A lot of Tom Hardy fans were looking forward to the new film where he plays a thickly accented schlub possessed of too much power who can’t deal with its consequences and, after leaving too much death in his wake, hits some major obstacles and faces the possibility of living out the rest of his life in powerless mediocrity. That was 2020, and we all agreed never to speak of Capone again. One year later Venom: Let There Be Carnage reminds us why Hardy rules, sometimes despite his surroundings.
The character of Venom may not mean quite so much to you if you haven’t been a Marvel Comics collector within the past thirty years, or if you saw Spider-Man 3 and hold a grudge against Topher Grace and Sam Raimi to this day. When first introduced on the printed page, Venom was a team-up of two of Spider-Man’s enemies: Eddie Brock, a bitter workplace rival of Peter Parker’s who got fired and blamed him for it; and Spidey’s former black costume, which was actually an immoral liquid alien parasite that Mr. Fantastic had to help him escape. Venom was the perfect anti-Spider-Man — he all the same powers, the spiffy black design, all of Peter’s memories which the alien had absorbed, and the ability to sneak-attack Spidey without setting off his Spider-Sense. I was 16 at the time and thought Venom was a great idea for a nemesis…one among many nemeses, mind you.
Unfortunately in the ’90s, whenever fans liked any one character a lot, Marvel editors and/or executives would then decree that character must appear in as many comics as possible. Characters such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Ghost Rider were each given two or three series to their name and/or dropped into other heroes’ titles as special guest stars, constantly and gratuitously. Sometimes it worked and sales spiked with every appearance, until the mid-’90s when their sins finally caught up with them and they knocked off the guest-star oversaturation for a while.
Among those Fan Favorites du Jour in the ’90s was Venom. One problem: he was a most heinous villain with a body count. Homicidal maniacs can be protagonists, but that’s a tough premise to weave into four to six comics per month. Marvel therefore tried reinventing him as an antihero and hoping the other Marvel heroes would forgive and forget, and not try to arrest or kill him four to six time per month. I never loved Venom that much, especially after he began spawning imitative spin-offs like Carnage, Riot, Toxin, Hybrid, Scream, and several more my son could name but I can’t because I never cared. Unless that was all of them. I wouldn’t know. I quit reading the various Spider-titles shortly before all those Venomettes hit the stage and spread the Venom plague.
I’ve run across Venom at random times since then (loved Rick Remender’s version starring Flash Thompson; had no strong feelings about Ultimate Venom) but don’t go out of my way for him. So why did I bother giving a Venom movie any attention? Because I was curious to see if Tom Hardy could sift gold from dross, because I really liked director Ruben Fleischer’s horror-comedy Zombieland, and because my son has been a Venom fan since he was a kid. The occasional father/son outing is a good thing, and we had fun trying to sort out this mess together afterward.
2012 was my worst year for comic book enjoyment in the last fifteen years. I’ve collected them for thirty-four years, ever since the well-stocked spinner racks at Marsh Supermarket caught my eye at age six and opened new worlds of imagination and heroism. For the majority of my life they’ve been my primary hobby among all my hobbies. Once upon a time, friends could count on me to spout the occasional essay about a particular series, event, historical recollection, or rage-filled response to an aesthetic offense. When I launched Midlife Crisis Crossover last April, I thought the topic of comic books would inspire a lot more posts than they have so far.
I have no plans to wave farewell to the medium altogether, but my personal backlash started during the last half of 2011, when DC Comics purged their continuity yet again and rebooted their entire universe with the “New 52” initiative. The first time they rebooted after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I was fourteen and the combined talents of John Byrne, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, Mike Baron, and others were more than enough to convince me that this new direction was right up my alley. Twenty-six years and countless post-Crisis emendations later, DC and I are no longer the same entities under the same conditions. I can handle reboots to a certain extent, but when the new versions are poorly thought out — or worse, prone to twice as many crossovers as they used to be — I exercise my right as a consumer to opt out.
Marvel’s response was to concentrate on crossovers for a while longer, then roll out their own restarts without rebooting. I’ve found their results a little less alienating, but they’re still leaving some of my money on the table. Image stepped up mightily for a while and snatched some of my leftover Big Two bucks, but their titles have varied in quality and performance. I was glad to see other publishers continue earning attention from me as well — Dark Horse, BOOM!, IDW, Red 5, Valiant, and even Aspen. Again, results varied, but I appreciated the alternatives they offered.
