Greeting, Legions, and welcome back to Madness Month here at The Unspoken Decade! I don’t know that I truly understood the meaning of the word “madness” until I experienced a certain ongoing basketball tournament Dean Compton-style, complete with days of games on multiple screens and more junk food than anyone in their right mind would ever consume, but now I am well prepared to take a look at some lunacy in the comic book realm. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to take a glance at Dean’s take on Ghost Rider #33 and Darry Weight’s Venom: The Madness, but if you’re in the mood for madness of a slightly more irreverent nature, there’s no better place to turn than 1995’s Skrull Kill Krew.
Created by writers Grant Morrison and Mark Millar and artist Steve Yeowell, Skrull Kill Krew was published under the short-lived Marvel Edge imprint, which included many established Marvel titles like Ghost Rider, Punisher, and Daredevil. As the name would suggest, and since it was practically the law in the mid-90’s that things be made more extreme, Marvel Edge trafficked in edgier fare, and Skrull Kill Krew is nothing if not on the fringes of normalcy. From the first cover, it’s obvious this comic is going to have some fun and not be too concerned with how it goes about doing it.
We first meet Krew members Ryder and Moonstomp, who bust in on a history class, blow away the teacher, making the “she’s history” joke you totally see coming but would be disappointed if it weren’t there, take out a student, announce they were aliens, and dismiss class more flamboyantly than anyone since Alice Cooper. It’s a fitting introduction for this motley Krew because it’s exactly what you’ll get a lot more of in the rest of the books. Not to say that there is no depth to this series, but it doesn’t deviate far from the pattern of find Skrulls – make snarky quips – violently dispose of Skrulls. It’s entertaining, but anyone looking for something more probably wasn’t paying much attention to the cover up there when they picked this up.
One other thing the Krew does is recruit new members, but considering their recruitment techniques don’t look terribly different than their Skrull extermination techniques, their potential members can be a little reluctant. Dice, a surfer dude who has been experiencing strange visions and mood swings, runs from them, quite understandably so, as the Krew has shot his girlfriend after announcing themselves as “two seriously violent individuals” and started chasing him down with all the subtlety you would expect from people who mow down alien infiltrators in crowded public places.
The smarmy blonde British guy is Moonstomp, who we learn is a white supremacist who likes to deal out his violence with a claw hammer even though he could morph himself into any weapon. The black guy is Ryder, who we infer hates Skrulls enough to work with a white supremacist to take them out. The title doesn’t last long enough for them to get much character development beyond that, but the story doesn’t particularly demand any more of them.
Their partnership exemplifies some of the best and worst of humanity, something simultaneously beautiful and ugly. One on the one hand, it’s comforting to think that if there were an outside threat, we would put aside our differences and work together as a species to ensure our own preservation. On the other, it’s disheartening that it might take something decidedly more foreign than people of other races to make us finally set aside those prejudices and come together as one human family. I said that this story was not without depth, but this is the sort we get – not really examined in any meaningful way but there if you care to look for it.
In the second issue, we get an explanation of the Krew’s origin and powers. The gist is that in the 60’s, the Fantastic Four defeated some Skrulls impersonating them. Reed Richards, demonstrating what Ryder rightfully calls a “highly idiosyncratic sense of humor,” hypnotizes them into thinking they are cows and left them to graze. (You know you’ve read too much Greek mythology, when you find yourself wondering if Mr. Fantastic planned on boning any of the bovine.) During the Kree-Skrull War, they were changed back into Skrulls, but this time when they were defeated and turned back into cows, the Alien Activities Commission decided to do something weird and gross and send the cows to the slaughterhouse.
Those cows were turned into burgers, and some of the people who ate them died, some were unaffected, and some, our protagonists, were infected by the Skrull meat in a way that gave them powers like shape-shifting, ability to detect Skrulls, and near indestructibility, as well as an increasingly violent and irrational urge to off the Skrulls. The unfortunate side effect, though, is a bad case of dying soon, as the virus eats all of someone’s brain tissue in a few years. (This comic was created at the height of the Mad Cow Disease scare in the UK, and while it doesn’t necessarily have anything profound to say about media-induced panic or the horrors of mass food production, it capitalizes well on that panic, and using the cows was a clever way to integrate an older, fairly minor idea into the modern world.)
