Tag Archives: Erik Larsen

Image @ 25 : The Savage Dragon

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In late 1991 a group of Marvel Comics’ hottest artists gave Marvel (and later DC Comics) the collective middle finger and struck out on their own to form Image Comics.  The following summer, Image took the comic book world by storm. I’m looking back at some of the books that changed the industry forever, starting with Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon.

In the summer of 1992, I was a couple years into collecting comics.  I started with the usual: Spider-Man, The Avengers, occasionally some DC stuff.  The comics industry was growing and publishers were bringing out countless new characters and concepts, throwing the proverbial crap at the wall to see what would stick.

Boy, was there a lot of crap.

But, hey, I’m not here to throw stones.  I’m here to throw some praise on what I love.  And I loved some of those new guys on the block.  I’m looking at you, Darkhawk!  This guy still loves ya, Sleepwalker!

Y’see, the great thing about the new guys was they were all mine.  I got in on the ground floor and was able to watch them grow from the beginning.  Spidey had been around for near 30 years at that point.  Batman was over 50!  Beat it, gramps, there’s some young blood here to take us into the next Millennium!

Speaking of Youngblood…

The feeling of “All New Heroes Just For Me” took a big leap in 1992 with the launch of Image Comics.  At the time, I was wholly unaware of the inner workings at any comics publisher and had only just begun to appreciate different writers and artists.  So when the much-ballyhooed Image split took place, I didn’t even know about it until I realized that the Youngblood comic was drawn by the guy who used to do X-Force, Rob Liefeld.

While I can’t remember specifically, I suspect it was Wizard Magazine that eventually gave me the scoop on Image and all the badass comics that would soon be coming my way with a bevy of all new characters from artists I loved.  Spawn, Shadowhawk, Cyber Force – they were all in my wheelhouse, and while Youngblood was initially my favorite Image book, it would be a green-skinned strong man with a badge that stood the test of time.

Erik Larsen had followed Todd MacFarlane on both Amazing Spider-Man and then Spider-Man before again following MacFarlane (along with Liefeld and several others) out the Marvel door and into forming Image Comics, the biggest game changer the industry had seen since the release of Watchmen in 1986.

Larsen separated himself from the Image pack right away with The Savage Dragon.  While many of the Image founders relied on what worked for them at Marvel and cribbed heavily from those characters and concepts, Larsen went waaay back to his roots and brought a boyhood creation into the spotlight.

At first glance, it was easy to dismiss Dragon as an obvious Hulk clone.  Upon further inspection, however, the similarities are almost entirely cosmetic.  Aside from the green skin and super strength, there wasn’t much to compare.  The Hulk has gone through countless changes in his decades of existence, but the core concept remains a Jekyll/Hyde dynamic, the brute having little interest in the world around him.

Dragon was always Dragon. He took great interest in his world, which had a large supporting cast, including many he called friend.  Dragon was a Chicago cop committed to the job.  He was a thinker with a strong sense of right and wrong.  He had no patience for ignorance or cruelty.  He was a fully developed character from nearly the beginning, despite having no knowledge of his own origins.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before diving into the early Dragon years, I want to take a quick look at the first issue of The Savage Dragon mini-series.  Most of the Image guys launched their new books as a mini-series, before starting again with a new #1 (Savage Dragon, Cyber Force) or just continuing on with the numbering once the series was proven to be sustainable (WildC.A.T.s).

Savage Dragon #1 was released in the summer of 1992 (July is the listed month, so it likely was released in May), and I had already been enthralled by Image thanks to Youngblood and Spawn’s debut issues.  I had pretty much decided to get every Image title I could afford, and thankfully my older brother was buying up Image books in speculator fashion, so what I couldn’t get for myself, I still had access to.

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The cover is a bit plain but still dynamic, right?  The Dragon, all muscled up, leaping at the reader, fangs bared.  And TWO TAGLINES!  A lot of early 90’s comics seem to have that going.  “1st BRUTAL ISSUE!” was an effective hook for a 12-year-old, I’ll tell you.  Wisely, Larsen’s name is prominent on the cover, which was rare before Image.  The creators were the draw, not the characters themselves, so it was a smart move.

The fin on his head was a bit of a mystery.  I don’t think I had ever seen the likes of it before.  Mohawks were not cool in this era, but given Larsen had dreamt Dragon up years prior, maybe that was an influence.  Regardless, it helped distinguish Dragon from ‘ol purple pants at Marvel.

