Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #1 finds its protagonist in a bit of a mess. His company New U is now gone and he’s looking for what to do next. He wanders about haunted by ghosts of himself, his heroic former Scarlet Spider self and his recent Jackal persona, serving as the respective angel and devil on his shoulder. He now finds himself in a new city, Las Vegas, trying to rediscover who he is in the wake of “Dead No More: A Clone Conspiracy”. While Reilly finds himself, readers also get an opportunity to discover who this character is following that event.
Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider, is perhaps even more of a mess from a character perspective following his villainous turn. “Dead No More” took Reilly from idealistic antihero to Snidely Whiplash so quickly it gave readers whiplash. Writer Peter David clearly wants to steer Reilly back to his heroic origins, but as of right now, the path forward is not terribly clear. Reilly maintains his mean streak in a way that not only is not terribly likable, it’s not even understandable. His badness seems arbitrary, not holding to any particular ideology. In “Dead No More”, he operated under a perverted version of Peter’s power-responsibility maxim; here, he’s mostly just a self-centered jerk with little regard for others.
Moving forward, it will probably be best for all of us if we just assume that this Ben Reilly is a different character altogether from the original. That character is dead and this one has been made from his dust, slaughtered several times over, made and unmade until his mind broke. We now have only this Ben Reilly, a character with no discernible moral compass, only a general sense that he must stay on the move, doing some semblance of good. He does not perform these actions out of any sense of altruism; he almost seems to be aping what a superhero does without any sense of internalization as to what it means to be heroic. This character much more resembles Deadpool than the Ben Reilly of the 90s, from the bad jokes to the disfigurement.
Writer Peter David, in his run on Spider-Man in the 80s and 90s, earned a reputation as the “funny writer” on Spidey. David tries to cash in on some of that humor here and some of it lands and some of it does not. Mostly, it’s just weird. Obviously, with an abundance of Spider-characters now with books, any new character needs to demonstrate what they bring to the table, what distinguishes them from Peter Parker in particular. There is obviously a move here to make Ben Reilly a morally ambiguous, almost sociopathic version of Spider-Man, but that is a market that is itself saturated with not only the Merc With the Mouth but also Kaine, who makes an appearance in this book. That said, the book gives some hope that the character will not stay where he is now, that perhaps he will grow to look more like his classic iteration inside and out.
Mark Bagley’s return to the Spider-books makes this book feel familiar. Between his run on Amazing Spider-Man in the 90s and Ultimate Spider-Man in the early part of the century, there may be no better artist to match a character so rooted in nostalgia. The Scarlet Spider costume everyone remembers is here, but in the form of Reilly’s Jiminy Cricket memory ghost that haunts him throughout the book. Reilly himself wears the newer version of the costume that left many fans scratching their heads. Still, this is some of Bagley’s best work in quite a while, much better than his work on Fantastic Four a few years ago, and his very presence on the book makes the characters feel recognizable, even if they do not act as such.
Right now, I’m not terribly sure where this series is going but I’m at least intrigued enough to see where this goes. Reilly appears to reject his Jackal persona in favor of heroism, he just doesn’t know how to actually be a hero. “Dead No More” left the character in a difficult position and any chance of making this Ben Reilly into the Scarlet Spider 90s Spidey fans clamored for was never going to be an easy road. One hopes that, if anyone can steer this character in the right direction, it is a veteran team like David and Bagley.
Scarlet Spider is a book that, like its protagonist, is trying to find itself. The veteran team of Peter David and Mark Bagley lend a classic 90s feel to a character that, at this point, doesn’t much resemble his classic 90s self.