If there’s one character who is constantly in need of a makeover, it’s Venom. Although he’s proven to be one of Peter Parker’s greatest threats, the character itself has proven to be a pretty weak one, with a convoluted backstory and a poorly fleshed out motivation. I’ve talked about him before in a column from several months ago, wherein I compared the design for Bane in the upcoming Christopher Nolan Bat-film The Dark Knight Rises to the Lethal Protector, and decided that if we could ever get a simple, stripped down, believable version of Venom, he’d probably be more like Bane than the character we’ve been reading about since Amazing Spider-Man #298.
I’m sure you all know the original Venom’s backstory by now, but in case there’s any need to jog your memory, let’s glance back over its major plot points. Back in the mid-’80s, when comics were getting all dark and morose, Spider-Man went toe-to-toe against a new foe named the Sin-Eater, whose special powers were being a religious nut and killing people with a shotgun. Quite a departure from the days when Spidey’s arch-nemesis was a guy in a green rubber elf mask who tossed around cherry bombs shaped like Jack O’Lanterns.
While the Sin-Eater killings were going on, a journalist named Eddie Brock wrote an expose claiming that a man named Emil Gregg had confessed to him that he was the masked serial killer. His paper ran the story, and later, when Spider-Man caught the Sin-Eater and his identity was discovered to be that of police sergeant Stan Carter, Brock was canned. Unable to find work at a decent publication after the erroneous expose, Brock resorts to working for tabloid papers, “spewing venom” as he put it. During this time he grew increasingly bitter toward Spider-Man.
Finally, when he couldn’t take it anymore, Brock headed to his local cathedral and asked for forgiveness from God before taking his own life. Coincidentally, Spider-Man had just been in the same cathedral days earlier, the belfry to be exact, where he was using the cacophonous tolling of the bells to overpower the parasitic costume he had obtained years earlier from an alien machine on a distant planet called Battleworld. Unbeknownst to Spider-Man, the costume-shaped parasite didn’t die from the sonic assault but clung to life just long enough to find a new host in Brock. The two partners in crime combined their rage against Spidey, formed a union called Venom, and went on to become one of Spider-Man’s deadliest foes. (The symbiote has since jumped to a few different hosts, and Brock has since obtained a different form of the symbiote called Anti-Venom, but the classic Brock Venom is the version that always makes its way into other iterations of Spider-Man’s story; e.g. the film, video games, and cartoons.)
This backstory just doesn’t work for me. On what planet would you need to kill someone like Spider-Man for catching a bad guy just because you messed up and told people the bad guy in question was someone else? That’s on you. That’s why I never really understood what this had to do with wanting to get revenge on Spider-Man. Why didn’t he start off wanting to get revenge on Emil Grerr, the jackass serial confessor who fed Brock the bad story? Or why didn’t he just stop writing for tabloids if he hated it so much and get a job as a personal trainer or something. I mean it looks like the guy knows a thing or two about body building, probably more than he knows about journalism. Eddie Brock as a character is decidedly uncompelling. His motivation is boring and absurd, and it’s hard to reconcile a guy this unfun and whiny with the lovable goofballs that make up the rest of Spidey’s rogues gallery. Add to the equation a parasitic “symbiote” costume that is by definition 2-dimensional and lacking in personality, and you get the recipe for an especially boring character.
Flash forward to 2003, and it’s time for the Ultimate Universe to reinvigorate this dull relic of the doom-and-gloom ‘80s with its own, more modern backstory. This time around, Eddie Brock is somewhat of a long-lost older brother to Peter Parker, being the son of the scientist that had worked closely with Peter’s dad before both sets of parents were killed in the same tragic plane crash. Before they died, the duo had been working on a sort of parasitic dip called “The Suit,” which Peter’s father saw as a cure for cancer and Eddie’s father saw as having a potential military applications. When Eddie reconnected with Peter, he let him in on this “Project Venom” that their parents had been working on and showed him a sample of the Suit. Peter was accidentally exposed to part of the sample, which resulted in the Ultimate Spider-Man’s black costume. He was later able to reject this symbiote, but Eddie became enraged at Peter for destroying the suit and applied a second sample to himself, giving birth to Ultimate Venom.
