In the summer of 2006, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #97 was released. The title was approaching its 100th issue, and the series was still going strong. I distinctly remember reading a Marvel Previews magazine in the spring and seeing the “Clone Saga” teaser. I was still relatively new to comics, but even I knew how taboo this phrase was. It reeked of the 90s, an era in comics of saturation and low quality. But I was such an optimistic reader at this point. I came into the industry when Marvel and DC were pumping out such interesting storylines. So I went into the “Clone Saga” with an open mind, and I was nothing but satisfied.

Years later, I’m here thinking of the Ultimate Universe again. I still appreciate the excellence of Mark Millar and Brian Hitch’s ULTIMATES. I still adore the various writers and artists who did a great job with ULTIMATE X-MEN and ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR. But Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is a comic that just kept calling to me. So I flipped through some trade paperbacks, and I stumbled upon the “Clone Saga” once again.

I remember the story bothering me quite a bit. The plot was great, of course, but it creeped me out. I have one distinct memory of reading the first issue and witnessing a clone sneak out of MJ’s closet to kidnap her. I did about three double takes in my bedroom, checking the closets (but really, what the hell was I going to do when the monster was there?).

But now I’m thinking: why else did this creep me out? Why do clones in general frighten me? Does it have to do with the uncanny? Probably. But perhaps it’s something else.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN
From ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #37

So I went digging, and I went through the issues dealing with Venom and Carnage. These were two monsters created from Peter’s DNA. I had forgotten how they drained the life out of people, how they were mindless monsters relying on basic instincts and emotions. The Carnage monster makes a reappearance in the “Clone Saga” story arc. This time, however, it’s a replication of Gwen Stacy, who actually died in issue #62 after being drained by this same creature. Of all the clones, the Carnage clones are the most chaotic. They are the most frightening. And, I believe, they represent the worst in people.

READ: Here are some great reasons why we love Spider-Man!

But there are other Peter Parker clones in the “Clone Saga” that are truly eerie. They look so much like Peter from the start; the science has evolved. While the “Clone Saga” wraps up relatively nicely, its effects on Peter must be exhausting. Imagine learning a team of scientists (one being in your rogues gallery) have taken your DNA and tried to tweak your very being? Or worse, tried to make a better you. That certainly would have an effect on your mental state. But it wouldn’t necessarily be fear. It would be a feeling of complete uncanniness, and that uncanniness has a few meanings when dealing with the clones of Peter Parker.

Spider-Man: The Clone Dilemma

The three story arcs that are of importance in this article are those dealing with Venom (#30-#36), Carnage (#60-#65) and the “Clone Saga” (#97-#105). Something I never noticed until rereading these issues is that they’re all equally spread out. It’s like every thirty issues this lab experiment comes to haunt Peter. It’s a recurring nightmare of sorts. But this nightmare is a reality, and this recurrence of clones in Peter’s life, particularly in the Ultimate Marvel Universe, is of significance. But what is that significance? And why is this such a nightmare compared to other tragedies in his life?

Well, let’s think about what a clone is — a duplicate of someone. The DNA is nearly identical, and for all intents and purposes, the clone and the original match. It’s like having identical twins who come from the same fertilized egg. But of course, the personality of each twin can vary, and their environment makes them unique. They may share the same eyes and hair, but their differing opinions on Romantic literature can be quite drastic.

So what makes a clone creepier than identical twins? Typically, if you’re a twin, you’re still trying to be your own person. You’re just living your life like the rest of society. But with a clone, you’re created to be a copy; it doesn’t just happen by chance. This becomes particularly tricky when the mind of the clone is tampered with, providing the clone the one advantage the original should have over the duplicate: memories. And this is exactly what happens in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.

Definitions to Consider

To begin, here are two important definitions, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Uncanny — Partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar

Clone — A person regarded as an exact copy of another; esp. one who slavishly imitates another

What is also important is the doppelgänger, a word rooted in German essentially meaning “double.” In his essay “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud goes into detail about how a double originally was “an assurance of immortality, [but it] becomes the ghastly harbinger of death” (9). A doppelgänger is not an exact copy like a clone, but its closeness in looks is despairingly scary. It’s also important to note what else Freud states:

These themes are all concerned with the idea of a “double” in every shape and degree, with persons, therefore, who are to be considered identical by reason of looking alike; Hoffmann accentuates this relation by transferring mental processes from the one person to the other—what we should call telepathy—so that the one possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with the other, identifies himself with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own—in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of similar situations, a same face, or character-trait, or twist of fortune, or a same crime, or even a same name recurring throughout several consecutive generations. (9)

These three ideas go hand-in-hand for a few reasons that will be discussed later in this article. For now, it’s important to realize that the uncanny is something that goes beyond basic fear. It’s nearly impossible to describe, but it’s a feeling of great eeriness, which is how ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN made me feel.