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Page one starts us out right in the middle of the action, Dragon leaping at a ridiculously 90s bad guy.  Cutthroat, how I love thee.  A black dude with dreads, an eye patch, absolutely covered in spikes and skulls and knives and knives with skulls on the hilts.  Not only that, but poor Cutthroat is an amputee, missing his right arm from the elbow down!  “Don’t worry, just slap a giant-ass sickle on there, doc!”  Did he cut his own arm off so he could do that?  I think he might have!  I need to know!

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Cutthroat also has the standard scantily clad henchwoman, or partner, who goes by Glowbug.  She never uses her powers, if she has any, but does get clocked by Dragon one good time and is down for the count.  I don’t recall Glowbug ever showing back up again, but I can’t guarantee it.

Dragon gets sliced up pretty badly, but still makes short work of the two losers.  As he escorts them outside, a fellow cop asks if it’s a rough day, to which Dragon replies, “I’ve had worse.”  This leads to a flashback sequence with Dragon lying in a burning field, naked and unconscious.

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When Dragon wakes, Lt. Frank Darling interviews him and we discover Dragon suffers selective amnesia.  Weirdly, Dragon seems to know everything, from who the President is to who won the ’45 World Series, but has no knowledge of his own past.  Early on, he doesn’t know why he’s green and super strong, or even the extent of his powers.

Frank sets him up with a job, and the reader is soon shown how dire the crime situation is in Chicago.  The whole city is pretty much at the mercy of The Vicious Circle, a mob of “Super Freaks” who do as they please because the police force just doesn’t have the firepower to combat them.  Frank asks Dragon to help him out, but Dragon turns him away at first.

Looking at these pages, you can get a sense of Larsen’s writing style.  I think he’s great at dialogue, even if sometimes things get overly talky.  It’s obvious how much Robert Kirkman is influenced by Larsen (a fact Kirkman freely admits).

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It’s just a matter of time before Dragon sees how bad the Super Freaks can be.  A couple of them (including the aptly named Skullface) give his boss some shit, and Dragon has to smack them around.  Look at Skullface, by the way.  LOOK AT HIM!  Red and gold armor, a crazy demon skull, and he’s a ginger to boot!  He’s beautiful.

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Soon enough Dragon is on the force, kicking all kinds of Super Freak butt and even handling the normies when need be.  Take a look at some of these panels in this shootout.  So much energy in the artwork.  I still appreciate it now, but as a 12-year-old?  There was no way I could keep from salivating when I read this stuff.

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Issue #1 ends with Dragon promising the public he’ll deal with the Super Freak problem while the head of The Vicious Circle (unnamed here) gives his lackeys permission to take the fight to Dragon.

Much of the first three issues focus on flashbacks to Dragon’s early days after waking up in the field, mingled with the present day.  It flows smoothly enough, but later Larsen would put everything in chronological order for the trade paperback.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an artist, and have no knowledge of how to properly criticize art, so I won’t.  I just know what I like and what I don’t.)

Larsen’s art seems to be divisive, and I’m firmly on the pro side.  His balls-out action scenes are great, but he can handle the little moments too.  In the bedside interview, he nails some facial expressions, and the lightning effects from the storm outside are a great touch.

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In the back of the first issue is a page-length letter from Larsen to the readers, and it may be the contents of this page that cemented Larsen as one of my heroes.  He goes on at length about how he grew up making his own comics and how Dragon was his favorite boyhood creation, one he would re-invent on occasion but always keep focus on.  Now he was getting the opportunity to publish Dragon professionally, and through Image he would own everything he published.

As time went on, other characters and storylines from the comics he produced as a kid made their way into the regular Savage Dragon series.  Erik Larsen was (and still is) literally living his dream, and I think that’s amazing.  There would be many Savage Dragon spin-offs and ancillary series, but every issue of The Savage Dragon has been written and drawn by the man himself. (Although Jim Lee did Issue #13 as part of the Image X Month event, Larsen later went back and produced his own Issue #13).  He’s still putting the book out to this day with Issue #225 on sale now.

In preparation for this article, I went back through all my Savage Dragon trades and re-read the first 11 volumes, which covered up through Issue #58 of the regular series.  Volume 2 starts out with Dragon sporting a wicked sleeveless trench coat, Fu Manchu stache, and some lame-ass spectacles, with the tone and artwork getting extra dark and violent.  The job is proving too much for one Super Freak to handle and some other super powered folks join the department for a short while, but it doesn’t last.

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The next few volumes are a tour de force of insane action and outlandish characters.  Aside from a couple epic tussles with Vicious Circle head Overlord, he confronts one of the most unique rogues’ galleries in comics history.  A shark man (Mako), an ape with Hitler’s brain (Brainiape), and a chicken-headed powerhouse (uh, Powerhouse) to name a few.

