Alright, originally I intended this as a Halloween post. I was going to finally read “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy” and write about it, analyzing how Dan Slott expands the premise of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a modern setting. However, life and work got in the way and I just got around to finishing reading it the other day. I contemplated saving it for next year but I’m impatient and it’s more fun to keep the spookiness alive anyway. When I finally jumped into Dan Slott’s world of Spider-Man tales, I avoided this storyline. I’d heard conflicting reports about it and wasn’t ready for something with that sort of “baggage” as I was meeting his Spidey for the first time. What I found upon finally reading it was a haunting tale that left me more emotionally shaken than I could have expected.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has always been a favorite of mine within the gothic horror landscape and I’m fascinated by its countless retellings and reimaginings. Specifically I’m intrigued by what’s done with (to my mind) the most interesting theme of the novel – the danger inherent in our desire to take for ourselves what is God’s alone, namely the power over life and death. In his dark act of hubris, Victor Frankenstein upsets the natural order and brings to life a creature cursed to a horrid existence who will live only to torment him. As we all know, it’s not the creature who is the monster in this novel; it’s Victor Frankenstein himself. In taking for ourselves what is meant for God alone, we become monsters and what we reap is monstrous. Dan Slott uses this premise as the foundation for his “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy” storyline and expands the hubristic vision of Victor Frankenstein to a frightening new height. Victor Frankenstein brought a dead body of his own creation to life. The new Jackal wants to become the master of death.
“Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy” reveals Ben Reilly (the clone of Peter Parker who resurfaced in the ‘90s, became the Scarlet Spider, took over as Spider-Man while Peter and Mary Jane retired to a peaceful life, and tragically crumbled to dust in Peter’s arms (dying as all clones do when they degenerate)) is alive. He has taken the mantle of the Jackal from Miles Warren, the mad scientist who first cloned him from Peter, and formed the biotech company New U. He’s improved upon Warren’s cloning technique of uploading the consciousness to the very last moment of life and returning it to a newly cloned body (rebuilt free of any genetic defects). Ben has developed a pill his clones take every twenty-four hours to prevent the microscopic cellular degeneration, allowing them to live a relatively “normal” life, albeit indebted to the Jackal and his medication. He claims they are indistinguishable from the originals, speaking not of clones but “reanimates.” However, all is not as copacetic as it appears, haunting in its implications or not. Kaine (the first clone Warren made of Peter Parker) and Spider-Woman (Gwen Stacy, or Spider-Gwen, from Earth-65) have been tracking this event across the multiverse. Whenever Parker Industries teams with New U it ultimately leads to a world-ending outbreak of the Carrion Virus, ushering in the type of zombie apocalypse that would even make those living in The Walking Dead flinch a bit.
Take that in for a second. You want to talk about a great Halloween read? This story is a modern reimagining of Frankenstein AND features zombie apocalypses breaking out all across the multiverse. Boo yah.
As horrific as playing God in such a way is, Ben Reilly sees it as taking Spider-Man’s career-long crusade to the next level, fighting with science instead of spider-skills. Peter has dedicated his life to trying to atone for the mistake which cost Uncle Ben his life. Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy #1 opens with Peter, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane, John Jameson, and their family and friends grieving at Jay Jameson’s funeral. As Peter looks on he thinks, “For all my great power, there’s one foe I can never defeat. Everyone dies.”
This gets to the heart of the Frankenstein story but also so much human thought, spirituality, and philosophy. Is death an enemy to be vanquished? Or is death a necessary part of life? We fear it, yes. It’s only natural to fear the unknown and to mourn those we lose. But is it something we should fight?
In the Jewish tradition, death is viewed with a mixture of defiance and acceptance. Life is a beautiful, sacred gift from God so it must be honored. It is thus praiseworthy to fight to preserve it in all ways and any premature death is a tragedy. However, there is also the understanding that death, too, is a creation of God’s and that it’s a natural part of life. There is a midrash (a commentary on scripture) which says death was the final thing God created and when God says “it’s very good” at the end of the Creation Story, God was speaking of death because death was the last piece of the puzzle of creation. Death is necessary.
Judaism is not unique in this view among world religions. Both Christianity and Islam understand this life as the stepping stone to the life to come, one (hopefully) to be lived in beatific union with God. Death is a transition from one life to the next, from one plane of existence to another. For Hinduism and Buddhism, the soul is on a lengthy journey toward Enlightenment. Each life carries choices and, with those choices, karma. This helps and hinders our awareness as we try to learn what we really are in each life. Death then is not the end of the journey but rather the door to the next chapter, bringing us ever closer to Mokshe or Nirvana (respectively). Death, as it is the ultimate unknown, is obviously scary. But it’s not an enemy to vanquish.
Yet as the Jackal this is exactly how Ben Reilly sees it. With his work at New U he desecrates hundreds of graves (also very Frankenstein) and brings back every single person – family, friend, or foe – who ever lost their life because of Spider-Man. Ben tells Peter he’s here to wash the blood from Peter’s hands, to free him from guilt and to give everyone who’s life he ruined a second chance. Ben doesn’t see himself as a “bad guy,” even if he jokes about being a “mad scientist.” He sees himself as righting the wrongs of the past, of finally defeating their greatest foe. He wants Peter to partner with him and tells him – together – they will bring Uncle Ben back to life.
