Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Clone Conspiracy 1, originally released October 12th, 2016. As always, this article containers SPOILERS.
The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
Drew: The Ship of Theseus, as this thought experiment is commonly known, is often used in science fiction to address the notion of personal identity — that is, how much of you has to be, say, cybernetic before you are no longer yourself — but I actually think the key to the problem Plutarch laid out is that the ship isn’t a person. The question of whether or not a partially-replaced thing could be called the same thing is an interesting question, but I’m less inclined to think that a person’s identity is tied up in the provenance of their body parts. Moreover, I doubt anyone would assert that someone who receives a liver transplant is even a little bit a different person (especially since our livers are constantly replacing old cells, and best estimates suggest a full turnover of liver cells happens every 1-2 years). I’d suggest that the inverse is also true: that someone’s identity can change without changing their bodies at all (besides their liver, obviously). Point is, identity is much more complex than the simple summation of our body parts. For colloquial evidence, we need look no further than Dan Slott’s work with Spider-Man, where characters’ identities might inhabit other characters’ bodies (or octo-bots) without any real questions about who is who. That’s not to say issues of bodies and identity can’t get messy, just that it takes something a little extra to take us there — something like Clone Conspiracy.
Building out rather seamlessly from the pages of Amazing Spider-Man (indeed, if you had told me this was issue 20 of that series, I would have had no reason to doubt), this issue brings Peter’s conflict with the Jackal to a head, all while catching up newcomers to the decidedly convoluted set-up. Fortunately, all of the pieces of set-up have some clear emotional anchors — a funeral, a wife fearing for her husband’s safety, and a few surprise visits from beyond the grave. That last one might rely on some foreknowledge of Spider-Man history, but they’re some of the biggest names Slott could trot out: Gwen Stacy and Otto Octavius.
Just writing their names makes that moment sound cheap, but Slott and artist Jim Cheung expertly play that moment for all it’s worth, shocking Peter (and us) with Gwen, only to literally blindside him with Doc Ock.
I suppose it’s that detail that Gwen maybe doesn’t set off his Spider-Sense that really has me intrigued. Are these clones inherently evil? Inherently wrong? The backup suggests that this clone really does have Gwen’s consciousness, so I’m inclined to call it Gwen — certainly as much as I was willing to call Peter Parker and the Living Brain Otto Octavius while his consciousness inhabited their bodies. Spider-Sense may not like that they’re clones, but so far, we don’t have a lot of reason to believe there’s something inherently wrong with the idea.
Of course, the fact that this clone has Gwen’s memories is significant, as it reveals that she was conscious just before she died. It’s a heartbreaking scene:
The art team of Ron Frenz and John Dell do a fantastic job of capturing the feel of the Gil Kane/John Romita art for “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” more or less recreating some of that story’s most iconic images. The effect heightens the tragedy, suggesting that these really are the same events, just seen from a slightly different perspective. It’s information that would almost certainly predispose Gwen to resent Spider-Man, even before Jackal reunites her with her father.
Spencer, I’m not sure I have any meaningful conclusions to draw from this issue, but I suppose that’s appropriate for the first issue of a crossover event like this. I feel like I need to learn a lot more about this cloning technology before I’m fully against it — especially with Jay Jameson’s recent death presenting a personal stake for Peter in the value of bringing people back. Bringing back Jay may feel cheap, but it’s definitely preferable to bringing back Uncle Ben, right?
