As enjoyable as the Carnage ride has been thus far, the fifth issue presented a major test for the series: how would a book starring a character that has never been able to carry an ongoing, position itself narratively to survive beyond one full arc?
Naturally, Gerry Conway and Mike Perkins have quieted my skepticism — as they’ve done time after time since this surprisingly entertaining comic book series launched last October. From a quality standpoint, Carnage #5 shows why the series has earned the right to live on past the usual life expectancy of a symbiote-led comic. The next mountain to climb, of course, relates to that great old industry equalizer known as sales. But hopefully, as issues of Carnage continue to get pumped out by Conway and Perkins over the next few months, more and more readers will realize that Marvel has something special here – strange and pulpy – but undoubtedly special.
Relating to that first point, Carnage #5 ends a satisfying first arc where the titular character – a deranged, serial-killing sociopath who has bonded with an equally murderous alien – is not even the third strangest element of the story Conway and Perkins are telling. Conway and Perkins work in strange effects and reveals in this comic like they’re Miles Davis in the 1970s. Sure, there are some elements that are vaguely recognizable for the genre/character, but they’re also pulling in so many other unexpected things that it’s impossible to categorize this series as just another Carnage book, or even something that tonally/aesthetically belongs in the current Spider-Office (where books like Spider-Gwen, Silk and Spidey are clearly being marketed to younger, hipper readers, and even a series starring Carnage’s “father” Venom has a youthful brightness tattooed on its exterior).
Carnage’s wit and humor comes from its sardonic nature, not its references to quirky vernacular and references to social media. But what else do you expect from a series that deals with a corrupt political system, a death-worshipping cult, a Werewolf with selective amnesia and Eddie Brock (who continues to talk the most sense in this whole series).
The issue’s token Carnage/Toxin fight is as big and robust as you would expect from a violent, tendril-filled battle between the two symbiotes, with Perkins balancing the expected gore with a sense of awe-inspiring dynamism that one would associate when two natural disasters physically collide with each other.
Meanwhile the drama transpiring above-ground while the symbiotes fight is where the issue truly becomes compelling. With the government’s mission to capture and contain Carnage so far FUBAR, the comic’s “good guys” are faced with a choice of either cutting and running or trying to extract the last of the innocents (namely Brock) at the risk of letting Carnage run free for another run of issues.
In addition to logically setting up a continuation of the Carnage series, the final sequence demonstrates Conway’s unique knack of establishing layers of complexity with his characters. At the end of the day, the closest Carnage has to heroes is a guy who changes into a Wolf and another symbiote that was spawned from Carnage. As such, this is a series filled with nuance that in effect conflicts the reader’s opinions of those in power and those who have been cast as villains. Carnage still murders with an anarchistic glee that is unrivaled by almost anyone in the Marvel Universe, but are his actions any worse than a military man who justifies blowing up a cavern containing some of his soldiers as collateral damage? Without diverging into a politics, let’s just say that a lot of what Conway puts forward here can be applied to certain geopolitical issues in the real world.
In what may be the most fitting end to this issue and arc, Carnage declares that he “hates cliffhangers” while leaving readers with the ultimate cliffhanger — the death of a semi-major character and obviously the promise of more issues of Carnage. These moments of self-awareness are what elevate Carnage from just another monster mag to a joy-filled ride that I hope has the momentum to last beyond the next arc coming up.
Carnage #5 wraps up the first arc with the same sense of pulpy style and sardonic humor as the previous four issues of the series. Ready or not, this series is officially entering the “ongoing series” zone, so buckle up and try not to get decapitated by a symbiote.