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Gimmick or Good? – Sensational Spider-Man #0

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with the lemticular cover of Sensational Spider-Man #0…

Sensational0_cover

Sensational Spider-Man #0 (published January 1996) – script and pencils by Dan Jurgens, inks by Klaus Janson.

Despite its reputation as the “dark era” for the Spider-Man franchise, Marvel has managed to recently mine some gold from the “Clone Saga,” most notably with its Scarlet Spider series, which publishes its last issue this month after a relatively successful two-year run. With that in mind, I thought I’d bring us back to the last time Marvel made one of Peter Parker’s clones the centerpiece of his own series with 1996’s Sensational Spider-Man #0.

After learning that he was actually a clone, and not the original Spider-Man, Peter hung up the webs in Spectacular Spider-Man #228 and turned the power and responsibility gig over to his clone Ben Reilly (the original Spider-Man, except it turns out that Peter was the real Spider-Man all along and Norman Osborn engineered the whole thing as the ultimate act of revenge), aka the Scarlet Spider (but not the current Scarlet Spider. That’s Kaine. Keep up, will you?). Sensational was designed to be the Spider-verse’s flagship title a la Amazing Spider-Man (except ASM continued to be published after a brief hiatus) and Superman vet Dan Jurgens was brought in to write and pencil the series. To mark this landmark occasion, the first issue was numbered “0” and featured a lenticular cover (a 3D moving image similar to a hologram). There was also a limited edition “variant” cover for this issue.

But what about inside the comic?

One might think it’s a little unfair for someone with my obvious Spider-Man bias to be charged with looking objectively at anything related to the “Clone Saga,” but despite the fact that this storyline temporarily drove me away from comics in the 1990s, in recent years, my stance and general abhorrence for it has softened considerably.

With that said, I have some real issues with Sensational #0, though the comic is not nearly as bad as I remember. Read in isolation, Sensational #0 is a decent enough origin/kick-off story that sets up the general idea of what a series starring Ben Reilly is going to be about. But once you take into account the 35+ years of Spider-Man stories that preceded this comic, that’s when Sensational #0’s flimsiness becomes exposed.
My biggest problem with the comic is how Jurgens struggles to find an identity for his main character. Per the text, Ben Reilly is actually the same person who debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 and continually appeared in Amazing Spider-Man (and later Marvel Team-Up) until about ASM #149, when he battled his clone, lost and was dumped into a smokestack and forgotten about until years later. The comic opens with Ben recollecting how Aunt May used to wake him up every morning as a kid, and the famous Amazing Fantasy origin is revisited, but there’s still a lingering feeling of unfamiliarity with this character. It’s almost as if Jurgens can’t decide if his character is the original Spider-Man, or a brand new comic book character through which he has a blank canvas to work.

Sensational0_01

Ben jokes, but they don’t sound like Peter’s jokes. Would Peter really say something “blows?” Ben asks why the guy in the “blue suit and red cape” doesn’t have problems, and that joke also doesn’t ring true. It’s an obvious wink-wink/nudge-nudge from Jurgens and his history with the “Man of Steel,” but the tried and true Spider-Man joke was always along the lines of: “I bet Daredevil (or some other Marvel hero) had to (insert quippy line about how said Marvel hero doesn’t have to deal with the same crap that Spidey always has to deal with).” I know I sound nit-picky, but this is just one example of many where Sensational #0’s characterization reads as muddied due to Jurgens’s lack of experience writing Spider-Man.

There is also an odd sequence when Ben recaps his origin and talks about how he was dumped into a smokestack by a “phony.” While this is technically true, Jurgens’s choice of words can be interpreted as making Ben sound a bit entitled while also vilifying Peter, a beloved character who certainly didn’t intentionally try to screw Ben out of the last five years of his life. It also tonally clashes with the upbeat ending of Spectacular #228 when Peter asks Ben to take on the mantel of Spider-Man and Ben initially refuses because he doesn’t see himself as being worthy.

Sensational0_02

For a featured villain, Jurgens introduces the world to Armada, who is just another bad guy in a high-tech suit. I can understand the need to kick off this series with a brand new villain, but Armada is as vanilla as it gets. His only real characterization is that he speaks to his robot accessories as if they were his “pets,” but that’s hardly enough to make him remotely compelling or interesting.

Sensational0_03

By issue’s end, we find out that Armada is actually working for Mysterio – a classic Spider-Man villain. It probably would have made for a more engaging story if Ben’s first fight since taking over for Peter were against one of his deadliest rogues. Given the history between Spider-Man and Mysterio, the stakes would have been much higher for Ben if he had to dust off the rust against a character that occasionally got the better of him back in his Silver Age prime.

In a plot development that feels more at home in an NBC sitcom from the 1990s about a group of 20-something friends, Ben takes a job at the Daily Grind, the coffee shop that’s long be featured in Spider-Man comics. To get around the inconvenience of somebody recognizing a guy who looks exactly like Peter working in a coffee shop where he used to hang out with MJ, Gwen, Harry and Flash, Ben dyes his hair bleach blonde, inadvertently influencing Ricky Martin and scores of late-90s boy bands.

