Venom Overview: The Madness

Bored amid a global pandemic, I decided to dive into the flurry of Venom miniseries from the mid-90s (recently reprinted in the Venomnibus collections) and discuss this often-forgotten era of the character. Apparently, I don’t have anything better to do. Most of these stories are wholly new to me, and I am writing each review fresh after reading. All things considered, I don’t expect high art from these comics, but they should be well-crafted entertainment. In Venom Overview: Lethal Protector, I reviewed the somewhat shaky launch of the character’s solo adventures by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley, remaining optimistic that the better aspects of the first miniseries would influence its successors. This second installment of my overview will explore Venom: The Madness and other miscellaneous comics in which Venom appeared contemporarily.

Guest Appearances

Following Venom: Funeral Pyre in Venomnibus Vol. 1, the character guest-stars in a few other titles, interrupting the main flow of his solo miniseries. The fact that the character appears in four other titles over the span of five months indicates that Venom exposure had reached a peak.

First up, the character’s appearances in Silver Sable #18 and the subsequent issue are highly entertaining. Steven Butler proves to be a stellar artist for Venom, detailing the popping veins and uneven teeth of a slightly more monstrous version of the character than that illustrated by Mark Bagley. Butler understands the extravagant spectacle of Venom, making him the main attraction of every page on which he appears. This guest appearance devolves into delightful chaos as soon as the character enters with slime flinging from his jaws. Perhaps my favorite moment among a collection of over-the-top absurdities is Venom’s attempt to escape the grip of Sandman (who was reformed as a member of Sable’s Wild Pack in the mid-90s) by unhinging his jaw and biting through the sand. Writer Gregory Wright accommodates Butler’s wild art with a fun script that moves quickly and self-consciously recognizes its own madness enough to make it work. Wright succeeds in capturing David Michelinie’s voice for Venom as the character both self-righteously admonishes the Wild Pack for offering their services for profit and jokes about Gwen Stacy’s death while saving Sable. The story follows the generic framework of battle-then-team-up, and the monsters facing the protagonists somewhat lazily tie into an unexplained crossover. Frankly, the story moves fast enough that none of that matters. This excellent guest appearance makes me want to hunt down more of the Wright/Butler Sable run, so the marketing trick of Venom’s inclusion accomplishes its goal.

Next up, Venom appears in Daredevil #323 and feels wholly out-of-place. This issue acts as the fourth installment of a heavily involved storyline, and writer D.G. Chichester stuffs the comic with subplots galore. I was able to pick up a general sense of what was going on, and one thing is clear: this is dark 90s edginess in full swing. Daredevil broods in a gray-and-red costume. The Hand deals heroin and resides in the shadows, contrasting with the cartoonish street gang in Venom: Funeral Pyre. In a sense, Daredevil is the type of gritty, street-level book Venom’s own solo miniseries could mirror if the lingering Spider-Man influence subsides. While Eddie Brock may not be disjoint from this title tonally, he feels peripheral in this particular story. The plot follows the large cast of characters’ hunt for a miracle virus, and Venom flies from San Francisco to New York hoping to overcome his vulnerability to fire and sonics with the virus. This hardly feels like the type of plot in which Venom would typically involve himself. He oddly repeats that immunity to fire and sonics would make him more powerful than Spider-Man even though the two are no longer mortal enemies. The character’s dialogue at least feels more accurate than in Funeral Pyre, which isn’t saying much. Although I’ve felt ambivalent about his work elsewhere, Scott McDaniel’s art serves as the highlight of this comic. The influence of Frank Miller is obvious, and the figures are carved of blacks, reminiscent of Sin City. Venom contorts his body into unique positions, providing for eye-catching visuals. McDaniel’s storytelling can often be unclear, as is the case occasionally in this issue, but inker Hector Collazo succeeds in bringing general clarity to the pencils. Nevertheless, this is a comic Venom fans can comfortably skip.

