Absolute Carnage #1
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
Weighing in at triple the regular page count, Absolute Carnage #1 is an absolute monster of a debut, setting a high bar for writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman’s already considerable efforts. Pitting Venom and the Amazing Spider-Man against the newly resurrected Cletus Kasady, Absolute Carnage juggles high-octane action with some smart character work and some gripping mythology, making this series already feel like the new gold standard for Marvel event books.
While most readers might think of Venom as an unstoppable symbiotic juggernaut, Cates’ run on the character has been about revealing Eddie Brock’s vulnerabilities, ranging from his codependence on his alien suit to his evolving relationship with his son Dylan. But there’s vulnerable, and then there’s being completely outmuscled and outmatched, and seeing Venom on the receiving end of Carnage’s violent streak really ratchets up the tension.
With that in mind, Cates deserves a lot of credit for the way he choreographs action sequences — it feels like vintage James Cameron or John McTiernan, the way he uses different environments for different flavors of fights, with a brawl on the subway tracks feeling desperate and hopeless, while a foiled mugging in a fast food restaurant winds up delivering both exposition and laughs. Every single sequence has its own unique tone and goals, and the way that Cates is able to shift so seamlessly between these different modes really cements him as one of Marvel’s most engaging writers right now.
Yet there’s also a deeper mythology at play here, and Cates deftly weaves together bits from his own Venom run, as well as the tail end of Dan Slott’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man. It could be a lot to juggle, but thanks to some smartly placed info-drops, not only are readers kept up to speed, but the momentum never falters. This is also due to the serialized nature of this first issue, which really is more like three issues collected into one — it’s a smart move structurally, as Cates is then able to introduce cliffhangers and new bits of continuity to keep the energy of the narrative building.
And it’s a testament to artist Ryan Stegman’s endurance that he’s able to pull off a 60-page opener like this without skipping a beat. Tag-teaming with inker JP Mayer and colorist Frank Martin, Stegman’s artwork is moody and textured, and really sells the action sequences beautifully with his own visual vocabulary. (A scene where Carnage nearly takes Venom’s head off, for example, is a showstopper, as the symbiote literally explodes off of Eddie Brock’s exposed head.) Stegman also nails the counterpoint between Spider-Man and Venom — Venom’s body language being stiff and contained as he tries to keep his inner demons from wreaking havoc, while Spidey is more fluid and relaxed, cracking jokes and making snarky comments regarding his best frenemy even as the stakes are getting more horrific by the minute. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Stegman’s scary-as-hell redesign of Carnage, his skeletal frame providing a great balance between the beefy Venom and the more sleek Spider-Man. Honestly, if this isn’t Stegman and company’s best issue to date, it’s certainly in a very short list.
There’s an editor’s note at the end of Absolute Carnage that states that this first issue took six months’ worth of work to put together, and I absolutely believe it — there’s a level of polish and panache to this event’s opening chapter that I haven’t seen from the House of Ideas in quite some time. It’s already my favorite event in years — the level of characterization and deliberateness that this creative team brings to the table means that even this $7.99 price point is going to be a bargain for three superb issues’ worth of content. If for some reason you’ve missed out on all the hype about Cates and Stegman’s Venom relaunch, you’d do well to get started with Absolute Carnage, a series that certainly doesn’t take any prisoners.