Growing up, I was the kind of kid who read comic books. A lot of them. If you walked into a comic book store I was in, you weren’t going to find me in the back area playing Yu-Gi-Oh!, or, Magic: The Gathering, for those who fancy yourself sophisticated. You were always going to reliably find me flipping through the seemingly endless stash of back issue comics somewhere in the center of the store. By myself, usually, with the occasional person or two who shared in my fondness for the comic book aesthetic joining me in that daunting pursuit. But even though I read an unfathomable amount of comic books as a kid, there aren’t many specific titles I remember being heavily immersed in. Don’t get me wrong, I got a sick thrill whenever the Juggernaut tormented the X-Men; a shot of awe whenever Superman inevitably saved the city of Metropolis; and the quirky, bizarre adventures of Lobo were enough to make an elementary school kid like me gratuitously howl in pleasure, but I couldn’t have told you much about Marvel Comics’ X-Men, or DC Comics’ Superman or Lobo, in terms of the trajectory of their respective story arcs. In fact, among the sea of comic books I surrounded myself with, it was really only Marvel Comics’ Venom that I read with a real deliberate purpose. At least, that’s the way it was at the time. So it’s definitely with a very personalized sensibility that I say this, but I stand by it nonetheless: Venom doesn’t need Spider-Man to be a richly fulfilling character.
Symbolism & Metaphor
“…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” (Amazing Fantasy #15) Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of comic book lore will be familiar with this quote, often known today as the ‘Peter Parker principle’, though this quote, or some variation of it, predates its famed connection to the Marvel Comics flagship character. “They (the Representatives) must contemplate that a great responsibility is the inseparable result of a great power” dates all the way back to the 1793 French National Convention (https://books.google.fr/books?id=D55aAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA72#v=onepage&q&f=false), for example. The Spider-Man character has had many instances in which to tread the waters of what the full meaning of those words actually amount to over the years. The crux of this treading was realized with the debut of Venom (The Amazing Spider-Man #300). It’s impossible to accurately view the character of Eddie Brock without realizing the circumstances upon which we first meet him in the comics. When we first meet Eddie, we’re faced with a man who has had just about everything that can go wrong in one’s life, in fact, go wrong. After losing his job as a reporter for the Daily Globe, circumstances lead him to believe that Spider-Man is to blame for his misfortune. Naturally, he then bonds with the symbiote costume that was abandoned by Spider-Man and becomes what we know him to be.
Although I don’t need to relay the extent of the run-ins between Spider-Man and Venom that have taken place over the years—there’s benefit to reading them yourself—, it’s of the utmost importance to highlight what the relationship between the two of them represents. As comic book historians and analysts have noted, Venom can be interpreted as representing the dark side of Spider-Man. But I would take this one step further. Not only does Venom obviously represent the dark side of Spider-Man, but it can reasonably be argued that Venom represents the darker implications of the superhero archetype as a whole. Indeed, his very existence on the page presents a highly potent critique of the very form that birthed him. When taking a step back from the Spider-Man/Venom conflict, one is left with the notion that Eddie Brock is the exact type of character who, if not in dire need of physical protection from a superhero himself, certainly in need of understanding and support from one—the thing superheroes are supposed to provide to the people they’ve chosen to protect, underneath all of the necessary acts of violence that are needed to make that reality so. The desperation of Eddie Brock in the face of his unfortunate circumstances and Spider-Man’s seeming inability to accommodate them in a manner that doesn’t encompass violence is surely a reflection of the shortcomings of the superhero. All of this serves to question the Peter Parker principle. If great power does indeed require great responsibility, then who is the beneficiary of this accepted responsibility?
Venom’s Definition of ‘Innocents’
Venom’s transition from sinister menace to redeemed anti-hero is one of the most unsung moments of Marvel Comics’ long history. The reason for this is who Venom deems to be innocent and worthy of his protection. He has a track record going back to 1993’s Venom: Lethal Protector of sticking up for those members of society who have been left behind by unfettered vulture capitalism, namely, the homeless and others of the most vulnerable among us. His keen sense of who is truly innocent in modern society is second to no one’s, including Spider-Man. Lived experience in a world that is awfully cruel to the most vulnerable among us quickly reveals that there is something tremendously fragile and wounded in the psyche of Eddie Brock, and the symbiote recognizes these emotions as well. If “…with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” is to be anything more than a toothless catchphrase that we hold up as some great universal truth, those words must encompass the needs of the most vulnerable populations in this world. Why would Venom need to be featured with a character who represents the shortcomings that he then had to go out of his way to repair later on?
When Spider-Man was created, it was the dawn of hippie flower power. Much of the Marvel Comics created in that era reflected this social environment. By the time Venom was created, some 25 years later, the look and feel of American comic books had changed dramatically. The hippies had grown up; they either burned out or assimilated to the masses and worked “real jobs”. The dreams of the ’60s had faded away, and in their place was a brand new fantasy capturing the American imagination: Reaganomics. When I suggest that Venom represents the darker inclinations of the superhero archetype, I don’t suggest that he represents something that is fundamentally unheroic. Quite the contrary. Venom’s creation was perfectly placed in the heart of America’s love affair with Reaganomics and neoconservatism—a fact that was surely not lost on David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, the creators of the character—and this made him the perfect character to shine a light on of all of the ways in which the superhero archetype, wrapped in the American flag, had been on the trajectory of betraying the higher ambitions of their earlier dispositions. In fact, there’s no other character in the lore of popular comics who deserves more of our respect and admiration for showing us where an entire nation went wrong. And there’s no other character who gets less recognition for what has become his quiet, unrealized legacy.
Thank you, Venom, for rescuing the American Dream when the superheroes abandoned it.