The Issues of Today: Venom: Lethal Protector

I recently purchased two “Venomnibus”s, two massive hardbacks collecting the various limited “Venom” series from the 1990s. These 1,000+ page tomes are stuffed to the gills with Venom stories from several writers and artists, and I’m looking forward to getting deeper and deeper into the zany 90s-era tales. I’m not expecting anything brilliant, especially since what I’ve read so far hasn’t been Shakespeare-level fiction, but I have been entertained by the pages I’ve consumed already.

Obviously, the “write about what I read for a day” premise of this blog has already fallen through. I haven’t posted every day, due to a variety of factors, and I’ve also realized that writing with such a concept in mind has limited my reading. I intentionally read “Secret Wars” over three days so as to milk three blogs out of it. Was I able to write enough about each section for a blog of proper length? I think so, sure. But did I purposefully read four issues a day and no more, just so I could write about those issues? Yes. Even without the benefit of hindsight, I knew I’d encounter some limits. I just didn’t think I’d end up setting aside a story I was really enjoying to keep from reading more than I “should.” And then came the question of what I was to do if I, say, finished one story and started a second in the same day. Do I write about that first tale’s conclusion and the second’s beginning? But wouldn’t that make the post feel too cluttered? Oy.

A change was, obviously, in order. Instead of posting about my “daily readings,” I want to write about complete stories, or at least tales that can be divided into palatable pieces. This is something I started trying to do a while back, and I fully intended to write about the entirety of “The Clone Saga” in such a fashion. That also clearly never happened. But I want it to happen now, so I’ll be starting working through these wacky 90s “Venom” sagas I find myself buried in.

Speaking of which, let’s jump headlong into the symbiote-laden mess of a man and see how one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes starts developing into a “hero.”

Venom: Lethal Protector

Writer: David Micheline
Pencilers: Mark Bagley and Ron Lim
Issues: 1-6

Venom’s first ever solo series finds him outside of New York almost immediately following the events of Amazing Spider-Man #375. That issue showed Venom and Spider-Man make a deal where they promised not to interfere with one another after Spidey helped save Eddie Brock’s ex-wife, Ann Weying. Making good on his promise, Venom relocates to San Francisco where he decides to mete out his own brand of dark justice.

This core concept of the “heroic” Venom—the Venom who protects innocent individuals by brutally taking out criminals (read: murders and maims them)—makes the character almost a twisted version of Spider-Man, which no doubt the creators had in mind when they first invented the character. Stronger, more powerful, able to evade Peter’s spider-sense…Venom is a darker, almost better (as in, more efficient) Spider-Man. More power, no responsibility. If you murder a crook, he can’t hurt anybody anymore, right?

As intriguing a concept as this is, writer David Micheline really uses it in the worst possible way: he has Venom embrace his murderous tendencies. Not a ton of people die in this series, and the deaths are never graphically depicted, but it’s hard rooting for a character who is completely fine with killing people in order to do “the right thing.” It’s the same reason why I’m not a Punisher or Deadpool fan. At the very least, since Venom is a bond between a human and an alien symbiote, some inner dialogue between the two contesting their views on the morality associated with dispensing crime would have been a nice touch. Couldn’t the villainous, murderous, parasitic supervillain learn how to be somewhat of a better hero? Perhaps a “killing is not the answer” would take us down a cliched path, but it still would be a welcome dialogue at least. Micheline’s selected method seems to indicate not much thought on his part, who just scoops up the character and plops into a story. It feels like he had to devise a limited series to an incredibly popular character and flung him into the midst of some chaos.

That isn’t to say there aren’t some nice touches to this tale: I really appreciate seeing how Micheline, Bagley, and Lim attempt (not always successfully) at distancing Venom from Spider-Man, even going so far as to move him from the East Coast to the West. It’s about as far as you can get from New York without leaving America, and I’m glad the creators did this instead of trying to force him to avoid other superheroes in the Big Apple. The new setting helps make the series distinct from other comics at the time, allowing Micheline, Bagley, and Lim to explore an area of America not frequented by Marvel-published comics.

