Now I’ve got a feeling that a lot of you out there are probably groaning at the mention of the words Clone Saga, which you’d be perfectly justified in doing. It’s not uncommon for fans to see it as a collection of everything wrong with Marvel Comics in the 90s, or even just comics in general. And in hindsight, sure it’s clear to see how much of a convoluted mess it was. Thing is noone really had a problem with it in the beginning. In its first six months, the Clone Saga was met with a great response. The stories were interesting and even beautifully sad, shaping up to be one of the best Spider-Man stories ever told. So what happened, what went wrong, and who is responsible for all of it? I wish I could tell you that it was just one thing, but it seems like the Clone Saga fell victim to a perfect storm of terrible decisions, incidents and happenstances that turned an otherwise promising event into an enormous failure. Let’s take a look and see exactly how that happened.
Not in the plot of the story itself, but behind the scenes at Marvel. Believe it or not, the story actually starts way back in 1973, during one of the most famous Spider-Man stories ever told: the Night Gwen Stacy Died. During this time Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Roy Thomas along with writer Jerry Conway and inker John Romita Sr., were trying to think of ways to shake things up in Spider-Man comics. A sentiment we will see repeated later. And so they decided, to kill someone. Some big, important character in Peter Parker’s life that would leave the readers shocked. And they had their perfect target: Aunt May. But Romita was against the idea. He explained, quote: “If you kill Aunt May, “Peter Parker’s secret identity is not a problem anymore “since there’s no one for him to protect “and you’d lose that whole teenage nerd factor. “It didn’t matter how good-looking he was “or how well he was doing if his Aunt “was still telling him to bring his umbrella whenever “he went out into the rain.” Instead, Romita pulled inspiration from an old comic strip called Terry And The Pirates where readers were stunned after seeing the girlfriend of one of the main characters die. And so it was settled. They were gonna kill Gwen. But not without Stan Lee’s permission, of course.
They asked him if it was all right to kill her off, and Stan gave them his blessing. But, once the story hit shelves, fans everywhere were outraged. How could they kill Gwen Stacy? How could Stan let them? See, here’s the thing that you need to know about Stan Lee. He’s not always the best when it comes to telling the truth. So even though Conway and Thomas did get his permission, Stan publicly rejected the idea, claiming that he would never have allowed them to do such a thing if he knew about it. In reality Stan simply hates when fans are mad at him so he deflects the blame in an attempt to promote his own innocence. But Lee felt that the fans were so outspoken that he actually went out of his way to try and fix things.
He went back to Jerry Conway and demanded that he bring Gwen Stacy back into the comics somehow. She didn’t have to stay for long, or become a main character again, but she at least had to come back in some capacity. So Conway unwillingly created the first Clone Saga. You see the one from the 90s was actually the second Clone Saga. The first one back in the 70s helped set it up, and introduced the character of The Jackal. The previously established science professor named Miles Warren who was infatuated with Gwen Stacy, upset over her death and in his grief resolved to clone her. But that wasn’t the only clone Jackal created. Oh no, just to make the story interesting, he also created a clone of Peter Parker. The two team up to take down The Jackal, until a bomb detonates, seemingly killing Jackal and one of the Spider-Men. The apparently dead Spidey is reasoned to be the clone, and the living one is the Pete that we all know and love. But, it was left ambiguous. Unintentionally so actually, as Conway recalls it was never his intention to imply that the surviving Spidey was the clone, and the real Pete is dead. He never believed in a million years that Marvel would tell that story. Yeah, so uh, about that. (embarrassed laugh) Flash forward to the mid-1990s when comics were getting a little darker. Our happy and fun wall-crawler was thrown into the ring with much more intense and traumatic events that we’d never seen before.
