This week Kalie guest lectured for my MARVELous Justice course, my class which uses comic books and comic book movies to examine social justice issues and the Sisters of Mercy’s Critical Concerns in particular. Kalie is getting her PhD in literary criticism, with her focus on the mad monster. I’ve asked her to come in a few times to give my students an introduction to Monster Theory so they can add it to the avenues of analysis we use for the comics and films we explore. As part of her presentation, Kalie always asks my class what their favorite childhood monster was and why they liked it. The first time I heard her ask this question, I found myself lost in thought. What was my favorite monster as a kid? Did I even have one? I never liked being scared, that’s for sure. The answer hit in a bolt of clarity! What an easy question! It’s no contest! My favorite monster was Venom. As soon as Eddie Brock bonded with the symbiote, I was hooked. I love Venom! I adore Venom! Looking at my relationship with this monster as I followed along with Kalie’s lesson taught me a lot about myself, too.
Venom was created by David Micheline (writer) and Todd McFarlane (artist) in 1987. They teased this new villain at the end of November’s Amazing Spider-Man #298.
Next month’s Amazing Spider-Man #299 revealed this creature to the world as Mary Jane came home from shopping to find Venom waiting in the shadows for her. Naturally, she presumes it’s Peter but then a mouth slowly begins to grow on the familiar costume’s mask as this mysterious monster growls, “Hi, honey…I’m home!”
While I hunted down those back issues later, I first met Venom in the double-length Amazing Spider-Man #300. Released in January 1988, I got the issue from the wire spinning rack at the grocery store when I was just five-years-old. I already loved Spider-Man so finding a Spider-Man comic at the grocery store or gas station was always a treat. And this was issue #300! How exciting! In no way, shape, or form was I ready for what was inside.
I’ve written of this before but at that point in my young life I had no frame of reference for the fear McFarlane rendered on Mary Jane on the first page of that issue. It felt primal. It touched something deep within me and while I couldn’t explain why, how, or in what ways, it scared me. Whatever could make Mary Jane this scared had to be terrifying. I can still touch the memories of unease as I began flipping through the comic for the very first time. I still get echoes of that fear when I reread it today.
So much in that issue scared me in ways no comic book I’d ever read had scared me before. Here was this creature who knew Peter Parker was Spider-Man. The symbiote allowed them to blend into any crowd, losing themselves with a natural camouflage ability. Eddie Brock’s obsessive working out coupled with the symbiote’s nature made Venom this hulking, grinning monstrosity with claws and fangs. And together they didn’t set off Spider-Man’s spider-sense! They could be anywhere and Spider-Man would never sense them coming!
I’d been reading Spider-Man and other superhero comics for years. I loved He-Man and was intimately familiar with his rogue’s gallery. I watched the Ghostbusters deal with all manner of spooks, specters, and ghosts. Yet none of those cartoons or comics prepared me for Venom. This character hit me in a way nothing had before.
Even today, seeing certain panels bring back that queasy feeling they gave my five-year-old self. I’d never seen such a grizzly death as when Venom killed the security guard in the church. It was so ruthless, so cold, and so shocking to young me.
I’d always try to read quickly and only partially look at the panel of Eddie imagining his barbells were Spider-Man’s throat when he tells Peter the tale of how he bonded with the symbiote, too. Seeing the pained look on Spidey’s face with his neck all stretched out like thatbsent chills running through me. He was killing Spider-Man!
And the look on his face as symbiote melds with shadow when Eddie tells Peter of joining with the symbiote and beginning to scour the city looking for him was the stuff of nightmares.
I don’t remember ever reading a scene which felt more fundamentally threatening to Spider-Man than when he awakens to find Venom has webbed him up inside the very same church bell he used to try and kill the symbiote when it was looking to bond with him either. I held my breath every time as Peter tries to force his hand through the webbing to stop the clapper from killing him. Why was this death trap so much scarier to me than all the others? I’d guess it’s because Spider-Man found himself webbed up inside this bell here, in Amazing Spider-Man #300, as part of his first battle with Venom. His desperate attempt to free himself from the webbing will always be wedding in my mind to my first experience of this monster and it seems to carry the shadow of the fear and threat Venom posed.
What fascinates me most about my relationship with Venom though is I really liked this character. I went out of my way to find comics with them in it! Anytime I saw a comic with Venom (or later, Carnage or anything symbiote-related) on the cover I’d automatically pick it up. This surprises me as I was never one to be drawn to the villain, the bad guy, the monster. As Kalie asked my students why they liked their favorite monsters as kids, they spoke of thinking Darth Vader was “cool” or loving Jaws because they “really liked sharks” or finding Voldemort “interesting.”
