Since starting this blog I’ve written a lot about my return to the world of comic collecting and all the amazing experiences I’ve found on the racks of Books Galore, my local comic shop, each week. But I’ve also (naturally) been thinking more and more about allllllll the comics I read back when I was a kid. I’d been contemplating revisiting some of those storylines and writing about them in some context for this blog. The other night it hit me. The answer was right in front of me! Our culture has given birth to the wonderfully nostalgic idea of a Throwback Thursday. So, with it being Thursday and all, I figured I’d look back at one of my most vivid comic book memories as a kid, 1988’s The Amazing Spider-Man #300 and the VERY FIRST APPEARANCE OF VENOM!
Reading comic books in the late 80s and early 90s, you couldn’t escape Venom. He quickly (and with good reason) became one of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains…and he was obviously a favorite of mine too! Here was this dark, twisted vision of Spider-Man. He had all of Spidey’s powers but lacked his ethical code. He also had these dagger-like teeth filling the gaping mouth on his mask! He was obsessively driven to destroy Peter Parker and he didn’t even trigger Spider-Man’s spider-sense!!!! This was a villain unlike any Spidey had faced before. He was born exclusively of hatred and driven entirely by revenge. Venom’s popularity led to him battling Spider-Man more and more frequently until eventually, riding the 90s trend of turning popular villains into antiheroes (and then pretty much heroes) so they could star in their own books, we saw Venom: Lethal Protector #1 hit the stands in 1993. Venom grew a stronger and stronger sense of justice and even managed to quell his grudge against Spider-Man allowing them to regularly team-up against baddies like Carnage.
But that’s not my first (nor most powerful) memory of Venom. When I think of the first time I met Venom, reading The Amazing Spider-Man #300 originally as a five year old, I think of FEAR. The first page of that issue is one of my most vivid comic book memories. Todd McFarlane, just beginning to embrace the distinctive style that would become his trademark, gave us a haunting portrait of unbridled fear. Mary Jane sat huddled on the floor, cowering in a corner, hands over her face and tears streaming from her eyes. Gazing at that panel I could feel her fear leaping up at me off of the page and that experience left a permanent mark on me as a young reader. As the story began I had no idea what had happened to Mary Jane but I knew it was worse than anything I’d seen before. I could just feel it. I lacked the words or emotional understanding to accurately express what I was looking at but it affected me all the same. This was different. Mary Jane was broken, trapped in a living nightmare, haunted by a monster. And that’s exactly what Venom was when he first showed up in 1988. Venom was a monster, through and through, truly the stuff of nightmares.
Outside of these early issues and the emotional memories they left behind, we’ve all but lost this understanding of Venom. Eddie Brock and the symbiote bonded to seek revenge against Spider-Man. However their wild (and understandably earned) popularity eventually transformed Venom from villain to lethal protector to (now, with Flash Thompson wearing the symbiote) space knight. I’m not saying that transition was good or bad. It is what it is. Even though I’ve yet to read those titles, I kind of like the idea of this current incarnation of Venom bouncing around with the Guardians of the Galaxy. And I sure never minded as a kid, happily including Venom: Lethal Protector for a time with the rest of my monthly loves. Something was gained when Venom became one of the good guys…but something original in the Spider-verse was lost too. Looking back at The Amazing Spider-Man #’s 298-300 as I did the other night to write this piece, I found myself thinking of just what a unique tale and character this was.
I’m not certain if we could have an issue that would create the same experience today. Don’t get me wrong – as just about every other post on this blog will attest I LOVE what’s happening on the modern comic scene. But reading these issues again, I noticed how special they now feel. There’s an elegance and nuance to David Michelinie’s narration that you don’t find in comic books today – in fact most comics have foregone the traditional yellow narration blocks and filled those squares with the character’s thoughts instead. His dialogue is wonderful too, but his narration has a crisp, evocative, literary feel to it. And even simply comparing #300 with #299 you can see how Todd McFarlane’s art really begins to evolve into the style he’d be known for in this issue. This was the beginning of him taking Spider-Man (and his artistic style) to a new place. McFarlane has such a unique style – the bodies of his characters, their hair, their eyes, their movements…all unmistakably his. You also see Peter start to become more muscular and less lithe starting with this issue too – something that would characterize Spider-Man in the 90s. All of these factors and more come into play as David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane took the task of Spider-Man’s 300th issue and turned it into one of the most memorable tales of the web-slinger’s career.
Issue #298 gives us a classic Spider-Man setup. Peter and Mary Jane are newly married. He’s struggling with how much more MJ makes than he does. Pete’s begging for photo assignments at the Bugle and swinging everywhere to save on bus fare. Yes, today Peter Parker runs Parker Industries and has more money than Tony Stark…but back in the 80s Mary Jane wanted to move into Bedford Towers and that bothered Peter because he knew he couldn’t afford to really help pay their rent. This was the Spider-Man I grew up with! I also always kind of love to see Spider-Man in his old black costume. Given the fact that I started reading Spider-Man in 1984, seeing him in this suit always feels especially familiar.
The final page of issue #298 has the very first appearance of Venom!!! We see the symbiote slide over Brock’s hand. Then, in the final two pages of issue #299 Venom surprises Mary Jane, appearing in the dark of the apartment she and Peter share. The final page does an excellent job of setting up who this knew menace is – black suit, sinister mouth smiling at MJ. While we don’t yet know who he is, we know what the presence of this new creature feels like. It’s a scene from a nightmare. This is a villain to fear.
