“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.