Marijuana Smoke and Funhouse Mirrors, part 1!
Seeing as Halloween is just around the corner, I decided to take on a three-part recap going through one of the scariest and most horrific Spider-Man stories. It featured rather demonic-looking characters, an attempt to end Spider-Man’s marriage, an unnecessary character resurrection, and just downright moronic writing. No, I’m not talking about One More Day. I’m talking about The Clone Saga.
As I mentioned during my FallCon report, I decided to start collecting the Clone Saga in its entirety. I had read a full synopsis of it at Life of Reilly, which detailed all the behind-the-scenes work and the main plot details as they progressed through each issue. It’s a fascinating (if lengthy) read and I highly recommend it. Reading it, it’s great to see that they did try to create a classic and epic tale, but editorial interference just stretched the story on and on and on. As a result, what started off as a pretty entertaining story even by today’s standards became a hopeless mess of confusion, reversals, and nonsense explanations that would make any politician facepalm.
There was a brief time where the decision was going to be that Ben Reilly was the original and that Peter Parker was the clone, which was pretty hard to swallow for readers – that the Spider-Man they’ve been enjoying for over 20 years was nothing more than a copy – and needless to say created some pretty heavy backlash. But you know, it actually was a pretty damn good idea.
The same petty, idiotic reasons that were used to justify One More Day were partly to blame here – that Spidey didn’t “connect” anymore with the audience, that his marriage ruined his image, that he wasn’t the wisecracking wonder that he used to be. And I’ll admit they were partly correct – sales were down and the extended storyline where Peter’s parents returned had resulted in the whole thing being a leftover scheme of Harry Osbourne just resulted in a Spider-Man who gave up on his civilian life and became “The Spider.” Needless to say, readers were left cold by this dark, almost twisted version of their beloved character. But wait, here comes a clone with all the classic morality, integrity, and connection to the audience that Peter used to have. Peter can retire with Mary Jane and be allowed to have kids and a family while Ben Reilly could become the new official Spider-Man who’d go out on dates and become a tabloid photographer and have his web cartridges run out and all the stupid crap they’re doing with Peter Parker these days.
But of course, it didn’t work out that way and instead we got the return of the original Green Goblin whose goblin formula somehow gave him the ability to recover from gliders being impaled in his chest. As I said though, the story didn’t start out that way.
In fact, the stories that started out were good. Damn good. “Power and Responsibility,” where Peter first meets the clone in the modern era, is a bit of a shaky start, but I get a grin on my face seeing the two Spider-Men punching out Carnage as a team (especially since this came on soon after Maximum Carnage, where you needed LOTS of superheroes to take down Cletus Kassidy). This was followed by “The Exile Returns,” where Ben Reilly officially becomes the Scarlet Spider (a name he and many of the writers loathed, but it stuck) and has to take on Venom.
The fight is awesome, with Reilly needing to use his adept mind to figure out new weapons to face Venom, including the awesome Impact Webbing (patent pending). The story is great and I highly recommend tracking it down, though the one downside is Ben Reilly constantly whining, “BLAH BLAH BLAH I’M A CLONE! BLAH BLAH BLAH I’M NOT HUMAN!” Following that is the “Web of Life” and “Web of Death” four-parters, with the story alternating between the Spider-Man titles for either Ben Reilly or Peter Parker. Ben Reilly’s side for “Web of Life” was kind of meh, but the “Web of Death” for Peter Parker was just brilliant, with Doctor Octopus saving his life because of how he admires the humanity and ethics that Peter has to offer. Sadly, the end of this story was the death of Doctor Octopus, but he goes down in style, fighting the new villain Kaine but still remaining the badass character that he is.
Anyway, following the “Funeral for an Octopus” miniseries (where Scarlet Spider continues to build up badass credit by handling himself pretty damn well against the remaining members of the Sinister Six), we come upon this arc: “Smoke and Mirrors.” This was really the first sign that things were going downhill for the Clone Saga. The actual details we’ll get to as the story progresses, but needless to say this was the first part of the Clone Saga that was actually just bad. However, since a major theme of it is tricking people (including the readers), it fits in well with Halloween. And since it’s a three-part arc, this will be a three-part recap. Enjoy!
Nothing bad to say about the cover. The ghostly image of the Jackal, responsible for cloning Spider-Man originally, hangs over the city as well as well as the Spider-Twins. The only real thing that makes me confused is how that webbing twists around their arms, exactly. Is the webbing supposed to do that? It seems like that would just make it all the more difficult to actually hit the thing you were aiming at. Also, I don’t care what anyone says – the scarlet Spider costume kicks ass.
We open to the Scarlet Spider swinging through the city. He says how he hates that he enjoys it (*groan*) and that “I have no right to do this -- this isn’t my life-- and it isn’t the reason I came back to New York!” Oh for the love of Heidegger, is he still whining about the fact that he’s a clone? That’s right, Ben, it isn’t your life – which is why you created a different costumed identity from Spider-Man! “Being the hero is Peter’s gig -- but I couldn’t resist the night!” Yeah, I hear you, Ben – Batman’s a tough one to resist, too, but be strong!