He just wasn’t the same and Marvel wanted to shake things up, again. DC Comics was selling record sales with events like Batman Knightfall, and The Death of Superman. Marvel decided that they needed to fire back with their own big event, and no ideas were off the table. Everyone just started shouting things out. Enter Terry Kavanagh who pitched a pretty straightforward idea. What if we bring back the Spider-Man clone from the 70s? The idea was quickly dismissed and everyone moved on, but Kavanagh was adamant, and further explained his pitch in a following writers’ meeting. He wasn’t saying to just bring the clone back for another story, he was saying what if this whole time we had things backwards, the clone that comes back is the real Peter Parker and the Spider-Man we’ve been following since the 70s, that’s the clone.
That idea would actually be pretty brilliant. Marvel could say that the dark and brooding Spider-Man was simply a clone, while the fun and energetic one readers longed for from before was still out there in the Marvel universe. As Kavanagh said, quote: “As the writers grew older “and got married and had kids and got mortgages, “we sort of wrote Spider-Man that way “and wrote him away from our audience. “This was a way to get him back to his essence organically, “without divorcing him, which would “just give him more baggage.” End quote. And that was the plan: Clear up Spider-Man’s history, and bring him back to how he used to be. The writers at the meeting could hardly contain their excitement after they realized all of the possibilities. It was a scary idea to take on sure, but ultimately a thrilling experience for the writers. When editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco came in to shut the project down, he was so overwhelmed by the writers’ enthusiasm that it not only convinced him to do the story, but also to become the new writer of Spectacular Spider-Man. But, as editor Mark Bernardo stated, quote: “Ironically, the whole storyline which was supposed “to simplify Spider-Man’s mythos “and ultimately bring him back to basics “ended up complicating everything beyond “what anyone imagined.” The original concept for the story was pretty straightforward.
Peter’s clone would come back, going by the name Ben Reilly, forged by combining Ben from Uncle Ben, and Reilly which was Aunt May’s maiden name. Over the next six months it would be revealed that Ben Reilly was the real Spider-Man and Peter Parker was the clone. Meanwhile Mary Jane would become pregnant, which would give Peter incentive to retire as Spider-Man after all with great power comes great responsibility and what greater responsibility is there than raising a child and teaching him or her to be a good and decent human being. Peter and MJ would walk off into the sunset with their child, while Ben Reilly regained the mantle of Spider-Man permanently. Clean and simple. No need to complicate things. Well, here is where the first bit of confusion comes in. You remember how Tom DeFalco was against the idea and told everyone to shut it down? When he finally agreed, he had one condition. Quote: “Here’s a secret, when I finally okayed “the clone saga, I told editor Danny Fingeroth “to build a backdoor into it. “I said that I wanted to be able “to bring Peter back as the real deal. “I believe that both comic book creators “and comic book fans are a cowardly and superstitious lot.
“While the fans claim they want change, they tend “to react negatively to it. “So do most creators. “With this in mind, we agreed that Peter “was the real guy, but that we wouldn’t let “the Spider-Team try to convince the readers otherwise. “If the Spider-Creators succeeded, they would love “the idea of the old switcheroo. “If they failed, they’d be so happy “that they had a backdoor. “Either way, the readers were guaranteed a great story “with a lot of unexpected twists.” End quote. So essentially because they were already expecting fan outrage, they had to build in a loophole to basically undo everything. To say that Peter was the clone and Ben Reilly was the real deal, but then to immediately say: nah, just kidding. But even this idea was thrown out after Marvel saw some radical editorial shifts. If you recall from our previous video about the comic book crash in the 90s, comic books crashed in the 90s. Speculators were saying how much Golden Age comic books were being resold for, and started buying loads of current comics hoping to sell them later to make a profit.