Even though I’m increasingly disappointed with the current majority readership’s predilection for overspending on prequels, crossovers, and do-overs, my year had several bright spots in the world of monthly titles. (For purposes of personal categorization, I treat original graphic novels and trade paperback collections as “Books”, which are grouped and ranked separately from “Comic Books” in my head. Those might be fodder for a separate MCC list.)
The following were my favorite comic book series throughout 2012:
* Journey into Mystery — Kieron Gillen, Rich Elson, and other artists delivered one of the very few series that inspired any MCC thoughts at all, and ended their two-year storyline on a note of epic tragedy. After seeing the reincarnated Kid Loki and his best frenemy Leah through so many misadventures (not to mention the only A-plus crossover tie-ins of any crossover by any company in the last two years), I felt helpless and bereaved to see it all coming crashing down ’round his ears. Marvel’s formerly unrepentant trickster god was so close to redeeming himself for his previous lifetime of treachery and lies, albeit by finding clever ways to wield treachery and lies as forces for Good, only to see everything fall apart because of the lies he told himself and us. I wish every series aspired to thematic examinations this complex and riveting. More fire-breathing angry puppies like lethal li’l Thori would also be welcome.
Comics readers are well aware of Marvel Comics’ new initiative, “Marvel NOW”, which will see many of their current series ending and restarting by year’s end with new #1s. Obviously this creative/financial decision wasn’t borne in a complete vacuum, separate and unaware of DC’s New 52 relaunch stunt in 2011. However, the Marvel titles on my current pull-list number twice as many as the DC titles that were on my pull-list prior to the New 52. Marvel NOW, then, stands to have a more noticeable effect on my buying habits. This time, though, I’m not yet feeling as grumpy as I should.
One of the most important differences between the New 52 and Marvel NOW is that the latter won’t reset all histories and character developments to square one. The Marvel Universe will continue forward in time and space, though I’m sure new events will rock some foundations. Another important difference: I’m excited about a few of the new creative teams. When weighing the entertainment viability of new comics, artists’ names don’t factor into my decision-making process as heavily as they used to. I follow writers more than artists or characters nowadays. I realize a majority of fans will remain flocked around their favorite hero regardless of whether or not the creative team can form complete sentences or depict more than two facial expressions. That’s just not how I manage my buying habits anymore. I was a hardcore Spider-Man fan for all of childhood, but no way will you convince me today to buy a comic just because Spidey’s in it and no other reason.
When I perused the list of New 52 teams last year, at least two-thirds of the writers fell somewhere between “Meh” and “Who?” for me. Marvel NOW, on the other hand, has a few choice names on deck. I don’t think all the new titles and creative teams have been announced yet, but I’ve seen glimmers or promise in the announcements to date. (Mark Waid writing the Hulk? SOLD.)
As of June 2012 I was collecting five Marvel series and one miniseries. In the past two weeks I’ve added two new series to my pull-list on a probationary basis. My current Marvel monthly experience is comprised of the following titles:
Journey into Mystery: Kieron Gillen’s final issue will be October’s #645. The solicitation copy doesn’t say it’s the final issue. Either that’s an oversight or Gillen is handing the reins to someone else. I should’ve known that something would happen to the series after I went on record and proclaimed it my favorite Marvel series of the moment. The innocuously devious Kid Loki and Hela’s bitter handmaiden Leah have made a great not-couple throughout their misadventures in godhood and questing…at least until the events of #641 ended in quiet tragedy and shattered the status quo. Whenever I express happiness about a title, this is exactly what happens. Clearly I have only myself to blame for this. We’ll see what happens in the November solicitations, I suppose.
Invincible Iron Man: Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca will conclude their four-year run (or is it five?) and the series with #527. I was more blown away in the early days when Fraction brought the noise with hard-SF sensibilities and real-world tech developments that appear just about never in any other comics today. (I blame Warren Ellis for allowing other mediums to lure him away with cash and booze.) Over the last few arcs it’s become increasingly more and more about watching Tony struggle with demons he didn’t know he had, but in the context of (a) Marvel’s big crossover events, and (b) the kind of scenario I hate hate HATE where all the hero’s villains team up against him. It’s a personal pet peeve that would take too long to explain here.
