By Chris Buchner
We all know how the story goes by now. Shy bookworm Peter Parker attended a science exhibition in high school when an irradiated spider bit him. That spider transferred all of its abilities over to Peter, turning him into a human spider. Seeking to test his newfound abilities, he entered a wrestling match for cash and ended up become the TV sensation The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter’s ego had grown so large, he didn’t bother to stop a common thief who robbed the TV station where his show was filmed. That mistake ended up costing him the man who raised him like a father when his parents died; his Uncle Ben. The same robber broke into their house and killed Ben, and it was Spider-Man who caught him and learned that with great power must come great responsibility. From then on, he dedicated his life to being a superhero to honor his uncle.
But that’s just where the story begins. Over time, Spidey had come to make some great enemies, but none to the caliber of one Norman Osborn; an industrialist whose insanity drove him to become the Green Goblin. Eventually learning Peter’s identity, he sought to hurt Spider-Man at his weakest point; Peter’s life. What seemed like his greatest act of evil at the time, Goblin kidnapped Peter’s then-girlfriend Gwen Stacy and held her hostage atop the Brooklyn Bridge to lure Spidey there in Amazing Spider-Man #121. In the ensuing battle, Gwen was knocked from the bridge and though Spidey saved her from falling into the water, she was already dead. The following issue, Spidey sought revenge against Goblin, and during that confrontation his precognitive spider-sense helped him avoid a remote-controlled sneak attack by Goblin’s main transport, a goblin glider, and it instead ended up impaling Goblin with its pointed end.
That event would change Spidey’s life once again, but he wasn’t the only one affected. One Professor Miles Warren, a teacher at Empire State University where Peter and Gwen attended, had come to develop illicit feelings for his female pupil. Her death drove him mad, and he soon adopted the costumed identity of the Jackal. Blaming Spidey for her death, he tried several times to cause havoc and potentially kill Spidey. His greatest plan wouldn’t come into fruition until Amazing #149 by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. Using DNA gathered from a class experiment and his genetics knowledge, Warren created a clone of Gwen who found herself back in Peter’s life. The tearful reunion was short-lived when Spidey was knocked out and awoke in Shea Stadium, former home of the New York Mets, facing fellow Daily Bugle staffer Ned Leeds strapped to a time bomb and another Spidey across from him.
The two Spideys duked it out, each one believing they were the true one, but Gwen eventually helped them call a stalemate long enough to rescue Ned and stop the Jackal. However, the bomb went off and one of the Spider-Men seemingly died in the blast, and supposedly Warren as well. Calling in a favor from Dr. Curt Connors, the one-armed scientist whose attempts to restore his arm turned him into the Lizard until Spidey stopped him, Spidey had him run genetic tests on both. Spidey never checked the results. He was satisfied that since his material was taken before he had met his current love, Mary Jane Watson, there was no way a clone could have his feelings for her. He threw out the results and dumped the “clone’s” body into a smokestack of an abandoned factory.
But that was just the beginning of the story.
Almost 20 years later, the Spidey books were slumping in the sales. As Spidey is Marvel’s flagship character, management wanted an event to not only bolster the popularity of the character and the books, but to rival DC’s “The Death of Superman” which was breaking tremendous sales records. Also, Marvel had recently undergone an in-house restructuring by families of books, and the Spider-Man editors began to feel pressure to compete with the X-Men family’s “Age of Apocalypse” event. As such, no idea was too outlandish, and it was eventually settled upon writer Terry Kavanagh’s suggestion of reintroducing the clone.
The story went that the clone had survived the blast despite all appearances and climbed out of the smokestack where he was dumped. Instead of fighting Peter again to claim the life, he decided that he WAS the clone and went on self-imposed exile adopting the name Ben Reilly (his uncle’s first name and aunt’s maiden name). For five years (in comic time), Ben wandered having his own adventures, tangling with a mysterious figured named Kaine, befriending a scientist named Seward Trainer and falling for his own red-head Elizabeth Tyne. It was also revealed that for a while he had been keeping in touch with Aunt May over the phone, depicted only as a shadowy figure so as to hide his identity from readers.
