Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer, and Frank Martin
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
Sometimes it’s the most toxic relationships that stick with you the deepest.
Take Eddie Brock, for example. Already a guy who leans morally gray, his longest connection hasn’t been with any particular partner, but with a psychotic alien parasite that feeds on rage and the occasional human brain. Drowning out the screams with pills, prayers, and the occasional desperate stare at a straight razor, this dynamic isn’t just poison - it’s full-on Venom. With writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman leaning into the dysfunctional status quo of Marvel’s leading Lethal Protector, this extra-sized debut issue exudes potential, even if it occasionally overextends itself in terms of the mythology it’s trying to cultivate.
While much of Cates’ Marvel work has tapped into the same heady high concepts of his Image Comics series God Country, I’d argue that Venom evokes that series in a different, more claustrophobic nature - namely, the way that Cates examines mental illness, and the toll it takes on people around them. Whereas God Country’s Emmett Quinlan grappled with the dementia that struck terror into his immediate family, there’s not even that minimal support structure for Eddie Brock, who is plagued by nightmares from his symbiotic suit. But it’s easy to relate to Eddie’s plight, in part because you never can trust where the man ends and the symbiote begins - whether Eddie is trapped with an increasingly unstable friend who he cannot leave in good conscience, or if Venom’s homicidal temper is stemming from Eddie himself.
What’s interesting about this debut issue is that Venom as a character - the rippling muscles, the oversized eyes and tongue, the larger-than-life spider symbol across his chest - actually doesn’t show up a ton in this issue, as Cates instead focuses on Brock, leaving the symbiote largely as narrative captions. This might actually be a good thing, however, as that means Stegman has to sell this book based on his expressiveness and his knack for the dramatic - while Eddie’s design can’t help but look a little like Victor Creed’s, watching him stagger into the bathroom for anti-psychotic meds or seeing him chained up next to a basement furnace are some highlights of the issue. Inker JP Mayer occasionally elevates Stegman’s work into the same circles as upcoming Amazing Spider-Man artist Ryan Ottley; that said, colorist Frank Martin comes across as a little too dark and muddy, playing up Venom’s dour tone but at the cost of much of its energy.
But that said, Cates and Stegman are definitely working hard to make Venom #1 a potent read, and Cates in particular opens up some doors that one might not have expected with the character. There is some liberal comic book retconning in some of these pages, as Eddie is conscripted (yet again) into a conflict of powerful men and symbiotes, and one angle the book takes - namely, how underdeveloped Eddie’s relationship with his suit is, when you start to think about it - feels like exactly the right kind of questions Cates should be asking to flesh out this character for the 21st century. But at the same time, the actual premise of Eddie’s latest adventure still feels a little overcomplicated, especially given the growth the symbiote has undergone in recent years in Brian Michael Bendis’s Guardians of the Galaxy run.
Bad relationships don’t just stick with you - sometimes they can define you for a long, long time. And in many ways, that’s been the challenge for a character like Venom since his inception in the ‘90s - he’s been a character that’s succeeded best as a foil to someone else, but once you get past his stylistic appeal, Venom’s been a character that’s been remixed and revised repeatedly just over the past decade. And in that regard, Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman are doing some superb work at reexamining the core dynamic of Venom as a concept - exploring the concept of the symbiote as a metaphor for mental illness that is so in our midst it might as well be in our pores, under our skin, and in our heads. This is not a perfect debut by any means, but there’s a surprising amount of substance to this comic book, and it makes Venom a worthy poison for any Spider-fan to pick.