As I write this, it is Fashion Week in New York City, and since I don’t have the money or the credentials to get into any of the big runway shows, I figure I’d bring Fashion Week to me by talking about it in my column. The only problem is, as cool as I think fashion is, I’m totally fashion illiterate and am constantly derided by my friends for dressing like a four-year-old in Spider-Man t-shirts and Chuck Taylors. So, what I’m actually going to talk about is fantasy fashion, alien apparel, the only garment that can never go out of style because it’s actually a shape-shifting extraterrestrial parasite that sustains itself on hatred and human brains, the Alien Symbiote by Marvel.
If you’ve read my columns before, you might be pretty familiar with the problems that I have with the character of Venom. Now, when I say that, I am not actually talking about the current iteration of the character, which is as a kind of Splinter Cell-style super-hero black operative that consists of the Venom symbiote of old merging with Spidey’s one-time bully and lifelong friend, Flash Thompson. That version of the character is fine, mostly because it is pretty well removed from Spidey’s mythos and fits more into the Avengers corner of the Marvel universe. It also cuts out the painfully lame Eddie Brock character and his convoluted and uninteresting backstory by saying, “okay, there’s already a muscular blonde dude that bullies Spidey, and he’s been here since day one, and that’s Flash.” It moves Venom into the early, Ditko-era category of Spidey characters, which is probably something that needed to happen for him.
So no, I am not talking about Rick Remender’s Venom when I go on these rants against the character. But the other Venom, the original Venom, is still the one that everybody knows. That’s the one that is going to show up in all the cartoons and in all the movies and on all the t-shirts and lunch boxes and in all the fan art that gets circulated around the internet’s various social networks. And, in all likelihood, that Remender version of Venom is not going to last forever, as interesting and smart a take on the character as it is. That’s just the way comics work. Nothing ever really changes; everything always gets moved back to square one. So, let’s talk about the original Venom.
I’ve always said that part of the charm of the original Lee and Ditko era of Spider-Man characters is how un-super everything is. It’s all very rock and roll. A nerdy kid with glasses sneaking out at night in a homemade skin-tight red and blue leotard. Then there’s a Russian dude with a leather daddy mustache, leopard skin pants, a leather vest and ballet shoes jumping around New York trying to wrestle with him. There’s a coked out (ok, Goblin serum-ed out) billionaire wearing a green elf mask and trying to kill this kid’s girlfriend. What else? A feeble old man robbing banks in a 50-pound gravity-defying, bright green bird suit. A talking, bipedal dinosaur in a lab coat and purple pants? Are you kidding me? What the hell was going on? It’s like Spider-Man in the ‘60s can be summed up as a loser in a silly costume taking on other losers in silly costumes. Which is freaking awesome! It was all just some kind of New York atomic-era fever dream.
Then, in the 1980′s, we get probably the most iconic of Spider-Man’s villains since that initial Lee/Ditko crop, and he totally runs counter to this zany formula that immortalized so many of Spidey’s rogues. He’s not a loser in a silly costume, he’s a scary, humorless sociopath that was bonded with a sophisticated alien lifeform. Spidey’s not really much of a cosmic character, he’s pretty grounded in an Everyman theme, so an alien goo that also becomes muscles and a mouth and a tongue and also becomes clothes is a hard sell for me as a suitable villain for the web-slinger. Plus, there’s a general feeling of inconsistency with the character. On the outside he’s a fully-fleshed out alien monster, like the Predator, but on the inside he’s really just a human in a costume, like Iron Man, except the costume is tar? To me, that’s just too much of a logical leap. When something can’t even make sense to me on a comic book level, even after I’ve already suspended my belief enough to allow for a teenager to stick to walls or for a bank robber to transform into a bunch of sand, to me that means that there are major flaws inherent in the character. Something about Venom just feels not-quite-finished to me, and I’ve spent years trying to figure out what that is.
I used to think that the way to adjust the character and make it jive better with Spider-Man’s established aesthetic is just to push the character all the way into the alien realm. Show us the origin of this species, make it a real animal, something that feels tangible instead of like a plot device. But even then, Spidey’s not much of an alien beast-hunter. Perhaps then, the answer is to tie Venom in with those other characters that are permanently bonded to an unbreakable hide that has taken on the properties of a unique animal totem, characters like Scorpion and Rhino. I mean, that makes more sense and eliminates the alien thing altogether, as now the costume would just be the product of bad guy scientists in a lab, but what animal would Venom be representing? A snake? A spider? A gorilla? All three? Kind of odd.
Then, I remembered the origin of the character, the actual starting point for the character, it’s true motivations. Venom wasn’t created out of revenge, or to create the perfect, evil version of Spider-Man, or out of some inane need to put fangs and drool on every single Marvel trading card in the ‘90s. It was created as the black costume. It was created (by Spider-Man fan Randy Schueller, who said that he also felt that the concept of turning the costume into Venom never worked for him) to give Spidey some new duds. Then, when it was time to change his costume back, we found out that the costume was evil and needed to be removed from Spidey, either with sonics or with fire (what?) for the wall-crawler’s own safety. Okay, so it’s really just an evil costume. It’s not just a silly costume, it’s aggressively malevolent. The costume is the villain. And while that might be a pretty shallow idea at first, it might put just enough of an odd twist on the character to make him work within the context of Spidey’s world.
Now I see Venom as high fashion. It’s not just an alien costume, it’s an entire clothing line. It’s a brand. It’s evil in the way that a $3,000 pair of shoes are evil. It’s a parasite because it needs people to wear him. The only reason it hates Spider-Man is because it saw this young, tall, skinny, muscular, handsome kid (Andrew Garfield basically), and never wanted another model ever again. So, while he doesn’t quite fit the animal totem scheme that Spidey and many of his villains do (but come on, neither do any of the Goblins), he still fits into the theme of fashion within Spidey’s world, and therefore he becomes even more of a New York character, which also, in turn, makes him feel more in line with the Spidey mythos. Spidey and his rogues are all, to some extent, amateur fashion designers. Hell, Spidey has the best collection of alternate costumes of any superhero, hands down. He loves clothes. But then Venom comes along, and he’s the real deal; not a homemade costume, an extraterrestrial fashionista. A lethal protector on the catwalk.
Suddenly, this character sounds a lot more intriguing to me. I can understand if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s fine. And I know there’s a lot of fans, at least online, who don’t want anything but big muscles and fangs and drool in their comics, and would bust a gasket if they saw a more light-hearted take on Venom that re-imagined him as Gaga-esque fetish fashion. That kind of reaction would suck. Those guys sound like jerks anyway. But I still feel like there’s something missing when it comes to this character and it’s that something that keeps him from finding a place in the Lee/Ditko pantheon. Perhaps it’d be better to shift the focus back onto the costume as the character and have some fun with that idea. Go a little Grant Morrison with it. After all, the clothes make the man.
Also, I wrote this in my boxers.