Spider-Man: looking back at the Clone Saga

The Clone Saga was one of the most elaborate tales ever woven in Spider-Man comics. As Scarlet Spider #1 brings the story back to Marvel, CJ remembers the controversy...

Clone Saga image


Time heals all wounds. It’s an adage meant to comfort, one that implies that forgetting bad events is an effective tonic for any affliction you’ll encounter. Anyone who stop-dropped-and-rolled their way through comics in the 1990s will still respond with Twilight-like chagrin on mention of Marvel’s Clone Saga, an event that provokes a peculiarly simultaneous sensation of ire and fondness that comics readers seem to experience more frequently than other people. Have the years treated one of the industry’s most reviled stories kindly?

The Clone Saga engulfed the Spider-Man books from 1994 to 1996 and was a colossal event on the scale of DC’s Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall story arcs before it – exactly what Marvel wanted. It had been twenty years before though, in the mid-1970s heyday of Amazing Spider-Man, that the thread that Peter Parker might not be the real deal began.

Spider-Man in the Seventies

During writer Gerry Conway’s run on Amazing Spider-Man Parker’s college girlfriend Gwen Stacy was murdered by the Green Goblin, who was secretly the screwloose industrial magnate Norman Osborn. It was a defining character moment for Spider-Man. Soon after, Osborn was thought killed in battle when the Green Goblin’s pointy glider impaled him. The deaths of Osborn and the real Stacy remained two of comics’ keystones for decades.

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The medium rarely keeps its paws off its most famous stories though, and it only took a few years for Gwen to pop up again in a twisted way to torture Peter Parker.

Villainous genetic engineer The Jackal – secretly Peter and Gwen’s professor, Miles Warren – was obsessed with Gwen and attempted to clone her. Jackal also meddled with a sample of Peter’s DNA, and in Amazing Spider-Man #149 a spider-clone appeared for the first time. The imposter appeared not to survive the issue. After a little soulsearching by Parker, the clone was thrown down a smokestack two issues later and mostly forgotten for twenty years.

That same year, Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 revealed that the Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy clones were not even that. Warren had used two existing people as templates to overwrite: his supposedly murdered lab assistant Anthony Serba and a woman called Joyce Delaney. Things seemed wrapped up, but the confusing origin of the clones was a portent of the event that would hit Marvel.

The clone wars

By the 90s, Spider-Man was squished thin over several ongoing titles: Amazing Spider-Man; Spectacular Spider-Man; Web of Spider-Man; and the then-recent, record-breaking ‘adjectiveless’ Spider-Man. Marvel was in the same trouble as the rest of the comic book industry and needed a quick win for their most recognised character. Their answer, provided by writer Terry Kavanagh? More Spider-Men to pick up the slack.

The purpose of sending in the clones soon transmuted into a means of revitalising Spider-Man, after a perceived rut for the character following his marriage to Mary-Jane Watson. Marvel’s editorial decision was to out the Peter Parker Spidey as a clone and replace him with the original by Amazing Spider-Man‘s 400th issue in 1995. Thanks to creative differences and industry politics, things turned out quite differently.

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Miles Warren, The Jackal and Gwen Stacy’s clone had been mentioned only sparsely since the groovy Seventies tales. Obviously the mad professor had been biding his time as the returned clone of Peter Parker was revealed in 1994’s Spectacular Spider-Man #216, although there had been months of build up.

The clone began to call himself Ben Reilly – taking his deceased uncle’s first name and his aunt’s maiden name – and after much to-ing and fro-ing would eventually become Spider-Man for a year from January 1996’s Sensational Spider-Man #0 to December’s Spider-Man #75. Good sales at a bad time for the company prolonged the muddled storyline and kept it running through three project editors: soon-to-be Legion Lost writer Tom DeFalco, Transformers-legend Bob Budiansky, and current editor-in-chief of DC Comics Bob Harras.

Ben Reilly had stayed away from New York for five years, Littlest Hobo-style, and returned when he discovered Spider-Man’s Aunt May had fallen ill. Reilly soon donned a particularly 90s costume as the Scarlet Spider. The shadowy villain Kaine was shown to be the very first attempt by The Jackal to clone Peter Parker, and another deadly clone, Spidercide, popped up.

Contrary to the 1970s conclusion, Miles Warren did create full clones: Ben was told he was the original Peter Parker, evidence hinted that the man living as ‘Peter’ was a duplicate, and then both were called into question. Spider-Man temporarily went crazy and sided with The Jackal. In the midst of all this, Aunt May kicked the bucket in Amazing Spider-Man #400, Mary Jane fell pregnant and Peter decided to retire and move to Portland, Oregon. Phew!

The powerful characters Judas Traveller and Scrier were introduced to the mix, seemingly out of place in Spidey’s New York. Former Marvel assistant-editor Glenn Greenberg subsequently admitted on the excellent Life of Reilly blog that, “no-one – not the writers, not the editors – seemed to know who or what the hell Judas Traveller was”.

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A solution for the mess that was Spidey’s life was struck upon – bring back Norman Osborn and reveal him as responsible. Peter’s reinstatement as Spider-Man, Ben’s confirmation as the clone on his eventual death and Osborn’s shock return brought the out-of-control story to something of an end – at last! The conclusion coincided with Marvel’s file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 1996, due to the industry slump and the company’s declining stock.

By the Clone Saga‘s close, the storyline had turned so frustrating for the readers and for Marvel that a parodical one-shot issue called Spider-Man: 101 Ways to End the Clone Saga was published at the start of 1997. The story was set in the Marvel offices where the editors and writers of the Spider-Man titles debated possible conclusions in half-seriousness. 

