With the events of the last few issues, both Peter and Ben are questioning their origins after the newly "reborn" Jackal played mind games with them, telling both of them first that they were the real Peter Parker, and then saying that neither of them was. Before his lab went up in an explosion and the Jackal made his escape, he hints that the real Peter Parker is somewhere in the lab. Paying no mind to the Jackal's threats, Ben and Peter leave the area.
"Players and Pawns" is the next storyline in the Clone Saga, beginning in Spectacular Spider-Man #222, written by Tom DeFalco and illustrated by Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. Kaine is exploring the wreckage of the Jackal's labs, curious to find the truth regarding the clones in Jackal's files. Kaine believes that he has always known the truth of who the real Parker was, but copies the Jackal's files to make sure. Upon doing so, another containment chamber opens to reveal Peter Parker. Before Kaine has time to react to the shocking discovery, the Jackal and his little apprentice confront him. It's revealed that the Jackal knows all about Kaine, perhaps more than anyone else. Before the two can have it out, Scrier appears and the 3rd Parker disappears during the confusion. Scrier goes back into the shadows as quickly as he appears, but not before the Jackal explains how he and Scrier share a history, as well.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : I have to say, I really loved Jack, the Jackal's little apprentice. Don't ask me why. I just latched on to him and really got a kick out of him. He was witty, he had a lot of energy and spirit, and he brought a certain lightness to an otherwise very serious story line. I remember being at a Spider-Man writers' conference and just going on about how much I enjoyed Jack's presence in the stories. My exact comment was: "He's a midget Jackal - how can you go wrong with that?!" ]
The rest of the issue focuses on the particulars of the (now) three Parkers. Ben Reilly is watching Flash Thompson, the man who made his life hell in high school, coach a basketball game, seemingly having his life in order. Ben's enjoying the reunion with yet another old friend until the Jackal crashes into the building, looking for a fight. Ben changes into the Scarlet Spider and takes on Jackal.
Peter is informed by Jonah that the police want to talk to him about Ben Reilly, which causes Peter to question what Ben has been up to during the last five years. While walking along the street, Kaine appears and gives Peter the data he stole from the Jackal, proving that Peter is the real deal. While Peter always believed that to be the case, the idea of another mysterious stranger screwing with him rubs him the wrong way. He changes into Spider-Man and goes after Kaine for answers.
Meanwhile, the 3rd Parker, recently released from a cryo tube is heading... somewhere, still dazed from being in the pod and trying to remember who he is and what he should be doing.
The second part of "Players and Pawns" takes place in Web of Spider-Man #123, written by Terry Kavanagh and illustrated by Steven Butler and Randy Emberlin. This issue contains two big fight scenes: Spider-Man vs Kaine and The Scarlet Spider vs The Jackal, with neither of the products of Parker DNA faring too well against their opponents. The Scarlet Spider eventually overpowers the Jackal and has him taken into custody. The Jackal's being sent to Ravencroft, and under his threats to Scarlet we read his thoughts. He wants to go to Ravencroft. Something is there that belongs to him and it's easier to be sent there than to break in. The little Jackal impersonator offers Scarlet Spider information. He gives him a disk that is supposed to contain proof that Ben is the real Peter Parker. When the Jackal sees his assistant do this, he snaps his fingers, causing the impersonator to deteriorate. "Your future," the melting apprentice tells Scarlet Spider. "In your hands now."
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : Yeah, as you can probably guess, I was sorry to see Jack go. Again, I just loved the notion of the Jackal palling around with a wacky, miniature version of himself - and remember, this was years before Mini-Me! ]
Spider-Man has his hands full with Kaine. He wants answers and he won't take no for an answer, which leads to a knockdown, drag-out fight. We saw how Kaine handled the Scarlet Spider effortlessly in a previous issue, but was that because Kaine was so powerful or because Ben was out of practice? The way he pummels Spider-Man with a barrage of devastating hits ends that debate. Kaine is one tough cookie.
