Super Blog Team-Up #5 of 6
If Joss Wheedon’s The Avengers taught me anything, it’s that a surefire way to improve on a bunch of individual superhero properties is to team them up in some kind of big budget bonanza. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that Chasing Amazing is participating in the inaugural “Super Blog Team-Up,” an assembly of some of the best comic book blogs on the internet: Silver Age Sensations, Fantastiverse, Longbox Graveyard, Flodo’s Page, SuperHero Satellite and myself. Featured on all of our blogs are posts titled “The Day They Walked Away,” about a moment when our respective superhero of choice hung up the cape or mask and quit. Since I’ve written ad nauseam about arguably the most famous time Spider-Man quit his job in ASM #50, I thought I would go back and discuss a darker period for both the character and my relationship with him in 1995’s “Greatest Responsibility,” when Peter Parker turned over the job of Spider-Man to his clone, Ben Reilly, aka the Scarlet Spider.
Over the past year, I’ve reversed course a bit regarding my long-standing hatred of the infamous Spider-Man “Clone Saga” – a storyline I so reviled, I actually quit collecting comics for about seven years before the J. Michael Straczynski run on Amazing Spider-Man pulled me back in. My slight change of heart (and it’s quite slight – I’ve gone from thinking the whole thing is trash to cherry picking a few storylines or individual issues that I feel are acceptable) is the impetus behind me picking “Greatest Responsibility,” which kicks off in ASM #406 and continues in (adjective-less) Spider-Man #63 and Spectacular Spider-Man #229 before all of the Spidey titles were temporarily discontinued and replaced with multiple Scarlet Spider series (though this phenomena was very short-lived and the original titles were all brought back within a few months). If time can heal the wounds I received from a storyline that features my long-time childhood hero, the AMAZING Spider-Man, walking away from his responsibilities and his CLONE taking over, then perhaps my opinion of the “Clone Saga” at last has done a 180.
The irony of this post is also not lost on me. How appropriate for me to write about a storyline for a blog team-up series about moments where our heroes “quit,” when this was, in fact, the arc that made me quit collecting comics for quite some time (certainly longer than any time Peter had quite being Spider-Man).
The funny thing is, I’ve gone to such great lengths to suppress my memories of these three issues that I couldn’t even recall the circumstances behind Peter quitting as Spider-Man and the Scarlet Spider taking over. To recap for those who have blocked this period even better than I have: Peter’s thought-to-be-dead clone (who first and last appeared in the 1970s), reappears, turning everyone’s lives upside-down. Long-time B-list villain the Jackal, who created the clone, tells Peter he’s actually the clone, and the Scarlet Spider/Ben Reilly is the real McCoy. A test is conducted by Seward Trainer, a close friend of Reilly’s and Peter is revealed to be the clone.
MEANWHILE, Aunt May is dead, and Mary Jane is pregnant. Peter was on trial for a murder committed by another clone – his demented replica – Kaine (currently operating as the titular hero in Scarlet Spider in today’s comic book universe). P.S., during Kaine’s path of destruction, long-time Spidey foe Doctor Octopus is killed (providing context for this recent storyline). In a moment that writer, the “legendary” Tom DeFalco, still defends to this day (per my Superior Spider-Talk podcast), Peter “accidentally” hits MJ (Sal Buscema, certainly a fantastic artist, doesn’t do DeFalco’s “he turned and inadvertently hits her” justification much good in the way he illustrates the panel in question).
So for the record, an accidental hit sounds like “SPWAT!”
Can you see why I tried to keep this stuff buried? Why did I take the bait of a “Super Blog Team-Up” just to revisit this damn story?
Just to twist the knife in my back a bit more, “Greatest Responsibility” unapologetically borrows heavily from one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time, the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko classic: “If This Be My Responsibility/The Final Chapter.” Like its predecessor, “Greatest Responsibility” is three parts, features Doc Ock as the villain (in this case, its Carolyn Trainer, a former student of Otto’s who becomes the “Superior” Octopus after his death) and the final chapter features Peter trapped underneath rubble, trying to get his hands on a serum that will save the life of a loved one (this time, it’s MJ rather than Aunt May).
And yet … I don’t … hate this story.
That felt dirty … But sadly, in a era where “shocking” stories were a bigger priority for comic book publishers than quality, well-written ones, “Greatest Responsibility,” to some degree, offers both. The ASM and Spectacular issues are scripted by long-time greats J.M. DeMatteis and Defalco (the middle chapter, which is unquestionably the weakest, is written by Howard Mackie), so it’s not like Marvel brought in a bunch of hacks to screw with the Spider-Man status quo.
