Amazing Spider-Man #375 and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Venom?

ASM375_coverPeople who follow my Gimmick or Good exploits at the Comics Should Be Good blog should know that I’m no stranger to the foil/embossed/chromium/polybagged comics of yesteryear. And yet, the gold, foil-covered Amazing Spider-Man #375 (the “30th anniversary of Amazing Spider-Man #1!!!), holds a special place in my heart among the gimmicky goodness that was Marvel comics in the 1990s.

As for how I came into possession of ASM #375, while it’s definitely not the first Spider-Man comic to sport a gimmick cover, unless my memory is failing me, I’m fairly certain it’s the first Spider-Man gimmick comic that I ever picked up as a teenager. Despite the fact that I had been buying Spider-Man comics  since the late 1980s, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, I did dilly-dally with picking up other superhero titles before deciding to dedicate all of my time, energy and resources to Spider-Man around 1993-94. As such, I remember going to my local comic book shop around the time Amazing Spider-Man 390-something was released, and then scouring the back issue boxes for some additional Spidey gold to mine from the past few years.

And in that box, I found some literal gold. Like a lot of buyers in the early-90s, I was immediately drawn in by ASM #375′s gold foil cover. And of course, the larger-than-life visual of Mark Bagley’s Venom (who most of you should know at this point was the first major villain introduced during my early years of reading Spider-Man). I didn’t mention this in my post last week, but as a result of the 90s-ification of this arc, I read ASM #375 a good year or two before I finally found ASM #374. I can’t honestly say reading this two-parter out of sequence did any long-term damage to my appreciation for the story, but I thought I’d share this little bit of Chasing Amazing trivia with you, before talking some more specifics about the comic itself.

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ASM #375 marks a clear “line in the sand” turning point for the Venom character within the Marvel universe. My declaration that this is the “last” great Venom story of the 1990s cuts two ways – I do sincerely enjoy this arc, but find very few redeeming qualities in the way Venom was treated in the years that follow this issue. And part of what complicates my overall feelings about ASM #375 is the fact that writer David Michelinie puts a number of ideas into motion in this issue that do Venom more harm than good over the long-term.

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Most notably, after toying with the idea of turning Venom to the side of “good” during Michelinie/Bagley’s very first Carnage story about a year earlier, ASM #375 ends with Spider-Man and Venom making a “pact” where both characters would leave each other alone and stay out of each other’s way – effectively marking this comic as the “official” babyface turn (if I may use a wrestling term) for Eddie Brock and his alien symbiote.

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We reach this turning point for Venom/Spider-Man after Michelinie goes above and beyond in building sympathy for Brock – who in the past has demonstrated a twisted sense of “morality” that involves him murdering people if they directly or indirectly obstruct his path to Spider-Man. But Brock’s previous transgressions get glossed over here in favor of giving his origin story a little more depth. Michelinie introduces readers to Brock’s ex-wife Anne Weying, who tells Spider-Man that his mortal enemy used to be a good, loving person until he was consumed by the darkness of the symbiote. I’m never one to dismiss the idea of creating a richer back-story for a character, but Michelinie and Marvel’s motives become crystal clear by the end of the issue. It is imperative that Brock demonstrates some level of “good” behavior as it makes his eventual redemption all the more palatable.

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Michelinie then baits and switches us a bit with the central conflict of his story. In ASM #374, all of the tension focuses on whether or not Venom can get his hands on Peter’s long-lost parents. When that issue ends with the Parkers being kidnapped by Venom, one would think ASM #375’s drama would hinge on whether or not Spider-Man is able to find his parents before Brock does something to harm them. Instead, the reader learns very early that Brock has no intention of hurting Peter’s parents. He doesn’t even spoil Peter’s secret identity with them (despite having the perfect opening, but opting not to).  To top it all off, in a move that screams unresolved childhood trauma, Venom brings the Parker’s to the “Thrill World” amusement park, a place Eddie visited as a kid.

Michelinie even creates sympathy for Venom as he’s beating the crap out of Spider-Man. When Spidey confronts Venom at Thrill World, Silver Sable’s Wild Pack ambushes the villain with flamethrowers and sonic blasters. Venom initially thinks Spider-Man put them up to the attack, but thanks to the Wild Pack’s bull in a china shop ways, Spidey and Brock are finally able to see eye-to-eye. First, an out of control fire started by one of Sable’s men lets Venom act the hero and save Peter’s parents.

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Then, after a sonic blast weakens Venom so he’s unable to single-handedly save Anne from a falling Ferris wheel, Spidey joins his side and helps Brock save the day. Venom threatens Spider-Man one last time, before the infamous peace agreement is made.

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All of these plot points are designed with great calculation by Michelinie. How can anyone possibly hate Brock once this story ends? And of course it all ties-in to the launch of the Venom: Lethal Protector mini-series soon after – Venom’s first solo story where he’s a full-fledged hero.

But should Venom have ever been cast as a hero or an anti-hero? In my opinion, the character unquestionably loses his charm from this point on, especially during the remainder of the 1990s (an argument could be made that once they separated Brock from the symbiote, creators at least had new kinds of stories to tell using Venom and/or Eddie). A large portion of these diminishing returns could be chalked up to lousy writing (Michelinie certainly didn’t bring his “A” game for Lethal Protector), but beyond that, ASM #374-375’s manipulations granted Marvel the license to cast Venom as a “good guy” for the indefinite future, leading to the character’s damaging overexposure.

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So in many ways, ASM #375 is the comic book equivalent of a pyrrhic victory. I loved this comic as a kid, and still have affection for it – and I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people picked it up just like I did in the early 90s (because of that pretty foil cover), but at what cost to a character I had once thought was one of the best villains Marvel had created since the Silver Age? Talk about a questionable legacy for a comic book.

All images from Amazing Spider-Man #375: David Michelinie, Mark Bagley, Randy Emberlin & Bob Sharen

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