Author’s note: This review contains major spoilers from the current issue. You’ve been warned.
Unquestionably, the thing that will have readers buzzing about the latest installment of The Clone Conspiracy miniseries will be the big reveal on the final page. After months and months of speculation about the identity of the “Man in Red,” — who called himself the Jackal, but had many questioning whether or not the man under the mask was actually the original Jackal, Miles Warren — Clone Conspiracy #3 provides its first genuine surprise in revealing Peter Parker’s clone from the 90s, Ben Reilly, as the story’s main antagonist.
Granted, a certain segment of the fan base had pegged Ben — a character that was last seen as a puddle of genetic goo in 1997’s Peter Parker: Spider-Man #75 — as the Man in Red for a while now. But after enduring a number of Dan Slott-scripted mystery stories with milquetoast revelations (the Green Goblin being Norman Osborn post-cosmetic surgery in “Goblin Nation” will always be the standard bearer for Slott’s tepid plot resolutions), reviving Ben after an absence of nearly two decades is an inspired choice that potentially sets up a number of interesting angles for the remainder of The Clone Conspiracy. The only problem is the pages leading up to that final big reveal and how Clone Conspiracy continues to demonstrate that it is a structurally frustrating to read story, overstuffed with exposition and littered with plot holes and logic gaps.
The biggest issue now that the cat is out of the bag regarding the Man in Red is that for such a complex, everyone-may-be-involved “conspiracy,” the actual mystery elements of this arc are very unclear and muddied by poor characterization and storytelling. We are repeatedly being told via exposition that the stakes have never been higher, not just for Peter/Spider-Man, but for the entire world (the Multiverse, even!). And yet characters continue to withhold critical information from each other for flimsy, bordering on petty reasons.
In this particular issue, Peter questions Spider-Gwen (who still suffers by not being written in this arc by the creator who first breathed vibrant life into her, Jason Latour) outright about why she’s engaged in this battle against New U. After pages and pages of stalling and filibustering the question, Gwen finally reveals to Peter something the reader has known about for a solid month now: Peter is seemingly predestined to align himself with the Jackal and doom the world by inadvertently spreading the Carrion Virus. Spider-Man-turned-Walking Dead, with elements of Doctor Who interspersed, is still not a storyline I’m all that interested in reading, but since that’s the story that Slott and Marvel are intent on delivering, the best I can do is judge it on the merits of how it’s being spun. In this case, having characters constantly talk about the perils of a situation, while seemingly sabotaging themselves at every turn through goldbricking and sheer stupidity does not equal a recipe for success.
A similar scenario played out when Max Modell and the rest of the Horizon Labs crew decided, after hearing Kaine’s story about the evils of New U. (and the reader is reminded, yet again, that BAD THINGS happen if a revived clone fails to take his or her pills), that someone should call the cops. “Why didn’t I think of that” says one of the characters. And the answer to that naive query reveals itself rather quickly when it turns out the cop assigned to investigate New U is a pill-popping clone herself. Again, for characters that are constantly acknowledging that they’re engaged in a deep-running conspiracy, they certainly don’t act like they’re engaged in a deep-running conspiracy. At least play some classical music to drown out any wiretaps, a la All the President’s Men.
But my biggest concern regarding the structure and direction of this storyline relates to the big Ben Reilly reveal itself. As was discussed on our podcast, a well-designed mystery is harder to pull off than many people realize. For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to understand that they’re involved in a mystery. Namely, the creators needs to provide some details and clues to make the “game” fair.
When The Clone Conspiracy’s seeds were first being planted earlier this year, a mysterious Man in Red started showing up at the end of certain issues. After a few months, the character was identified as the Jackal. However, while the Jackal still remained masked, no evidence or clues were provided where the reader could tangibly understand that his identity was still a ruse. In one issue of Amazing Spider-Man, the character is even referred to as Miles Warren. Regardless of the fact that some readers continued to insist that all was not what it seemed, the text of the story itself still needs to somehow acknowledge that the game is still being played. Otherwise, the eventual reveal can be interpreted as cheat designed more for shock value than good storytelling.
Beyond the mechanics of the reveal, making Ben the Jackal raises more questions than it answers. While it provides some clarity as to why the Jackal does not wish to harm Peter, it doesn’t explain why he’s aligned himself with killers and supervillains like Electro and Rhno, why he revived all of Spidey’s deceased rogues, and most importantly, why someone who should be viewed as a “good guy” is engaged in something that’s being cast as a cryptic, evil conspiracy. Meanwhile, the bait Ben uses to get Peter to sign on and form an alliance with New U at the end of this issue is as predictable as anything we’ve seen in a Spider-Man comic, not to mention it’s the second time in as many “big events” where Slott has taken this specific arrow out of the quiver.
Jim Cheung’s artwork throughout this arc continues to be steady, if unexciting. Cheung is absolutely competent in terms of his visual storytelling, but as has been the case in past Slott-led events, the exposition-laden sequences lack dynamism, while all of the dark and mysterious lab-scapes create a sense of artistic monotony. The full-page Reilly reveal, was well-rendered and is certain to be a big-time “moment” that gets referenced in Spider-Man stories to come, but like the story itself, the pages leading up to it are clunky, slow and problematic.
If The Clone Conspiracy #3 was a one-page comic and that one-page was its final one, this would be an all-time great issue of Spider-Man with one of the best reveals in recent memory. However, all of the pages leading up to it count too, and those pages continue to demonstrate that this is yet another Dan Slott-scripted event that is an interesting premise on paper, but ultimately struggles in its execution.