Recently I’ve started digging into the newly-collected Spider-Man: The Complete Clone Saga Epic. Obviously it’s remembered as one of the more “controversial” comics stories of the 90’s and maybe all-time (I put that word in quotes since it just seems to be the polite catch-all folks use when describing something people didn’t receive that well, ala how WWE announcers frequently call John Cena “The most controversial WWE champion of all-time”).
I’m not here to praise or bury the story as a whole, as some talented folks were involved both creatively and editorially and odds are no matter how many “tell-all” interviews see print, we’ll never know the full story behind where certain elements that were supposed to zig were meant to zag and so on. I wasn’t invested enough in Spider-Man at the time to really be super-offended by any of it; I didn’t love how long it dragged on (and from what I understand, neither did most of the people involved), but at the same time it did get me to check out the books a few times.
Revisiting the storyline thus far in its early stages, I’ve yet to form a larger opinion of it (it’s going to take quite some time before I get to read the “Complete Epic”), but one volume in, I do know one thing: J.M. DeMatteis, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson dropped one gem of a limited series in the midst of the madness.
Spider-Man: The Lost Years is a three-issue snapshot from 1995 of the time Spidey clone Ben Reilly spent in exile in the decades between his debut and return. Following his presumed death in his first appearance, Ben took to the road and travelled across America and the world taking odd jobs teaching science or working in labs to stay close to the passion that still resided within him, but mostly just biding time on a long journey to nowhere. Lost Years tells of one particular stop-over where Ben finds love and reluctantly dons a mask once more to combat small-town corruption and the specter of his fellow clone and “evil twin,” Kaine.
J.M. DeMatteis stands out as one of comics’ best when it comes to writing introspective stories that delve heavily into the psyche and questions both base and complex about the nature of things like humanity and morality. In Lost Years, identity is the subject of DeMatteis’ exploration, as its centerpiece is Ben Reilly struggling with his inner turmoil over whether or not he has the right to a “real life” when he’s just a copy of somebody else as well as whether or not to claim ownership over things like his love of science or the values he—or rather Peter Parkers—acquired from Aunt May and Uncle Ben, including that pesky “With great power comics great responsibility” chestnut.
Where Ben stands on that last point fuels much of the conflict in Lost Years, as he observed bad things happening to good people, but tears himself apart over whether or not doing something about it is laying claim to that life and those privileges he feels he doesn’t deserve. Indeed inaction and observing Uncle Ben’s sage wisdom seems to form something of a bedrock of Reilly’s code: he’s being more of a hero by not using those great powers as to do so would be an affront, and he’s not beholden to that great responsibility because it’s Peter’s burden to bear as a counterweight to all the good things he has that Ben has been denied.
To be sure, Ben Reilly in Lost Years is about as angsty as “heroes” come, even for 1995, but in this case you can’t help but feel like he has a right to his pathos. This is a man who was forced into the world with memories, loved ones and even tiny things like interests or hobbies he’s keenly aware of at all times, but can never touch; DeMatteis succeeds in stripping Ben down psychologically to show why he is a fascinating protagonist and give reason to root for him to get his shit together and (literally) get a life.
On the other side of the coin, you’ve got Kaine, the scarred and diseased first attempt to clone Peter Parker (it’s a whole long thing) who now spends his life drowning in self-pity, causing trouble for the sake of amusement, and tailing Ben Reilly, the person he hates and envies more than anybody else in the world. Besides being bulked up and thus a physically-exaggerated version of Ben, Kaine is also the psychologically-heightened take on Reilly: whereas Ben may be eternally dejected at his lot in life, Kaine is flat out pissed off about it; where Ben’s negative feelings about his status as “not a man” manifest in moping and detachment, Kaine’s are expressed via rage and violence.
While Lost Years complains no shortage of action, it’s of an almost refreshingly mundane variety, as the spandex and super powers are left mostly at home with Ben and Kaine getting caught up in organized crime and corrupt police business around the Salt Lake City area of Utah. It’s nice contrast to the rest of the Clone Saga collection I read it in, where Spider-Man seems to be going up against Omni-powerful bad guys way above his pay grade, but also just feels like the right setting for two lost souls whose lives are anything but colorful. Indeed the lack of panache and energy blasts being thrown around is a pretty good summation for the lack of being special or even unique Ben and Kaine feel.
Both the clones seem to find love over the course of Lost Years, and each faces trials along the way to a possible happy ending (I won’t reveal the specifics, because obviously I think you should read this story). Again, DeMatteis shows his grasp over human nature here, as love is really played up as the potentially redemptive element that could give Ben and Kaine each something unique to call their own and reclaim them for their respective (or perhaps shared) purgatories. It’s also worth noting that Kaine of course dives headfirst into his romance without even really realizing at first it might be his “out,” while Ben is characteristically with trepidations not only about dragging another soul into his complex existence, but again whether or not this is even something he deserves.
This book came out right around the period I was starting to come around on John Romita Jr.’s art after a childhood of hating the way I thought he made the X-Men look ugly. It took a series like this (as well as an introduction to his Daredevil work) to really appreciate how much care he puts into drawing people without costumes, not to mention scene-after-scene of torrential rain. It’s the attention to detail that makes JRJr. great, and I’ve certainly changed my tune on him over the years, thanks in large parts to work like this (I still don’t really like how he draws the X-Men, but hey, pretty good batting average still). Klaus Janson is the perfect inking complement (as he often is) and they really capture DeMatteis’ somber, moody and powerfully raw work in a way I’m not sure any other art team could have.
I think the tragedy to a solid piece of work like Spider-Man: The Lost Years for me is that I read it and see how the Clone Saga maybe could have gone “right,” or at the least yielded a pretty cool long-term character in Ben Reilly. This type of story, with Ben as a wandering and reluctant hero struggling with his own issues and musing for writers like DeMatteis on the meaning of identity while stopping the occasional bad guy could have been a cool and different avenue to explore alongside the traditional Spider-Man fare rather than in its place. Indeed if the clone had returned to the Spidey mythos briefly to remind the true Peter Parker (who was kind of a downer at the time) of the great life he has, restoring that status quo somewhat and then hit the road again, perhaps a bit more fulfilled and a bit more at peace with his existence, the Spider-Clone (or Scarlet Spider or whatever) could have been a great every-other-year guest star/once-in-a-while limited series star.
Well no use mourning over what could have been for too long, but I do suggest you get a taste with Spider-Man: The Lost Years.