When discussing the shocking revelations of Clone Conspiracy #3 last time out, one of my chief criticisms of the story was that in unveiling the “Man in Red” as Ben Reilly, Dan Slott and co. may have inadvertently introduced more “questions” into their event than if they had just stuck with the obvious choice and made Miles Warren the book’s main villain. Yeah, yeah, seeing Ben again in a Spider-Man comic — especially after prior editorial regimes were so adamant against ever bringing him back — was a neat surprise for those of us who experienced the “Clone Saga” in real time 20 years prior. But what’s a good surprise worth if it comes at the expense of having to rack your brain debating a bunch of plot holes and logic gaps that are now a part of the narrative?
Amazing Spider-Man #22, by Slott, Christos Gage and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli, is as clear-headed an attempt to cut some of these concerns off at the pass that we have gotten during the past few years of Slott’s run with the character. And when it comes to Ben and his journey in becoming the new Jackal, ASM #22 is mostly successful in providing a rational and believable explanation for why things are they way they are.
But in terms of being ultimately satisfied by the events and explanations of ASM #22, it’s all honestly relative to how similar revelations and rationalizations have been performed by Slott and his editors/collaborators in recent years. Like, on a scale of Black Cat to Harry Lyman, with Cat representing the most unsatisfying shift in characterization during Slott’s run and the former Osborn heir being the most compelling, Ben Reilly is a notch below Harry. Unfortunately, while I’m mostly onboard with Ben’s new leaf, in order for the greater narrative of “Clone Conspiracy/Dead No More/Whatever This Story is Called” to keep propelling forward, Slott is clearly going to have to keep pushing a version of Peter that casts his shift in characterization closer to Felicia levels. And that’s why I just have such a difficult time fully surrendering to this story.
As for the Ben stuff, keeping with the pattern of the last few installments of this arc, ASM continues to be the title where the narrative is sent backwards in order to push it forward. The comic is almost exclusively flashback scenes and exposition with Ben telling an incredulous Peter how he survived his unfortunate transformation into genetic soup at the end of the “Clone Saga” in the 90s and how he managed to eventually gain the upper hand on his tormentor, Miles Warren, and succeed him as the new Jackal. That’s where we learn that Warren has essentially been torturing all of the remaining humanity out of Ben as a means to further his experimentations into cloning, until Ben eventually rises up against his oppressor and in his own, more idealized way, becomes the oppressor himself.
Slott/Gage’s writing and Cammo’s art during these sequences between Ben and Miles is actually quite elegant in terms of really establishing how Reilly has reached the depths of his madness, while simultaneously emotionally moving him further away from the character he was originally cloned from. One especially poignant line came when Ben described how his mindset transformed from not wanting to let down the usual cast of characters and paternal/maternal figures in his life because of how much they “needed” him, to realizing, that perhaps he is the needy one who is overly reliant on the love and support of others. This shift in character leads to yet another inversion — this time on the classic “Spider-Man overcomes all odds” trope, that is especially well-conceived by the writers, and rendered by the art team.
In that regard, Ben’s motivations for wanting to resurrect all of his dead friends and family seems abundantly clear. But here’s the rub: why bring back Spider-Man’s villains? Why align yourself with Electro and Rhino? Why the disguise and operate in secret? How was Ben able to master cloning science enough to develop the “pill?” Why does this character keep giving me the creeps?
And because of those unanswered/unexplained concerns, Peter’s reaction to Ben’s machinations SHOULD be fairly obvious — of course you don’t bring back Uncle Ben. How can I trust someone who has clearly gone some over the deep end that he’s dressing up like one of my most nefarious villains and working alongside a crew of hired killers? And yet, because of the way Slott has been (consistently, mind you) casting Peter going as far back as the “Big Time” era of his run on ASM, the reader is expected to wait with baited breath to see if and how Peter screws up and potentially brings on a zombie-like virus that will doom the world. It all seems just so needlessly melodramatic because we have a creator who continues to write his titular character under the mindset that his overwhelming guilt doesn’t drive him to do good as much as it cripples him and robs him of his clear-headedness.
No, Peter is not perfect. He’s not an idealized beacon of truth and virtue a la Superman or Captain America. But a key part that has made this character so relateable over the years is that when he did screw up — and he DOES screw up — it was almost always due to circumstances so beyond his control that only someone as guilt-ridden and tormented as Peter would actually accept responsibility for his shortcomings (see: “Death of Gwen Stacy”). It’s really only under Slott’s pen that we can now take this character and say to ourselves, “yeah, maybe he would be tempted to play God and reanimate his long dead Uncle.”
And that’s why regardless of how certain individual story elements or beats found in current Spider-Man comics may please me, I’m ultimately left feeling unsatisfied because these enduring, wonderful characters have been operating on the other side of the looking glass for years now, with little indication of ever returning to being who they once were.