When May suffered a stroke and placed in a hospital, Ben returned to the city to see her. In doing so, he eventually encountered Peter. During this time, Peter’s life had grown progressively harder, driving him closer and closer to that fine line between hero and something else. The worst moment of all was the supposed return of his parents. Just when he finally accepted them, he had come to learn they were artificial constructs created by the shape-changing Chameleon with the help of Harry Osborn, the recently deceased second Green Goblin and Peter’s former best friend. All these moments drove Peter into becoming harsher, more violent, retreating to his costumed identity and deeming himself simply “The Spider.”
After a few clashes with each other, the spiders were forced to team up when the lives of the inmates of Ravenscroft Asylum were put in peril by the newly created all-powerful villain Judas Traveller, whose agenda was to analyze the true nature of evil and found a particular interest in the arachnids with the help of his associate, Scrier (who was later revealed to be the true source of Traveller’s powers). During this story, “Power and Responsibility,” a lot of clues were dropped directing the reader to think that just maybe Ben may be the true Spider-Man. The story, which ran through all four Spider-books, was presented in a flip-book format. While the story ran on one side a back-up feature dealing with the birth of a clone ran on the other.
Separated by an explosion that seemingly killed Ben, Peter set out on his path of self-redemption while Ben began his quest of finding his place in the world. This is when the Spider-books split between both characters for their own individual adventures. Peter got Amazing and Spectacular, while Ben got Web of and Spider-Man and both shared Spider-Man Unlimited. Peter’s story of redemption ran in the aptly titled “Back from the Edge” into “Web of Death.” It involved his being poisoned by the Vulture and needing to find the cure, which would eventually lead him back from the dark side into more familiar territory. Eventually, though, Peter succumbs to the poison and is saved by arch-rival Doctor Octopus, wanting the pleasure of killing Spidey himself in the future and now knowing his true identity. Spidey goes home to discover his wife Mary Jane is pregnant, a move to add drama by then-Editor-in-chief and long-time Spider-scribe Tom DeFalco, and Ock was killed by Kaine who had followed Ben to New York with an obsession with both spiders. This was done to show how bad-ass Kaine was; that he was a serious character not to be taken lightly in the stories to come.
Ben’s journey took place in “The Exile Returns” and “Web of Life,” where he creates a make-shift basic costume that ends up getting him dubbed the Scarlet Spider by Daily Bugle reporter Ken Ellis. Scarlet’s name and costume were meant to be running gags, both intentionally bad with the name grating on Ben’s nerves, although both lasted beyond their purpose. Ben’s story became crucial to highlight just how much like the classic Spidey readers were more familiar with he was. Without all the darkness lumped on him like Peter, he was still very much the wise-cracking, care-free hero Spidey always was. To further bolster his credit amongst the readers, he was pit against one of Spidey’s toughest villains, Venom. Venom and Spidey had come to an understanding in Amazing #375, and Venom left to San Francisco to become an anti-hero of sorts. Ben took Venom on not knowing about the arrangement, and readers saw how his moral compass was working with his disgust that Spidey would agree to such a thing. As well as to establish his cred, the story also highlighted how cool he was by designing new additions to his web-shooters; expanding impact webbing and paralyzing stingers. The plan worked, and the Scarlet’s Spider popularity would begin to grow.
The two heroes were reunited in the “Smoke and Mirrors” story, which presented the return of the Jackal. However, this time he had genetically modified himself to actually BE a human jackal, rather than just another costumed villain. More mysteries began to form, including why Peter and Ben were sharing dreams, who a third Peter Parker is revealed in Spectacular #221 and why Kaine was foreseeing Mary Jane’s death by an unknown assailant. The Jackal, along with being thrown in to make the reader believe he had a major hand in the recent events or was tied into plans of Traveller and his associate, Scrier, was brought back to explain clone degeneration. That’s a process in which the imperfect cellular make-up of a clone breaks down and they are reduced to nothing. This would prove to be valuable information down the line.
