Venom is the Ultimate in ’90s Comic Book Nostalgia
When it comes to ’90s comic book nostalgia, a lot of images might come to mind: Cable toting an absurd amount of weapons, Superman sporting a mullet, Wolverine appearing in approximately 400 X-Men titles running at the time, Spider-Man dealing with the universally hated Clone Saga, etc. For me, however, comic books in the ’90s can be boiled down to one character: Venom. Who is Venom? I’m glad you asked.
When I was three-going-on-four years old in the spring of 1989, my grandmother decided it would be a good time to get me my first ever comic book. She had grown up reading them as a child and wanted to share that experience with me. One day, she brought me a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #315 (pictured above). This particular issue was written during the heyday of the now immortalized David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane run. It is mostly a self-contained issue featuring Spider-Man doing battle with longtime enemy Hydro-Man. It’s pretty standard comic book stuff, but there was one small side story that really grabbed my attention. Away from the main action is a story involving the super villain Venom escaping from prison by murdering one guard and terrorizing another. Needless to say, it scared the bejeezus out of me. While the rest of the issue dealt with the brightly colored Spider-Man fighting a guy made out of water, I was fixated on some sort of nightmare version of Spider-Man dressed in black with a wide grin full of an impossible amount of razor sharp teeth.
I don’t know what happened to that comic book. It is lost to the sands of time now, probably ripped and crumpled by my tiny hands and eventually thrown away. What I do know is that I didn’t read another comic book for over four years after that. It was while I was walking with mom in the grocery store in the summer of 1993 that a rack of comic books caught my eye (yes, comic books were frequently sold in grocery stores in the ‘90s). It was a copy of Spider-Man #37 by J. M. DeMatteis and Tom Lyle that really grabbed my attention. In the Marvel Comics logo in the upper left-hand was the image of the same shadowy figure with a mouthful of teeth that had terrified me previously. Written on the cover was a promise that Venom would be featured inside. I picked it up and leafed through the pages to see what it was all about. What had terrified me when I was younger now seemed like the coolest thing in the world. I promptly decided to fork over my allowance money for a chance to take it home, and from that point forward I was hooked on comic books.
At this point I should probably explain who or what Venom is. It’s a long and convoluted story even by comic book standards, so strap yourselves in and grab an energy drink.
It all started way back in 1984 during Marvel’s first massive crossover event known as Secret Wars. The premise of the series was that a cosmic being known as the Beyonder had abducted the most famous heroes and villains appearing in Marvel Comics at that time and forced them to do battle on a planet called Battleworld. Spider-Man, the flagship hero for the company going all the way back to the ’60s, was one of the major players involved in this story. In Secret Wars #8, Spider-Man’s costume is damaged during all of the fighting. He is directed to a device that he is told will regenerate his costume using some sort of high-tech alien technology because why not? While attempting to use this technology, he unwittingly releases a black oily goo that envelops his body and gives him a new black costume (pictured above). Unbeknownst to the wall crawler at the time, this new suit was actually an alien creature called a symbiote that was slowly bonding to him both physically and mentally. It amplified his existing powers while deviously attempting to corrupt him and make him more violent and vengeful. This went on for about a year before Spider-Man realized what was going on and forcibly removed the creature from his body in Web of Spider-Man (1985–1995) #1 by Louise Simonson and Greg Larocque. The alien was thought to have been killed by the powerful sonic waves emitted from church bells at the top of a cathedral (it had been previously learned that the alien’s weaknesses were loud sounds and fire).
The alien symbiote would not make another appearance until David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane revived the character in 1988 for Amazing Spider-Man (1962–1998) #300. In this issue, it is revealed that the creature did not die during the events of Web of Spider-Man (1985–1995) #1. Instead it managed to escape and bond itself to a suicidal newspaper reporter named Eddie Brock who had been praying in the church at the time. Eddie Brock was a reporter who felt personally victimized by Spider-Man and blamed him for all of his life’s misfortunes. This combined with the animosity the symbiote felt towards Spider-Man for rejecting it led to a perfect marriage of hatred and the creation of a new super villain: Venom. Venom was portrayed as a kind of dark inversion of Spider-Man. He had the same powers (wall crawling, super strength, web-swinging, etc.), a sadistic sense of humor which led to numerous nasty one-liners (an inversion of Spider-Man’s famous wit), and a perverted sense of justice without Spider-Man’s sense of responsibility. This combination made Venom an instant hit with fans who clamored for more and more appearances from the character.
