A new era begins as the Scarlet Spider takes center stage in all of the core books. The titles are even renamed and renumbered at issue #1 for "Virtual Mortality," the first story line featuring the new status quo.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : I touched upon the origins of the retitled Scarlet Spider books last time, but it bears repeating that this stunt was driven solely by Marvel's sales and marketing boys. They wanted it, they pushed for it, and they even wanted to make it twice as long as it ended up being. They were so impressed with the success of the "Age of Apocalypse" event done with the X-Men books that they thought it could easily be replicated with the Spider-Man line. The biggest difference between the two stunts was that "Age of Apocalypse" was a well planned, conceptually strong, story-driven project that was generated by the X-Men editorial staff and writers. The Scarlet Spider stunt, on the other hand, was something that the Spider-Man editors and writers were pressured into doing, and was agreed to with absolutely no story concept or overall theme in place. Once it was agreed to, the Spider-Man team had to scramble desperately to throw something-ANYTHING-together in a very short amount of time, which could be marketed and promoted and hyped in the sales catalog. I look back at those Scarlet Spider books and I see a real sloppiness to them, a real ugliness. And I think that was all borne from the conditions under which they were created. This was not a venture in which anyone could take any sort of creative pride-and the fact that the deadlines were horrendous didn't exactly help matters. Half the artists working on those Scarlet Spider issues weren't even the regular Spider-Man guys. They were fill-in artists pulled in at the last minute, and it showed. Even Mark Bagley's work suffered on those issues, in my opinion. (Take a look at Mark's work before and after those Scarlet Spider issues, and see if you don't agree with me on this.) Bottom line: there was no way in hell this was going to measure up, quality-wise, to "Age of Apocalypse." ]
The story line begins in WEB OF SCARLET SPIDER #1, written by Tom DeFalco and Todd Dezago and illustrated by Paris Karounos and Randy Emberlin. The issue opens with Scarlet breaking up a gang of thugs mugging a poor guy on the streets. After easily taking care of that dispute, Scarlet's spider-sense alerts him to a helicopter flying above the skies. He chases down the chopper and the van that's following it and gets into a fight with several costumed soldiers. They have some tricks up their sleeves, which prevents Scarlet from capturing them. When he realizes that he failed to catch the bad guys, Ben thinks that Peter would have done it better and wonders why he tries at all.
It turns out that several parties were involved with the earlier helicopter event. Doctor Octopus was sending her team out to steal computer components for something she was working on. But there is also a Mr. Tso, who is the head of another criminal organization that had their components stolen in the first place. Mr. Tso orders the person in charge of security killed on the spot.
When Ben tells Seward Trainer, with whom he's staying temporarily, about it, Dr. Trainer suggests that Ben doesn't have to follow the same path as Peter did and offers him a position as his research assistant. Ben politely declines, saying he needs to make his own way and starts to look for a job. He's turned away everywhere he looks, but then tries at Club Noir, the new trendy place in town. They turn Ben down, too, even though he claims to have waiting experience. Just then, a waitress trips and Ben grabs her tray, using his spider powers to keep it balanced. That little trick gets Ben a job.
After getting his job, Ben puts on the spider-suit and goes looking for the helicopter, which is going to go after the van of computer components. He finds it and gets into the copter, but is thwarted again, getting shocked after touching one of the bad guy's suits. Scarlet is then thrown from the copter, but manages to shoot a web to latch on. The bad guys really don't want him around so they start moving the copter in various ways to get Scarlet thrown off or smashed against the side of a building. Scarlet manages to stick around still, so someone cuts the web, causing Scarlet to fall towards the river. After a web hang-glider doesn't work, he tries to make himself a pair water skis, which does work. For about two seconds until he sinks into the water, cursing his luck.
Back in town, Mr. Tso is unhappy to hear that his computer components have been stolen and wants an update on how his club is doing. His assistant tells him that nothing much has gone on, other than the fact that they hired a new waiter named Ben Reilly.
Part two happens in THE AMAZING SCARLET SPIDER #1, written by Tom DeFalco and Mike Lackey and illustrated by Mark Bagley and Larry Mahlstedt. The story opens with Mr. Tso's men infiltrating one of Doc Ock's hideouts in an effort to retrieve their stolen components. Tso's team is doing a good job at getting through Ock's people, so she decides to blow up the entire building to prevent any secrets from being uncovered. While swinging through the streets, the Scarlet Spider sees the explosion and goes to check it out, finding more trouble than before. He fights a couple of Ock's men and takes the experimental virtual reality visor that both sides wanted so badly.
Doc Ock tells her mysterious computerized associate about the incident and they appear to already know and already be working on a solution. They enlist the help of a two time loser called the Looter, who's just being released from prison.
