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'Venom: Carnage Unleashed' review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts

Comic Books

‘Venom: Carnage Unleashed’ review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts

But it’s better than it sounds — even better than it WAS.

Boy, Marvel sure is pumping out a lot of Venom collected editions lately. It’s almost like there’s a movie coming out next year!

Cynical marketing or not, it’s a grand time for fans of the combined villainous entity. Edge of Venomverse proved itself to be a quirky yet quality little compendium, but how about some of that old time slobbering? Saints be praised and brains be eaten, Venom: Carnage Unleashed is here! It’s a little bit of a misleading title, as you don’t see a whole lot of that OTHER psychopathic goo monster, beyond the four-issue mini-series that lends this volume its name.

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It’s a good choice, though, because Carnage Unleashed is easily the best story here — even if you didn’t love it if you read it at the time. The title is a riff on Maximum Carnage, but not the storyline, the GAME. Larry Hama opens Unleashed up with Venom tearing down a poster of his symbiotic spawn, decrying the debilitating effects of violent video games as he crushes the bones of some street thugs.

It’s a sly, very subtle commentary on ’90s excess, complete with references to bawdy talkshows, that also lampoons the hysterical reactions to same. That might have been missed when Carnage Unleashed was published, the series possibly being dismissed as another example of the decadence the story itself poked fun at.

'Venom: Carnage Unleashed' review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts

And it’s stunningly prophetic about the rise of MMORPGs. Seriously, this thing hit stands in 1995. I barely knew the internet existed at that point, but here was Carnage, sending tendrils through the network to choke out all the pimply punks depraved enough to join him for their big, online play session. Okay, that’s pretty out there, but it still fits, doesn’t it? Carnage Unleashed is like some bizarre hybrid of Hackers, The Lawnmower Man and Nightmare on Elm Street, and even though it was a fine story 20 years ago, looking back, it’s an even better one now.

Sinner Takes All, Hama’s five-issue, immediate follow-up, doesn’t approach the relevance of Unleashed, but it’s not a bad tale, and its attention to detail is impressive. Not just any writer would research all those Bible verses to stick in the mouth of the new Sin-Eater.

Okay, the mother of a Carnage Unleashed character scenery-chewingly seeking revenge is a little cringeworthy, but the “She-Venom” that Sinner is most known (and derided) for? It’s a perfectly fine plot development that grows organically from the action. And it only takes up a few pages here and there, so what’s the outrage for? S--t, maybe this story is more progressive than I thought.

'Venom: Carnage Unleashed' review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts

The final big piece in Carnage Unleashed is the infamous Planet of the Symbiotes, penned by David Micheline and spread out over five one-shots called The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Venom, and Web of Spider-Man Super Specials. And this one … well, this one probably deserves its less than stellar reputation.

I mean, it could be worse. Sure, the symbiote separating from Eddie Brock and psychically shrieking into the sky, leading to an invasion force of alien costumes taking over the world and possessing Captain America (before it was cool!), only for Carnage to start eating them, growing into a sort of Cletus Kaiju — you know what, I’m not going to finish this sentence. It’s not good, okay?! But, uh, Ben Reilly? Yay?

The 10-page “Things Dreamt Of” story from the Venom Super Special, by Dan Slott and Mark Bagley, is probably the highlight of the whole iffy thing. Carnage Unleashed is actually capped off with more Slott, in the form of “Trial Run,” a back-up story about the Jury that ran in Sinner Takes All. It’s a neat, early glimpse into the workings of his developing Spider-mind, and shows how Slott likes to move the story significantly forward in each installment, making for the second-most enjoyable read of the volume.

'Venom: Carnage Unleashed' review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts

Besides Bagley’s contribution, there’s not much more to say about the art other than, “That’s what I call ’90s, baby!” The pencils by Andrew Wildman, Art Nichols and Joe Rubenstein in the Unleashed mini are pretty much interchangeable with those of Greg Luzniak, Scott Koblish, Jimmy Palmiotti, Ken Branch and Ted Halsted in Sinner, which are pretty much interchangeable with those of Ralph Cabrera, Joe St. Pierre, Kyle Holtz, Darick Robertson and Steve Ligthle in Planet and John Calimee’s in Trial Run. Well, the figures in Sinner are a little more exaggerated, but it’s remarkably (and boringly?) consistent. The same can be said for the colors of Tom Smith, Mark Bernardo, Marianne Lightle and Joe Andreani.

It might sound like there’s too much “meh” in Venom: Carnage Unleashed to be worth it, but the eponymous mini and Slott’s “Trial Run” have aged amazingly (and almost spookily) well, so much so that they’ve actually transcended how good they were at the time. You should always try to judge a story by what it set out to do, and these two not only succeed, but are even more enjoyable and relevant now, in hindsight. That’s rare, and probably worthy of your $34.99.

'Venom: Carnage Unleashed' review: Surprising social commentary cut with cynical marketing stunts
Venom: Carnage Unleashed
Is it good?
It's equal parts "better than it was" and "as bad as you remember." You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have "Venom: Carnage Unleashed."
Eponymous mini is surprisingly smart and frighteningly prescient
"Trial Run" is a good look at what Slott will bring to the Spider-verse
"She-Venom" isn't as bad you remember
"Planet of the Symbiotes" is just as bad as you remember
Art is pretty standard for the time period; nothing stands out
That crazy pseudo-stage mom in "Sinner Takes All"

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