Writer: Donny Cates
Pencils: Ryan Stegman
Inks: JP Mayer
Colors: Fran Martin
Letters: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Clones and Symbiotes. Symbiotes and Clones. These two tropes were Spider-Man comics of the ‘90s. With the creation of the ‘Black Alien Costume’ in Secret Wars #8 (1984) the path to the symbiote craze was assured as comic fans clamored for more and more of the alien costume, which eventually culminated in the ultimate Spider-Man villain of this era, Venom, in the Amazing Spider-Man #298. Once that muscular psychotic tongue waggling monster appeared on the comic page fans went bonkers, I know since I was one of them and once the first Venom and Spider-Man confrontation ended in the Amazing Spider-Man #300 I like many readers wanted more Venom. Yet Marvel was smart and kept Venom on the shelf almost a year before bringing him back, in the background at first and then for another throwdown in the Amazing Spider-Man #316 & 317. Then the ‘90s came and Marvel got desperate as their top artists fled to the House of Ideas to start Image comics. Comics became more style than substance and with the birth of the speculation market Marvel decided that to gain readers and to continue the momentum they looked at what worked and what worked in Spider-Man was Venom so what could be better than more Venom. Venom became a reoccurring villain to the point he was basically felt like the co-star of the Spider books. Then it became clear, if Venom was awesome why not have another symbiote and in the Amazing Spider-Man #360 Carnage was revealed to the comic reading world and the symbiote phenomenon would explode.
Carnage served two purposes. First it was another symbiote to plague the life of Spider-Man but secondly and more importantly it helped to soften Venom. Readers had grown to like Venom and he shifted into another ‘90s phenomenon, the anti-hero. Carnage was serial killer Cletus Kasaday who was a completely irredeemable character where Venom’s Eddie Brock had the potential for change and redemption in the vein of the Punisher or Wolverine so Marvel ran with it. Over the next few years Marvel would mine the Symbiotes into the ground, culminating in the Maximum Carnage storyline that created multiple symbiotes while taking over all of the Spider books for months and until the Clone Saga, which is its own convoluted mess, was the go-to storyline for Spider-Man writers. Venom graduated to his own series of mini-series until he gained his own series and Marvel ran with the character until his popularity waned. The Carnage symbiote and eventually the Venom symbiote were transferred from their most popular hosts and jumped from host to host for much of the ‘00s. Yet Marvel moved on, the Joe Quesada revolution took hold and Venom was used less and less. Eddie Brock was replaced by Flash Thompson as Venom and Cletus Kassidy was killed and many people looked forward to the end of the ‘90s symbiote phenomenon.
Here’s the thing. Actually, here are two things. One, comics are cyclical. Stories tend to appear and reappear over time. New creators want to play with classic storylines and characters that they fell in love with as young readers, which brings me to my second point. We’re entering an era of comics where the new wave creators were new comic book readers in the ‘90s and they are all too happy to mine the stories that they came of comic reading age in, even if those stories are some of the most maligned in all of comicdom. As I’ve perused the comics news sites and thumbed through Previews I’ve seen Marvel reestablishing their ‘90s iconic stories, especially their Spider-Man stories.A few years ago it was the revitalization of the Clone Saga and this year it seems it is the symbioses turn. Yet one name kept leaping out to me, Donny Cates. Cates is one of these new era of creators who grew up during the ‘90s comics era and are mining there coming of age classic storylines for a new era, and we the reader are lucky for it. This of course brings me to Absolute Carnage #1, a book by name alone I would surely dislike but in fact I enjoyed it immensely.
Absolute Carnage #1 is the culmination of over a year’s worth of work in the Venom title. Since taking over the character in 2018 Cates has both advanced the character while giving him a classic ‘90s retro anti-hero vibe. It’s a book I had no intention of picking up as I long left Venom in my rearview mirror of reading but people whose recommendations I trust kept telling me to give it a read and that I would enjoy it, so I relented and read the first arc and much to my dismay I enjoyed it. Cates has an obvious affinity for Venom and has gone out of his way to update the character with all of the work other writers have done to place a backstory into the symbiote that goes back to the beginning of time, that involves everyone from Thor, Beowulf, and the monster Grendel as well as Nick Fury, and the Vietnam War. Eddie Brock has evolved as a character and his relationship with the symbiote has apparently been anything but symbiotic over the years. In the background of the title and a special last year Cates has also been maneuvering a Cult whose sole goal of reviving the serial killer Cletus Kassidy and restoring the one true Carnage to the world, which brings us to Absolute Carnage #1.
At the beginning of this new-retro event Eddie is on the run from the revived Carnage with his son (who still thinks Eddie is his half-brother, it’s a family drama thing). Carnage has set Venom up for a series of murders and has Eddie’s face plastered all over the television and after a close call in the subway the only person that Venom can think to help is his one-time arch nemesis, the Amazing Spider-Man. With an odd couple vibe and a kid in tow the two once time enemies start piecing together Carnage’s plans and how everyone who has ever been bonded with a symbiote fits into it. The issue sees the trio seek out the help of an alternate reality genius, takes them to the scariest asylum this side of Arkham, and places their backs against a literal wall it looks like the Absolute Carnage event is not going to be easy on Venom and Spider-Man. Cates weaves in some great super-heroic moments and enough humor to make this as much a Spider-Man event as it is a Venom event.
Absolute Carnage #1 is a wonderfully written story, especially for the first part of a multi-issue event with enough spinoffs that to purchase them all could bankrupt a small country. Donny Cates has an obvious affinity for these characters but he has no intention of redoing what has already been done. Instead he wants to take the core concepts of Venom and Carnage (the anti-hero and the psychopath) to tell a story full of horror, action, drama, a little comedy, and many symbiotes. So many symbiotes. Ryan Stegman’s art is simply stunning. He is the perfect choice for this event as his style has attributes of Todd McFarlane but still a style all his own that is intricate, detailed, and for this title very macabre. Fran Martin’s colors are dark and vivid, amplifying the level of creepiness already present from Stegman’s art. The time and effort this creative team put into this book is clear as they have created a truly great first issue to what has the potential to be a great Marvel Spider Event.
Verdict: Buy! Absolute Carnage #1 is an intriguing first issue of a horror fueled Spider event with enough nostalgia to interest fans of the ‘90s symbiote heyday but with a modern sensibility and an incredible creative team.