“It called” to me -- tempted me like some voracious demon--” Is he describing an overwhelming compulsion to do good or a craving for Arby’s sandwiches? “--And before I could stop myself, I was webbing my way through the darkened streets – stopping carjackings and ATM holdups--” My God, could the Rastafarian Doctor Doom have returned?! Anyway, his spider-sense goes off and suddenly he sees the Jackal heading right towards him. Oh, and he not only sees him coming at him, but he sees him coming at him on a jetpack. You know, I may need to look back at the first issues featuring him, but I’m pretty sure he never rode a jetpack, so why is Ben hallucinating him on one?
And you know, come to think of it, the Jackal really has a stupid look to him. He’s basically just the Green Goblin with no clothes and bigger ears. And you know, while the ears are right for an actual jackal, I wasn’t aware that jackals had green fur. Scarlet Spider blacks out momentarily and starts to fall, confused about what he saw since, of course, “Professor Miles Warren is... dead..!” Yeah, because that’s stopped them before. Scarlet Spider, in a very odd display of physics, falls straight down onto a rooftop (and I mean straight down), and then rolls to the side across three panels after landing. Apparently concrete and brick are good shock absorbers when one falls. I’ll be sure to strap some onto me the next time I go skydiving.
Recovering from his fall, Scarlet Spider comments to himself how the visions and memories seem to keep attracting him somewhere. All of a sudden, an image of the Jackal appears to him, saying, “Everything’s going to be fine, now -- Peter.” This was the first hint that maybe it was the clone who was the original Peter, but that’s giving this comic too much at this point. We suddenly switch to Peter Parker where he’s looking into his mirror and seeing the Jackal staring back at him [??] while Mary Jane is trying to get his attention. He comments that it must be the lingering effects of a virus given to him a few issues ago, but he’s confused about why he’d be seeing the Jackal. And really, his complete lack of an actual reaction to this other than “Wha?!” makes me think the poor guy’s just stoned off his butt.
Mary Jane finally gets his attention and they have a conversation about how they’re going to go to lunch together. It’s sadly conversations like this that remind me how much I liked these two being married, especially when Peter comments that she’s the most wonderful, beautiful, magnificent wife a man could ever have. But then he kind of ruins it after kissing her and suddenly imagining himself making out with Gwen Stacy [?!]. Okay, so maybe the Spider-marriage isn’t all that hunky-dory after all. Peter remarks to himself that he feels that the visions he’s having are pulling him somewhere, as well. Still, as Peter remarks, “I want to spend every minute with you – for the rest of our lives! I don’t want anything to ever come between us.”
Except my old, dying, decaying aunt and deals with the devil, of course! By the way, in case you’re wondering, Aunt May was in a coma at the time (where she’d stay until the beautifully-written Amazing Spider-Man #400 where she dies, revealing to Peter that she’d known for a long time that he was the man under the mask), and at no point does Mephisto show up and offer to trade his marriage for her waking up from the coma. Oh, and we also are reminded here that Mary Jane is pregnant, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. And since we’re trying to focus on the bad stuff about this issue, let’s skip the nostalgia about one of the best comic book romances and shift back to the Scarlet Spider.
He’s swinging through a forest north of New York, not sure what it was that brought him out there. As he looks out into the countryside, a silhouette appears behind him similar to the Jackal’s shape. And now here it is, folks – we’ve finally entered hell. You know why? Because this is the Mini-Jackal named Jack. Yes, that’s right, a little dwarf version of the Jackal. Seriously, who the hell greenlit this idea?! “Say, we have this interesting story about a clone that’s trying to come to grips with his identity, but you know what the story needs? A three-foot guy in a costume that resembles a supervillain from the 1970s.” “I like the way you think! Get to it! Have some more drugs!”
I’m sorry, but I just hate this character. He contributes absolutely nothing to the story, and even the revelation of his identity is completely pointless! You could’ve just had an old lab assistant of Dr. Warren or hell, a robot or something and it’d be more useful! Heck, all he does is make annoying comments that I’m sure were meant to be dark humor but just end up sounding stupid. He leads the Scarlet Spider towards a large metal door and reveals to him, “The Jackal had this planned for you years ago, and all the answers to your questions are right behind this door! So get a move on, little spider. The meter’s runnin’!” Speaking of running...
*Tries to run away but is forced back by his promise to recap the three comics.*
Scarlet Spider gets confused about where the door came from and how Jack got up a hillside so quickly and Jack just says, “It’s all done with mirrors, kid. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!” Yeah, because that’s how mirrors work. Scarlet Spider grabs Jack by the neck (Yes! Kill him! Squeeze the life out of him!) and Jack tells him he’d better let go, since it’ll only “make him even madder!” “Him” turns out to be a large, muscle-bound, nearly-nude man with visible veins all over his body. Seriously, the guy doesn’t have varicose veins, he’s got a varicose body. One wonders how that guy could get so muscley and yet have blood pressure issues like that.
