Ice Cream for Bedwetters #3

“The Clone Conspiracy” — Part One

Spoilers below for The Clone Conspiracy and the original Clone Saga!

Do you remember the Clone Saga? Because I remember the Clone Saga. Dear reader, I bought the Clone Saga new off the racks.

(Before I continue, I’d like to recommend an old but valuable resource, courtesy of Andrew Goletz and Glenn Greenberg, The Life of Reilly. It’s over a decade old, but worth an afternoon or two of your time. It’s as detailed an exhumation of the Clone Saga fiasco as you could ever hope to find. It is also definitely as fascinating as that description might lead you to believe.)

The OC — Original Clone, from 1975, by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru, and Mike Esposito

Ah, the 90s. What a time to be alive.

It’s easy to remember the part where the Clone Saga led to Spider-Man being a toxic franchise for the better part of a decade afterwards, a state of affairs that only ended when J. M. Straczynski was given the reigns of Amazing Spider-Man in 2001. What may be more difficult to imagine — particularly if you weren’t around for the Saga itself — is that the reason the Clone Saga became such a crushing failure was that it was initially quite popular.

Marvel sold a lot of comics at the outset of the storyline. This was the mid-90s, mind you. The early 90s was one of Marvel’s best periods — commercially, if not creatively — and by 1994 it wasn’t fully apparent how soft the market was turning after the bloodbath of the Summer of 1993. But there were obviously sales to be goosed, so it was time to shake-up Spider-Man. In the last year Superman and Batman both had high-profile status quo upheavals. Although in isolation the acts of killing Superman and breaking Batman’s back were obvious gimmicks, the stories themselves were well received and quite popular. They exploited DC’s greatest resources — its iconic characters — and modernized them just enough to lead readers back to DC. These were welcome successes after a period of playing catch-up not just to Marvel but Image as well.

Ben deserved better than what he got here, by John Romita, Jr. and Al Milgrom

Marvel was late to the ballgame in terms of putting all their biggest names through the wringer, but they made up for lost time. If you sweep away all other concerns, the Clone Saga’s root problem was simple: the story had no ending. The Death of Superman and Knightfall were both meticulously plotted stories, and even if the latter went on just a bit too long, they had concrete endings. They knew where the story was going before the first issues shipped. Marvel didn’t really have a plan when they bought Spider-Man’s clone back in 1994, and they certainly had no idea that the storyline would become a victim of its own success in such a spectacular fashion. There was no ending, and despite the fact that everyone involved knew full well this was a serious problem, Marvel wanted more clones for so long as the books kept selling. The story kept getting stretched until the finished product metastasized far beyond its original design.

So with that in mind, why go back?

Despite its reputation, the Clone Saga was quite popular. There were good parts. Good art throughout. And people really liked Ben Reilly, the stopgap Spider-Man they made when the ludicrous decision came down to retire Peter Parker permanently in favor of his putative clone (whether he was actually the clone or not was . . . ugh). They remade this new Spider-Man to skew younger, have a new job, new supporting cast, and new enemies. They were straining mightily against the restrictions of being unable to do “traditional” Spider-Man stories with a married Spider-Man, but no one had yet figured out how to untie that knot. So even though every single person involved in the creation of the character knew full well that Ben Reilly was never going to permanently supplant Peter Parker — anymore than Jean-Paul Valley was the new full-time Batman — they all did their best to launch the new guy.

All the work was swept aside after less than a year, of course, when people realized just how badly received the new direction actually was. But the character had fans. Ben Reilly originally died one of the most ignominious and seemingly permanent on-panel deaths in comics history — seriously, go back to Peter Parker, Spider-Man #75 from ’96, and see for yourself. It never stopped fans from asking for the guy’s return.

The man, the myth . . . Judas Traveler, by Mark Bagley and Larry Mahlstedt

Eventually Marvel figured out how to maneuver around an inconveniently married Spider-Man, first by creating the popular Ultimate version, and later simply by erasing the marriage itself through a literal deal with the devil that undid the marriage. As awful as that decision was — and yeah, it still stinks — the outcome was inevitable. It’s been almost ten years. The key to telling good Spider-Man stories is just telling good Spider-Man stories, something Marvel can still do when they can get out of their own way. They still manage to tell a few, occasionally. He’s a durable character.

With the conclusion of The Clone Conspiracy, Marvel has finally done the unthinkable, reopened the crypt and pulled Ben Reilly back once again into the land of the living. Bits and pieces from the Clone Saga eventually popped back up over the years, such as Spider-Man’s “evil” twin Kaine, who just a few years ago took Reilly’s old codename as the Scarlet Spider. But it wasn’t the character people actually liked from that period — no, not Judas Traveler, although maybe in a better, kinder world it would have been. The problem is that since they already have a Classic Spider-Man — “old reliable” Peter Parker — and they even have a New Coke Spider-Man — Miles Morales — there’s nothing left for Reilly to be except . . . a villain.

I don’t think people who have waited twenty years for the return of Ben Reilly were clamoring for the character to return as a villain. But this one questionable decision is just a symptom of a much larger problem at the company.

I guess the fact that I only at the very end started talking about what I actually set out to talk about means I wrote myself into the corner of needing to produce a Part II.

“This is supposed to be a weekly-ish column. I know the first was two weeks ago.” I said that two weeks ago. At the time, I meant it. Ah well. Had a rough week, didn’t get anything up on the Patreon either.

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Check out my long-running blog, where I am currently serializing my next book project. Read the first chapter — and the essay that changed my life — “One Hundred And Sixty Four Days.”