The Issues of Today: Venom: Funeral Pyre

Welcome back, guys and gals, on our explorative trawl through the murky black ink of symbiote-infested waters. Our second “Venom” limited series is about half the length of “Lethal Protector,” but still carries the same silly 90s shenanigans, as you will soon see.

Does this three-issue narrative rank better than Venom’s first outing as a sable-clad vigilante? Or does it still sink into the same murky mire of convenience and inanity? Find out here.

Venom: Funeral Pyre

Writer: Carl Potts
Penciler: Tom Lyle
Issues: 1-3

Before we begin, my fine readers, know that this tale is, at its core, a Venom/Punisher crossover. I can’t say that it’s an “excuse” to have a Venom/Punisher crossover—by which I mean, it isn’t a story that feels like it’s purposefully trying to shove Venom and the Punisher together as a cash grab like Spider-Man’s bizarre appearance in “Lethal Protector.” I’m undoubtedly certain that Frank Castle’s gun-toting alter ego was dropped in here as an extra character to entice readers to purchase the mag, but his inclusion certainly feels smoother than Spidey’s.

The story actually begins with a reporter named Gray Russell (no, not a typo; it isn’t “Gary,” it’s “Gray”) working undercover in a San Francisco mob. After witnessing the gang he’s planted in run down an older man, whom they then chase to his death, Gray reaches out to Eddie Brock’s underground community, seeking help. He needs to get out of the gang before they force him to participate in a drive-by shooting the next night. Venom, of course, answers the call. I didn’t think this while reading the tale, but now that it’s on my mind, I can’t help but appreciate an idea that Potts introduces here: part of me, after finishing “Lethal Protector” was wondering how these writers and artists were going to handle the “Venom protecting innocents” bit; in this piece, it seems established that Venom isn’t only assisting the underground community he lives in but also people who come to him for help. He’s like a detective in a crime noir novel, sitting in his dark office waiting for people to enter with a case.

This isn’t Spider-Man, who just goes out swinging in hopes of running into a bad guy. This isn’t the Avengers, who jump from their comfy mansion lazy boys whenever Thanos threatens the universe. Venom’s kind of just there, kinda just waiting for skulls to crack or brains to eat (his words, not mine). There’s a piece of me that likes that this guy can just field whatever cases or issues come his way and that at least some people in San Francisco are aware of the dude in the black alien suit who can help them. Venom responds and, almost immediately, becomes entangled with the Punisher. Castle himself is reacting to a news bulletin about the gang that killed the old man and goes on a murder spree. Venom, knowing that Castle is unaware of the reporter, tries his darndest to keep the Punisher from killing too many guys and risking the reporter being caught in the crossfire. Here, we get not only a physical battle between the two, but also a bizarre duel of ideologies. Venom, the protector of the innocent, argues the reporter’s cause with the Punisher and says the guy doesn’t need to die just because he’s in the gang. Gray hasn’t done anything wrong yet, Venom claims. Punisher retorts that nobody can run with a gang and stay untainted. In other words, maybe Gray hasn’t done any illegal activities, but he’s going to. Thus, Venom tries to stop the Punisher, and the Punisher tries to stop Venom from stopping him.

Anybody else miss the days when the Green Goblin, Magneto, and Dr. Doom where clearly the bad guys, with their villainous cackles and murderous intentions, and Spidey, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four saved the day, rescued people, defeated evildoers, and were obviously the heroes? This story instead gives us two vigilantes dueling it out, each with their own grayed sensibilities about the world. In Venom’s mind, you’re innocent until proven guilty, which is perfectly fine, but his punishment for guilt includes ripping people open and dropping them off buildings. In the other corner, Frank Castle just mows down those he perceives as criminals, and the fact his hit list includes someone who might be swayed towards criminality, even if they haven’t done anything wrong quite yet, is perplexing and a bit disturbing. Gray might be a journalist, he might be coerced into committing a wrongdoing so to remain undercover, but the Punisher still views it as if Gray has willingly picked up the gun and gone out and shot someone. The arguments make for something interesting philosophical debate between the two, but as I stated last post, it sure makes it hard to root for either vigilante.