The interlude of the story shows the other Peter Parker arriving in New York City, still dazed and confused, wanting to rest before he confronts his inevitable-but-unsure destiny. Most importantly, Aunt May comes out of her coma. She's regained consciousness, but isn't responding to any of the doctors. Her thoughts reveal that she needs Peter to see her and soon. The issue ends with the Scarlet Spider atop the smokestack, where the first confrontation between Spider-Man and his clone ended. Ben wonders whether the disk will hold the key to the secrets plaguing him and Peter or offer only more questions. He wonders what Peter would have done, in an homage to Amazing Spider-Man #150, where Peter throws the test results away, believing himself to be the real deal and not needing tests to verify what he feels. Ben throws the disk into the river, claiming he is not Peter Parker, or at least not that Peter Parker. "Ben Reilly no longer needs validation from anybody...but me," he says and swings off into the distance, knowing that truly "life is in the living."
Amazing Spider-Man #400 is a milestone in many ways. The main story in the issue, "The Gift," is written by JM DeMatteis and illustrated by Mark Bagley and Larry Mahlstedt. It's one of the most emotional Spider-Man stories ever told, and one of my favorite Spider-Man stories ever. While the Jackal makes a cameo appearance in Ravencroft and the third Peter Parker and Dr. Judas Traveller show up in a few panels, as well, this is really Aunt May's story. After regaining consciousness in the previous issue, May returns home to Peter and Mary Jane. Upon seeing MJ, Aunt May shows her intuition by telling Mary Jane that she's pregnant. Holding both Peter and Mary Jane by the hand, she tells them "there's no greater responsibility in the world than raising a child...shaping a young soul. No greater responsibility."
The Scarlet Spider pays a visit to Peter and they have a heart-to-heart in the yard. Ben recalls memories of climbing the old tree with the help of his/Peter's uncle. He then tells Peter that he's leaving New York. With May feeling better and Peter and MJ expecting, they have their first shot at real happiness and he doesn't want to ruin it. There is also an important revelation after Ben has left the house. He reminisces about a woman named Janine, who seems to have meant a great deal to him.
The most pivotal moment comes a week later atop the Empire State Building. Aunt May, feeling cooped up, wants to get out of the house, so Peter takes her there. As they look out the observatory, May asks Peter how it feels to swing over the city, being so free. A shocked Peter tries to brush it off, but May continues, telling Peter that she'd have to be an idiot to not know, after living under the same roof for so many years. She says that after Ben's death, she couldn't accept the fact that Peter was risking his life every day as Spider-Man. May tells Peter that she's proud of him and that if Ben were still around, he would say the same thing. After the surprising revelation, May collapses. Peter takes her home. After a few poignant words and goodbyes in front of Peter, Mary Jane and Aunt Anna, Aunt May dies.
This wasn't a dream or imaginary story. Aunt May, Peter's lifeline for so long, had passed. It was the most memorable death scene I've read in comics. From her revelation that she knew Peter's secret all along (which made complete sense) to Ben Reilly having to go through this emotional moment completely alone on the roof of the Parker home, it was just a beautifully written segment. As much as you can feel for Peter, at least he had Mary Jane and Anna to fall back on. Although he shares all of Peter's memories and feelings, Ben must deal with his pain alone, because he's just a clone. An imitation. His feelings don't count.
The shock endings we've come to expect continue in even this emotionally charged issue. After May's funeral, Detective Trevane and Lieutenant Raven come to the Parker house and arrest Peter for first-degree murder. Mary Jane tries to figure out what to do next. She wants to call Pete's friend Matt Murdock, but believes Murdock to be dead. As she gets ready to go to the police station, the Scarlet Spider arrives at the house. He removes his mask, introduces himself as Ben Reilly and tells Mary Jane that it's time they met "face to face."
DeMatteis has written one of the single greatest Spider-Man stories of all time, if not the greatest. Shocking revelations, a cliffhanger ending and the death of one of comics' most beloved and well-known characters in a mature and respectful way make this an instant classic.
There's also a very good back up feature, again written by DeMatteis (with a script by Stan Lee) and illustrated by Tom Grummett and Al Milgrom detailing the morning after Spider-Man caught the burglar who killed Uncle Ben.