Also among the superfreak villains Dragon faces on the job: Dung, who utilizes giant shit-cannons and Heavy Flo, who… um… well, here’s a picture.

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After several years of working as a cop, a few team-ups with the Ninja Turtles, a trip to Hell and back, defending the earth from a Martian invasion, and fathering a child with his super-powered girlfriend, Larsen eventually transitions Dragon into an actual superhero, costume and everything, around Issue #40.  In this role, as part of a government-sponsored team of heroes, he gets caught up in inter-dimensional travels and battles with the gods of legend.

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Also, one time Dragon beat a dude with his own severed arm.

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In the mid-90’s there was even a short-lived Savage Dragon cartoon on USA Network, but it’s…not great.

The trade paperbacks make for generally swift reads, but Larsen made the decision early on to let the characters (at least the ones who survive long enough) age in real time.  As a year passes in what we have to settle for as reality, a year also passes in Savage Dragon land.

My Savage Dragon collection has some holes.  In the early 00’s I lost interest for a bit, partially because Larsen’s art style seemed to change slightly in a way I wasn’t thrilled with, and partially because my local shop wasn’t consistent in getting the issues in.

As years passed, the status quo and cast of characters took on drastic changes, Dragon’s origin story was eventually revealed in the Image 10th anniversary book, and Dragon’s son Malcolm grew up and took center stage as the star of the book.  While I’m not as big a fan of Malcolm, the fact that Larsen is able to do this is so satisfying.  I’m collecting the title now, but while I’m current on buying them, I’ve only read up to Issue #208.

For a number of reasons, the book now is not on par with its heyday of the early to mid-90’s, but I admit nostalgia may well be coloring that opinion.  The focus on Malcolm and more space-faring, dimension-hopping adventures aren’t as appealing to me as the semi-grounded beat cop approach of the early days.  Even still, the book is fun as hell.

Erik Larsen also has always been a fan of drawing well-endowed, scantily clad females, and he made no secret of it.  He likes big, bodacious boobies on his babes and giant, rippling muscles on his dudes.  That’s part of the appeal of his art, overly exaggerated proportions on the men and the women. As time went on, more and more sexuality made its way into the book, including some occasional nudity.  There’s been some press lately about Larsen’s decision to start including some, for lack of a better word, pornographic material in the book.  I actually don’t like it, but it’s Erik Larsen’s book, and I whole-heartedly support him doing whatever he wants with it.  He won’t lose me as a reader over it.

If you’re a fan of comics (especially the outrageous 90’s variety) and haven’t ever read The Savage Dragon, you owe it to yourself to check it out.  The early back issues and trade paperbacks are inexpensive and fairly easy to find.  I don’t think you’ll regret it.  If you dig it like I do, consider adding the title to your pull list at your local comic shop. Independent comics always need support.

Comics is a shrinking medium, but 25 years in, Erik Larsen’s The Savage Dragon has soldiered on.  Here’s to 25 more…

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More than Words: Fin Addicts, a Nomination for Best Letter Column of the 90’s

(Editor’s note: In the months to come, proprietor Dean Compton and I hope to share with you the thoughts on an increasingly diverse array of comics from even more fellow lovers of that most Unspoken of Decades! If you would like to be one of them, head on over to The Unspoken Decade’s Facebook page and send us a message! In the meantime, enjoy this look at Fin Addicts from new contributor Albert Carpentier! – ES)

Hi, Legions of the Unspoken! My name is Albert Carpentier, and I celebrate 90’s comics.  Thanks to Dean for letting me contribute to the Unspoken Decade! During the early 90’s, I was a teenager with a limited amount of monetary funds to spend on comic books.  I tried to avoid multi-part crossovers and comics with jacked up prices due to a fancy cover but a crap story.  I enjoyed extras like pinups, house ads, and letter columns.

DC and Marvel typically included a one page letter column with a handful of letters that occasionally offered some insight but were chosen to print because the editors could hype up some upcoming story line or new series in their response.  I don’t remember Valiant having letter columns at all and I don’t feel like digging out my old Ninjak comics to check.  Then there was Image.  Image comics were a breath of fresh air with multiple pages of letters.  I thought it would be fun to revisit the Fin Addicts letter column from Issues #1-26 of Savage Dragon.

