Amazing Spider-Man #22
Written by Dan Slott and Christos Gage
Art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, Cam Smith and Jason Keith
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
[Editor's Note: For a spoiler-filled breakdown of the big events of this issue, click here.]
It’s a scientific problem that at times seems insurmountable. It’s a flaw in the plan, the fly in the ointment, the base deficiency that can take a seemingly ordinary plot and rot it from the inside-out.
I’m not talking about degeneration. I’m talking about exposition. And right now, that’s the prognosis for what’s ailing Amazing Spider-Man #22, a book that delves deep into what turned one-time Scarlet Spider Ben Reilly into the cloning mastermind known as the Jackal. For continuity fans who are itching to know more about the brains behind Clone Conspiracy, you’ll enjoy the explanation, but it comes at a cost - namely, stopping the momentum of this series in its tracks.
For many children of the ‘90s, Ben Reilly is a name that is a double-edged sword - initially a plot point from a classic Spider-Man comic book, Ben’s return brought doubt to Peter Parker’s entire life, making both characters question who was the original and who was the clone. After inflating Spider-Man sales, Marvel’s decision to make Ben the “one true Spider-Man” backfired in spectacular fashion, alienating longtime fans until the character’s heroic sacrifice in the pages of Peter Parker: Spider-Man #75.
But as Dan Slott and Christos Gage point out, nothing is ever over when it comes to the dealing with the Jackal.
Taking a bit of synchronicity with Netflix’s new series The OA, Amazing Spider-Man #22 is largely told in flashback, showing Ben’s repeated deaths and resurrections in the hands of Miles Warren, as the mad doctor tries in vain to solve the riddle of clone degeneration. It’s surprisingly bleak storytelling for a series that’s been rooted in as deep a vein of optimism as Amazing Spider-Man, as Ben is killed and brought back in a number of gruesome ways, from drowning to electrocution to burning. But what’s perhaps more depressing is the return to the existential angst that dragged down the Spider-Man titles in the ‘90s, as Peter Parker’s nascent insecurities turn into Ben Reilly’s full-blown self-loathing, with the character at one point channeling his memories of his friends and loved ones in an attempt to escape… only to give up, as he remembers that these friends and family aren’t his.
But as bleak as this retelling is, it ultimately is just that - a retelling. As a result, the overall momentum of this issue winds up coming at a crawl, because there’s no forward momentum to the storytelling here. While one can make the argument that this Ben-centric issue is meant to assuage Scarlet Spider fans who might be upset their hero has been brought back as a villain, Slott and Gage’s plot only further victimizes him, painting Ben as a character who’s been twisted by his dozens of deaths. Additionally, the emotional content feels tacked-on - there’s a line in the story when Ben frees himself, as he tells his captor “I can be whatever I decide to be,” and that line of self-determination feels much more organic than him simply deciding to repay his friends and family with cloning technology. It’s not to say that bringing people back from the dead isn’t an answer to Spider-Man’s many failings - but in the context of this story, it doesn’t feel like an answer to Ben’s.
Part of the reason why this book’s energy feels low is also that the script doesn’t give Giuseppe Camuncoli a ton of room to maneuver. Because so much of the book is recap - and again, it’s not to say it isn’t important or necessary, it’s just delivered in a fairly spoon-fed fashion - Camuncoli winds up having to draw lots of montages and flashback sequences, which wind up coming across as a bit more Wikipedia-like than I think any of the creators would have intended. Aside from Ben inevitably breaking out of his tube, there’s almost no action in this issue, with even the bookend sequence of Peter punching Ben in the face lacking speed and power. Camuncoli’s character designs, however, are unimpeachable, and he certainly plays up the emotions of Ben’s horrific captivity, as he weeps, asking Warren “Why won’t you let me die?”
But as a result, that might make Amazing Spider-Man #22 a bit of an acquired taste with Clone Conspiracy serving as the main storyline, this series has been relegated to continuity detail, an explanation to the more satisfying action going on elsewhere. And that might be the flaw in the plan, the fly in the ointment, the key deficiency in Clone Conspiracy as an arc - you need to be able to balance both in order to tell a satisfying story. It’s not to say there can’t be interludes about the various supporting characters and antagonists of this series, but comic books have long thrived on a balance of main plots and side plots, and by excising this important but secondary exposition to another book entirely, neither series winds up hitting its fullest potential.