A long time ago – the mid ‘90s, to be precise – there was a controversial Spider-Man story called the Clone Saga.
This multi-year epic re-introduced a perfect clone of Spider-Man, one who hadn’t been seen since his first appearance way back in 1975, which added a whole new level to the chaos going on in Peter Parker’s life.
After an extended – some might say convoluted – back and forth it eventually transpired that the Spidey who we all thought was the clone had in fact been the real deal all along!
During his years in exile Peter Parker adopted the name Ben Reilly, after Uncle Ben and his Aunt May’s maiden name. With the clone Peter Parker and Mary Jane retiring to start a family, the superhuman now known as Ben Reilly started a new life in New York as Spider-Man once more.
Yet this new status quo wasn’t to last.
Following internal unrest Marvel flipped the script once again. Peter was pulled out of retirement just before Ben was killed by a resurrected Norman Osborn, revealing that Reilly had in fact been the clone after all.
Characters in Spider-Man comics had tended to stay dead, so Osborn’s return was already a major shark jump. But the resolution of Ben’s story also felt deeply unkind and left fans of the character with a longstanding sense of unfinished business.
After years of teases, resurrections, and outright character assassination by various Spider-Man writers, a respectful take on Ben Reilly’s time as the webspinner has been long overdue.
Enter Ben Reilly: Spider-Man by J.M. DeMatteis and David Baldeón.
What is Ben Reilly: Spider-Man?
A five-issue miniseries set unapologetically during Reilly’s time as the webslinger, this story arc – called “The Humanity Agenda” – focuses on Ben in the months after his return to New York as he tries to find his place in the world.
The series was originally published between March and July 2022, with covers by Steve Skroce and a whole host of variant covers by a range of artists.
The story presents a reunion for writer DeMatteis with a character he helped to shape back in the ‘90s, and it’s clear he still has a lot of affection for Reilly. Joining DeMatteis on art duties is David Baldeón, an artist who’s worked across the Marvel pantheon on titles such as Nova and X-Factor, and has gone on record calling Reilly “the one true Spider-Man”.
The team is completed by colourist Israel Silva, whose work propels Baldeón’s pages to a new level, and VC’s Joe Caramanga on letters and sound effects. The book is edited by Danny Khazem.
DeMatteis excels at crafting tales of compassion, and Ben Reilly: Spider-Man is no exception.
The Humanity Agenda depicts Ben coming to terms with the fact that he’s no longer Peter Parker. As the story opens he’s a man on edge with everyone he meets, including a striking encounter with J. Jonah Jameson. So far, so ’90s grimdark superhero.
It’s ironic that Reilly was introduced as a way to bring Spidey back to his lighthearted roots, yet – quite naturally, given the hand he was dealt – ends up in a dark place all the same. Bright blonde hair notwithstanding!
But as the story progresses and the antagonist comes to the fore, Ben’s affirmation that he doesn’t need his old life back is repeatedly put to the test. This is where DeMatteis’ prior experience writing Ben comes to the fore.
Events push him to grow and change over the course of the series, but all in a way that feels true to his character. The catalyst for this journey is his tentative friendships with Dr Ashley Kafka, a psychiatrist at the Ravencroft Institute, and Edward Whelan, Kafka’s assistant.
Ben is initially suspicious of Whelan, and with good reason – he was once a Spider-Man villain called Vermin – but despite this the two become friends all the same. Rounding out the crew is John Diaz, an odd but affable regular at the coffee shop where Ben works. Together, this unlikely supporting cast begins to break down Ben’s barriers and help him to rediscover the best bits of being human.
This is the warm heart of the book, but sadly – given the nature of a limited series – it doesn’t get enough page time. And that’s because several of Spider-Man’s worst foes – some incarcerated, some dead, all aware of his secret identity – are taking it in turns to attack Ben.
It’s a captivating mystery that advances the plot and allows for plenty of Spider-Man action.
By the time Spidercide (another Peter Parker clone and Clone Saga bit player) stands revealed as the antagonist, Ben has grown enough to realise that he can let go of the past and embrace a real future for himself.
That might sound like an odd conclusion for him to draw, but it makes sense in the context of the story. DeMatteis does a fantastic job of making sure that Reilly has to step outside of his comfort zone and grow as a person.
As the story threads (more or less) come together for the final act, we are treated to seeing Spider-Man battle some of his toughest adversaries in a prison breakout. This finale is tightly wrapped and feels like it may have benefited from an extra issue, but given the themes explored through the series the pay off still feels fitting.
By the time Ben Reilly: Spider-Man is over, we have a good sense of who Ben is and what sets him apart from Peter Parker. It’s fair to say that The Humanity Agenda leaves you wanting more from the Sensational Spider-Man.
Baldeón brings a bold, bombastic style to the page. His expressive characters give the story a vibrancy that helps it to feel punchy and alive, yet the style never becomes too cartoonish.
It’s like a blend of Joe Madureira and Humberto Ramos, and it’s wonderful to see Ben Reilly’s Spider-Man drawn in this way.
That said, on first read through it did seem that Baldeón’s art was maybe not quite right for the psychological focus of the subject matter. But by the story’s conclusion, everything made sense.
The spectacular artwork helps to dispel the darkness and show Reilly as the hero that he really is.
Silva’s colours are the perfect complement to Baldeón’s work. The book has a rich and textured palette that brings Ben Reilly’s Spider-Man fully into the 21st century.
And the same goes for his rogues’ gallery.
Comics in the ’90s were about makeovers for everyone, and that includes Spidey’s roster of villains. Some of these characters – Lady Octopus, ’90’s Mysterio and Spidercide – haven’t appeared in a book for the last 20 years.
As a result, it’s wonderful to encounter them once more over the course of this adventure.
All in all the artwork is fantastic. Ben Reilly has – quite literally – never looked so good.
Why Should You Read Ben Reilly: Spider-Man?
If – much like yours truly – you’re an old school fan of Ben Reilly’s Spider-Man then this title is for you. It’s a “Sensational”-era story told with modern comic book sensibilities, and that turns out to be a combination that works well.
But then, if you are that class of Ben Reilly fan then you’ve doubtless already read this series. So how about the rest of you?
There’s no escaping how steeped in Clone Saga lore this story is, and some readers might find that confusing.
Heck, some people may even find a return to that era unwelcome.
However, if you are at all familiar with the players and pawns of the time then you’ll find yourself in good hands.
DeMatteis delivers a tight, entertaining story that’s much more about Peter Parker than anything you’ll find in current Spider-Man comics. And even if you’re completely unfamiliar with Ben Reilly, The Humanity Agenda is still a well-told comic book story in its own right.
Just remember not to get too attached to the title character – as far as continuity goes, it’s all downhill from here.
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A miniseries by superstar team J.M. DeMatteis, John Romita Jr. and Klaus Janson. Peter Parker’s clone heads west to work out what to do next – only to find the mysterious Kaine is hot on his tail!
Set early in Peter and MJ’s marriage, this turned Kraven from a bit player into one of Spidey’s greatest threats. If you like your Spider-Man stories dark, it doesn’t get much darker than this. By J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck.
A re-imaging of the sprawling 1990’s Clone Saga by Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie and Todd Nauck. It doesn’t fit seamlessly into continuity but it tells the story with more focus – which makes it all the better.