After Peter calms Mary Jane and gets her to bed he wonders, “Mary Jane’s one of the strongest women I know! But she’s trembling like a little girl! What kind of monster could do that to her?” That’s the thing. That’s what this issue makes so disturbingly clear. Venom is monstrous. That’s what was lost in his popularity and his rise to antihero and then reluctant hero and then hero. He became a “lethal protector” because people thought he was cool and wanted more of him. But here, when we first meet him, you remember the fear he instills in MJ and the battle he gives Peter. He is clearly one of the darkest, most twisted foes Spider-Man’s ever faced. He leaves MJ in a state of emotional distress, surely leaving her with a severe if not debilitating case of PTSD from his presence. There is nothing in this book to imply that Mary Jane can EVER forget her first encounter with Venom. This will affect her, in one way or another, forever. Look again at how these scenes play out:
Michelinie’s writing and McFarland’s art present a vivid picture of someone emotionally broken, crippled by fear. Venom hit at the core of Mary Jane’s being and Peter has no idea how to protect her. In many ways, he can’t. Venom has invaded their safety and left an indelible mark on their lives. While the issue is filled with the super heroics you’d expect from Spider-Man, even in his ultimate triumph, you never fully shake that sense of raw, primal, uncontrollable fear that Venom leaves in his wake.
As Venom would grow into an antihero we would learn that he was guided by a sense of “justice” and, while he hated Spider-Man, he would still try and do the best he could to protect “the innocent.” This certainly isn’t the case with the Venom we meet in The Amazing Spider-Man #300. Yes, Venom thinks he is motivated by justice but nothing could be further from the truth. He is driven solely by hate, anger, and thoughts of vengeance. When it comes to protecting the innocent…well, while he “regrets” it, Venom kills a cop in cold blood in a church while he plans his battle with Spider-Man. How’s that for protection? The cop believes Eddie Brock is the one who’s been robbing from the poor boxes. Without hesitation Venom kills him, smothering the police officer in a needlessly agonizing death. It’s another brilliant example of how vicious a monster Venom truly is.
Really, at his core, Venom is a monster born of hate. In a way, Venom is hatred personified in this story. Eddie Brock blames Spider-Man for the end of his career when Spidey exposed the true identity of the Sin Eater and everyone realized Brock was just taking notes from a “cereal confessor.” Now he has to write for tabloids or not at all. And the symbiote hates Peter because he rejected it and tried to kill it. Sensing the mutual hatred, it bonded with Brock. His villain monologue, as he tells Spider-Man who they are, shows how twisted and disturbed a creature Venom truly is.
He tells Spider-Man, “I relocated in the Bronx, spent part of my meager income on body-building equipment. I’d heard that exercise could reduce stress. It didn’t work. Whenever I lifted a barbell, it was your throat I was squeezing. Each time I punched the heavy bag, I was pulping your face. I taped headlines about you on my walls, feeding my hatred, knowing that I couldn’t get a story even on the back page of any respectable paper. Until, finally, the pain became unbearable…and I decided to end it all. But I was raised Catholic, and suicide is a mortal sin. So I wandered from church to church, praying for forgiveness. Then, at Our Lady of Saints, something…odd happened. A shadow moved. Caressed me. I was joined. But this was a shadow filled with light. It clarified my anguish, focused my purpose. Its hatred for you matched my own. It knew who you were. And it had power. Oh, such power! We found the woman first. Later, we found your empty apartment. You were running away from us. But the shadow knew you well, knew you’d have to learn who we were. So we went ‘trolling,’ using ourselves as a lure. And apparently the bait…worked!”
As villain monologues go, this is pretty macabre. Reading it as an adult, I’m taken aback by how dark, how violent, how hateful Venom is. The Amazing Spider-Man #300 gives us a new villain so warped by hatred any trace of the good man Eddie Brock once was is gone. It’s also interesting to see how Brock’s Catholic faith is introduced as a part of his character, something shaping his actions. It’s clear suicide is off the table because it’s a sin. Instead he goes to church, praying for forgiveness…and then proceeds to terrorize Mary Jane, kill a police offer in cold blood, and continue to do all the violent, twisted things he does as Venom. The conflict, the ideological tension, is an intriguing (if never fully developed later) part of this character.
Spider-Man and Venom battle in the church where Peter tried to kill the symbiote and Venom was born. Ultimately, Spidey gets the symbiote to unravel because it’s used too much webbing. He then takes Brock and the symbiote to the Fantastic Four where Ben assures him they have a cell to hold them in until the Vault can get something prepared for Venom. Having these two face off in a church is an idea as rich in visuals as it is in symbolism. As they battle, each man faces the consequence of his sins. Peter faces the unintended results of his actions. He ruined Brock’s career and, in fear, he rejected something he didn’t even fully understand in the symbiote. Eddie Brock on the other hand, faces what his hatred has spawned. Peter triumphs over the darkness while Eddie allows it to consume him. We see this literally as well as figuratively as Brock and the symbiote have bonded. As Venom, he has fallen into the darkness as figuratively as his has literally when he tumbles from the church tower. With his victory, Peter has a chance at a fresh start with his new wife in their new life.
I’d wager that is what allows the issue to endure as such a classic – there’s more to it than just psychological torment and a twisted new villain. Issue #300 also serves as an important transition moment. As a result of the break-in Mary Jane pulls some strings, Peter agrees, and they move from Chelsea St. into the Bedford Towers. This begins a new phase for Peter and Mary Jane in their lives and in their marriage. We also get to see a sweet interlude with Peter and Mary Jane over at Aunt May’s for dinner – awww, I’ve missed these scenes! It’s been a looong time since I’ve read a scene with Peter, Mary Jane, and Aunt May all together. It was cute. It left me all warm and fuzzy! Then, in the final pages of the issue, Mary Jane tells Peter she can’t look at him in the black costume anymore. Without hesitation Peter burns it and then Mary Jane gives him an old version of his classic red and blue suit and Spider-Man is reborn! It’s the perfect note, triumphant and hopeful, to end an issue that began in such a dark, fearful place.