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Venom: Circle of Four (Review)

If you had told me that I would enjoy a Venom collection quite this much, I would have laughed. I picked up the oversized hardcover collection of Circle of Four after enjoying Rick Remender’s Venom issues tying into the Spider-Island crossover. Which, I guess, is one of the benefits of such spin-offs and crossovers, I suppose. Anyway, intrigued by Remender’s take on the character, I was curious enough to take a look at this collection, featuring a crossover between Venom, Red Hulk, X-23 and the new Ghost Rider. Of course, two of those books had been cancelled by the time the crossover rolled around, so the whole “mini-event” was rolled up into Remender’s Venom. While Circle of Four isn’t necessarily a groundbreaking comic book storyline, or even a truly exceptional event, it does demonstrate that even the most conventional premise can work well in the right hands.

Back in black, baby!

Venom is, as you’re probably aware, essentially a dark anti-hero substitute for Spider-Man. Wearing the black suit that Spider-Man wore for a while during the eighties, the character is a web-slinging and wall-crawling vigilante who is perfectly willing to kill and murder. The character has gone through several iterations over the years, including a long string of solo miniseries during the nineties, and many people associate him with a lot that was wrong with nineties comics. As such, I tend to be somewhat skeptical about the character.

In fairness, Remender has a knack for anti-heroes, or so it seems. He enjoyed a long run on The Punisher of all characters, and even launched Uncanny X-Force, both books that developed from characters and concepts that were exceedingly popular in the darker and edgier period of the nineties. However, Remender managed to take these comic book concepts and inject a whole new life into them. While his Punisher work is certainly controversial, it definitely doesn’t lack imagination. Uncanny X-Force has been a critical darling, arguably considered to be the best of Marvel’s X-Men line. And, indeed, even Venom has been picking up all manner of critical praise.

Four of a kind…

Remender’s take on the character undoubtedly pushes the concept somewhere a bit new. He divorces the alien symbiote from its early host, the borderline sociopathic Eddie Brock, giving it something of a clean break. We even get  to spend a few minutes with Brock here, so Remender can confirm that Brock is still essentially stuck in the “darker and edgier” mentality of the nineties. When he discusses the symbiote that abandoned him, he uses the most absurdly over-the-top nihilistic religious dialogue imaginable. “The Beast’s lineage, propagating, spreading unabated,” he comments on the countless spin-off symbiote characters. “Here to take us all over. They are putrefying cancers on this world… I am the cure.”

Of course, Brock is, at his very best, a tertiary character in this particular drama, and Remender isn’t writing Venom as worn by Eddie Brock. Instead, he gave the alien parasite to the military, and chose Flash Thompson as its host. A perennial supporting character in Spider-Man, Flash is relatively free of the anti-hero taint that marred Eddie Brock in the eyes of most readers and fans. It allows Remender to break free of the long history and craft his own mythos.

Seeing Red…

Thompson is a veteran of the Iraq War, who lost his legs in the conflict. The Venom suit allows him to walk, but it also risks overwhelming his personality and taking control. It’s an interesting premise, one that almost reminds the reader of the Incredible Hulk, except Thompson has to struggle to retain control while wearing the suit and acting as an unstoppable killing machine. It makes for a fascinating dynamic, and one rich with potential.

At the character’s core, Venom has always been a more “hardcore” substitute for Spider-Man. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, as long as people are honest about it. Remender, to his credit, seems to latch on to that idea and develop the character accordingly. His rogues gallery are very clearly defined along the “Spider-Man archetypes.” His most direct foe is Jack O’ Lantern, who exists as something a “knock-off” Goblin. After all, Spider-Man is famous for taking on Goblins. The new Crime Master, while taking on an identity of an early Spider-Man foe, is clearly analogous to the Kingpin.

Goblin it all up…

Indeed, Flash himself even seems like a darker mirror to Peter Parker, seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders and carrying an immense sense of personal responsibility. Driving away all the people in his life, he explains that he’s doing that to protect them from the harm that any association with him might bring. “Keep them all away from me,” he suggests, “only way I can protect them.”

Later on, during the Circle of Four event itself, we get a glimpse into Flash’s own fantasies. He dreams of being accepted by the public and by his fellow heroes. He hopes that he might not always have to remain a cynical anti-hero. In fact, he actually holds the fantasy of actually becoming Spider-Man at some point. “You want me to become the next Spider-Man?!”he asks in his dream. It’s an interesting subconscious desire to give the character, and it speaks to Remender’s take on the character. Venom is very clearly a substitute with his own niche, but he recognises his position as a secondary character.

Capping it all off…

Speaking about the Circle of Four crossover itself, I think that one of the reasons it works so well is because it actually connects its protagonists thematically. The idea of the crossover itself – hell on earth – is hardly a revolutionary comic book plot. After all, it has been done before and on a much bigger scale. Instead, Remender and his follow writers do their best to use the characters appropriately within the framework of the story.

