Sometimes we–or at least, I–like to imagine a much more cosmic cause and effect than realistically exists. It’s silly, but when there’s no control present otherwise, it gives the illusion, so long as the imagined connection holds. Of course, human minds are more than capable of editing memory, expectation, and the nature of these connections to maintain that link.
I had planned, today, to wander out and pick up some more ingredients for the simplistic quesadillas I’ve been downing (also: burning regularly) lately, and struck upon the idea of hitting the grocery store near a Walgreens a few miles out. Why is a landmark likely irrelevant to you or any of this remotely important? Well, it was rumoured and then confirmed that Walgreens was going to be home to an exclusive Marvel Infinite figure, a character that was produced previously for the Select line as an exclusive for the Disney Store¹: the symbiote-laden Eugene “Flash” Thompson, aka “Agent” Venom.
What I decided was that I would read the issues of his series (as written by Rick Remender and then Cullen Bunn) that I’d finally built up² and that would magically be the move that placed his figure into one of my local Walgreens, and specifically the one I was going to visit. I plowed through 2-14 (I’d read 15 to the end, #42, a few weeks ago) and made my way out, but, alas, no dice.
The other thought I was left with, though, was to address a topic close to me after running into someone’s recommendations for Marvel comics to read from throughout the company’s history. The suggestion was the Michelinie/McFarlane run of Amazing Spider-Man, mostly because it contains the first appearance of Venom.
Michelinie’s run, though it contains both my favourite Amazing artist (Bagley) and many stories from my youth (again, with Bagley, rather than McFarlane) is not as impressive on revisiting it. Having read every core Spider-Man title up to around the beginning or middle of the Clone Saga, I discovered rapidly the weak points in any of the titles (Amazing, [Peter Parker the] Spectacular Spider-Man, [Peter Parker: ]Spider-Man, and Web of Spider-Man) and Michelinie’s suffered next to Conway and Buscema’s Spectacular, though admittedly not as much as Web, which spent its life bouncing between insufferably boring and random points of good-to-great.
It wasn’t bad, but none of that really addresses the real issue–which also isn’t my feeling that McFarlane’s art is hideously over-rated–but that Venom is a stupid character. This has been written many times–I forget who encapsulated it best, but it’s easily related to the sheer lack of creativity behind him. Now, we have the idea of the abandoned symbiote latching onto a new host, which is an interesting idea, but revolves around the symbiote, which existed long before Venom. But that host is nothing–Michelinie makes the foolish mistake of trying to tie Eddie Brock into one of the best Spider-Man stories (and my personal favourite): Peter David’s “The Death of Jean DeWolff” from Spectacular #107-110, and does so clumsily and stupidly, by taking the false confessions of Emil Gregg and shoehorning in unseen events with him. Why does Gregg come in to the Daily Bugle seeking JJJ (in the original issues), if he has a reporter for The Daily Globe listening to him (as Michelinie suggests)? Why does Eddie reveal his identity after Gregg is taken in by the police and revealed to be a copycat? Why is Eddie such a baffling sociopathic narcissist that he not only hides a spree murderer from the police for the sake of circulation, he then blames they guy who actually stopped the murders for revealing the murderer?³
Setting all that aside, the entire concept of Venom is both simple and stupid: “What if Spider-Man had to fight Spider-Man, only he was stronger and was invulnerable to Spider-Man’s powers???” It’s a lazy way of creating a challenge–unlike the interesting moral examinations of the Sin-Eater, the moral and personal dilemmas of the Green Goblins (who have far more subtle and disturbing “immunities”), the already-more-powerful-since ASM#3 Doc Ock (who completely kicked Spidey’s butt), or any variety of villains that came with personalities and tactics and powers that were not just “Spider-Man Plus”.
This only got worse when Michelinie created Carnage (whose original story was slightly before my time, by a few issues): Cletus Kasady is a non-entity, a face and name attached to a serial killer who kills “because”. In reality, this kind of thing is horrifying, because it’s a real person, who was living next to people and seemed normal and all of those things that remind us that we’re never completely sure what drives that kind of person, and how we missed it. Here, it’s a barely half-dimensional “character”–I won’t go so far as to accuse either Venom or Carnage of being creative-ethics bankruptcy (ie, cashing in on simplistic appeal), but that they’re just really badly written and created characters. And most of this, of course, centers on the fact that the two hosts–Brock and Kasady–are boring as all hell. We get a silly, lame explanation for Brock’s homicidal urges, but someone who would hide a murderer and hate someone who stops murderers, for some reason has a conscience about killing “innocents” (?!) which was eventually milked to the ends of the earth in a series of increasingly confusing moves toward violent anti-hero, which is, admittedly, exactly what a lot of us “tweens” and teens wanted then (see also: Punisher, Ghost Rider, Wolverine, almost all of early Image Comics…). Yeah, Michelinie later expanded a bit on what motivated Eddie to place so much stock in his failed exposé, but it just all rings out as silly. Even as a kid, I thought, “Really? How is that Spider-Man’s fault? How can he even think that?”