Ben comes in late for his first day at Club Noir, but manages to get by without causing any major problems-except for getting flirted with, that is. He also notices one of the people from the computer chip burglary, Mr. Kannor, heading towards the boss's office. After Kannor leaves, Mr. Tso relays the news of another failure to yet another mysterious associate.
Ben finishes his shift at the club and goes home, flirting with another woman, Carrie Bradley, on the elevator, and shows Seward the VR visor that he found earlier in the day. Seward tells him that it's far more advanced than anything he's ever seen, comparing it to what a Harley Davidson means to a tricycle. Seward is anxious to test it, so he puts on the visor and goes into cyber world. Once inside the virtual world, Seward is confronted by a mysterious being called VR-37, who takes an aggressive stance against him. Seward begins to concoct weapons and defensive objects in his head, which then become real in that world. Unfortunately, VR-37 can do the same. Ben watches as Seward struggles and notices things getting worse, even to the point where cyber events manifest themselves in the real world.
Ben puts on one of the spare helmets and is drawn into the cyberworld. Seward warns him that he shouldn't have come, but it's too late. VR-37 tells them that in this world, they can create things from the user's deepest thoughts and fears. Immediately, VR versions of Venom, Carnage, Stunner and even Spider-Man appear and Scarlet must battle them all. While he's occupied with the VR versions of these opponents, Seward is stuck facing VR-37 alone. Scarlet is able to triumph over his enemies, but when he reaches Seward, he discovers that his friend wasn't so lucky.
Ben takes off the VR helmet and goes back to the real world and removes Seward's helmet, as well, but he's too late. Seward's been reduced to a zombified state.
Part 3 continues the story in SCARLET SPIDER #1, written by Howard Mackie and Todd Dezago, and illustrated by Gil Kane and Tom Palmer. The Scarlet Spider is trying to save Seward's life. He rushes Seward to a hospital when the doctors tell him that physically, Seward is okay, but mentally he's a blank state and they detect no brain activity.
Elsewhere, we're introduced to a mysterious assassin called "The Pro." He breaks into someone's home, subduing all of his bodyguards and presses a gun to his head, telling him to cease operations and leave the country. When the man asks why he wasn't killed, the Pro responds that he wasn't paid to do that. Moments later, the Pro is back on the street and is paged with his next assignment: kill Jason Tso.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : The Pro was inspired by the movie "The Professional," starring Jean Reno and Natalie Portman. Howard Mackie often incorporated ideas and stylistic touches from other sources into his stories. For example, I think it's pretty obvious from Howard's work over the years that "The X-Files" has been a major influence on him. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion. ]
At the Daily Bugle, reporter Ken Ellis gets a scoop that Club Noir will be hosting an important gathering of some of the most powerful mobsters in the area. Ellis grabs his friend Angela Yin, a photographer, and tells her that they're going to Noir for dinner. In cyberspace, Doc Ock discovers that her associate sent the tip to Ellis and asks why. She's told that if Ellis covers the event, including Mr. Tso's death, the publicity will send a message to anyone who considers moving against them. It's also revealed that Seward's mind has been stuck in the virtual reality, allowing him to spy on the entire conversation between these two.
The evening rolls around and Ben is waiting on Mr. Tso's table. Tso abruptly gets out of his chair, causing Ben to spill a drink, resulting in Tso telling his assistant Kannor to fire Reilly. As Reilly starts getting ready to leave, he passes by a computerized cash register and Seward is able to manipulate the screen to speak to Ben. He gets cut off before he can tell Ben what he learned, but Reilly figures it out eventually when he stumbles onto the attempted assassination of Mr. Tso. Thinking quickly, Ben disarms the would-be killers and then goes to find Mr. Tso, who's being attacked by the Pro. Ben changes into costume and moments later the Scarlet Spider comes crashing in, saving Tso from the Pro.
A few minutes later, Ben is cleaning out his locker and Mr. Tso stops him, telling him that although Ben makes a lousy waiter, he's a terrific bodyguard. Tso only wishes he could find a way to get the Scarlet Spider on the payroll, too, since Scarlet also saved his life.
"Virtual Mortality" concludes in THE SPECTACULAR SCARLET SPIDER #1, written by Todd Dezago and illustrated by Sal Buscema and Jimmy Palmiotti. The story opens with the discovery of why the Looter was recruited by Doc Ock earlier on. He's been given cybernetic enhancements. Doc Ock watches as he trains against two of her other pupils, Aura and Override.
