Less than a month ago, Amazing Spider-Man wrapped up a mostly excellent “Marvel Legacy” debut, capping off a nearly six-month effort to rehabilitate a title that had lost its fastball by telling more traditional (and simple) Spider-Man stories. It was a breath of fresh air, especially after more than three years of overwrought, over-the-top stories (of varying ranges of quality) that cumulatively appeared to have inadvertently buried the heart and soul of what has made Spider-Man such a phenom for more than 50 years. The title, under Dan Slott’s stewardship, but with ample assists from his artist, Stuart Immonen, and his occasional co-scripter Christos Gage, had performed such a pronounced and emphatic 180, that the idea that the book would ever return to the days of frivolously complicated stories like “Spider-Verse” and “Clone Conspiracy,” seemed like an absurd notion. In short, Amazing Spider-Man had gotten its groove back.
And yet, here we are. An Alpha edition and now one full issue into Spider-Man’s latest “event” (in an era where Marvel was allegedly cutting back on the events), “Venom Inc.” and I find myself having a difficult time verbalizing what exactly about this story is leaving me unfulfilled, while also knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, this is not for me, nor do I think these are the kinds of stories that feel appropriate for a Spider-Man series attempting to tap back into its “legacy.” Amazing Spider-Man #792, by Slott and Mike Costa, with art by Ryan Stegman and colors by Brian Reber, is not inherently “bad,” but it also fails to do anything well enough to demonstrate a desire for Slott and Marvel to build on the last six months of growth the series, and the Spider-office as a whole, had exhibited.
Echoing the thoughts expressed in Dan’s review of the Alpha edition of this story, there’s certainly something inherently tone deaf about issuing an Eddie Brock/Venom tale during a publishing initiative known as “Marvel Legacy” where a simple, one-on-one showdown between Spider-Man and one of his greatest villains of the modern era appears to be the furthest thing from Marvel’s plans. I’m not certain if my unhappiness is due to me having unreasonable expectations, or if it’s more indicative of inconsistency by Marvel in how it utilizes some of its more popular heroes and villains.
But beyond the unresolve-able struggle between what a reviewer likes and an artist’s output, there are just some other storytelling flaws on display in ASM #792 that are frustrating. Primarily, this comic is filled with instances of the plot advancing only because the characters do dumb and/or irrational things to drive the central conflict “forward.” It’s one thing to have somebody make a tactical error or to exhibit a character flaw that leads directly to some level of misfortune or turmoil, but that’s not exactly what seems to be on display throughout ASM #792. Instead we get Agent “Anti-Venom” Flash Thompson separating a killer alien from its host and then leaving a secure lab with it by keeping it in a jar because … well how else is the symbiote supposed to inevitably get free when the bad guys ambush Spider-Man and Flash? Or we get an alleged criminal mastermind like Felicia Black Cat Hardy challenging a symbiote-controlled Lee Price to a “one-on-one” fight after her entire team gets decimated and transformed into Venom clones themselves. That seems …. unwise.
Granted, the superhero comic book world is filled with extreme situations that are designed to challenge our suspension of disbelief, but it just appears that Slott and Costa’s endgame with this storyline is Venoms, Venoms, everywhere! without actually delivering on a riveting story involving any of the characters readers have been conditioned to actually care about (not to mention, the supporting cast Slott and Marvel had appeared to retrain their focus on as part of its broader “Legacy” efforts). Barely months after his much-hyped reintroduction, Brock has been relegated to the sidelines of a Venom crossover in favor of Lee Price, evil Black Cat and the Looter. And while Flash’s irrational behavior towards the symbiote did the character no favors, his storyline could have been redeemed with perhaps some interesting interplay between him and his longtime idol (and the reason he became a costumed hero in the first place), Spider-Man. But instead, all of the scenes involving Flash and Spidey are filled with awkward banter, bad jokes and not one iota of chemistry that suggests these two characters have any business co-piloting the plot of a team-up story.
Ryan Stegman’s artwork is once again at peak McFarlane, though as dynamic and heroic his superhero figures may look, the overall art and layout feels a bit risk-averse for what should otherwise be a big and bold endeavor. For example, the designs of Lee Price’s Symbiote-ized Maniacs appears to be an amalgamation of Venom and the mask-wearing Court of Owls spectres from the Distinguished Competition’s Batman series. And the big brawl between Black Cat’s gang and Price’s features a large assortment of diverse (and silly) villains, but rather than have Stegman go to town in showing off all of these wild and goofy powers and characters, the sequence it’s just your standard mess of punches and kicks.
In addition to these concerns, “Venom Inc.” has also more or less abandoned all of the previous plot and build-up from “The Fall of Parker” arc and then some. Sure, certain subplots get paid superficial lip service, like when Betty Brant shows up (primarily to tease a future storyline in the upcoming ASM Annual) to remind everyone that Peter has a new job at The Daily Bugle and is apparently at risk of losing it already for “not showing up.” The comic also drops in a “Peter’s girlfriend” Bobbi Morse’s apartment without delivering a Mockingbird appearance (and thereby not showing any of the interesting character work that had been developed the previous half-dozen issues or so).
Such haphazard, un-polished storytelling, combined with the fact that publishing a crossover event a few months after publicly admitting that readers are experiencing event-fatigue, makes one wonder if a storyline like “Venom Inc.” was something that had been developed and worked out in the months preceding “Marvel Legacy” and then released just “because.” The writing itself appears to reflect a more undisciplined Slott from an earlier era, while Costa’s contributions are difficult to pinpoint. There’s still technically time to steer out of the skid here, but two installments in, “Venom Inc.” runs the risk of undoing all the good will that had been recently built up by the Spider-office.