There are times when a relationship with a comic book series is akin to a romance. There are the comic book titles that you develop an unconditional love for, sticking with them through thick, thin and the death of Peter Parker. And then there are the titles that you cautiously jump into and enjoy, with full knowledge of some red flags that could upend the relationship at any given moment. That’s how I would describe where my relationship stands with Cullen Bunn/Declan Shalvey’s Venom.
When it first debuted, the Venom series had been a steady part of my post rotation, in large part because of the long-standing affinity I’ve had for the original symbiote, and because of the fascinating characterization of long-time Spidey supporting cast member Flash Thompson. While Flash would get the occasional juicy B story in a Spider-Man comic, former Venom scribe Rick Remender was using the title to dig much deeper under the character’s surface to show just how emotionally damaged Flash could be. I was captivated by his failed relationships with his mother and father, and now ex-girlfriend, Betty Brant. I enjoyed his conflicts with classic villains like the Crime Master. I ignored the fact that Marvel immediately threw Venom onto an Avengers team like it does with ALL of its heroes that attract even a modicum of popularity because I was intrigued by the prospect of flawed, former high school bully Flash Thompson trying to make it as a legitimate member of the Avengers.
I liked all these things so much that when Marvel finally made Venom available for a subscription, I signed up so I wouldn’t risk missing an issue if I was out of town or unable to get to the local comic book store one week.
But the tone of the series shifted when Remender left and Bunn took over on scripting duties. Since then, my initial anxieties about my relationship with this title are proving to be true. One of the most dramatic changes in the series is that Bunn has relocated Flash from New York to Philadelphia. While I can see the justification in trying to get Flash out of New York so he can work on some of his personal issues on his own, we’re now more than a half dozen issues into this new status quo, and I am still yet to see the benefits of the geography change. When the Scarlet Spider creative team set the series up in Houston, they made a point of demonstrating about how this major American city had no superhero presence despite having a huge criminal element. In Venom, we understand that there’s crime in Philly like any other major American city (including cops who would have been better used in a comic title set in Baltimore), but the creative team has done very little to make the “City of Brotherly Love” a character in Venom’s story other than constantly repeating variations of, “Flash is in Philadelphia.”
Still, geography is not my chief concern with this title. Since the status quo shifted, the creative team has established a new chief adversary for Venom: Toxin, a symbiote “spawn.” In an attempt to give this match-up some freshness, the Toxin symbiote is attached to the original Venom, Eddie Brock. I think both Toxin/Brock and the villain’s showdown with Flash have been grossly mishandled by Bunn.
There’s an obvious cult of fans who embrace everything having to do with the symbiotes, especially if Eddie Brock is involved, but even with my adoration for Venom, I’ve never been one of those people to get too caught up in symbiote-mania. I found Carnage, the original first “spawn,” to be a fascinating character for the first 10 minutes until Marvel immediately beat him into the ground by creating a huge crossover arc, “Maximum Carnage,” around this one-dimensional psycho killer. By the time the mid-1990s had come around, I was having a hard enough time keeping up with the circuitous, title-jumping nature of the Spider-Man “Clone Saga.” All of the assorted Venom and Carnage mini-series and spin-offs were much, much lower on my reader priority scale, so I never became smitten by all of the “spawn” these two created. In the instances where I was able to read a symbiote spawn book, I found it quickly devolved into mind-numbing frivolity. Rather than focus on relatable characters like Peter Parker or Mary Jane Watson, these stories centered more on ultra-violence, rising body counts and serial killer jokes.
In Bunn’s Venom, the dedicated focus on Toxin has sucked the title dry of any nuance or depth. In his first major arc (Venom #33-35), Toxin is hunting Venom who’s hunting a deformed creature that eventually emerges as a “symbiote slayer.” The three issues are filled with shallow characterization, complete with brain-eating jokes and over-the-top visuals of large teeth, pointy fingernails, and red and black symbiote spirals flowing in and out of the bodies of Venom and Toxin. In other words, the same kind of junk I found in nearly every other symbiote title I had read in the past.
I’ve had people argue with me on Twitter that this arc was a natural progression of the series, but I don’t see it. I grew to really enjoy Remender’s work on this title because I was so captivated by the presence of Flash Thompson. Now it feels like anybody could be using that Venom symbiote and the story would be following the same template. What has this story told us about Flash Thompson, the troubled teenager who always wanted to be a hero? The guy who was the president of the Spider-Man fan club and now found himself on the Avengers? Instead, this entire storyline smacks of a creative team and publisher trying to brush aside that pesky characterization thingee and force people to pay attention to its series by spotlighting “cool-looking” characters who want to beat each other up. It’s nothing but red meat to the symbiote cult and a big middle finger for those of us who wanted anything more from this title (and giving the flagging sales for some months now, perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the comic gets the axe).
What I found most insulting about the current Venom/Toxin arc was its conclusion. After stalking Flash for the better part of a half dozen issues, Toxin is finally in a position to confront Thompson after the two save a group of school children from the out-of-control symbiote slayers. Brock tells Flash that it’s only a matter of time before he gives in to his demons and submits to the symbiote but Flash tells Brock that he’s a changed man and he won’t be weak like any of his symbiote-wearing predecessors. Toxin/Brock’s response? Just walk away with a clichéd “I’ll be watching you” response to Flash, officially ending this arc on the weakest of whimpers.
The current state of Venom has reminded me why you never end up marrying the girl you had a one-night stand with. My subscription to this title ends in a few months and unless things turn around dramatically, I have to imagine I’ll drop it only pick it up if there’s an arc that ties in critically to the Superior Spider-Man universe. Of course I hope it doesn’t end this way – I had some great times reading Venom. But as a wise person once told me (about relationships, natch), once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can never put it back in. Bunn’s Venom is the toothpaste that’s making a minty-smelling ring around my sink.