Previously, I decided to exclude various issues where Venom guest-starred but was not the principle focus. This time around, however, I’m going to examine a one-shot about both Venom and that lovable Jolly Green Giant, Mr. “Belted-By-Gamma-Rays” himself: the Hulk. Since this isn’t just Venom appearing for a few pages in someone else’s comic book, and since my dad is a huge Hulk fan, I thought I’d write up a little review about this standalone story. For its limited page length, “Rockin’ the Town” is a pretty fun, tiny tale, fortunately, meaning its impact lasts just a smidge longer than I assumed going into it.
Rockin’ the Town (Incredible Hulk vs. Venom #1)
Writer: Peter David
Pencils: Jim Craig
Even not knowing Peter David was the writer before I started reading (creator credits appear on the fifth page), the issue made it clear a writer of David’s caliber was working the story. The credits box just confirmed what I suspected when I began flipping through the tale. David’s writing, particularly in his “Spider-Man 2099” series, is so distinct from other writers of the time. Where Howard Mackie, Ann Nocenti, or David Michelinie pepper their Venom stories with cheesy one-liners, cringe-worthy dialogue, and exposition-heavy descriptions, David immediately hits readers with solid dialogue. From a random news station employee giving a coworker nicknames (“Barney! The Barn-Meister! Barney Rubble”), to an anchor making a meta comment on a supervillain moniker (“That has got to be the single dumbest villain name I’ve ever heard of”), to a frightened woman screaming as she almost plunges to her death (“Don’t lemme die! Don’t lemme die!”), all of David’s characters come with their own voice. We don’t just get some random pedestrian yelling “Look! Up in the sky!” as they head towards work. We get people with names, nicknames, dialects who infuse David’s story with a more realistic vibe.
David creates a microcosm of a world in this single issue, filled with newscasters, bickering lovebirds, an African American couple sneaking away, and a dude covered in a parasitic alien. Oh, and the Hulk. He’s there too. The brilliance of the issue is just how much material David squeezes into twenty pages. And it all flows nicely, each element becoming part of the larger narrative: the newscasters report on a “supervillain” named Dr. Bad Vibes who’s supposedly tormenting San Francisco with earthquakes; the African American couple become caught in one of the earthquakes, with Venom rescuing them; the bickering couple patch things up once the earthquakes subside. These are tiny, tiny portions of the story, but these subplots all beautifully extend from the main narrative. They’re never distracting and only enhance David’s tale, giving it depth and characterization in a story where neither of our two protagonists grow at all.
The main story itself—centered on a mysterious “villain” holding the city of San Francisco hostage and threatening more earthquakes if he isn’t paid a ransom—doesn’t feel rushed, per se, but I don’t think it completely carries the humorous quality David was going for. So much of the issue’s whimsy is found in David’s dialogue: when a quack psychic is asked by a professor if she’s ever even heard of the San Andreas fault, she comments she’s never of a “Sam Andreas” and doesn’t think he’s responsible for any of this. Even the professor’s own quip that Dr. Bad Vibes could just be “some lunatic with a cardboard box that reads ‘Earthquake Machine’” is another example of a great meta joke. Gags like this pepper the issue, and while I know much of David’s Hulk and Spider-Man 2099 runs are more serious than amusing, the humor he fits into this tale is fantastic. Maybe the story itself fails at humor, but the conversations and comments woven into the tale work wonderfully.
This does, sadly, lead to a few problems: David seems so intent on crafting this little world and masterfully constructing the characters and words that populate it, he ends up placing Venom and the Hulk on the back burner. They do bicker and fight when they first collide, only to come to an uneasy alliance to pursue the man behind the quakes. But for a story billed as “Venom vs. the Incredible Hulk,” one would think we’d get a slightly bigger focus on the “Venom,” “vs.,” and “Hulk” bits of that title. David’s worldbuilding is still great, but a weakened story is an unfortunate side-effect of his otherwise great writing. The Venom/Hulk fight is nothing much, a few pages of fist-throwing and web-spinning before the two make up. It’s your generic “heroes fight each other because of a misunderstanding before realizing they really should be chasing down the bad guy” storyline. That’s not bad, but nothing special.
The other issue is the story’s ending. SPOILER ALERT, but Hulk and Venom track down the dude and guess what they find. A lunatic with a cardboard box that reads “Earthquake Machine.” Just like the professor indicated. As amusing as the professor’s earlier gag is, to have it be the actual ending to the comic feels a little cheap on David’s part. Maybe that was his intention the whole time, and I’m not saying that “supervillain causing earthquakes is really a crazy dude who got lucky with his predictions about tectonic plates” is a terrible ending. I think that, when paired with the Professor’s uncanny guessing ability, this ending takes what was meant to be a joke and turns it into something that feels coincidental or something akin to deux ex machina: let’s call it “lazy foreshadowing.”
I can’t tell if I wanted the earthquakes to be part of a supervillain plot or not. There’s something to be said for a guy intentionally causing mass hysteria by broadcasting his “evil plans” to the news. I suppose a deeper moral lesson could even be tugged from this Dr. Bad Vibes’ example, but not when David turns a potentially interesting ending into a joke.
This story is probably one of the best Venom issues from this “Venomnibus” I’ve yet to read. The humor works, the worldbuilding is great, the dialogue is pure Peter David…the storyline could use some work, and the ending is a tad disappointing, but when you compare this story to what’s come before it, “wildly entertaining” trumps “mildly entertaining” every time.
In saving the couple from the earthquake, Venom has to remove the passenger’s side door. The guy he’s saving angrily shouts, “Hey, Spider-Man! Ya didn’t have to rip off the door! The crunched fender I could’a lived with, but now I gotta get a whole new door, man!” This whole quote is great: from the way he’s complaining while Venom is saving his life, to calling him “Spider-Man,” to moaning about how he has to get a “whole new door,” this tirade is fantastic from start to finish.
The Hulk tells Venom at one point to “exercise caution when flapping [his] oversized lip,” which is another bit of comics commentary regarding how big, toothy, and drooly Venom’s mouth is always depicted. It’s good seeing David poking fun at things so rarely commented on and taken for granted in-universe.
When predicting more earthquakes, the psychic is asked when they’ll happen. “Sometime” is her hilariously vague answer.