Just as the Fantastic Four all got different powers as the result of their exposure to cosmic rays, so too do the Skrull Kill Krew get unique powers from their Skrullovoria Induced Skrullophobia that reflect their personalities. Spiky haired punk rocker Riot, named because she is a Riot Grrrl and this is the super 90’s, transforms into a huge prickly insect. Dice’s powers manifest at random. Catwalk, the supermodel, turns into a giant cat. The most compelling affect of their powers, though, belongs to Moonstomp, who appears to be the only one exhibiting any of the degeneration yet. He has multiple dark patches on his body that are spreading, and it would have been interesting to see if a fairly flippant book would have handled a white supremacist turning black with any kind of subtlety.
It’s not just playing on the idea of Mad Cow that makes this comic feel so much like a product of its time. In fact, of all the 90’s comics I have looked at for The Unspoken Decade, this might feel the most 90’s of all. It’s more than the “edginess,” the over the top violence, or the fact that the Krew all look like they stepped straight off the set of Hackers. There’s something about the anything goes, nothing-to-lose, nihilistic tone that transported me straight back to the mid-90’s, but it’s hard to separate how much of that is the comic, about a group of invincible feeling young people, and how much of it is a product of the fact that the height of my own invincible feeling growing up took place in the mid-90’s watching movies like Natural Born Killers and talking about how nothing really mattered.
Something decidedly un-90’s in this comic is an appearance by the Man out of Time himself, Captain America, which feels incongruous for a number of reasons other than time. Not only does Captain America have a completely disparate mood from Skrull Kill Krew, but, as Dean pointed out when we were puzzling it over, if they were trying to use a big hero to sell more books, someone like Wolverine would have been a better option in 1995. It’s possible they used Cap just because he would have been such a random choice. It’s also possible they use him specifically because he represents an old-fashionedness and supposed conformity they were trying to flout.
The last reason would make the most sense to me because it would explain the diatribe below by Ryder that doesn’t really fit into the rest of the book otherwise. I can tell I’m no longer my younger cynical 90’s self because instead of thinking, “Yeah, you tell that old jingoistic bastard!” I just wanted to yell at Ryder not to talk to Captain America that way. I also want to balk at the idea that he could handle Cap so easily, but I suppose this is his comic and all.
The actual storyline involving Captain America doesn’t seem especially important, but the book gives the impression that it might have led to something significant had it continued. Basically, the President of Slovenia is flying into America, and Cap is at the airport to greet him. Baron von Strucker has other plans, though, and intends to take the president, and Slovenia, for himself. The Krew show up looking for Catwalk, who happens to be on the same plane, and realize the president is a Skrull. Strucker buggers off when he sees how many superpowered people are about, and the Krew, realizing the president is Skrull, tussle with Captain America, who thinks he is just protecting an important person. Oh, those wacky superhero shenanigans! Cap tells Nick Fury what happened, and Fury divulges that he knows exactly who Ryder is.
That revelation seems to be the most important part of the whole story, since it teases an even bigger reveal about Ryder, but I suppose that reveal will have to forever reside in Speculation City. At least we get this great moment with Strucker. Take that, fascist:
The other big cameo in these issues is the Fantastic Four, which makes sense, since Reed Richards’ actions caused this whole chain of events in the first place. The only problem is that it’s not the Fantastic Four at all; once again, those menacing Skrulls have impersonated them. There is some nice Twilight Zone-esque stuff at the beginning of the comic as we see a town completely get taken over by Skrulls from the perspective of a traveling salesman, but otherwise, there isn’t much in the way of plot to get in the way of multiple pages of the Krew beating up on the Fantastic Four replacements.
