that are at least three installments too long; the inclusion of unnecessary, superfluous, or outright ridiculous characters that were quickly forgotten; the rapid fire succession of cover gimmicks like foil and holograms, designed to get people to buy these issues en masse not because of the story, but because they were deemed “collectible.”
“Maximum Clonage” sports all of these excesses and more. At six-parts strong, including two double-length (and foil-covered) bookends, it manages to be a slog to read while being light on actual content and depth. We are introduced to a new character, yet another demented clone of Peter’s named Spidercide (a name that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who was writing this arc during the 90s). And to top it all off, “Maximum Clonage” is filled with so much — so, so much — inconsistent and incongruous characterization.
As I mentioned in my most recent “Clone Saga Callback” entry, “Maximum Clonage” was the story that did me in as a teenager; the one that made me drop Spider-Man, and really all comic books for a good chunk of my young adult life. Reading it over again 20 years later, I honestly don’t think it’s THAT bad, or at least any worse than some of the earlier installments of the “Clone Saga,” but if I close my eyes and picture myself as a 14-15 year-old again, I can totally understand why I would just say sayonara and check out at this juncture. While it’s not the worst comic book I’ve ever read, it might be the most exhausting and frustrating. And what good is a hobby when something leaves you so unsatisfied, you can’t even get perverse “it’s so bad it’s good” enjoyment out of it?
The elements of “Maximum Clonage” that are good are those that have been fairly strong throughout. We witness the culmination of Kaine’s journey (until he is later resurrected … the first time) and it’s a mostly satisfying story arc and one of the rare instances of the “Clone Saga” fully fleshing out the motivations of one its featured players. Honestly, I think Kaine is my favorite part of this entire run of comics. Ever since his clone showed up a few months earlier, Peter’s characterization is wishy-washy at best, and downright depressing and impossible to get behind at worst (which makes sense, since Marvel was basically trying to train the audience to forget all about Peter since it wanted to restart all the Spider-books with Ben Reilly in the lead.
Meanwhile, Ben, as aw-shucks good as he could be, is still clearly an interloper. Clone or not, it’s difficult to present an audience with information a certain way for so many years and then to pull the rug out from underneath and expect them to quickly adapt. Even the very last page of Maximum Clonage Omega acknowledges how Marvel has painted itself into a corner with Peter and Ben. Based on how the overall arc has been spun, Peter is a clone and Ben is the real deal. But Peter can’t just give Ben the keys to his life since he has a life, a job, and a wife (with a baby on the way). Peter offers Ben the mantel of Spider-Man (an offer he would later accept), but that doesn’t sound like a totally fair deal either since Ben essentially had his life stolen over the past five years while thinking he was a clone.
Kaine is easy to get behind because we know what he is, and what he wants. He’s the Jackal’s rejected first born who wishes to protect Peter (Jackal’s second – and more successful – attempt at a clone) while resenting Ben for posing such a threat to the (somewhat) happy and normal life Peter has made for himself in New York City with Mary Jane. Yes, Kaine has moments of homicidal mania that are a bit unbecoming, but there’s a very simple explanation for all of that built into the character — he’s a science experiment gone awry that has been rejected by his maker. He’s Victor Frankenstein’s creation — a misjudged monster who is ultimately fated to act the way the world perceives him.
But the well-evolved tragedy of Kaine can only carry “Maximum Clonage” so far. There’s just so much packed into this story that’s either inexplicable or infuriating. The fact that Peter starts off the storyline by aligning himself with the Jackal and is all like “I’m a clone now so I guess I should be hanging out and doing my ‘father’s’ bidding,” just feels like a bit of Star Wars fan-fiction gone awry: what would happen if Luke Skywalker learned Darth Vader was his dad and joined the Dark Side … now let’s apply that to Spider-Man.
It also doesn’t help that one issue after inadvertently “thwacking” his pregnant wife, Peter outright abandons her to help his recent nemesis in concocting a plot to take over the world. Just because Peter learned he became a clone doesn’t mean that he was simultaneously made brain dead, making it difficult to explain away his support of the Jackal as “oh Peter’s just upset and confused.” Again, it’s that premise of expecting the reader to instantly change the way they think or know a character based on the whims of an editor or creative team. It’s rarely successful, and doesn’t work here.
Oh, and the Punisher shows up … because, it’s the 90s and the Punisher sold books.
Spidercide is introduced as a basically unkillable adversary that can put his body back together again a la the T-1000 in Terminator 2. But even Marvel can’t keep that characterization consistent, as Spidercide initially teams with Jackal (his creator) before double crossing him (but still wanting to kill Spider-Man) to join up with the mysterious Scrier. And Spidercide is killed by falling from a high distance, which would make sense if we didn’t already see him put his body back together again earlier in the storyline.
Peter eventually sees the error of his ways and stops being a deadbeat to his wife and unborn child. But the creative team still does very little to portray Ben in a light that gets me excited to read about him. Actually, it’s hard for me to recall a single moment where Ben stands out as a unique and compelling character, which is absolutely damning when you consider that Marvel was all set to make him star in its biggest-selling franchise of comics that don’t star mutants.
And that might be the most ominous thing of all about “Maximum Clonage.” Despite its poor construction, it’s abundantly clear that over the course of these six issues, Marvel was setting the audience up for some MAJOR changes that many readers weren’t going to like. Via the power of hindsight, it’s obvious that Marvel was in a tough place financially in the mid-90s as the comic book speculator bubble popped and sales started to plummet. Yet, even when looking at the trees from within the forest, there was just something uncomfortably off about what the Spider-team was building towards with “Maximum Clonage.” The story is promoted as the culmination of the “Jackal” story, which at this rate, was the majority of the “Clone Saga.” With this story ending on the promise of a new status quo once Peter and Ben collaborated to resolve their new arrangement, it was obvious that Spider-Man comics were not going to be the same again.