Fan Retrospectives: Spider-Man: The Clone Saga: Part 21: Virtual Morality

The Spider-Man Clone saga is one of the most reviled story lines ever. It featured the return of Spider-Man's clone Ben Reilly, but also dragged Spider-Man through one of the strangest, series of conspiracies and narratives that the franchise have ever seen.
But... is it really as bad as the internet would have you believe? Come with us as we review the Clone Saga story arc by story arc as we uncover how one of comics' most infamous series holds up today.

"Virtual Morality" Web of Scarlet Spider #1, Amazing Scarlet Spider #1, Scarlet Spider #1, Spectacular Scarlet Spider #1

Writers:  Tom DeFalco, Todd DeZago, Mike Lackey, Howard Mackie

Artists: Paris Karounos, Mark Bagley, Gil Kane, Sal Buscema

Review by Eric Lee

Ben Reilly's career as Spider-Man gets delayed again for more comics featuring him as Scarlet Spider. As explained previously, the Scarlet Spider solo comics were a cheap marketing stunt to strengthen the brand name. 

However, it was pushed on the creators late, which gives them not only a limited turn-around to produce a comic book, but also induced  creative exhaustion. And brother, does it show in these issues. These are some of the roughest comics - both in terms of writing and art - I've ever read.

After defeating some thugs, Scarlet Spider  spots a super suspicious helicopter with a giant hanging magnet stealing a car. What follows is a poorly-drawn sequence of events. A gang descends from the helicopter onto the roof of the car. Scarlet intervenes by webbing them, but when his webs hit the gang member, they combust into a smoke bomb and escape. 
The entire scene is really difficult to decipher. Much of the panels are framed tightly, so readers have no clue what the context of the scene is. The action is surprisingly flat in most places, which dramatically mutes typically exciting actions, like a car crash. It relies way too much Scarlet Spider narrating what is happening.
This whole issue is full of poorly choreographed action scenes. Like, later on the gang members report back to their boss Mr. Tso, who orders their deaths because they failed to steal the car. It's so difficult to tell what's actually occurring.
Eventually, Tso's gang-who is bankrolled by yet another shadowy mystery person-is successful in stealing the car of computer parts.  The scene ends with Ben creating a web hang-glider and skis. It's borderline ridiculous how the webbing acts like a Green Lantern ring.

Meanwhile, Ben gets a new job as a waiter in a hip new nightclub called Club Noir. However, Club Noir is also owned by Mr. Tso.

Apparently, Tso's gang is direct conflict with the new Dr. Octopus' gang over virtual reality and computer tech. The crew attempts to steal a new VR visor from Doc Ock's secret base, but she stupidly sets off the self-destruct alarm too early, alerting Ben to the conflict. Ben eventually ends up stealing the VR headset himself and takes it to Seward Trainer.
By the way, I thought Trainer didn't live in New York.  But now we see Trainer in a fancy penthouse apartment.

Oh yeah, this story also introduces a couple of new potential love interests for Ben Reilly. This is a thing that writers have been trying to make happen since Ben re-appeared in the comics. First was his neighbor Gabrielle Greer, introduced in Web of Spider-Man #119. Next, was Betty Brant, who flirted with Ben for a hot second.  There was also Janine from The Lost Years.

Now  we have a waitress who goes by the name of Rachel.  We also meet Carrie Bradley, who lives in Trainer's building. She also is the person who sounds most like a Sex in the City character.
After flirting with Carrie, Ben and Trainer hook into the Matrix and enter the VR world. Doc Ock stop them from leaving by uploading a virtual being called VR-37.  Ben actually defeats VR-37, but not before VR leaves Trainer in a brain-dead comatose state.
The reality is that Trainer's fine.  We later discover  that  his mind is lost in cyberspace, but he's still cognizant. This is actually super convenient, because he's able to eavesdrop on Doc Ock and her mystery benefactor's plans to assassinate Tso.  He's also able to communicate that information to Ben via computer monitors.

Doc Ock hires a hit-man called the Pro to take out Tso. The Pro is known for being a highly professional, competent assassin who proudly uses a PDA. Normally, I wouldn't make jokes about it, but the comic makes such a big deal of it, that they even have a  little editor's note telling readers what PDA stands for.
So the Pro blackmails some proxies to kill Tso for him, except Ben intervenes. This act moves Tso so much that he hires Ben as his personal bodyguard. 

There's also an amusing side-plot where Daily Bugle staff members Ken Ellis and Angela Yin are at the same club when the assassination attempt occurs. Ben has to save them while concealing the fact he looks identical to  Peter Parker. It's a cool idea, but I don't think the creators exploit it enough. 
After the Pro fails, Doc Ock send yet another gang to kill Tso.  They're made up of Override, his wife Aura, and an armored up Looter.  They try to assassinate Tso again, but once again, Scarlet Spider interferes. Wash and repeat.
Interestingly, of all the new characters introduced in this arc, Override actually has made the most appearances in post-Clone Saga Spider-Man comics. He eventually transforms into a villain called Shadrac, before fading away into obscurity when J. Michael Straczynski takes over the title.