Freud discusses what causes this unsettling feeling in his essay. As he dissects various plays and stories, he goes into his castration anxiety theory, where the thought of being emasculated is one of mankind’s greatest fears. While it literally means losing the ambition and ability for sex, it also implies becoming useless. So what else could cause someone to feel useless? What if someone better than you is your replacement?

The Act of Replacing

This is what happens in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, where clones of Peter Parker, specifically the Carnage clone, attempt to live life as if they were Peter themselves. Freud argues the unsettling feeling we receive from perceiving duplicates of ourselves is due to a strange familiarity: “The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the ‘double’ being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage, long since left behind” (10). When we see a doppelgänger, we’re seeing a familiar yet different image of ourselves. The other is the same but slightly different. This triggers an odd sense of fear in us. Freud argues this fear is because our subconscious essentially believes it is going to be castrated; replacement is in the vicinity. A sense of panic and fear unlike anything we experience occurs, causing the feeling of uncanniness.

ultimate spider-man

ultimate spider-man
From ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #64

During the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN story arc dealing with Carnage, Peter battles his clone atop a smokestack. Carnage’s appearance is eerily similar to Peter’s at this point, after feeding and growing for an entire issue. Its appearance will be nearly identical to Peter’s once the creature absorbs him. Peter does survive, but the fear of being replaced is obvious in Peter’s mind. It frightens him. He is nearly “castrated,” and the feeling of the uncanny is present in that moment. He stares at the creature who not only has destroyed Gwen but shares his own eyes and expression. Peter realizes in this moment that Gwen connected Peter to her death, and that thought is completely bone-chilling.

What We Keep Hidden

This feeling of castration comes up once again during the “Clone Saga,” where multiple clones of Peter Parker are present. In fact, it’s an even more intense feeling of uncanniness than with the Carnage clone because these clones look more like complete versions of Peter Parker. They intervene in Peter’s life: one clone actually kidnaps Mary Jane and injects the Oz serum in her. But while this demonstrates the uncanny concept of the doppelgänger, it also takes things a step further by establishing what the uncanny effect represents.

ultimate spider-man
From ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #102

And what does it represent? Is the feeling simply chilling? Is it only bothersome? If so, why? I’d argue the uncanny often represents the darker side of humanity, or at least the aspects we keep hidden from others and ourselves. Specifically, in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, the clones represent the unruly and confused subconscious of Peter. Spider-Man plays the hero because he feels compelled to, but what about the other urges he suppresses? The fear? The desires? He wants MJ to be safe, so his clone injects her with Oz. He wants to be more aggressive, so his clone with the scorpion tail utilizes that anger. He’s an orphan, so his aged clone acts as Peter thinks his father would act. Even his perfect female clone can represent the confused identity Peter Parker feels, as a metaphor for general uncertainty.

A Look in the Mirror

When we look in the mirror, we see a flipped perfect version of ourselves. If you stare long enough, you can begin to wonder what this reflection would say. This comes off as troubling, but why? Technically, if it’s a copy, it’s going to say what we think. But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Often we think things that go back into our subconscious, where we let them sit in the murkiness of general confusion and anxiety. We slightly know what an unfiltered version of ourselves will say to us, and that strikes fear into our very souls.

LISTEN: Speaking of the uncanny, here’s a podcast that deals with the diversity of the X-Men!

The evil clone is a trope for a reason. Our reflection wishes to point out what we keep hidden and bring it forth. It wishes to replace us. Even in the “Clone Saga,” it’s no wonder the only clone that makes it out alive is Jessica Drew, the female version of Peter Parker. The fear of castration is gone here, as it’s obvious she’s a different version of him. She has the ability to live her own life; she shares memories of Peter but knows it’s all nothing; and she wishes to form her own identity, and that creates a sense of ease. Because there is a clear dichotomy between the two, Jessica Drew’s sense of uncanniness is washed away. While she is a clone and they share such similarities, she isn’t uncanny, and this shows how precise this definition and feeling must be.

Being True to Yourself

The “Clone Saga,” along with the Venom and Carnage story arcs in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, bring up a lot of Peter’s past. There is so much anxiety from both his personal and superhero life mixed together. This creates such a tumultuous situation that runs amok. While the clones are what appear to be the scariest, the feeling of uncanniness is due to the fact that Peter, like ourselves, isn’t always true to himself. Society demands a certain level of complacency, and this creates a scenario for inner thoughts to manifest themselves in our subconscious mind.

Freud points out the wicked act of castration, but why is that scarier than death? Death scares almost all of us, but it doesn’t come off as uncanny. But replacement does. Believing we might lose control and let the thoughts we keep hidden manifest themselves is beyond frightening: it’s uncanny. So much pain and sorrow comes from our own doing, so it’s no wonder what we fear the most is a version of ourselves. While you may not have actual clones running around and staring back at you, don’t think the image in the mirror would have nothing to say if you allowed it the opportunity to speak its mind.

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