When comics started out, and pretty much throughout the entire golden and silver ages of comics, each individual issue of a comic would contain self-contained stories. These storylines would always begin and conclude within the same issue, mostly because of the audience's reading habits of the time. Comics were seen as disposable, and would often be either thrown out after reading or traded between friends. You didn't need to keep hold of previous issues to understand what was happening in the latest. However, that changed in the mid 60's, with the publication of what would become known as the Galactus Triology. Whilst it wasn't the first comic to end an issue on a cliffhanger, by introducing the main villain on the last page of the first issue of the story, Marvel changed the way comics would be structured. Storytelling would expand, taking multiple issues to resolve desputes and leading to the rise of mini-series, graphic novels and, of course, crossovers. Now, there is a debate to be had over the merits of short-form vs. long-form storytelling in comics. a very good one as both have their merits and disadvantages, but today we are not here to do that. No, we are here because this is What Were They Thinking?, the place where we look at all of the stupidest and most ill-advised things in the history of comic books and our subject today is probably the best example of taking long-form storytelling in comics too far. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you The Clone Saga
The Clone Saga. When I did my list of the top 10 worst Spider-Man storylines last year it placed third, only losing out to The Superior (sic) Spider-Man and One More Day. And there is a good reason for that and to explain I'm going to do a quick little comparrison.
So, most people here have read Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman series for DC/Vertigo right? If not, stop reading this and go read that. But for those of us who have, we would all be in agreement that, in it's entirity, all 75 issues of the original run would be considered one big, long, overarching storyline right? Well, that series was published monthly over 7 years, but how the story was told gave readers periodical breathers, with numerous issues at a time taking place in flashbacks that gave the reader further context to the continuing arc of Morpheus rebuilding The Dreaming. And this is very obvious if you look at the collected editions. The entire series is collected into 10 Graphic Novels, yet only 6 of those really advance the main plot in any way, with Dream Country, Fables and Recollections and World's End all containing what are basically world building stories and The Wake wrapping up the main storyline and giving a few adendums that fill out a few blanks and give some secondary characters closure. All in all it is possibly the best storyline ever put to the comics medium. The creator had a concrete plan, knew how the story would go from the beginning, introduced new plot points masterfully, gave his audience time to breath and digest new information and the series was released in an orderly and well paced fashion.
So, why do I mention this as a comparisson. Well, The Clone Saga was also a multi-year continuous storyline. However, unlike The Sandman, The Clone Saga was only a 2 year project. So, you must be thinking, "surely it must have been even tighter and well planned than Sandman, with structure and plot put into place in advance with everything planned down to the last detail and released in such a manner that no confusion could have been caused"?
Yeah, right. This is Marvel we're talking about. It was a circus.
Sure, the storyline only lasted 2 years, but at the time Spider-Man had 5 on-going monthly or bi-monthly series and this storyline hit all of them. So, if you take into account how many issues this storyline was in you get 109 individual issues of Clone Saga, 109 of ONE SINGLE STORYLINE. And that's not even taking into account the fact that this series had 8 one shot stories and mini-series, all of which you had to collect if you wanted to understand what was going on in the storyline (and even then it was difficult). Over a 2 year period that is ridiculous. And it wasn't even meant to be a two year project either. It was only meant to last a year. I mentioned in the summary I did for the storyline on the 10 Worst Spider-Man storylines that the series felt elongated and should have finished after the death of The Jackal, well, that's because it was meant to originally. The storyline was concieved as Marvel's answer to "The Death Of Superman" and the whole series was engineered to have Ben Reilly replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man, with the logical end off point being Amazing Spider-Man #400 with Peter handing over the mantel to Ben and retiring to live with Mary-Jane and have a child. But in their infinite wisdom, the powers that be in Marvel at the time saw the sales figures and went "yes, more of that please and thank you".
But that wasn't even the beginning of the problems. In that increadibly Marvel way, when the idea of replacing Peter with a clone last seen in the 70's was first aired, everyone in the meeting hated it, appart from Spectacular Spider-Man scribe J.M Matteis. So obviously, it got the thumbs up because... no-one else had a better idea? And, in a manner much more reminiscent of DC 2 decades later, nobody at Marvel had the first idea about what the hell was going on in the storyline. The character of Judas Traveller was introduced, with no real apparent purpose, and was used as the catalyst for Spider-Man and his clone meeting again, but they never established any motives for the character and the writers eventually dropped him because they didn't kow what to do with him and wrote him a hasty backstory about him being a mutant who'd had a mental breakdown. The writers introduced a new villain, Kaine, who started off killing old Spider-Man villains like Doc Ock, for reasons, and his origin and motivations were also just left hanging because the writers couldn't think of anything.
At this point The Jackal was introduced, which made sense, seen as he was the villain of the original clone storyline of the 70's and originally created Ben Reilly. But then the storyline took a turn from half-assed to "stupidly convoluted and confusing". Jackal told Peter he was the clone and that Ben was the original, but then reversed his assessment before saying that both peter and Ben were clones of the original Spider-Man. It basically turned into the genetics version of Oprah, "you're a clone and you're a clone, everybody is a clone!"
By this point, all creative direction had deteriorated and the writers inserted a lot of plot points that they didn't ever really resolve, such as clone degeneration, Kaine attacking Ben but not Peter, shared dreams. The whole thing was dissolving into a mess. And then Aunt May died. But don't worry, this was a fake out as well, but that reveal will come later.