Of all places, Venom next appears in Iron Man #302 by writer Len Kaminski, penciller Kevin Hopgood, and inker Steve Mitchell. Tony Stark’s company has apparently run into some controversy, and the billionaire playboy’s body is nearly paralyzed. This all sound very interesting, but Kaminski fails to recap why any of this is the case. Rather, readers dive head-first into a scene in which Venom assassinates Tony Stark as justice for the still-unclear controversy only to discover he killed an android. He then proceeds to find his real target, leading to a horrific, rather well-done scene of Venom chasing Stark, who frantically drags himself to an elevator. The ensuing battle with Iron Man is brief, and the antihero quickly leaves with a warning that he has his eye on Stark. This issue feels like a shameless attempt to boost sales, unfortunate considering that Iron Man’s #300 should have already done this. In any case, Hopgood illustrates an excellent Venom with many gratuitous-but-welcome splashes. He clearly follows the Lethal Protector character template with his pencils, which Mitchell’s thick, almost Klaus Janson-esque inks complement nicely. Kaminski also gives Venom a voice that feels authentically similar to Michelinie’s. Overall, this comic is fun enough, but the fact that I have no idea what is happening in the overall title after reading this guest appearance suggests its attempt to gain new readers failed.

The fourth and final guest appearance appears in Darkhawk #35-37. Like many series in the 90s, Darkhawk attempts to capture the essence of early Spider-Man adventures, following a teenage superhero who struggles to balance his personal life with heroics. However, the book also seems to be modeled on the success of children’s television shows. Darkhawk looks like he was designed to be an action figure, oddly reminiscent of Power Rangers. Whether this was the case or not, Darkhawk intends to reach younger readers, which makes Venom something of an odd fit. Writer Danny Fingeroth doesn’t tone down Venom’s rants about eating brains and generally portrays the character accurately (even inserting a forced reference to his estranged father). This is expected considering Fingeroth’s role as editor of the contemporary flurry of Venom miniseries. Like in the previous two guest appearances, Venom feels tacked onto an involved plot in which he isn’t necessary. The main villain both kidnaps Darkhawk’s father and plans to steal Venom’s symbiote. Pursuing their respective goals, the two heroes coincidentally meet to fight each other and then team up against the villain and his awfully designed minions, the Seekers. To Fingeroth’s credit, Darkhawk never turns away from his mission to arrest Venom, avoiding the cliché of heroes suddenly flipping a switch and collaborating with the antihero against a common foe. However, the dialogue itself is stiff (although I have read worse from Fingeroth) and the plotting is bizarre. Frankly, I am impressed this title lasts for fifty issues considering how terribly the opening half of the first chapter resolves what I assume were ongoing subplots in the title. The artwork by Tod Smith proves to be the weakest of the four team-ups. While his sense of layouts appears proficient, the execution falters with odd proportions and generally awkward body language and facial expressions. Everything looks rushed. This unfortunately kills the entertainment of the book for me, but I will luckily forget everything that happens here in about a month anyways. (Update while proofreading: I did.)

In general, Venom feels superfluous in these team-ups, and his appearances were likely editorial-driven. Silver Sable makes the best of Venom’s appearance, but the other titles have no business featuring the character. I must give the editors, especially Venom editor Danny Fingeroth, credit for making every story generally accurate to the Lethal Protector continuity. Every writer acknowledges to some extent that Venom is now an antihero and resides in San Francisco. This latter point remains especially interesting in these situations. The decision to locate Venom in San Francisco, like Scarlet Spider (Vol. 2’s setting in Houston, gives the character his own space to develop outside of New York. However, writers who want to (or are mandated to) bring Venom together with another, usually New York-oriented character must find some plot device for them meet up. In both Daredevil and the contemporaneous Maximum Carnage, Eddie takes planes to New York. How he affords this while being practically homeless escapes me. In Funeral Pyre, Potts provides a quick explanation for Punisher’s presence in California, while both Silver Sable and Darkhawk fly to San Francisco to meet Venom. Unless future Venom writers decide to better integrate and emphasize this setting, the West Coast seems more like a hinderance for Marvel’s plans with the character than an advantage.

