After two great issues, Carnage #13 delivers us the kind of story that has unfortunately been the norm for the greater part of this series. It’s difficult to tell if this narrative “treading of water”, so to speak, is writer Gerry Conway’s way of building suspense for the story. If it is, I feel strongly that this is not the proper way to do so.
The opening few pages seem to imply that this issue will deal with duality – an undercurrent of the series, but something that hasn’t been explicitly explored. Man-Wolf and Jameson, Toxin and Brock, Raze and Claire Dixion, Kasady and Jubulile, these binaries go one step beyond the typical duality found in the superhero megagenre and instead engage in a savage/nature versus civilization/humanity duality, a trope incredibly common in (post)colonial literature, a tradition or conversation that I believe Conway is attempting to touch on. Even the first two page spread, paneled in a similar style to the fantastic jungle scenes from Carnage #11, are presented as a duality; the foreground panels are rendered more askew if they feature Carnage as the vocal point, and slightly less so if Raze is center-frame, representing both the corruption that the symbiotes bring to the jungle as well as the idea of two halves being similar, but not equal in terms of anarchistic, anti-authoritative energy. “Bad guys” in layman terms.
However, by the forth page, this seems to completely go out the window in favor of a retreat to last month’s plot device, but with a slight twist. Last month, we saw that Jubulile, through psychic connection, relived the memories of Cletus Kasady. Here we see the opposite, where Kasady lives through the defining moments of Jubulile’s loving childhood. As we expect, he reacts negatively to this and moves on. This shouldn’t occupy the majority of the comic. The flashbacks themselves are wordy and tightly enclosed, which, on top of throwing the brakes on the greater narrative, feels structurally like a large stop sign every time you come across one in this particular issue. Gone is the more free-form paneling that gives credence to Raze’s observation that she and Carnage are being herded with purpose and persistence.
Instead, the comic takes an aside to deliver a childhood that, as of Carnage #13, does nothing to the story. In some way, Carnage #13’s repeated plot device forms a metafictional duality with the previous issue – Carnage #13 is the Mr. Hyde to #12’s Doctor Jekyll. And while yes you most certainly could say that this is what is happening, metafictional elements need to play to the larger narrative and enhance the story, rather than stand alone, or they amount to nothing more than a literary parlor trick.
Perhaps, you could argue, that these flashbacks will play in a larger part in the coming issues (the solicit for Carnage #16 seems to imply it is the last issue, but nothing has been confirmed), but I think that asks a lot from the reader who collects monthly, rather than by trade. Why should I, as a reader, care about Jubulile’s childhood? By virtue of her psychological torture last issue, we should understand that she is fundamentally a good person; we do not need to be told explicitly that she was loved during her childhood.
The only instance in where this would have any baring on this individual issue would be if it, in some form or another, transformed Carnage or changed him in any way. And on a superficial level, it does – but not in a way that is readily apparent to the reader. We are told through a first-person narration block that Raze senses a change in Carnage’s demeanor, that there is a fear in his voice that she is unfamiliar with. However, he still cuts through the native population with the same wanton violence that preceded this issue.
Ultimately, this issue does not really follow a narrative arc, so instead we have to take a step back and see it as the second piece to last month’s Carnage #12, which might be something that would be more appropriate for a mini or a shorter four-issue arc where the reader is better able to gauge when the climax of the narrative will be delivered. However, this story has been going on since Carnage #6, with a slight narrative pivot in Carnage #11, and the arc will continue to at least ten issues (if it indeed ends with Carnage #16). That’s simply too long to have an arc run while also including extraordinarily decompressed issues such as Carnage #13. Ed Brubaker was able to pull off massive twelve issue arcs in Captain America by having each issue contain twists and turns that played with the level of tension running throughout the year long arc. Carnage #13 does none of that.
While the direction of the issue is clearly stated (Carnage and Raze enter the temple that contains the altar needed to perform the ritual for the Darkhold), their journey was inevitable, uneventful (according to the scope of this issue and those prior), and unimpeded (by admission in the narrative, “they’re herding us”). So why is this a section of the story that needs to be told in such detail? If Jubulile’s childhood is something that is necessary for the narrative, why was it not featured in the issues that called for it, or better yet, given deeper significance in this issue?
Carnage is being moved by an unseen hand as he approaches the temple, and Raze notes that herself. Unfortunately, from the reader’s perspective their own movement seems just as forced and unearned. If we’re going to take an issue to focus entirely on the antagonist force, why can’t we flesh out some kind of motivation or something to justify the scope moving from the main source of tension in this book: the fragile alliance formed by the members of the Anti-Carnage Task Force. Conway himself seems to know that this tension needs to come to a head because that is exactly what the solicits for Carnage #14 promise; the ACTF will fray and come apart due to the relationships in the team souring and breaking apart. So again, I ask, what necessitated the telling of this particular story in Carnage #13?
Raze’s internal narration that carries throughout the story is the most interesting aspect, I think, of this issue. Several times it mentions the two parts of her and how each operates differently and sees Carnage in a different light. Again, I think this is calling to a motif found more in “capital L” Literature (a concept I despise, but I invoke for the sake of brevity), and it is something that I think Conway is doing consciously, as he goes out of his way this issue to bring up Jubulile’s South African heritage and her parents’ experience with Apartheid.
However, and not to belabor a point, there seems to be little reason to bring both of those points up this issue. Perhaps the coming three issues will spell it out, but I’m starting to believe I may be looking for a postcolonial narrative in the later six issues of this comic (#11-16) that simply does not exist because I am trying to find some excuse for this issue’s existance. If Conway is trying to come up with some sort of story that involves colonialism and superheroics, it will be certainly interesting to see exactly how it plays out. Currently however, it looks like he has assembled the pieces but not yet put it together.
The art in this issue remains one of the highlights of Carnage. Back to the night-time jungle, our color pallet switches back to cool blues and teals, two colors that contrast fantastically against the blood red used for Carnage and his bubbles. Just like with #11 this color contrast causes Carnage to appear as foreign to the scenery as if he was a paper doll being placed in a diorama. Conversely, the flashbacks are colored with gentle, washed out colors that denote a clean, sterile, and tranquil feeling. Large off-whites dominate the panels so that the color that does appear does so not only vividly, but naturally and solipsistically. The massive splash panel toward the end of Carnage and Raze standing at the opening of the temple is appropriately grand and ancient looking. It is a time that the art is allowed to speak for itself, and it does so well.
I was hard on this issue, not because it was one of the weaker issues of the series, but because after two steps in the right direction, this issue was a leap back to where we were three or four issues ago – biding our time in a series that does not sell enough issues to be milking its issue count. The art is as serviceable as ever and at times stylish and awe striking. I do not think it has been said nearly enough, but if there is one thing that Marvel’s All New All Different relaunching as done right, it’s been how the branding has embraced a wider selection of styles and really finding artists who’s style compliment and enhance the words of the writers. My hope for the series is that Conway is able to take this to an interesting an unexpected place as the mystery of the Darkhold comes close to its reveal.