Problem was, that Golden Age comics were valuable because they were rare. Comics from major publishers in the 90s were printed hundreds of thousands of times. Speculators realized this, and the market fell out hard. Marvel was in serious financial troubles, and it wasn’t helping that there was hardly any cooperation between the sales team and the editorial staff. The people who kept the numbers wanted more control, but the creatives didn’t want to relinquish any. Especially DeFalco, who expressed an attitude of: “If we’re making good books, I don’t care “if they sell poorly. “I’m not gonna let some marketing and sales people “tell us how to make comics.” Hoping to get the company back on track then President-of-Marvel Terry Stewart put into action an initiative that would take power away from the editorial staff, and give more power to the sales and marketing team. This restructuring of the company was called: The Marvelution! Editor-in-chief DeFalco was effectively fired, and in his place were not one, not two, but five new editors-in-chief that would each handle their own corner of the Marvel universe, and report directly to Stewart. The five sectors were Spider-Man, X-Men, Marvel Classic which was mostly Avengers and Fantastic Four, Marvel Edge all the gritty characters, and Marvel Entertainment for all their licensed properties.
In an attempt to unify the company, all Marvelution did was split it further apart. One editor said, quote: “It would have been easier “to have Spider-Man team up with Superman than “to have Spider-Man team up with the X-Men” This big editorial shakeup happened right in the middle of the Clone Saga. This meant that the overall vision of the story was lost, as new editors came in with their own ideas. And with the sales team more integrated with the creative side, they kept demanding for writers to drag out the stories so that they could sell more comics and make more money. Remember, this whole ordeal was only supposed to last six months at the most and come to a conclusion in Amazing Spider-Man 400. But as sales demanded extensions to the story, the plot for this issue was changed. Instead of ending the Clone Saga, ASM 400 featured a wonderfully moving story by J.M. DeMatteis. Wherein Aunt May revealed that she had known Peter was Spider-Man for quite some time.
One moment later, Aunt May’s health finally gave out and she died. It’s a beautiful comic that serves as a reminder that not everything that came out of the Clone Saga was awful. Fun fact, they also got Stan Lee’s permission to kill Aunt May which he gave, only to once again deny it when he saw the fan reaction. So, classic Stan. In addition to story extensions, the sales department also demanded more clones. It’s a classic case of higher ups seeing good sales numbers, and wrongly attributing their success to one simple thing. It’s probably not the gripping story, or the beautiful character development, or the masterfully drawn artwork, it’s clones! We need more clones! All of the clones. And while we’re at it, let’s get more R-rated superhero movies in here, because Deadpool did so well, right? Yeah this is when we got stories like Maximum Clonage, which featured more Spider-Man clones than the world ever needed. This was once again a proposed ending for the Clone Saga, that was supposed to tie up a bunch of loose ends, and establish Ben Reilly as the one and only Spider-Man, but a funny thing happened.
Marvelution had split up all the Marvel properties, which created a sense of competition between them. Bob Harras, the editor-in-chief of the X-men corner of the MU saw how great the Spider-Man Clone Saga was doing initially, and reacted, “Oh my god, the Spider-Man books “are gonna rocket past the X-Men ones. “We have to have our own event right now.” Thus began the long and drawn out Age of Apocalypse storyline throughout all of the X-Men titles. When Maximum Clonage was being written, the sales department really loved how Age of Apocalypse was generating enormous numbers by making their story overly long and spread out, so the Spider-Man editor-in-chief Bob Budiansky essentially told his team to copy that recipe. So in effect, the Clone Saga took inspiration from Age of Apocalypse which took inspiration from the Clone Saga, because apparently the Marvel HQ is housed in an echo chamber. Instead of tying up loose ends and bringing the Clone Saga to a close, Maximum Clonage just complicated things and continued to prolong the resolution.
A story that was supposed to last a few months had ended up lasting over two years, and the writers still had no idea how they were gonna end it. One idea was that neither Peter Parker or Ben Reilly was a clone. They were both the original Spider-Man, simply stuck in a time loop. Spidey would go back in time, become Ben Reilly, progress forward in time, until he met up with Peter Parker again, who would then go back in time to become Ben Reilly, and the cycle continues. This way all the Spider-Man tales since the beginning still happened to Peter not some clone, and it would also establish Peter as the one and only Spider-Man once again. And the villainous mastermind behind this whole scheme? None other than, Mephisto. Yes, Mephisto. As the solution to a convoluted Spider-Man story. Funny how that works out. Ultimately while the editorial staff was on board for this time loop idea, the writers were adamantly against it. Writer Dan Jurgens who hated Ben Reilly put an ultimatum in place. Peter Parker had to remain the real Spider-Man. This Ben Reilly is the true Spider-Man business had to go. Ben would die heroically of course, Peter would become Spidey again, and let’s just resolve this now and quickly, and if not Jurgens would quit. Even this simple solution was made sloppy with how complicated the story had become.
