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 Greatest Responsibility,” which consists of Amazing Spider-Man #406, Spider-Man #63 and Spectacular Spider-Man #229.
Exactly one year after randomly bringing back Peter Parker’s clone (long thought dead in a smokestack in Amazing Spider-Man #150), Marvel appeared to end one of its most controversial stories of all time, the “Clone Saga,” with this three-part arc “Greatest Responsibility.” J.M. DeMatteis, Howard Mackie and Tom DeFalco, three of the primary “Clone Saga” architects, all played a critical role in scripting the arc which was clearly designed to sell Ben Reilly as the one “true” Spider-Man, while Peter and his pregnant wife Mary Jane, would gracefully retire to the land of no more comic books.
And yet, as history shows, this was NOT the end of the “Clone Saga,” which is part of what makes “Greatest Responsibility” such a difficult story to talk about just based on its own merits. Marvel would launch three new Spider-books with “Scarlet Spider” in the title before scrapping that idea in just a few months and restarting all of Spidey’s “legacy” books like ASM, Spectacular Spider-Man and (adjective-less) Spider-Man. Ben was front and center, but sagging sales and Marvel’s own bankruptcy issues derailed the Spider-Ben era before it ever really started. The second phase of the “Clone Saga” would go on another 14 MONTHS (!!!) — most of it meandering and rudderless — before its inevitable mercy-killing in “Revelations,” which led to the return of the actual “true” Spider-Man, Peter.
But subsequent interviews with Mackie (like this one) and DeFalco (like this one) have confirmed (over and over) that the road to “Revelations” was not actually the intended plan. “Greatest Responsibility” was the end game. And if the comic book industry wasn’t the bloated, disastrous mess it was during the 1990s, “Greatest Responsibility” would have represented a very well-executed end game — a story that both honors the history and legacy of the outgoing hero while making the incoming new start of the book look like a million bucks. Much like the current volume four status quo shift, it represents a fearlessly bold new direction that likely makes old-time fans unhappy, deriding it as “change for the sake of change,” but also simultaneously has the characteristics of attracting a whole new generation of fans (if the follow-up is executed properly, of course).
Yes, “Greatest Responsibility” has its share of 90-isms — aka, glaring, groan-worthy flaws like the re-imagining of a classic Spider-Man villain (Carolyn Trainer as the new Doctor Octopus) that lacks the true authenticity and menace of the original. But it also zeroes in on some of the core characteristics of an upper echelon Spider-Man book. It’s a story that could have truly been considered “great” if history and hindsight didn’t turn out to be such a cruel mistress.
While some might dismiss this as unoriginal, the emotional core of “Greatest Responsibility” is borrowed from what many consider to be one of the greatest Spider-man stories of all time, the “Master Planner Trilogy” by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in ASM #31-33. Hey, if you’re going to pay homage to a Spider-Man story, you might as well go for broke and choose this one. It has been more than 50 years since it was first published and the “Master Planner Trilogy” still serves as a perfect encapsulation of Spider-Man as a character and a superhero – how the “with great power …” mantra drives him, but also causes great conflict and pain in his life. And of course how that mantra leads to what is probably my all-time favorite Spidey trait, his unbreakable, never-say-die spirit.
“Greatest Responsibility” is built around two central conflicts. The first is a fairly traditional superhero story premise: Mary Jane suddenly becomes sick with radioactive poisoning from Peter’s blood/DNA (as was the case with Aunt May during the “Master Planner Trilogy”) and in order to save her life, Peter and Ben need to get their hands on a serum that was developed by the scientist Seward Trainer. Unfortunately, Seward’s sociopathic daughter Carolyn is trying to destroy his life and has decided that getting her mechanical arms on the serum is the best way to do it.
This is pretty much a shot-for-shot recreation of “Master Planner,” all the way down to the appearance of Lady Ock in an underwater base filled with anonymous goons/henchmen.
If that’s not enough analogies for you, let’s also toss in a scene where Peter gets buried by rubble. But this time around, he’s saved by a combination of his own willpower and his super Spidey buddy, Ben. It’s a nice little spin on the classic scene, that also, again, paves the way for Ben to take center stage in these books while Peter gets a graceful exit into comic book history.