That was never me. I have vivid memories of my first experience of Star Wars as a kid (and this story will probably give birth to it’s own post someday). I was watching an episode of Muppet Babies and Nanny was sick. As the Muppet Babies wondered if they’d need a new nanny, they worried about who it would be. They were scared Darth Nanny would come and, as was the customary bit for Muppet Babies, they edited the animated Muppets into a scene from A New Hope. I saw Darth Vader board the rebel blockade runner and his armor, his breathing, his voice freaked me the fuck out. I wouldn’t watch Star Wars until middle school because this scared me so much!
To my young mind, the only purpose villains served was to give the hero someone to defeat so the day would be saved and everyone could be safe again. They were a means to a narrative end and I liked – and took great comfort in – the fact that the hero would always, undoubtably, win in the end. They didn’t need to be too scary either, thank you very much. I couldn’t understand my friends who found the villains interesting let alone exciting or cool.
But then along came Venom.
Kalie explained that often the things we consider monstrous are things which attract and interest us while also repulsing us. We are drawn towards the monster just as we want to run away. Kalie said we relate to monsters because they help us realize what our anxieties and fears are. In this way we are drawn to them, as we want to understand that which we fear, while wanting to flee from them, as they make us anxious. This, Kalie said, is part of the importance of the monster. This is part of why we tell stories of and are drawn to stories about monsters.
For the first time in my young life, I wanted to know more about a monster – I wanted to spend more time with it, even though it freaked me out – after meeting Venom in Amazing Spider-Man #300. As I listened to Kalie’s lesson, I began to turn inward. If we relate to monsters in part through how they help us realize what our anxieties and fears are, then how did this shape my relationship with Venom?
Venom – who often refer to themselves as “we” – comes from the union of Eddie Brock and the living alien symbiote Spider-Man mistook for a shapeshifting costume when he brought it back from the Beyonder’s Battle World during the Secret Wars. Eddie Brock was a reporter for The Daily Globe whose edition-selling out, front page story revealing the identity of the serial killer the Sin-Eater was proved a hoax the same day it was published when Spider-Man brought the real Sin-Eater to justice. This error cost Eddie his job, his reputation, and ultimately his relationship with his wife, Anne, who left him over his refusal to accept any responsibility for what happened. For Eddie, it was all Spider-Man’s fault and he became obsessed with seeking vengeance.
The symbiote was a living organism, acting as Peter’s new Spider-Man costume and shapeshifting into his civilian clothes at the merest mental command. Peter loved it…until he learned his clever new costume wasn’t a costume at all and the alien was seeking to permanently bond with him. Knowing it was vulnerable to sonics, Peter went to a church belltower and allowed the clanging crash of the bell to jar the symbiote’s connection with him and, he thought, kill the alien. Instead it waited in the shadows, hurt and seeking vengeance against Spider-Man, too.
Feeling utterly hopeless, Eddie decides to take his own life. Being a devout Catholic, he understands this as a mortal sin so he goes to Our Lady of Saints Church to ask for God’s forgiveness before he commits suicide. The alien senses his hatred of Spider-Man and it draws the symbiote to Eddie and he becomes its new host. They bond and become Venom, their mutual hatred of Spider-Man driving their life. Even in the beginning it was clear Venom had a twisted sense of ethics. They regretted the loss of any innocent life…but they would let nothing stand in the way of their vengeance against the wall-crawler. This destabilizes Venom’s place as a monster from the very inception of the character. As Kalie told my class, “We’ve all had ‘monstrous’ thoughts so I tend to define monstrosity more through actions.” Venom doesn’t seek to kill or even harm anyone except Spider-Man (and in the future will become a vigilante in their own right and fight to protect the innocent (as they define the term)). The death of Spider-Man was their first and foremost drive, anything and everything else in life was secondary.
Two beings, isolated and alone, found each other in the darkness and came together to form something monstrous but also something powerful, something near unstoppable.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned about myself since beginning therapy – and one of the biggest things I continue to work on in therapy – is I have a deep fear of abandonment, rooted in an experience from my childhood. This has played a key role in shaping much of my life, especially my relationships. These parts which are burdened by these wounds of abandonment desperately want to be healed so they draw me to people who will abandon me, in the hopes I (me – the larger me, my Self) will understand how they feel all the time and seek to hear, hold, and heal them. However, for a very long time, those parts were hidden by protectors who sought to steer me away from ever touching the pain that originally created those wounds again. The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am scared people will abandon me. I am drawn to forge deep connections with people who will abandon me. The Fixer – the unhealthy dimension of my helper part – tries to do everything for these people, always ignoring my own needs in favor of their wants and needs in the hopes that if I do enough/everything for them they won’t leave. But they too are wounded (and our wounded exiles tend to pick our relationships, particularly our romantic partners) so they do abandon me, sometimes again and again until the relationship ends. Then the cycle repeats. New person. New connection. New flurry of helping and carrying and fixing. New abandonment. Same old wounding.
All these parts were already shaped within me when I first met Venom at five-years-old. That blows my mind! We are so fascinating! So all these parts latched on to this symbiotic monstrosity. This is why, even though I was scared of Venom, I was also attracted to and interested in them. It makes perfect sense.
