With the recent news that the Venom symbiote is returning to its original owner, Eddie Brock, SuperiorSpiderTalk is going to chart the tumultuous journey of this alien goo from its humble beginnings to its current phenom status today.
In part two, we’ll look at Mac Gargan:
I can hear all the disappointed groans now from fans of the very short-lived Angelo Fortunato-era of Venom. We get it, how can I do a Venom retrospective series and not tell the mesmerizing story of the alien symbiote’s second host, Angelo Fortunato? (to briefly recap: Fortunato wins a bidding war to buy the symbiote from its original owner, Eddie Brock in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #7. By the end of that issue he challenges Spider-Man to a deathmatch only to have the symbiote abandon him one issue later — mid-swing, thereby killing Fortunato).
Do you all feel better now?
Anyway, following the much ballyhooed Fortunato arc, the symbiote settled on its second long-term owner, the sociopathic Mac Gargan who had been first introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in the 1960s as the Spider-Man adversary, the Scorpion.
Not going to lie: while an argument could be made that the symbiote never felt “right” with any other host beyond Brock, from my vantage, Gargan-Venom has long felt like a sore thumb in the Spider-Man universe. When looking at some of his featured storylines in the years prior to becoming Venom, Gargan had mostly come across as a mid-tier villain — not quite a bum on the level of Boomerang or Grizzly, but not exactly a more celebrated, solid “B” guy like Electro, Vulture or even (dare I say) Carnage. The most compelling part of Gargan’s biography was the genesis of him becoming the Scorpion: J. Jonah Jameson, blinded by his hate of Spider-Man, bankrolls a small-time crook to become the costumed character, inadvertently siccing a psychotic supervillain on the world. Jameson’s major lapse of judgement even served as fodder for a follow-up story nearly 20 years after the Scorpion was first introduced, when the Hobgoblin blackmails JJJ about his relationship to the Scorpion, leading to Jonah stepping down as editor-in-chief (but not publisher) of the Daily Bugle.
Otherwise, Scorpion was just a guy who would show up from time to time, stick around for an issue or two, and then disappear as quickly as he came. He was never a part of any memorable stories, so handing him the reigns of one of Spider-Man’s most popular villain identities was always a curious creative decision.
Part of it probably had to do with the fact that Marvel Knights’s writer, Mark Millar, was just desperate to get the symbiote away from Eddie Brock (rumour had it, he even wanted to kill Brock off during the series, but was voted down by Marvel’s editorial). Still, Millar was an undisputed star for Marvel during this time, and together with Brian Michael Bendis, was driving many of the company’s long-term creative decisions. I guess the general logic behind making Gargan Venom is that Gargan would be elevated by being bonded to the symbiote. But honestly, I saw it as the opposite — the symbiote was downgraded being bonded to just a petty thug like Gargan.
Gargan-Venom lacked that twisted sense of morality that became a trademark for Brock’s time as the character. Brock-Venom’s bizzarro code of honor MADE the character, and the only reason his time with the symbiote got played out was because Marvel was insistent on saturating their books with as much Brock-Venom as they could. It didn’t help that as new creators tackled the character, a lot of his morality was replaced a more simplistic approach to the character: transforming him into a hulking monster who was seemingly perpetually famished for brains.
During Gargan’s stint as Venom, he almost instantly transitioned into that simplistic monster. During the famed Warren Ellis/Mike Deodato run on Thunderbolts, which saw Norman Osborn recruit the likes of Gargan and Bullseye to be on his team of super-powered cops during Civil War, Gargan was depicted as being easily influenced by the symbiote’s worst (and most basic) characteristics. As a result, he was frequently cited as a major liability to Osborn’s quest to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Following Marvel Knights, Gargan-Venom’s big return engagement against Spider-Man came during the Brand New Day-era’s “New Ways to Die” arc. It was during this storyline that Gargan also squared off against the symbiote’s original host, Brock, who was then masquerading as Anti-Venom, a sorta tweener, antihero who had the power to neutralize other people’s superpowers. Venom vs. Anti-Venom had its charms, but it’s hard to read that story without thinking to myself, “why can’t the symbiote just go back to Brock?” Alas, it was not meant to be.
Still, Gargan continued to get mass exposure in the Marvel Universe, mainly because he hung around with more famous friends. When Osborn and his crew of Thunderbolt flunkies become the “Dark Avengers” in the late 20000s, Gargan, as Venom, became the new “Spider-Man.” Again, there was nothing revelatory or compelling being said about this character other than, “hey, Bendis is in the midst of a super-popular run on New Avengers so who are we to object to his machinations?” Similar to Thunderbolts/Civil War/”New Ways to Die,” the Avengers books would go on to inform Amazing Spider-Man, when the Dark Avengers showed up in the pages of ASM as part of the “American Son” arc.
The death knell for Gargan-Venom came following the death knell of the Dark Avengers in Siege. The Avengers reclaimed their claim as the rightful holders of the mantel: “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” While Gargan got separated from the symbiote and locked away in the raft (only to reappear as the Scorpion again during “Big Time”).
I’m yet to talk to anyone who found this era of Venom to be all that amazing, but I’m willing to listen and be corrected on the manner if you have an opinion on it. Fortunately, the symbiote’s next host — while certainly a controversial choice — would at least bring the character back to his shades of gray intrigue. But while aligned with Gargan, Venom came across as just another guy, which is about the worst thing you can say about a major comic book character.