The Issues of Today: “Venom: Separation Anxiety”
Allow me to provide some context for today’s storyline before we begin analyzing the main narrative: between “Nights of Vengeance” and our upcoming series, Venom starred in a four-issue storyline that took place over in the “Web of Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man” titles. Called “The Exile Returns” and written shortly after the infamous “Clone Saga” began, the story was Venom’s first altercation with Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider, with the Peter Parker-cloned hero doing what his spidery predecessor was unable to do up until then: defeat Venom. As in, render him immobile enough for the authorities to apprehend him.
“Separation Anxiety” will continue almost directly from where “The Exile Returns” ended with a captured Venom transported to a secret lab tucked away in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, far from his newfound home of San Francisco.
“Venom: Separation Anxiety”
Writer: Howard Mackie
Penciler: Ron Randall
Eddie Brock and the symbiote have been separated, pulled apart from one another, their bond severed. For a character who, in so many series up to this point, revels in being the conjoined monster made of man and alien, this is already a fantastic example of progress. For so long, we’ve been witnessing little in the way of “character development” where Venom is concerned. He’s violent, he wants to eat brains, he beats up muggers and protects “innocents.” The writers have blessed him with these characteristics and let him run as wild as he can while remaining contained to those parameters. Areas of potential development have been largely left undisturbed. You think, just once, Eddie would have learned a lesson, found some reason to change or grow after all he’s been through. But no.
Yet here, the dynamic shifts. As much as I tend to rag on Howard Mackie as a writer (oh, the fun I will have when I review “The Clone Saga” and his later Amazing Spider-Man work), I applaud his writing here. He has Eddie and the symbiote brought to two separate locations. While the symbiote undergoes testing at the hands of eager scientists, Eddie remains a prisoner. Both entities, in their own way, mourn the separation. The concept is a radical and welcoming departure from the previous tales we’ve encountered.
Mackie then entertains a captivating idea by having Eddie Brock, slowly, come to his senses. At the same time, the symbiote is shown despairing its separation from Eddie. I think Mackie realized that other writers took the “unification” of Eddie Brock and the symbiote for granted. The two are together, there can’t be Venom without one half of the whole. As such, the idea of “Venom” is treated, in previous stories, as a single character. For a while, “Venom” felt like just an alter ego for Eddie Brock. He’s Eddie with a mask, Eddie with a codename. What Mackie does is give the characters time to develop individually, not together. Eddie typically refers to his symbiote as his “other,” like it’s a part of him. Though this does give the Venom a certain “Jekyll and Hyde” feel to his character, allowing for themes of identity to play out, Mackie takes it one step further: what if Jekyll and Hyde were removed from each other? What is Jekyll without Hyde, and vice versa? How would each react?
Eddie slowly realizes he’s become a murderer. He doesn’t necessarily feel overwhelmingly guilty about it, at least not yet, but perhaps removed from the symbiote’s “influence,” he begins to see the depths of his actions. Meanwhile, the symbiote rails at the thought of being away from Eddie. While Eddie sees a bit more clearly without the symbiote tied to him, the alien cannot think of anything but reunion. Mackie, thus, creates an engaging dichotomy between the two. We have an Eddie Brock able to assert himself as character, torn away as he is from his constant obsession with “protecting innocents,” and we have a symbiote that may appear more malevolent that previously believed. Okay, yeah, it’s an alien parasite that once almost bonded permanently to Spider-Man, I know it’s not inherently a “good guy.” But Mackie seems to indicate the symbiote is more than a mindless parasite that instinctively grafts itself to a host. It has a brain, it thinks, it has emotions. In this instance, our “Mr. Hyde” isn’t just another persona of “Dr. Jekyll.” This Mr. Hyde is his own monster.
