The Gray Area Reborn: Freeing Ben Reilly

Originally The Gray Area ran on Socialfist and was written by Tribe One aka Niles Gray aka The Evil Villain Demonos aka Devil Rhymeosaur. While Niles is currently signing up to test the super-soldier serum he has given us the permission to rerun the old articles.
Originally published online June 2, 2011 at Socialfist as “The Liberation Of Ben Reilly.”
(Running this late since we didn’t update Saturday)

I went back home to Tucson this past weekend to see my baby sister graduate from high school and I took that opportunity to “liberate” some of my old comics from when I was in middle school. Like many comics readers in the 90s, I had mostly awful taste in comics. I’m completely guilty of buying several titles just because they were first issues (because everyone knows they’re worth more). I have two variant covers of the Mortal Kombat series by some now-defunct publisher, the first issue of Cyber Force, and first issues of Night Thrasher (both the mini series and the ongoing) to name a few. Some of the comics even had little price stickers on the bags that I handwrote after pricing them in Wizard magazine. I was investing for the future!

But all those books stayed in box. The ones that came home–aside from a few that were too terrible not to bring back (I’m looking at you, Slapstick #s 1-3!)–are the comics I really, genuinely loved as a young reader. I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose some credibility when I tell you what they were, so I’m going to hold off for a bit and tell you what my two favorite comic book stories of all time are.

My all time favorite is Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix Saga in Uncanny X-Men. I can’t remember if I owned comics before a friend gave me the trade for my 10th birthday (maybe some Archie digests from the grocery store), but I do know that none of them mattered after I read this. I won’t go into detail here about why it’s great because so many have already done it better than I ever could, but I will say that Dark Phoenix is what I compare any and every comic book story to.

My second favorite comic story of all time is the Age of Apocalypse, because if anybody who read comics in the 90s says that Age of Apocalypse is not their favorite of the decade they are either a bad person or lying (which also makes them a bad person). Again, I won’t go into detail except to say that this is what every other comic book event is trying to live up to, both sales-wise and from a storytelling standpoint.

Ok, so now that you know what my favorites are you have to admit I have decent if not impeccable taste in comics, right? Ok. So when I tell you that my third favorite comic book story of all time–the comics I rescued from a warped copy paper box in Tucson–is the Spider-Man Clone Saga, I fully expect you to lose at least a little respect for anything I have to say hence.

Maybe there are those among you who share my love of Ben Reilly and the Scarlet Spider and Kaine’s misguided though ultimately good intentions, but I suspect we are outnumbered. To be completely honest, I haven’t read these comics since I bought them in 1995 (or so) but I the way I remember them is being a whole bunch of really great ideas bundled with a whole bunch of really bad ideas. There were some super creative covers (the Peter Parker in jail for Spider-Man #57 one is one of my all time favorites), fantastic art by Sal Buscema in Spectacular and John Romita, Jr.’s guest art in adjectiveless (you may not like the Scarlet Spider as an idea, but god damn if he doesn’t look amazing when JRJR draws him). There was also Amazing Spider-Man #400 with the engraved tombstone cover in which Aunt May dies. It’s a beautifully done, emotionally resonant issue and while I’m not the biggest fan of Mark Bagley (despite my undying love of Ultimate Spider-Man) he absolutely does an outstanding job with the art.

It would later be revealed that the “Aunt May” who died was actually an actress hired by Norman Osborn to play her just to mess with Peter because, you know… comics. That’s even more disappointing because I can’t think of another issue of any comic book in which a character–any character; major, minor, bystander–dies on panel of natural causes, let alone one done so well. And there’s clones all over that sumbitch. That’s right. Aunt May dies surrounded by clones of her nephew.

Let us never forget.

I mean, there’s got to be a reason Marvel is republishing the entire thing in six Ultimate Collection style trades this year. And it’s going to be followed by another trade republishing the Original Clone Saga from way back around when Gwen Stacy died. Personally, I plan to troll the depths of as many dollar and fifty-cent bins as I can find for the issues I’m missing. It’s the journey, not the destination, after all. Any way you slice it, however, there’s never been a better time to love clones.

If you’ve never read it, I encourage you to see why everybody hates it so much. If you have read it, I encourage you to go back through it and try to find the good in it. It’s in there, I promise.