Ben Reilly has now taken over as Spider-Man, even more clones have been introduced and Jackal has died saving the life of a clone of Gwen-Stacy. Oh and did I mention that there was huge fan backlash to Ben replacing Peter? Well, there was, but by this point the X-Men Apocalypse storyline was go and Marvel had a major thing for stupid crossovers, so this train was just gonna keep chugging. The order came down to continue the storyline, even though it had actually ended and the whole business of tying up all the lose ends was jettisoned in favour of more new plot points and more new clones, loser characterisation and absolutely zero character motivations or distinctions. Oh and new versions of old villains were introduced, such as Vulture, Kraven and a female Doc Ock (presumably called Octavia Octavius, I can't remember and can't be bothered to look it up). Oh, and then J.M. DeMatteis (the writer of the Spectacular Spider-Man series and only guy who liked the idea in the first place) resigned out of frustration with the story. And that's not good, when the only guy who liked the idea for the story to begin with resigns because he hates the story. By this point half the spider-books had been retitled to Scarlet-Spider to capitalise on Ben Reilly's "popularity", but by that point the writing was on the wall.
New Spectacular Spider-Scribe Dan Jurgens convinced Spider-Man editor-in-chief Bob Budiansky that the fans wanted Peter back and Budiansky agreed, leading to the next chapter of the Clone Saga, The Final Adventure mini-series. Originally this was meant to see Peter and MJ's child born and draw a line under Pete as Spidey, but this was changed to see the temporary removal of Peters powers, another swerve in order to fake out the readers. Budiansky reached out to, by all accounts, every single Marvel employee from editors to janitors for ideas on how to bring Peter back, which doesn't at all sound like the whole thing had spiralled out of control. We then had the Return Of Kaine storyline which gave another unanswered plot point of a skeleton in an old lab wearing a spidey-suit. That just got left because no-one thought to explain it.
And then the idea was floated that the whole thing was orchestrated by a single shadowy mastermind. But who? Jackal made the most sense, but he was dead. Judas Traveller had been unceremoniously dumped, so he was out, and most other Spider-Man villains who would have made sense were either dead (Doc Ock) or fighting Daredevil at the time (Mysterio, Kingpin). So the first plan was for one of Judas Traveller's assistants to be revealled as Mephisto and that Ben Reilly was actually Peter Parker from 5 years in the future brought back in time and with amnesia, in order to sort out the whole "clone thing". Yeah, that's the one thing about this series I'm quite happy about, that they didn't end on that Deus-Ex-Machina awfulness. The editors were all ready to go through with it, but the writers flat out refused (which is the first sensible thing that has happened in this entire 2 year period). Step up Dan Jurgens, who is honestly the hero we needed in this situation but not the hero Marvel deserved. He proposed what would eventually come to be the end of the storyline, with Ben Reilly dying in an act of heroism and MJ miscarrying, wrapping up both of the consistant plot points of the saga. Though the one change that would be made is that Jurgens made no outline of who the villain would actually be. That was later added by Budiansky, who wanted it to be Green Goblin, but Harry Osborn, not Norman. In fact Budiansky even wrote a memo stating that Norman's death should never be undone as it was too classic. Yeah....
Turns out that despite having a perfectly fine ending on their hands, Marvel still couldn't do it right. Bob Harras was instated as over-all editor-in-chief for Spider-Man and refused to even entertain Jurgens idea whilst the Onslaught event was going on. So Jurgens followed DeMatteis out the door. Harry was quickly added to the story and then... Budiansky was laid of.
You see, this storyline was published at possibly the worst time for Marvel. The 90's were a time when Marvel were really hammering home style over substance, in order to try and cash-in on the comic book boom that saw collectors pay high prices for varient covers and flashy art. But behind the scenes Marvel had real financial trouble. They had been bought out by Ron Peralman in 1989, and their new owners big plan was to make the company as big as Disney (the irony). In doing so, he had the company buy a number of other companies, building up a debt that the company simply couldn't pay off. Throughout the early and mid-90's Marvel lost a number of important staff members over contract disputes (see our WWTT on the founding of Image comics) and staff lay-offs, meaning that the remaining creators were left stretched increadibly thin, but in order to make enough money to pay off their debt, Marvel needed their smaller creative team to produce as many comics as they had been previously with a larger staff. This obviously led to even more problems, staff walk-outs and money troubles before finally, in December of 1996 (the same month as the publication of the climax to the Clone Saga) Marvel filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection, merging with one of its former subsiduaries ToyBiz (owned by Isaac Perlmutter) in order to keep its self going.
With Budiansky out of the way, Harras made the executive descision to bring back Norman Osborn as the big bad of the Clone Saga, an idea met with the same enthusiasm as the storyline its self when first propossed. But, with the need to get the comic out and the series resolved, it went through, bringing back Osborn, revealling he was behind all of it, including Aunt May's death (which was fake) and ending the lives of Ben Reilly and Peter and MJ's unborn child. A mini-series called The Osborn Diaries was published in order to explain how it had all been done from Norman's perspective and to clear up any remaining plot holes (of which there were plenty and of which none were really satisfactorilly cleared up).
So, that's the Clone Saga. A convoluted mess of a storyline that went on too long when it didn't have to, had little-to-no thought behind it and came about at a time when Marvel were at their lowest, both creatively and financially, meaning it never really had a hope in hell. And yet, somehow, it still isn't the worst Spider-Man storyline of all time. But that's another story for another day.
And with that