Sensational0_04

One place where the script does shine is when Jurgens introduces Ben’s new costume. Ben’s rundown of all of his options (“Too Asgardian,” “Too X-Men,” et al) is genuinely funny (despite yet ANOTHER Superman reference).

Sensational0_05

And the costume Ben does settle upon has always been a favorite of mine from a design standpoint. There’s nothing terribly flashy about it, but the new duds manage to honor the original Spider-Man costume while also looking different enough to feel fresh. The current Superior Spider-Man costume seems to borrow elements from what Jurgens and Klaus Janson created here, which speaks to the design’s long-term influence.

Sensational0_06

But the nice costume is hardly enough to save this comic from the 1990’s gimmick pile. Again, the more time passes, the more I’ve come to appreciate certain storylines from the “Clone Saga,” but Jurgens reboot of the franchise isn’t one of the stories I would recommend.

Verdict: Gimmick

32 Comments

Mark Bagley designed the costume, not Jurgens and Janson.

I loved Jurgens up to the end of the whole Death/Return of Superman era, but after that he got handed a lot of editorial power and began mucking up things. His biggest crime was his almost pathological need to inject a new villain into a hero’s backstory. For instance, Captain America found out there was an earlier super-soldier named “Protocide”, and Superman discovered that his arrival on earth also affected another Smallville kid who became “Conduit”. So creating another cookie-cutter bad guy like Armada was par for the course.

Damn you. I had totally forgotten about this book.

The hilarious thing about that page with Ben pondering costumes is the notion that a guy with that hairstyle would have any fashion sense.

If I’m not mistaken, Jurgens’ rejected design is the black and red number on that page.

I remember feeling betrayed when they took Ben Reilly out of the Scarlet Spider hoodie. The hoodie was rad, and those who think otherwise are not only wrong, but also Nazi fascist KKK members.

As for the issue itself, I bought three copies when it came out and now recall almost nothing of what happened in the comic. I remember Armada (Cyber-Suit Spidey villain #3489 at that point). I remember bondage Mysterio. But by far my strongest memory of Sensational #0 was the disappointment I felt when selling my copies in a yard sale a few years ago, and failing to become extraordinarily rich – what I dreamt of when hoarding these comics as a kid.

I remember buying this comic and not liking it at all at the time, so I never bought the series afterward. Looking at it now, I remember how bland it felt. I also couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just call himself Peter and be Peter to people who knew him, since the clone had moved away and wasn’t going to be around.

Here is the dissenting opinion–

This comic brought me back to Spider-Man after being gone a decade or so. It did what it was supposed to do– it promised a fresh start and it was a decent enough launch pad. I enjoyed it enough that I was willing to give it a chance and it WAS a good jumping-on point. I stayed with Spider-man all the way through the conclusion of the clone saga and didn’t get chased away again until the Byrne/Mackie stuff. I’d have been okay with this status quo, Jurgens did some good stuff– particularly the daughter-of-the-burglar story, which I thought was quite clever. The run was strongest when he built up Ben Reilly and wasn’t trying to straddle some sort of line between pleasing the old-school Peter fans and doing something new.

My two cents.

Complete garbage. 90s Spider-Man was arguably the worst comic of all time.

[…] instance where I revisit the “Clone Saga” despite my initial hatred for the arc. In this post, I examine the lenticular-covered Sensational Spider-Man #0, which brought aboard long-time Superman vet Dan Jurgens on story and art (with Klaus Janson on […]

I used to love the lenticular cover as a kid. I also really liked Jurgen’s art, particularly his Mysterio redesign. I always thought the fog head was a good update to the fishbowl. Apparently so does Brian Bendis, since Ultimate Mysterio had a similar design.

I’ve always like Ben, and I have to agree with Greg – Jurgens does get better. I like this period of Spider-man a lot, where Ben’s Spider-man; I thought it was kinda cool how Marvel took a risk with a very different status-quo (but sadly eventually back-peddled all of it in a terrible story that brought back Norman and needlessly sacrificed a good character to appease change-resistant fans). Plus, I have to agree – Ben’s costume just looks good (it’s my personal favorite Spidey costume.

I think some of the best issues came near the end of Ben’s period as Spidey in all of the books, when Peter came back and you got to see some brotherly moments between the two. Hell, one of my favorite Spider-man issues of all time is the Sensational issue in the Revelations arc, where we got some nice Lobdell-style quiet issue stuff between Ben and Peter, a solid action scene in the typical Spidey fashion where our heroes are caught up with the villains while MJ is giving birth in the hospital, plus Mike Wieringo drew it! I actually did a blog entry on how Marvel could have juggled a status quo where Peter and Ben were both Spider-man at the same time, so that you could have the married Spider-man and the single one with rent problems that Joe Q seems to love so much.

http://collegecomicrants.blogspot.com/2012/12/comics-pitch-2-spider-clone-boogaloo.html

Seriously, anyone who hates the Clone Saga or thinks there’s nothing redeeming about it, read that Sensational issue I mentioned along with the Lost Years mini and then try to tell me with a straight face that Ben isn’t a worthwhile character or that the Clone Saga didn’t have potential. I dare you.

@Saul Goode —

Ben isn’t a worthwhile character and the Clone Saga didn’t have potential.

What now?

Saul: haters gonna hate…
Lost Years and Redemption are 2 of the best Spider-man stories.

While I think the Clone Saga was problematic and at times the epitome of everything that was wrong with Marvel in the 90s, even the worst Clone Saga issue was immeasurably better than the Michelinie stuff that preceded it.

there’s a clear line of demarcation of the quality of Michelinie’s work when Jim Salicrup leaves and Danny Fingeroth takes over as editor. The drop in quality is STAGGERING.

Some of the Clone saga was good. A lot was terrible. Jurgans work on Sensational was a high mark as he tried to make Ben Reilly a character fans could relate too. Sadly he left once he clashed with the Spider-Man editors. Also Jurgans thought he was gonna get to write Peter Parker…not the story of Ben Reilly.

Shame the forums are down.

@T. —

NO. The Clone Saga is THE worst story arc in comics history. PERIOD.

That black and red costume looks a lot like the Superior costume.

@Derek Handley – he couldn’t call himself Peter because it would open up too many questions from the hundreds of people who knew Peter, knew he was married to MJ, knew they were expecting a baby, and knew they had moved off to the west coast. It’s the big, gaping problem with the whole “replace Peter Parker with a clone” scheme—it just wasn’t practical from a storytelling perspective, since it raised more problems than it solved. But, for whatever reason, Marvel editorial absolutely refused to go with the actual solution to their “problem”: have Peter and MJ divorce.

The worst thing to ever happen to Spider-man was the UNmasking. ITw as nothing and they didn’t even plan it out, other than Spider-man wasn’t going to be married. THAT was GARBAGE! This, by comparison, actually has some great ideas. Spider-man’s a single guy in town working and on his own.

I bought this when it came out and the hologram was coming off. Fortunantly, my local comic book shop guy replaced it. In retrospect, the Ben Reilly stories on his own weren’t bad at all.

I actually rather liked that issue, as well as the entire Ben run as Spidey. That said, I always thought that Spider-Girl looked far better in those duds.

If only Marvel stuck with the original Clone Saga (ending after six issues)….

Dan Jurgens may be a nice guy and a solid artist, but he’s a terrible writer.

No, that’s not fair at all. He’s a fine at writing; he can create a story with a beginning, middle and end, which a lot of people cannot do well.

What he’s terrible at, generally speaking, is dialoguing.

His Superman said “whoa” more times than he ever should (correct number should have been zero), his brainy characters suffer from needless, endless sesquipedalianism, his villains are routinely one-dimensional in their motivation, and don’t get me started on Thor’s “Shakespearean” dialogue. Forsooth.

No, it’s never a good thing when Dan Jurgens is writing your comic; the art might be solid, but the dialogue is going to ALWAYS suck.

@ Anonymous

NO. YOU’RE wrong. PERIOD. Seriously, read Avengers: the Crossing and get back to me.

I love you, Sensational Spider-Man #0!!! You’re the best!!!

I thought Armada was a pretty interesting villain (and still do)… Wanted to see more of him in future Spider-Man books.

This could never have been a good comic for two reasons:

1) Clone Saga. Disasterous from start to end. Nothing wrong with shaking up the status quo (it’d be great to see a lot more of it in a lasting way, rather than for a short-term sales spike or supposed reboot), but this was a very low point for superhero comics in general and Spidey in particular.

2) Dan Jurgens. Average artist, crappy writer. The problems with the writing that Mark noted are there simply because Jurgens wasn’t very good. I think he didn’t often properly understand the characters he was writing.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

Yes, Jurgens took over on Solar Man of the Atom back in the last days of Valiant (95-96-97?) and the first thing he did was completely ignore anything that had been going on in the book and took Solar to a parallel world that was awfully similar to the world of Watchmen.

This was incredibly jarring and made no sense what so ever. I know that Valiant was completely off the rails by then but still, you’d think they would hire someone who had some grasp of the character and the universe that the company had going after several years.

The Clone Saga is the era in which I began to regularly collect Spidey comics, and during that time I came to appreciate Ben for the character he was. Yes, the overall arc suffered from being constantly extended beyond what was originally intended, but the actually planned elements were golden. I loved the new costume, some of the villain upgrades, the new supporting cast, and the plethora of story potential. I only wish Marvel then had the sensibilities of Marvel now in that they could have kept Ben alive and moved him to his own title and another city while restoring Peter as the original. Instead, that honor went to Kaine.

That said, one thing about this review struck me, the whole “is this the Peter we’ve known, or a new character that’s a blank canvas” comment. In fact, it’s actually both. Think about it: a clone is a perfect copy of the original UNTIL its actually created. From the second it achieves its own consciousness, the clone begins to have different experiences from the original. Add to the fact Ben spent 5 years on the road trying to find himself, his experiences and interactions have differed from Peter’s making him not only the same character but different in a variety of ways.

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