Venom: The Madness

The Madness is a fitting title for Venom’s third miniseries. I probably should have expected a bizarre book once I realized Ann Nocenti and Kelley Jones are the creative team. Nocenti may be best known for writing a lengthy run on Daredevil and creating Typhoid Mary and Longshot. I am most familiar with her scattershot collection of Spider-Man stories, which are quirky, funny, surreal, and confusing all at once. Rarely do they feel like traditional Spider-Man stories. Her interests don’t lie in conventional superhero storytelling, marking her an inspired choice to write a Venom book. Similarly, Jones has a very distinct, often unsettling artistic style with a unique sense of how to depict human figures and use blacks. The majority of the creators who have written Venom to this point approached the character from the lens of superhero comics, which makes sense considering his introduction as a Spider-Man villain. The superhero influence proved useful to ease Spider-Man readers into Venom: Lethal Protector. However, the cornier aspects of the genre reared their ugly heads with Funeral Pyre’s laughable gangs and awful antagonist. Recognizing the potential to explore different types of stories, Nocenti and Jones are consciously uninterested in superheroics.

After an odd, psychedelic dream sequence that readers might initially brush off as aberrant, this Venom story begins like most others: the character beats up some goons in an alleyway. However, even in this street level sequence, something feels off, heightened by Kelley’s distortion of faces and the way he blacks out characters’ eyes entirely. Readers may not fully suspect as much at this point, but they are about to embark on a Venom story that is horrific, psychedelic, and darkly funny. The Madness follows a rather typical 90s plot of an evil corporation, Scarmore, that dumps chemicals into lakes and generally acts shady. Eddie Brock decides to assist lawyer Beck Underwood, in whom he also develops a romantic interest, as she takes on this company. However, the plot regarding Scarmore isn’t the driving force of the story. Rather, Nocenti focuses on Eddie’s psyche in a way no writer has before. Eddie Brock becomes mad when a sentient toxin in the Scarmore’s chemicals infects him, but it quickly becomes clear his madness precluded the chemicals’ influence. Nocenti fills this three-issue miniseries to the brim with ideas. Even attempting to provide an overview of its linear plot feels absurd and misleading to the story’s actual content.

In a deconstruction of Eddie Brock that seems almost obvious in retrospect, Nocenti keys into the character’s obsessiveness and self-righteousness, which surface in his relationship with Beck. In their first romantic moment, Beck is drawn to Eddie’s intensity and tragedy, leaning in to kiss him but pulling away fearfully when a symbiotic tendril caresses her hand. Despite this warning sign, their relationship only unravels in the second issue during one of the most disturbing sequences in Venom’s history. While he is under the influence of Scarmore’s toxin, Nocenti heavily implies that Venom attempts to rape Beck. The lawyer resists him, but the symbiote overwhelms Eddie as he seethes, “Protect the innocent. Eat the innocent. No, love the innocent to death.” Jones’s art descends into pure horror in a one-page splash of Venom’s tongue circling his screaming lover. The artist makes a point to keep the upper portion of Eddie’s face uncovered by the symbiote, implying that this awful act is not solely the symbiote’s doing. Only the arrival of Juggernaut, the supposed antagonist, saves Beck. Like he was once single-mindedly obsessed with killing Spider-Man, Venom is now unhealthily obsessed with protecting the innocent, as represented by Beck. Nocenti mirrors Venom’s obsession with that of Abby Rubin, a victim of Scarmore’s testing who infects Eddie with “contagious” ideas about harsh justice. The motif of infection plays an important role in the story, as the symbiote is called a “cancer” and “ bad habit.” Infection by Scarmore’s toxins pushes Eddie to the brink of madness, but Nocenti makes clear that his fixations have already made him unwell.

