This review contains minor spoilers.
If Venom: First Host is the close of Mike Costa’s run on writing Venom, and it certainly reads like it is, he’ll get out as one of the more controversial writers of the character. His Venom stories thus far have been replete with sexual imagery, melodramatic romance, and soap-operatic twists and turns that some readers won’t miss while others, such as those who really “ship” Eddie and the Symbiote, won’t find under Donny Cates (potentially, to their dismay). Nevertheless, bringing in O.G. Carnage co-creator and Lethal Protector artist, Mark Bagley (alongside Ron Lim and Paco Diaz), himself for a final story here with First Host is a hell of a move. So, how does the whole thing — billed as a “Venom epic” — pan out? Mostly great! With a few confounding bits that detract more than slightly.
What’s it about? Marvel’s description reads:
Before Eddie Brock…before Peter Parker…there was the Venom symbiote’s first host! And now, that host has returned in need of the symbiote’s help — because only by reuniting can the two prevent cosmic ruin! Meet the Kree soldier named Tel-Kar, and learn a secret chapter in the Venom symbiote’s history! And now, as Venom faces down a Skrull ambush and the universe teeters on the brink, the symbiote must choose: allow its newborn offspring to die, or separate from Eddie Brock — forever!
Make no mistake, on a macro level, it’s the quintessential constantly changing scope creep of Venom’s past and future plotline that so many writers before (and presumably after) Costa have fallen into. Its premise, and the way it plays out, follow predictable beats: something you thought you knew about the symbiote isn’t true! Even Eddie didn’t know! Shock! Awe! Those parts aren’t interesting, undeniably, and even though he is ruthless and somewhat more nuanced than the average villain, Tel-Kar (and his Skrull counterpart, M’lanz) cannot help shake that feeling from the story especially as the final issues start to feel rushed, even improvised: “There were explosions and then, uh, this happened…and then…”
No, where this narrative really shines is in its exploration of Eddie and the symbiote as fathers, a nuanced, emotionally rich and compelling take on the trials that the Venom symbiote has gone through in its interactions with humanity, as well as more specifically in its growth with Eddie. The birth of their child, Sleeper, the seventh (and most powerful) child of the symbiote is a fitting, but still complex, conclusion to the quasi-pregnancy story that was playing out throughout Costa’s time with the character and, I think, the main appeal of the story here because it’s the most truly unique aspect. While Carnage and the Life Foundation symbiotes, are Venom’s children, none are cared for, loved and seemingly (lethally) protected like Sleeper. Costa writes the feelings around that appropriately, too: Eddie and the symbiote are devasted at the idea of harm coming to the child, terrified of what the world might hold for it, and Eddie is empowered by the brief time he spends paired with it. It’s a great, finite, character-focused narrative arc that really hits all the emotive and pacing beats that exemplify what can make Venom books work absent Spider-Man.
What makes Venom work that is, aside from Bagley’s art, which is similarly fantastic when focused on the character and not lost in the larger picture. There’s a scene early on in First Host where, hanging over some would-be burglars, Venom’s face is just absolutely covered in that trademark green goo — it immediately struck me with the same feelings that I got when I read Lethal Protector the first time. Bagley’s Venom is a hulking, monstrous, gooey and gross beast here that hearkens back to the original designs in ways that are both nostalgic and modern, especially when contrasted against the similarly great design for Sleeper. No, not everything here is created in equal measure — minor characters’ expressions and some action scenes really get lost in a blur of simplistic but not clean nor digestible piecemeals, but when focused in on the character, similarly to the narrative itself, it’s a great success.
Ultimately, First Host is imperfect. It’s certainly not an “epic” as its narrative predilections and pacing are so sorely set on recreating a specific, historical Venom energy that readers, as well as this iteration of the character simply don’t need at this time. However, when more focused on the human…ahem…alien element of the story, the more personable — and yes, gooey bits — it’s a real, heartfelt, joyfully melodramatic but also compelling story that adds something of sincere value to both Eddie Brock and the Symbiote’s lives that I hope won’t be thrown to the wayside.