Those of us who cut our comic book teeth reading the 90s Spider-Man books have a level of affection for the clone saga that some would call... charitable. It may not have been Marvel’s proudest moment, but there’s arguably a lot that could be salvaged from it. Even so, when the Spider-Office pulled Kaine back into circulation, few could have expected him to end up headlining his own book, reprising the superheroic identity of his “brother” Ben Reilly. And yet, here we are.
That said, if there’s one thing this comic doesn’t do, it’s waste much time pandering to the people who grew up loving the clone saga. Aside from the occasional visuals of Ben Reilly and Kaine in their “classic” get-ups, it’s full-speed ahead in taking Kaine’s current status quo and building a book on its potential, rather than its past. Healed, sane and free for the first time ever, this narrative stars a flawed version of Peter Parker and poses the classic question: what makes a person, nature or nurture?
Christopher Yost approaches the task of introduction with aplomb, easing us into Kaine’s life on the run and filling his world with hooks and connections even as he struggles to move on. Ryan Stegman, for his part, turns in some beautiful work that has the better qualities of Ed McGuinness, but more restrained in the page designs and layouts. As a first issue, it’s a solid (if straightforward) start, and only really falters whenever it’s forced to pause and recap the complexities of its lead character’s past.
Despite a strong opener, it’s probably not going to satisfy a large portion of its readers to the fullest extent. In order to make him a suitable protagonist, Kaine has received a personality overhaul (necessary), a completely new body (justifiable) and a selection of new powers (puzzling). The upshot is that very little remains of the villain we loved to hate. Not the weird costume, not the creepy powers, not the twisted sense of justice. It’s arguably wise for the creative team to try and make Kaine appeal to readers for reasons beyond nostalgia, but it’s not hard to think that they’ve gone too far.
And there’s the rub. This opening issue, while decent enough, could quite easily have been about any random thug retaining his Spider-Island imbued powers and seeking a new life elsewhere. On that level, it completely works: The botched attempts at heroism. The self-interested slips in his actions. The promise of a redemptive arc even as he kicks against it. It’s not just good, it’s interesting in tone, location and ethos. But is it going to satisfy those turning up for clone saga-referencing fun? Almost certainly not.
Furthermore, it may work for the Ultimate Universe, but keeping Kaine out of costume for the entire issue feels like a mistake. It’s bad enough that he’s not using the original Scarlet Spider look, but making readers wait for the big moment is a dangerous move, especially when the plan is to sell this character as a heroic lead. For that to work, he needs to look like a hero, ideally as quickly as possible.
It’s true that there’s a lot here to like, and certainly the book is far from being a duplicate of “Amazing Spider-Man” purely because the lead and setting are both so different, but it’s unequivocally not the book Scarlet Spider fans will have been hoping for. The scorched earth approach (virtually everything but the name) worked for Rick Remender on “Venom” not that long ago. Only time will tell whether Yost and Co. can make that strategy succeed a second time.