But the more complex conflict centers around Peter dealing with the fallout from discovering that he is actually a clone and how that revelation, combined with the fact that his wife is pregnant, affects his desires to continue on as Spider-Man. And it’s when these three comics play in this terrain where “Greatest Responsibility” is at its richest.
As was discussed on this site and on the Amazing Spider-Talk podcast, one of the dynamics that made The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows miniseries so intriguing was that of how fatherhood affected Peter’s decision-making as Spider-Man. Renew Your Vows showed Peter making some very complicated choices that didn’t always sit right with the entirety of the fan base. But those of us out there who are also parents were able to relate to what Peter was doing, even if it seemingly flied in the face of Amazing Fantasy #15’s famous final panel about power and responsibility.
Peter is not yet a father in “Greatest Responsibility,” but the script does a good job in showing how this major life change has become more tangible for him. DeMatteis in particular knocks it out of the park in ASM #406 when he scripts a moving scene depicting Peter and MJ out to dinner and dancing and both of them feeling the baby kick for the first time. Up until this point, both parents-to-be are dealing with the baby in abstract-terms. MJ keeps referring to the baby as a girl and Peter, like a lot of first-time dads-to-be, is insistent that the child will be a boy. They’re almost (lovingly) goading and taunting each other in how they talk about this unborn child. But once it kicks, everything changes. Gone are the borderline smug gender assessments and in their place is just pure, unbridled joy mixed with fear of the unknown. As trite as it might sound, it’s a moment that “changes everything” for Peter and MJ, and the subsequent creators continue to sell this idea as more of the traditional superheroics take over.
As we recently read in Renew Your Vows, Peter’s imminent parenthood is what ultimately convinces him to hang up his webs in “Power and Responsibility.” However, there’s slightly more nuance to it during the “Clone Saga” than what we saw earlier this year. Because Peter has gone through such emotional turmoil over the past few months during the “Clone Saga,” “Power and Responsibility” depicts a Spider-Man who has lost his edge and passion a bit. And because of that loss of passion, it’s making Spidey sloppy, and thus more likely to get killed by a foe. Peter’s big eye-opening moment of needing to quit comes after he’s easily dispatched by Lady Ock (and luckily saved by Ben).
Readers have obviously seen Peter wanting to “quit” being Spider-Man before, but it’s easier to accept as gospel in “Power and Responsibility.” Peter admits to living a lie as Spider-Man the past few years and it just makes sense for him to cede his responsibilities as a hero to focus on his responsibilities as a husband and father instead.
Meanwhile, the Spider-book brain-trust goes a long way in using “Greatest Responsibility” as a vehicle to transition readers to the Spider-Ben era. And apparently the way they set out to do that was to present Ben in a way that wasn’t all that different from his predecessor (who in effect, was his predecessor).
This remains one of the most difficult tricks to pull off during the Spider-Ben book era (and something I will get in to when I inevitably review some of those books down the line). In something that only seems to make sense when you use comic book logic, even after being revealed as the “real” Spider-Man, Ben is presented as being “different” from Peter in terms of personality and demeanor. In effect, this is the same character readers were reading from Amazing Fantasy #15 to Amazing Spider-Man #149 (when the clone first appeared). Certainly it can be argued that being abandoned in a smokestack and manipulated into thinking you’re a clone could adversely affect Ben/Peter’s emotional make-up. But at the end of the day, this is a character that really should just reflect a known entity.
“Greatest Responsibility” is really the only instance where I believe Marvel goes that route. The creators even restore some of Spdiey’s trademark banter and wit during a battle (making comment of it as well). As a result, these issues read as Marvel telling the public “yes we’re changing the book and sending Peter out to pasture but if you just stop thinking so cynically you’ll realize NOTHING HAS ACTUALLY CHANGED.” Unfortunately, by the time Dan Jurgens came aboard, Ben was being transformed into his own distinct character again.
That’s why, in a vacuum, “Greatest Responsibility” should be considered a very good story, and a great representative of all of the chaotic quality the “Clone Saga” was able to yield. Editorial meddling after the fact is part of what negated all of the significance of this story, but when you look at it in isolation, Marvel is performing a very unique magic trick here in handing the reins of its premier comic book franchise to a new (old) character. There’s nothing out there that’s been published before or after that you can really compare to except possibly the current new status quo shift, which is part of what makes “Greatest Responsibility” feel all the more prescient.