Which comics go in my file/pull list is a decision I ponder regularly. What must be read monthly in single issues? Which stories/characters/creators can’t wait? I ask myself this whenever I consider juggling the comics in my file because, well, money’s a thing and I only have so much for comics before they turn off my electricity and water and I use those all the time. Despite Spider-Man being the fictional character I’ve had the longest running relationship with, The Amazing Spider-Man is rarely on my pull list simply because I favor newer characters (or characters new to me). Miles Morales/Spider-Man or Cindy Moon/Silk or America Chavez or Jane Foster/Valkyrie don’t yet have as bedrock a status quo to reset to so their characters feel more dynamic and thus, with more potential for lasting change, there’s a greater sense of urgency to read those stories each month instead of waiting for them to pop up on Marvel Unlimited or be collected in a trade paperback. However, last night I learned Ben Reilly was donning the webs once more so today I went to my local comic shop to add The Amazing Spider-Man to my file for the first time in years!
I owe a HUGE THANK YOU to Dan Slott – the author who’s penned more issues of The Amazing Spider-Man than anyone else – for tipping me off to all this. Pandemic Teaching Redux has left me with little time to read new comics let alone soak up new comic news so his tweet yesterday blew my mind and made my day:
So why does this news mean so much to me? Ben Reilly was a pretty influential character in my comic reading youth. Back in 1975 Gerry Conway, the writer who infamously killed Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man #121, had Gwen return in The Amazing Spider-Man #142. Issue #148 revealed she was a clone created by Miles Warren – Gwen and Peter’s biology professor who was also the villain the Jackal. He couldn’t handle Gwen’s death (he was into her in a reeeeeeeeeeeally creepy way) so he grew a clone of her. Warren also created a clone of Spider-Man to battle the real web-head. In issue #149, both the Jackal and the cloned Spider-Man die as the result of an explosion the Jackal rigged inside Shea Stadium. Peter returns to his apartment haunted by the question of his own identity. Since Warren could create biologically perfect clones and implant them with all the memories of their host, how can he ever be sure he isn’t the clone himself?
As a kid, those stories were before my time but come 1994 a mysterious figure (first appearing in Web of Spider-Man #114) calls Aunt May. It’s clear they’ve talked before. He calls to check in on her, they catch-up, and she encourages him to come to New York to meet her family. Twelve-year-old me was more preoccupied with the main storyline but I still had NO IDEA who this person was. In Web of Spider-Man #117, this mysterious caller is revealed to be the clone of Peter presumed dead after the fight at Shea. Of course they fight for a while (…because comics) and eventually they settle into a bit of an uneasy friendship. Peter’s clone has taken the name “Ben Reilly” (for Uncle Ben and “Reilly” is Aunt May’s maiden name) and, once he decides to stay in New York City, adopts the alias of the Scarlet Spider. Thus Ben enters the periphery of Peter’s personal and superhero life.
AND I THOUGHT HE WAS SO COOL. Here was this Spider-Man with long hair and beard scruff and he had this webless-spider suit with a big ol’ spider sweatshirt and these pouches and a belt for his gear (which, trust me, in the ‘90s was really cool). He’d even developed new weapons! He wore his web-shooters outside his sleeves and he had impact webbing and spider stingers! I saw nothing wrong with this and everything right. Now instead of just reading about Peter Parker/Spider-Man every month I got to read about Peter Parker/Spider-Man AND Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider!!!! My Spider-fun had doubled!!!! What could be better?!!?
The summer of 1995 brought with it The Spectacular Spider-Man #226 where genetic tests revealed that our Peter Parker was, in fact, the clone and Ben Reilly, having lived years in exile, was the original. I remember my world being rocked. I remember thinking (knowing Peter’s clone first appeared in 1975 before I was, you know, alive) that EVERY SINGLE SPIDER-MAN STORY I’d ever read was, in fact, starring a clone of Peter Parker. The only Spider-Man I knew was a clone! This “real” Peter Parker was a relative stranger to me. It was a bit of a blow. I was shocked. I was stunned. But I was eager to see how it played out all the same.
After nearly dying in The Spectacular Spider-Man #229, Peter makes one of the few authentically healthy and responsible decisions of his life. Mary Jane is pregnant. They are beginning a family together. Ben is there. The responsible thing to do is to retire from being Spider-Man and devote his life to Mary Jane and their child. Peter and Mary Jane leave New York City to settle in Portland, Oregon. Peter becomes a lab assistant and leaves his life of supervillains and thwipping around the city to Ben.
November and December of 1995 saw all the Spider-titles switch over to mark the new solo webhead in town. So The Amazing Spider-Man became The Amazing Scarlet Spider just as Web of Spider-Man became Web of Scarlet Spider, The Spectacular Spider-Man became The Spectacular Scarlet Spider, Spider-Man became Scarlet Spider, and Spider-Man Unlimited became Scarlet Spider Unlimited.
