When it comes to great sounding creative pairings, writer Gerry Conway, whose most iconic comic book work took place during the industry’s Bronze Age, coupled with the serial-killing villain Carnage — a symbol of 90s excesses if there ever was one — may not be the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind. Even after Conway explained his approach to the character on a recent episode of Amazing Spider-Talk (that his new series Carnage would be more akin to Bronze Age-era monster mags rather than the blood-soaked camp-fests that have defined the character in recent years), there was still reason to look at Conway and Carnage and question: “how can this possibly work?”
But work it does, especially when Conway’s strong, cerebral script is coupled with the classic aesthetic of Mike Perkins’s pencils and inks and Andy Troy’s color-scape. Carnage #1 may occasionally suffer in spots for its heavy exposition and character building, but it’s unquestionably the most unique take on Carnage, and its host, Cletus Kasady, the character has seen since he was first created by David Michelinie and Mark Bagley in the early 1990s.
Gone are some of the usual tropes that have dominated Carnage appearances and miniseries over the past decade such as who is the symbiote going to possess next or what forced machinations are behind Kasady’s mayhem-filled killing spree this time around? There are certainly some elements that are absolutely familiar to your stock and trade Carnage story, like the looming presence of Eddie Brock (who is now in possession of the Toxin symbiote, rather than Venom). But overall, Carnage #1 feels like an entirely fresh new approach to the character that also doesn’t betray Kasady’s core characteristics like the enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable AXIS: Carnage miniseries from last year.
One of the chief differences between Carnage and past stories is how Conway’s script plays around with the roles of its characters. Rather than treating Kasady like an agent of mayhem that needs to be slicing and dicing his way across five issues of a miniseries in order to justify his existence in the Marvel Universe, Conway opts to cast Carnage more as prey than predator. That certainly doesn’t lessen the book’s body count, but like many of the classic horror stories that Conway’s script clearly draws inspiration from, this approach certainly forces the reader to at least think about who is the actual monster in this comic.
Conway, who is no stranger to tackling anti-authority themes with characters like the Punisher, and even his Amazing Spider-Man “Spiral” miniseries, centers his script around an FBI plot to use a survivor of Kasady’s very first killing spree as bait for a sonic-fueled ambush that strives to destroy Carnage once and for all. When the plan naturally goes awry, the agents are faced with the prospects of confronting Carnage on a “neutral” playing field — which of course gives the advantage to the super-powered serial killer who’s able to use his costume to kill at will.
It’s not that Carnage #1 treats the character like a sympathetic figure or a misunderstood monster, but rather raises the question of whether or not two wrongs can possibly make a right by casting its government agents as hubris-filled incompetents who have no clue what they’re getting into in attempting to take on a killing machine like Carnage. Brock appears to be a voice of reason, standing in the background and warning the FBI not to go into the basement or say the monster’s name three times, but his experience is arrogantly shot-down in favor of psycho-babble and protocol.
What’s most surprising about Carnage #1 is the amount of visual restraint that’s on display. As mentioned earlier, Carnage kills plenty of innocents and red shirts, but the death and destruction is rendered more subtlety by Perkins and Troy. Rather than showing Carnage’s arms transforming into battle axes, the art team focuses more on the aftermath of Kasady’s … carnage. Those that purchase Carnage stories exclusively for the Freddy Kruger-inspired gore and camp will likely be disappointed, but the more reserved approach certainly doesn’t diminish just how bone-chillingly deadly Kasady can be when provoked — especially when viewing the sea of dead bodies in a diner like in the comic’s opening sequence.
In the same vein, Troy’s color-scape is lighter and more subdued than some of the Carnage comic family’s heavily saturated predecessors. The end result is a comic that has the look and feel of a Bronze Age story.
Meanwhile, Conway uses Carnage #1 to further demonstrate that his writing is as sharp and engaging as it ever was. While his pairing with the character might have invoked some cynicism when the series was first announced earlier this year, Conway and the art team have laid the groundwork for a series that should sure surprise readers with every issue.