The Issues of Today: Venom: The Madness

At this point in volume 1 of “Venomnibus,” Venom makes several guest appearances in various comics following his second solo series. He goes up against or teams up with the likes of Iron Man, Daredevil, Silver Sable and her Wild Pack, and Nighthawk. Originally, I was planning on including these team-ups/conflicts, but since their focus isn’t primarily on Venom and they don’t add much of anything to his overarching story, I’m instead going to gloss over these issues. Honestly, reading these stories made more curious about the characters Venom teams with and left me more interested with what was going on in their own mags at the time of publication. Venom’s involvement doesn’t really impact their own tales much either, so it’s ultimately a wash.

Therefore, I will be moving on to Venom’s third solo series, titled “The Madness.” Again, nothing about his guest appearances preceding this storyline impact this three-part tale, so we can jump right with no strings attached.

Venom: The Madness

Writer: Ann Nocenti
Penciller: Kelley Jones
Issues: 1-3

“The Madness,” to its credit, feels like the first Venom story willing to build upon previous continuity. “Lethal Protector” and “Funeral Pyre” seemed fairly disjointed from one another. The first tale established Venom as the protector of a community of homeless individuals living under San Francisco (gosh, don’t you love how ridiculous these premises are?), but “Pyre” didn’t spend much time elaborating on that. “Madness” tethers back to this idea and even introduces the start of a supporting cast for our “hero.” This tale’s biggest contribution is the introduction of a female lawyer named Beck (last name unknown, as far as I can tell) who soon becomes romantically linked to Eddie. But she first starts out as Eddie’s “connection” to the topside, working with a friend on a class action lawsuit against a company called Scarmore, accusing them of dumping mercury into waterways.

(On a somewhat unrelated note, I did just watch something similar on Netflix called “The Devil We Know,” which deals with more legal methods of pursuing justice against corporations dumping toxins into local waterways…reality check: they don’t involve the help of dudes wearing aliens over their bodies)

Scarmore (which I think has to have been named intentionally…something like, their chemical concoctions work to “scar more” people? Am I reaching? Maybe Ann Nocenti would tell me) learns about the women’s plans, so company president Charles Evans tells an employee to handle the situation. With “plausible deniability,” naturally. For some reason, this guy thinks the absolute best method of dealing with these lawyer women is hiring a superhuman to kidnap Beck. The Juggernaut, to be exact.

Big, bad Cain Marko stomps his way into Beck’s offices to nab her, only to run afoul of her new friend Eddie Brock. At first, I thought the decision to have Juggernaut be Venom’s main opponent in this series was a strange one; then I remembered Roger Stern’s “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” and started wondering if Nocenti was trying something similar. Considering how well-received Stern’s story was, and how culturally significant it’s remained even to today, it made me wonder if Nocenti was attempting a “sequel” of sorts, if you could call it that. Just with Venom instead of Spider-Man. If one “Juggernaut against a spidery dude who shoots webbing” dust-up became a classic, why not a second?

Except I don’t think Nocenti’s work is ever going to near the popularity of Stern’s original tale. The entire point of Stern’s story was pitting Spidey against a foe he couldn’t stop. Literally! Spidey couldn’t keep the guy from physically moving forward as he took massive step after massive step towards Madame Web. Nocenti’s tale, on the other hand, sees Venom momentarily thwart the kidnapping with relative ease. The two pound on each other, but Eddie gets in some hefty blows, something Spidey never managed to do. While I understand that Venom is stronger that Spidey, I don’t believe “stronger” has ever been specifically quantified, so I have a difficult time picturing Venom having such an easy go with Juggy.

Though he distracts the villain, Venom technically loses when he’s buried in some “sentient sludge” in the sewers he and Juggernaut battle in. The sludge is, coincidentally, a “living” version of the toxins Scarmore dumped into the water; mingled with Venom’s symbiote, Eddie is mutated into even more of a monster, sporting several extra (but smaller) heads and an even darker, deranged attitude. It’s Venom driven crazier than normal, and his violent, grim tendencies shoot right to the forefront.

One aspect the previous two series didn’t focus on much was the Eddie Brock part of the equation. Both “Lethal Protector” and “Pyre” took the character at face value: Eddie Brock and the symbiote are Venom; one cannot really exist without the other. Nocenti manages to nicely (“Nicenti”?) tease out some aspect of Eddie from underneath his symbiote encrustation. Nocenti seems to imply the symbiote, like Eddie, somehow has “feelings” for Beck, I’d say these are more “reactions” to Eddie’s emotions than full-fledged feelings of its own. Unfortunately, with his new mutated state, those feelings are twisted. How Eddie would treat her, either separated from the symbiote or more in control of his “other,” is negated by this fast-acting poison in his brain.

