The Issues of Today: Venom: The Enemy Within

After the zany, mindtrip that was the “Venom: The Madness” limited series, I’m proud to announce that our next entry is a little less…psychedelic, I suppose would be a word. We still deal with plenty of wacky, goofy, comic book shenanigans, but “The Enemy Within” feels a bit more palatable and straightforward.

“Army of goblins attacking San Francisco on Halloween” seems pretty straightforward, right?

Venom: The Enemy Within

Writer: Bruce Jones
Pencils: Bob McLeod
Issues: 1-3

Our latest “trilogy of terror” sees San Francisco’s Lethal Protector go up against a horde of green impish monsters that seem to spawn out of nowhere, leaving Venom responsible for driving them away. It’s a unique concept that immediately gives Jones and McLeod some narrative freedom as they weave questions into the story: where do the goblins come from? What do they want? And how does mayoral candidate Charles Palentine fit into the equation?

I can’t call this a brilliant story, but I can appreciate the effort Jones went into threading a few mysteries into these issues. As you will see, some of these elements are rather hastily explained, but Jones at least gives us a solid premise with more potential than I would have expected. One glaring issue comes to light early on, however: the goblins come with a “sonic scream,” which naturally works against Venom. I’m really getting tired of this trope, and from now on, I’m just gonna hate it whenever it’s used. I think it’s a little more unforgiveable this time around. If superheroes/villains, vigilantes, and scientists use fire or sonics against Venom, you can at least explain that they’ve developed those weapons or use their powers to specifically take him down. But to have Venom go up against monsters that, as it just so happens, have a sonic power than can be used against him? Seems like Jones could have saved us a trip down the “What a coincidence!” trail.

Venom soon becomes entangled with fellow “monsters” Morbius and Demogoblin, and the little green guys’ plan unfolds. They’re seeking a king, and when Morbius denies leadership, the little rapscallions turn upon him and Venom, creating a team-up between the vampire and symbiote. Demogoblin, though not thrust into the action quite yet, still enters the story at an earlier moment, pointing to the idea that Jones had at least an idea for the story’s progression.

But where Jones can nicely introduce plot elements that eventually form a narrative web when put together, his primary struggle is getting from A to B. Our players are introduced, the goblins are running amok…but now what? This is where the story begins to waver quite a bit.

One page in the first issue hones in on this concept of San Francisco being under siege. It’s simultaneously the best and worst part of the story. Why? Because in a single page, Jones offers an enticing story idea but does so far too quickly. To quote the story:

“San Francisco…teeters on the verge of panic! Martial law rules as the bay area seals itself away from the mainland until the plague of goblins can somehow be dealt with! Police choppers fill the sky like locusts, yet no one from the outside—even the National Guard—can be brought in until the goblins’ bite proves uninfectious. Nor is anyone within the plague area allowed out! Nights are ongoing studies in dread as the dark horrors swarm out of the BART tunnels and into the city, people’s homes, workplaces everywhere…breaking furniture, machinery, leaving a bloodied trail of carnage in their wake…Against a relentless tide, even Venom is all but helpless.”

You know what Jones just did? He just turned San Franciso into “No Man’s Land” FIVE WHOLE YEARS before Batman comics rocked Gotham City with an earthquake! Cutting off an entire city from outside help, including military, leaving a dark vigilante to hopelessly prowl its streets, looking for foes to combat in the darkness? There are several, several notable differences between “The Enemy Within” and “No Man’s Land,” but my goodness, Jones had a potentially amazing story on his hands! And he wastes it!

You may argue, naturally, that a “No Man’s Land”-style epic was not in the cards for Jones, that it wasn’t the story he intended to create. Which I would agree with. Still, I’m gonna flag this three-issue story for taking so many potentially fascinating components—San Francisco being placed under martial law, the chaos and destruction present, Venom’s skirmishes with the goblins—and reducing them to a page’s worth of exposition. Heck, not just exposition, but exposition that sounds more like a back cover blurb than the actual story inside the comic. So, so many interesting ideas could have been explored if only Jones tacked a few issues on to this puppy.