The point, in the end, is this: Remender’s (Agent) Venom proves that the symbiote-infused character isn’t a bad idea, and even builds on the history with Brock to create proper and meaningful conflict (easier when you have written stories to build from, and thus can gloss over the stupid origin). Having Flash, a character we already know, take on the symbiote brings something interesting, and allows us–much like Spider-Man originally–to see the contrast of before and after, the effects and the way the interactions occur. Interestingly, we even get to see Eddie Brock more interesting–side effects, I guess, of whenever he was turned into Anti-Venom. His motivations and character make more sense, because it’s reflection and reaction coming from the actions we’ve witnessed.
Perhaps it’s best compared to Hobgoblin–Roger Stern made a really emphatic mystery out of Hobgoblin’s identity, much as the original Green Goblin’s was teased (he appears in ASM #14, 17, 18 (if you count a single panel), 23 & 25 (more cameos, but as the unnamed Norman Osborn), 26, 27, 37, and 38. Stern’s original identity for Hobgoblin was Roderick Kingsley, but he left the book without resolving the mystery, and so between DeFalco’s denial of Kingsley and Stern’s exit, Peter David (him again!) decided it was one of the red herrings–Ned Leeds, husband of Betty Brant, and wrote ASM #289 to reflect this. In both cases, we didn’t have the, frankly, bullshit lead-in of a single out-of-panel appearance two years before the villain (or his civilian identity!) was revealed. Now, Michelinie wasn’t aiming for the identity of Venom to be a mystery we were led along for, but he still introduces a villain and his human-self in one issue, which would be fine–except it’s personal. It’s a bunch of retconned in nonsense that we have to pretend occurred somewhere in the original story (and avoid having us re-read it, because it’s going to make this story look really, really bad).
It’s all a fascinating web: one of Green Goblin’s old compatriots/competitors was the Crime-Master who, interestingly, appears in Remender’s Venom (and it gets even more convoluted-ly ‘incestuous’, but this story being way, way more recent, I’ll leave that spoiler alone).
Anyway, the point is that Venom was a character who grew on the backs of what he was–badly written, badly thought out, but directly driven into the veins of tastes at the time. Eventually it became accepted that Venom was a sweet-ass, totally rad character, because, well, we were all told it. And I don’t begrudge anyone who loves the character–but I’m so enthused about what Remender did with the symbiote that, for once, I appreciate a character named Venom. Because now we have a real, established person under the alien, holding that name. Flash had already changed much over the years–unlike those Goblins, he was established for himself, rather than as a new supporting character intended to be revealed as the secret identity that we’d had hinted to us, being loaded in prior to the reveal only so that the reveal meant something. There we are though: loaded in beforehand so the reveal meant something. We had at least some idea of Kingsley and Norman before they were revealed to be Goblins. Venom and Brock appear simultaneously in any meaningful sense.
We’ll see if it’s actually 2 out of 3 when I get around to Thunderbolts and the eventual presence of Mac Gargan’s version…
Title comes from Gang of Four’s “Ether” off the 1979 classic Entertainment! Buy it today, if you don’t already have a copy. Which you should. It’s a classic, remember?
¹I’ve mentioned this offline many a time, but that was a truly asshole maneouvre. Disney stores are not exactly a dime a dozen, or even a hundred. I’d probably need to drive at least an hour to see one. I’ve got three Walgreens within about five or six miles, and more beyond that. Weird choice, but not so ‘elitist’ about availability.
²I just got a water-damaged copy of the third printing of #1 that’s still perfectly readable and a nice clean 13.2, both of which are obnoxiously expensive, though the #1 was discounted to a perfectly reasonable $2.50 for its condition.
³Any of this can be addressed with “Eddie is a fucking moron, a shitty journalist, and mentally ill,” but no one ever addresses the probable mental illness, which is probably asking too much–except that we have people like DeMatteis and David on Spidey books in the same days, making far more ground in fascinating villains (this story is on the heels of not only the Return of the Sin-Eater, but less than ten issues after “Fearful Symmetry”, aka “Kraven’s Last Hunt”)