[A quick note: As of this writing, I have not yet had an opportunity to read Venom #1. The opinions expressed are based on stories presented in recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man, including ASM #654.1, as well as countless back issues.]
Flash Thompson is Venom. Flash Thompson. Venom. Okay. This is pretty much what’s been going through my mind ever since this particular development was revealed to the readers roughly a month ago. What can I say? On the surface it’s a pretty strange notion. One of Spider-Man’s oldest supporting characters (the best man at Peter’s wedding, no less) taking on the identity of one of Spidey’s arch nemeses? Madness! That being said, in the realm of storytelling execution is everything. If there is one thing to be taken away from the excellent run that Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost had on X-Force, it’s that even ideas that sound mind-numbingly stupid on paper can bear truly magnificent fruit. I’ll be the first to admit that I scoffed more than once reading solits for that book, but when I actually read the stories? Well let’s just say there were generous servings of crow. But I’m not here to talk about the X-books.
Appropriately enough, I’m of two minds on the subject of Venom as he is today. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to be upset at the notion of writers trying new things. And hell, it’s even been reported that Venom creator David Michelinie at one point had plans for the Venom symbiote to jump from host to host, passing through the Marvel Universe like a nasty cold. My biggest problem is with change for the sake of change, and I don’t know that that’s the case here. Having said that, I can’t help but feel that, as a character, Venom remains a victim of the ‘90s. I’ll go into that in considerable depth a bit later, but when all is said and done, this really feels like the latest attempt by Marvel to fix a character that they spent more than a decade allowing to become horribly broken. And another thing – I realize this might sound a bit ranty, but really, this isn’t even Venom we’re talking about. David Michelinie has on occasion stated that in his mind the entity known as Venom is a blend of Eddie Brock and the symbiote, and I whole-heartedly agree with this notion. To paraphrase Mr. Michelinie, Venom is Eddie Brock and the alien symbiote, anyone else is not Venom. Now to be fair I don’t recall this point ever being codified in the comics, and whether it was a result of apathy or simple misunderstanding of the concept, this particular nuance has been lost over the years. But it’s how I’ve always viewed the character and given that the entire concept is that when a symbiote joins with someone the end result is two entities becoming one, it just makes sense. So while there may be potential for this new version of the character, I still don’t think of Flash or Gargan or anyone but Brock as Venom.
Ultimately, though, the problem with Venom is that he is a character who has been driven so far into the ground over the past twenty-odd years that at this point I feel as though Marvel is just trying anything they can think of to fix him. And make no mistake, I like Venom. He’s not my favorite Spider-Man villain ever (that’s a tossup between Norman Osborn and the original Hobgoblin), but come on, I grew up in the ‘90s; I can’t help but like the guy. And really, if we go back to the very beginning, it’s not hard to see why Venom was so popular. On top of the fact that his power set boiled down to
“Spider-Man, but evil” and the fact that tying the character in with the alien costume gave him a history of sorts that stretched back fifty issues at the time of his introduction, the simple fact is that Todd McFarlane drew the character as a heavily muscled mountain of badass. Interestingly, it was right around the time that Erik Larsen started drawing Venom with a distended tongue and a mouthful of green drool that the wheels really started coming off the bus. That’s not to blame Mr. Larsen, after all, it was also around this time that Michelinie started having him threaten to eat Spider-Man’s brain. But really, I can’t help feel that much of the blame belongs to whoever at Marvel decided that Venom needed a solo book. On the surface, as such things often do, this seemed like a no-brainer. Venom sold comics. And it was the ‘90s. Anything that “sold comics” would sell A LOT of comics. If nothing else, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The real problem comes from the fact that the character had to be compromised in order to make him a palatable solo lead. In his first few appearances, Eddie Brock was clearly crazy and the symbiote‘s influence only served to loosen and distort whatever concept of morality he had. Indeed, while he was always one to wax philosophical about “protecting innocents”, he also had no problem murdering anyone who stood in the way of his vendetta.