In another part of town, Ben is having apprehensions about his new job. Dealing with punks and thugs as the Scarlet Spider is one thing, but having to deal with them as Ben Reilly is something he's not too interested in. After checking in on Seward and having another brief conversation with him over the hospital computers, Ben learns that there will be another raid on Club Noir by Doc Ock's team. He then rushes over to the gym, where Carrie Bradley is teaching a self-defense course, to cancel a date they had planned. She doesn't take the news so well and Ben is forced to deal with his terrible luck yet again.
Ben heads over to Club Noir to start his first shift as Mr. Tso's bodyguard and arrives just in time, as Override, Aura and the Looter break in. He gets Tso to safety, changes into his alter ego, and then the Scarlet Spider goes in to take on the cyber-powered villains. Aura and Override are taken out pretty quickly, but the Looter proves a little more formidable. The Looter thinks Ben is Spider-Man and is out for blood. Although Ben faced him before his time in exile, when he was Spider-Man, it's still been awhile. They fight to a standoff before the Looter makes a hasty retreat, telling Scarlet that fighting him isn't in his contract.
Tso later thanks Ben Reilly for again saving his life earlier on, along with the Scarlet Spider and then goes to speak with his mysterious contact. A glimpse into the other side of the computer screen reveals that Tso's associate is none other than Alistair Smythe, creator of the deadly Spider-Slayers, looking to test his new Cyberslayers.
SCARLET SPIDER UNLIMITED #1, written by Glenn Herdling and illustrated by Tod Smith and John Nyberg is a change of pace issue. The purpose of the issue is to deal with continuity problems created by SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #8, in which it was revealed that the Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy clones were victims of a "clone virus," and thus not actual clones-which clearly doesn't match what we've come to know since the Clone Saga began.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : Unlike the regular format Scarlet Spider comics, I was actively involved with the creation of SCARLET SPIDER UNLIMITED #1. If you liked it, great. If not, I freely admit that I am one of the people to blame. Basically, the situation was that there were still a number of clone saga-related continuity problems that needed to be resolved, and it was decided that this double-sized comic would be the place to clear everything up once and for all. Glenn Herdling, who at the time was a full-time Marvel editor and freelance writer (perhaps best known for his work on NAMOR and AVENGERS UNPLUGGED), was hired to write the story. Glenn's a great guy and a good friend of mine (How could he not be? He's got a great first name and he spells it the right way!). He's also a very good writer, with a lot of good ideas and a terrific sense of humor. When I became an editor, I hired him to do some writing for me, and I was always pleased with the results. And to top it all off, Glenn knows Spider-Man very, very well. Back in the late 80s/early 90s, when Jim Salicrup was editing the Spider-Man books (this included the mega-successful Todd McFarlane era), Glenn was the assistant editor. So you couldn't argue with his credentials.
But this Scarlet Spider was so monumental a task, so unavoidably mired in explaining away multiple contradictions and buried under layers of long-winded explanations, that it was a troubled project from the start. It would have made even Roy Thomas head for the hills in abject terror. Poor Glenn really had his work cut out for him. My job, along with my fellow Spider-Man Group assistant editor, Mark Bernardo, was to outline for Glenn all the continuity issues that needed to be addressed in the story. There was a big plotting lunch at a local restaurant, consisting of Herdling, Bernardo, me, Tom Brevoort, Spider-Man editor Eric Fein, and Spider-Man Group Editor in Chief Bob Budiansky. I can't remember for sure, but Peter Sanderson (Marvel's librarian and resident continuity expert) may have also been there. Our goal was to try to map out the story during this lunch and at least have a rough outline by the end. Bernardo and I detailed all the continuity issues we felt needed to be resolved. Bob had his own directions for Herdling in terms of what he wanted in the story, in addition to clearing up all the continuity stuff. Most of Bob's directions involved Kaine and raising the possibilities of his resurrection.
By the end of that lunch, I think Herdling's head was going to explode, so overwhelmed was he by all the things he had to address and accomplish in this one story. I genuinely felt sorry for him. I don't recall how many drafts of the plot Glenn had to do-but I know there were several. He took it all in stride, though, and I think he managed to have some fun in the process. ]
The Scarlet Spider is swinging by the old warehouse that served as the Jackal's lab, when he notices a lot of police activity, particularly Jacob Raven going into the warehouse. The police and a biological team are there because they traced the Carrion virus (which struck Springville, PA weeks ago) to that location. Raven is on the scene because it was listed as the last known location of Kaine. He stumbles into the Jackal's lab where he discovers the containment pod holding the body of Kaine. Raven pulls his gun, wanting to make sure that Kaine is dead once and for all, but is stopped by a couple of strange-looking creatures.