JMD was always the go-to guy for tender, heartfelt moments for Spider-Man and in ASM #406, he doesn’t disappoint with a scene that went on to be the true turning point for the arc, planting the seeds for the new status quo. While spending an evening out with MJ, Peter feels their baby kick for the very first time. In a funny, but incredibly relatable and natural feeling moment, Peter and MJ – who don’t know the baby’s sex yet – refer to the unborn child as both “he” and “she” interchangeably.
In a post I made earlier this year, I wrote about how becoming a parent myself, has changed the way I view some stories. This should be to the shock of no one, since one of the first things anyone ever told me when they heard I was having a child (and then I proceeded to hear ad infinitum for the next few months) was how parenthood changes a person.
In the past, we’ve seen Peter throw away his Spider-Man costume for a variety of reasons: he wanted to hang out with Gwen Stacy or MJ more; he was tired of getting verbally battered by J. Jonah Jameson and the rest of the public; he was frustrated with constantly having this responsibility; he felt like a coward after running away from a fight with villain; etc. And while I understand that part of what makes Peter/Spider-Man such a fantastic character is the fact that readers empathize with the idea that no average teenager/man should carry the burden that Peter does, all of these reasons for “quitting” seem small and petty when compared with how Peter’s entire worldview changes after discovering the first piece of tangible evidence of his imminent fatherhood. Of course Peter will always have “with great power must also come great responsibility,” but the meaning of that mantra changes once he has a child to be responsible for – especially if there’s a clone that has the same exact power-set willing to take on the job of superhero himself.
Of course, this being the 1990s, and the “Clone Saga” specifically, this storyline’s biggest flaw is the way it stttrrrreeeetttccchhheeeesss the whole thing out in an effort to create additional volumes of comic books. Peter has this transformative moment with MJ in ASM #406 and then after nearly getting killed in battle with Lady Octopus in Spider-Man #63, talks about how he has some “thinking to do.” At this point, what could he possibly be debating?
Alas, Marvel had something “special” in mind for Spectacular #229, which explains why things have been drawn out. The comic’s cover features a special celluloid overlay (and a hefty $3.99 price tag to match). Spectacular #229 itself is actually well worth the price of admission, with phenomenal Buscema art (some people complain that a great like Buscema was forced to match the “extreme” 90s artists in style in the latter half of his run with Spidey, but I honestly think his art looks wonderful in these issues) and a story that could function as a one-and-done, if it wasn’t for the fact that Marvel was compelled to make this thing a three-parter.
When Peter manages to survive the rubble and wreckage with the help of Ben (rather than do it himself like in ASM #33), that’s when the arc’s big reveal becomes inevitable. Peter soon ceases being Spider-Man and instead is just a clone of the real hero, Ben Reilly (of course this is all reversed during the “Revelations” arc a few years later, but that’s not important right now).
What’s even more incredible is a DeFalco and Buscema manage to end a highly controversial story in happy fashion. MJ survives her brush with death and the baby is safe (for now … again, what happens later is not important right now). Ben, in recognition of his “unworthiness,” refuses to don the traditional Spider-Man costume but accepts the full responsibilities of being the hero, absolving Peter of the process and allowing him to walk off into the sunset and be with his wife and unborn child. None of these final pages are tinged with bitterness, sadness or regret. This is not “Spider-Man: No More” it’s Spider-Man: Moves On!
(With the sunglasses and Travolta-walk, I also wonder if its acceptable to call this story, “Spider-Man: Deal With It”).
Reading this story today made me wonder how I would have received it if I was as mature and sensible as I am today (seriously, I’m not kidding). When it was originally revealed that something terrible was going to happen to Peter in ASM #700 and he was going to replaced with a “Superior” Spider-Man, my first impulse was to react like my mid-90s self, before I took a deep breath, put my trust in the creative team and had an open-mind about whatever stories were being served up about my favorite superhero. Sure, there have been some misses in the Superior era, but I think the title has been mostly solid and should be reflected on positively by future readers.
“Greatest Responsibility” leaves me with the best of both worlds – I’m desperate to see how things work out for Peter and MJ, but I’m also open to see how Ben goes about being a superhero differently than his predecessor. Of course, hindsight would reveal that this storyline was the high watermark of the “Clone Saga,” but “Greatest Responsibility” was certainly not something worth throwing my fandom in the trashcan for.
Be sure to check out all the articles in our Super-Blog Team-Up series: