All Spider-Man comic images in this article © Marvel.
No, no, please don’t adjust your brain. This is still primarily a video game website, I just figured I’d do something a little different for a change and didn’t want to start a new site just for non-gaming content. In this case, I wanted to talk about a comic I remember fondly from my childhood.
There have been many “what if” stories in the history of superhero comic books (not to be confused with Marvel Comics’ actual What If… books which told alternate versions of existing stories), but one I keep coming back to is Dan Jurgens‘ run on Sensational Spider-Man in 1996. This ill-fated run was very much a case of a talented writer being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result we only saw brief glimpses of what might have been.
When Jurgens joined the company, Marvel’s editorial staff was ecstatic — at DC, this guy killed Superman (to be precise, the idea to kill Superman came from DC’s Jerry Ordway, but Jurgens was the lead writer on 1992-93’s The Death of Superman arc and created Doomsday, the alien monster Superman fought to the death), what could he possibly have in store for the wallcrawler? There was just one problem. Well, many problems, really, as Marvel was in turmoil behind the scenes. The big one, however, was the ongoing Spider-Man storyline at this time. That’s right, when Dan Jurgens started his run on Spider-Man, the infamous Clone Saga was in full swing and showed no signs of ending anytime soon.
For those of you who are mercifully unaware of this debacle, I’ll try to summarize the Clone Saga as concisely as I can. A bit of a tall order considering the whole shebang lasted two years and 150+ issues of various Spider-Man books. Here’s the extremely abridged version of the events up until the point Jurgens’ run on Sensational Spider-Man begins:
- In 1974, a villain named Jackal creates a Spider-Man clone, who is presumed dead following the storyline and Peter Parker carries on as Spider-Man as usual.
- In 1994, the clone comes back to New York and now calls himself Ben Reilly (after Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben and Aunt May, the latter of whom’s maiden name was Reilly). In the comic timeline, this gap was five years instead of twenty.
- Peter and Ben meet again, briefly fight each other, and eventually become best buds. Ben takes up the superhero gig once more and becomes the Scarlet Spider. Aunt May dies.
- Jackal returns and does a bunch of stupid crap nobody cares about while hinting Ben might actually be the real Peter Parker, then dies.
- Ben is revealed as the real Peter Parker and becomes Spider-Man. The clone Peter moves to Portland with his wife Mary Jane, who is pregnant with their child.
I assure you I had to omit a LOT of dumb nonsense and terrible side characters to keep this summary as brief as it was. Mind, it wasn’t all bad, and especially J.M. DeMatteis was still able to do excellent work on the writing front early on (Amazing Spider-Man #400, a mostly standalone story featuring the death of Aunt May is one of my favorite Spider-Man books of all time, even though that brilliant and emotional story was ruined by a horrendously idiotic retcon a couple of years down the line). Had the Saga only lasted six months as per the original plan, it would not be nearly as maligned as it is. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.
The core idea behind the whole event was this: Marvel’s editorial staff always hated the idea of Spider-Man being married, and wanted to return to the supposed glory days before Peter and MJ tied the knot (a divorce was out of the cards, because it would’ve just added more baggage and made Peter seem old). Not only that, but the Spider-Man books had gotten overly grim and serious in recent years, and Marvel wanted to go back to the more light-hearted stories of decades past. So, they thought, wouldn’t it be great if we brought back the clone, and then reveal he’s actually the real Spider-Man? Spider-Man would be cool and hip and single and fun again! Better yet, the grim, humorless, married spider-jerk from the newer comics would’ve actually been the clone all along! And if the readers riot, we can just walk it back and restore Peter as the real Spider-Man again. Brilliant! Of course, later on Marvel finally got their wish when Peter and MJ sold their marriage to Satan, but that’s a whole other bit of idiocy and outside the scope of this article.