Instead, we get Venom’s team-up with Morbius, which does lead to a great sequence where the two flood sewer tunnels to escape their goblin opponents. But after this, things become derailed. The two dig their way into Alcatraz prison where, coincidentally, they find a journal by a “Charlie Palene,” who discusses learning the occult and summoning the demons. This “Charlie Palene” used the goblins to break out of jail and employed magic powers to rise through the ranks of San Francisco politics and erase his criminal past.

Hmm…“Charlie Palene” and “Charles Palentine,” eh?

This becomes yet another missed opportunity for Jones. He’s already teased Palentine’s involvement with the goblins, but I wish he’d left the guy’s ultimate plan in the dark. Venom and Morbius don’t know who he is when they find the journal, but readers do, so the decision to save the reveal that Palene and Palentine are the same guy as a surprise for our heroes is lost on me. It’s like when “The Winter Soldier” dramatically pulls Bucky’s mask away to reveal to Cap that, surprise, he’s been the Winter Soldier this whole time! Okay, admittedly, that one works a bit better; even if members of the audience weren’t surprised, Cap’s look of astonishment makes sense.

But this reveal, especially since readers have already connected Palentine to the goblins, feels a little goofy when Venom expresses amazement. This guy’s a mayoral candidate, right? Isn’t his face and name everywhere, on posters and things like that? Even if you didn’t draw an immediate connection, doesn’t “Charlie Palene” sound a bit like “Charles Palentine”? And if his magic powers erased his criminal past, wouldn’t it make some sense that the journal, the one recording the events of his criminal past, be erased as well?

Maybe I’m being nitpicky, but I should say that, for a story that began with some promise, it is disappointing to see it fall apart a bit as it goes along. Unlike “Lethal Protector” or even “The Madness,” this story makes me wonder if, once Jones got through his first chapter one and established a doozy of a concept, he was more concerned with just progressing through the story. Hence the hefty summation over the course of a single page; hence the exposition-laden backstory for Charles Palentine that Venom and Morbius just “happen” to find after they “happen” to dig their way into Alcatraz, which just “happens” to be the same prison Charles was incarcerated in.

I will note that Jones' use of Demogoblin is a nice touch to this tale. Initially presented as an enemy of Venom and Morbius and perhaps the “true” king of the goblins, Demogoblin actually tricks the little monsters. Following a nice sequence where the villain grows to skyscraper proportions, Demogoblin “Pied Pipers” the goblins away, before disposing of them into the San Francisco Bay. Venom and Morbius realize that Demogoblin was only fooling the goblins, masquerading as their leader to bring them to their destruction and fulfill his mission of “cleansing the world of evildoers.”

That moment, in truth, may be the one well-done piece of character work in the whole story. Venom doesn’t really progress in this tale, nor does Morbius. And while I can’t call what Demogoblin experiences “character growth” (aside from his towering physical appearance), I really do like that Jones took an aspect of Demogoblin’s previously established character (his war on unrighteousness) and used that as a solution to cleanse the city of the goblins. Instead of just having our heroes punch their way through hordes of goblins, Jones found a clever way of leading the goblins to their watery graves. Plus, earlier in the story, Jones let readers see that the goblins were unable to swim, so using the San Francisco Bay as a way of defeating the hordes was also clever on his part.

This is a story that has pieces that work and pieces that don’t. Does Jones give us a half-baked middle section that blazes through chunks of narrative too quickly and relies heavily on some good old-fashioned coincidence? Absolutely, and I wish he’d focused more on that, story-wise. But is it at least clear that Jones entered the story with a beginning and end in mind and, despite the plot’s eventual execution, introduced an engaging concept that ended almost poetically and, in some parts, relied on previously established information instead of absolute convenience? Yes, I can certainly give him that.

Some comic storylines suck, beginning to end. Other stories start off well and end poorly. The reverse, in some instances, is also true. And then you get the “best of the best”s, the tales which are well-told throughout.

“Venom: The Enemy Within” is an odd beast, then. It’s a story which begins excitingly, starts to lose steam halfway through, and then ends more solidly than its limp middle section would have you think. If Jones had been given the time to flesh out and think through the ramifications of goblins attacking San Francisco, if he could have turned this into a longer epic, the story could have explored some fascinating corners and seen a Venom far more desperate than he’s even been. As it stands, “The Enemy Within” becomes an enemy within its own pages at moments, not betraying its premise fully, but not living up to the dormant energy dwelling inside its open-ended plot.

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