By Gregory Paul Silber
Over 25 years later, criticizing the “Clone Saga” is more than a little passe. A mega-arc running across all of Marvel’s Spider-Man titles from October 1994 to December 1996, it followed Peter Parker’s discovery that he was one of several clones. While it introduced some characters and concepts that remain popular among Spidey fans – like Ben Reilly as The Scarlet Spider – it’s probably still best known today for going on way too long and generally being godawful. Many of the creators and editors involved have openly acknowledged that the storyline was a misfire (albeit one that sold well, hence why they were pushed to keep it going so long), and they weren’t even shy about their embarrassment at the time it was still being published.
Which brings me to Spider-Man: The Parker Years #1, a one-shot published in 1995 as a tie-in to the “Clone Saga,” written by Evan Skolnick with pencils by Joe St. Pierre, inks by Al Milgrom, colors by Gregory Wright, color separations by Malibu, and letters by Jim Novak.
And yes, Spider-Man: The Parker Years is also terrible. A recurring theme in my “Silber Linings” column over at The Comics Beat is trying to find positive things to say about otherwise reviled pieces of pop culture, but I’m not going to pretend there’s anything particularly redeeming in The Parker Years just for the sake of cheap contrarianism.
Spider-Man: The Parker Years #1 consists entirely of a conversation between Peter Parker, who at this point is fully convinced he’s a clone of the “real” Peter, and Mary-Jane on a rooftop. MJ catches Peter trying to burn his Spider-Man costume (they’re a married couple at this point in Marvel continuity). Peter is even more of a sad-sack than usual here due to some quite-literal imposter syndrome, which makes me wonder how many readers at the time took the central conceit of the “Clone Saga” at face value. By the mid-90s, superhero comics’ tendency to pull elaborate fake-outs on readers was already a well-worn trope, but was the average contemporaneous Spider-Man reader aware enough of the trope in 1995 to believe the Peter Parker they knew and loved wasn’t the real Peter? I’d love to hear from those folks today.
Regardless, there’s no excuse for how annoyingly mopey Peter comes across in this issue, even by Peter Parker standards. With this rooftop scene as a framing device, the rest of the issue consists of Peter going through boxes of photos of his Spider-Man exploits, whining to his wife about some of his greatest failures. These include an exceedingly tedious summary of the events of the Clone Saga thus far, as well as previous missteps like his role in the origin of villains like Hydro-Man and Venom. Is this something Spider-Man has always done, photographing himself fucking up and keeping the photos as mementos of all the times he’s fucked up? Strangely, there’s no mention of Spider-Man’s most iconic early failures, like the death of Gwen Stacy, or even the death of Uncle Ben that’s so pivotal to the creation of the Spidey we know and love, but I suppose the idea is that that all happened to the “real” Peter before he was replaced by a clone?
I don’t know and don’t particularly care, because this comic represents one of my least favorite kinds of stories, one that isn’t much of a story at all. It’s just unfiltered exposition: one character summarizing a bunch of other, more exciting stories to another character. Perhaps there was some utility to a comic like that in 1995, before readers could easily refer to wikis and other easily-accessible online resources to catch them up on any given comic book character’s history before jumping in with their current adventures. But even with that modest goal, The Parker Years is an utter disaster of a comic book. There’s no artistry or storytelling craft at play here.
There are moments in which one could tell that Skolnick and company were feebly attempting to do more than editorial table setting. In a sense, The Parker Years is an attempt at one of my favorite loose superhero comic subgenres: a hero who’s reached the bottom of the barrel, succumbing so much to despair that they’re seemingly on the brink of giving up for good, only to rise up from their misery and remind us why we’ve loved them all along. That’s what happens in a bunch of classic comics like Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again (a comic that I recognize has aged imperfectly in many respects, but remains a favorite because of its undeniably cathartic, quintessential execution of the trope) and Stan Lee’s own “Spider-Man No More” with John Romita Sr. Most of my favorite superhero narratives are probably some variation on that structure: heroes going from “boohoo I suck” to “actually I’m pretty good I guess and this city needs me.”
But The Parker Years is not that story, because it’s not a story. After Peter spends more than half the issue moaning about how he has no business being Spider-Man, Mary-Jane counters with a series of summaries of her own, and accompanying photos (does this couple keep separate photo albums for “good memories” and “bad memories?”) about a bunch of good things her husband has done as Spider-Man. By the end Peter decides to keep the mementos, suggesting that he’s accepted that whoever he is, he’s actually pretty good, but it’s completely unearned in a story that has no meaningful progression from beginning to middle to end.
I love Spider-Man as a concept, and Peter Parker specifically, with all my heart. That love cannot extend to a story so profoundly uninterested in the most basic tenets of characterization and storytelling. I hate this comic’s version of Peter Parker, because he’s not a character.
If it sounds like I’m just picking on Evan Skolnick as the writer, penciler Joe St. Pierre isn’t innocent either as the principal visual storyteller. Bear in mind that I don’t think I’ve read any of St. Pierre’s other work, so for all I know he’s produced better art elsewhere and simply had to rush to get The Parker Years out by deadline. Whatever the case, this is an ugly-looking comic, even with veteran inker Al Milgrom reigning things in. Maybe this style is appealing to others; there certainly was a market in the 90s for that sort of loose, heavy-lined figure work that was popularized by artists like Todd MacFarlane. But for my eyes, it mostly looks sloppy here, and almost brings an off-putting horror vibe that I don’t think was intended for this story.
I’ve read plenty of bad comics, but what’s fascinating to me about what makes Spider-Man: The Parker Years bad is the fact that its appeal to nostalgia actively works against it. My favorite Spider-Man stories, from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s “The Final Chapter,” through to the 2018 Into the Spider-Verse film, leave me with a warm, buoyant feeling as I think to myself “God, I love Spider-Man.”
When a comic tries to achieve that feeling simply by reminding me of better comics that came before, all that does is make me want to read those stories instead.
Spider-Man: The Parker Years
Writer: Evan Skolnick
Artist: Joe St. Pierre
Inker: Al Milgrom
Letterer: Jim Novak
Colourist: Gregory Wright
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