However, after Ben’s costume is destroyed and the name of the Scarlet Spider tarnished by an imposter, he decides to pickup the mantle of Spider-Man once more. January 1996 brings a new year and, with it, The Sensational Spider-Man #0. Ben designs a new Spider-Man costume and – after being mistaken for Peter and being presumed homeless because of his beard and long hair – shaves, cuts his hair off, and really commits to the bleach blonde look (but, again, it was the ‘90s so this was all very cool). Shirley Washington hires Ben as a barista at her coffee shop, The Daily Grind, and a new era for Spider-Man begins.
I loved ALL of it – and not just for the aesthetics of cool new costumes and new gadgets. Even at thirteen-years-old, I was happy to see Peter Parker – the hero I’d loved since Mom got me Web of Spider-Man #12 when I was three-years-old – retire from superheroing. He deserved it! And it wasn’t doing him any good! Yes, Spider-Man saves people all the time but New York has about fourteen zillion superheroes and Peter only seemed to know grief as Spider-Man. Mary Jane didn’t need to spend her whole life worrying if her husband was going to come home either. Peter should retire. He and Mary Jane should ride off into the sunset to start their family. Their coming daughter deserved to have her parents there for her and not have to worry about being kidnapped by supervillains.
While I was decades away from going to therapy and learning I’m an empath with an anxiety-disorder, I can see the traces of both those traits in how I experienced fiction even then. I wanted Peter and Mary Jane to have their happily-ever-after! They suffered enough! And when Peter and/or MJ were hurting, so was I. I was SO anxious for them both, knowing Peter would always survive but what about Mary Jane?? And now what about their daughter?!!? So I was absolutely ready for a bold new era of Spider-Man comics with a free and unattached Ben Reilly thwipping his way through life while the characters I’d loved since I was three got their happily-ever-after. And it wasn’t just Mary Jane and Peter I was happy for. I legitimately loved Ben Reilly as a character and, as his supporting cast grew, I loved them, too.
Ben got to be Spider-Man! He and Peter became brothers! Mary Jane and Peter got to raise their family! I still had Spidey comics every month! EVERYONE WINS.
Except not everyone was as happy about all this as I was. In fact, it seemed very few people were. For me, Ben Reilly was my first experience of a fan community’s seethingly vitriolic response to a new character taking over a classic character’s role. Month after month I’d read the letter page in all my Spidey comics only to be saddened as more and more readers wrote in saying they hated everything that had happened in the Spider-Man comics since Ben showed up. They wanted him dead. They wanted him gone. They wanted “the real” Spider-Man back.
It made my young heart hurt! Couldn’t they see how fun Ben was as Spider-Man? And, more to the point, didn’t they realize real people were writing, drawing, coloring, lettering, and editing these stories?!? How could anyone be so mean about something someone worked so hard on? They didn’t have to read it if they didn’t like it. But why be so hateful? I couldn’t understand it.
Now I’m far more familiar with that sort of reaction, seeing both the unhealthy sense of faux-ownership some people create around the stories and characters they love as well as the deep wounding which creates fear of something they love “changing” and making them feel “left behind” in a way that manifests in angry outbursts. While those sorts of reactions still make me sad, my heart does also go out to those so threatened by anything they see as too “new” or “different” and thus “wrong” that it causes them to lash out in hateful ways.
With Ben Reilly, the naysayers would eventually have their victory. October 1996 brought with it the conclusion to the four-part “Revelations” storyline in Spider-Man #75. It was revealed that Norman Osborn was alive (his first return from the dead since The Amazing Spider-Man #122) and the mastermind behind this entire ordeal. He faked the lab results to mess with Peter’s life. Peter Parker, our Peter Parker, was the real one. He was always the real one. Ben Reilly was the clone. Everything they thought they knew as true was the product of the deranged head game of a monster. To leave no room for doubt, Ben’s body rapidly decomposed into dust as Peter held him, the result of an instability in the cloning process. Ben Reilly was dead. Peter Parker was Spider-Man once more.
In a horrifying sidenote, Norman Osborn murdered Mary Jane and Peter’s baby which is – by far – the most fucked up thing he’s ever done to them. In The Sensational Spider-Man #11 (“Revelations: Part 2”), an unknown woman poisons Mary Jane while she’s out to eat with Aunt Anna and she goes into labor. In The Amazing Spider-Man #418, Mary Jane delivers a stillborn baby. Her labor was overseen by a villainous looking doctor as the woman who poisoned her, Alison Mongrain, looked on. The issue ends with Mongrain telling her employer, revealed to be Norman Osborn, everything went according to plan and receiving a substantial sum of money.