Spencer: I’m legitimately curious about whether Jay will be resurrected during this storyline or not, Drew. The fact that it’s a story about resurrection directly following a death in Peter’s family seems to hint at it, but I’m starting to think that just the possibility may be used as a temptation for poor Peter, who views Jackal’s clones as abominations, yet is obviously still reeling from Jay’s death and how it’s hurt Aunt May.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about the science behind these clones — or even what the true difference is between them and someone who’s been reanimated, like Gwen — but for the moment, the clones just don’t seem sustainable. I mean, they have to take a pill once a day or they’ll quite literally start dissolving away to nothing! I suppose the question is, is this a natural side effect of Jackal’s process, or something he built into the process in order to keep his clones under his thumb? I highly doubt New U technology will stick around just because of how thoroughly it would break the Marvel Universe, but there might be a way to salvage any clones who survive this storyline if the sustainability issues are worked out, especially since we don’t know why they’re setting off Peter’s Spider-Sense in the first place. Is it because they’re inherently abominations, or because they’re intrinsically tied to the Jackal?
In that respect, the final outcome of these clones may have less to do with the science behind their bodies and more to do with their “souls,” for lack of a better word. Interestingly enough, there’s been zero references to the metaphysical throughout this story; instead, Slott focuses quite a bit on the importance of memories. Really, that’s an idea Slott’s been emphasizing since The Superior Spider-Man, where Peter was able to reform his psyche from just a few key memories, but they come up quite a bit in Clone Conspiracy 1 as well. For example, Jackal’s claim that Gwen being a reanimation makes her more “real” than being a clone stems from the idea that she has more memories of her life than the clones do.
This automatically makes me think of the Black Lanterns from DC’s Blackest Night, an event that went to great lengths to point out that, even though the Black Lanterns had their namesake’s memories, they weren’t them. It makes me suspicious, yet Slott seems to be insinuating the exact opposite — in Clone Conspiracy, memories make the man. More of the proof comes from Amazing Spider-Man 18, though, than this issue; we didn’t get to cover AMS 18, but it reveals that Otto — as the Superior Spider-Man — implanted his memories into the Living Brain after returning from the events of Spider-Verse. This effectively allows Slott to have his cake and eat it too by creating two versions of Otto Octavius — one that, as Superior Spider-Man, sacrificed himself and died a hero, and another who, despite becoming Superior Spider-Man, failed at his redemption and returned to his villainous ways. Slott treats both these entities as equally valid — they’re both Otto Octavius, no matter what body they’re in. It’s the memories that count.
With all this focus on memories, I’ve got to ask: what if the clones’ memories are being tampered with? I admit, I have no overt proof, but the possibility flits around the sidelines of this story, and much of it comes from the Jackal’s past. While I was unaware of this fact until I looked the character up on Wikipedia, long-time Spider-Man readers likely know that Jackal is “in love” with Gwen Stacy, and in fact became a villain in the first place because he blamed Spider-Man for Gwen’s death and wanted, not only to punish him, but to bring Gwen back. This isn’t one of those aspects of a character’s backstory we’re supposed to gloss over, either — Slott specifically mentions Jackal’s previous attempts to clone Gwen Stacy in this very issue. It casts Jackal’s interactions with Gwen in an entirely new light.
Jackal, you creep.
So, Jackal is in love with Gwen Stacy, hates Spider-Man, has the technology to pretty much bring people back from the dead, and basically uses their memories to restore their “soul.” It would stand to reason, then, that Jackal could not only have some way to edit or manipulate the memories of the clones and reanimations he creates, but would absolutely use that technology on Gwen if he did. After all, Gwen’s final memories before her death find her discovering that Peter is Spider-Man and cursing him, setting up what could become a rather potent revenge plot. What makes the back-up story so devastating is that this is a very believable reaction from Gwen, and for that reason alone I kinda hope it’s legitimate, but her memories here also help bring about exactly what Jackal wants from Gwen. I’m not convinced that Jackal is tampering with his clones memories or anything, but he absolutely has the means and motive to. If he is, what does it mean for the clones, for their lives and identity?
I feel like we’re grappling with a lot of weighty, existential questions here, and that makes me really happy: it means Clone Conspiracy should have plenty of substance to go along with the typical event spectacle. Slott, Cheung, Frenz, and Dell have given me a lot to dig into and already have me wildly speculating — that’s got me plenty excited for the rest of this story.
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