Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider, the series, has a bit of a decision to make concerning its protagonist. As it stands, Ben Reilly the character is sort of an anti-hero, if not an outright villain with delusions of heroism. There is a benefit to this approach: in an otherwise crowded Spider-Market, an evil or morally ambiguous approach to the character allows the series to stand on its own. There are two drawbacks, as I see it: first, broadly speaking, I believe it safe to say that most people who demanded a Ben Reilly return to the comics had the original Ben Reilly, complete with his costume and his disposition, in mind. Secondly, in practice, the book hasn’t quite made the character sympathetic enough for me to want the character to overcome whatever odds he faces in his book.
The only other option may be for writer Peter David to align, however gradually, with his original self. Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #6 continues Reilly’s subtle arc back to heroism, one that began in the first issue when he rejected his Jackal persona. Although his return to his classic Scarlet Spider costume was motivated creatively by the fandom’s rejection of the new design, it also reads in hindsight as Reilly’s decision to follow his angels over his demons. He has rejected the Jackal and embraced the Scarlet Spider. Now, he inches back towards heroism, rejecting unnecessary violence.
Ben Reilly #6 introduces a new player to the series: Marlo Chandler. Marlo is a creation of Peter David’s from his Incredible Hulk run. The audience receives very little explanation of her character other than her relationship with Rick Jones and her reality show. Her character history makes her an ideal fit for this story since her background in the Hulk involved casinos. Her character also is associated with death, which explains the way some characters react to her when she passes by. She brings a new element to the series, which will hopefully leave behind the repetition of the first several issues. It is certainly nice to see David bring in elements of his past work into a series that desperately needs a good supporting cast.
Death follows Marlo into this issue. The action of this issue is structured by a series of deaths. One character is a stranger, one character’s passing was hinted at from the first issue, and the final one comes as a surprise. Unfortunately, while much death occurs or is suggested throughout this book, not much of it has any emotional heft. Cumulatively, they are both too much and not enough at the same time. None of it feels as if the book has invested much in them and all read as ways to up the stakes of the book. The book leans too heavily on death as a means to escalate drama, but that technique only works if the reader feels heavily invested in that character. It also doesn’t help that one involves a character who seems to die annually in Spider-Man comics (hint: he’s only been back about a year after dying the last time).
While the art is serviceable and competent, it is hard to see Will Sliney as anything but a step down from Mark Bagley. Bagley’s livelier pencils gave more of a sense of drama to Peter David’s script. Sliney’s art feels stifled. His faces lack emotion. His figures are stiff and often posed awkwardly. The reader feels Bagley’s absence because of his art, which was some of his best in years and elevated an otherwise pedestrian story. Paired with average artwork, a mediocre script reads as mediocre.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider #6 does show signs that things may head in a different direction with the introduction of a new character, the apparent demise of a couple others, and the continual development of Ben Reilly. It is good to see some progress, but it still just has not hooked me yet. The problem is not so much that the character needs to be heroic instead of villainous, only that we understand his motivations. Moral ambiguity in itself will not set this book apart; writers have deconstructed the super hero genre to the point of self-parody after many comics producers learned all of the wrong lessons from the Watchmen’s success thirty years ago. What this book needs is to further develop its cast, particularly beyond its main character. Hopefully, the inclusion of a new supporting member will help in making that happen.
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This issue plays addition and subtraction with the supporting cast, hopefully changing it for the better. While Sliney is a competent replacement for Bagley, it isn't enough to elevate the issue.