Advertisements
    Advertisements
  • Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives



  • Awards & Nominations

  • Advertisements

Rick Remender’s Venom (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Venom demonstrates Rick Remender’s talent with nineties comic concepts. Like Remender’s work on Uncanny X-Force, there’s a sense that the author is taking a dysfunctional and somewhat outdated comic book concept and finding a way to make it work. Uncanny X-Force is the best use of the “X-Force” concept ever put on paper, and Remender’s Venom stands out as the best work to feature the Spider-Man baddie as a protagonist.

Venom doesn’t work quite as well as Uncanny X-Force. The run is a bit shorter and less well developed, and gets caught in a couple of crossovers that split focus a little. Still, the twenty-odd-issue run is a fascinating piece of work from Remender, who was one of Marvel’s most promising emerging talents at the time. Like Uncanny X-Force, it is fundamentally a story about fathers and sons. However Venom also feels like an examination of also-rans, a look at those characters who tend to get a little lost in the crossfire.

Can he swing from a web?

Can he swing from a web?

Venom can be a difficult character. The villain is perhaps the last truly iconic and brilliant Spider-Man villain ever created. Certainly, he has always been incredibly popular. On top of a string of miniseries in the nineties, the character was awkwardly shoehorned into Spider-Man 3. Director Sam Raimi has admitted that he was not a fan of the character (his taste in Spider-Man seems to run more classical), but added, “Venom has always been a character that the fans love… that’s why he’s in here.” Sony are current planning his own spin-off movie in some capacity.

Venom has always been a bit troublesome because he’s not a classical anti-hero. He wasn’t created with an angle that makes him particularly engaging as a protagonist. He is basically Spider-Man’s jilted lover – an alien suit that grafted itself on to Peter Parker during Secret Wars and began to mess with his head. The suit made Spider-Man more aggressive, and the character discovered that the suit had been using his body to fight crime while he was asleep.

The winter soldier...

The winter soldier…

Venom exists as a dark mirror to Spider-Man. He’s another wall-crawling web-slinger. He even has a distinctive white pattern on his design that anchors him to the character. And the character’s motivations are tied up in Spider-Man and his mythos. For a lot of its existence, the primary goal of the suit has been to reunite with Peter Parker. In short, Venom is not like the Punisher – it’s not a character that lends itself to having its own independent adventures and mythology.

Despite the fact that Venom headlined several miniseries in the nineties, it never had its own identifiable corner of the Marvel Universe. It never had an iconic selection of foes or a vital supporting cast in the way that even the Punisher could manage. The best that Venom seemed capable of doing was carving out a small corner of Spider-Man’s universe, populated with various knock-offs and counterparts for the symbiote. At the same time, these felt more like a subset of Spider-Man’s cast than Venom’s.

It's war zone out there...

It’s war zone out there…

Part of what is interesting about Remender’s work on Venom is that he acknowledges this. He seems to accept that Venom is set within a pocket of the universe charted by The Amazing Spider-Man, even if the character branches out into Secret Avengers towards the end of the run. So the Venom symbiote’s new host is Flash Thompson, long-time Amazing Spider-Man supporting player. Flash’s love interest is Betty Brant, Peter’s first girlfriend from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s early work on The Amazing Spider-Man.

However, it extends beyond individual characters and into the structure of the world itself. The comic’s evil mastermind revives the alias of “Crime-Master”, an early villain whose niche was arguably filled by Kingpin after Ditko left and John Romita took over. A new psychopath has taken the name “Jack-O-Lantern”, one of “the third-rate nobodies” who occupy the bottom-tier of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery. Killing everybody else who has ever used the name, this version exists solely to give Venom a halloween-themed opponent.

The Hunter has become the Hunted...

The Hunter has become the Hunted…

(And Jack-O-Lantern himself wryly plays up the associated tropes. He engages in standard super-villain operating procedures, right down to threatening loved ones – or, as he describes it, “arch-enemy 101.” He teases “to be continued” after an early confrontation goes awry. At the climax of the run, he even kidnaps Betty and Flash’s sister in order to re-enact the iconic sequence from The Night Gwen Stacy Died, explicitly referencing that event in his dialogue.)