All of this finally brings us back to Sensational Spider-Man by Dan Jurgens (story/pencils) and Klaus Janson (inks). The debut issue of Sensational (issue #0) would be the big debut of Ben Reilly as the one true Spider-Man. He’d still keep his identity as Ben Reilly and dye his hair blond to distinguish himself from Peter, because there was no way Ben would be able to just become Peter Parker again after so many years. This also necessitated the creation of a completely new supporting cast. The problem with all this was the fact Dan Jurgens utterly detested Ben Reilly. Still does, in fact, as he has lambasted the character in interviews for years. In his opinion, Spider-Man is Peter Parker (preferably an unmarried Peter Parker who is constantly down on his luck… which to many people is kind of this ideal of Spider-Man, but never really existed) and that’s it. He did not want to write about clones, and kept lobbying for Peter Parker to be brought back as Spider-Man as quickly as possible. This kept getting delayed further and further, even when Jurgens gave an ultimatum that he’d quit if this clone nonsense wasn’t wrapped up soon. When the return of Peter Parker was delayed one last time in order to avoid clashing with the Onslaught crossover event, Jurgens made good on his ultimatum and walked away after only seven issues of Sensational Spider-Man.
Here’s the kicker, though — despite everything, Ben Reilly Spider-Man as written by Dan Jurgens is pretty damn great. Maybe it’s not the “real” Spider-Man, and I don’t blame you if you find that fact a dealbreaker (many people did exactly that), but Jurgens’ all too brief run on Sensational was and still is miles ahead of anything the other core Spider-Man writers were doing at the time. One of the big ongoing stories around this time was “The Great Game” which involved a bunch of Z-list heroes and villains fighting each other while being sponsored by rich assholes who would make a shitton of money if their guy won, and it just kept going on and on despite absolutely no one on Earth giving a single solitary shit about it (including Jurgens, who ignored it almost completely). The only writer who handled Ben Reilly as well as Jurgens and was able to get inside the character’s head as effectively was J.M. DeMatteis, but he had left before Ben became Spider-Man.
Unfortunately, Marvel in the 90s did not allow just one writer to handle a character. During Jurgens’ tenure at Marvel, there were four separate Spider-Man books coming out each month (Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man), each with their own writers and artists. Not only was this a nightmare to follow from a reader standpoint since you had to buy four books each month to keep up with the story, it also inevitably meant the writers’ creative vision for Spider-Man the character would be compromised because everything had to stick to the big (and generally terrible) overarching storyline their bosses had forced on them. The writers just had to try to make all these stories fit together more or less consistently. It would’ve been fascinating to see how Jurgens would’ve handled Spider-Man if he had been the sole writer responsible for the character or if Sensational Spider-Man had at least been a standalone book, but this simply wasn’t in the cards at the time.
When it comes to the actual Spider-Man action in Sensational Spider-Man, it’s generally solid. Dan Jurgens draws eye-catching action scenes, and his Spider-Man usually looks excellent. The anatomy is questionable in some panels (Spider-Man’s feet occasionally look odd, and at one point in Sensational #0 we even get to see a rare male boobs-and-butt pose), but considering the standards of the mid-90s the art could be a hell of a lot worse. All the characters have human proportions, and the art in general has a grounded and realistic feel that fits Spider-Man very well. Jurgens’s stories tended to stick to street-level superheroics and Ben Reilly’s personal life for the most part, which I still enjoy a lot more than most Spider-Man stuff from this era. I also like how quippy Ben is in these stories, because Peter got pretty grim in the 90s.
Although the artwork and writing in these issues was solid, one unfortunate byproduct of the overarching storylines at the time was the fact Jurgens couldn’t make much use of the classic Spider-Man villains. Mysterio appears in Sensational #0 and #1, but has been redesigned for the 90s (by John Romita, Jr.) and doesn’t look anything like himself. Rhino shows up in a couple of panels in a later issue (fighting Kaine, whom Jurgens couldn’t give less of a shit about), but that’s about it. It’s the 90s, man! Those old villains aren’t cool anymore!
Despite all the compromises and lack of creative freedom, Jurgens was at least able to tell one particular Spider-Man story he’d always wanted to do, and this story still works very well even if you skip all of the other books that came out during this time. This is the story of a young photographer named Jessica Carradine, who has a special interest in Spider-Man.
Jessica makes her debut in Sensational Spider-Man #0, snapping a photo of the webhead in his brand new costume. In the following issue, she meets Ben Reilly who is now working as a barista at the Daily Grind coffee shop she frequents, and the two hit it off and eventually start dating. However, it quickly becomes evident her interest in Spider-Man might not be entirely healthy, as Ben discovers the walls of her apartment are plastered with photos of Spider-Man and soon finds out she blames the wallcrawler for the murder of her father. Obviously, this is sort of odd because Spider-Man doesn’t murder people, so Ben investigates further and discovers Jessica’s dad was none other than the burglar who killed Uncle Ben! (The burglar was never named in the comics, but I appreciated the fact his surname in the Spider-Man 3 film was Carradine. That movie might have been a travesty for the most part, but at least someone did their homework)
According to the version of the events Jessica’s father told her, he had accidentally gone into the wrong house and Uncle Ben mistook him for a burglar, pulling a gun on him. Supposedly, there was a struggle and the gun went off, causing Uncle Ben’s death by accident. Of course, everyone knows this version of the story is utter bullshit, especially if they’ve read Amazing Spider-Man #200. In that classic issue (whose events are recapped by Peter during this story to fill Ben in on what actually happened), Spider-Man encounters the killer again, and the guy is an unrepentant dickhead who openly gloats about killing Uncle Ben and threatens to kill Peter (and May, if he needs to) as well.
At the end of ASM 200, the killer is so horrified of what he imagines Spider-Man might do to him that he suffers a heart attack and dies. Spider-Man explicitly tells him he’s only going to send him back to prison, but the killer is convinced Spider-Man wants his head and basically scares himself to death. Jessica believes the heart attack was just a cover-up and insists Spider-Man strangled her father to death, and nothing will convince her otherwise.
Then, things get worse. One night, Ben and Jessica go out on a date, but Ben has to go off and become Spider-Man. Spider-Man does his thing and goes back to a nearby alley to change back to Ben Reilly, but doesn’t realize Jessica has followed him. Jessica takes a photo just as he unmasks, and realizes Ben is Spider-Man. Ben finally spots Jessica and tries to talk to her, but it’s no use as she tearfully screams at him to get out of her life. Soon, Jessica starts having second thoughts, because she has always imagined Spider-Man as a murderous monster (Spidey’s brief stint as the grotesque Spider-Carnage recently didn’t help matters, even though he didn’t actually kill anyone while the symbiote was attached to him) but Ben Reilly seems like a good person. Maybe her father didn’t tell her the whole truth about the Ben Parker incident, and maybe she’s also been wrong about Spider-Man killing him?
Unfortunately, all of this coincides with a dreadful time in Ben’s life, as he’s accused of burning down the Daily Grind. Someone also breaks into his apartment, steals everything and writes “WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE” on the wall. Finally, Peter Parker (who is back in NYC but has temporarily lost his powers) is attacked by goons who know Spider-Man’s identity. As far as Ben knows, only one person aside from Peter and MJ is aware of him being Spider-Man, so he goes to Jessica’s apartment as Spider-Man and yells at her for ruining his life. Naturally, she has no idea what he’s talking about because she doesn’t exactly hang out with a bunch of superpowered thugs (the Hobgoblin is eventually revealed as the culprit and Ben is cleared), and is visibly shocked and horrified by the accusations. Around this time, Jessica considers sending the unmasked photos of Spider-Man to J. Jonah Jameson, but decides against it because she still has doubts. (In a story by another writer, Ben and Jessica almost reconcile but Ben screws up by mentioning the photos and Jessica assumes he’s just being nice to get her to keep his secret, so she tells him to scram)
Sensational Spider-Man #6 was Dan Jurgens’ final issue, and since Jessica was his creation it was only fair he got the opportunity to conclude her storyline before leaving Marvel. Some of the artwork in this issue is not quite up to Jurgens’ usual standards, either because of tight deadlines or because he knew he was on the way out and phoned it in to some degree, but most of it still looks good and the story absolutely holds up.
After visiting her father’s grave, Jessica walks around the city still trying to figure out what to do with the pictures. She just about manages to convince herself that she doesn’t want to destroy Spider-Man because she loves Ben, but then she sees Ben at a fancy restaurant with Desiree Winthrop. Desiree is another Daily Grind regular, a rich girl who is clearly interested in Ben, and Jessica considers her a rival even though Ben isn’t actually interested in Desiree and only went out to lunch with her to get out of the rain. In any case, Jessica is instantly consumed by jealousy and finally decides to mail the Spider-Man pictures to the Daily Bugle. Now, all she has to do is find a mailbox, but before she can locate one she sees Spider-Man rush towards a burning building a few blocks away. Jessica follows Spider-Man and witnesses a truly heroic display as Spider-Man rescues all of the people stuck in the burning restaurant on the building’s top floor without a moment’s hesitation or concern for his own life.