Another backup story is in this extra-sized #400, but I'll review it in the next installment, since it is a 3-part Ben Reilly story that brings fan favorite John Romita Jr. back to Spider-Man.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : I could go on and on about AMAZING #400, but I'll try to focus on what I feel are the most salient points
First, after reading the issue, Tom Brevoort and I both figured that Aunt May probably figured out that Peter was Spider-Man as a result of the events of AMAZING #200, published back in 1978. In that story, by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard, Spider-Man rescued Aunt May and she finally overcame her fear and hatred of the web-slinger. Once she got past that, she was able to put two and two together and finally realize that the heroic young masked man who saved her was her own beloved nephew. But she decided to keep it to herself for a while, until she could fully reconcile herself to that knowledge. I suspect that as far as J.M. DeMatteis was concerned, Aunt May knew all along, from the days of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but I just couldn't buy that. Not from the way she was written in those old stories. We had access to her thoughts, and there's simply no way she knew - not that early. Also, it would have retroactively made May look pretty manipulative and conniving, to have let Peter go on for all that time thinking she didn't know, to have let him work so hard to protect her from that knowledge. She could have eased so much of his burden by just telling him that she knew, and that she was very proud of him. But I could accept her knowing after ASM #200, and in my mind, that was the case. The good thing was that it was never stated definitively in ASM #400 exactly when May found out, so it was pretty open to interpretation.
Now, on to Aunt May's death. I had mixed emotions about it. As I've said before, I'm not really big on killing off characters, especially ones who were as important to the series as Aunt May had been. I disagreed with the writers that Aunt May had outlived her usefulness, that there was nothing left to do with her, that she should just be killed off already. I felt that was very shortsighted. Sure, these particular writers felt that way about her, but the fact was, they weren't going to be writing the books forever. Therefore, why make such a drastic, permanent change that could hamper the series in the future? If the writers didn't have any more ideas for Aunt May, then why not just send her off to Florida for an extended period of time? She'd be out of sight and out of mind, and if some later Spider-Man writer came in with a great story idea for her, he or she would have the option to bring her back to New York. Would it be as dramatic as her death? No. But it would get her off the stage until she was needed again, if and when that time ever came.
That said, I have to say that I thought the story itself was absolutely magnificent. Probably Marc DeMatteis's best work on Spider-Man. It was a total page-turner, completely engrossing. A gripping tale. I was in my mid-twenties when that comic came out, and I will admit this: I was pretty damned choked up when May finally passed on, with Peter embracing her and speaking that classic line from Peter Pan: "Second star to the right... and straight on till morning." That hasn't happened very often with me while reading a comic book. It's safe to say that no Spider-Man story published since ASM #400 has even come close to matching the quality, the power, the drama, and the heartfelt emotion of this story. A true classic.
Maybe I didn't like the idea of Aunt May dying from a creative standpoint, but it was so beautifully done in the actual story that it totally worked for me. So much so that I felt very strongly that this death should remain permanent, that it should not be undone in some future story. That it should stand as one of the most powerful moments in Spider-Man's history. Alas, we all know what happened later on, and I'll try to get into all of that in a later column.
Okay, now for some behind-the-scenes stuff. Bob Budiansky had been in place as Spider-Man Editor in Chief for a short while by the time ASM #400 was being put together. As a courtesy, Bob placed a call to Stan Lee, to let him know that we were planning to kill off Aunt May and to ask for Stan's blessing. Stan, gentleman that he is, was very gracious about the whole thing, and certainly gave his blessing. He offered his best wishes to Bob and the Spider-gang.
Of course, when May's death was greeted with dismay and contempt by a contingent of very vocal fans, Stan publicly denied any knowledge of or involvement with the story, and said that he would never want to see Aunt May die. We had a good laugh over it in the office, because it was so typical of Stan - he hates to have any fan angry at him. But the absolute truth is that Bob Budiansky did indeed call Stan in advance to let him know and to ask for his blessing. And if Stan had not given his blessing, would we have done the story anyway? Probably. But like I said, Stan is a true gentleman and would not have wanted to put Bob and the writers in that uncomfortable position. So no matter how he may have really felt about it, he was very cooperative.