Once the Krew have dispatched with the Fauxtastic Four, they turn their attention in the last issue to the town, which has been entirely replaced with Skrulls. This title was originally meant to be ongoing, but when it was cancelled, editor Tom Brevoort convinced Marvel for one more issue, making it into a mini-series. While it’s always nice when series get a resolution, Skrull Kill Krew has so little going on in terms of plot or character arcs that it’s really a resolution in name only. But when the majority of its action involves the killing of as many aliens as possible, I suppose there could be no better resolution than the all out mayhem that accompanies the mass slaughter of an entire town of them.
I hope when I keep saying that there isn’t much going on plot-wise that it doesn’t come off too disparagingly because the other thing completely lacking in Skrull Kill Krew is pretense. It never once tries to be something it’s not, not for a moment, so while it’s most decidedly not a masterpiece, it most certainly is what it sets out to be, which is a rollicking good time. The sort of comic where you can kick back and enjoy some wanton destruction and not bat an eye because someone’s powers, which they acquired by eating ground up alien, cause them to turn into a human slot machine whose jackpot is becoming pure energy. Yes, that happens:
It might not be a huge letdown that the series didn’t go on longer like some other comics I’ve read recently, but it is nice to know the Krew made a reappearance in Secret Invasion and got a second mini-series in 2009. What was even more intriguing, but also slightly disappointing, was learning that there was talk of making a Skrull Kill Krew television show, which would be the perfect medium for this bunch of freaks. Had it been made, I’m sure it would have held a plum spot on the list of shows from my adolescence that were cancelled too soon.
I hope you’ve been enjoying Madness Month here at The Unspoken Decade, which will conclude with the maddest thing yet! Dean Compton will be allowing an interloper into our midst, one Mr. Paul O’Connor from Longbox Graveyard, to discuss his view on 90’s comics. If you don’t know some of Dean’s thoughts already, you might have forgotten what website you’re currently on, but Paul is a Bronze Age guy, so opinions may vary wildly! You don’t want to miss it!
“To get the facts, you need strong fingers on metal keys, paper white with honesty – and then you have to cut hard and deep to make the truth bleed ink.”
Eddie Brock, alien symbiote host who really loves his typewriter, from 1997’s Venom Minus 1.
Venom, perennial Gimmick Era favorite, had a tie-in to that month’s Flashback event because he was the star of a series of mini-series going back to Lethal Protector (my personal favorite). He was the hero of his own story and the main character in whatever temporary title the Spider-Office decided deserved an embossed cover that month.
In celebration of Madness Month, let us turn our attention to 1993’s Venom: The Madness, wherein we see that Tall, Dark, and Toothy did not merely adopt the dark, but was born in it, molded by it, and (I am fairly certain) has yet to see the light.
Eddie is an unreliable narrator. What else would you expect from a man who began his professional career as a journalist? He knows how to edit and what to present as fact. He is his own favorite storyteller. The quote above is from a scene that explains why he still used a typewriter. It tells you what it is he wants from the world. That purity, that honesty. For everything to be what it actually is and nothing else. This is a man who cannot help thinking violently, even about ink on a page. A man who does not want to become better because he believes it is the world that is at fault. What is there for an alien skinsuit not to love? Eddie was never going to be friends with Peter Parker. The Black Suit was merely the excuse. Together he and it are Venom, as in spider-venom (took me longer than I care to admit to piece that together).
Ann Nocenti scripted these three issues, though she was far from the only creator attempting to give Venom a voice in the early nineties. Between the complicated behind-the-scenes origin of the Black Suit itself and the overly complex way that Venom was so good at being a villain that he became a hero, this is a character who never had a stable life. Is it any wonder he would end up mad?
Even though Venom is a primarily toyetic property, I have a personal connection with him. My first comic was Amazing Spider-Man #346 by David Michelinie & Erik Larsen. My earliest memory of Spider-Man, who I have come to collect more than read (the only character I can say that about), is in the reflection of those otherwise blank, alien eyes. I thought of Venom as a hero for a new age. Spider-Man belonged to a previous era. A whiny throwback, similar to those guys at DC with the capes. Not Venom. Not Eddie! Then I read The Madness and watched him murder an elderly woman, who the author goes to lengths to show just how innocent she is.
