Over the next few months, SuperiorSpiderTalk.com will publish “Mysterious Ways,” which will look at some of the most significant, long-running “mysteries,” as well as a number of unresolved mysteries from Spider-Man comics. Entries will outline what made the mystery so important to the overall mythos of the Spider-Man universe, and whether or not the payoff (or lack thereof) was worth the build.
For our next installment, let’s revisit the 90’s “Clone Saga.” Yep, we’re going back down this rabbit hole:
Peter Parker’s clone, long-believed-to-be-dead after being dumped into a smokestack in the conclusion of a storyline from the 1970s, suddenly shows up (almost 20 years later in real time but five years later in comic book time) in New York City to kick off one of the most controversial storylines in Spider-Man history. Peter is initially incredulous and rightly so — the Spider-verse was fresh off a long-running story where his long-believed-to-be-dead parents randomly appeared (and were proven to be dupes) and his elderly Aunt May had just fallen ill and been hospitalized under vague circumstances. Was this man, who went by the name Ben Reilly actually his clone or someone else?
Ah, yes, the “Clone Saga.” Who can truly forget this storyline (we certainly can’t. We did a whole series of posts last year profiling it).
For the purposes of “Mysterious Ways,” what makes the “Clone Saga” an interesting entry is how one mystery would evolve into another (into another, into another, into another). Some of these mysterious elements would be resolved well, while others would remain dangling in the netherworld until the cosmos inevitably breaks into infinite pieces (i.e., we’ll never actually find out what the deal was with that skeleton found in the smokestack during the mid-way point of “Clone Saga”).
To spare all of you all the gritty details (again, just read “Clone Saga Callback” for a blow-by-blow account of this storyline), let’s jump to the fact that the “is Ben Reilly really Peter’s clone?” mystery is very quickly upstaged by the larger and arguably more important mystery of “who is the real Spider-Man?” Ben proves himself to be on the up-and-up fairly quickly in this storyline, teaming with Peter to take down villains like the Traveler (and fighting some solo adventures against Venom), but it was during the “Smoke and Mirrors” storyline in the lead-up to the landmark Amazing Spider-Man #400 where the question is first laid out there about whether or not the character we believed to be Peter was actually the clone all along. Of course, these aspersions were cast by the resurrected Jackal (who was also supposed to have been killed when the clone died in the 70s), which could have made it easy for readers to dismiss, but to Marvel’s credit, they built in some other compelling arguments while building their mystery.
There’s a very effective scene in ASM #400 where Peter and Mary Jane are reminiscing about Aunt May and his childhood where Peter continues to have mental blind spots about his early years. J.M. DeMatteis, a master of psychological storytelling, really sells these moments as being significant to both the characters and the reader. Peter and MJ brush it aside, but is that truly wise or just a case of being in denial?
Concurrently, the reader learns that Mary Jane is pregnant. While undergoing tests, Dr. Seward Trainer, who is introduced as a friend and confidant of Ben’s, suspects some possible abnormalities with the fetus. Could this be the result of Peter’s radioactive blood or something even more mysterious (like MJ has been impregnated by a clone)? Peter, always so rational when something horribly wrong could be pinned on him, naturally goes into a tailspin of despair when learning that his wonky DNA could affect his unborn child.
I realize I’m glossing over some major storylines here — the “Clone Saga” is just so darn long, can you really blame me? So just pretend I’m skipping over some of your favorite songs by constantly pushing forward in iTunes and bear with me. May dies, Peter has a murder trial, another clone named Kaine shows up, etc. etc. and Peter and Ben finally decide to settle this mystery once and for all by having a test conducted to see who is the clone and who is the definite article. The person who would conduct this test, for reasons that are somewhat unexplained (i.e., convenience to the plot of the story and nothing more) is Seward Trainer.
Trainer breaks the news to Peter: sorry you’re the clone, Ben is the real Peter Parker. And then all hell breaks loose. Peter loses his mind and we get the unfortunate and infamous “did Peter actually hit MJ?” sequence that drives Tom DeFalco crazy to this day. We also get the unfortunate turn of Peter temporarily siding with the Jackal during the awful “Maximum Clonage” arc. But then all of this turmoil leads to a fairly organic end point in the annals of Spider-Man history: Peter decided to hang up the webs and turn the power and responsibility over to Ben while he enjoyed the married life/parenthood with MJ.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Depending on who’s version of history you listen to, this was going to be the new status quo of the Spider-books for a while, if not permanently. Unfortunately, after selling like hot cakes for the first year or so, sales on the Spider-books (and comics across the board) started to drop precipitously. And Marvel was faced with the prospects of having to bring Peter back while disposing of Ben in some way. And with this being the 90s, nuance is thrown out the window and everything is dialed up to 11. Enter the newly-resurrected Norman Osborn/Green Goblin.
Peter and MJ’s baby is stillborn, or kidnapped, or was it murdered, and Osborn reveals himself as the mastermind of the “Clone Saga,” hatching one gigantic long-game trick to torment his longtime foe, Peter. Ben is impaled by the Goblin Glider and melts into a pile of goo, thus confirming that he is actually the clone. And Peter goes back to being Spider-Man and Marvel spends the next few years trying (and honestly, failing) to rebuild the Spider-Man brand (until J. Michael Strazcynski reignited everyone’s interest in the title in 2001).
For a number of years, Marvel didn’t touch the “Clone Saga” with a 10-foot pole, but as time has gone on, a number of creators have attempted to either justify it, or mine some content from it. One of the more interesting takes came in 2009 with Howard Mackie and DeFalco, two of the original architects of the storyline in the 90s, scripted the Spider-Man: Clone Saga miniseries. The six-part mini was meant to be the “Clone Saga” the way it was SUPPOSED to be – before it got all tangled up with extensions and twists and turns.
Even with this caveat, the miniseries exhibits a number of problematic storytelling elements that make it difficult to imagine it playing out effectively over the long-haul. But despite that, one thing it does address is this whole mystery about who is the real Spider-Man and who is the clone. And the series ultimately concludes that it doesn’t matter. Peter has his life, Ben has his, and that’s the way it’s going to be.
I actually find that kind of ambivalence to be refreshing. Yes, it doesn’t deliver anything conclusive, but as we’re seeing with a number of other storylines that are a part of this feature, it seems that Marvel often gets its feet stuck in the mud once a definitive resolution to a mystery is landed upon. Perhaps such a laissez faire attitude found in the Clone Saga mini is reflective on the nature of long-term storytelling found in comics: yes, nobody wants to be strung along forever, but once a creative team commits to a reveal, they have better thought about this thing from multiple angles or they’re going to find themselves in a new trap. Who knows what the Marvel Universe would have looked like if Ben was just the new Spider-Man going forward, but I can guarantee that as long as he had effective creators and compelling stories to star in, his run in the books would be more fondly remembered that the second half of the “Clone Saga.”