Apparently the Venom symbiote gets around! When I was a kid, it was only ever bonded to Peter Parker and then Eddie Brock. But during my time away from reading comics the Venom symbiote has bonded to Eddie Brock’s wife Anne, Angelo Fortunato, Mac Gargan, Flash Thompson, the Red Hulk, Flash again, Otto Octavius (while in Peter Parker’s body), Flash another time, Groot, Rocket, Drax, Flash yet again, the space pirate Mercurio, once more with Flash (big surprise), Peter Parker (again (for a bit)), Flash a final time, and Lee Price before finally coming home to Eddie Brock. Whew! With the “Venom Inc.” crossover winding its way through my regular read The Amazing Spider-Man, I’ve found myself thinking back on the ultimate Spider-Man villain and coolest antihero of the 1990’s.
Whenever I’m asked (or if I’m being reflective on my own) about my favorite Spider-Man villain I always say/think it’s the Green Goblin. But as I was sitting down to write this post I had a bit of a revelation. If I’m being honest about the comics that made me most excited as a kid and the character I sought the most in back issues, there was no baddie I loved more than Venom. After Venom, Carnage was a close-second. There was nothing more exciting when I was a kid than seeing one of those ghastly symbiote grins starring back at me from the cover of a Spider-Man comic book. I tried to get my hands on every single symbiote-related comic I could find! So, really, I’m pretty sure Venom is my all-time favorite Spider-Man villain. Wow. I’m having a real breakthrough here…
Venom is the being created by the union of failed journalist Eddie Brock and the alien life form known as the symbiote Spider-Man brought back from Battle World after the Secret Wars. Once Spidey realized his new costume was alive, he tried to destroy it. Its hatred of Spider-Man for this violent rejection led it to bond with Eddie, whose career was ruined when Spider-Man exposed his biggest story as a fraud. Driven by their desire to kill Spider-Man for ruining their lives and guided by a warped sense of justice causing them to “protect the innocent,” they became a living nightmare.
I’ve written before about how mind-blowing and terrifying the introduction of Venom was for little, six-year-old Michael. I’d never encountered a villain like him before, in any comic book. He was this twisted, relentless, monstrous character – looking like a demonic vision of Spider-Man, driven by hate, and embodying all Spider-Man stood against. The Amazing Spider-Man #300 rocked my world and my experience of comic books would never be the same again. I had a new definition of what a comic book villain could be.
If that wasn’t enough, eventually the alien symbiote that had bonded with Brock would spawn and its child would bond with the sociopathic serial killer Cletus Kasady, creating an even more hellish villain in Carnage (one of writer David Michelinie’s iconic creations). Carnage’s first appearance, The Amazing Spider-Man #361, opens with a shot of this monster, in all his glory, taunting a man he’s about to kill. He’s left a series of brutal murders – spines torn from bodies, heads spun completely around, bodies shoved through brick walls, limbs rearranged, killing men, women, and children – all over New York, signing each one “Carnage” in blood. When Chip, the Empire State University lab tech Carnage is about to murder at the beginning of issue #361, asks why he will die, Carnage replies, “‘Why?’ ‘Cause law’s an illusion, Chip-O! An’ order’s nothin’ but a TV fantasy! Why am I killin’ you Cap’n Chips? That’s easy. I’m killin’ you…’cause I can!”
Carnage was the next, terrifying step in the evolution of Venom. What can be worse than this demonic force of nature whose sole purpose in life is to hunt and kill Spider-Man? How about a man with even greater power and no fractured moral ethic at all? That’s Carnage. His sole goal is bloodshed and chaos, liberating the world by teaching them “the truth”; there’s no point to living with any sort of rule or law. Peter quickly realizes he can’t defeat Carnage alone so he goes to find Venom, revealing he is really alive, and asking for his help. These three issues – The Amazing Spider-Man #’s 361-363 – where Spidey and Venom battle Carnage for the first time were some of my absolute favorites as a kid. I read and re-read them all the time. Truth be told, they’re still exciting now :).
The cynic in me would say it was Venom’s incredible popularity that lead to his striking a deal with Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man #375. In that issue, Venom said – despite their hatred of Spider-Man – if Spidey stayed out of their way, they’d stay out of his and they could all go about protecting innocent lives. As a result, Venom leaves New York City behind and they get their own ongoing series…of miniseries in 1993 beginning with Venom: Lethal Protector. Was it a brilliant, organic narrative move? Eh, as a kid, I didn’t think twice about. Venom was cool. And my favorite (as I’m now aware!) Spider-Man villain was getting their own title and they would be (sort of) good guys! Christmas was coming early!
The Lethal Protector series was also written by David Michelinie who invented Venom (and wrote so many of my favorite Spidey comics from my youth). It was drawn by Mark Bagley (at least the first two issues were…) who is my all-time favorite Spider-Man artist so…this was pretty much my ideal Venom comic.
It opens with Venom relocating to Eddie Brock’s hometown of San Francisco after their truce with Spider-Man. The comic begins with a mugger robbing a woman in an alleyway. The mugger looks into the woman’s eyes and asks, “That scare ya? Good! I always like seein’ fear in my victim’s eyes…” Enter Venom, who swings in behind the criminal to proclaim, “What a coincidence! So do WE!” They then kill the mugger as the symbiote slides down the man’s throat until he asphyxiates.
It is a dark opening but it underscores just who and what Venom is. They may have their own ethical compass but they certainly aren’t heroic nor are they someone we should model ourselves on. Venom is not a mythical figure, designed to help us learn deep spiritual truths. They were designed to be Spider-Man’s most malicious foe…until their increasing popularity (and the potential to profit more from it) brought this series and their official move into the “antihero” category.
