Ever since the beginning of writer Dan Slott’s pronounced run on the Amazing Spider-Man title both he and the Spider-Office editorial team have built into the publishing schedule a major, yearly Spider-Man event. Sometimes it’s hard to identify what makes a story an event, rather than just another story in the ongoing adventures of Spider-Man. A personal favorite of mine, “Spider-Island” featured countless tie-in titles, world-altering stakes, and a cast of dozens; it felt like an “event.” For the most part, this is how all of the Spider-Man events have operated, larger than life threats, huge teams of Spider-Men and friends, and lots of punching.
That’s why I found Amazing Spider-Man: The Clone Conspiracy #1 so refreshing; sure, there’s already a quickly assembling cast of rogues and supporting players but the action of the event couldn’t be more different than before. If this first issue is any indication, this is going to be a far more personal, intimate, and scarring event than any of the grandiloquent blockbusters of years past. Here Slott lays the groundwork for his event, quickly catching Peter Parker’s Spider-Man up with the narrative perspective of the reader, before capping the primary story with a not-so-surprising stinger. However, it’s the backup story, illustrated by legendary, spider-artist Ron Frenz, which twists the knife and establishes that The Clone Conspiracy is going to leave a few scars.
The primary tale, with pencils by Jim Cheung, inks by John Dell, colors by Justin Ponsor, and letters from Joe Caramanga, is a beautifully illustrated affair, specifically when Peter Parker breaks out his costume to tackle crime. Cheung’s Spider-Man harkens back to a bolder Romita Sr.-esque styling, with well-spaced web patterns, romantically curving eyes, and a more muscular build. An all-to-brief action sequence between Electa/She-lectro, the Rhino, and Spider-Man allows him to show off his flair for crafting spidery poses, burly musculature, and snaking electric tendrils. The same attention to detail is given to the empty suburban and hauntingly creepy laboratory settings. Cheung allows his geography to breathe and finds a way to punctuate depth in landscapes whenever the moment allows. Out of costume the characters’ physiques are more casual, with facial expressions that are appropriately dramatic but sometimes seemingly locked in an eternal grimace.
There’s a relaxed confidence to Dell’s inks, not a single line seems scratched into the page nor a single hatch wasted, though some of the faces lose detail from a distance. The conservative use of heavy blacks with cross-hatching does a great job of laying a solemnity to the story’s visuals, a feeling that is further reinforced by Ponsor’s blue-heavy colors. In limited moment’s Ponsor desaturates his colors to emphasize a flashback while in others he blows-out his yellows to highlight the heat of Electra/She-lectro’s lighting bolts. The pages sizzle with colorful energy, but also build a feeling of calm that will likely prove to be false in the coming issues.
The story begins with the fallout of Jay Jameson’s death from the previous issue (still from an unknown disease), there’s some solid character work in the beginning as Peter begins his inevitable spiral into guilt and self-blaming. Some will find this trait an annoying, reoccurring change in Peter’s character under Slott’s pen, but as it has been consistant throughout his run it feels correct here. Equally upsetting is J. Jonah Jameson’s blaming of Peter for his father’s death. In the past Jonah’s hatred seemed only directed at Spider-Man, but not it seems like Peter is likely to be on the receiving end on both fronts, only because he can’t reveal his identity as Spider-Man.
Enter Anna-Maria Marconi, ever the dutiful partner to the beleaguered Peter, who tells him to stop obsessing on his grief and to put his feelings to action. This leads them to the house of Jerry Salteres, a former employee of Peter’s whose New U organs have been triggering Peter’s Spider-Sense. Jerry has gone missing, after he mysteriously seems to go through cellurlar degradation (wait… I thought he only got an organ transplant, why is his skin dissolving?).
Of course, Peter recognizes this instantly and heads to investigate New U himself where he encounters the previously mentioned Jerry, this time as just a series of nerves in a tank (again, didn’t he just get one new organ?), and a trio of villains including Miles Warren. The trap is sprung, a fight ensues and ends before it really escalates, and two previously deceased characters make their sudden re-debuts for a not-too-shocking ending.
Slott’s main goal in The Clone Conspiracy #1 seems to be setting the table and to that point the main story in this book is a success, particularly because it doesn’t prolong Spider-Man’s discovery of who he’s up against for more than an issue. This will be refreshing for readers especially after already reading the prelude of this story for almost half a year; now it’s time for Slott to jump into his story and show us what he’s got up his sleeve.
To that point, the backup story, “The Night I Died,” could prove to be the bigger controversy for long-time Spider-Man fans. Here, for the first time, Slott fills in the details of the original Gwen Stacy’s death, but this time from her perspective. The story introduces the idea that Gwen was conscious during her death, learned that Peter was Spider-Man, and died both panicked and hateful towards Peter for helping to kill her father (from her limited point-of-view).
It’s a retcon that makes sense in Spider-Man’s chronology but at the same time makes the moment of Gwen’s death all the more painful. If this is the kind of emotional digs that Slott plans on taking during The Clone Conspiracy than it is likely to be a painful, emotional ride for both Peter and the reader. I know I left this book hurt by this revelation and also glad that Peter has remained unaware of this horrible truth.
Both Frenz and colorist Edgar Delgado’s artwork operates as a wonderful stylistic flashback to the artwork that dominated Marvel books through the 70s and 80s, all the way down to the Technicolor greens and reds that made up their limited color palettes. This is thrown into sharp relief as the subdued colors of the main story take over when Gwen finds herself caught up in the modern day story. Frenz’s work has always been faithful to his predecessors and so his Gwen and Captain Stacy are immediately recognizable as the characters made famous by John Romita Sr. Yet, his knack for subtle characterizations through body posturing and language is as obvious and distinct as ever. Still, as someone who has seen his incredibly detailed pencil-work, I long for him to find a perfect inking partner that can bring out the beautiful line-work I’ve seen in his pencils.