On the cusp of King In Black, a line-wide event promising to change Venom and host Eddie Brock forever, Marvel has released an Epic Collection featuring the character’s earliest appearances subtitled Symbiosis. A fitting title, seeing that these early stories from the likes of writers Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, and Louise Simonson as well as artists Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Ron Frenz, Ron Lim and countless others depict both the high highs and low lows of the character’s introduction to the wider Marvel world, as well as their resolute reliance on the story of Peter Parker as Spider-Man.
Collecting VOL. 1: AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (1963) 258, 300, 315-317, 332-333, 346-347, 388 (B STORY); WEB OF SPIDER-MAN (1985) 1; AVENGERS: DEATHTRAP – THE VAULT (1991); DARKHAWK (1991) 13-14; MATERIAL FROM AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL (1964) 25-26; WEB OF SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL (1985) 7-8; SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL (1979) 12, this Epic Collection doesn’t feature any especially rare or overlooked Venom stories, instead opting for the most essential ones to understand the character’s origins and earliest appearances prior to his semi-solo reinvention in 1993’s standout Lethal Protector. Which is to say that most of these stories actually focus more on Peter Parker than Eddie Brock and Venom, including inclusions from Secret Wars and the like where it’s hard to argue that Venom is even a defined (and certainly not relevant) character. Diehard Venom fans (read: me) might be disappointed by this structure, but in truth, it’s a perfectly fine reading order, and the excerpt model — as it works in other Epic Collections — works well here to keep the focus as primarily on Venom as possible.
That being said, it is both satisfying and immensely interesting to have all of these stories collected in one place to metatextually chart the development of the character’s voice, and more prominently his appearance, especially as Donny Cates’ run with the character has so completely re-invented him. Across these stories Eddie Brock, and by extension, Venom are depicted pretty much entirely as the antithesis to Parker’s Spider-Man, even in the most tumultuous and dark time of his life.
Venom’s main role across most of these stories is to be a dark solution to the problems Peter is facing in his personal life and relationships (mostly with Mary Jane). A grinning, gross, violent, and uncaring antagonist, Venom solves his problems with force, and he doesn’t have to care about the casualties or the cleanup like Peter does. As Parker swings across countless Manhattan nights fretting about the impractical balance of responsibility and power in his own life and writ large, sometimes incredibly well written by writers like DeFalco, and more clunkily by Michelinie, Venom instead plows through street thugs, banks, and more, gleefully decapitating and destroying anything that stands in his way – his only real goal being to kill Spider-Man. It’s directed storytelling, driving forward the importance of Peter’s restraint and humility even in times of crisis, but it’s also, unfortunately, one-note as most of these issues feature more or less the same character arcs and beats, with some incredibly poorly written women and side characters to boot.
This is all to say that these poor beats and rote stories are quaint and perhaps newly important in the context of seeing Venom increasingly becoming a story about recognizing the darkness within yourself, the evils the world has committed against you (Eddie has it pretty rough!), and wanting better for it regardless — but it doesn’t make them any less grating. Especially in #388, one of the weaker stories in the collection meant to explain where Venom was in-between attacks on Spider-Man that further boils him down to “Crazy and violent man that talks to himself” in a way I really don’t care for or think was essential. There are also a bunch of Darkhawk tie-ins that feel stapled on and irrelevant, aside from the inclusion of Venom.
The truth, then, is that most of these issues are more immediately visually successful than they are narratively, as artists like McFarlane and Larsen drive both Venom and the general tone of the Spider-Man universe into increasingly dark and drastic areas. Across numerous fantastic covers, surprise attacks on Spidey, and brooding back-alley brawls, it’s fascinating to chart the development of Venom into the imposing, multifarious, magnetic presence that he is today. There is a certain power and electric mystique to seeing how and where Venom is inserted into these stories, and lines like “Spider-Man must die” delivered from his toothy, green goo-laden maw feel both foreboding and cool.
McFarlane in particular also renders Spidey himself incredibly satisfying, giving real complexity and equal tautness and looseness to his webs as he swings through dizzyingly tall skyscrapers and dark sewers where his best foes wait. This hulking, egregiously violent, and sometimes hilariously weird Venom is my favorite depiction of the character to date, and there are plenty of visually satisfying and exciting moments to anchor down otherwise flighty and inessential stories. A special shoutout to Stalking Feat’s title page, featuring a massive and monstrous Venom attempting to sneak around the outside of Parker’s home.
All in all, this Epic Collection is a mixed bag. It’s full of both fun and essential moments for both Spider-Man and Venom, including the initial appearance of the Symbiote Suit and Venom himself, but these stories don’t all read fluidly or uniquely from page to page, and some tropes would be better left unearthed. Diehard Venom fans such as myself will be grateful to have all of these in one well-organized place with interesting backmatter as an added bonus, and it does invite an interesting point of comparison with current Venom stories, but those looking for a solid through-line or satisfying arc would be better off exploring solo runs rather than these which are overly reliant on Spider-Man and his web of woes.
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