Clone Saga Callback is a feature that looks back on the 20th anniversary of one of the most controversial Spider-Man stories in the character’s history — the “Clone Saga.” Every month, we will sequentially remember a different “Clone Saga” storyline until we reach the very end of the arc (or go crazy, whichever comes first).
In this installment, we will spotlight the two-part “Crossfire” which can be found in Amazing Spider-Man #402 and Spider-Man #59.
When it comes to Spider-Man “Clone Saga” antagonists, the Jackal/Miles Warren gets some pretty well-deserved hate as an un-killable pest who creators have inexplicably morphed into the Joker in terms of characterization. But I think Judas Traveller is another strong candidate for the prized “worst 90s Spider-Man villain” prize (an award that superiorspidertalk.com will have to develop and give out at a ceremony in the near-future).
Traveller first appeared in the inaugural arc of the “Clone Saga” as a mysterious magician-like character with long white hair and a mustache (aka, a wannabe Gandalf the Grey from “The Lord of the Rings”). His power-set seems to consist primarily of using his unexplained powers to mentally and emotionally torture Peter. I stop short of calling him omnipotent, because any time he does something, there seems to be a question as to whether or not he’s only manipulating Peter into believing he’s seeing/doing something.
In other words, Traveller is a big mess of a character. There’s really no precedent for a villain like this in a Spider-Man book since these comics have always had a foundation in Atomic Era pseudo-science. No, Doctor Octopus or Sandman are not the kinds of characters you’d mistake for being on board the Starship Enterprise, but there’s a (comic book) logical explanation for what they do and how they’re able to do it. Traveller’s abilities seemingly change with whoever happens to be writing and illustrating the comic at the moment. In one scene in Amazing Spider-Man #402 he transforms into a bird because … hey, why not, it’s the 90s and Marvel wanted its newest Spider-Man villain sensation to morph into a proud eagle and fly away from an equally impotent baddie named Scrier.
Adding to Traveller’s infamy is the fact that he’s starring in a story, “Crossfire,” that has no logical reason to exist. We’re now a month removed from Peter Parker being accused of murder (which was actually perpetrated by Kaine), and his clone from the past, Ben Reilly, is rotting away in his prison cell in his place awaiting trial as a way for Peter to stay close to his pregnant wife, Mary Jane. Except Peter doesn’t spend much time with MJ and is instead swinging around in Ben’s Scarlet Spider costume, trying to clear his name, which goes about as successfully as O.J. Simpson finding the real killers after his acquittal in the mid-90s (did I just stumble upon the fact that the “Clone Saga” might be drawing its inspiration from the “Trial of the Century?”).
Marvel is basically just spinning its wheels until the “Trial of Peter Parker” arc can start next month, but also backed itself into a corner by releasing two “anniversary” issues of Web of Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man during the same month, relegating two issues of its “weekly saga” with a giant hole in terms of narrative content. So J.M. DeMatteis, Mark Bagley, Howard Mackie and Tom Lyle were stuck with concocting these two-part arcs as a means to fill time and space.
Since the creative team was unable to advance the plot of the “Clone Saga” in any meaningful way, “Crossfire” amounts to an exercise of sorts depicting what a confrontation between Peter and Traveller might look like at this stage of the story. Needless to say, it’s not terribly compelling.
Traveller’s prime ammunition against Peter is assaulting him with various hypothetical situations and false choices – he offers him Aunt May’s life back in exchange for an undetermined number of human lives as a means to test Peter’s penchant for “sacrificing” himself. Peter obviously rejects Traveller’s bargain, because even during the dregs of the “Clone Saga,” Marvel knew that it was patently ridiculous to have Peter make a mystical deal with an evil character over the life of his geriatric aunt.
But even in this instance of anti-Quesada logic, the Traveller/Peter conversation takes a strange, out-of-character turn for everyone involved. In ASM #402, Traveller challenges Spidey by asking if he exists to balance out the evil he fights, or if his presence is actually a catalyst for villainy. This is a pretty profound idea … for a Batman comic, which of course has been one of the major themes of the Dark Knight since the character was revolutionized by Frank Miller and Grant Morrison in the mid/late 1980s. DeMatteis, a writer I truly adore, of course had a stint writing Batman, scripting the excellent “Going Sane” arc in the Legends of the Dark Knight series. But I have no idea what JMD is doing bringing this kind of philosophy into Spider-Man. DeMatteis was the master of exploring Spidey’s psyche and emotional instability, but “Crossfire” is a classic example of a creative overreach. And you can probably chalk it up to the fact that we had a bunch of creators who needed to stretch a story out beyond recognition.
The big cliffhanger in ASM is that Traveller moves on from his Aunt May soul-stealing and instead shows Peter New York City 24 hours in the future. Naturally, the city has been laid to waste and it’s all SPIDER-MAN’S FAULT, and yet even once we transition into Spider-Man #59, we never get any insight – even just a few moments of inane, villainous psycho-babble from Traveller – indicating why Spidey might be at fault for all of Manhattan being destroyed. In fact, what we actually learn during this big, epic conclusion is that Traveller has overplayed his hand and is responsible for some kind of disturbance in the “space/time continuum” – a phrase I think comic book writers fall back on when they’ve officially run out of ideas. Still, proving that Spider-Man is the hero we all thought he was when this story started, he saves Traveller from being sucked into some kind of “vortex” (another one of those phrases) and thus, “Crossfire” comes to its merciful end. Friends become enemies, enemies become friends, and it’s really difficult to say if anyone was better for the experience.
While not related to the Traveller plot-line, it’s worth noting a few other cringe-worthy moments. The first comes courtesy of the police detective, Jacob Raven, who is attacked by Kaine in an earlier arc and basically goes to the police working on the Parker case and tells them they got the wrong man. There’s a moment where the cops are like “how do you know” and Raven is all like, “just look at the damn scar on my face which matches the scars found on the other murder victims.” I only point this out because this moment should officially kill the whole premise for the “Trial of Peter Parker” dead in the water, but since that would involve actually shortening the “Clone Saga” by a good four issues, THE STORY MUST CONTINUE.
Also, there’s a totally bizarre exchange between Peter and Mary Jane where MJ lashes out at her husband for his irradiated blood possibly causing an abnormality in their baby. I guess the “Clone Saga” braintrust really wanted to sell some drama between the married couple, but I would think MJ having her husband be accused of a murder he didn’t commit would be enough tension without mixing in this absurd “blame Peter for being Spider-Man if our baby has a mutation” sub-plot.