[WARNING: Contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Spider Man: The Clone Conspiracy.]
It's time to finally pack away that loathing for clone-based Spider-Man adventures. Sure, the Clone Saga did stretch on a few dozen issues too many, but Dan Slott’s latest entry into the clone racket - The Clone Conspiracy - is an entirely different animal. Not only does Slott send-up the conventions of the sub-sub-genre, but he's developed a richly woven story based upon the Web-Head’s past, and one-upping his vow to do no harm.
The event also reveals a renewed Jackal, one intent on actually helping people, it would seem, rather than just obsessing over Gwen Stacy and making the wall-crawler's life a living hell. In his quest to bring New U to the world, he's reanimated scores of dead loved ones and villains. The Jackal also tries to woo Peter Parker and his high-tech Parker Industries, even co-opting recently-deceased (now) good guy Prowler to keep his 'security force' of revived villains in line.
It's said, though, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions - and Scarlet Spider and Spider-Gwen discover a disturbing theme across the Spider-Verse: each realm where Parker Industries and New U team up has resulted in rapidly-spreading outbreak of zombie-like plague.
Spider-Man's Strange Bedfellows
After escaping from the New U complex, Spider-Gwen and Kaine Parker hustle to Horizon University, where Peter’s research team is hard at work unlocking the secrets of the Jackal’s anti-clone degeneration pills – and holding the reanimated form of Earth-616's Gwen Stacy captive. Kaine explains that the outbreak starts at New U and spreads rapidly through the highly-infectious "carrions." He also shows off his own degeneration, which inspires the HU scientists.
Just moments after discovering Kaine may hold the cure to the outbreak, their research is interrupted by an assault on the complex by Electro and the Rhino. They swipe Kaine, clone Gwen, and Ms. Marconi before Spider-Man and Spider-Gwen can arrive to stop them.
As the duo plots to get their Jackal-napped friends back, Spidey gets an unexpected visit from the Kingpin. Wilson Fisk gives him the location of a top secret meeting between the Jackal and his grave-robbing creeps, encouraging Spider-Man to take out the man who reanimated the Kingpin's family and desecrated his memories.
An Unpleasant Family(?) Reunion
Confronting his old nemesis, Spider-Man and the Jackal trade punches and banter, with Spidey rapidly realizing that the Jackal is pretty damn strong for an aging, non-superhuman scientist. The Jackal then puts the brakes on the brawl, removing his helmet to reveal his true identity: one-time Scarlet Spider, Peter Parker’s long-presumed-dead clone, Ben Reilly!
Clearly somewhat delusional, Reilly reveals his dreams of a death-free future. Revived at some point, the Spider-clone has apparently taken control of New U and is using the technology to bring back old friends and enemies who have died over the years. Instead of killing his “brother from another gene” and reviving him, he wants Peter’s voluntary cooperation... and has just the right personal ‘favor’ to bring him around.
Ben's real plan? To revive the most important man in Peter’s life: his long-deceased Uncle Ben.
With Great Power Comes Great Clone-ability?
Astute fans may have picked up on clues about Peter Parker’s new (old) adversary along the way. Writer Dan Slott dropped a few hints to the Jackal's true identity as Spider-Man's first clone, such as his youthful, stubbly look, his snarky sense of humor, the scarlet suit and tie, and his generally updated wardrobe. Whether or not you caught the twist coming, Ben Reilly’s reveal as the Jackal begs more questions than it answers. For instance, who created the reanimation technology and brought Reilly back to life? Was it the Jackal? And if it was, what happened to Miles Warren, and how did Ben grow convinced that reviving the dead was the best way to right the wrongs of the past?
Most importantly, over Marvel’s storied history, Uncle Ben is one of the few remaining major characters who has never been revived (at least on Earth-616, anyway). Would Marvel actually bring him back to life? Longtime Spider-fans would prefer to believe that Marvel wouldn't, or at least that the wall-crawler would never in a million years make a deal to do it. But given his uncle’s importance to Peter – after all, he's responsible for Spidey’s “great powers…great responsibility” credo, after Peter's inaction resulted in his death.
Stopping the Jackal/Reilly from resurrecting Uncle Ben may be one of the hardest things the wall-crawler has ever had to do.
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Thus far, Dan Slott’s run on the Clone Conspiracy has challenged a number of preconceptions, especially the notion that 'clones are bad,' at least with regard to Spider-Man (even the divisive Clone Saga had some amazing moments). His complex story arc, perfectly complemented by Jim Cheung’s dramatic, sweeping panels and evocative characterization, is breathing new life into the much-lambasted clone concept.
With two more issues on the way, as well as a small cadre of related books like Silk, Prowler, and Amazing Spider-Man, this particular clone saga is a long way from over. There are many more secrets to be revealed in the coming months, including some of the most fascinating ones. The answers to pressing questions, such as who is really pulling the strings (assuming Ben isn’t) behind New U and whether Peter will take such tempting bait and join his cloned-self in dooming the planet, are yet to come.
Spider-Man: The Clone Conspiracy #3 is currently available.