Stillanerd Reviews: Spider-Man: The Clone Conspiracy #4

It’s talk, talk, and more talk in the second-to-last part of Dan Slott’s “Amazing Spider-Man event” before suddenly barrelling full speed over the edge.

There’s a scene midway through Dan Slott’s Dead No More:The Clone Conspiracy #4 where the new Jackal, a “resurrected” Ben Reilly, once more tries persuading Peter Parker that he’s not the bad guy, that bringing the dead back as clones and thus essentially eliminating death is for humanity’s benefit. He even promises, as he did in Clone Conspiracy #3 and it’s tie-in, Amazing Spider-Man #22, he’ll bring back Uncle Ben. Except Peter makes an astute observation: if “Ben Reilly” can “resurrect” Uncle Ben, why hasn’t he done so already? Why “resurrect” everyone else who died under Peter’s watch first? The answer is because “Ben” was never going to bring Uncle Ben back. “He’d look at you,” Peter explains, “And he’d tell you you’re wrong…you have the means, the power. But no responsibility.” It’s the single best moment of the entire crossover event, a reaffirmation of what makes Spider-Man a hero, and a culmination of Peter’s journey under Slott in learning how to accept and come to terms with death.

But then this moment becomes utterly ruined. Not just from the events which transpire afterwards, or because “Ben Reilly” goes from zero to evil with a literal snap of his fingers. It’s because it raises a different, unintended kind of question: if “Ben Reilly” was never going to bring back Uncle Ben, if it’s just a bluff to get Peter on his side, why did he even go through the trouble of digging up Uncle Ben’s body at all? Was having a visual aid really all that necessary for his plan to work? Unless, of course, “Ben Reilly” only did this for the sake of the plot.

Credit: Jim Cheun, John Dell, Cory Smith, and Justin Ponsor (Marvel Comics); from The Clone Conspiracy #4
Doesn’t matter if [Dan] Slott’s characters behave or react in ways contradictory their own personalities and histories, even within the span of a few panels and dialogue balloons. It’s always plot first, character second.

A similar, and just as powerful, occurrence happens later on, involving Anna Maria Marconi and Doctor Octopus together coming up with a possible solution the clones’ problem of undergoing gradual cellular degradation. Here, “Ben Reilly” offers Anna Maria a different kind of carrot stick: in exchange for her help, he’ll download her mind into a new clone body, one which doesn’t degenerate, and one free of dwarfism. Rightfully insulted, Anna Maria declares, “Up yours! I already am perfect.” Even Doc Ock, despite her wanting nothing to do with him, attacks “Ben” to defend Anna Maria’s honor. Yet this also is the moment in where Slott decides to have everything escalate out of control to the point where the entire world is danger. After all, Clone Conspiracy #2 did promise its readers that the Jackal and New U bringing back the dead as clones would result in a potential Carrion zombie outbreak and apocalypse. And Clone Conspiracy must deliver on this promise before it ends, even it also feels too abrupt, tacked on, and goes against the story’s very own previously established logic.

But even earlier than these scenes, there’s another where Peter reunites with the clones of Gwen and Captain Stacy, apologizes for failing them while they were alive, and “Gwen” responds by saying “I forgive you.” So much for the potential drama created by Slott’s own back-up story in Clone Conspiracy #1, as it seems “Gwen” came to terms with Peter lying to her about being Spider-Man entirely off-panel. Because of course, apart from setting up the tie-in of Amazing Spider-Man #23, her reconciliation with Peter makes her and her father’s potential second death all the more supposedly horrifying and tragic. Are you beginning to see a pattern yet?

