One of the most depressing trends of the early-to-mid 90s in the comics industry was the practice of taking a popular villain, giving him his own title, and then turning him into a hero, or at the very least a morally ambiguous anti-hero. The idea was that if a particular villain had built up a fan base in a particular comic, then those fans would flock to see him in his own title. The main problem was that, alas, more often than not, when shifting from the role of antagonist to protagonist, most of these characters lost many of the traits that made them entertaining.
That isn't to say thrusting a former villain into the spotlight is always disastrous. The Punisher, once a second-tier rival of Spider-Man, is probably the most famous and successful example of this. Avid readers of Garth Ennis's work might note the best stories featuring the character have seldom focused on Frank Castle though, and more often spotlight the people he comes into conflict with. Catwoman continues to be a popular star in her own title for DC. Some villains-turned-heroes have also proven to be solid supporting characters. During Mark Waid's run on The Flash, both Pied Piper and the original Trickster both proved to be more endearing as heroes than they ever were as villains.
Unfortunately these proved to be exceptions to the rule; most of these makeovers proved to be gimmicky and in some cases did long-term damage to the characters, the most grievous examples being DC's Deathstroke The Terminator and our good friend Venom. Slade Wilson, once the most dangerous, evil, and merciless assassin in the DC Universe, was reduced to a second-rate Punisher clone with a habit of getting beaten to a bloody pulp in his own book. Venom received even more deplorable treatment. Once an unpredictable homicidal wildcard in Spider-Man's rogues gallery, Venom suffered from a heavy-duty case of overexposure in the early 90s. The symbiotic monster was everywhere, as his guest appearances seemed mandatory in Marvel's titles. He was in the pages of Wolverine, Sensational She-Hulk, Darkhawk, Silver Sable, Terror Inc... I think at one point a Venom/Millie The Model one-shot was planned.
Worse still was the personality make-over Eddie Brock received shortly after the debut of spin-off villain Carnage (whom Wizard Magazine rightfully deemed "Venom for the ADD crowd.") Venom was illogically, senselessly transformed from an dangerous, unpredictable megalomaniac into self-proclaimed "defender of the innocent." Worse yet, despite seeing him take innocent lives in the past, Spidey was forced to accept Venom's new role. In a landmark case of bad characterization, Spider-Man called a truce with what was once his most feared adversary, ignoring his former crimes and casting a blind eye to the fact he was still using lethal tactics.
Things only got worse for Venom as he starred in a seemingly endless number of mini-series non-events written by such icons of 90s Marvel hack-dom as Howard Mackie and Larry Hama. Marvel cranked out series after series, with some very odd, very ill-conceived gimmicks. Eddie Brock faced a swarm of candy-colored variations of his alter-ego with even less personality than Carnage, confronted a second-rate knockoff of classic menace The Sin-Eater, briefly became a government agent, and even briefly saw a female version of himself. This nonsense finally came to an abrupt halt in the less than aptly named mini-series "Venom: Finale" which saw both Eddie and his alien friend die for all of about 5 minutes.
Venom would shortly return after the post-Clone-Saga reboot, and return to villain status through means every bit as contrived as the attempts to turn him heroic. He appeared in a number of stories since then, pretty much all of them bad, before making his final appearance in during the end of Howard Mackie's largely forgettable Senator Ward storyline.
So now after nearly a three-year hiatus and a successful stint in Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man, Venom is back--well, the symbiote, anyway--with a new series with Eddie Brock nowhere in sight. Considering how inconsistently Eddie's been written over the years, this might not be a bad thing.
Our story begins in northern Canada. Thirty miles north of the arctic circle our heroine, Robertson a communications specialist in the US Army, is making a routine errand run to a lab owned by the Ararat Corporation. Things soon take an ominous tone as a storm begins to rise over the horizon, the lab's intercom system having seemingly gone dead. Suddenly, the box crackles to life, and a desperate plea for help cries out. Robinson's attempt at radioing back to base, alas, is taken less than seriously.
Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Robertson retrieves her gun and steps inside, noticing mysterious black goop on the walls. Startled by the sound of her lead sled-dog Ivan, Robertson nervously presses on before finding a mangled corpse; startled, she falls back. She pauses before finding, to her horror, a severed head in the snow.
"Screw this!" she thinks, heading back to her dogsled before once again hearing a cry for help. Slowly and cautiously making her way through the base, she follows the voice, before stumbling onto a truly gruesome sight in the kitchen/dining area, so much so that she loses her lunch. Dead bodies and black liquid are strewn all around the room. One victim is missing an eye, while another has had an arm ripped off. Yet another has been shoved into a deep fryer, among others.
Regaining her composure, she slowly makes her way around the carnage-filled room, and we briefly catch a glimpse of her being watched by a shadowy figure with an all-too-familiar set of teeth and a forked tongue. She finally finds a terrified, half-crazed civilian survivor locked in the freezer room, who nervously asks "Is it gone?"
Robertson takes the poor guy back to her sled and, despite the protests of Ivan, heads back to base unaware that a shadowy figure is following them. They arrive back at the radar station named "Christmastown" where the civilian is rushed to help. Robertson quickly recounts the story to Colonel Malone, who writes off the incident as a polar bear attack. Another station-worker by the name of Saunders recounts a tale of a frightening polar bear incident at mine-station in Greenland. Malone summarizes that the arctic is a dangerous place where every living thing breaks down into one of two groups "those that eat... and those that get eaten."
Robertson is almost ready to buy this explanation when Malone realizes something. If the only survivor of this ordeal was barricaded in the freezer, half-frozen to death and half crazy, just who was that on the intercom?
Robertson comes to the conclusion that she's made a horrible mistake, as the nameless survivor goes into some manner of seizure. The book comes to a close as we see a horrified grimace on his face. The kind of horrified look I had on my face when I saw the cover of the first issue of "X-Men: Phoenix - Legacy of Fire." (Remember Spider-Fan readers, only you can prevent exposure to badly drawn cheesecake.)
One of the current trends within the Tsunami line, if not Marvel as a whole, is to move the story at a very slow, gradual pace, spending a few issues letting us know exactly who everyone is and what makes them tick before the action starts. In some titles, this approach has worked wonderfully, introducing new characters in books like Sentinel and Runaways and reinventing older ones in books like Human Torch. Alas, in the first issue of Venom, this manner of storytelling works against it. By the end of the first issue we have the feeling we've just seen the opening minutes of a horror movie, just before the opening credits start up. Aside from a flash of teeth and some shadows, we really haven't seen Venom yet. While I didn't feel ripped off, I couldn't help but wish that this was a double-sized issue.
That said, the first issue of Venom's new series is a mix of good and bad. On one hand, Daniel Way's script does a good job of setting up Robertson as a fairly likeable, believable protagonist considering the situation she's put in. The dialog has the right horror-movie feel to it, and Colonel Malone and Saunders both come across as colorful characters. That said, as I mentioned before, the slow pace of story really hurts the book.
Francisco Herrera's art is also a mixed bag. While some have made a big deal about the manga influence on a number of the Tsunami titles, Herrera's pencils seem far more influenced by Dark Horse's original "The Mask" than any Japanese work. His cartoonish style suits some characters well: the designs on Robinson and Malone grew on me on my second reading of the book, however a number of the other human characters are grotesquely caricatured. The buck-toothed design on the Asian base-worker Saunders is particularly cringe-inducing. The biggest problem with Herrera's art is that the panels are badly laid out, and it's sometimes hard to tell what's going on..
That said, I'm still somewhat curious to see his take on the titular character and I'm interested to see which direction Way's going to put this story in.
Overall, Venom #1 is somewhat disappointing, but not half bad. Still, fans desperate to see Venom might want to wait until issue #2 when the fun really begins. What will become of Robertson and the rest of the base? Will we learn the fate of Eddie Brock? I'll be staying tuned till the next issue, true believers.