Circle of Four is essentially a story about comic book legacy characters – those spin-offs and successors to iconic heroes. Red Hulk is obviously an anti-hero substitute for the Hulk. X-23 is, on the surface, a female Wolverine. There’s even a new Ghost Rider, different from the last character to substitute for Johnny Blaze. With Venom as a counterpart to Spider-Man, it seems like there’s a conscious attempt to use second-generation characters in the story. In fact, even the demonic invasion of Earth is a result of a successor to Mephisto attempting to assert himself.

Did somebody say “buddy cop spin-off”?

When Mephisto laments the actions of Blackheart, the heroes wonder what his motivations might be. “He is your competition?” the new Ghost Rider asks. “The worst kind,” Mephisto replies. “He’s my son.” Mephisto is facing his own legacy, his own successor, the new and younger generation. Isolated from the story itself, Stephen Strange spends the crossover outside the inferno. He laments that his successor is not still around, “I wish Jericho Drumm had survived to serve as sorcerer supreme. It would’ve been good to see him grow into the role.”

This idea feels quite ironic, especially given that the event had to be rolled into Venom due to the cancellation of two of the series involved. It seems that audiences are consciously rejecting these legacy or next-generation characters. It’s certainly not a unique phenomenon in comics, as readers seem cautious when it comes to experimenting with new characters, even in existing roles. (That said, some of the interference is editorial – such as reverting the Flash from Wally West to Barry Allen.)

He look pretty Jacked up…

Throughout Circle of Four, it’s a made apparent that these character just want acceptance from their predecessors. Wolverine, Spider-Man and Hulk only show up in dream sequences to acknowledge their successors and counterparts. X-23 in particular seems to suffer from an existential crisis directly related to her status as a female counterpart to Wolverine, with her role in this crossover sparked by a discovery of a battery of clones. “Clones. Replicating me. Soulless weapon.” Later on, she comes face-to-face with her worst nightmares given form. “You are not ‘nuanced’,” her antithesis warns her. “You are exactly what we see on the surface. A cheap Wolverine knock-off.”

Circle of Four is very much a typical crossover. There’s a lot of noise, but no real significant consequences. It seems to come out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. It doesn’t contain any massively important character beats or radically alter any status quo. And yet, despite that, it remains charming and engaging. It’s solid proof of what a difference good writing can make to the most generic of superhero concepts. Remender and his fellow writers all work in fantastic synergy, and never lose sight of their four protagonists amid the chaos. It won’t re-write the book on comic book crossovers, but it is an enjoyable romp. And damn you, Jeff Parker – you might make me want to read your adventures of Red Hulk!

A vicious cycle…

In fact, I’d argue that the solo issues of Rick Remender’s Venom collected here are arguably stronger. They feature Flash dealing with his issues while Remender seems to be having a great time playing through the superhero conventions. In particular, Remender writes deliciously twisted villains. Not “dark for the sake of dark” types of bad guys (even though they are brutal), and not the “Freudian excuse” school of villains either. Explaining how he could be so messed up, Jack O’ Lantern replies, pithily, “Rough childhood. Boo-hoo.”

Remender instead gives us a delightfully dysfunctional road-trip that sees Venom teamed with a psychopathic killer on a cross-country mission. “I mean, you’re my arch-nemesis and you don’t even know me,” Jack O’ Lantern protests at one point. “If you got to know me, you might really think I’m a pretty fun, pretty terrific guy.”It’s just a ridiculously fun execution of a ridiculously fun concept, particular as Flash is forced to take his latest ally with him on an impromptu rescue mission. (Where Jack O’ Lantern has a unique response to the type of sadistic dilemma that most heroes seem to face once a year.)

A smashing read…

Remender’s Venom isn’t the best superhero comic ever written, but it is fun. It’s oodles of fun. It’s not a clever deconstruction, nor is it a paint-by-numbers learn-it-by-rote superhero adventure. Instead, it’s a quirky off-beat adventure book with fantastic characterisation and a wickedly dark sense of fun. I honestly can’t imagine a better Venom book. Indeed, before I read it, I couldn’t even imagine one this good. Man, I really want a Remender Venom or Uncanny X-Force omnibus.

Remender is assisted here by a slew of artists, including Tony Moore. Moore draws an excellent Red Hulk, and worked with Remender on Fear Agent, which I believe is getting a nice omnibus collection from Dark Horse later this year. Lan Medina does an excellent job illustrating the first arc (and one of the crossover issues), with a nice light style that manages to seem suitably cartoony while preserving detail.

A web of deceit…

Venom is good, clean superhero fun. Okay, maybe it’s not clean. But it is definitely fun.

2 Responses

  1. Not sure whether you noticed, but each member of the Circle of Four can be compared to the “New Fantastic Four” from Walt Simonson’s FF run in the 90’s. I think that was a neat little bonus, and I like that it wasn’t made explicit.

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