So far, the story was a success. Sales were up tremendously. Marvel’s marketing department, who very much had control over the company during the 90s, decided the best way to continue those sales was to continue the story. Originally, the saga was set to end with Amazing #400, where Aunt May would die from her recent illness and Ben would become the one, true Spider-Man. The original plan, helmed by DeFalco, was similar except that it was intended to have a tighter 3-act structure where Ben would take over for three months, Peter would return, and Ben would get his own series. Marvel restructuring, however, saw DeFalco removed as Editor-in-chief. Marvel gained five new EICs each in charge of their own groups: X-Men was Bob Harras, Marvel Heroes was Mark Gruenwald, Marvel Edge was Bobbi Chase, Lincensed Titles and Alternate universe was Carl Potts, and Spidey went to Bob Budiansky. Under Budiansky were editors Eric Fein, Glenn Greenberg and Tom Breevort, along with established group editor Danny Fingeroth. with the project falling into the jurisdiction of several editors-in-chiefs. Also looking to fuel the speculator market at the time, the Spider-books received various variant or special covers staring with Amazing #400.
As the saga progressed, it was revealed Kaine was the first of Jackal’s clones, raised like a son but cast out as soon as he showed signs of the degeneration process, when he accidentally got Peter indicted for murder because of their similar fingerprints. It was also revealed that the Jackal never really cloned anyone, but instead invented a virus that turned people into genetic copies of someone else. A new female Doctor Octopus debuted, both an associate of the original and daughter of Seward. The third Peter became Spidercide; an amped-up clone with the ability to shape shift and absolutely no moral guidance. A genetic test by Seward revealed that Peter was the clone, inciting him to join up with the Jackal and his crew but ultimately regained his senses to help Ben and the New Warriors stop him. Jackal, Spidercide and Kaine supposedly didn’t survive that battle.
Finally, the long-delayed moment happened. Peter decided it was too dangerous for a father-to-be to play hero anymore after nearly dying in “The Greatest Responsibility.” Peter and Mary Jane moved to Portland and out of the Spider-books, where Peter lost his powers in Spider-Man: The Final Adventure limited series. Ben became the sole spider hero in New York. However, marketing decided to squeeze the last bit of juice out of Scarlet’s popularity by temporarily renaming all the books for two months and even having him become a brief member of the New Warriors. Scarlet was soon discredited by a digital/cyber construct of himself created by female Ock using an FBI agent she captured infiltrating her organization. This forced Ben to become Spider-Man once and for all in Sensational Spider-Man #0, the series that replaced the cancelled Web. It should be noted that Web of Scarlet Spider ran two issues longer than the others, crossing over with New Warriors to conclude the Cyber Scarlet Spider story.
Fan reaction was mixed, but loud. Many long-time fans felt cheated that the man they’ve been following since Amazing #149 was nothing more than a fake, a cheap copy. Shortly after Ben donned the webs, readership began to steadily decline and the Spider-books found themselves right back where they started. Many creators, both involved with the project and just inside Marvel, also hated this direction and the confusing chaos that the whole thing had become. Here was a story envisioned with a clear beginning, middle and end, but stretched out so far and long past its welcome.
Despite all that, Ben had a good run as Spidey, getting an updated classic rogues gallery as well as some all-new additions. He had his own supporting cast, although often found himself interacting with those from “his” past, forcing his dying his hair blonde in order to minimize his resemblance to Peter. He also got his own run-in with symbiote possession when the Carnage symbiote, spawned from Venom’s suit and originally bonded with serial killer Cletus Cassidy, tried to bond with him and turned him into Spider-Carnage. However, behind the scenes things weren’t progressing smoothly. Current EIC Bob Budiansky did an about face on the plans and wanted Peter back as soon as possible but without the baggage of a family, going so far as to have Fabian Nicieza rewrite the ending of Final Adventure where Mary Jane would have had their baby. Marvel, starting to feel the effects of looming financial troubles (and eventual bankruptcy) downsized and consolidated the five EICs into one, that being Bob Harras. Bob decided to give Peter a mystery disease that would eventually restore his powers and changed the identity of the true mastermind behind it all.