More than that, though, Remender cleverly constructs Venom so it plays off the tropes and conventions expected from a Spider-Man story. In particular, the comic feels like a spiritual successor to Ditko’s original vision of The Amazing Spider-Man. Flash Thompson seems perpetually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, always bitter and angry at the world – admittedly justifiably so. He has the same angry streak that Ditko’s version of Parker had, something that go softened in later iterations.

Into the mouth of hell...

Into the mouth of hell…

So the set-up is familiar. Flash Thompson has a secret he cannot share with anybody in his life. Inevitably, his personal obligations come into conflict with the obligations that come with the suit. This causes conflict and misunderstandings. After one tough mission, Betty accuses him, “You’re hiding something. The bags under your eyes, gone for days at a time, it all adds up to one thing — you’re drinking again.” At another point, Betty talks about Flash in terms that are frequently applicable to Peter Parker. “… but when it comes to facing real life… he’s the last guy anyone should rely on.”

Wonderfully, Flash Thompson winds up as one of the few heroes with a lower approval rating than Spider-Man. One of the early issues has the duo squaring off against each other. Flash is trying to rescue Betty while Spider-Man is trying to stop him. In true comic book fashion, Flash has difficulty articulate the simple explanation for everything that is going on. “S-sstop– w-wwe arren’t– I’m nnot –“ Ultimately, Spider-Man winds up saving Betty while Venom is presented as the villain.

Does whatever a Spider-Man can...

Does whatever a Spider-Man can…

Indeed, Remender repeatedly reinforces the idea that Venom and these other characters are really just playing Spider-Man’s world. Peter Parker skirts the edges of the comic, as if waiting to discover Venom’s identity. Even the Avengers worry about what they’ll tell Peter Parker. Towards the end of the run, it’s revealed that the Kingpin has had enough of Crime-Master and has put a hit out on the fiend. There’s a sense that these characters occupy a similar narrative space, and there’s a danger in tripping over one another. (Indeed, the Crime-Master brands his super-villain team-up “the Savage Six” , apparently wary of stepping on toes.)

After his encounter with Spider-Man, we get a glimpse of how Peter Parker is treating the whole event. “Maybe that monster was using you to get to Spider-Man,” Peter suggests. It might seem a little self-centred on initial read, but it makes a great deal of sense in context. After all, as the hero of his own story, the actions of every supporting character ultimately exist in his orbit. Betty calls Peter out on this, “Not everything is always about Spider-Man, Pete.” Ironically, this is only two issues before Venom gets drawn into a gigantic Spider-Island crossover, where everything is about Spider-Man.

Lighting a Lantern...

Lighting a Lantern…

This fascination with supporting or second-tier characters even bleeds into the title’s second crossover, Circle of Four. The comic featured the adventures of the new Hulk, the new Ghost Rider, Wolverine’s younger female clone X-23 and the new Venom. Indeed, some of the titles were so second-tier that they’d been cancelled by the time the crossover came about, meaning that the whole event was absorbed into the Venom comic book.

Venom seems quite focused on “the little guy.” This is reflected on its second-tier lead character and z-list villains, but also in the way that Remender repeatedly and happily shares focus with characters caught in the crossfire of whatever is going on at a given moment. There’s the henchman who is convinced that working with the Crime-Master will be his big break. There’s Gracie, the third-tier goon stuck working Crime Master’s lift. There’s Ron the security guard and wannabe actor who was changed into a spider and then unfairly crushed by a tank.

He'll get a tongue-lashing if he's not careful...

He’ll get a tongue-lashing if he’s not careful…

In the wake of Spider-Island, Venom is thrown against the Hijacker. A no-name nobody, the villain is seeking to capitalise on the confusion to make his big score. He’s tired of being a footnote or a joke or an unknown. “Success!” he remarks, as he makes it back to his headquarters. “All these years of struggling — being a nobody — all over!” Even Crime-Master himself seems to aspire towards something a bit better and more important than being a forgotten character from an early issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. “I was meant… for… something special…”

There’s a sense that all these little stories matter somewhat. Venom’s first mission is a success because he manages to save the lives of two people (a mother and a child) who would otherwise have been slaughtered in a war zone. The Hijacker provokes his wrath not for stealing large sums of money, but for being so indifferent to the suffering of the people caught in his path. “That dead security guard — needless,” Flash thinks to himself. Remender doesn’t close out his run with the massive Savage Six story, he ends with a more intimate a personal one-shot.

