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...

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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

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