Venom’s component parts felt slighted by Spider-Man, the mask, and Parker, the man. Everything that went wrong was conveniently the fault of that man, and so it must have made sense to hightail it across the country where no superheroes could bother you. What he finds is “The World Below” San Francisco, relic of the great earthquake from nearly a century before and haven for the disenfranchised. I assume that this originally meant the homeless and those wanting to live off the grid, but the fact that community activists and other sensible people feel welcomed among the crumbling ruins of a turn of the last century metropolis has me imagining it more as Portland of 2015 than the Morlock tunnels.
Our hero is coming to terms with himself and has even managed to have a love interest, as he becomes embroiled in a stock plot of corporate espionage and environmentally unfriendly shenanigans. This results in him contracting what is essentially super mercury poising and hearing a new voice. Referred to as “The Creep,” it is responsible for that wonky, multiple head thing you probably imagine when thinking Venom: The Madness. Never choosing between a singular or plural identity, the Creep takes Eddie’s mind out for a spin and finds that not only is it already a bit crowded but that he/they may not be the drunkest one at this particular party.
Venom has the added bonus of being thrust into the literal Realm of Madness, presented as both the type of dark dimension that Marvel is lousy with, as well as merely a construct within his own mind. Is he actually fighting Dusk (unfortunately not the one from Slingers), a manic, supernatural entity or just his own “inner demons” as rendered by Kelley Jones’ claustrophobic, barely discernible art? Neither the character nor the reader is ever sure, but the former does not seem to care. Other superpeople make excuses for the things done under the influence of a foreign entity; Venom embraces it and never acts in a way other than how he chooses. Is this the will of the Creep, the Black Suit, or just Eddie Brock finding another way to justify getting what he wants? Does he even know what that is anymore?
It is an interesting reversal of the classic Black Suit story, present in comics and other media. Parker, iconic nebbish from Queens, gets tired of the world pushing him around (which it does mostly because he lies to everyone he cares about and is unable to meet any of his many commitments) and attracts the attention of some predatory alien entity. His anger gets the best of him, and he says and does a few regrettable things (that hair in Spider-Man 3) before throwing the entity back into the abyss. The wounded extraterrestrial animal finds solace in soon-to-be-mulleted ace reporter, Eddie Brock, who comes to love it and offer it a home within himself. He is empowered by that freedom and never turns back, unlike Spider-Man, who never referred to himself as “we.”
Particularly surreal in the otherwise barren, underground cavern of the World Below are the trees. In the background of most panels are trees, leafless but seemingly alive, as evidenced by their size. Are they specially bred to live and thrive in a world without natural light and all but the deepest of underground wells? Is there a master botanist somewhere on the fringes of this society making sure everyone has air to breath? Someone is keeping this place running, though we are never shown who. The entire place has an odd mystery to it that promised to be far more interesting than whoever Venom was going to fight that issue. This could have been a new locale for the greater Marvel Universe. Maybe one of Confederates of the Curious retired here back in the day after helping with the earthquake.
Venom is at home in this Tim Burton-type of wonderland (lowercase “w”) with its beautiful old buildings, gnarly, unobstructed trees, and whimsical folk who, though homeless and destitute, are unfazed about asking a supervillain to help them out. These people have no hero, no champion. Why not Venom? They have already rejected the world they were born into; why not accept a similarly disenfranchised man to defend them, to be one of them? Taking the original, skewed narrative at face value, Eddie should welcome a release from Parker’s totalitarian impact in his life. Someone, somewhere, at some level of existence bought his sob story and gave him a genuine do-over. What does he do with it? This was 1993, what do you think he did with it?
He fought the Juggernaut.
You might remember the genre defining Roger Stern & John Romita, Jr. story where Spider-Man could not, under any circumstances, stop Juggy from doing whatever it was he wanted. The one that appears on all the Top Ten lists and, in two issues, tells the reader, new or old, all they need to know about Aunt May’s favorite nephew. Whatever it is that makes him unstoppable cannot hold up against having your name on the cover, and so Venom wipes the floor with him. This little X-Over may have been intended to cross-pollinate a few of the bigger books, and give Big Vee something to punch, but Nocenti still finds Juggernaut’s voice. This is him and here, among the mad, he apparently can be stopped.
