It’s still in the early days of Marvel’s new “Legacy” initiative, meant to reassure long-term fans and bring back lapsed readers with the promise of fewer events, a classic character roster, and a more consistency among their creative teams, and here comes “Venom Inc.” Yes, no more than three issues into the relaunch of Marvel’s best-selling title, Amazing Spider-Man, readers are going to be asked to pick up four additional titles outside the series they are currently reading in order to stay abreast of the story they just, presumably, got hooked on. It’s a strange move from the publisher, who no doubt wants to goose numbers on their Venom title alongside the return of Eddie Brock, but one can’t help but feel that this strategy flies in the very face of the promise Marvel made with “Legacy.”
These strange editorial decisions find their way into the content of Venom Inc. Alpha as well, as the book seems to be primarily a Venom story guest-starring Spider-Man instead of the other way around. With the sales of Amazing Spider-Man being as strong as they are, wouldn’t it make sense to spend more time familiarizing audiences with the status quo of the smaller title through the lens of a character they are familiar with? I’m no marketing genius, but this seems like a pretty clumsy way to handle this, especially considering how deep some of the cuts get into Venom-lore here (Mania, Anti-Venom, and Klyntars are hardly layperson-friendly).
The most important detail that newcomers to the recent Venom stories should know is that Eddie Brock has returned to operating as the guy in the Venom symbiotic. He’s also currently working for Alchemax in exchange for a serum that keeps the symbiote’s lesser natures in check. It’s a strangely complicated tale that involves Stern (of all “people”), a race of human-dinosaur hybrids below the city, and a bunch of terrible characterization that regressed Eddie Brock off-panel into a revenge-fueled killer again.
The less said about all of that, the better, because here comes “Venom Inc.”, advertised on the promise that it’d all be worth it for the end result: the return of classic Venom. It’s been almost 25 years (March, 1993) since Spider-Man and Eddie Brock’s Venom have fought each other one-on-one, and even then the Wild Pack were tangentially involved. At the end of that fight they came to a sort of “truce” and Marvel has mainly stuck to it (so long as you ignore the brief fight during the first relaunch of the title), while trying to reposition Venom as an anti-hero and largely ruining the Eddie Brock character through overexposure. Would “Venom Inc.” capitalize on Eddie’s return and the “Legacy” platform to return to the classic status quo that made Venom such a phenomenon when he first appeared?
Well, if Venom Inc. Alpha is any indication towards the rest of the cross-over series, the answer is “no.” Instead, this series seems to be setting itself up as a battle over rightful possession of the symbiote between Eddie, Flash Thompson, and Lee Price, a struggle we kind-of already got in recent issues of Venom. Immediately, co-writers Dan Slott and Mike Costa dive-headfirst into the convoluted power struggles and ever-changing rules of symbiotes, while introducing even more symbiotes into the tale. It’s creative decisions like these that ruined Venom in the first place and could serve to undo a great deal of the good will that allowed Eddie to come back without too much of a fuss from fans. What ever happened to the simple pleasures of a knock-down, drag-out fight between the two opposing wallcrawlers, secret identities be damned? Reading this book, I’ve begun to fear that I placed too much hope in the “Legacy” initiative to restore one of Spider-Man’s greatest enemies to what I believe is his rightful status quo.
To be clear, I definitely had wishes and expectations that Marvel had realized that with the relative success of their recent Carnage stories that they can’t quite have their cake and eat it too with these symbiotic characters, and that’s on me. Yet, I feel like you can’t preserve the mystique of a good villain and also position them as an anti-hero without unbalancing one side of that equation. In the pages of Venom Inc. Alpha even Brock seems confused about where his characterization is supposed to land, one second he’s fighting the symbiote to prevent violence and pages later he’s giving in to its corruptive touch. As a reader it is hard to invest in the goals of any of these characters if they aren’t consistently consistent. If we are supposed to be watching an Eddie Brock who is fighting against his role as the lethal protector, it doesn’t come across in a digestible way.
Spider-Man is also underserved here and mainly operates as a bystander to the primary action in the issue, save for one final moment. Readers get a strange aside that features Spider-Man beating up on the Ringer and the Tumbler at the Guggenheim, before Black Cat shows up for a panel or two. The pages are inoffensive, but unnecessary to the narrative and feature a bizarre sequence where Spider-Man is pinned under a metallic art display. Are we supposed to believe that the guy who lifted tons of metal over his head at the beginning of his career can’t lift a small work of art off himself?
All of these nitpicks would be easy to overlook if the content of the issue felt more cohesive and substantial, with a real emotional hook in the Alpha issue to bring us back for more. Yes, including the Looter is an act of good faith from any Spider-Man creator, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not enough. Spider-Man has been so absent from Venom’s world for so long, it would have done this comic a great deal of good to convince readers that the two do belong together when all is said and done, after years of convincing us otherwise. Not to mention that the editors try to inject a false level of importance into this title by repeatedly insisting that it “is also the first crossover between their books!” Are we meant to forget about the wonderful crossovers done during “Spider-Island” or the less memorable Amazing Spider-Man #654.1?
Where fans of Venom’s origin should have no concern is with Ryan Stegman’s artwork in Venom Inc. Alpha, as he leans into his love of Todd McFarlane as far as I’ve ever seen him go. Eddie Brock has been presented a lot of different ways over the years, but make no mistake this is the full-blown reappearance of McFarlane’s Brock: ripped muscles, heavy brow and all. This angrier depiction of the character does rub up against the writing’s somewhat softer approach to the character, but the aesthetic is such a nostalgia rush it’s hard to complain. His panel work, texturing, and illustrations don’t quite contain the joy and experimental detail present in his recent Renew Your Vows work, or that of Stuart Immonen in recent Amazing Spider-Man books, but with a script this jam-packed he delivers on all the venomous horror one could desire, particularly in one Cronenbergesque double-page splash that had me racing to find the original inks. Venom books are about tendrils flailing in every direction and muscled characters straight out of 90s comics, and that’s’ ever-present in this story thanks to Stegman and his collaborators.
As is has been typical of Stegman recently, he provides his own inks for this chapter. On colors is Brian Reber, completing the often thankless job of finding variance in the dark pools of black that define the Venom character. Reber is use to use tone effectively to guide the eye through Stegman’s complicated tangles of tendrils, fading in and out to highlight various subjects. A later bar scene is colored like its happening inside a bottle of bourbon, in all the best ways. Joe Caramagna, on letters, too, gets good use out of incorporating the inky aspects of Venom into his letter work, most prominently in the snaky oversized names of the various symbiote enemies.
Venom Inc. Alpha isn’t the worst offense when it comes to Venom stories, not by a country mile, but it represents what I consider a serious misstep and miscalculation by the writing and editorial teams; I have a hard time believing I’m alone in my desire to move away from the complications of the Venom character that have made him so unappealing over the years and are in full display here. There’s definitely room to grow and time for this series to settle into a clear and compelling story, headlined by characters with specific goals and emotional stakes, especially if they can find a good way to make Spider-Man feel essential. As someone whose first comic ever was Spider-Man’s final battle with Brock’s Venom, I hope they can pull it off and restore Venom to the character that originally made me fall in love with the twisted possibilities of comics.
Venom Inc. Alpha isn't quite the breathe of fresh air to the ongoing stories of Spider-Man or Venom that one might have hoped for in this "Legacy" era. Marvel seems to be doubling down on all the storytelling cheats that have made the Venom character, for this reviewer, less enjoyable since his departure from Spidey's orbit in the early 90s. However, Ryan Stegman's art is a 100% pure McFarlane and 90s love letter to the character and fans of the classic Venom will find much to love in his depiction.