If this was all the story was about, Venom’s morals vs. the Punisher’s, that core conundrum might make for a compelling read. But Venom and Punisher’s duel doesn’t last for long, and we’re instead treated to a Gray Russell with slightly different motivations than we’re led to believe early on. See, Gray isn’t just a reporter hoping to get the scoop on a gang of criminals, risking life and limb for a dramatic exposé. As we rather suddenly discover, his father was a Hydra scientist working on a genetics program in the warehouse the gang calls home. If Potts had introduced this twist subtly, perhaps feeding readers clues before a more artistic reveal, the “Dad is a Hydra goon” angle may have worked nicely. As its portrayed, the instant shift in my mind from perceiving Gray as a “undercover journalist” to “journalist looking to boost his career by writing on a secret lab his dad worked in” throws a wrinkle in to how I view the story as a whole. Gray changes from a kind of everyman character—the story, though a Venom tale, largely surrounds Gray and his actions, and he is undoubtedly a very human figure through whose eyes we witness some dastardly crimes—to having this sudden backstory and different motivations than I believed he had when I started reading.

Point being, I don’t empathize with the guy much. I actually enjoy reading Venom’s scenes, especially where he goes up against the Punisher, advocating for Gray’s innocence and fighting the armed vigilante so this one dude might have a chance to live. Sure, Potts’ dialogue is corny— “Must save the fellow journalist!” Venom thinks at one point, which I’ll admit is a nice reminder that Brock was once a respected member of the Fourth Estate and thus draws a closer connection between him and Gray. But though Venom tends to act violently, his intentions are at least of a nobler kind and Potts certainly gets that point across. This just makes my distaste for Gray even worse.

I can’t tell if Potts is intentionally making Gray unlikable, but if he is, then he pulls out all the stops when he has Gray subject himself to his father’s experiments. Suddenly, Gray is Pyre, an individual with flame-based powers able to physically lash out at the Punisher as the vigilante hunts him. Gray seems to go total villain all of a sudden, and while his anger towards the Punisher is inevitable, to go from “I’ll use my dad’s experiments as a way to defend myself” to “I’m gonna burn everyone here to a crisp” is a sudden and not completely welcome change. A crazy battle concludes our tale, with Potts taking a moment for Venom to nicely address his feelings of betrayal. This fight is hindered by one overriding element: Pyre’s powers. Once again, Venom faces a foe whose powers match one of his weaknesses perfectly. With Punisher already having used a sonic cannon on the symbiote earlier, the story’s introduction of a fire-based enemy feels a little over the top. As I mentioned before, this problem will be a long-running one.

However, this story is perhaps the first time I’ve actually sympathized with Venom a little. It’s a bit difficult to see if the writers in charge of these series purposefully tried to make the reader feel empathy towards Brock and his alter ego. I mean, I think they are definitely working to shape Brock as a hero or antihero, but the stories are so wrapped up in action and plot, there’s little room for the intentional inclusion of development. That’s why I use “purposeful.” In Potts’ case, making the reader sympathize with Brock doesn’t feel like an afterthought. I do think I feel some emotion towards the guy here—his actions may be violent, but all Venom was doing was trying to save the life of someone who he felt was innocent, and to have that same guy turn on him is defeating, for sure. At story’s end, he’s rightfully ticked off at the Punisher and swears some kind of revenge (we’ll see if that plays out later down the line). It’s a pyrrhic victory for our sorta-hero, and for all its shortcomings, the tale does end on an interestingly bitter note.

Now, for the funny parts:

“Funeral Pyre” is, like its predecessor and descendants, by no means a perfect tale. Choppy dialogue, a plot not fully fleshed out, and an unlikable character who we really should have been able to enjoy all contribute to this limited series’ mediocre narrative. I believe a tale centering on the conflict between Venom and the Punisher would have been stronger, but I will take what Potts gives us. Had Potts focused more on developing some of his philosophical concepts, perhaps the reading would have been smoother. Regrettably, we’re left with a half-baked story that grasped at a bit too much and came away with holding too little.

—Tags: Comics, Issues of Today