Years from now, if I’m ever asked to provide a comic that encapsulates both the highs and lows of the Dan Slott-era on Spider-Man (post Superior Spider-Man), I’m likely to pull out Clone Conspiracy #4 as “Exhibit A.”
In terms of Slott comics, it truly does have it all: compelling and provocative plot twists and story, buttressed by odd, inconsistent characterization that have a tendency to undercut the “good” by distracting the reader from the forward momentum of the story. In fact, Clone Conspiracy #4 oscillates so much between these two essential storytelling elements, I am tempted to make an appointment with my chiropractor to treat the whiplash I experienced.
All snark aside, the tonal dissidence created by the clashing of story and character makes Clone Conspiracy #4 a rather difficult comic to simply “rate” (though this is technically a review, so I better find a way to do so, fast). After Clone Conspiracy #3’s big reveal as to the identity of the Jackal/Man in Red, and Amazing Spider-Man #22’s follow-up that addressed how all of the characters in this arc arrived at this new status quo, Clone Conspiracy #4 seemed like a pretty natural point to finally move into the narrative’s ultimate endgame — which Slott and artist Jim Cheung managed to do, despite a rather circuitous path. The inevitable zombie-like apocalypse of Carrion virus-infested degenerating clones have begun their march on civilized society, and now it’s up to Spider-Man — a mostly passive character throughout the bulk of this arc — to come together with both friends and … is the new Jackal a foe, because I can’t make heads or tails of this character at this point .. to save the day. That sounds mostly good, and yet, boy oh boy, I had issues with a number of character beats that got us to where we are today.
Regarding the “good,” this issue very effectively “showed its hand” as one might say in a game of poker and did a solid job drawing lines in the sand and informing the reader of the “stakes” and drama of the conflict. Even though I’ve been reluctant to embrace Clone Conspiracy’s pseudo-post apocalyptic premise (especially within the context of a Spider-Man story) Slott, with a major assist from Cheung, who was very busy this issue rendering pages that were densely populated with degenerating versions of Spidey’s friends and villains, sells the chaos so well by painting a picture of its scope and depth.
My heart legitimately started to race as the comic moved the lens away from New U’s laboratories and “Haven,” by showing the number of people in everyday settings like homes and bars, who were adversely impacted by this comic’s major plot twist. The comic book industry has a tendency to overstate the ramifications of its events, but Clone Conspiracy #4 provided some justification for its hyperbole. Whether I wanted to read a sorta-zombie story in a Spider-Man comic or not is irrelevant, because this is where we are now and the danger is clear and present.
That alone leaves me with a somewhat favorable impression of this comic, which is further aided by a couple of well-crafted character interactions and moments: one involving Spider-Man and Ben/the Jackal; and the other that finally brought together Doctor Octopus and his former love, Anna Maria Marconi. To briefly address the former, Peter’s stand against doing what this entire arc has insinuated he was going to do, was as refreshing a moment involving the titular character of this series as there has been in recent memory. As for the latter, the Anna Maria/Ock exchange allowed Slott to write a character he knows best: the arrogant, yet somewhat well-meaning Otto Octavius. It was a total throwback to what I’ve repeatedly deemed the golden era of Slott’s run, Superior Spider-Man (though I could have done without a lot of the pseudo-science gobbledy-gook, which has become a stable of Slott’s Parker Industries/Spider-Man material).
And yet, therein lies the rub when it comes to Clone Conspiracy #4. The comic finally gets me to come around on the premise, and features some legitimately great character moments. Why can’t the whole comic maintain that level of consistency and joy?
Let’s start with Ben Reilly’s depiction in this issue. Peter’s clone has been out in the open for three issues of this arc now and in each appearance he has resembled three completely different characters, none of which bear much reflection to how the character was represented in the 90s version of the “Clone Saga.” Clone Conspiracy #4 represents the most egregious differentiation of Ben’s characterization from his core tenets, and not for the better. He comes into the issue a somewhat sympathetic anti-hero, before sharply morphing into a nasty villain, before settling on a demagogue who is seemingly awestruck of the mess he made (if this was Slott trying to draw parallels from real-world situations, he could do better than to apply some of these themes to Ben Reilly).
Beyond that, one of Clone Conspiracy’s biggest missteps is how it consistently fails to provide some emotionally-rich interactions between Spider-Man and his newly “revived” supporting cast members. While I am to understand that Amazing Spider-Man #23 gives us more Peter/Gwen grist for the mill, nothing in this story seems to match the emotional tenor of the very first issue of Clone Conspiracy that recreated “The Night Gwen Stacy Died.” When dialogue between these two rich characters is limited to “I’m sorry/You’re forgiven,” without getting any deeper than that, it makes me question why the creators even bothered to insert the scene into this issue in the first place.
Amazing Spider-Man: The Clone Conspiracy #4 has moved the story into its endgame with some well-crafted high stakes drama that is difficult to ignore. But these characters continue to shift and change their motivations from issue-to-issue, or in this case, page-to-page.