We switch scenes to the Daily Bugle, where Peter informs Robbie Robertson of the news about his impending fatherhood. Like the earlier scene with Mary Jane, this one isn’t really so bad. We also get some continuation on a subplot involving a Detective who had originally encountered Kaine during Ben Reilly’s years on the road. Back over to Peter, he starts thinking of names for the kid. “How about “Gretchen” for a girl and “Hank” for a boy...” Just think, folks – Spider-Girl was this close to being named “Gretchen Parker.” Peter has another flash in his mind, this time bringing up a memory of him crawling out of a tank (more clues to the idea that maybe he’s the clone). And then the final panel of the page gets to be Jackal’s hideous visage right front and center to the point where we can look up his nose. Thanks, comic, any other orifices of this freak you want to take us into?
Peter collapses, trying to make sense of it all and the Jackal’s image once again appears in his mind. It shouts at him, “I’ve come to take you home!” Does that mean he’s going to be climbing up on Solsbury Hill? Over to the hospital where May is in a coma, Mary Jane and her Aunt Anna look over her. All of a sudden it’s snowing outside and Mary Jane and Anna look outside the window. In one of the few moments of brilliance in this issue, while the two are looking away Aunt May briefly opens her eyes and sheds a tear (though maybe it’s because she’s actually being assimilated by the Borg).
Switching back over to the fight, the unknown assailant continues his attack on Scarlet Spider. The narration describes him as having known “only pain -- gnawing -- blinding -- excruciating -- Pain!!.” Because it wouldn’t be a Marvel comic from the 90s if it didn’t have lots of melodramatic prose in it! It further describes how the being has been instilled with one objective – “to defend the doorway with his life!” Well, that and serious steroid abuse, but it’s good to have goals. “It is the pain that tells him to do this -- and he must ever obey the pain.” Considering my continual need to find bad comics to recap, I’m starting to sympathize with this guy.
Jack provides his own “witty” commentary: “And this looks like it might be it, folks! The Guardian’s got the kid on the ropes and he’s not lettin’ up!” Man, never before have I more desired to see Howard Cosell show up and beat Jack to death with his microphone. We also see that Kaine himself is watching the battle. Kaine also suffered from the same varicose body issues that the Guardian apparently is suffering from (clues, it would seem, to both Kaine and the Guardian’s identities). For a lot of issues, Kaine doesn’t really actually do anything. He just kind of stands around and poses dramatically, like he’s straight out of Disney’s Pocahontas.
The fight continues and Scarlet Spider finally gets knocked down into the snow, unable to take the Guardian’s onslaught. Jack and the Guardian walk off (oh, thank God he’s gone...) and the snow starts to bury the unconscious Scarlet Spider. The scene switches over to Peter, now in full Spider-Man outfit. What’s confusing about this is the fact that he’s swinging around while there’s apparently a blizzard going on. Does that spandex really offer that much warmth in this weather? Why did he suddenly decide to go swinging around when there’s snow falling everywhere and it’s probably hard for his webbing to get a grip on anything?
Spider-Man starts swinging around (again, with snow falling everywhere around him and probably pelting his skin-tight outfit and covering the buildings in wet snow) and contemplates all the weird visions he’s been having. “Memories of Gwen. Memories of Professor Warren -- the Jackal! And the clone. The “Birth” of the clone.” Sentence fragments. More dramatic. Must be. “But why would I remember that? I wasn’t even there.” Ummm... Yes you were, Peter. You were right there, since in order for the clone to have your most recent memories at that point (plus the brief period where they say the same lines of dialogue at once), the Jackal had to have taken the DNA sample right there. The problem with stuff like this is the fan tends to be smarter than the character and can think of any number of different possibilities than the one the character does.
“I should have no knowledge of that. No memory of it... unless... Oh, God, please don’t let it be “unless.”” I’m afraid it is, Peter - There’s still at least another two years worth of the Clone Saga to go! Somehow, Peter gets a mindflash that shows Scarlet Spider in the snow and he realizes it isn’t a memory. “He’s in trouble-- the Scarlet Spider! My... my clone...? My other self... [?!] My... Brother?” He ain’t heavy? “Somehow I’m being drawn to him.” Oh, so you’re being drawn to him? Not away from him? To him, gotcha. “He needs my help -- and this time I won’t turn my back on him!”
And with that good ending, the issue is over. Admittedly, of the three parts of “Smoke and Mirrors,” this issue is not that bad, but it still could’ve used another rewrite (and just drop Jack. What were they smoking when that concept came to their minds?) in terms of the Scarlet Spider stuff. But trust me, in the next two stories to follow, things go downhill fast. For this spooky little tale, I’ll only tell you that Part 2 will be posted sometime soon and the final Part will go up on Halloween! In the meantime, enjoy yourselves and make sure your science Professor doesn’t like to run around in green costumes before Halloween!