If Marvel Comics readers were searching for signs that their beloved comics publisher listens to its fans, then perhaps they need to look no further than this comic, or at least its cover. Fans of Ben Reilly were surprised and disappointed to see the character in a new costume on the cover of Scarlet Spider #1 and, this being the Internet era of comics fandom, they voiced this opinion. So, after only a couple of issues, they have quickly abandoned Ben’s redesign in favor of his original costume. Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #3 improves the overall tone of the book, yet does little to actually move the book forward.
While Ben now superficially looks more like himself, his characterization still has some catching up to do. Slowly, it seems that perhaps this Ben Reilly will grow to more closely resemble his “Clone Saga” era self in more ways than just his costume. He appears genuinely concerned about the trio of Spider-Man copycats. He displays some level of moral outrage towards Slate. The confrontation between Slate and Scarlet Spider is third in as many issues, but this one at least had a measure of drama to it. Slate is not quite an interesting villain, but the issues leading up to him now have established him as a formidable and ruthless opponent, so Ben’s brief victory here is satisfying. Writer Peter David still depicts his protagonist as a jerk, but not a hopeless jerk. Last issue, Ben Reilly’s concerns, even when attempting to save a sick child, were mainly bent towards self-preservation. In rushing to the defense of the three copycat Spider-Men, he displays at least some concern for the well-being of others, although it was immediately preceded by his asking for money from someone in return for saving her life.
The big moment in this issue is, of course, Ben’s return to his original costume. The cover depicts him in it, though he does not actually don it until the final page of the issue. The cover tips David’s hand, so the audience knows that the costume change is coming. Still, how he gets us there is fun. Ben encounters a group of cosplaying vigilantes called “The Web Spinners”. Like much else of this book, from its protagonist to its creative team, the name “Web Spinners” is, of course, a nostalgic callback to Spider-Man comics of yore. In their criticisms of Ben’s new suit, David clearly echoes the social media backlash from the comics fans who did not particularly like the new Scarlet Spider design. It reads as playful, but I can’t help but feel there is real frustration there from the creative team. While frustration stemming from audience rejection is certainly understandable, the series needed to take a step like returning Ben to his original costume to make him feel like the character fans demanded in the first place.
Once again, Mark Bagley proves to be the perfect artist for this book. I admit that I am quite a bit biased towards Bagley, as he penciled my first Spider-Man issue (Spider-Man #26). For me, Bagley is 90s Spider-Man. Even recognizing that bias, his artwork in this book is remarkable, particularly on one full page of Kaine early in the book. Seeing him draw that unmistakable, ridiculous Scarlet Spider costume, with its ankle pouches and its hoodie, is delightful. That costume is the absolute distilled essence of the era that produced it and I look forward to reading an entire book featuring it.
The series is now three issues in and doesn’t feel as if it has strayed too far from where the book began. Quite literally, the plot hasn’t strayed too far from the Las Vegas casino where much of the plot has played out. Perhaps it is the lack of change of scenery, but all three issues have hit on similar beats, even similar jokes. The plot does not advance much at all. All of the characters are essentially in the same position they were in the last issue, except perhaps in better clothing.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #3 has humor and action, but it I’m starting to wonder where the plot with Cassandra and the casino is actually going, if anywhere. Still, at least this book has begun to resemble something of what I hoped for from a Ben Reilly book. The return to Ben’s original costume is hopefully more than an aesthetic one. More than looking like Ben Reilly, I hope the character acts like him, or at least a character I can become invested in. His defense of the Web Spinners hopefully signals more of that, as well. A Ben Reilly who, while still sort of a jerk, at least possesses some sort of discernible morality, can command my interest more than the irredeemable sociopath who has appeared recently.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #3 returns its main character to his signature costume, ribbing its audience a bit along the way. Not much plot progression actually happens, but there is fun to be had, along with some great art by Mark Bagley.