Credit: Jim Cheun, John Dell, Cory Smith, and Justin Ponsor (Marvel Comics); from The Clone Conspiracy #4

All this, as readers of my previous reviews well know, leads me back one of my main points of criticism with Slott’s near decade long run on The Amazing Spider-Man, and especially with this second to last chapter of this “Amazing Spider-Man event.”  Slott can come up with very clever, often controversial, story ideas and scenarios for Spider-Man that you’ve never even considered. He can weave seemingly desperate and chaotic narratives together with ease, and excels in outlining these narratives for the long-term. He seems to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure and bizarre aspects of Spider-Man history. And he’s perfectly capable of taping into characters emotional states and motivations. But he also approaches storytelling as if he’s playing a board game, treating characters like game pieces and moving them along a predetermined path with a roll of the dice. Especially when it pertains to events such as this. Hence why we have instances of Anna Maria voicing her contempt and disgust towards Otto in one moment, then express gushing awe over how “amazing” his mind is in the next. Doesn’t matter if Slott’s characters behave or react in ways contradictory their own personalities and histories, even within the span of a few panels and dialogue balloons.  It’s always plot first, character second.

No where is this more apparent than in Slott’s depiction of “Ben Reilly.” Granted, even though “Ben” as the Jackal saw himself, New U, and his associates as “the good guys,” he’s still the antagonist of the event, and it was evident even before this issue that he had a few screws loose. It’s the way Slott turns “Ben” into a full-blown, genocidal super villain that beggars belief. Why, after three failed attempts in convincing Peter to side with him does he order his not-so reformed cloned super villains to kill his “brother” without hesitation or remorse? That, based on some throwaway lines from him not keeping his hair blonde, “Ben” always intended on killing Peter if he refused? There’s also no rhyme and reason, no build-up of any kind, for what “Ben” does in the issue’s climax other than he just went crazy all of a sudden. Just like killing off Hobie Brown and bringing back as a clone hasn’t done the new Prowler series any favors, neither will this convince readers into jumping on board the upcoming Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider series. Unless Slott pulls a bait-and-switch by laying the groundwork for “Ben Reilly” in that series not being the same “Ben Reilly” from Clone Conspiracy. (Something to do with Doc Ock’s “proto-clone,” perhaps?) Or that this “Ben Reilly” wasn’t Ben Reilly to begin with.

Credit: Jim Cheun, John Dell, Cory Smith, and Justin Ponsor (Marvel Comics); from The Clone Conspiracy #4
Clone Conspiracy #4 is a mess. Not the disastrous, foul-smelling kind that requires a professional to fumigate for several hours, but the kind caused by having too much clutter and not enough shelf space.

It also doesn’t help that this comic is one more exposition-laden slog like the others before it, regurgitating not just plot points from previous issues of Clone Conspiracy and Amazing Spider-Man but even dialogue almost verbatim. A good portion of Clone Conspiracy #4 reads like a retread of issue #2, as “Ben Reilly” give Spider-Man another guided tour of all the supposedly good work New U is doing. Just substitute the antiseptic, steel-gray, sci-fi hallways of New U’s corporate headquarters with a San Francisco downtown suburb circa 1950, throw in a few more clones of dead supporting characters for Spider-Man to be shocked by, but still have “Ben” talk about how he’s making a world a better place. Same difference.

In fairness, there are enough elements which do pull Clone Conspiracy #4 out the mire it often wades itself in. Virtually every scene involving Doc Ock, especially after his reunion with Anna Maria, are brilliant, as Slott once again perfectly conveys Otto Octavious’ arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-importance lurking behind his mad genius. The art by Jim Cheung still continues to  dazzle, even though it’s mostly limited to static-looking conversation scenes. Perhaps this explains why his illustrations, exquisitely rendered and detailed as they are, are also so subdued, never leaping off the page or sucking you into the story compared the last three issues. And once he does start creating more action-heavy panels, Cheung’s tendency is to fit too many things in at once, and the panel focal point lost in a sea of figures and Justin Ponsor’s colors. Fortunately, Cheung still excels when depicting expressions, as character’s faces, especially in close-up, are wonderfully photogenic.

