Guilty Pleasures – Venom
This guilty pleasure, even more than the last two that I’ve done, is a shameful admission. It’s not that Venom is an unpopular character, he’s well into the mainstream as far as popularity goes. No… Venom is a tasteless character. He’s like a Monster Truck driven by a professional wrestler, and while almost everything that’s ever been done with the character is hilariously awful, I can’t help but love the concept. He’s the Doritos Loco Taco of comic books. I can’t help hating myself for loving it.
Although Venom’s origins as an idea in the Spider-Man offices were a long time in the making, and the black costume storyline had been set up years before hand, Eddie Brock was not introduced at all until the issue in which Venom premiered. So while I love the idea of Spidey’s sentient alien symbiote costume, having already been established as a malicious entity, teaming up with Eddie Brock, a man who’d been scorned by Spider-Man/Peter Parker, I really wish that they’d had the foresight to introduce this character a while before they pitted him against Spider-Man. Have the alien costume and Brock join forces in, let’s say, issue 292 and have a bit more suspense build as we lead up to issue 300.
But seriously, anyone will admit that the black Spider-Man costume is an excellent design, and while it wasn’t commercially viable for Spidey to wear it indefinitely, it would have been a waste to throw that costume away when he went back to the red-and-blues. So, to keep this costume in circulation and simultaneously develop it into one of Spider-Man’s most prominent and enduring villains was a masterstroke on the parts of writer David Michelinie and artist Todd McFarlane. Venom was, after all, just a larger-framed Spider-Man with a menacing smile, but he not only contributed to an excellent era of comics for the Webslinger, but also helped to launch comic books in general into the mainstream popularity they would enjoy in the late 80s and early 90s.
And these were the comics that hooked me as a kid. My old brothers had issues 298-300 in a long box far from my tiny pre-school hands, but I had my own copies of Venom’s second storyline in issues 316-317. I remember pouring over those two comics and loving the idea of that liquid alien costume trying to reconnect with Peter Parker, trying to draw the pages myself. I was on the forefront of an industry revolution, and I was loving every second of it.
But while the kid in me loves the idea of an evil Spider-Man running around terrorizing Parker’s loved ones and being an all-around jerk, the adult part of my mind is quick to remember how quickly it all went downhill. After just a few appearances of Eddie Brock in Venom form, the alien symbiote gives birth to Carnage and things only get tackier from there. Carnage is basically a Whitesnake concert on two red and black legs and because he was so radically badass, Spider-Man had to recruit Venom to take him down. And while it made for a fun Super Nintendo game, it made for some contrived storytelling. And the end result of Maximum Carnage was a continuing run of mini-series featuring Venom as an anti-hero. Even as a child, that was cause for me to stop caring about Venom.
And then came the rest of the symbiote offspring… Scream, Phage, Riot, Lasher, and Agony. God damn it, these characters were one-dimensional. Marvel had successfully created one symbiote character, and while the iron was still hot they’d cashed in on Venom’s inhuman appeal and twisted it into Carnage, a 90s style t00-cool-for-school variation of the same idea. And when that played out for them, they got cocky and tried to compromise any potential left in the idea of an alien symbiote by introducing five at once. It’s as if they won on a scratch-off lottery ticket and in a kneejerk reaction dumped their savings account on more tickets. It’s the kind of short-sighted thinking that would bankrupt Marvel and turn the entire industry into a shadow of its former self.
Nevertheless, creative minds continued to find new and creative ways to make Venom interesting. One of the last creative (rather than exploitative) things that Mark Millar did at Marvel was to bond the Venom symbiote with Angelo Fortunato, and then Mac Gargan (better known as the Scorpion) in an attempt to distance Venom from his past as a “Lethal Protector”. Since then, Warren Ellis was able to make Gargan’s Venom an even more monstrous killer than we’d even seen before, Dan Slott had Brock return as “Anti-Venom”, and eventually had the symbiote removed from Gargan and (as part of a black ops government program) placed on double-amputee Flash Thompson. While these aren’t exactly the kind of plans I imagine were envisioned for Venom at the outset, I for one prefer this kind of dynamic storyline to seeing the same old things happen again and again.
Looking back, I’m still not sure what makes me love Venom, despite his being such a tired and tacky character. Obviously the costume is a big part of it, and I think that Erik Larsen’s influence on it (i.e. the giant disjointed lower jaw and wild eyes) made me fall deeper in love with character during his run on Amazing Spider-Man. But that’s not all there is to it: I’ll still try out anything Marvel does with the character in hopes that they get him right again. I like Venom… I’m not ashamed to say it.
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