An enjoyable run...

An enjoyable run…

This exploration of second-tier (and second-generation) characters also plays into the father-son theme of the book. Relations between fathers and sons seem to be a key part of the writer’s work at Marvel – they played into his Punisher run and throughout his Uncanny X-Force work. The same big ideas hover around Venom, the question of whether or not sons are pre-destined to follow their fathers.

Flash Thompson’s father is an alcoholic. He dies due to his alcoholism. Flash battles his own demons, both his own alcoholism and the memories of the abuse that he suffered as a child. It’s no coincidence that Remender’s last issue is titled Father’s Day. Even Flash’s battle to control the symbiote – the question of whether or not he is addicted to it – is still rooted in that dynamic with his father, all those years ago.

Black ops...

Black ops…

Similarly, Jack-O-Lantern considers himself to be the son of the new Crime-Master, even going so far as to all him “daddy-o” repeatedly. According to Jack-O-Lantern’s version of events, the Crime-Master was his biological father; he had just been waiting for his real son to find him. This sounds completely absurd. Indeed, in the final issue, Flash dismisses it as crazy nonsense. And yet it’s tempting to believe that there’s a reason that Jack-O-Lantern’s life went the way that it did, that his violent urges have some root cause and that perhaps there’s some explanation for what was most likely a horrible coincidence.

Even the Circle of Four crossover plays into these themes. The plot of the crossover sees the demon Blackheart trying to pull hell on to Earth. His father, Mephisto, reads it as a cry for attention from an unloved child. “And had you managed to pull hell up,” he taunts, “I would be there to give you the hug and kiss on your forehead you so clearly desire. ‘What a good boy,’ I’d say.” This is quite a familiar Remender storytelling trope.

You know that you're toxic...

He’s addicted to you because he knows that you’re toxic…

Mephisto himself describes the horrific reality of his relationship with Blackheart. “Your entire life, a loop, your own personal hell devised by someone who hates you very much,” he explains. “Such cruel, unending monotony. What type of father would do such a thing to his own son?” It doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the substance abuse and anger issues that Flash inherited from his father, or the sociopathy that has fed to Jack-O-Lantern by the man claiming to be his father. Even the Human Fly appeals to Flash Thompson’s daddy issues in order to convince him to let the guy go, in one of the saga’s cruelist twists.

Remender’s Venom is pretty fantastic, even if it lacks the overall consistency of his work on Uncanny X-Force. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, the run feels very crowded. It unfolds over twenty-plus issues, which means we’ve barely got to know any of the characters before we hit the big finalé. It doesn’t help that the comic is drawn into two crossovers along the way, which tend to distract focus a bit from the main plot.

Itsy-bitsy Spidey...

Itsy-bitsy Spidey…

When we reach the big climax of Remender’s run, The Savage Six, Flash witnesses his mother and sister thrown into peril by the Crime-Master. However, we haven’t had a chance to get to know these two characters. They haven’t been developed to a point where they exist as more than mere dramatic stakes. As a result, the reader isn’t as invested as they should be – Flash’s mother and sister feel like convenient plot devices. Ironically, we know (and care) much more about his father.

The run is also impacted by the lack of a consistent artist. The work done by Tony Moore on the series is absolutely amazing, but there are points where Venom appears quite rough – most notably during the Spider-Island tie-ins. The rotating art team on Venom isn’t nearly as strong as the rotating art team was on Uncanny X-Force, so the finished work isn’t quite as impressive as it might otherwise be.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

Still, these aren’t fundamental problems. Venom is a great piece of work from a writer with a wonderful knack for fixing dysfunctional concepts, and another demonstration of how Rick Remender developed into a talent to watch.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: