Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Venom: Birth of a Monster

Venom: Birth of a Monster is a standalone entry in Panini's Marvel Pocket Book series. It contains Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 and Amazing Spider-Man #298-300. The Spectacular issues are written by Peter David and drawn by Rich Buckler and the Amazing issues are by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane.

First published in 2007, it is all too clearly a tie-in to the movie Spider-Man 3. But rather than spotlight the film's most heavily featured villains or show the original Alien Costume Saga we instead get the first full appearance of Venom, the two preceding issues which contain cameos at the end, and the classic "The Death of Jean DeWolff" storyline which Venom's origin feeds off. Or not.

By far the most common criticism of Venom (at least before he was so heavily used that charges of overuse could be made) is the rather weak motivation behind his human side. And the problem is compounded not only because his backstory was hooked into an earlier well-known storyline, but also because it changed the details of how that storyline panned out. Collecting both in a single volume just makes the two stand out all the more.

Now I've written about "The Death of Jean DeWolff" before and so I'm not going to rehash my general opinions here other than to say I would have preferred a Venom-focused collection to have instead included more Venom-focused issues. No matter how great "The Death of Jean DeWolff" is, it just doesn't feel like it has to be here. And not including it would have hidden the great continuity error. During this story the Sin-Eater's neighbour overhears some of the killer's plans and succumbs to delusions, believing himself to be the Sin-Eater and he steals a costume and gun then heads off after the planned next target. However he's soon overpowered and arrested, but Daredevil spots the heartbeat is wrong and he and Spider-Man soon discover the Sin-Eater's real identity.

However when Venom appears his backstory is that journalist Eddie Brock of the Daily Globe had been contacted by the impostor Sin-Eater and run interviews with him, concealing the identity until legal advice forced it out. Then soon after the revelation the real Sin-Eater was caught, the Globe humiliated and Brock sacked. Brock had fallen for a liar but blamed Spider-Man for exposing the true killer, reasoning that with an arrest the real killer might have dropped out of sight. Now there's nothing at all in the actual Sin-Eater storyline that supports this chain of events so it's an awkward retcon. And there's no real need to tie Brock's downfall into a pre-existing storyline. There is a huge history of Spider-Man himself being accused of one crime or another, only to prove himself innocent and any case of over-eager journalism could have sufficed. But even then Brock's story feels hollow. In the real world journalistic ethics have had a lot of exposure in recent years thanks to revelations of the means by which some journalists obtained stories and at times interfered with police investigations. Brock's story may have been based on a real world journalist's handling of a purported killer but his attribution of blame on the hero who brought down the real killer rather than himself for being so rash in pursuit of a story feels hollow. Yes numerous other villains have silly origins and motivations, and Brock is shown as angry, depressed and suicidal so probably not in the right frame of mind anyway, but few of the debut stories of other Spider-Man villains went to such depths to try to establish a degree of credibility to the new foe's motivations. With Venom the attempt just comes off badly.

It also doesn't help that Eddie Brock was a completely new character with no established conflict with either Spider-Man or Peter Parker. Starting with the mid 1990s Spider-Man cartoon it became commonplace for retellings of the Venom story in whatever mediums to provide just such a longstanding conflict. The cartoon made Brock a rival photographer at the Bugle who comes to hate both Peter and Spider-Man, but gets sacked when he conceals photographs in order to make Spidey look like a criminal. The film Spider-Man 3 does the same but also makes him a contemporary of Peter and a seeming rival with women - basically Lance Bannon in all but name. Such approaches, and there have been others based around the Ultimate universe approach of making Brock a fellow science student who was once Peter's friend, work much better because the hate feels much more solid and also it reinforces the idea of Venom being a version of Spider-Man gone wrong.

The idea of a villain who shares enough elements with the hero to be a distorted mirror image is fairly standard and often attempts are made to add elements to existing foes to push them in that direction - both the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus have experienced this over the years. It's rarer to introduce a lasting foe who is much more explicitly a distorted reflection, right down to the appearance and powers. And just to add to everything riding on this, Venom was introduced in what was both the 300th issue of the main Spider-Man series and the 25th anniversary celebration. It was an odd choice to use such a landmark issue to introduce a new villain and although he went on to massive glories, on the evidence of just the issues in this collection it seems like a mistake to give him such an accolade.

The build-up in the previous two issues is minimal - just a page or two at the end of each. The rest of issues #298 & #299 are given over to a two-part story involving Chance, a gambling mercenary from Michelinie's earlier run on Web of Spider-Man, and who would be largely forgotten if not for the moments at the end. All three Amazing issues come from the first year after Peter married Mary Jane and featured his continued worries about the fact he makes far less money than her, plus some of the problems of being a married superhero such as having to let his wife know when he'll be late or coming home to find she has visitors and/or cleaners in the flat. Then there's Aunt May worrying that over intrusive relatives can undermine a new marriage and so she's keeping her distance. The final issue also sees Peter move out of the flat he's rented for many years, as he and Mary Jane need a bigger place and after her encounter with Venom there MJ feels she can never be comfortable in the flat again. For similar reasons she makes Peter abandon his black and white costume for good and resume wearing the traditional red and blue version. It's surprising just how much happens in these issues.

Unfortunately this doesn't leave too much space for Venom. We get a flashback as he terrorises Mary Jane, causing Peter to deduce the alien costume has survived, and then a protracted search once Spider-Man has borrowed the Fantastic Four's sonic gun. However the costume is too far bonded to Brock for this to work - but it's a good piece of continuity to establish just why it can't be disposed of as easily as it was before. The encounter between Spider-Man and his dark reflection is quick and establishes the new foe as a force to be reckoned with but nothing too spectacular. Venom's appearance is also restrained here - the pocket book cover by Jon Haward explicitly homages McFarlane by taking some of his famous images of Spider-Man and putting Venom in a similar pose. However it's Venom after Erik Larsen modified the appearance to add features such as the elongated jaw, the large tongue, the spiked teeth, the distorted eyes and so forth. McFarlane's Venom is little more than a bulked up Spider-Man with a visible mouth.

All in all this collection is a little disappointing. "The Death of Jean DeWolff" doesn't need to be here and the Chance issues are forgettable. That leaves Venom's first full appearance but it just shows how underdeveloped and poorly thought through the character was at first. It would have been much better to have included some later appearances to show how he developed as time went on. Still the pocketbook was surprisingly cheap when published - RRP £3.99 - and the real problem is with how weakly conceived Venom was to start with.

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