MJ was still pregnant with Peter’s child. Originally, they were supposed to go settle down, while Ben became Spider-Man again. But with Peter cementing himself as the true webhead, the writers had to, uh well, uh they had to deal, deal with the baby. In their eyes you couldn’t have a superhero with a kid. Obviously we know now that’s a bit of an overreaction. Either way the decision was made that Mary Jane would have a miscarriage. Solutions to the Clone Saga were being thrown around left and right, no one was on the same page, and Budiansky who was supposed to be in charge couldn’t decide on any one direction. Indecisive from crisis to crisis, frustrating everyone who was working on the story. Finally, Budiansky and Jurgens wrote a story that would reveal who was behind this whole Clone Saga nonsense, and end this miserable journey once and for all. They introduced a new villain named Gaunt who would be revealed to be none other than the presumed dead Harry Osborn. He would be the new mastermind behind it all. Plans were laid out, clues were in place, but then wouldn’t you know it, Marvel reorganized the company yet again.
Did away with the five editors-in-chief and named Bob Harras as the one and only EIC over all of Marvel Comics. Remember, Harras was previously in charge of the X-men section, so when he oversaw all of Marvel, he still put X-Men first. Right around the time when the Spider-Man team was about to make their big reveal that Harry was the mastermind behind the whole Clone Saga, and finally bring this mess to an end, Harras told the Spider-Man team to yet again postpone the finale because he didn’t want it to overshadow a big X-Men event, presumably Onslaught that was happening right around the same time. So the Harry Osborn reveal was out. This further delay of the Clone Saga’s resolution infuriated Jurgens who made true on his promise and quit. Thanks to layoffs at Marvel, Budiansky was on his way out as well but before he left he wrote a memo. He didn’t know who would be made the true villain of the Clone Saga but there was one character he was strongly against, quote: “Norman Osborn’s death should never be undone, “in my opinion. “It’s too classic, let him rest in peace.” Of course with Budiansky out of the picture, Harras decided that the one person who had the money, the resources, the connections, the knowledge, and the motivation to orchestrate the Clone Saga and disrupt Peter Parker’s life to such a profound extent was none other than, it was Norman Osborn. The problem was as Budiansky pointed out, he was kind of dead at the time. Famously so, during The Night Gwen Stacy Died. The comic that started this whole mess. But Harras didn’t care. Norman Osborn was the only character that made sense in this scenario even if he’s supposed to be dead. So, that’s what happened. At this point, I’m sure many writers were happy just to end the Clone Saga once and for all and move on.
The reveal was written up and in 1997 the Clone Saga was finally laid to rest. There’s obviously a lot more to the story than we covered in this video. I highly recommend checking out The Life of Reilly 35-part blog series to find out more. That is linked down in the description below, along with a bunch more links and sources you should definitely check out. What do you guys think about all this? Was there any one person or one decision that made the Clone Saga a failure? Or was it a barrage of bad luck? What could have saved it, if anything? Let’s talk about it all in the comments, and I’ll address some of your thoughts on Monday, during our show Tales From the Comments. If you like this video and want to support what we do, head on over to the NerdSync Patreon. For small donations each month of as little as a dollar, you can help out the channel while also getting some great rewards like access to the NerdSync Discord server to chat with us directly, early access to new videos before anyone else, and exclusive bonus content like parts of the script that didn’t make it into the video. If that interests you at all head on over to patreon.com/nerdsync right now and become a NerdSync patron today. Want more Spider-Man? Click on this video to the left to see the crazy intricate behind-the-scenes story of how Venom was created.