The rest of the story suffers somewhat from the typical silliness one commonly finds within the pages of a comic. For example, Daily Bugle reporter Ken Ellis, who spent “The Exile Returns” trying to get a scoop on the Scarlet Spider, manages to not only locate this hidden facility in the mountains but also disguises himself as a scientist and successfully sneaks in. A tiny fraction of my mind wants to appreciate that Mackie took threads introduced in “The Exile Returns” and continued them here, working to create a level of continuity not yet seen between Venom-related stories. But Ellis’ inclusion dips towards the far-fetched end of plot points, and considering he doesn’t do a whole lot to impact this series, the character’s importance is minimized and his usefulness wasted.
The story does have a main thrust that works—centering on the symbiote’s attempts to reunite with Eddie after he’s kidnapped by the five symbiotes created by the Life Foundation in “Lethal Protector.” The symbiote’s half of the story gives us several interesting sequences that sees the alien lifeform make its way closer to Eddie. At one point, Mackie has the symbiote “commandeer” another human in a fascinating “sci-fi horror” moment that genuinely fleshes out the symbiote’s abilities and intentions in its pursuit. “Not Eddie” it thinks, almost as if it’s irritated at the thought of bonding with anything but Brock. Again, Mackie does a nice job at turning the symbiote into an actual character, something other writers just flat-out neglect to do.
On Eddie’s side of things, the five faceless alien-wearing goons from “Lethal Protector” are named (e.g. “Donna” is “Scream”) and allowed some backstory that grants them additional heft as characters. Mackie also gives them a mission and even adds a subplot when some of the five symbiotes and their hosts start dying. A murderer is afoot. I won’t reveal who the killer is here, but I should mention that the conclusion to this particular subplot becomes obvious from almost the start, leading to an underwhelming solution to what might have been an interesting mystery.
(It also made me think of the “Deleter” subplot from “Metroid: Other M,” so thanks for that flashback, Mackie. shivers)
I don’t want to go over too much of the story, as there is the aforementioned murder mystery, but I want to conclude with revealing that, as expected, Eddie and the symbiote are reunited by story’s end. However, Eddie says, things are going to be different between them. “I need to know how much of what I’ve done in the past was because of you…and how much of it was me,” Eddie tells the symbiote in the concluding panels. Again, it’s fantastic development from Mackie. Eddie realizes this “symbiosis” hasn’t been a real partnership between him and the alien. He needs time to wrestle, time to think.
With “Separation Anxiety,” Mackie takes hold of a character who started to become stale for me and refreshed him in my mind. Despite some extraneous elements, such as the murder mystery, which could have been made heftier or removed completely, and despite some lingering questions I would have loved answered—who is this faceless organization that shipped Venom to the mountains and why? How the heck did Ken Ellis reach their base? Why doesn’t Eddie even consider returning to San Francisco?—“Separation Anxiety” marks a shift in the right direction. We’re going from “mediocre Venom” to “surprisingly entertaining Venom.” Whether future creators maintain the momentum Mackie’s instigated here remains to be seen, but should it continue accelerating, I think future Venom stories will be more rewarding than their earlier counterparts.
• Ron Randall gives our first issue a glorious two-page splash panel where Eddie is led into the base he’s held captive in. The ship he’s on is surrounded by guys with guns in jetpacks or other motorized vehicles. It’s completely over-the-top and a surprisingly amusing image, seeing all these dudes with all this firepower guarding one guy.
• A female scientist asks “Doctor Ellis” if she can see his identification, and that moment is fantastic. It reminded me of all those movies where people sneak in to heavily guarded places with crappy costumes and identities, and somehow, the bad guys are dumb enough to not notice. Well, not this lady. Someone give her a raise!
• When the facility is under attack from the symbiotes, Ellis dives for cover. “Eat your heart out, Urich!” he thinks. Wonderful little detail to Spidey continuity. Mackie didn’t need Ellis to say anything, but he instead opted to make a reference. Just one of many little strands you can use to tighten the bonds between the many worlds of the Marvel Universe.