Symbiote stans rejoice: after almost a year we’re finally getting another Venom Epic Collection! In an example of the imprint’s tendency to reject chronological order we’ve jumped straight from volume two to volume five, which reprints almost 500 pages worth of Venom content from 1994-1995. The contents vary from Spider-Man (and Scarlet Spider) stories wherein Eddie Brock is simply the antagonist to several miniseries in which the brain-craving anti-hero receives top billing.
This hefty book is a time capsule which answers the question: what were Venom comics like in the period after he’d made his iconic debut, but before Tom Hardy (and a lot of gay lust and camp sensibility) reinvigorated the character and his fanbase? The answer, at first, is bad. The collection begins with a portion of the miniseries Spider-Man: The Arachnis Project. If you like me had never heard of it, that probably has something to do with the fact that the villains (a group of corporate hired guns) are utterly flat and unremarkable characters who do nothing to contrast against or otherwise highlight Venom in any interesting way. Brock, meanwhile, is similarly dull here: a violent madman with plenty of rage and strength to back it up, but none of the interiority or focus on symbiosis that make him so compelling.
The artwork is similarly a letdown, and unfortunately remains a con throughout most of the collection. A wide variety of artists are tasked with depicting Venom throughout, and most of their takes on the character fail to impress. He is frequently drawn as severely bulky, but the inking and composition choices do nothing to properly extract his potential for horror. While Venom is monstrous here, he never instills actual terror on the page, but rather is just a brawny goopy mess. Not even the goop is excitingly portrayed. While Venom’s highly malleable form theoretically lends itself to dynamic action, it mostly just looks sloppy here. There’s a severe lack of creativity in how Brock utilizes (or doesn’t utilize) his “Other” during battle.
With that said, there is still much fun to be had here. “The Exile Returns” is a legitimately good story depicting Ben Reilly’s adoption of the Scarlet Spider persona, and the choice to pit him up against Venom is inspired. Both characters are, on a fundamental level, mirrors. Reilly’s struggles with living up to the responsibilities thrust upon him by an alternate self, and a life he never actually lived, make for intriguing character drama. Venom’s presence in turn propels that drama by making Reilly question Peter Parker’s decisions (specifically to let Venom run free), which in turn pushes Reilly to cement his own separate identity. Throughout the entirety of the characters’ conflict the shared specter of Peter Parker looms heavy, even though he never actually shows up on panel. Tom Lyle’s art further elevates his portions of the crossover story with well-composed action scenes and an exciting, kinetic feel throughout.
None of the other stories in this book reach the same heights, and frankly they tend to be quite stupid. With that said, they’re a fun sort of stupid. “Carnage Unleashed” has Carnage bizarrely travel across computer networks to extend tendrils out and stab his victims through their computer screens. He then battles it out with Venom as part of a computer game in perhaps the collection’s biggest conceptual WTF moment.
“Sinner Takes All,” meanwhile, is propelled by two highly memorable figures: Sin-Eater and the Bride of Venom. Sin-Eater has potential to be an excellent villain. A domestic terrorist propelled by deeply seeded dogmatic beliefs, constantly quoting Bible scriptures during the act of murder? That feels every bit as relevant (possibly more so) now as it would have at the time of original publication. There’s not actually much here in terms of probing commentary, but he’s a compelling foe for Venom, who possesses a similarly deeply held devotion to protecting the innocent.
The Bride of Venom, meanwhile, exemplifies the best and worst of this point in the character’s history. The cover to Venom: Sinner Takes All #3 says it all:
A female symbiote perfectly contorted to show off both her T and A at the same time? The visual takes 1995 depictions of women in comics to such an absurd height that, even in its seriousness, it’s virtually impossible not to read as camp. Within the story itself it’s also interesting to see how the prospect of another symbiotic relationship complicates Eddie, Anne, and the symbiote’s relationships to one another.
On the whole, this collection is exactly what it looks like on the cover: the sheer essence of mid-’90s hyper-masculine antihero comics. Readers are unlikely to find much surprising about the contents, but will rather either enjoy or hate it depending on their personal taste. Regardless, these comics underline much of what is most interesting about Eddie Brock, the symbiote, and their unity as Venom. While the dull house style art and failure to deliver deep character growth or examination largely hold most of these stories back from being great, there are still nuggets of fun and nods to what makes Venom so thematically interesting when he’s at his best. Plus, for fans of a certain stripe, there’s joy to be found in the elements which are so extreme their earnestness borders on self-parody.
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