Friday, July 15, 2005

Scarlet faces all round

Web of Scarlet Spider 1-4
Amazing Scarlet Spider 1-2
Scarlet Spider 1-2
Spectacular Scarlet Spider 1-2
Scarlet Spider Unlimited 1

If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly (Macbeth)

For all the wrong reasons, the Clone Saga is a fascinating part of Comic Book History. Marvel had identified a problem: the greatest Spider-Man stories were those which had taken place when Peter Parker was a young, swinging, bachelor, but he was no longer. Since his marriage to Mary Jane, they had become a whingy, snappy couple who were hurtling towards middle age, spending their free time in furniture stores and worrying about the cost of life insurance policies. Their way to solve this was to wipe out several years of Spider-Man's life. Which is roughly twenty years our time. Peter Parker would turn out to a clone, while the real Peter Parker, young, hip Ben Reilly would come from the shadows to replace him. To help the process along, they character-assassinated Peter, having him swing about town yelling things like "Parker is dead, long live the Spider". Then they had him backhand Mary Jane. Charming.

Anyway, they delayed and delayed the switchover from Peter to Ben, giving everyone enough time to get really angry. Then the editorial team got cold feet, and made Peter the real Spider-Man after all, killing Reilly off. They also had to undo some of the changes they had made to Peter ie removing his newborn daughter (May), and resurrecting Aunt May, whose death had been the highlight of a barren period. It took two years for the Clone Saga to wind itself up, taking place at a time when the early 1990s boom was becoming a horrible bust, causing untold damage to Spider-Man, Marvel, and the digestive systems of its remaining readers.

This is all recounted at unbelievable length by Glenn Greenberg in The Life of Reilly. It's painfully long, mind, and by concentrating too much on the ins and outs of the plot, sometimes misses the point that the interesting story is really Marvel, not Ben Reilly. And since Greenberg was an editor and writer of Spider-Man at the time, it shouldn't necessarily be taken as unbiassed. Personally, I think it lets the editorial staff off lightly, and understates both the poor quality of many of the books that were produced, and the damage caused.

These issues are an important turning point. Peter Parker, at this point the clone, has been shuffled off the scene. Leaving Ben Reilly as Spider-Man? No, that would be too easy. Ben is still the Scarlet Spider, a temporary name Marvel came up with for Ben to use in the interim before he became Spider-Man. All regular Spider-Man comics were suspended, and these put out in their place. "Scarlet Spider" was supposed to be a temporary name, but here they are plastering it all over some of the most high profile comics in the industry. At the end of Spectacular Scarlet Spider #2, Ben abandons "Scarlet Spider", and becomes "Spider-Man". And then Web of Scarlet Spider continues on for another two issues, containing Ben-as-Spider-Man in them. You couldn't make it up. Greenberg blames Marketing for these issues, which could well be true. Although you do wonder which marketing professional would advocate bigging up a brand (Scarlet Spider) which you have no intention of continuing with, and are indeed about to destroy. At one point, Reilly goes on about how much he hates the name "Scarlet Spider". If even the owner hates it so much, what is it doing on the front of the comic? Why didn't the editors give Ben a name they liked?

It seems that everyone had lost control.

It shows in these issues. You get the impression everybody involved feels they have better things to do with their time. The art looks hurried and homogenised. You have difficulty telling different artists' work apart, since they are all drawing in the same ugly manner. I don't think the mighty Bill Sienkiewicz has ever looked so bad. The stories are cliched and garbled, the dialogue poor verging on facile. The colours are garish - which I suspect may be to do with colourists not having yet adjusted from changing from matt to shiny pages. Even the lettering looks shockingly rushed. All the stories are cross-overs ("Virtual mortality", "Cyberwar", "Nightmare in Scarlet") but none have such worth that you would want to make a cross-over out of them. Designed by committee, they are rendered incomprehensible by mismatches between each individual writer's idea of what they're supposed to be doing.

They're also museum pieces in their attitude to technology. In the early nineties, there was this idea that technology would develop to the point where we would become immersed in computer environments, all bytestreams and moody sunglasses and digital images, like in the Matrix. In the end, of course, the future turned out to be stuffing genetically modified Deep Crust pizza down our fat throats while playing fifteen consecutive hours of Doom 12 and maxing out our credit cards at The writers have a startling lack of knowledge about technology. Howard Mackie at one point appears not to know the difference between a chip and a virus. Consequently, the characters talk like gibbering idiots. It's that bad.

These issues are worthwhile for two things only. Reilly finally becoming Spider-Man, after putting it off a ridiculous number of times. And there's Scarlet Spider Unlimited 1, where Greenberg undoes the work of Gerry Conway, who had previously retconned the original clone saga. Greenberg props up the retcon of a retcon by retconning a different retcon of the retcon. Complex and yet worthless, it's a sign of how desperate Marvel had become to shore up this farce. It's like discovering that a dungpile stinks and trying to rectify it by unloading a palette of shit on top.

Can we salvage anything out of this? Ben Reilly doesn't come out too bad. The little clips of his private life show that some thought was going into developing a new, desperately needed Spider-Man cast. Reilly still has some fans, and I can just about see why. Not to worry, as I'm sure they'll bring him back eventually. Probably as a member of the Champions.


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