By this point, it’s kind of a given that while Norman Osborn is Spidey’s greatest foe, Venom will probably always be his most popular foe. But really, who or what is Venom? Villain, anti-hero, monster, parasite? The fact is, Venom is a lot of different people, and yet the same all the time. But, like a lot of Spidey’s villains, he’s had good times and bad times as far as depictions go.
By this point, we all know the story, whether you learned from the original comics or the various cartoons and film. While in the film and cartoons it was simply an alien that ends up on Earth and encounters him, in the comics Spidey first encountered the black symbiote while on Battleworld, during the event called Secret Wars. When Spider-Man’s costume was damaged, he thought that he found the machine that the other heroes had used to repair their costumes. Instead, it released a black substance that coated Peter, and emulated the appearance of the second Spider-Woman, black with a white spider on the front and back, and white eyes. At first, the suit seemed like a godsend, since it could shapeshift into civilian clothes and create its own webbing. But when Peter found out it was a living creature trying to bond with him, and was taking him out for joyrides while he slept, he had the Fantastic Four remove it. It eventually escaped, tried to bond with him again, and in the bell tower of a church, Peter managed to force it off using its weakness to high sonic vibrations. Interestingly, the symbiote then risked its own life to save Peter from death, and seemed to die after saving the man it “loved”.
By the time Eddie Brock entered the story, Peter was used to wearing a cloth version of the black suit (apparently, the look was popular enough to have it return for action stories and scenes at night). When Venom started making tiny appearances, it was creepy. After all, not many people can just shove Peter Parker off a subway platform without him sensing an attack. When Venom made his first full appearance, it was to terrorize the wallcrawler’s wife. We eventually find out that Eddie was a reporter who wrote a story about the Sin Eater (from the popular storyline The Death of Jean DeWolff, which I will cover later), and when Spider-Man caught the real one, it ruined Eddie’s life and career. He ended up a suicidal, broken tabloid writer spewing venomous articles. When he went to a church to pray for forgiveness for his anger and plans for suicide, the symbiote found him and they bonded, now sharing an intense hatred against Spidey. And thus, Venom was born.
During his early stories, Venom quickly became popular. It helped that he looked like a scarier, bigger version of Spider-Man, and completely had Spidey beat due to intimate knowledge of the webslinger’s personal life and being able to cancel out Peter’s spider-sense. The early stories had something special when it came to Venom: his utter, personal hatred of Spidey. Unlike other villains, who had further aspirations beyond killing our hero, Venom would have been content just to kill him and then live the rest of his life never harming another soul. After one of the best stories I’ve read with Venom, where he kidnapped Peter to a deserted island to hunt and torment the hero until his death, ended by proving that point. Peter fakes his death and escapes, and Venom is content to just live out his life on the island, perfectly happy. It would have been great, except for one tiny problem.
During his stint in prison, Eddie Brock was cellmates with Cletus Kasady, a serial killer with no morals or sanity. When the symbiote rescued Eddie, it gave birth to a new symbiote. This mutant symbiote (due to being born on Earth) bonded with Kasady, and Kasady’s madness was so great that it overrode the creature (referring to himself as “I” rather than “We” like Brock). Now as a stronger, more dangerous creature called Carnage, Kasady started a killing spree with no logic or pattern, chaos for chaos’ sake. Brock was a lot of things, but like I said, his issue was only with Spidey, even going as far as to save lives while trying to kill the hero. Spidey realized he had no choice but to bring Venom back into his life in order to stop Carnage. Venom’s desire to protect innocents led to an awesome team-up, and the beginning of what most people call his Lethal Protector stage.
Eventually, Venom’s popularity led to him getting his own books, promoting this new Lethal Protector line. And this is where the writing behind started to go bad. The thing was, the best Venom stories as an anti-hero were the ones where we acknowledged that he was a monster, but basically a monster version of Spider-Man. So, while he protected innocent lives, he always abused the power he had in doing so, and constantly blamed his problems on Spidey, even after their truce. A good example of this was during Maximum Carnage, which had a big question about if murdering was a good thing if it was murdering murderers. During that, he was basically the devil on Spidey’s shoulders telling him to just kill the bad guys. But yeah, the good use of Venom as an anti-hero was often limited. In the end of the 90’s, he basically flipped back and forth between being a cliche anti-hero, and a one-note villain that somehow wanted to eat brains. It was an odd time.
The other problem was the retcons. Before, the symbiote was just a creature that bonded to others and enhanced their natural abilities, with a few tricks learned from Spidey. Then, it basically made people more aggressive and crueler, making them monsters. Then it suddenly fed on adrenaline, and Eddie apparently had cancer this whole time that caused him to secrete adrenaline like crazy. And then suddenly, Eddie was no longer the dominant personality, but the symbiote-version of Eddie. Granted, during his anti-hero phase, Eddie noticed that he was more aggressive and dangerous than when the symbiote was separated from him. But suddenly, we were no longer dealing with Eddie talking for the pair, just a monster.
Venom eventually got some new life in the 2000’s. Mark Millar’s run on Marvel Knights: Spider-Man introduced a new angle to Venom. Eddie Brock, always a Catholic, decides that he has to atone for his sins, and auctions off the symbiote with plans to give the money to charity. After a disastrous attempt by Angelo Fortunato, the son of a mob boss, resulted in his death, the symbiote found a new host in Mac Gargan, the former Scorpion. As Venom, Gargan suddenly was an A-list threat, cannibalizing foes and victims while working for Norman Osborn on his Thunderbolts team, and when Osborn became head of world security and made his Dark Avengers, Venom became his Sinister Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Eddie Brock, now a reformed man who has accepted his faults and failures, became a new anti-hero appropriately called Anti-Venom, whose leftover symbiote cells bonded to his white blood cells and gave him new powers, and the ability to cure people’s diseases (and possibly disable Spidey’s power since they’re radiation-based).
After the fall of Osborn, the Venom symbiote was taken from Gargan by the US government to be used as their black ops weapon. With Peter Parker’s high school bully turned friend and war veteran Flash Thompson now wearing the suit, struggling to keep the symbiote in check, and now serving as part of Captain America’s Secret Avengers, and Eddie Brock sacrificing his Anti-Venom powers to cure the people of New York during the Spider Island story, the future is starting to look interesting again for Venom. Here’s hoping that we see more good stories and less exploiting of the character for sales and popularity.