‘The Scarlet Spider’ may be convoluted, but we’ll be damned if it isn’t fun
By Don Alsafi. Surprisingly enough, the past few years wasn’t the first time that Marvel inexplicably took multiple major heroes off the table at the same time, only to be replaced by different versions thereof. The first time this happened was in 1994-1996, after “The Clone Saga” revealed that the Peter Parker clone (from a well-remembered ’70s story) was in fact the real Parker, and the character which readers had been following ever since was just the duplicate. Marvel thus shuffled off Peter & Mary Jane to their own “happily ever after”, and the thought-he-was-a-clone-but-now-he’s-not rechristened himself as Ben Reilly. He subsequently headlined Spidey’s monthly books as The Scarlet Spider.
Shockingly, readers did not take too kindly to the idea that the character they’d been reading about for decades was just a fake, and sales dropped accordingly. (A result that Marvel’s recent attempt at switching out their characters also replicated.) The Scarlet Spider’s reign was a short one, with Ben Reilly being killed off at the saga’s end, and Peter – reaffirmed as the genuine, not-at-all-cloned real deal – was trumpeted as Spider-Man once more.
(The other ill-advised switcherchoo of the time was with Iron Man, who was retconned to have been under the influence of Kang the Conqueror since the early days of the Avengers. Tony Stark heroically sacrificed himself at the end, then was bizarrely replaced by his time-displaced teenage self – which was mercifully reset and ignored following Marvel’s “Heroes Reborn” event. Man, the ’90s were weird.)
But a year ago, Ben Reilly returned during the Spider-Man storyline The Clone Conspiracy, which initially saw him as that story’s villain. Marvel then spun off a new Ben Reilly title following the event, now repentant and trying to make amends for his past sins.
Still, that’s a heck of convoluted path for any hero! Is his new series just as twisted and confusing, or are its creators able to make it a fun and readable time, regardless of how little Spider-lore they know? Only one way to find out – so let’s dig in.
Written by Peter David.
Art by David Williams and Ray-Anthony Height.
Inks by Scott Hanna.
Colors by Rachelle Rosenberg.
Letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna.
Scarlet Writer. Peter David is a longstanding fan-favorite who’s been writing comics since the 1980s. His twelve year span on The Incredible Hulk is often held up as the best run after the formative work by Lee, Kirby and Ditko, and he’s also written titles as varied as Aquaman, X-Factor and Supergirl for five or ten years at a time – all on top of his side gig as a bestselling novelist.
Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider launched with visuals by Mark Bagley (who drew The Amazing Spider-Man for five years, and Ultimate Spider-Man for an astonishing twelve) before the art chores were handed over to Will Sliney. But this issue is a done-in-one, after the conclusion of last month’s story arc and before next month kicks off a story tying in to the Doctor Strange: Damnation crossover (by virtue of the mini-event taking place in the Reilly’s hometown of Las Vegas).
The art in this issue is thus by pinch hitters David Williams and Ray-Anthony Height. It’s perhaps a sign of canny editorial direction that the two artists aren’t vastly dissimilar in their style, and it’s honestly hard to tell from one page to the next which artist is currently on display – an outcome surely helped by the consistency found in Scott Hanna’s inks and the colors by Rachelle Rosenberg.
Kooky villain, repentant sinner. The talents that made Peter David as beloved a writer as he has become are – thirty years later – still impressively on form. His writing deftly balances soap opera drama, superhero action, satisfying character work, and his trademark penchant for occasional humor. That last element can clearly be seen in his choice for this issue’s main villain The Hippo, a baddie mutated by The High Evolutionary from an actual hippopotamus into… well, still a hippo, but now a humanoid one who currently pays the bills by acting as a heavy. (Lest you think that The Hippo is a bizarre Peter David original, the character debuted during 2009’s Dark Reign event and was most recently seen in the pages of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.)
As ridiculous as The Hippo’s criminal endeavors may be, however, that plot thread is by no means the most compelling part of the issue. While that baddie’s being taken down by Ben Reilly’s ally Kaine, Reilly himself tracks down the alter ego of classic Spidey supervillain Mysterio, who’s recently moved to town. Though he’s initially expecting sinister dealings (and quite probably a fight), Ben is taken aback to find that the scoundrel isn’t up to any nefarious plots. Instead Mysterio is tired of the whole thing.
Quentin Beck is simply looking to have a quiet life, to stay on the straight and narrow. As someone who recently spent his own time on the wrong side of the law, this turnabout resonates with Ben, and he resolves to give the benefit of the doubt to this bad man trying to be good.
A shortage of codenames? Yet, at the same time, this issue isn’t without its share of potential confusion and convoluted points. To be honest, the title of the comic is a bit of a misnomer, as Ben Reilly is but one of two Scarlet Spiders headlining the book! The other is Kaine Parker: the first – and not fully successful – clone attempt before Ben, and who previously starred in a separate Scarlet Spider series from 2012-2013. (You’d think Marvel would have thus called this new comic The Scarlet Spiders, but presumably they wanted to ensure any Ben Reilly fans knew he was back.)
The potential disorientation is then heightened to legitimate perplexity in the offing of the comic’s two plotlines. Kaine is fighting The Hippo in his Scarlet Spider outfit, while Ben shows up at the retired Mysterio’s door in a hoodie and ski mask (as he doesn’t want to blow the real Peter Parker’s secret identity). This setup – while understandable from a plot point of view – might bewilder the first-time reader even further, since at no time during either of these events does either Spider get referred to by given name. The end result is that the only hero wearing the Scarlet Spider outfit is the one whose name isn’t on the cover. It’s not so befuddling that the reader can’t figure out who’s who from the context clues, but it is a slight misstep in what’s otherwise a pretty confident yarn.
Earning back his new lease on life. It could be argued, of course, that there are only a very finite number of spinoffs that any franchise character can support, and Ben Reilly – regardless of his newly resurrected status – just isn’t well known enough to headline his own book. (As opposed to, say, the number of Venom fans throughout the years.) A Spidey fan scanning over the new comics racks could be pardoned for thinking that Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider isn’t really the most essential Spider-Man book out there, after all.
But maybe this is proof that when you give even the most obscure character or concept to a writer as skilled as Peter David, the creative team might still turn out a book that’s dramatic, compelling, and surprising all at once. In today’s world of comics that often get cancelled too arbitrarily or too fast, there’s cause to hope that books like Ben Reilly might just find the fanbase it deserves… and maybe even a stay of execution as well.
7 out of 10