The Ninjabot

Not-So-Great Expectations: Scarlet Spider

Posted on January 20, 2013 at 7:31 pm by Tyler Waterman

No one judges a book by its cover more than a fan of comics. We make snap decisions every week as to what we think will be worth our time and money, and while we may often be right, our preconceived notions can also keep us from reading great books. To help out my fellow readers, every week I’ll pick a title I would normally pass on and give it its due. I’ll report back whether it’s a diamond in the rough or just, well, rough. This is Not-So-Great Expectations.

Comic fans are like snowflakes; no two are exactly the same. Whenever you put two comic fans together, there will likely be many shared favorites. However, there will always be something one reads that the other has never heard of, something one can’t stand that the other loves, and something one has a million opinions on that the other couldn’t care less about.
However, there are a few topics in the world of comics that all but the most casual of fans have an opinion on, certain keystones of the genre or major events that polarize us all. Superhero deaths, crossover events, superhero resurrections, Rob Liefeld, 90’s era belt pouches: all of these are examples of topics the vast majority of comic fans would love to discuss forever.
But there may not be a more loaded term in all of comics than “Spider-Clone.”

For the uninitiated, during the 90’s Marvel ran a massive Spider-Man event in which a clone of Peter Parker (that was created by the Jackal nearly 350 issues prior and believed to have died then) returned to New York upon hearing that Aunt May was dying. Along with that clone (who called himself Ben Reilly), the Jackal returned as well, determined to ruin Peter’s life with even more clones, including one with body-shifting abilities and the unfortunate name Spidercide. And, because this isn’t quite confusing enough, all of these folks returning caught the attention of Kaine, Jackal’s first attempt at cloning Peter. Kaine was slowly degenerating, had all of Peter’s powers with none of the morals, and was leaving a trail of dead bodies wherever he went.

There are just WAY too many Peter Parkers in this picture

There are just WAY too many Peter Parkers in this picture.

When it began, the Clone Sage was incredibly compelling. Despite their totally-90’s costumes and “extreme”-ness, the story was really good, Ben and Kaine both gave us a glimpse of how different Peter could have turned out, and the Jackal was quickly established as one of the most deranged and dangerous Spider-villains this side of Norman Osborn. However, there were massive management and creative changes happening at Marvel at the time, and that caused the story to spin wildly out of control, being dragged out longer and longer in an effort to continue sales. The final straw for most fans came towards the end, when it was revealed that Ben had actually been the “real” Peter the entire time. Think about the implications of that statement. The original Clone Saga took place in the 70’s: in other words, what Marvel was telling us was that the Spider-Man we had all known and loved for potentially two decades was actually not Peter Parker at all. All those stories, all the victories and defeats, everything we’d been reading was actually a clone the whole time, and now the real Peter was back and the one we loved was going to be leaving forever so Ben could have his life back. Needless to say, the vast majority of us were mad as hell. Let me put this in perspective for you: when I read the issue where that revelation was discovered, I closed the book, put it in a box with all my other comics, and didn’t read another comic for TEN YEARS. (Which I regretted when I came back to comics; that was a lot of catching up to do.)

scarlet2

Aaaaaaaaand I’m out. See you in a decade.

Why am I giving you this history lesson about one of the most controversial comic events of all time? Because Kaine is back, he’s healed of his degeneration, and he now has his own comic under the moniker that once belonged to Ben Reilly: Scarlet Spider. You can probably guess why my expectations were not-so-great when it came to this book. As I explain in the intro to all my Not-So-Great Expectations, the purpose of these articles is to encourage comic fans to explore books that aren’t in their comfort zone, and not to judge them by their covers. Scarlet Spider really put this to the test for me. The tagline “All of the Power, None of the Responsibility” on the cover reminded me of all that was wrong about 90’s era comics, when everything had to be “dark” and “gritty” and “extreme,” regardless of whether or not that actually benefited the plot or characters in any way.
A tagline does not a book make, however, and Scarlet Spider is a perfect example of exactly that. In fact, Scarlet Spider confidently eschews all the 90’s-style stereotypes that tagline implies. This book is sharp, it’s well written, it’s gorgeous, and is easily one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in a long time.

Yup, this is definitely not your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Yup, this is definitely not your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Is Kaine the “dark and gritty” Spider-Man? Absolutely. He’s intensely violent, has no one-liners or quips to make while he’s fighting, and isn’t interested in making the world a safer place for everyone. Kaine will be the first to tell you he isn’t a superhero, at least not in the traditional sense. He’s doing heroic things, that’s to be sure, but he’s not motivated to do these things for the sole purpose of “doing good” like Peter or any other classic superhero. Kaine is a classic antihero, in every sense of the word, but Scarlet Spider isn’t written like an antihero book, and frankly that’s what makes it so refreshing and fun to read. The vast majority of the time, antihero solo books fall all over themselves trying to be Batman-esque. The settings are dark and gothic. Every fight takes place in filthy alleyways or creepy warehouses. The dialog is laden with people protesting the methods of the main character. These books try so hard to remind us that “oh boy this good guy is almost a bad guy” that the reader isn’t left with a reason to come back, but instead finds themselves saying “enough already” and losing interest.

While Kaine may be the textbook definition of antihero, Scarlet Spider is anything but the definition of an antihero book. It’s bright and colorful, with explosive splash pages and lots of humor mixed in with the violence. The Houston setting was also an excellent choice, automatically differentiating itself from every other book and avoiding Kaine being overshadowed by bigger, more established heroes as he would be in New York.

Antihero violence - now with sunlight!

Antihero violence – now with sunlight!

A special mention in particular has to go the the supporting cast. Kaine is surrounded by a cast of characters that bucks the traditional antihero-comic standards, particularly the young girl Aracely, who Kaine saves in the first issue and then becomes the core of the overarching plot throughout the book. For a reason we don’t know yet, she’s able to read Kaine’s mind and emotions, and it makes for excellent dialog between them and keeps the book feeling fresh and unlike other antihero titles.

Another special mention should go to Wally and Donald, a cop and doctor who assist Kaine and also happen to be a married couple. Homosexuality is becoming more prevalent in comics, and so far it’s been done pretty poorly. While there are some good examples (Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority is probably the best yet), for the most part the topic has been approached either with lesbian relationships that seem more like teenage boy fantasies, or with male characters that are more stereotype than person. (Here’s looking at you, Teen Titan’s Bunker.) Wally and Donald’s relationship is just a small part of who they are and what they bring to this book, no differently than their marriage would be if they were a heterosexual couple, and it’s a nice step in the right direction.

Scarlet Spider has run for a bit longer than a year now, and after having read each issue, I can confidently say this is an excellent book that deserves your investment. This may be the best example yet of why we shouldn’t judge a comic by its cover: the outside may scream “generic antihero comic,” but the inside is anything but. The art will grab your attention, the characters will hold your attention, and the plot will keep you coming back every month. “Spider-clone” used to be a four-letter word to me. After reading Scarlet Spider, I can’t help but feel like all that controversy may have been worth it after all.

scarlet5

Don’t go to Mexico, Kaine. For once, the Marvel Universe would be worse off with one less Spider-Clone.

 

You can follow Tyler on Twitter @BatmanIncVP.

    • "90s era belt pouches"

      So true!

    • Tyler

      The 90's: When every limb had 2-4 belts, and every belt was 100% pouches.

      • thejerd

        I blame Larsen and Liefeld for that phenomenon.

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