This “Mad” Venom is more ruthless, in the way he treats Beck, in how he accidentally murders a woman he believes is the president of Scarmore, and in how he battles Juggernaut a second time. Heck, the X-Men enemy is even less of a threat to him than the first time! However, Venom is again stolen from the fight by a weird portal that leads to this trippy sequence where he battles the personifications of Insanity and Paranoia.

Aaaannnd…this is where the story breaks down. I mean, we’re already in oddly bizarre, uncharted waters for a “Venom” comic. Our previous series dealt with thugs in armor, mad scientists, even a journalist given superhuman powers by his father’s experiments. But suddenly, Venom is tossed into an esoteric realm of Dr. Strange-esque inanity, where doing battle with the physical forms of abstract concepts leads to him “regaining” control of himself.

I’m not going to say that the “mad” version of Venom is all that likeable. Heck, even “normal” Venom isn’t terribly likeable. But even though Venom’s altered state brings his worst qualities to the forefront, Nocenti begins exploring a fascination notion: much like Spider-Man, Venom is guided by a sense of responsibility. His is a distorted, fractured calling, and often leads to the violent deaths of those he views as guilty, but even a wacky moral compass makes for interesting reading. For a single issue, Nocenti actually rips the compass away. What happens when the darkest parts of Venom are unleashed, to the point where even the more innocent, somewhat more likeable Eddie Brock is consumed by them?

And then we’re treated to this otherworldly sequence where Venom battles some inner demons and pulls himself away from the bring. “Yay!”…I guess? Granted, “Mad Venom” was never going to stick around—and maybe the idea that his madness came from the symbiote conveniently bonding with a sludge poured into the sewers by the very company which also hired Juggernaut to come after his friend is a little “out there” in terms of logic—but having Venom go “full villain” for a moment is well done by Nocenti. This is the first time a Venom-centric comic goes into more of a horror mode, and the change makes it nicely distinct from what’s come before it.

The shame is that such an interesting change of pace and character is over before it has time to cement itself as unique. I know of at least one other story that goes full horror with Venom, and the taste Nocenti provides has gotten me excited to see if it’s pulled off well down the line. For a story that gets good the moment it’s already-dark central character gets a little darker, the sudden change back to the status quo feels odd and forced.

I’ve said before that I don’t like Venom’s murderous tendencies. “Mad” Venom is not a good guy; he’s worse than “regular” Venom. I think, however, I enjoyed the minor exploration of what I mentioned above: Venom without responsibility. What does that look like? Nocenti just fails to dedicate enough space in her story to thoughtfully explore the ramifications of such a change.

The story’s ending could have also been better written. The stooge who hired Juggernaut is overcome by guilt and calls the cops on his boss; the Juggernaut gets into a small tiff with our “mentally reborn” Venom but runs when the police show up; Beck effectively “dumps” Eddie but decides to remain “friends.” And at the very end, Eddie is proud of himself for his actions, of being a “great hero.”

Except…he isn’t. Like with some other writers, it’s difficult to tell if Nocenti is being serious or curiously ironic with this. Does she really want her reader to finish her story believing Venom is a “great hero”? Or is she making a comment on the character’s distorted view of himself? It certainly appears to be the former. I struggle with accepting that Venom—after his previous acts of murder, after accidentally murdering an innocent woman (who he killed instead of the guy he was “supposed” to have murdered!), after mentally torturing Beck, and especially after never gaining a solid victory over the Juggernaut (who he never really defeats after three skirmishes)—is really a hero. He doesn’t even bring down the corporate sleaze in this story!

I feel like Nocenti could have made an interesting commentary with this storyline: what happens to someone with a distorted view of themselves, their morals, or their mission when that self-righteous fervor is replaced by more sinister intentions? What happens when perceived selflessness turns to outright selfishness? The character of Eddie Brock has always been guided by his bizarre self-righteous indignation. Even as a villain in his early Spider-Man days, he was at least guided by some principles. In this tale, he momentarily loses those, really becomes a monster consumed by madness. The premise is intriguing. In execution, the idea is neither set up decently or explored as completely as it could be.

We now find ourselves with a slight modification in format. I’ll be moving my “amusing bits” sequence to the end of the blog, leaving it as a sort of “notes” section attached to each post. I’m also giving it a title, “Comic One-Liners,” highlighting lines of dialogue or single moments within the comic book that evoke amusement for one reason or another. Hopefully, this “professionalizes” it a little bit.

Comic One-Liners:

—Tags: Comics, Issues of Today