The Scarlet Spider enters through the sewers, trying to find Jacob Raven, and runs into several more of the creatures, who try everything they can to stop him. He's able to put them out of commission and find his way to the Jackal's lab, where he sees Raven caught in a cocoon-like substance. After freeing Raven, Scarlet senses trouble and sees that the creatures have returned, ready to do battle again. Instantly, the High Evolutionary appears, telling his Animen to stand down. He teleports them back home, but Scarlet tries to prevent them from leaving, which leaves him transported to Wundagore, as well. Since Wundagore is the home of the Animen, Scarlet finds himself severely outnumbered. He puts up a tough fight, but the odds are too great and he gets captured.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : For me, the highlight of the entire issue, the most memorable thing, occurs during this particular scene. The Scarlet Spider, captured and tied down to a slab, is surrounded by the Animen, who discuss what they should do with him. One says, "I say we kill him." Another replies, "I say we kill him, then we eat him." The Scarlet Spider tries to disguise and throw his voice, and he chimes in, "I say we let him go!" Yeah, I know, it was from "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," but I thought it was a great touch, very appropriate for the scene, and I still remember laughing about it with Glenn once I got a chance to read the finished version. ]
When another creature appears, recognizing Scarlet as "the other," the Animen bow in reverence. He looks behind to also see a statue erected in memory of the Jackal. Scarlet learns that the Animen believe (as was revealed in SPEC ANNUAL #8) that the Jackal infected his assistant Anthony Serba with a genetic virus which altered his DNA, turning him into a biological duplicate of the original Peter Parker. When Scarlet disputes this, he's called a heretic and a false prophet.
The Animen tell Scarlet about how the High Evolutionary wanted to create a new race by evolving animals into a higher form. It wasn't until he enlisted the help of Professor Miles Warren that he was able to do so. The problem was, the High Evolutionary wanted to create a race of gods, while Warren wanted to create the perfect human. Warren was banished from Wundagore. Several "new men" followed Warren and volunteered to undergo genetic tests. Unfortunately, the first test resulted in the subjects not just becoming human, but getting turned into living corpses until their death: the Carrion Virus.
It was then that Warren turned his attention to attempting to create spontaneous life through cloning. He eventually reappeared on Wundagore, in the guise of the Jackal, in order to blend in with the creatures. He revealed that he perfected the cloning process and gained new followers, which angered the High Evolutionary. High Evolutionary decided to prove that the Jackal was a fraud by capturing the Gwen Stacy clone and performing a series of tests on her. He apparently discovered that she was no clone and was in fact, nothing more than a successful genetic duplicate. The Jackal's followers were not won over so quickly and sent spies to retrieve Warren's journal. There they discovered more evidence that High Evolutionary was telling the truth, through an entry in Warren's own journal.
The news strikes the Scarlet Spider hard. If the whole clone thing is a sham, it means that Anthony Serba would have a right to get his life back. What would that mean for Peter Parker and Mary Jane? Before Scarlet has time to think about it further, the High Evolutionary teleports him to his "ready room." Scarlet thinks that when he was Spider-Man, he only had to worry about street level goons with delusions of grandeur, but Peter's left some pretty big boots to fill with his rogues gallery. The High Evolutionary decides to tell Scarlet the whole story.
Warren was indeed his assistant, working on ways to make animals into sentient bipeds. The jackal was a creature that particularly held Warren's interest, but the experiment was a failure. The Jackal creature created manifested a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Warren was banished but the Jackal stayed a part of his life, hunting him, going so far as to kill his family. Warren blamed High Evolutionary for their deaths and returned to Wundagore to challenge his authority. Warren developed his own Jackal persona through which he would project his own heinous acts, and his cloning process was a threat to the High Evolutionary. Cloning stagnates the evolutionary process, while High Evolutionary seeks to accelerate it. The High Evolutionary planted a false journal in one of Warren's labs and concocted the genetic duplicate story so his people wouldn't know the truth and hold Warren with such reverence. Warren indeed perfected the cloning process and Gwen and Peter were clones, not DNA-altered duplicates.
After this revelation, the Scarlet Spider convinces High Evolutionary to enlighten his people as well. He tells them it isn't their destiny to be human, but they should be proud to be a part of a race every bit the equal of humans. With that, Scarlet is teleported back to the Jackal's lab. He wakes Jacob Raven up and they both discover that Kaine's containment pod is now empty.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : There's no doubt that Glenn Herdling did the best he could with this story, under heavy editorial scrutiny, seemingly endless revisions, and a mountain of contradictory information to address. To his credit, he managed to wrap up the lingering continuity quagmire in a way that didn't make things any worse than they already were. That alone was a great accomplishment, something neither Howard Mackie nor Terry Kavanagh were able to do in their attempts to make the clone saga work with what had been established in previous stories. ]