Oh yeah, and Mr. Tso's mystery benefactor is revealed to be Alistair Smythe of the Spider Slayers, who has some new toys called the Cyber-slayers.
The story arc is nowhere near a resolution, but this is considered the conclusion. That's okay, because it picks up again in the next story arc "Cyberwar".

By the Numbers

Lets tally up to see what the Clone Saga has done so far:

Notable Developments:

  •  The first appearance of Mr. Tso
  • The first appearances of two more Ben Reilly love interests: Rachel and Carrie
  • Ben gets a job at Club Noir, first as a waiter, then as a bodyguard
  • Doctor Octopus wages ware against Alistair Smythe for tech parts
  • First appearance of the Pro
  • First appearance of Aura and Override
  • There's an undercover FBI agent  Joe Wade trying to infiltrate Doc Ock's gang
  • First appearance of FBI special agent Briggs

Shadow Mystery Men:

  • Judas Traveller
  • Mr. Thorpe
  • The Scrier 
  • The new Green Goblin 
  • Stunner 
  • Virtual reality boss
  • Mr. Tso's boss- Revealed to be Alistair Smythe

Subplots Count:

  •  Mary Jane's baby is fine
  • Daily Bugle report Ken Ellis' obsession with Scarlet Spider
  • Thorpe wanting to kill Spider-Man for unknown reasons
  • Peter is the clone and Ben is the "real Peter"
  • Judas Traveller is helping Peter for unknown reasons
  • Other super-villains are teamed-up to kill Kaine
  • Who is the new Green Goblin? 
  • What happened to Janine?
  •  Peter retires and passes the Spider-Man identity to Ben
  • The Scrier has his own agenda and needs the Jackal's intel
  •  Dr. Octopus is needs Seward Trainer's information for a virtual reality bomb 
  •  Dr. Octopus and Alistair Smythe are stealing tech from each other
  • Ben's new jobs at Club Noir is morally iffy
  • An undercover FBI agent Joe Wade works for Doctor Octopus

Clones Running Around:

  • Ben Reilly
  • The first Gwen clone
  •  The four mini-Jacks
  • Kaine

    Repetition is My Job, My Job is Repetition:

  • Love interests for Ben Reilly: 5 (Gabrielle Greer, Betty Brant, Janine, Rachel the waitress, Carrie Bradley) 
  • Number of times Mr. Tso attempts to rob Doc Ock: 3
  • Number of times Mr. Tso attempts to rob Doc Ock using a helicopter and a big magnet: 2
  • Number of times Doc Ock attempts to assassinate Mr. Tso: 2
  • Mystery men: 9
  • Number of people who steal Jackal's data for their own means: 2 (Scrier, High Evolutionary)
  • Number of times Peter freaks out over the thought of Mary Jane and family: 7
  • Number of people Ben Reilly had untold adventures with: 4 (Kaine, Seward Trainer, Wild Whip, and D'Spayre)
  • Number of times an old Peter Parker locale triggers a flashback for Peter or a clone: 10
  • Visions of Mary Jane dying: 14
  • Number of times Kaine spies on others in the shadows: 23
  • Number of times the Scrier spies on others: 10
  • Number of Gwen clones: 5
  • Number of Mini-Jackal clones: 5
  • Number of times a girl falls reminiscent of Gwen Stacy's death: 3
  • Number of "experiments" Judas Traveller gives to Peter: 4
  • Number of disaffected Peter Parker clones: incalculable ERROR ERROR! 
  • Number of times Peter lies saying that he is fine when he's really not: 4
  • Number of times Peter lies specifically to Mary Jane about stuff: 4
  • Number of gangs that Kaine beats up: 3
  • Number of times the Grim Hunter swears vengeance on Spider-Man: 4
  • Number of times the Grim Hunter swears vengeance on Spider-Man while naked: 2
 This is a  sub-standard story line. It repeats the same beats over and over again. Tso's gang steals from Ock's gang repeatedly and Scarlet Spider intervenes. Ock's gang tries to kills Tso repeatedly and Scarlet Spider intervenes. It is clear that it has enough plot for maybe two issues, but was stretched out to over four. 

Speaking of the plot, it doesn't quite connect from "The Greatest Responsibility" . There, Doc Ock wanted to create a virtual reality bomb. But here, she's mired in a gang war for tech parts. And then there's the awkward plot hole where Ben is supposed to be Spider-Man, but continues to be Scarlet Spider for reasons.

The art in Web of Scarlet Spider contains some of the worst storytelling I've seen. It's difficult to comprehend what's happening from panel to panel because it's so disjointed. 

At least the art from the other three issues looks nicer. 
For the previous Fan Retrospectives on the Clone Saga, click here.

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