As a relic of comics history, a look back at Marvel before the movies, and for a surprisingly comprehensive and funny take on the whole debacle, 101 Ways to End the Clone Saga is worth picking up if you can find it cheap. The larger, sprawling saga is in the process of being collected in a revised order in the Complete Clone Saga Epic and Complete Ben Reilly Epic series of trade paperbacks, which stand at seven volumes so far. Makes most modern crossovers and event books seem succinct, doesn’t it?

Legacy of the Clone Saga

Instead of returning Spider-Man to his easygoing, simple beginnings the character became more muddled than ever because of the cloning fiasco. The failure to relaunch meant another decade of reboot and retroactive-continuity events around the turn of the century like John Byrne’s Chapter One, and Brian Bendis’ and popular Spidey artist Mark Bagley’s stalwart run on 21st-century-update Ultimate Spider-Man

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Improvement came only after a controversial run from Babylon 5‘s creator J. Michael Straczynski, which pushed concepts like totemic arachno-powers, mysterious wallcrawling men, organic webshooters and the rapidly-aged offspring of a union between Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn. Editorial decisions were taken once again to remove elements of Spider-Man’s history during the One More Day storyline, in particular Peter Parker’s recent public revelation of his secret identity during the Civil War event and his 1987 marriage to Mary Jane.

The bulging list of Spider-Man books was slimmed down into three issues of Amazing Spider-Man a month produced by a rotating team of writers and artists. Readership and critical reception became more appreciative and seems to have settled at a relative high point for Spider-Man. Risks were taken with the character in other Marvel books too, and Spidey has become a prominent addition to the Avengers after years avoiding teams.

The Marvel universe has gotten a lot less insular than it has been for a long time thanks to events like the Clone Saga. Crossovers and inter-book themes in the last ten years such as Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, Heroic Age, Shadowland, Fear Itself and Shattered Heroes have made characters who rarely strayed from one set of books have a greater influence across the company’s story output. One such example is Norman Osborn.

Marvel’s bad-ass team in Thunderbolts wouldn’t have struck like lightning without Warren Ellis’ run placing Osborn in charge. The unhinged businessman’s rise to global saviour, Director of H.A.M.M.E.R., leadership of the Dark Avengers as Iron Patriot, and downfall during the siege of Asgard is a long way from the dead nutball with weird hair who menaced a teenaged Spidey. Without the Clone Saga‘s grand finale Norman wouldn’t have returned to Marvel’s pages, and mainstream comics would be a very different landscape.

Reclaiming Ben Reilly

Dan Slott took the reins on the twice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man in January 2011, and the character webslinged across Marvel’s books over last year with the Spider Island event. Spider Island managed to show the affection readers have for elements of the Clone Saga while minimising its predecessor’s bad points: strung-out stories with little direction and cohesion that isolated all of one character’s books.

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Spider Island was Marvel’s answer to growing acceptance of a difficult time in their flagship character’s publishing history. There had been signs of affection for the elements of the controversial crossover in the often cancelled Spider-Girl series from Tom DeFalco. DeFalco’s Spider-Girl had the dead Reilly for an ‘Uncle Ben’, and she stuck around for 12 years. An Ultimate Clone Saga struck Ultimate Spider-Man in 2006 and a six-issue 2009 miniseries was also supposedly based on the original plan for the Clone Saga.

Also in 2009, over in Amazing Spider-Man #608, writer Marc Guggenheim introduced the character Raptor’s grudge against the deceased Ben Reilly. The past just wouldn’t go away.

Other characters, good and bad, have taken over the identity of Spider-Man since Ben Reilly’s tenure. Venom became Spidey during the Dark Reign event. In 2011 the death of Peter Parker led to international press coverage and a new, younger Spider-Man, Miles Morales, in Ultimate Comics.

Scarlet Spider returns

Despite some reader support for Clone Saga concepts and new faces filling Spidey’s boots, Scarlet Spider was put aside. The name was used briefly by unrelated characters in Spider-Girl and Avengers: The Initiative, but Ben Reilly never returned from the dead.

Spider Island helped revive the Clone Saga doppelganger Kaine. As a prototype clone of Peter Parker, Kaine had suffered from cellular degeneration – hey, it’s comics! – and struggled with precognition, murderous insanity and jealous rage towards his ‘brothers’. In Spectacular Spider-Man #221 Kaine had killed Doctor Octopus. The darker Parker was an oddly compelling villain who showed Spidey’s less friendly-neighbourhood side, but lacked the popularity of Ben Reilly.

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January’s Scarlet Spider #1 launches Kaine into his journey well outside of New York – to Texas. Kaine is now a fully stable clone of the original Spider-Man with a new chance at life, cured of his condition at last because of the events of Spider Island. The book’s writer, Chris Yost, is no stranger to clones as he created the female Wolverine, X-23. 

Whether the Marvel universe needs another anti-hero crawling around is down to any affection you might have for Scarlet Spider, as there’s already a successful Venom series right now. Kaine isn’t the slightly more inventive version of Peter Parker that Ben Reilly was either – at least not just yet. The first issue of Scarlet Spider went on sale last week and was promising. Let’s just hope they introduce a better costume quickly, one that doesn’t look like an inverted version of Ultimate Spider-Man!

Spider-Man is finally back on form, years after shaking off the confused and much prolonged Bobby Ewing-like bad dream of the Clone Saga. The story was hated, but an important lesson. Its surprising return of arch-nemesis Norman Osborn has affected Marvel in big ways. The friendly neighbourhood superhero has needed some jumpstarts and quite a few steps backwards before he could return to form, but there will always be affection for Scarlet Spider – the clone who could have been Spider-Man if he’d not met a sticky end.

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