By Charles EP Murphy
It’s one of the most controversial and mocked Spider-Man stories of all time, but also one that sold a lot of comics up until it did not – the two-year mess known as the Clone Saga!
In the mid-70s, the villainous Jackal had cloned Spider-Man; both believed they were the real Spider-Man and when one died a heroic death, it was left ambiguous who’d bought it. In the mid-90s, a two year storyline was kicked off when the clone, calling himself Ben Reilly and taking the superhero role of the Scarlet Spider, turned out to be alive – and Spider-Man readers were told that Peter Parker was, in fact, the clone and Ben the original Peter! Ben took over as Spider-Man before, in the end, it turned out he really was a clone and was killed off (he later got better). This took over a hundred comics.
A definitive history of the saga was chronicled by Andrew Goletz and Clone-era assistant editor Glenn Greenberg, in the 35-part The Life Of Reilly that originally ran on Comic Book Galaxy in the early 00s. For the full OTL behind-the-scenes story, we’d recommend you check that and weep. For the greatly simplified story:
Clone And Away
In the mid-90s, Marvel Comics had become concerned Spider-Man had been ‘aged’ by his marriage to Mary Jane Watson and wished he could be single again. After all, what drama is there in marriage? (Stop sniggering, you married people at the back) But divorce would ‘age’ Peter Parker further. Around the same time, DC Comics had sold a lot of comics with their Death of Superman storyline – and so Marvel ordered the Spider-Man writers and editors to sit in a room and come up with their equivalent.
Terry Kavanaugh remembered the old Jackal story and proposed: what if the clone had lived, and what if he was the real Peter Parker? Assistant editor Mark Bernardo told The Life of Reilly this was met with “groans and indifference”, before one writer – likely J.M. DeMatteis – saw potential in it. Soon, the writers were sold, and their passion won over Tom DeFalco in editorial. In DeFalco’s telling, the original plan was that Ben Reilly would briefly take over before it was revealed at the end that Peter Parker was the real Peter Parker after all. This then changed into Ben definitely becoming Spider-Man – and reclaiming the name of Peter Parker. A single Peter Parker!
This was all going to happen in Amazing Spider-Man #400, after a series of stories that would show Ben was more like the ‘good old’ Spidey and involve clashes with a murderous second clone called Kaine. This run would also give the old Peter a reason to retire: Mary Jane had become pregnant. DeFalco had proposed the pregnancy and as he was the top authority at Marvel at the time, he could ensure this would work.
Problem was, the Clone Saga was a hit at a time when the direct market (as we’ve discussed before) was contracting. That meant Marvel’s marketing department and accountants wanted more Clone Saga. It got stretched out further and further. First it was meant to now end in Maximum Clonage (or “Maximum Bonage” to insiders) with expensive Alpha and Omega one-shot issues, but then it carried on, and then there were two months of Scarlet Spider comics to further exploit that trademark before Reilly officially became Spider-Man. Everyone was stressed and terrible ideas like Peter Parker hitting his wife slipped through.
All this meant that when Ben Reilly was finally Spider-Man, fans were getting a bit sick of clones and Marvel decided it wasn’t working out. Therefore, Peter Parker had to be brought back – but he couldn’t be a dad because then he’d be even older than just being married. Which meant, in the immortal words of Sean Howe’s Marvel: The Untold Story, “the writers and editors of the Spider-Man books argued over who had to be responsible for giving Mary Jane Watson a miscarriage.”
Attempts to sort out the Clone Saga led to all manner of pitches, including Mary Jane also being a clone of a real single MJ, the Devil using time-travel to make both men the real Peter Parker, and, I tell no lie, ‘there’s an explosion, only one is alive, he has amnesia and doesn’t know which he is, THE END’. When they finally had a working idea, Marvel was undergoing a major reorganisation and the new editor-in-chief, Bob Harras, told them not to end it for another six months, to avoid clashing with the upcoming X-Men crossover Onslaught.
Greenberg told Life of Reilly: “We (the writers, the editors, the assistant editors, Marvel's continuity cop, and writers who weren't even working on the Spider-books) were going back and forth, submitting one idea after another, until we were all sick of Spider-Man, of clones, and, to some extent, of each other.”
During all of this, the writers never actually came up with a way Ben Reilly could become Peter Parker again – not one that would stop all the other characters asking, ‘what happened to your pregnant wife, Peter?’. And at the end, Peter and MJ remained married for another ten years anyway!
Is there any way on God’s green Earth to avoid this? Could the Clone Saga have turned out the way it was meant to?
Clone On The Range
If you mean “could it work as initially planned”, no. Once sales went up, the marketing and sales departments would demand more comics.
This means the best place to turn things around is Maximum Clonage, ending with the takedown of the Jackal and his clone army. It’s possible here that the Spider-creators can stick to the plan, leave just a coda after Clonage to show Peter retiring and Ben Reilly taking over. To pull it off, you need a different writer on the Omega special – Tom Lyle, as Life of Reilly chronicles, was not experienced enough for the job, and replacing him had already been suggested to editorial.
After that, you’ll still get at least a month of Scarlet Spider comics because the marketing department will demand it but after that, you’re all sorted. With this done months earlier, the miniseries Spider-Man: The Final Adventure – intended originally to be clone-Peter’s last story – will still be able to take place as planned, ending with Mary Jane giving birth. Now, even if Marvel change their mind, it’s going to be harder to cancel everything than keep going. If divorcing Peter makes him too old, try giving him a dead baby!