This origin is a little better. It sidesteps the extra-terrestrial origins of the symbiote and creates a foundation for it in chemistry and medicine, which is where Spider-Man’s particular brand of sci-fi has always resided. It also makes an attempt to link the suit and Eddie to Peter Parker’s backstory and his parents, making it a matter of inheritance and birthright to discover the suit, wear it, and later reject it. Later, when Brock comes after Spider-Man as Venom, it’s like a shadowy part of the Parker family’s past coming back to haunt them. However, I still don’t really care very much about this Eddie guy. His only purpose as a character is to (a) get really pissed at Spider-Man over a misunderstanding, and (b) give the symbiote someone with a bulky frame to bond with. He’s virtually a mannequin. I don’t see why he’s necessary for this character’s story to be believable.
Now let’s flash-forward again to a few days ago, to the premiere of the fourth episode of the new Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon series, entitled “Venom.” In this episode, the Venom saga is streamlined and fit snuggly into a single, bite-sized, 20-minute episode. Rather than going through a huge backstory for both Eddie Brock and the symbiote, we simply observe as a blood sample taken from Spidey during a clash with one of Doctor Octopus’s robots is returned to the mad doctor, who is urged by Norman Osborn to use the sample to create a legion of super-soldiers. (We’re even given a glimpse of these soldiers, which look very similar to the Flash Thompson Venom that is currently in the comics.) The sample gets loose, travels up the sewers back to its physiological source, and in the process, bonds with current Marvel Universe 616 Venom, Flash Thompson. The Flash-hosted Venom goes after Spider-Man, who battles him with the help of his friends Iron Fist, Luke Cage, White Tiger, and Nova. In the process, the parasite hops from one character to the next, hoping to land on Spidey. When it finally does, the old familiar black-and-white Venom is born, but Spidey quickly manages to subdue the beast using his new electric webbing, a gift from Nick Fury. In his lair, Octopus informs Osborn that he hopes to continue his research into the Venom super-soldier project.
This origin for the character is about as perfect as we’ll probably ever get for this character. It’s not perfect; I still have major problems with the idea that such a big, gnarly-looking monster is the result of black goo “bonding” to people, but making it Flash Thompson covered in “toilet sludge” is considerably more easy to swallow. (Forgive me for the image that such a grouping of words probably brings to mind.) For starters, I really dig that the super-soldier concept is used here, as it is the backbone of the Ultimate Universe and the fundamental reason for why there is an Ultimate version of Spider-Man in the first place.
It also makes more sense that the symbiote is on Flash instead of Eddie. In retrospect, it should’ve always just been Flash under that many-fanged mask. There’s no reason to go and create a blond, spiky-haired antagonist from scratch who has an arbitrary beef with Spider-Man, because Flash Thompson already is that guy, only more fun. Give him the symbiote now, and have him work out his aggression toward “Puny” Parker as a hulking, slobbering super-villain. In doing so, you get a rogue that fits in nicely with the rogues gallery that Lee and Ditko established 50 years ago.
It’s much more interesting to view Venom not as an ‘80s suicidal psychopath or a ‘90s anti-hero, but as a high school bully that finds out his favorite super-hero is actually the nerd that he harasses, and is then given the power to… super-harass him. Then, as the character matures, he can evolve into the current Black Ops version of Venom that he has become in the comics, which is so far the best version of Venom around. Cut out the alien stuff, cut out the Brock stuff, make it a corrupted bit of Spidey DNA that forms a super-soldier exoskeleton that Peter Parker’s bully (and Spider-Man’s #1 fan) goes on to wear, and you get a pretty decent character.
Venom is a tricky character to do right. For some reason, no one has really been able to make a compelling case for why this character needs to exist and how he makes sense in the context of the rest of Spider-Man’s pantheon of villains. This version of him, a sort of “Ultimate Ultimate Venom,” is an improvement on an improvement. It’s the origin of Venom as seen with 20/20 hindsight upon what has made this character interesting and what hasn’t worked. If we absolutely have to have a Venom hanging around the Marvel Universe, it should at least be one that has the fewest amount of dots between his origin and who is currently hosting the parasite, and it should be a character that holds some kind of weight in Peter Parker’s life. I can only hope that Brock is kept out of future episodes of the series and that this origin is seen as a suitable retcon for the character. (I can dream, can’t I?) Maybe it will even find its way into the rebooted Spider-Man movie franchise. After all, if there’s any character that could benefit from a reboot of his film adaptation, it’s this one.