DONNY CATES (WRITER), RYAN STEGMAN (ARTIST), JP MAYER (INKER), FRANK MARTIN (COLORIST), VC’S CLAYTON COWLES (LETTERER)
MAY 9, 2018
Ever since their official premiere in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, Venom has been a curious staple in the arachnid-themed rogues’ gallery. The dynamic duo of alien symbiote and human host has festered around the edges of Marvel continuity for thirty years this month, leaving in their wake a revolving door of disproportionate retribution, antagonistic offspring, and an enduring moral question: can Venom be redeemed for their past mistakes, or are they forever doomed to a life of violence, madness, and sometimes cannibalism? Numerous creative teams have tried to tackle the complexities of this narrative over the years. Now, Marvel is dedicating itself to a “fresh start” of the old mythos by relaunching its Venom ongoing series.
Writer Donny Cates steps into the Venomverse with confidence, assuming readers are familiar with the character’s most basic background elements and key events from recent history. The symbiote is part of an extraterrestrial race that bonds with hosts for sustenance and, in the case of the Venom symbiote, extreme devotion. After an all too brief, wondrously transformative experience playing government agent and space knight with disabled veteran Flash Thompson, the symbiote has reunited with his most well-known host, journalist Eddie Brock. Despite their long crusade of trying to kill mutual enemy Spider-Man, Eddie and the symbiote are now looking to renounce their villainous past and become heroes together.
But this reunion is more contentious than either hoped. The symbiote is losing control of itself and periodically flies into mindless rampages. In trying to manage the violent unpredictability of his “other,” Eddie struggles to hold down a job and now lives in poverty. These issues hang as a palpably dark cloud over their partnership. Outside their vigilante work, Eddie frequently self-medicates with antipsychotics to quiet the growing chaos of the symbiote’s mind. And as Venom, they find themselves unable to actively stop criminals, lest they inadvertently kill their target, thereby leaning too heavily into the unfavorable portion of their “Lethal Protector” reputation.
Throw in the emergence of an ancient symbiote god with apparent mind control abilities, and you have the new age of Venom neatly presented before you. Unfortunately, rather than inspire me as a Venom fan, I feel almost lulled to sleep. The overall narrative arc seems promising enough in the long run, but the presentation of that story lacks the kind of thematic innovation that this character sorely needs.
Admittedly, first issues are tricky. As the new creative team, you need to balance the extensive established canon before you while carving a new, connected path forwards in character development. Add to this balancing act the need to appeal to new and lapsed readers, who no doubt will slowly start trickling into comics thanks to the perfectly timed premiere of the Venom live-adaptation trailer. It’s a jam-packed anniversary year full of expectations, so it feels almost unfair to criticize this first issue’s valiant effort to bridge the gap.
At the same time, Venom #1 is a not-too-inspired revisitation of well-known tropes and assumed struggles that the Venom character has already overcome, as recently as last month, under the tenure of writer Mike Costa and main series artist Mark Bagley.
Their very recent run also featured Eddie struggling to control the symbiote’s growing psychosis and drowning under the weight of heroism in the wake of their mutual checkered pasts. Yet what distinguished this story from numerous similar tales, which have cropped up in Venom’s comic history since around 1993, was Costa’s focus on strengthening the interpersonal connection between symbiote and host. He explicitly wrote their reunion like that of recently reconciled lovers, who after years of separate life experiences now must painstakingly reexamine the boundaries of their relationship and redefine what it means to be a couple.
Within the continuous “Will They or Won’t They Eat This Dude” moral conundrum that has come to define the Venom mythos, there briefly existed a more intimate affair: who can Venom become in the world, and can their bond survive new developments in their connected and individual identities?
Combined with Rick Remender’s Venom run with Flash Thompson, it took readers just over seven years to get to Costa’s hopeful finale of mutual love, renewed trust, and a bright future where Venom is cured of their violent impulses and gains a new support system of allies. Even writers from the late ‘80s and ‘90s reveled in the Venom team’s easy connection, and demonstrated that their mutual satisfaction doesn’t destroy narrative complexity or character development.
Officially, Venom #1 is also titled as Venom #166 under Marvel Comics’ new legacy numbering, meaning it is being marketed as a revitalization of the Venom mythos and a clear continuation of its legacy. But Cates’ run so far feels like a complete U-Turn on the road of progress.
Eddie and the symbiote’s relationship has deteriorated into an interpersonal horror story tainted by fear, desperation, and a lack of control–again. The symbiote is behaving violently–again. Eddie’s personal life is nonexistent, and his focus is entirely on fighting against the symbiote–again. This bleak narrative is only heralded by the equally dark artwork from Stegman, Mayer, and Martin. Their collective work is an unquestionably stunning display of 1990s comics’ moody sensibilities, but it is also riddled with cliches of the era fueled by first-hand nostalgia and second-hand hearsay about how grimdark it was.
There are all the telltale signs of manufactured darkness, including Eddie’s long hair, his poverty-influenced spartan apartment, the omnipresent rain showers, and the only light in the tunnel of this 32-page comic being burning hot, punitive fire. Martin’s colors, in particular, set the atmosphere as so gloomy that Stegman’s pencils start to lose their distinct detail, which only just works more than it hurts this premiere. At times, if this comic was a primetime show, it would almost be as visually indiscernible as NBC’s Hannibal.
Thankfully, everything comes together for some of the comic’s most important moments, namely, when the reader gets their first good look at Venom. Their bulging muscles and extra long tongue are the two staples that fans will always enjoy.
Totally devoid of its previous history, Venom #1 does present a sharply plotted and sufficiently interesting driving story about the symbiote god. The build-up to this new antagonist is mysterious and concerning, particularly when one considers the multitude of symbiotes running around New York alone. I’m excited about the introduction of an external villain with staying power, something the Venom mythos rarely concerns itself with due to its central Man vs. Self/Symbiote conflict.
There is also an ambitious subplot about the U.S. government having established symbiote-bonded superhuman soldiers prior to Flash taking over the Venom mantle. Considering what happens at the end of this first issue, it seems that this plot will ultimately be nothing more of a throwaway framing device rather than an actual substantial concern. At the very least, it helped introduce the idea that Eddie and the Venom symbiote lack a legitimate connection outside of their purely physical relationship. I’m a little hard-pressed to believe this criticism, but it’s a unique thread that Cates can latch onto and nurture.
Ultimately, I’m leaving Venom #1 lamenting the loss of series continuity and not too impressed with its over-reliance on well-worn narrative beats to engineer unnecessary angst. As many readers’ first introduction to the character, this issue was a rather simplistic, hand-held rush into this strange new universe. But we’ve hit the ground running, so now it’s time to make it work. So long as Cates, Stegman, and company commit to the maturation of this vast universe, and see it as an opportunity to break from the expected conventions that plague the Venom mythos, I believe they’ll strike an oasis of rich, uncharted territory.