Now, remember that gimmick cover for ASM #400? It was supposed to be a tombstone, featuring both the familiar ASM logo and a small Spider-Man figure engraved upon the face of the stone. I remember that this was the first gimmick cover that Bob had to oversee as Spider-Man EIC, and he was a little overwhelmed by it. I'm not sure if it was his idea to do this gimmick cover, of if it was an idea that was foisted upon him by our marketing department. I suspect it was the latter, because the marketing guys were obsessed with gimmick covers and used any excuse to do one, as often as possible. Well, the cover looked pretty good at the final stage, everything was readable and the engravings looked good. But when it finally saw print, the cover's engraving was so shallow and so faint that the cover was essentially unreadable. It looked like a dull gray, blank cover of... something. Not a success, to put it mildly. Thank goodness the story inside made up for it, proving the old adage that you can't judge a book by looking at the cover.
Final thought: I was really jazzed that Peter wouldn't get a moment's rest after Aunt May's funeral, that there was not a clean ending to the issue. I thought it was a great way to handle it. I felt that the cliffhanger ending would prevent readers from looking at ASM #400 as a jumping-off point, a good way to stop following the series. I believed Peter's arrest for murder would get the readers very intrigued about what was going to happen next, so that they would stick with us. At that moment in time, it was a really good feeling to be part of the Spider-Man Group. ]
This special edition of "Life of Reilly" will focus on the backupstory that ran in Amazing Spider-Man #400, Spider-Man #57 and SpectacularSpider-Man #223. "The Parker Legacy" was written by J.M. DeMatteis andillustrated by John Romita Jr. with inks from John Romita Sr and Al Milgrom.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : I recall that early into Bob Budiansky's tenure as Spider-ManEditor-in-Chief, one of his desires was to get John Romita Jr. back on toSpider-Man in some capacity. At that time, I believe, John was the regularpenciler of THE UNCANNY X-MEN, and while he was doing terrific work on thatbook, I think he was kind of longing to do Spider-Man again. And certainly theSpider-Man editors would have been thrilled to have him back. But the reality ofthe situation was that he was one of Bob Harras's X-Men artists, and it wouldnot have been very prudent to try to steal an artist from, arguably, the mostpowerful editor at the company. ]
The story takes place five years ago, immediately after the clone Spider-Mandiscovers that he is not the real Peter Parker. He is slumped over in an alleyin the pouring rain, mourning the loss of a life he has just come to realize wasnot really his own. He picks himself up and walks along the streets of New YorkCity, oblivious to everything going on around him. Since he never was trulyalive, he wonders if it would make a difference if he died.
When a truck nearly runs him over, the clone lashes out, destroying theentire front section of the vehicle. The thing is, he's not mad because he wasalmost run over, he's mad because the driver didn't kill him. He goes back offinto the night skies, hating himself for the memories he has, the programmingthat he is under. He sleeps like a homeless man, underneath debris in an alley,and when he wakes up he sneaks into Parker's apartment, realizing the irony init all. The clone wonders briefly if he should just confront and kill Parker,and reclaim the life which is all he knows, but he is no murderer. Rememberingwhere he/Peter kept his old clothes and emergency money, he takes them all. Healso keeps the costume.
After paying a quick visit to the home of Aunt May and quickly leaving beforehe's discovered, the clone purchases a bus ticket bound towards the West. Hedoesn't really know where he's going, but he does realize he needs to leave NewYork. A friendly guy seated next to him tries to engage the clone inconversation but is told to shut up about his life. The clone immediately sensesa twinge of guilt for being so rude but decides against apologizing to the man.Being decent is what Peter Parker would do, and he's not Peter Parker. He fallsasleep and dreams of fighting his enemies as Spider-Man, until the Jackalappears and tells the villains that they're wasting their time. This Spider-Manis just a fake, a puppet of the Jackal's creation, unworthy of their time. Afailed experiment. He awakens to his fellow passengers screaming as the bus hasblown a tire and skids into the oncoming lane. Spider-Man would do something tosave them all, but the clone wonders if maybe he should just let the end comeonce and for all.