Just when Spider-Man thinks he’s done, it turns out two children are still stuck in the restaurant and may yet be alive, so he heads right back in despite the firefighters warning him that this is a suicide mission even if the kids still live. Spider-Man does not care and makes his way back into the blaze, and manages to find the children just as the top of the building explodes. The onlookers are horrified because nobody could’ve possibly survived that, and Jessica is now deeply regretting the fact she didn’t listen to Ben. Miraculously, Spider-Man and the children emerge from the fiery wreckage almost unscathed, having gotten out in the nick of time.
Everyone present hails Spider-Man as a true hero, which seemingly flips a switch in Jessica’s head and she begins to think of him as a hero for the first time in her life. Jessica hands Spider-Man the envelope containing the pictures and tells him she was wrong about him all along, disappearing into the crowd as the media swarms Spider-Man with their questions.
The last two pages of Sensational #6 show Jessica at the gravesite of Uncle Ben and Aunt May. She apologizes for all the pain and suffering her father caused the Parker family, and for believing her father’s lies for so long. After leaving flowers on Uncle Ben’s grave, Jessica walks away to parts unknown to start her life again. There are a couple of details in this scene I found interesting — for starters, this issue is the first and only time Jessica does not wear predominantly black clothing. It’s something that completely escaped me when I read this as a kid in the 90s, but her wardrobe change here is obviously supposed to be thematic, especially the bright white dress she wears in the final scene. At the start of the issue, she wears a grey coat, which to me signifies the fact she’s starting to overcome the darkness brought on by her father and her hatred of Spider-Man. At the end, she’s accepted the truth and is ready to start over, hence the switch to a white outfit. The final splash page is also a callback to the last page of Sensational Spider-Man #0, as you can see here (click for big):
Pretty cool! As a professional nitpicker, I do have to point out how the small hill in the background has disappeared and the layout of the headstone engravings has changed (I’m sure I’d have been awarded a 100% genuine Marvel Comics No-Prize if I had written in about this in 1996… and lived in the US so I could’ve actually read this story in 1996 instead of early 1998, when it was published in Finland), but that’s still a very nice way for Jurgens to sign off.
I’ve mostly been a proponent of Spider-Man and MJ being married, but Jessica’s storyline simply couldn’t be told as effectively with a married Spider-Man. “The daughter of Uncle Ben’s killer, who hates Spider-Man because her dad lied to her” is already a great concept for a character, but the romance aspect really elevates the story to the next level and it wouldn’t work nearly as well if Spider-Man was married to MJ. Sure, you could have Jessica fall in love with Peter Parker, but he would not be able to reciprocate because he’d look like an asshole for cheating on MJ. With Ben Reilly, everything just clicks perfectly and them having an actual relationship adds a lot to the drama. Sure, it’s a bit of a soap opera plot, but that sort of stuff was always the best part of Spider-Man even during the original Stan Lee & Steve Ditko era!
While especially the latter parts of the Clone Saga are pretty dire, I always liked Ben Reilly and this storyline is one of the big reasons why. I understand why people were sick of the clone bullshit and just wanted Peter to come back, but Ben Reilly as Spider-Man was a lot of fun (especially in Jurgens’ stories) and it’s one of those things that would be interesting to see as an alternate continuity thing or something like that. Marvel eventually brought Ben back from the dead and made him Scarlet Spider again, but this version of Ben is a giant asshole and not even remotely the same character so who cares.
Dan Jurgens has stated in interviews he’d like another chance to work on Spider-Man, but this has never come to fruition. He has mostly worked on various DC properties in the years since his run on Sensational Spider-Man, with stints on Captain America and Thor at Marvel in the late 90s and early 2000s. While I completely understand his frustration at the clones and other bullshit, it’s a shame he didn’t stick around for a few more months because Peter Parker did finally come back as Spider-Man, and the Clone Saga mercifully sputtered to an end as Ben Reilly turned out to have been the clone all along and died saving Peter from the returning Green Goblin (Many years later, Marvel would bring Ben back in an arc entitled Clone Conspiracy, but that’s a debacle for another time). The writing on the Spider-Man stories immediately following the Clone Saga was generally… lackluster, to put it charitably, and Jurgens would’ve been an enormous asset to the writing team during that time. What might have been, indeed…