It is a testament to how much I love Spider-Man that I didn’t quit reading him right then and there. My heart broke when Mary Jane lost her baby. I don’t know that I’d yet seen anything so sad in a comic as the panels where Mary Jane was alone in the delivery room and, after her labor, realized her daughter wasn’t crying. That left some serious emotional scars behind. And then my heart broke again when Ben died in the next issue.
This was part of why I loved Ben Reilly! There didn’t have to be all this heartache! He was quippy and fun and free and there was a lightness to the Spider-Man comics that I hadn’t seen for awhile (to see more reflection on some of the heavier Spider-Man stories in the ‘90s, you can click here). Peter and Mary Jane had lost their daughter when they much deserved a happily-ever-after. I had lost Ben Reilly as Spider-Man and the levity he brough with him. And part of me always felt betrayed by the complaining fans I felt were partially responsible for it all.
A fair bit of research before I wrote this showed me how many behind-the-scenes struggles the Clone Saga bred at Marvel, where writers and editorial staff did their best to weave a coherent story around sales figures, fan reactions, and their own artistic visions. It’s not something to explore now but, suffice to say, having read a lot about it I feel even worse for everyone involved now than I did as a kid. It seems the resolution of the Ben Reilly/Peter Parker story was always a Sisyphean task. (If you’d like to know more, Wikipedia actually has a wonderfully detailed run down with lots of links which is a great place to start.)
For me, at the heart of all of it, I always felt Ben deserved better. Regardless of whether Peter was wearing the webs, too, I felt he deserved to have his own spotlight. He didn’t need to be crucified, as it were. I missed him. I’ve always missed him. I think that’s a mark of a great character, too – being unable to shake them once they’re gone.
During his time as Spider-scribe, Dan Slott would resurrect Ben Reilly (oh my gosh! yay! my heart!) as part of his 2016-17 Spider-Man event, “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy” (oh no! gah! my heart!). In it, we learn Miles Warren brought Ben back to life – with all his memories, up to and including his death – after he died. However Warren couldn’t get the microscopic cellular degeneration to stop. So he resurrected and 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 becomes the Jackal himself – cloning literally every single person in Spider-Man’s life who ever died and bringing them back to life. It was…a hard story to read.
It ends with Ben taking up his Scarlet Spider mantle again and trying to find some way back to who he once was. This story was told across Peter David’s twenty-five issue Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider series, running from April 2017 through October 2018. A broken, angry Ben, haunted by his demons, heads to Las Vegas and tries to build a new life. His literal fight for his soul will culminate in the six issue Spider-Geddon series. It’s a captivating story but it also made my heart hurt. See? It’s the empath thing again.
Naturally I was ELATED when I saw Dan Slott’s tweet and then I did a li’l bit of googling to learn it was all true. Ben Reilly is coming back! And he’s going to become Spider-Man once more! In a beautiful bit of timing, Ben Reilly first died in Spider-Man #75 (Vol. 1), which was released in October of 1996. Now he’s returning as Spider-Man once more, in The Amazing Spider-Man #75 (Vol. 5), which will be released in October of 2021. Twenty-five years to the month we last saw Ben Reilly as Spider-Man (save multiverse things) and he’s coming back to us!
Although it seems, whereas the ‘90s wanted to let Peter and Mary Jane live a happy life with their new child as Ben became Spider-Man, Marvel may be poised to break my heart again this time around. The announcements Marvel’s already released say that Ben Reilly will take up the mantle once more after Peter is hospitalized. Some of the teaser images Marvel’s released certainly have me a little worried…
No matter what happens though, I know two things for sure. First, Peter Parker/Spider-Man will never be forever gone. Even if he dies here, he’ll be back sometime. That’s how comics work. Second, I am SO ready to deal with a little angst if it means I get to see Ben Reilly back as a non-gloomy, non-resurrecting-all-your-loved-ones-as-he-plays-God/Frankenstein, non-haunted hero. I’m ready to see the quips and thwips and all that heart back in the Spidey spotlight! And who knows? Maybe if I’m really lucky, Peter will recover from whatever injury he sustains, he and Mary Jane will go off to get married (again (Mephisto be damned!)) and get to start a family for real this time while Ben Reilly gets to be the Spider-Man I loved reading about twenty-five years ago.
I mean, I’m not counting on that. I have read one or two Spider-Man comics after all XD. Peter never gets to be quite that happy nor, it would seem, does Mary Jane. But who knows?!? Ben Reilly – once emblematic of all that was wrong with Spider-Man in the ‘90s – is back with seemingly a fair bit of excitement around his return. So anything can happen! And I am here for all of it, eager to see where Ben’s journey takes us this time around.