Ultimately Peter rejects his offer, preventing the partnership that was the final step in the ruin of so many other worlds. Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, and Kaine – aided by Silk and the clones of Hobie Brown/the Prowler and Detective Jean DeWolff – begin the fight against the Jackal and his legion of resurrected super villains. As they battle, the Jackal releases an audio signal across the country, triggering the degeneration of all the clones. As they degenerate, the Jackal’s new clones become deadly, infectious carriers of the Carrion Virus. It’s not airborne but it infects at the touch. I won’t go any further into the plot or its resolution because, well, spoilers.
I will say I wasn’t prepared for how this story would affect me. Like the best horror stories I’ve experienced, it wasn’t quick (and then forgettable) jump scares or creepy images that got me (although the story had those moments). Rather it was the psychological and emotional toll the story took as I read. It laid heavy on my heart. In all honesty, one of the reasons I forced myself to finally finish reading it last weekend and to write about it was because I wanted to release it from my mind. I didn’t want to be actively contemplating it any longer.
In Silk #17 (a tie-in story), as the Jackal’s signal reverberates through the country and the clones start to deteriorate, it starts to feel real. Through the whole series, like Peter, I’d not felt the clones were real. Or rather, I’d not felt they were the originals. For all Ben’s talk, memories or no, a clone is still a clone. It’s a living, thinking, feeling, acting human being. But it’s not the original. It can’t be. The original has died. That’s why, as I followed Hobie Brown’s story in the Prowler series tie-ins, I just felt sadness. I rooted for him, sure, but I still knew Hobie was dead. This is his clone. It’s not him. And that brought a very real sort of melancholy with it. But in this issue, as I watched certain clones I’d read about through the whole series start to decompose, reaching out for their loved ones or dying trying to protect them, it hurt. Even though they weren’t the originals they still deserved better and seeing them die in such a horrific fashion was hard.
The ending of the whole story was surprisingly haunting. Again, no serious spoilers but for a story about a good-clone-turned-bad and a mad scientist scheme to play God it got surprisingly dark. I know the story had mixed reviews when it was released but it was hard for me, emotionally, to see it come to a close as it did. I’ll carry this one in my heart for a while…whether I want to or not.
As just one example of how this story affected me, I had a dream the other night. I dreamt I was Spider-Man (not uncommon). I wasn’t Spider-Man so much as I was Peter Parker and he/I/we were in the middle of this storyline. I wrestled with what Ben had become, trying to find a way to bring him back. I hadn’t finished the story yet so I didn’t know how it would resolve itself but my subconscious could find no happy ending. I awoke with a pervasive sense of mourning in my body and soul. It took me some time to get back to sleep. I couldn’t shake this sense of sadness at how Ben Reilly, one of the great heroes of my childhood, had fallen so far and how I (as Spider-Man) could do nothing to save him. Laying there, in the middle of the night, I wanted to do everything I could to honor the man he was even as he was lost to the darkness. It’s hard to express in words but honestly my heart ached. I think I could have cried for him, had my body not been so numb in its melancholy.
A final note on Ben Reilly before I close. More than any mixed reviews, Ben Reilly was the reason I was so hesitant to read this. As I’ve mentioned before, as a kid I loved Ben Reilly – both as the Scarlet Spider and as Spider-Man. He arrived at a time when the Spider titles were increasingly dark and I adored the fun and freedom he brought back to the stories. With him wearing the webs, my Spider-Man comics felt the way they were supposed to again. But, most of all, I loved, loved, loved, loved, loved, loved, loooooved how he finally allowed Peter and Mary Jane to have their happily-ever-after. New York was safe. The world had a Spider-Man. They could go off and live their life, maybe raise a family, and Ben could take the mantle/life he so wanted. Everyone won!
Losing Ben in December of 1996, in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #75 was the hardest death of a fictional character I’d ever experienced. Knowing Ben Reilly was back – that he had become the Jackal, that he was a bad guy now – hurt too much to think about. I wasn’t ready to read those stories. I didn’t want it to be true. Reading them now, I still don’t think I was ready. In The Amazing Spider-Man #22 (2015), Ben tells Peter how Miles Warren brought him back to life – with all his memories, up to an including his death – after he died. However Warren couldn’t get the microscopic cellular degeneration to stop. So he killed Ben twenty-seven times trying to figure it out. Ben begged to be left dead, as he was murdered in all manner of ways only to be brought back again. As he felt all that was good in him dying, freedom became his only focus. Ultimately Ben breaks free, figures out how to stabilize the clones, and clones Warren a half dozen times. Unsure if each is the real one or a clone, they agree to work for Ben needing his pill to survive. Ben takes up the mantle of the Jackal and his New U empire begins.
It…I don’t know. It was hard to read. It was hard to see a hero become so broken, so twisted by pain they become utterly unrecognizable. Or rather it is hard to see this.
All this is to say, the story is a good one. I’ve read a lot of Spider-Man comics and a lot of Spider-Man crossovers over the years but I can’t remember one ever haunting my dreams before. I was going to say I’m happy I’ve finally read this, finally experienced it for myself…but to say I’m “happy” over a story like this would be wrong. Rather, I’ll say it was certainly a story worth reading.
If you’d like to read more about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, I’d highly recommend this post from Nancy on Mary Shelley over at Graphic Novelty2 ! I learned a lot about Mary Shelley from reading this. I also love this post Kalie wrote on Just Dread-Full about the novel Frankenstein where she examines some of the moral implications of the text. It’s one of my favorites of hers.