In a recent interview with SyFy Wire, Peter David said that his goal with Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider is “to make us root for the bad guy.” With that in mind, issue two of this series completely embraces the badness of its main character. After a frankly bizarre first issue, it has become clearer in this second issue what kind of story David plans on telling here. Gone for now are those ghosts of Ben Reilly’s past. As a result, Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #2, while still flawed, is much more focused than the previous issue.
Peter David appears to have, for now at least, settled on a characterization of Ben. His Scarlet Spider is a sociopath whose sole motivation in this story is self-preservation. Yet, he lacks any of the false sense of nobility that characterized his appearance in “Dead No More.” When confronted with the emotional cost of his previous actions, he experiences not even the slightest twinge of regret, nor even the weight of responsibility towards others. Instead, any heroic actions he may accomplish are simply coincident with his efforts to save his own scarred skin.
Mark Bagley is certainly a good fit for this book. His art style, rendering a cast of morally ambiguous characters, makes this book feel like a lost 90s comic. As someone whose love of comics was nourished by 90s Marvel, I mean that last statement strictly as a compliment. This is his best work in quite a while and he really seems to be at home in the Spider-books. His artwork is somewhat loose and cartoony, but detailed when it comes to the facial work, particularly considering this book contains no fewer than three characters with some sort of facial scarring. He manages to make Ben Reilly and Kaine distinguishable, despite the fact that they are both Peter Parker clones with scarred faces.
The book is building towards a confrontation between the Scarlet Spiders. It’s obvious that the reaction the reader is supposed to have is one akin to the confrontation between Walter White and Gus Fring in Breaking Bad, where two dark, complex figures collided, the audience knowing that each man would do whatever it took to win. That worked because the audience understood White’s motives enough to still feel invested in him, whether or not they actually liked the things he did. Here, Reilly is such a simplistically unlikable character, it is difficult to know whether to root for him to manage to somehow escape from the consequences of his actions or for Kaine to apprehend him.
The morality of Scarlet Spider is a thin shade of gray; it is a shallow, cartoonish moral ambiguity not rooted in the character work necessary to make us care about him. This is a story without a protagonist, at least in the sense of having someone we want to see succeed. The start of more nuanced character work is there: Ben is a bad photocopy of Peter Parker, a copy of a copy, replicated so many times until the resemblance to the original has been lost almost completely. Yet, David shows us there is still some humanity there, with his introspection on the suffering of children. Hopefully, as the story continues, the character becomes even more nuanced, giving the audience something to cheer for.
I get what they’re going for with Ben’s “aunt” June, but I just wish they’d stop. June is a clear play on Aunt May, June being the month after May, and Ben’s adoption of her as his aunt is a part of Ben’s attempt to model himself after Peter by giving himself a maternal figure to protect. Yet, instead of protecting her, he merely feeds her vices, receiving contempt instead of love in return. Whenever she appears, the scene can never end soon enough for me, even if she’s only around for a few panels. Unless this character has an arc that is heading somewhere I can’t anticipate, it appears to be just a joke that has gone on for too long.
The nature of a sequential narrative art form like comics necessitates a degree of patience: a story is told over a period of several months, in 22-page installments. Moreover, in instances like The Scarlet Spider, often a writer takes ownership of a character who is not yet in the place that writer wants him or her in order to tell the story the writer wishes. So, in order to even get to that story, it takes some time. All of this to say that, just two issues in, David and Bagley’s Scarlet Spider still requires a little bit of time before it gets where it’s going.
This series has been a slow burn, with this issue not straying too far from many of the plot beats introduced in the last issue. With the high volume of books Marvel in general and the Spider-office specifically cranks out monthly, one thing we can say about this book is that it has come closer to securing its own corner of the market by bringing a morally ambiguous, anti-hero inversion of Spider-Man. This book is still flawed, but the book has taken a step in the right direction by at least committing to a characterization of Ben. The book no longer reads quite as confusing; I see what he’s doing, but if I’m going to really buy into it, I hope future installments give the readers a better look into the character of Ben Reilly so we have more of a reason to see him succeed.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #2 narrows its focus and its characterization to make for a more focused issue than its predecessor. However, if readers are going to stick around, the creative team needs to help them find something worth rooting for.