By the time Carnage was introduced, however, Venom’s obsession with innocence was clearly being used to twist the character into something that would at least be sympathetic enough for Marvel to sell a spin-off. This, controversially, would eventually lead Venom and Spider-Man to declare a truce in ASM #375, paving the way for Eddie to set up shop in San Francisco, where he was established as “the Lethal Protector”. See what I mean about Venom being a victim of the ‘90s? In fewer than five years between his introduction in Amazing Spider-Man #300 in 1988 and the publication of Venom: Lethal Protector #1 in 1992, the character has already been distorted into a grotesque parody of what made him popular in the first place. Things continued in this fashion for the remainder of the decade, with Venom appearing in a plethora of miniseries and gradually succumbed to the inevitable woes of overexposure. Finally, in 2004, Mark Millar began his year-long run on Marvel Knights Spider-Man, a run that saw some of the most significant developments in Venom’s history to date. Specifically, Eddie Brock parted ways with the symbiote, selling it at auction, of all things. Finally, in issue ten of that series, the new “Venom” debuted.
After separating from Brock, the symbiote eventually made its way to a new host, Mac Gargan, better known as the Scorpion. To put it simply, I hated this development. While I will be the first to acknowledge that by this point Venom had grown somewhat stale from a decade of shameless overexposure, I couldn’t help but feel that in the interest of generating interest in one character (Venom) Marvel ultimately compromised Brock, Gargan, and even the symbiote. Fortunately, at least one person at Marvel recognized this. In one of Dan Slott’s first major Spider-Man stories, New Ways to Die, he not only returned Gargan (albeit briefly) to a Scorpion suit, but also established Eddie Brock as Anti-Venom, restoring to him a symbiote-esque power set. That restoring Gargan to his original status as the Scorpion was something of a priority to Slott was again demonstrated just over two years later when Marvel did away with the rotating creative teams and named Slott the sole writer of Amazing Spider-Man. In a subplot that developed largely in backup stories that ran through the first seven issues of Slott’s run, the symbiote was separated from Gargan and fell into the hands of the United States government. Following this, Gargan once again became the Scorpion. The military meanwhile, having decided to harness the power of the symbiote for their own ends, ultimately arranges for the symbiote to bond with Flash Thompson, a decision based largely on Flash’s war record, including an incident chronicled in ASM #574 in which he lost his legs saving his unit. In seeking to control the symbiote, the military has taken a number of precautions, including placing strict limitations on the length of time Flash spends bonded with the symbiote as well as the number of missions upon which he is permitted to embark. On top of all this, however, is the presence of a “kill switch”, which is to be triggered at the first sign of the symbiote’s will overpowering Flash’s. And based on the events of Amazing Spider-Man #654.1, the risk of that is somewhat higher than one might expect.
So having said all of those pretty words, answer the question posed by the title of this article. In my opinion, can Venom be fixed? In a word, yes. That being said, it’s not likely to happen if things keep going in the direction they’ve followed for the past several years, that being one of jumping the symbiote from host to host to host, ad infinitum. With all due respect to Rick Remender and all of the other creative individuals involved with this new book, they could tell the the best stories of 2011, they could (ugh) have Flash succumb to the symbiote’s influence and become a villain, or simply have Flash serve his time and pass the symbiote to the next serviceman, and
it still won’t fix Venom because (as I mentioned earlier) Flash Thompson is no more Venom than Mac Gargan was. I maintain that the problem, if you haven’t caught on by now, dear readers, is that everything that made Venom as awesome as he was in the first place was diluted and distorted by the nature of the comics market in the 1990s. Between the demand for more frequent appearances and the neutering of the character that was necessary to position him for a spin-off, the writing was sadly on the wall from a very early stage. What is needed, in my opinion, is to essentially go back to basics. First and foremost, reunite the symbiote with Eddie Brock. Then, do something to renew Brock’s hatred of Spider-Man. The guy’s nuts, and his initial motivations centered on his tendency to blame Spider-Man for his own stupidity, so it can’t possibly be that hard. And finally, avoid some of the more ridiculous traits the character picked up in the ‘90s. No green drool, tone down the tongue, and minimize (or dump altogether) the whole “We’re going to eat Spider-Man’s brain!” shtick. And last but not least, remember that Venom is not a superhero, he is a psychopath. To once again paraphrase Mr. Michelinie, Venom will drop what he’s doing to rescue a kitten, because he has to protect the innocent, but he’ll tear apart a bus full of nuns in the process. In short, instead of doing what amounts to throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, the powers that be at Marvel need to go back to what worked, because if you ask me, those early stories hold up far better than much of what’s come since. But hey, if Remender and company can prove me wrong, I welcome it. In fact, I hope they do.