Venom became the premier Spider-Man villain in the ’90s. David Michelinie and artist Erik Larsen combined to push his popularity over the top and give him a distinctly ’90s appeal by turning him into not just a super villain but also an anti-hero who was willing to mete out punishment to criminals while continuing on his quest to kill Spider-Man. This new take on Venom reached its apex in 1993 in Amazing Spider-Man (1962–1998) #375 by Michelinie and Mark Bagley when, after seeing Spider-Man rescue his ex-wife, Venom and Spider-Man struck up a truce vowing to no longer fight each other. This led to Venom losing his super villain status altogether and becoming a full-time anti-hero (or “lethal protector” as he was frequently referred). Throughout the ’90s, Venom saw himself as the lead in a seemingly never-ending number of limited series that saw him doing everything from teaming up with the likes of the Punisher, Morbius, Vengeance, and someone called Mace to fighting villains such as Juggernaut, Carnage, and Demogoblin. Some of these series were pretty decent, some were complete dreck, and some were somewhere in the middle. If you didn’t care for one series, it didn’t matter because a new one with a new story and creative team was sure to be released a few months later. There was even one issue (Venom: Enemy Within #1 in 1994) that had a cover with Venom’s face on it with glow-in-the-dark slime dripping from his tongue. The ’90s were Venom mania, and I was sucked into it. I used my allowance money to buy every issue from every limited series I could find. There is still a box somewhere in my parents’ house that is full of almost nothing but Venom-related comics. I ate up everything that had Venom’s ugly mug on it. I drew doodles (very poorly) of Venom in numerous notebooks. Venom wasn’t just my favorite character as a kid, he represented what comic books were to me during that time. I wasn’t the only one either. Venom was enormously popular. No villain had broken out and become popular enough to headline his own line of comics like he had during that time. He would also continually pop up in other heroes’ comics as well to try to provide a boost to their sales. It was truly an unprecedented phenomenon. He was ubiquitous. And like the massive proliferation of comic books in the ’90s as a whole, it didn’t last.
The end of the ’90s led to the stagnation of the character. Sales for the Venom series took a precipitous drop along with numerous other titles following the comic book bubble bursting at the end of that decade. During this period, creative teams simply did not know what to do with Venom any longer. First he was made a traditional super villain for Spider-Man again and stripped of his anti-hero persona. Finally in 2004 in Marvel Knights Spider-Man (2004–2006) #6 by Mark Millar and Terry Dodson, the decision was made to remove the symbiote from Eddie Brock. This story arc features an Eddie Brock dying of cancer deciding to auction off the symbiote to the highest bidder. The symbiote then becomes bonded to Mac Gargan (better known as the villainous Scorpion) making him the new Venom. Thus the sixteen year reign of one of the most popular characters in comics came to an end. The symbiote stayed attached to Gargan for a while as he served as a member of Norman Osborne’s Dark Avengers and a constant thorn in Spider-Man’s side, but he never captured the imagination of so many Venom fans like the original Eddie Brock did. Eddie Brock would eventually return as a character called Anti-Venom and would even bond with a new symbiote known as Toxin for a short time, but neither of these versions of the character stuck around very long. The Venom symbiote didn’t stay with Gargan very long either. In 2011, the Venom symbiote attached itself to former Spider-Man bully Flash Thompson and became a government agent with a new look (pictured above). After playing with this idea for a while, creative teams decided to send the character into outer space and join up with the Guardians of the Galaxy. None of these ideas were terribly successful, and they completely alienated fans who grew up with the character in the ’90s. Fans like me.
This is why Venom is the ultimate in ’90s comic book nostalgia for me. Unlike other popular characters from that decade, Venom no longer exists as the character he once was. Other characters may have had costume changes or new backstories, but Venom is an entirely different person and has been for thirteen years. If you want to read stories about Eddie Brock and his sinister alien symbiote, you have to go back and read issues from over a decade ago. New ones simply don’t exist. So why write about this character now? Well, a new Venom series recently began in 2016 written by Mike Costa with art by Gerardo Sandoval. This current series features yet another new host for the symbiote. This time the person taking up the mantle of Venom is Lee Price, a former Army Ranger with zero conscience. This new Venom quickly becomes a murderous monster who only aims to increase his own personal power in the criminal underworld. While this has been an interesting new direction for the character, that is not what prompted me to write this piece. It was announced that with May’s issue #150 of this series (for some reason it’s being renumbered to #150 after issue #6), Eddie Brock will once again become Venom. After thirteen long years, the character that first engendered my love for comic books is returning to the pages of Marvel Comics (in his own series, no less!). David Michelinie, the character’s creator, is even going to be writing a backup story within the issue. All of this has me brimming with nostalgia for the character. Let’s hope the creative team behind it can do the character justice. Fans like me have only been waiting over a decade to see what they can do.