Under Harras, who insisted on strict control over the plotting with very little compromise, the original Green Goblin who was killed over 20 years prior, was restored with the excuse that the formula that gave him his powers also gave him a kind of healing factor, allowing him to survive being impaled. He had been recovering on a tropical island somewhere orchestrating Peter’s downfall from afar. He had forced Seward to screw with the test results, making Peter the real one after all. This revelation, in the aptly titled story “Revelations,” was driven home when Ben took a fatal blow meant for Peter by the Goblin’s glider (a mirror to how he “died” years before) and disintegrated into dust due to clone degeneration (going against established standards for degeneration). Further insult to injury was, with Spider-Man #75, the final part of the clone saga, the book got Peter Parker added to its title. Not to be forgotten, Mary Jane is forced into labor by an associate of Osborn, Alison Mongraine, and their baby is supposedly born stillborn.
-Osborn took center-stage as a major Spidey villain again, entering Peter’s life by taking over the Daily Bugle and forcing himself to be part of his daily life. It was all culminated in the “Gathering of Five” story arc when Osborn attempted to gather mystic totems in order to gain ultimate power. Instead, he gained ultimate insanity and was defeated by Spidey in the following story “The Final Chapter.” Right after, the number of Spider-books were reduced to two and restarted from #1 with the hopes of simplifying Spidey’s continuity and attracting new readers. Several new characters, including the new heroic Green Goblin, Elizabeth Tyne and new villain Armada completely disappeared as a result of this.
-The original mastermind behind the Saga was set to be the mysterious Gaunt; a figure in heavy armor. In reality, Gaunt was the classic villain The Robot Master who needed that suit in order to survive. But under Harras, he became just another pawn in Osborn’s game.
-Alison Mongraine was depicted briefly in a few issues after the end of the Saga. It was strongly hinted that the Parker baby was still alive and that her death was another ploy by Osborn. Eventually, the baby was handed off to a cult of Scriers and then rescued by Kaine violently. This plotline was left dangling and Kaine was never seen again in the main books once the reboot occurred. Also, Marvel editorial has been adamant in its denial that the mysterious “package” was the baby, despite all evidence to the contrary.
-Aunt May and Doc Ock were resurrected. It was revealed that the Aunt May who died was an actress genetically modified to resemble her and planted by Osborn as part of his schemes, completely nullifying one of the most compelling Spidey stories at the time. Fan outcry was adamant when she died, and was just as loud at the preposterous nature of this retcon of her being buried alive on the Osborn estate. Tom DeFalco, who had written Ock’s death handled his return the first chance he could, not pleased with the decision in the first place. He had Ock’s girlfriend, Stunner, and the Female Ock, team-up with the ninja assassin guild The Hand and had them perform the same resurrection trick that revived Elektra in the Daredevil book.
-All references to the events of the Clone Saga were ceased upon the reboot. Only in recent years has any acknowledgement been slowly seeping back into stories; although in the form of jokes at the Saga’s expense. Peter David in his series Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man used Ben Reilly as an alias for the then-fugitive Peter. Brian Michael Bendis also did his own version of the Clone Saga in his book Ultimate Spider-Man.
-The largest and longest-lasting reference to the Clone Saga came in the form of Spider-Girl. Appearing in Marvel’s alternate universe title What If? vol. 2 #105, it featured a teenaged daughter of Spider-Man whose circumstances led her to donning the webs and taking up the mantle. Her design, and the entire universe she helped forge (the short-lived MC2 imprint) all came from the Clone Saga era of the books, ignoring all that came after. Kaine was given a make-over and included, as was the son of Elizabeth Tyne in the form of mysterious hero DarkDevil. The Scarlet Spider also got some play as the temporary identity for the daughter of the Black Cat, Felicity Hardy. Spider-Girl ran for 100 issues, then was re-launched as the Amazing Spider-Girl which will end after 30. For more on her check out Spider-Girl No More.