In terms of stories, the broad arcs will still be the same as the early months of OTL’s Spider-Ben, just earlier. He will still fight Carnage and deal with killer clone Kaine, as these were proposals by editor Bob Budiansky. If Dan Jurgens is still headhunted from DC Comics, he’ll bring with him an idea of Mysterio running a TV company and the character of Jessica Carradine, a potential girlfriend for Spidey who’s the daughter of the burglar who shot his Uncle Ben. The Scarlet Spider became a recurring character in the New Warriors comic (at this time counted in the ‘Spider-Man Group’), a team of randomly picked young heroes, and it’s possible this could now happen with Spider-Man for a short period.
What happens after that? We know Budiansky planned to spin Kaine off as an anti-hero figure and we know he wanted to run a series of sequels to DeMatteis and John Romita Jnr’s The Lost Years miniseries, exploring what Ben and Kaine were doing in the five years Ben was on the road. We also know DeMatteis departed because of the unending Clone Saga, and he’s likely to stick around now that’s all done.
There’s just one problem with all this: Ben Reilly isn’t Peter Parker, and the whole point is to have a young, single Peter Parker. There is no way to do this that will not make for a terrible story that will have huge plot holes like “now everyone thinks his pregnant wife left him”, and there’s no way to not tick off thousands of readers.
Of course, this is also true of a story where Spider-Man sells his marriage to the Devil and time is rewritten so he was only cohabiting & not married, but that’s what Marvel eventually did! In that case, they simply bulled ahead and ran old-school Spider-Man stories the very next month that didn’t refer to the whole Devil thing. If they use the same attitude here, they might – might – get away with it if nobody in marketing balks. Potentially, an idea Todd Dezago had from how to bring Peter comes up here: married preggers Mary Jane is also a clone, the real one was in suspended animation, and that’s why one leaves and nobody asks about her after. Crude and unsatisfying, yes, but so’s “Devil eats your marriage”.
Unless you do something crude and unsatisfying to make Ben Reilly become Peter Parker, eventually someone will want to reveal he was a clone all along and bring the old Peter back. Dan Jurgens left because this wasn’t being done and he wanted to write about the ‘real’ Spider-Man; in the contemporary Marvel Comics VS DC Comics, co-written by Jurgens, Ben Reilly became a photographer at the Daily Planet and said his “professional name” was Peter Parker. This sort of attitude may get everything changed back quite soon, maybe in the Heroes Return relaunch of back-to-basics takes of the Avengers, where Marvel could go “what the hell, bung Spidey in”.
And if the Clone Saga hasn’t become a total mess ITTL, if Ben is clicking with enough of the existing readers, this inevitable reversal will cause problems – especially because it will now mean getting rid of a baby in a crude and unsatisfying way!
This is really your only way to have the Clone Saga work out as planned. You have to very, very quickly crash through a terrible story and hope nobody minds because Spidey punches Doc Ock the next month.
You Can’t Go Clone Again
If the Clone Saga does work, there are several big changes that will ripple outwards.
The first is, of course, a single Peter Parker years earlier means more and more years of relationship soap opera. Marvel briefly tried to have Gwen Stacy’s cousin Jill show up as a potential relationship interest (yes, even when Mary Jane was still around) – this can now work out. We’ll also see all-new girlfriend characters invented by writers who came along and wanted to make their mark. Inevitably things may arc towards Mary Jane as the main girlfriend, as she’s the one in the 90s cartoon and the upcoming 2002 film, but then again things could change.
Kaine would get a run of comics and be an antagonistic force for Spider-Man – a man he loathes for being the real Peter while he’s imperfect and twisted – and, if The Lost Years sticks around as an annual event and shows them as long-time rivals, he’d become an important secondary character. That inevitably will lead to appearances in other media. (Could he be the villain Sam Raimi is talked into putting in Spider-Man 3?)
While his star rises, another plummets: May “Mayday” Parker, Spider-Girl. She was a fan favourite character created by Tom DeFalco, starting from the premise ‘what if the baby had lived?’ and wearing “Uncle Ben’s” old costume. If the baby lives but is far, far away in the hinterlands with the ignored clone, she’s never going to get a comic. Without that, the brief subline of “MC2” comics about the children of existing heroes will never happen either.
If the New Warriors do get Spider-Man as a recurring guy, their sales will rise, and this could keep the comic alive past 1996. It would also tie Spider-Man to a team years before he ended up in the New Avengers: even if he stops hanging with the New Warriors, he’ll be “a New Warriors guy” and so inevitably keep crossing paths with them. Will he end up in the Avengers if he’s associated with another team? If he does (to boost sales), for how long, and do the New Warriors respond to that in a story? If the New Warriors failing in a mission is still the catalyst for the Civil War storyline, what does this mean for Spider-Man’s role in it?
And then there’s the biggest change. In our timeline, the Clone Saga was eventually revealed as a plot by a not-actually-dead Norman Osborne, the original Green Goblin – because Bob Harras became EIC around this time, and this was his idea.
Since the Clone Saga, Norman’s been an even bigger villain for Spider-Man than he ever used to be in the 1960s, spending several periods as a master manipulator and overarching threat. In the late 2000s, Marvel even had a storyline, Dark Reign, where the US government was tricked into making him their point man for superhero affairs. Norman appeared in hundreds of comics, facing dozens of superheroes and turning villains into government ‘superheroes’ (the Dark Avengers, Dark X-Men etc). He started a war with Asgard before he was toppled!
All of these stories require the Clone Saga to need undoing at a specific point. If not, Norman’s still dead. (Which means we miss out on Warren Ellis writing him, so maybe it’s a good thing the Clone Saga failed)
In the end, the Clone Saga’s success or failure – the entire shape of Spider-Man over the last twenty-five years, the fate of many other comics and characters – and indeed the very reason such stories happen, rested on the whims of marketing and upper management more than individual creators and even editors. Many Marvel and DC comics can say the same.
Charles EP Murphy is the author of Chamberlain Resigns, And Other Things That Did Not Happen, published by SLP.