Here I am, someone with trauma around abandonment and wounding from being abandoned by people through my life, and I immediately connect with a monster who is two beings permanently bonded together. Both Eddie and the symbiote were abandoned. Both Eddie and the symbiote were hurt by those they loved. Both Eddie and the symbiote were rejected, cast aside, and ignored. They felt totally and utterly alone. Yep, that resonates.
In their isolation and anger, they found each other and became so much more. They were no longer alone and together their power mirrors and is even greater than Spider-Man’s! Yet mutual hatred bound them and the desire to kill the one they blame for all their pain drives their lives. They found each other…but they became a monster. It looked desirable…but wasn’t. This confusion around what a “good” relationship looks like resonates, too.
This is something else I work on in therapy. Only in the last eight years did I meet someone with whom I broke this mold and created a friendship that allowed me to experience and understand what a healthy relationship is – and that it’s not demanding and it’s even normal to be seen, heard, and accepted just as you are by someone you love! Before this, all my relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners over the years were shaped, to one degree or another, by this fear they would leave me. And I was drawn to and actively built relationships with people who would leave me. In these relationships, I felt I had to give, give, give, and give without ever having my own needs met to keep people around. To add one more part to the mix, I didn’t feel worthy of having my needs met. It seemed like a good thing – I wasn’t alone! – but the relationships I was in were marked by fear of being abandoned, a sense of my unworthiness which kept me from advocating for my own needs, and an unyielding drive to fix everything in the hopes that this person wouldn’t leave me like so many had done before.
I wasn’t alone but the relationships I was living in weren’t truly symbiotic – even in the cases where it was just my fears and my sense of my unworthiness which kept them from being so.
Another point Kalie made to my class was, “The reason we like to study the monster is we’ve all felt like a monster at sometime.” I think that’s very true. We’ve all felt rejected. We’ve all felt otherized. We’ve all been on the outside. But we’ve also felt like terrible people. We’ve felt guilt and shame around things we’ve done which we’d deem “monstrous” to strangers, acquaintances, or even and especially those we love. I think with Venom, I felt like them in ways I couldn’t even articulate back then. Heck, I felt like them in ways I couldn’t articulate until Kalie’s presentation took me down this brilliant rabbit hole of self-discovery! In Venom, in that monster, I see my own fears of abandonment, my own trauma from being abandoned by others over the years, and my own confusion over what the relationships I’m searching for should look like. No matter how much Amazing Spider-Man #300 scared me, all of this irresistibly drew me to Venom. In many ways, then and all through my life, this monster was me, or at least parts of me…and that reflection was welcoming and familiar, just as their character scared me, too.
Over the thirty-five years since their creation, Eddie’s relationship with the symbiote has changed. In that, I see my own growth mirrored, too! Learning the lessons of that healthy friendship, I’ve found other beautifully healthy, mutually symbiotic relationships blossoming in my life, with the right people in the right circumstances. Venom has evolved from monstrous villain to morally grey antihero to a universe-saving, self-sacrificing god and hero in their own right as well. Maybe there’s more I can learn about myself in that. Maybe my favorite monster has more lessons to convey. But that, I think, is an examination for another time and the story for another post. I’ve plenty of time to ponder this. Symbiotic relationships are long-term and varied after all.
Did you enjoy this li’l piece about Venom? Would you like more monsters? Well you’re in luck! Since Kalie’s lesson inspired this entire piece, here are a few posts she’s written on THE MONSTER:
In Saturday “Slash-Back: Resonant Violations and My Young Obsession with Scream (1996), Kalie looks at her relationship with one of her all-time favorite horror films and considers why it resonates with viewers’ anxieties and fears while simultaneously violating expectations and creating a paradoxical feeling within us.
In Gilgamesh, Humbaba, and the Monster/Monster Hunter Relationship, Kalie explores The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first story we know to have been written down, and ponders what it means for and says about us that as long as we have been telling stories, we’ve been telling stories about monsters.
In “Dalek” and Us: Grey Areas, Otherization, and Monstrosity, Kalie uses both the Doctor Who episode “Dalek” (S1E6) and the Jordan Peele film Us to consider, well, grey areas, otherization, and monstrosity. What do you want me to say here? It’s a piece about DOCTOR WHO and MONSTERS so of course I’m going to recommend it!
In Navigating Norman: The Serial Killer Monster as Meaning Machine, Kalie applies some of the Monster Theory reading she’s done to Robert Bloch’s classic novel, Psycho. Kalie has written on Psycho – the film and the novel – often and I always enjoy her analysis. How do monsters help us create meaning?? Read on to find out.
In Brooding Men and Unholy Births: Parthenogenesis and the Inter-Generational Transmission of Abuse in The Brood and Men, Kalie reads the classic 1979 David Cronenberg film The Brood alongside Alex Garland’s new 2022 film Men to examine each through the lens of “monstrous madness.”