-The Clone Saga was featured in modified form as part of the series finale to Spider-Man: The Animated Series where Spidey meets versions of himself from other universes united to take out an evil version of himself. However, only the Scarlet Spider and Spider-Carnage made the cut as part of the cast from the actual Saga, the other Spider-Men featured were all short-lived incarnations from other points in the comics.
The Clone Saga went from a wildly popular story to almost destroying the Spider-books. It was a story with a clearly defined ending in site, but Marvel marketing forced the creators involved to stretch and expand the story. Ben Reilly was set up to be the Spider-Man everyone wanted back in the books, fun, carefree and single, but the decision to declare him the real one while Peter was the clone all this time only made many fans angry. The decision was quickly backpedaled, and a character many fans had come to love was removed as if he was inconsequential.
But, despite Marvel’s best efforts to distance themselves from the story, Ben Reilly continues to live on. He appears as an alternate costume in several recent games featuring Spider-Man, and as part of various toy lines licensed by Marvel. Marvel has also decided to give the clone one more moment in the spotlight in the new X-Men and Spider-Man mini-series, which spans the various decades and incarnations of both franchises. The Ben Reilly issue, #3, is set to ship in January.
Will there be more Ben Reilly yet to come? If there’s one thing the recent years of Marvel should show, it’s that no person or idea stays dead for long in comics.
KNOW YOUR CLONES:
Due to the enormity of this event, we’ll be presenting the issues involved by title. For a complete Clone Saga timeline, visit Samruby.com.
Amazing Scarlet Spider #s 1 & 2
Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #s 121 & 122, 129, 136, 144 -151, 391, 393-418
Amazing Spider-Man Annual ’96
Amazing Spider-Man Super Special #1
Avengers vol. 1 #400
Daredevil vol. 1 #354
DC Versus Marvel #s 1 & 4
Giant-Size Spider-Man #5
Green Goblin #s 1, 3, 10 & 13
Marvel Annual Report 1995
Marvel Fanfare vol. 2 #3
Marvel Versus DC #s 2 & 3
Maximum Clonage Alpha
Maximum Clonage Omega
New Warriors vol. 1 #59, 61-67, 70-71
Scarlet Spider #s 1 & 2
Scarlet Spider Unlimited #1
Sensational Spider-Man #s 0-11
Sensational Spider-Man Mini-Comic
Spectacular Scarlet Spider #s 1 & 2
Spectacular Spider-Man vol. 1 #s 25-31, 68, 142 & 143, 149, 200, 215-240
Spectacular Spider-Man Annual # 8
Spectacular Spider-Man Super Special #1
Spider-Man vol. 1 #s 48-75
Spider-Man Holiday Special 1995
Spider-Man Super Special #1
Spider-Man Team-Up #s 2-6
Spider-Man Unlimited #s 7-14
Spider-Man: 101 Ways to End the Clone Saga #1
Spider-Man: Dead Man’s Hand #1
Spider-Man/Punisher: Family Plot #s 1 & 2
Spider-Man: Funeral For an Octopus #s 1-3
Spider-Man: Redemption #s 1-4
Spider-Man: The Final Adventure #1-4
Spider-Man: The Jackal Files #1
Spider-Man: The Lost Years #0-3
Spider-Man: The Osborn Journal #1
Spider-Man: The Parker Years #1
Uncanny X-Men #339
Venom Super Special #1
Venom: Along Came A Spider #s 1-4
Web of Scarlet Spider #s 1-4
Web of Spider-Man #s 114-129
Web of Spider-Man Super Special #1
What If…? Vol. 1 #30
What If…? Vol. 2 #86
Spider-Man: Clone Genesis