For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably already have some kind of impression of my opinion on Rick Remender’s 22 Venom issues. It’s no secret, I think that, on the whole, they’re incredible. Venom, containing issues 1-5 is comfortably in my top 2 favourite Marvel graphic novels (alongside Fear Itself). I was going to say top 3, then I realised that I didn’t know which one would join them there. But I digress. Having finished the last three issues last night, in the climax of the Savage Six mini-story arc, I reckon it’s time to share my love for this series with the world in a less restrictive medium than the 140 character limit you get on Twitter.
So what makes Venom 1-22 so amazing? Ah, I was hoping you’d ask that! Marvel have a history of flawed heroes. One of the things that grabbed the attention of the public in their early days was the gritty, realistic side to the lives of their heroes’ alter-egos, something that distinguished them from their long-time rival, DC Comics. In the combination of Venom, a bloodthirsty alien symbiote that needs to bond itself to a human host (normally turning them into powerful villains), and Flash Thompson, who, in Remender’s own words, ‘had lost his legs heroically in the service of his country and who had suffered and abusive, alcoholic father and struggled with addiction himself’, Rick Remender managed to take Marvel’s tried and tested formula one step further.
The development of Thompson as a man and a hero throughout the 22 issues is what really makes Remender’s work something special. Details of his abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father are dragged into the open even as Flash finds himself dragged closer to the rock bottom of alcoholism. His addictive nature extends to the Venom symbiote, which he finds himself relying on and craving more and more, despite its danger. His relationships with his girlfriend, Betty, his mother and even, later on, the Avengers are all impacted by his personal vices. Furthermore, he’s not a hero always fighting for the greater good. After accepting the Venom symbiote out of duty to his country (once a soldier, always a soldier), he finds that his motivation for fighting becomes more and more self-centred, a very different progression to what one might expect to see in a hero.
Remender was also given this task, again in his own words: ‘to take B and C list villains and build them up into real threats’. Thus, Venom’s rivalry with the psychopathic Jack O’Lantern emerges in issue 1, and a supporting cast of B and C list villains (and heroes) soon follow over the 22 issues in the shape of characters like Crime Master, X-23 and the Human Fly. Jack O’Lantern is by far the best of these. He’s a serial killer, first and foremost, and some of his killings are truly horrific. He’s also completely insane. Best of all, he knows exactly how to push Flash Thompson’s buttons, leading to some titanic clashes with the outraged Venom symbiote he’s bonded to.
The issues themselves have been divided into 4 graphic novels: Venom (1-5), Amazing Spider-Man: Spider Island (in which issues 6-9 appear alongside Amazing Spider-Man issues), Venom: Circle of Four (10-14) and Venom: The Savage Six (15-22). The Spider Island issues are quite different from the others as they take place in a wider comic book arc, and as such there isn’t so much development of the character (though his circumstances to change a bit). Issues 6-9 are good, and I enjoyed the Spider Island event on the whole, but the focus is more on Spider-Man, so Venom’s qualities don’t always shine through.
As for the other three, I’ll start with the weakest and work my way up. In terms of story-line, Circle of Four was, for me, the weakest. The supernatural elements it brings in, with Mephisto’s son trying to make Hell on Earth (or at least, Hell in Las Vegas), and the support of characters like Dr. Strange and Ghost Rider, don’t really work with Venom, in my opinion. That said, the character of Flash Thompson evolves fantastically as he’s physically and emotionally pushed to his limits. His alcoholism and his relationships take a drastic turn for the worse and suddenly there’s a crucial divide between the heroic front he puts on when fighting alongside Red Hulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider, and the broken man inside the suit. Those character changes were necessary for the progression of the wider story, but I feel that they would have been even better if the storyline had been more down to earth.
In the middle of the three is The Savage Six. The question of superhero secret identities made so important in Civil War comes to the fore here as Crime Master, who knows Venom’s identity, assembles a team of 6 disgusting and powerful villains to rip his life apart. This is the finale to the series, back in New York and far away from the supernatural shenanigans of Las Vegas and it’s a worthy exit for Remender. Revulsion at the Savage Six goes alongside alternating bouts of sympathy and despair for Flash Thompson as, cut off from all help from the Avengers, he tries to save everyone he cares about. I won’t say anymore on the storyline, and though I thought that some elements of the book were a bit gratuitous, it was a fitting way to bring this story arc to a close.
By far the best of the collected editions, however, was the first: Venom. In a story reaching from Eastern Europe to New York, Remender started his run on the book with a bang (literally: there are lots of explosions in the first issue). The crucial relationships are established, most notably Flash and Betty, Venom and Jack O’Lantern, and, most importantly of all, Flash and the symbiote. He struggles with the symbiote, trying to keep it under control (and not always succeeding). The symbiote preys off all of Flash’s most negative emotions, his anger and his pain and it takes every ounce of his mental strength to stop it consuming him completely.
What Remender has created is not a hero who has it all together, who is in control of his powers and at peace with himself and his motivation, but a hero who wears a suit that’s trying to consume him, with a life that’s hanging together by the finest of threads. The story that plays out over the 22 issues is gripping and unpredictable, it’s the superhero genre at its finest. I currently have the next 8 issues on order, and I look forward to seeing where Cullen Bunn and Tom Brennan take Flash Thompson next.