As he comes to the realization that clone or not, he still is a good man, thedriver regains control of the bus. The passengers are sent to a motel, and thestranger (Clifford Gross) that was sitting next to the clone invites the cloneto have a drink with him. After Clifford reveals that his life has gone to hellwith his wife leaving and his business going under, the clone tells him that heshould disappear... that no one would care. Later, as he walks through the motelhalls, his Spider-sense goes off and the clone breaks into one of the roomswhere Clifford is sitting with a gun barrel in his mouth. He is stopped fromkilling himself and asks why the clone stopped him, when he's the one who toldhim that he should disappear because he was worthless.
The clone tells Clifford that he was wrong. Essentially describing his ownsituation, he tells Clifford that losing it all can be a blessing. It's a chanceto build something even better than before. It's the beginning of a new life,not the end of one. Clifford decides to turn back and visit his kids instead ofcontinuing Westward. He asks the clone what he's going to do and the responseis: "Going back is out of the question, but going forward? Now that mayjust have some possibilities." As the bus pulls away, Clifford asks whatthe clone's name is. Ben Reilly. His uncle's first name. His aunt's maiden name.It's told that Ben fell deeper into darkness before seeing the light anddiscovering himself. But even in those dark times, he would never give up thelessons he learned from his aunt and uncle. Clone or no, he would live up towhat they taught him and never "surrender the Parker legacy."
DeMatties told the definitive Aunt May story that same month in AmazingSpider-Man #400 and in this 3 part backup feature, he tells us the origin of"Ben Reilly." Whereas Aunt May's story was the final chapter of a longlife, the Ben Reilly story was more about hope and the optimism for an unknownfuture.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : Of all the Spider-Man writers at that time, J.M. DeMatteis was thebest suited to tell this tale. He seemed to really "get" the characterof Ben Reilly, to really understand how he thought and felt and what he wentthrough in those early days. Marc also seemed to be the writer most enthusiasticabout Ben, the one who understood all the story possibilities inherent in thecharacter. He did his usual wonderful job on "The Parker Legacy," andI think that story did a lot to make Ben a character that the Spider-Man fanscould like and respect. ]
The art was absolutely incredible on the book, with 3 great artists known fortheir work on Spider-Man coming together for this important story, but it wasthe story that left an impact.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : John's work had changed considerably from the last time he haddone any major work on Spider-Man - his style had gotten a lot grittier, a lotmore dramatic, but still very recognizable as John Romita Jr. Clearly, John hadgrown considerably as an artist and as a storyteller over the years, and to havehim as the artist of "The Parker Legacy" made it a truly specialevent. And, of course, it was so cool to have JR Senior inking him again. Theydidn't work together nearly enough, in my opinion, and their combined efforts on"The Parker Legacy" were pretty exciting to this longtime Spider-Manreader. Alas, John Senior didn't ink all three chapters, but Al Milgrom turnedin a great inking job, too. Al is one of the best - and, unfortunately, one ofthe most underrated - inkers in the business, and it was always nice to see himget the chance to strut his stuff over high-quality work. That's why I felt sostrongly about hiring Al to ink the pencils of Steve Rude, no slouch himself, onthe INCREDIBLE HULK VS. SUPERMAN one-shot that I edited. Take a look at thatbook, if you haven't already, and you'll see what I mean. ]
Regardless of the ultimate fate of Ben Reilly in the Spider-Man books, thisshort story established him as a real character. He wasn't just a clone or agimmick. His personality was different from Peter's. His experiences weredifferent. The past five years in exile, wandering the country, gave Bencompletely different life lessons: good and bad. During that time on his own, hehad become complete. "The Parker Legacy" was just the first glimpseinto that life.
[ GLENN'S COMMENTS : Of course, this 3-parter served as a precursor to the SPIDER-MAN:THE LOST YEARS limited series, which we'll be getting to in the coming weeks. ]