Venom does not seem to mind the Creep, regardless of the fact that another character refers to it explicitly as a cancer, and in the end he just lets it go. If anyone we meet in this story is truly mad, there is no convincing Eddie it is him. Triumphant, the hero returns to his city, confident in the bedrock of his own mind despite all of the continually mounting evidence to the contrary.
Appearing as a shadow, interrupted only by the constantly shifting, endless row of teeth, Venom must be a comforting presence to the dwellers of this cavern home. The type of protector the disenfranchised expect because those that protect the World Above probably have little time for them. In this way, Venom has chosen to surround himself with those who have as unreliable a perspective as he does, those who assume and prescribe to their own views more than what actually occurs. Venom is at home with what someone not living underground would call madness. To Venom that is all there ever is.
Does the Black Suit feel the same way? Not to disparage the origins of the entity as already established, but I believe that it does not matter what happened to the Suit before it found its way into the Beyonder’s machine. For canon versus non-canon, I normally begin with this: what has survived through retelling? The Suit feeds on what a wearer feels. The stronger the impulses, the stronger the suit becomes. It learns, adapts, and is empathetic to its wearer. Venom does not trigger a Spider-Sense, is far more powerful that the Wallcrawler, and yet his only source of superpower is the Suit. What kind of state was it in when it met Eddie Brock in the first place?
The 80’s were a weird time. I do not remember much, but everything seems as if it was awful. Spider-Man wore the Black Suit (be it an alien symbiote or regular cloth costume) during some incredibly turbulent times in the character’s existence. I have always seen it as a mourning suit, the black shroud draped over a man who cannot help but lose people. It may have appeared too late to be a result of what happened with Gwen Stacy, but it still feels as if wearing it should tell the reader something other than that the artist cannot be bothered with Ditko’s Lines.
Spider-Man wore the Black Suit for Peter David’s first professional work, The Death of Jean DeWolff. This featured the Sin-Eater, a character whose reign of terror and subsequent capture were retconned into the origin of Eddie Brock. Less explicit to Venom is exactly what Peter Parker lost during that story. He was not yet married to Mary Jane. He watched as a good friend (who may have become something more), one of the few in law enforcement, is brutally murdered while the party responsible brings the whole episode to an even darker place. (The reveal is inconsequential if you have not read it, but if this would have been a spoiler then please go read it.)
Another notable episode is Jim Owsley’s Spider-Man vs. Wolverine. This a story filled with Cold War intrigue, piles of bodies, and the type of moral ambiguity that I do not know if Parker the character or Spider-Man the franchise was yet able to handle. Though the majority of that issue is spent in a knockoff version of the Red & Blues, it is the Black Suit that he wears at the beginning, and, if the climax is anything to go off of, what he returns to in the end.
These stories are the first instances of Parker’s identity being revealed to Daredevil and Wolverine respectively, setting the stage for the casual meet-ups of the 90s through today. Later on, when Spider-Man rids himself of the Suit, he could be attempting to free himself of all of this grief, anger, and misplaced trust. What if all of that pooled at the bottom of the proverbial basin, similar to blood, or, say, ink?
The black ink that defines Venom. Those heavy shadows, those uncompromising depictions that have him ill-defined and almost part of the background. Venom is not only the arch-foe that Spider-Man needed in an era where Norman Osborn was dead and Doctor Octopus was not considered “bad ass” enough, but he is a literal reminder of what Spider-Man was put through. If the 80’s put the character into places where he had to confront the real world, then Venom is what happens when you want to tell those stories but need the conflict to be symbolic.
The Madness is not a story of personal growth. The time of the Black Suit had pain and readjustment that the Spider-Man franchise had to process. Venom is the result. Eddie’s madness is what happens when a fictional character tries to make sense of the real world. The moral ambiguities and unforgivable nonsense that people, not governed by seasoned creators, inflict on one another. Add to that the constant, market-driven demand to be the Next Big Thing, no matter what, and you have a concoction unlike any other.Forcing all of that into its own little box warps into the mess of drool, fangs, and heavy inks that I revered as a child.