Regardless, Clone Conspiracy #4 is a mess. Not the disastrous, foul-smelling kind that requires a professional to fumigate for several hours, but the kind caused by having too much clutter and not enough shelf space.  It’s the kind of comic you can tell is the penultimate chapter of a crossover because it crams so much new and redundant stuff in while still trying to explain what’s happening even if you already know what’s happening. Although not nearly as stretched thin or convoluted as the Clone Saga, Dan Slott’s Clone Conspiracy shares that saga’s problem when it comes to pacing, and knowing what to leave in and what to leave out. Perhaps if he let his characters be free the wander from the rigid path he puts them on, then his resolutions wouldn’t feel as rushed as they’ve been during past Spider-Man events, and as this one has shaped up to be.

Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (spoilers ahead)

Credit: Jim Cheun, John Dell, Cory Smith, and Justin Ponsor (Marvel Comics); from The Clone Conspiracy #4
  • “You’re an earlier form of clone, but far more sturdy than [us]…” I think your glasses need replacing, Otto. Because have looked at Kaine recently? Sure, he’s decaying at a slower rate compared to the New U clones, but “sturdy” isn’t exactly the word I’d use.
  • Hmm…so what is it about the design of Kaine’s “web-warrior” communicator Doc Ock finds so “familiar?” Is it call back to when Otto, during Spider-Verse, made his own wrist-sized inter-dimensional transporter? But if so, why doesn’t Otto recognize it as such?
  • So “Ben Reilly” pokes fun at Peter’s tendency to repeat things they both already know… then takes several hours repeating the same spin he’s already tried using on Peter in getting him on his side. Then again, “Ben Reilly” is a clone of Peter.
  • “Love, Pete. The power of love.” And cue Huey Lewis and the News.
  • “I got a whole Egyptian theme going on here.” Yes, because when I look at the Transamerica Pyramid building, I’m definitely reminded of Ancient Egypt…or rather I’m not reminded at all. Besides, the only truly Egyptian theme “Ben Reilly” has going on is his mask.
  • If that guy eating the apple is Nick Katzenberg, then where’s his mustache?
  • Okay, this confirms New U brought Ned Leeds back as a clone, but he also wasn’t the Hobogoblin clone. Which means the Hobgoblin clone might be Jason Macendale’s clone. But if the Hobogoblin clone is a clone of Jason Macendale, then who’s the clone of Jack O’Lantern?
  • Okay, Dan Slott has done a lot unexpected things with Spider-Man. But the Lizard playing soccer? Definitely didn’t see that one coming.
  • Um, why is Massacre’s clone allowed to carry around fully-loaded automatic weapons?
  • “I should never have made that [no one dies] vow.” And cue Orson Welles.
  • “…anyone tries to kill Spider-Man? They’re clearly the bad guys.” You mean the fact your new boss cloned super villains and enemies of Spider-Man wasn’t enough a clue, Hobie Brown? Oh, and so much for feeling morally conflicted in your own tie-in comic.
  • “It’s like the worst telenovela…you could not write this stuff!” Actually, since Dan Slott did write this, one most certainly can, “Electro.”
  • So what you’re essentially saying, Otto, is that you and Anna Maria have discovered the brown note and that it only affects clones. Somehow, I find that rather fitting.
  • “[Anna Maria is perfect.] I wouldn’t change a thing.” Says the same Doc Ock who once made over his overweight ex-girlfriend into an athletic supermodel via holograms.
  • “I’ve seen this…they’re turning into Carrions!” Actually, you haven’t, Spidey. Because the whole clones turning into Carrion zombies via their cellular degradation is a retcon.
  • So I guess “Ben” installed a really loud mic in his lab. Because how did Spidey hear Kaine yell about how contagious the clones through all the noise from the “brown note,” the screams of melting clones, and Electro blasting everything in sight…and over a PA system?
  • You know “Ben” and Jonah, somehow I don’t think anyone can hear what you’re saying given the apparent volume of the “brown note.” Plus, wouldn’t that “brown note” be distorted–and thus less effective–than hearing it in person since it’s going over TV airwaves?
  • By the way, why aren’t “Ben” and “Electro” turning into Carrion zombies like the rest of the New U clones? Shouldn’t they also be affected by the “brown note?”