Writing about Darkhawk the other day, I discussed how it seemed like in the 90’s comic companies—Marvel in particular—were always looking for “the new Spider-Man.” What I didn’t talk about was how there actually was a new Spider-Man for a bit in Ben Reilly.
I’ve done a post about Ben Reilly before and mentioned that I felt he had a lot of untapped potential that writers like J.M. DeMatteis in particular seemed to get. I thought Ben’s greatest attribute was allowing creators to explore different paths and venues for Spider-Man right there in the Marvel Universe without having to mess with Peter Parker directly. In Ben Reilly you had the core of Peter Parker’s personality (say that five times fast) but also a tortured soul and free spirit that played better as a man questing for life rather than being anchored by a city or friends and family.
Ultimately I think the worst thing for Ben Reilly was for him to become Spider-Man. He may have had a different costume and blond hair, but it was about trying to jam him into Peter Parker’s place and tell Peter Parker stories (specifically unmarried Peter Parker stories) with a guy who could have been something different.
You know the end of the story: the fans didn’t buy Ben as Spider-Man, he got dispatched, and Peter Parker returned.
However, absence did make the heart grow fonder and folks came to regard Ben Reilly with a loving nostalgia, as evidenced by the many requests we (meaning Marvel) would get at conventions to bring him back. When we teased at San Diego that the Scarlet Spider might be returning folks got excited as this was Ben’s pre-Spider-Man identity. Things went another direction and the other clone of Peter Parker, one-time villain Kaine, ended up as the new Scarlet Spider who recently got his own series by Chris Yost and Ryan Stegman.
And to bring my little tangent full circle, I think a decade and a half after the search began and with a character born out of that very era, in the new Scarlet Spider, we’ve finally got a new Spider-Man.
The obvious response to that statement is “yeah, obviously we kind of have a new Spider-Man in that a clone of Spider-Man is wearing one of his old costumes and webslinging around—duh, Ben.” First, that’s rude; second, you’re better than that; lastly, there’s more to it.
Chris Yost’s premise for the new Scarlet Spider is not just exploring a Spider-Man with a different costume or haircut, it’s an ambitious exploration of nature vs. nurture with Peter Parker as the test case and the results being how Spidey would have turned out different under alternative circumstances. It’s also a great deal of fun and the art by Ryan Stegman is fantastic (I have to mention his name at least twice as he’s a great guy but also terribly vain and sensitive), but I’m really enjoying the meatier character study here.
In Kaine as Yost writes him (and as Dan Slott set him up, to give credit where credit is due), we have the beginning of Ben Reilly’s unrealized potential and then some. Ben had all of Peter’s memories—including most crucially being raised by Ben and May Parker—to a point and then there was a divergence; Kaine has the core essence of Peter, but his “childhood” was being abused and cast out by his “father,” the murderous Jackal. He has spent his life to this point with gross physical deformities and living under the shadow of a life-threatening disease. He has killed many people and burned through every relationship he’s ever had. Whereas Ben was a slightly darker hue of Peter, Kaine is pitch black—and now he’s searching for redemption.
The question at the heart of the series—or one at least—is how ingrained what makes Peter Parker a good person and a hero is and how much of that came about because he had the right upbringing. Kaine has the building blocks of Peter Parker, but he never had an uncle to explain to him about power and responsibility. Even the real Spider-Man had to grow into being a decent guy at a horrible cost and didn’t have the easiest life, but Kaine is that plus a million.
It’s compelling stuff, but two issues in it has also created a really entertaining and alluring character. Free of his disease and feeling like he has redeemed his misdeeds enough, Kaine just wants to retreat from the world, but there’s something deep down that’s pulling him toward a heroic path. At the same time, he’s got to fight the urge to deal out that killing blow to the bad guy and has no problem tossing civilians out of the way or even using a gun. He’s his own Greek chorus in a way slightly more serious than Deadpool.
I also love the way Yost dialogues Kaine. He’s got glimmers of those Spider-Man wisecracks but buried beneath about a dozen layers of cynicism and bitterness; it’s a unique voice. He’s not the standup comic; he’s the drunk heckling him from the back of the room. Also, when Kaine talks tough it doesn’t feel like a put-on, another difference between him and Spider-Man.
So ultimately it wasn’t about instilling a kid with a similar personality to Peter Parker with different costumes and powers. It wasn’t about creating a spider character with a dark twist like Venom (Eddie Brock and Flash Thompson are both great in their own right, but they are their own men). Finding the new Spider-Man and doing so in the most rewarding way was just a matter of playing “what if?” on a serious level with the heart of Peter Parker and what makes him who he is and then running with it.
I’m loving Scarlet Spider so far and reveling in the chance to experience a new kind of Spider-Man from the ground floor. I’m really excited for him to get established and start becoming part of the Marvel Universe to see how others react to him. It truly does feel like being on the ground floor of something special not unlike folks felt when Amazing Fantasy #15 first came out, and I do believe that was the goal.
Also, did I mention Stegman’s art is great?