With the comics industry continuing to battle the effects of the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are continuing to talk about comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This week, we’re revisiting the beginning of one of the biggest reinventions in Big Two comics.
Venom has been a lot of things since the character was introduced in 1988. Starting as a new costume for Spider-Man, evolving into a character on its own, then bonding with Eddie Brock to become Venom, the symbiotes have been an enduring part of Marvel Comics for thirty-three years. Since the “alien costume” became Venom, he’s played roles from a villain, to an anti-hero, and back again.
In 2018, Donny Cates, Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer, Frank Martin and Clayton Cowles relaunched Venom with a specific mission in mind. It was time to give Venom a greater mission and purpose and to break him away from Spider-Man just a little bit. The series was a character-redefining hit.
Eddie Brock’s other is sick. Something is wrong, something is coming. Regardless, Eddie still is doing his best to protect the weak and the innocent, even without Venom. That may not matter though, as he’s approached by a man who may reveal the secret history of the symbiotes to him…
Tony Thornley: So you’ve introduced me to the majority of the Cates library, and it’s about time I returned the favor! We did talk about Thanos Wins last year and this is his other big, impactful Marvel work.
So I really enjoyed this book as it came out and it embraces all the lore around Venom and then tells a really good story with it. I think the only issue that wasn’t the greatest was the all-flashback one mid-arc. The rest was a pretty gonzo action-horror movie style story.
Brendan Allen: Ha! I don’t know about the majority of the Cates library. I’m mostly familiar with his indie stuff before he signed his Marvel exclusive. This feels like it’s right in line with some of his work that I love so much. God Country, The Ghost Fleet, Redneck, Babyteeth … Just huge, epic, supernatural/cosmic horror. And not being super familiar with the rest of the Venom mythos, I have no idea how much of this book is Cates, and how much is existing canon. Feels like Cates, though, so probably a lot of both?
Tony: The vast majority of this story is Cates. He’s been gradually introducing new concepts to the Marvel Universe, and this one is just big swing after big swing. The Grendel is new, the Venom corps, Knull. So much of it is additive ideas from Cates.
One big thing I like about this story is that it takes a look at the core of Venom and it asks some questions that really need to be asked. I usually enjoy these types of stories — it’s why we talked about House of X last year. The cyclical nature of the big two usually means that the status quo needs to be maintained. For a character older than about ten years, that means if a plot point or character trait hasn’t been brought up yet, it may not ever be mentioned in service of the status quo.
Here, Cates steps in and asks some basic questions. Does the symbiote have a name, or even anything basic about it? The symbiote is its own character, so those questions should be asked. We know there’s a planet of them. Do they have a culture? Do they have gods? What kind of gods do these creepy gooey creatures have?
Then he builds this story around it.
Brendan: I think I remember that the symbiote has always had a voice and a consciousness, so it’s a natural step forward, making it part of a society with culture and gods. And the bit about humanity sort of ‘tempering’ the nature of the symbiotes? That’s a slick concept, and it’s observable in real life culture transplants. It’s impossible to enter an established society without being imprinted with parts of that society, and without leaving bits of your own culture behind.
Tony: Yeah, definitely. It’s very smart. It takes all the disparate history of the symbiotes — that they’re evil, but wait they’re actually protectors, oh wait — and makes it tie together coherently. This is probably the best example of how Cates can tell an additive story in a shared universe.
Brendan: I think this is the first big thing I’ve read of his within the bigger Marvel universe, and it works really well. A few of his other stories are tied together. You’ll see bits of The Ghost Fleet pop up in Babyteeth, and if I’m not mistaken, Valofax makes appearances across the Cates-verse, but those are all his own stories. It’s cool to see that he can play well with pieces that already existed in someone else’s world, and then leave something that future teams can pick up and develop further.
Tony: Yeah, he’s done that really well in a few of his Marvel works. I think you’d dig those.
I really like Stegman and Mayer’s style here on the line art. As you may or may not know, Venom was co-created by Todd MacFarlane. If there’s anyone working in comics right now who’s the heir apparent to Todd’s extremely fluid, energetic lines, it’s Stegman. His pages are extremely detailed, slightly cartoony, and they have this fantastic dark line to them.
Mayer brings a lot to the pages too. There’s so much going on that it could get really muddy really quickly. Mayer adds depth and a distinct line to the page. He also uses ink wash a few times, rather than a standard ink line. It’s really effective on the splash pages, such as the first time that the Knull spiral symbiote is revealed. Overall great work by the art team.
Brendan: The Knull spiral is really cool. I had seen that a few places, and knew it came from this series, but I wasn’t really sure exactly how it fit. It’s a really cool device to separate the regular struggle between symbiote/host and the struggle between the symbiote/hive. It could have gotten really muddied up, but that visual cue is awesome once the creative team tips their hand as to what it all means.
Tony: Yeah, between that and the incredibly creepy symbiote language (wonderfully rendered by Cowles in both balloons and text), the Knull controlled symbiotes are just this scary, uncontrollable visual of a feral monster.
Brendan: There are a couple words in that alien language that pop up a few times. They’ve gotta be swears. I wanna know what symbiotes sound like when they’re cussing people out in their native tongue.
Tony: Or it’s just “I want to eat your brains!” in symbiote-ese. I wonder if anyone ever sat down and tried to translate that, now that you say that though…
Martin’s color art is really great too. I like how he’s able to balance a sort of noir sensibility with this cosmic horror story. His use of reds really stands out in particular. With all the noir-ish feel of the first couple issues, the reds just pop as the horror builds. It’s good work.
So what’s your verdict?
Brendan: I like it. There’s a really cool Jekyll/Hyde thing going on, but then it turns out Hyde isn’t such a monster after all. Does that happen in the original? I forget. Just really good horror, wrapped into a superhero spin-off. Spider-Man does appear as a character in this one, but it really stands alone as a Venom-centered story.
Tony: Awesome. So what’s next?
Brendan: Let’s do Image Comics’ Redlands Vol. 1: Sisters by Blood, by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa R. Del Rey.
Tony: Awesome, that’s one I’ve wanted to check out for a while!
Venom V1: Rex is available now in print and digital editions from Marvel Comics. This story arc is also collected in Venom by Donny Cates V1.