This new volume of the Complete Ben Reilly Epic marks the TENTH volume collecting Marvel’s infamous Spider-Man: Clone Saga of the 1990s, and is the penultimate volume in this series. It’s hard to believe the entire Clone Saga is almost collected entirely in tpbs, but it’s true. This particular collection of comics is fun because it’s not as mired in the Clone Saga’s various complications and mysteries that dominated the storyline. Instead, the issues featured here were published during a period in time where the writers of the Spider-Man books knew where the books were headed, but were holding off on getting there because the X-office and Marketing didn’t want any attention taken away from the major Onslaught crossover which was being published in the summer of 1996. Some of the best stories featuring Ben Reilly as Spider-Man ended up being published during this period, because the writers finally knew what was coming up and the direction they were headed in, something that they didn’t really know for the majority of the Clone Saga.
The first two issues in this collection, Spectacular Spider-Man #235-236, feature the old Spider-Man antagonist Will o’ the Wisp, as well as villain Jonas Harrow and Dragon Man (the latter now of Future Foundation fame). It’s a fun storyline that has Ben Reilly assisting Will o’ the Wisp from escaping Harrow’s mind control, as well as Dragon Man, who Harrow’s controlling against his will. The storyline also furthers the subplot of Peter Parker having mysterious spasms, which result in his being hospitalized in Sensational Spider-Man #7. The issue is fairly self-contained, and has Spider-Man trying to talk down a jumper, which turns into a deadly situtaino when a helicopter rams into a building, and thanks to the wannabe-jumper, a life is saved. The issue also brings Curt Connors into the books, to try and help save Peter’s life. Amazing Spider-Man #414 features the first appearance of the assassin Delilah, who would play a major part in the Amazing Spider-Man book until the book was later relaunched two years later, and also introduces a new version of The Rose. Spider-Man #71 features more on the criminal underworld, as Hammerhead and Spider-Man tackle at the same hospital that Peter’s staying at, and the issue closes with his supposed passing, leading directly into Spectacular Spider-Man #237. After Peter’s supposed death, his body flares into spasms, bringing him back to life, and with his powers somewhat restored, as he had previously lost them while living in Portland. The Lizard wreaks havoc, but everyone’s surprised to find out that the newest incarnation of the Lizard isn’t actually Curt Connors after all. Spider-Man Unlimited #13 brings back the Scorpion, after a drubbing he got from Spider-Man just prior to the Clone Saga, as he tangles with Spider-Man, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Spider-Man Team-Up #4 features the Avengers, but is a mess of a story, featuring the mid-nineties incarnations of the Avengers, post-Crossing. Sensational Spider-Man #8 has the Looter against Spider-Man as Mike Wieringo joins the book, and from there the Spider-Man books become involved in the Onslaught event, with Amazing Spider-Man #415 and Spider-Man #72 showing Spider-Man dealing with the Sentinel’s invasion of New York City, alongside a re-empowered Peter Parker. Sensational Spider-Man #9 and #10 have the return of Swarm in the aftermath of Onslaught, and Amazing Spider-Man #416 has Ron Garney joining the art team in the wake of Mark Bagley’s departure, as the book pays tribute to the heroes lost to the Marvel Universe during Onslaught. Spectacular Spider-Man #238-#239 wrap up the Lizard story, as the Connors version of the Lizard kills the newest version of the creature, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual #96 features a flashback Gwen Stacy storyline.
During this period the books went their own ways in terms of what types of stories they wanted to tell, instead of having to tell multi-part arcs, as they did in the earlier phases of the Clone Saga. Each title has its own particular flavour, with Spider-Man focusing on the criminal underworld, Spectacular focusing on darker themes, as evidenced in the Lizard storyline, Amazing had more pure superheroics, and Sensational Spider-Man was trying to find its voice, which it did once Wieringo jumped aboard. The stories are fun and enjoyable, and the subplot about Peter’s health was actually pretty gripping back when the issues were first published, because it looked like he might be dying from clone degeneration, which would have been a huge shock for readers. Instead, he was simply being primed to return as Spider-Man, although at this point in time readers wouldn’t have known that was about to happen.
The artwork is a bit of a mixed bag at times, but more often than not it’s fairly high quality material. The regular books boasted the best artwork, with Romita Jr. settling into a dark groove on Spider-Man, Bagley maintaining his style on Amazing until Garney takes over, Wieringo lightning up the mood on Sensational, and Buscema keeping a murky tone on Spectacular until Luke Ross takes over. The artwork on the issue of Unlimited by Bennett is some of the shakiest material I’ve ever seen from him, as he really excelled later on when on Amazing Spider-Man, and the artwork on the Spider-Man Team-Up issue is pretty forgettable.
It’s really a shame that after everything it took to get to this point, this is when writers really started to have fun with Ben Reilly, and tell fun stories with him in the Spider-Man suit. If only Reilly could have survived the Clone Saga, as the writers and readers finally had a handle on how to write him in a subtly different way from Peter Parker, without the angst that had accompanied the character earlier on in the Clone Saga. This is a fun volume collecting Ben Reilly’s adventures, and fans of the character shouldn’t miss it!