Spider-Man, sadly, does end up playing a role in the series, going on a hunt for Venom once he hears his foe resides in San Francisco. Driven his sense of responsibility, Spidey (apparently forgetting the deal he made with Venom in his own mag), looks for Venom through a few issues, really getting nowhere in his search. Heck, the only information he does learn is from a maid who gives him some background on Eddie’s relationship with his father. Spidey’s placement in the series makes little sense story-wise, and I really believe he was entered as a “special guest star” to help the book in sales. Spidey and Venom share history, definitely, but considering this subplot blatantly contradicts the previously established “truce” between the two, the whole plot feels rather forced.

The narrative that doesn’t involve Spidey sees Venom locate a group of underground-dwelling homeless individuals, who have found a section of San Francisco buried beneath the ground during an early 20th century earthquake (that right there…that’s hilarious). Venom becomes embroiled in protecting them against Roland Treece, a business mogul planning to blow up the homeless community in search of (not kidding) buried treasure, while also avoiding The Jury, a group of armored warriors sic’ed on him by former army general Orwell Taylor to avenge the death of his son.

And it gets crazier. Duped into making a “deal” with Treece, Venom is kidnapped and brought to a Life Foundation facility run by Carlton Drake, whom viewers of last year’s Venom movie should be familiar with. Drake removes “seeds” from Venom, similar to the seed that carried the Carnage spawn, and uses them to create five new symbiotes.

So let’s do a head count of bad guys here. You’ve got yourself…

…as the principle adversaries. Then you’ve got members of The Jury (who have a pretty nice battle with Venom over the course of half an issue)…

…and the five symbiotes Drake spawns from Venom’s seed.

You want dramatic? You want over the top? How about having your principle proto-protagonist face off against THIRTEEN different bad guys in the span of six issues?!? Holy cow, that’s a lot!

Normally, I wouldn’t mind this. Normally, this would be fantastic. Sadly, pretty much all five of The Jury members are indistinguishable from one another, with similar armors and abilities, and though the designs of symbionts are unique and pretty darn cool, none of them have a chance at standing out from one another. I do know that several of these characters, particularly the symbiotes and members of the Jury, make further appearances many limited series from now, so perhaps they will be fleshed out and made distinct then. In the meantime, for a story packed to the gills with villains, it’s unfortunate none of them are used in exciting ways. But I will add that, out of our three principle antagonists, Taylor’s motivation is the most interesting: his son was a guard at superhuman prison the Vault when Venom broke free and killed him in a preceding ASM issue. Bravo to Micheline for tethering in some previous continuity. That’s a nice touch.

Micheline’s dialogue is as cheesy as I’ve come to expect from him. From my recollection of Spider-Man comics, both he and writer Howard Mackie really defined “cheesy” for me. His work isn’t straight-up awful, like some stories by Tom DeFalco and John Byrne that I’ve read, but it isn’t as good as other 90s-era writers like Peter David or J.M. DeMatteis. His work inhabits this middle ground of “expectantly ridiculous but not uproariously terrible.” I would slightly chastise the way he solves conflicts—at a few different moments, Venom is beaten and captured in battle only to catch his second wind after “a rest.” The trope is used a couple times and becomes a bit irritating after the third instance. In addition (and in what will become a small complaint towards further stories), Venom’s weaknesses to fire and sonics springs up at the most convenient times.

For their part, Bagley and Lim do pretty quality work. I can’t say that I enjoy Lim’s art as much as Bagley’s; for the latter, it is absolutely entertaining to see his 90s version of Venom and compare it to his later work on “Ultimate Spider-Man.” A lot of Bagley’s artwork would remain consistent between these different stories, if not a bit better defined a little less than a decade removed from this Venom storyline. Still, it’s a recognizable element that makes the book feel more comfortable in its otherwise alien setting.

Unlike other series, I didn’t find much that was unintentionally amusing this time around. A few instances, however, would be…

The series’ best quality is that, as I started earlier, it removes Venom from New York, mostly from Spider-Man, and places him in a new environment with a new mission. If that was the ultimate goal behind this series, then yes, it succeeded. Is the tale a shining example of gripping entertainment and dramatic dialogue? Not really, no. Perhaps placing too much “Lethal” in its “Lethal Protector” title, the series nevertheless does some new and interesting things with the character. Instead of just ranting about protecting innocents in Spider-Man comics, Venom now has the substance to back up his bravado. The series is not a classic, nor is it a perfect beginning arc for the character’s solos stories, but it has its moments and at least brings something to the table few comic stories offer: real change.

—Tags: Comics, Issues of Today