It’s easy to mistake the warm fuzzy glow associated with nostalgia for genuine, objective affection; so that may be the reason why this issue is my favourite so far of this really rather charming little miniseries, since unlike the previous two, the time period it covers falls directly inside my own personal comics reading history. Furthermore, not only does it feature the X-Men looking much as they did in the Fox animated series, but it’s got Ben Reilly in it. How could I not enjoy it?
Well, of course, if the story was weak, then the book probably wouldn’t stand up hugely beyond the joy of seeing that excellent Mark Bagley-designed Spider-outfit again (er, outside the context of Spider-Girl… a series that, incidentally, I started buying simply because it featured that costume). And admittedly, there’s not a huge amount of plot going on, beyond “Mr Sinister and a different Spidey villain each time show up and have a brief spar with the heroes, and then Sinister mutters on to himself in a secret lab somewhere”. But where Gage does well is in firmly placing the book in each particular time period, and effectively capturing a snapshot of his ensemble cast at the relevant moment. In this issue, his task is made easier by the simple fact of Ben Reilly being Spider-Man – but even then, he replicates well the mixture of inherent Parker personality and attempting-to-cover-for-memory-loss that the Spider-writers of the time were pushing (back when it was intended that Ben actually was the real deal).
The benefit of hindsight, however, means that Gage can play with the setup a bit – so when Sinister looks into Ben’s head, he sees his life play out as it truly did, rather than the way even Ben himself remembers; and there’s a nice touch of pathos to Wolverine telling the clone that he’s “Spider-Man in every way that matters”. Stuff like this almost makes you wish the series were a bit longer – maybe it could have stretched to five or six issues, dropping in at other points inbetween the years chosen.
Still, let’s not pretend that this is anything other than an enjoyable-but-lightweight story, only really effective to readers that have some sort of handle on the characters at any of the points it stops off at. What elevates it to near-must-buy status – and I apologies for being yet another review that makes a point of this, but it really is worth beating into the ground – is the artwork of Mario Alberti. He hasn’t let up since issue #1, and if anything is just getting better and better. The early part of the series showcased a more sedate visual flair (and a knack for, let’s face it, genuinely beautiful female characters), but as we’ve rolled into the ‘90s, action has come to the forefront – and he handles such sequences with equal aplomb. He’s been entirely comfortable rendering the various eras of X-costumes, and his take on that Reilly outfit is an absolute highlight (but then, I would others the download say that). I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – we’re seeing the beginning of an absolute superstar career here. Check it out while you can still say you were there early.