The Issues of Today: Venom: Nights of Vengeance

Think you’ve had your fill of cliché 90s action and adventure from our last couple of series? Did “Lethal Protector” and “The Mace” have two many dudes with guns and lasers running around, causing havoc? Are you looking for a story that’s a little less frantic, a little more easy-going and down-to-earth?

I’ve got good news for you, then:

Feel free to pick up a different comic.

Venom: Nights of Vengeance

Writer: Howard Mackie
Penciler: Ron Lim
Issues: 1-4

A summary: When Venom stops federal agent Michael Badalino from chasing a homeless dude, Eddie finds himself face-to-face with not only Badalino’s alter ego Vengeance, a Ghost Rider-esque vigilante, but a group known as the Stalkers. The Stalkers, as their name implies, are stalking the homeless dude, a man named Sean Knight. Turns out, Knight was in a military outfit with the individuals who became the Stalkers until they were bonded to and corrupted by alien technology. Knight ran away and he’s been hunted ever since. When Venom and Vengeance interfere with this “hunt,” they themselves are teleported to another part of Earth and chased by the Stalkers. If they survive the hunt, Venom and Vengeance will save Venom’s friends Beck and Elizabeth. If they die, so do the women.

That’s my overarching summary of this story’s plot. Perhaps the biggest problem with this narrative, plot-wise, is the first half of this series is too darn familiar to what we just examined in “The Mace.” A group of technologically-advanced hunters chasing their former partner who then teams-up with Venom to bring them down, with Venom’s female friends in harm’s way? There are several differences between these two tales, but I feel like both stories contain similar groundwork.

A plot like this also points to an element I briefly mentioned a few blogs ago: how Venom becomes embroiled in these adventures. Danger always seems to find him instead of the other way around. Whether it’s a kid approaching him about helping an undercover reporter, or it’s Beck looking to end the shady machinations of a devious corporation, Venom often just finds himself at the center of these big problems. Such plotting, I think, shows that the writers involved really had no big plans for the character of Eddie Brock and were kind of just holding on to the character one series at a time.

“Nights of Vengeance,” then, tosses in in elements not previously introduced, much to the peril of the story. At some point, Mackie drops the bombshell that Elizabeth, Venom’s friend, may be in love with Eddie Brock. When I read this moment, I had to flip back through previous stories to even remember who Elizabeth was. She’s a character introduced in “Lethal Protector” who initially brought Venom to the underground sanctuary. She stuck up for him when others feared or rejected Eddie (including a reverend character who mysteriously vanished from any future stories even though he was set up as someone who would further antagonize Eddie). But after that? Gone, like Thanos snapped her out of existence. Instead, Beck swooped in and took her place as “lead female character.”

Why, then, reestablish Elizabeth as a primary character here, especially as Beck’s rival for Eddie’s affections? Unlike Beck, who’s starred in a few series already and formed a rather rocky relationship with Eddie, Elizabeth has been nowhere in sight. None of the stories have even hinted at the character’s continued existence, let alone a potential romance between Eddie and anyone else but Beck. Elizabeth’s reappearance here is really distracting and inserts an unnecessary subplot.

Is Mackie trying to go for some character development here with this sudden “love triangle” subplot? Like a “Who will Venom choose?” type of story. In terms of who Eddie’s character is, this makes little sense. For someone like Peter Parker, who is infamous for his awkwardness around women, introducing various girlfriends always added tension and a hint of romance that I guess the writers felt necessary. Whether this is true or not, strong relationships with Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane have made the “romance subplots” a staple in Spidey comics. The same doesn’t necessarily have to be true for Venom, and seeing how much Mackie’s trying to shove similar subplots into this story is a little maddening.

Why am I harping on this, then? The issue of “Elizabeth vs. Beck” is an important one because it tries to unsuccessfully add “layers” to Eddie Brock’s character, giving him some tension or conflict that doesn’t fit. Whereas Spidey’s always struggled with how his “power and responsibility” mission can be balanced with family, friend, and romantic relationships (essentially, how do you separate Peter from Spider-Man?), Venom doesn’t have that kind of conflict just yet. The issue isn’t even one of “Eddie can never love anyone because he’s too busy being Venom.” Eddie Brock IS Venom, for the moment, and while this may change down the line, the lack of “romance problems” in previous stories makes Elizabeth’s inclusion unnecessary, at least in the particular role she plays.

These problems, happily, largely pertain to the story’s first half. The second part of “Nights of Vengeance” sees Venom and Vengeance thrown into the Stalkers’ “hunt.” Here, the story shifts away from the concrete canyons of San Francisco to the heart of an isolated jungle. Suddenly, the story transforms from “vigilantes fighting guys in armored suits” to “vigilantes being hunted and turning the tables on their pursuers, taking them out one-by-one.” The series becomes much more engaging with this second half, really allowing Venom’s determination to show through. Goofy as the romance subplot may be, the thought of Beck and Elizabeth in danger at least provides ample incentive for Venom to quit playing the Stalkers’ games and start inventing some rules of his own.

I think Mackie also gives us part of a solution for the whole “Venom stumbles into conflict” problem I associate with the story’s first half. Instead of continuing to let the situation go in the way of his pursuers, instead of allowing events to keep happening to him and forcing him in a certain direction, Venom takes control. Other stories present a Venom who kinda goes with the flow, as it were. If the writers want him to be approached by someone saying a reporter’s in danger, or a cyborg is attacking Eddie’s friends, or Beck’s pursuing legal action against a corrupt company, then Venom will end up getting sucked into the center of someone else’s mess. Actually, that’s a nice way of putting it: not only does trouble often find Venom, but he’s typically yanked into problems created by somebody else. Now that I think about it, that perception does place him in a more sympathetic light. One could argue that Venom’s mission of “protecting innocents” enables or convinces him to get dragged into these situations, but I’m still gonna chalk it up to writers who just want to weave some conflict into their tales.

With “Nights of Vengeance,” that core concept remains, but with a twist. Fine, Venom gets dragged into the conflict started between Sean Knight and the Stalkers, and yeah, Vengeance is gonna get pulled right along with him. But, our symbiote-suited friend declares, enough is enough. Venom takes charge, surges forward, and kicks the snot out of the robot baddies stalking him and the Ghost Rider-wannabe.

The change of pace is a welcome one and reflects a hint of redemption hidden within Venom’s character. Maybe I’ll have to wait a few stories to really see Venom dig himself out of the “brutal vigilante” hole in the name of character development, or maybe I’m just deluding myself. If I believe these writers weren’t able to weave an overarching storyline for the first several Venom limited series, I’m also inclined to believe instances of “character development” were either incidental or represent themes I’m reading into the story. Is that the case? Good news: if the stories I’m currently reading (a few limited series ahead of “Nights of Vengeance”) were written with intentionality behind them, then yes. The stories we’ve already looked at feel more rushed than some tales we’ll later examine. As I said last post, things seem to be getting better. But will that remain true with stories beyond what I’ve read at this point? I don’t know.

Props to Mackie for crafting an engaging second half to a story that seems to repeat what came before it and wove in a ridiculous romance subplot. If Mackie’s Venom is a character beginning to gain agency, I can safely say Eddie Brock continues to act on his own (in a sense) in at least two stories after “Nights of Vengeance.” Was that Mackie’s idea? No, I don’t believe so. But for all the silliness we see in this limited series, “Nights of Vengeance” at least offers a glimmer of hope that these entertaining but mediocre-at-best Venom series can, and maybe do, become stronger as time goes on.

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