The first issue of Savage Dragon I picked up was Issue #9.  I picked it up because I had enjoyed the SuperPatriot miniseries, and the character made a guest appearance in #9.  I knew Savage Dragon was the flagship title for the Highbrow Universe of Erik Larsen and eventually bought all of the back issues at my LCS.  Besides enjoying the fun story lines and characters, I got my money’s worth because Larsen filled these issues with extras, and as the series went on they usually averaged four to seven pages of the letter column Fin Addicts.  The infamous Issue #7 was 22 pages of splash pages, a poster insert, and eight pages of letter column that concluded on the back cover!

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The humble beginning of Fin Addicts. A forum for Savage Dragon fans since 1992.

 

This was before email.  Letters were typed or written and then mailed (with a stamp!) to the PO Box listed in the header of Fin Addicts.  Larsen responded to a question in Savage Dragon (ongoing) Issue #1 that he received over a thousand pieces of mail every month.

Issue #12 included an explanation on how he picks letters for the column.  It is good advice about asking questions that can be answered without ruining the story, offering insight and something new.  While I enjoyed reading Fin Addicts, I never attempted writing a letter.  This could have been time well spent in my high school creative writing class but I was too busy writing fan fiction episodes of Seinfeld.

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Olav Beemer, habitual letter writer.

A typical Fin Addicts included a question and answer section compiled by Larsen from questions in letters.  This was helpful to find out character names and backgrounds not stated in the story and about Larsen’s creative process.  Issue #13B included a preamble about many readers asking the same questions to write term papers.  He listed several questions from 12-year-old Robert Mickelson.  This info helped middle and high school kids write book reports.  I like to think somewhere in the world there is someone who received a Bachelor of Arts in English writing a thesis about Dragon.  I imagine this person is somewhat like the Jeremy Piven character in the movie PCU.

Larsen used Fin Addicts as a forum to interact with readers and he held court about a variety of topics.  Issue #8 included a tribute to Jack Kirby after his death.  Issue #14 an announcement of the birth of Larsen’s son.  Issue #18 a breakdown of different formats used to write comics.  Issue #26 a stark take on the status of the comic book industry after the speculation boom.  Letters with negative views were printed, and Issue #15 included an apology to a reader whose dad was “bent out of shape” about the near nudity of characters in Issues #9 and #14.

Due to the passage of time we tend to forget how controversial Image was at the time.  Some people like to collect comics because of the writers and artists.  Some people like to collect comics because of the characters.  Neither way is wrong; however, opinions are created and heated feuds can take place.  Larsen feuded with Peter David and others.  Fin Addicts was not immune from these conflicts. Reader Alan Bykowski wrote letters appearing in Issues #11 and #14 touching on some of these issues.  Letters from Peter David were in Issues #20 and #22.  Larsen’s response to the letter in Issue 20 was four-and-a-half pages long!  I remember being shocked at the time flipping through and seeing page after page of bold font used for responses.  Creating comics was their job, and they took it seriously.

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Great response from Erik Larsen about reasons to print negative letters.

Reading and collecting comics was a choice I made as a teenager.  Initially none of the others in my group of friends made the choice with me.  Eventually, I found several new friends who shared an interest in comics, but when I first started reading, I felt like an outsider.  I read Fin Addicts and found there were other people who cared about comic books and the characters in them just like I did.  They were escaping into comics just like I was, and they cared enough to write a letter letting the creators know we were out there.

Venom: The Madness – Eddie Brock Joins the Outer Church

“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.

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I would prefer reading Eddie Brock’s Twitter account to almost anything already announced for Convergence.

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.

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The teeth constantly grow, phasing in and out from higher-dimensional space, the person they belong to merely forming around them.

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.

Some eras are best represented by cave painting, fresco, or relief. We have Flair ’94.
Some eras are best represented by cave painting, fresco, or relief. We have Flair ’94 Collectible Trading Cards.

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.”

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Inside the mind of Venom is a far more dangerous place than the cold, lonely world of several miles below early 90’s California.

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.

There is no image of Cain Marko in this comic that anyone would be proud of so here is Jones' contribution to "The Multiversity."
There is no image of Cain Marko in this comic that anyone would be proud of so here is Jones’ contribution to “The Multiversity.”

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.

"We accept [him]... one of us!"
“We accept [him]… one of us!”
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.)

If you have ever read "The Invisibles" you may recognize that as Barbelith.
If you have ever read “The Invisibles,” you may recognize Barbelith in the background.

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?

Eddie may be a sinkhole of desperation but Spidey could learn a thing or two about moving on.
Eddie may be a sinkhole of desperation, but Spidey could learn a thing or two about moving on.

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.