Throughout the entirety of Venom: Lethal Protector, many of the people of San Francisco and (somewhat ironically) the villains keep referring to Venom as “a monster” and “not human.” What’s interesting is Venom never tries to deny that. In fact, they seem to delight in their perceived inhumanity and monstrosity. However, their actions show they are far more human than they appear. By the end, in issue #6, Venom risks their lives to save the homeless population of San Francisco. Eddie sends the symbiote through a raging fire to stop the man who wanted to destroy the underground city where they were living. This is a clear indication by David Michelinie that we are to look at Venom in a new light.
Venom’s “protect the innocent” rhetoric is taken to a more authentic level here. We have a creature that is absolutely willing to kill but they are also absolutely willing to put their own lives at risk to protect those who need their protection. Seeing this completely convinces Spider-Man that Venom doesn’t need to be hunted down and we, as the readers who identify with the webhead, are meant to learn this lesson as well.
As a kid, I was totally sold! It was brilliant! Here was the most visually incredible of all Spider-Man’s villains now deciding to be a straight-up good guy! Spider-Man was (tentatively) okay with it, so I was too. My thinking didn’t go much beyond Venom is cool and now I could root for them, use my Venom toy as a hero, and pretend to be Venom when we’d play superheroes sometimes. I was all in!
As an adult, I’m more ready to call bullshit. While Venom do use their powers to protect the innocent (as they define the term), it doesn’t change the fact that they kill without hesitation of remorse if they’ve identified a threat to innocent lives. I can’t be okay with this. There is never a reason to take another life. This is a bedrock truth in my own moral framework. Let us look, for a moment, at Catholic Social Teaching. Catholic Social Teaching is the teaching of the church that examines human society and calls for it to be transformed in ways that will make it easier for everyone to experience the goodness God wills for them, calling all of us to carry on the mission of Jesus. The first principle of Catholic Social Teaching is the Life and Dignity of the Human Person. This clearly teaches all human beings have dignity because they are loved by God and made in God’s image. Nothing can take away the fundamental dignity or the right to life of any person, not even their own destructive actions. Every single human being is made in the image of God. As such, every single human being always has the right to their life and the right to be treated with dignity. Period. Full stop. No discussion.
This makes Venom a little trickier for me to read as an adult. Venom has no regard for the life of anyone they deem morally corrupted. Heck, their second miniseries – Venom: Funeral Pyre – felt more like an exercise in seeing who could kill more gang members, Venom or the Punisher, than having an honest discussion about the rationale and ramifications for taking life.
I’m not saying the idea of an antihero isn’t an important and effective literary tool capable of raising complex questions and taking the reader to challenging places. But I don’t feel any of the Venom stories I’ve read ever really tried to explore this moral ambiguity or give a real justification for why Venom kills as they kill and should still be someone I root for…other than the fact that Venom is cool. As such, it’s harder to appreciate these stories as much as an adult or to find a way to be as captivated by Venom. I’m all for the belief that everyone can be redeemed. But they never seem to really explore the implications of redemption or condemnation with Venom. Regardless, none of this was on my radar as a kid. I sort of overlooked the killing by how they tried to highlight his good-guy status (even though, interestingly enough, I never felt comfortable having Venom kill anyone when I played with my Venom toy nor when I pretended to be Venom (and I remember the discomfort of considering story situations like that when I was a kid (despite the comics, even little eleven-year-old Michael knew this wasn’t a line to ever be crossed))).
Having been fascinated by Venom for decades, I was excited to seeing how he fit in the modern Marvel Universe when I picked up Venom Inc. Alpha and The Amazing Spider-Man #792 to begin the “Venom Inc.” crossover. This is the first time in NINETEEN YEARS I’ve read a new Venom story!!! Do you know what I found inside those issues? I found intrigue! It’s also a total flashback seeing Spider-Man swinging around New York City looking for Venom…even if there’s now like 1,000 other people who have been bonded to this thing too.
The basic setup is as follows. Flash Thompson’s looking for the symbiote. He’s worried about it and wants it back so they can bond once more and do their superhero thing. Eddie Brock however is working with Alchemax, needing the medicine they provide to help curb the symbiote’s violent and insatiable bloodlust it developed during its time bonded with Lee Price. Upon meeting, they come to blows over it. Eddie claims they share a special bond no one else has had and, as such, need each other. Flash feels he was the one who loved it and taught it how to be a hero; together they were an Avenger and a Guardian of the Galaxy. Neither will let it go. Spidey falls into the middle of it all, looking to destroy the symbiote for good and protect Flash from bonding with (what he sees as) a dangerous monster. Annnnnd Price is also back on the scene, hunting symbiotes and making his own team of symbiote-clad super villains along the way…by, uh, spitting symbiote parts into people’s mouths. Gross.
I’ll be interested to see where the story goes and who the symbiote ultimately ends up with. Honestly, from how Dan Slott and Michael Costa are writing this thing, I’m pulling for Flash. Flash seems to genuinely care about this living, sentient creature while Eddie seems like an emotionally abusive lover with some sort of attachment disorder. Excitement aside, I can’t see myself jumping back into reading Venom regularly again. As I said above, the violent and bloodthirsty antihero has never really been my thing. But I’m enjoying seeing a familiarly frightful face come into play in new stories :). I’m also BEYOND GRATEFUL that reading “Venom Inc.” and writing this post has led me to realize the deep and abiding personal truth that – whether we’re talking Spider-Man villains or antiheroes – Venom’s always been the one for me.