With all the attention Venom has garnered in the last few years across both film and comics, it’s no surprise that Marvel has given him his own series within the Epic Collection imprint. This week marks the release of the second such volume, Venom Epic Collection: Lethal Protector. From the introduction of Carnage to Venom’s very first solo series, the book reprints several iconic and noteworthy stories. But are they good?
The collection kicks off with Carnage’s debut story arc, and the spin-off symbiote makes a great first impression. David Michelinie and Mark Bagley quickly establish everything one needs to know about the character, and what has remained his core conceit to this day: he’s an unrepentant serial killer who murders for no reason other than the pure joy of it. Like Venom, all of Carnage’s visual signifiers are there from the start as well: the red goopy skin, the gigantic eyes and teeth, and the penchant for shifting his goop into sharp, deadly weapons.
With that said, the story does just as much to define Venom as it does Carnage. His antihero status is cemented by his moral contrasts against Carnage, but enough resentment and brutality remains for him to still be a viable villain when writers wish so. The consistency with which Brock talks to himself, or rather his other half, also emphasizes the importance of his relationship to the symbiote he’s bonded with. All in all Venom is a likable character here, and quite a campy one as well. Venom may be frequently thought of as an edgy character, but his humorous potential is clearly present from his earliest appearances.
The rest of the stories in this volume are a bit mixed in quality. “The Trial of Venom” is a fun one-off but doesn’t ultimately contribute much of note, while “Spirits of Venom” is wholly forgettable. Fans who feel nostalgia for ’90s Ghost Rider may have some fun, but overall the crossover just feels like a transparent cash grab that doesn’t do anything new with any of its characters. Its plot is even more dull, with some generic demon shenanigans serving as a backdrop to the rehashing of aspects of Venom’s character arc that are better served in other parts of this very collection.
The book undergoes a major upswing in quality once it reaches the “Claws and Webs” issues of Marvel Comics Presents by Howard Mackie, Sam Kieth, and Mike Thomas. It’s a Wolverine versus Venom crossover, with classic Dr. Strange and Nightmare as the foe they must ultimately team up to defeat. It’s exactly the sort of random conceit one might expect from MCP, but what might otherwise be a footnote in the characters’ respective histories is elevated tremendously by Kieth’s art. There’s no appropriate word to describe his layouts short of “brilliant.” The line-work is so stylized that it leaves the reader no choice but to respect it even if it doesn’t match their own aesthetic preferences. Thomas’s colors also suit the work excellently, contributing further to the lovely dream realm Nightmare has concocted.
The other main story of note here is the miniseries Venom: Lethal Protector. Michelinie’s writing in the first half is wonderfully campy and full of personality, and presents a clear vision for Venom’s future direction as a character. Mark Bagley also illustrates this half of the series and his line-work is fluid, comedic, and frankly erotic in places. Unfortunately, the second half of the series drops the ball in both plot and visuals. Ron Lim takes over on the line-art, and while his work isn’t outright bad it just doesn’t have the same charm and unique flair that Bagley’s does. Story-wise, meanwhile, five new symbiotes are introduced across three issues and none of them make a promising debut. Like “Spirits of Venom,” this development feels editorially mandated and doesn’t engender interest in any of the new characters.
Overall, Venom Epic Collection: Lethal Protector is a very fun grab-bag of both significant moments in the characters’ history and some more forgotten stories. The high points are quite high: Carnage’s debut is excellent, Bagley’s line-work is definitive for all characters involved, Kieth’s art is masterful, and the camp is mostly consistent throughout. Unfortunately, “Spirits of Venom” and the second half of Lethal Protector fall flat compared to the rest of the quality work around them. Nonetheless, this is a book I would recommend to both hardcore Venom fans and readers who have been hesitant to try the character out before.
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