While Venom is supposed to be a “hero” now, Nocenti casts him in a decidedly different light. If this was a by-the-numbers superhero story, Juggernaut would be the clear antagonist. Nocenti plays into this expectation during the first battle between Venom and Juggernaut, poking fun at the expectation of a serious conflict by inserting sound effects into the dialogue. Juggernaut shouts, “Now I’m gonna -- WOMP -- ya one! An’ how ‘bout a -- KRAK -- ta the gut!” Following this ironic superhero fight scene, Venom rarely acts like a subdued “lethal protector.” After Rubin rants about the Scarmore’s evil president, Eddie decides to sneak into the villain’s office and kill him. In an absurd twist, he actually murders a poor maid. Nocenti’s Venom isn’t a hero but an “attack dog,” as noted by Beck. If Eddie is an attack dog, the symbiote tends to be his master. In the third issue, he travels to a psychedelic realm containing metaphysical manifestations of Insanity and Paranoia. Nocenti lays on irony as Venom believes he overcomes these concepts by punching them, as is typical of heroes in spandex. Hitting Paranoia, Venom yells, “I am not paranoid! I’m just right!” Then, he discovers he is punching empty cloth. The leader of this mad realm, Dusk, sums up Nocenti’s overall point when he says, “The logic of the lunatic is so deceptive.” Venom ends this adventure thinking he has triumphantly overcome his madness with senseless violence, but Dusk knows he’ll be back. The main character returns to Earth to rescue Beck, who is a hostage of Juggernaut. In a cute twist, Beck and Juggernaut have actually been getting along, talking out the latter’s problems, and the villain simply leaves when he realizes he won’t be paid by Scarmore for kidnapping her. The evil corporation has fallen apart after the president’s right hand man gains a conscience and comes clean about the company’s shadiness. Venom’s “heroic” efforts only amount to a dead maid and an unproductive fight with insanity.

Although I touched on Kelley Jones’s art in my story analysis, I should clarify the clean stylistic break his work represents compared to the prior artists. His depiction of Venom is inconsistent and unpredictable, reflecting Nocenti’s vision for the character. Despite a clear Todd McFarlane influence, he draws a new, bizarre Venom with absurd musculature and an insane grin. While Mark Bagley makes sure readers recognize a human resides beneath the symbiote, Jones makes no guarantees. The character is almost too much to look at in some panels. Interestingly, Jones’s version of Venom that features an array of tiny heads popping out of his neck remains popular, largely thanks to a toy manufactured during this period. Beyond depicting a monstrous Venom, Jones easefully shifts between a more realistic to a cartoony, angular style for faces depending on the scene. This pliable style allows the book to transition between ironic, over-the-top superheroics to horror and psychedelia fairly easily. The standout scene, as noted earlier, is the bedroom scene, but Venom’s venture into the psychedelic realm is eye-catching as well. Jones proves to be a unique artist, and I can’t blame anyone for finding his inconsistency and weird sense of anatomy to be too much. However, I feel like it generally fits the purposes of the script with which he is working.

Despite my praise, I should emphasize that Venom: The Madness is far from perfect book. The largest problem proves to be its pacing. I fail to understand why this miniseries is only three issues when Nocenti crams more like four or five issues worth of ideas into it. Eddie and Beck’s relationship would have benefitted from more space to develop, and Nocenti’s script advances at such a breakneck speed that transitions are usually abrupt. There are also points when Jones and Nocenti are at odds with each other. The menacing shading on Beck’s face in her first appearance distracts and misleads from her role as the voice of reason in the series. There are also points in Nocenti’s script that feel a bit too stream-of-consciousness for their own good, and bluntness often clashes with vagueness in a confusing way. This tends to be her normal writing style, but fans of the writer will probably recognize this isn’t her best script. Still, these problems rarely affect the book to such an extent that my enjoyment diminishes.

In the wider trajectory of Venom, The Madness serves as a monkey wrench whose consequences will be interesting to map. I assume this is a controversial book among Venom fans, especially those who like the character as a hero rather than a raging madman. This controversy was probably most vocal following its publication, but editor Danny Fingeroth might not have been able to immediately address fan discontent with the next series starting the following month. At the very least, Beck will likely appear again, even if she is no longer romantically involved with Eddie. The next series will provide a litmus test of whether Fingeroth wants to pursue Venom’s madness or return the character to his role as lethal protector. I highly doubt another writer could replicate Nocenti’s distinct authorial voice and her tonal balance of humor, horror, and psychedelia. The artistic impact of Jones will be important to gauge as well. Whatever the case, the Venom solo adventures could find their own voice and buck their superhero origins using this miniseries as a template.