That being said, it’s still above-average for super-heroics, and I like to think that the remaining issues will continue tying all those years’ worth of strands together into one neat, eye-popping bow as Tony and his amazing armored friends work up to their final showdown with the Mandarin and his Iron Man Revenge Squad. The best is yet to come, though: with Marvel NOW, the writing reins will be passed to the aforementioned Kieron Gillen. I’m pleased and thinking about camping out at my comic shop in November. (Well, not really. Still eager to see it, though.)
Daredevil: Unaffected by Marvel NOW. Mark Waid and his rotating artists (all ranging from above-average to brilliant) will be allowed to continue uninterrupted with their portrayal of the most optimistic Man Without Fear I’ve ever seen. In a hobby with so many sullen, grimacing heroes, the new Matt Murdock borders on revolutionary.
Venom: Current symbiote host Flash Thompson has become my go-to when I want a sullen, grimacing antihero. Though the series is presently mid-transition as outgoing writer Rick Remender passes the torch to Cullen Bunn, so far it hasn’t lost its stride. It’s been alternately inspiring and tragic to follow Flash’s struggles with his family, his new Avengers teammates, and his general unease with super-powered heroics after losing his legs at war. The original Eddie Brock version was anathema to me, too emblematic of all that went wrong with Marvel in the 1990s, but I’ve been surprised at the damage control this series has managed so far. This is especially unusual for me because I’m otherwise not too keen on antiheroes anymore.
Venom won’t be a Marvel NOW do-over, but there is a crossover on the way that threatens my reading pleasure called “Minimum Carnage”. The concept sounds cute (Venom Goes to the Microverse), but I’m leery after my disappointment with comics crossovers in general and last year’s unwanted “Circle of Four” six-part fiasco in particular. I’ll give it a chance, but my expectations are low.
Dark Avengers: Someone felt my rollicking Thunderbolts saga had to be refitted with some other team’s name in order for it to continue. The team had already been split in twain for the last several months — one half in the present carrying on the good fight, the other half traveling uncontrollably backwards through time. The present-day good-guys half has now been usurped by the return of the government-run Dark Avengers, populated by members I don’t recognize and don’t feel like looking up. Since this technically already relaunched while retaining the original Thunderbolts numbering, Marvel NOW apparently won’t be intruding here. I’m still debating whether or not I’ll be standing by this till then to confirm if it does.
Captain Marvel: Carol Danvers’ promotion from Ms. Marvel to full-fledged captain is a demotion from her previous rank of colonel in her military career, but the new series, which just launched in July, is a step up from what few Ms. Marvel comics I’ve sampled before now. I only bought #1 because I sort-of distantly know one of the four fan artists who contributed pin-ups on the back page, but the comic itself ended up commanding my attention, too, with a lead character who’s strong-willed without being hateful, fiercely independent without being an angry loner (some male heroes should try this sometime), and mostly avoiding the kind of embarrassing fan-service art and costuming that precludes me from buying most other super-heroine titles. Great start.
Hawkeye: The arrogant archer’s new solo series kicked off this week under the reunited Iron Fist team of Matt Fraction and David Aja. I’m a little underwhelmed at Hawkeye playing the same kind of ill-fitting urban-hero premise that previously sank Herc and Black Panther. I’m even less impressed that the denouement in the first issue involved Our Hero saving the day with lots of Avengers cash. If only the White Tiger had been a multimillionaire, perhaps Marvel editors could have tuned that instrument a little more finely, instead of trying to turn established heroes into their answer to Batman. On the plus side, I do love the Daredevil: Born Again look, Fractions’s typically sharp dialogue, and Hawkeye’s new canine pal. #2 might be worth a look-see.
The Muppets: I know it’s only a four-issue miniseries and not remotely connected to Earth-616. I don’t care. Marvel is supplying me with more Roger Langridge funnies. I doubt we’ll see more Muppet work from him ever again, so I’m savoring this while I can and mentioning it to anyone who’ll listen.
…and that’s it. Initial prognosis: Marvel NOW may not hurt me after all. Its timing may coincide with other changes in my buying habits, though. Reply hazy, try again later.
This PR stunt might rock my world more uncomfortably if I were following more Avengers or X-Men titles. Luckily I’m not. The short answers about that are: I’ve never been enthusiastic about paying four bucks a pop for multiple Avengers titles per month; and I pretty much gave up on any hope of returning to full-time X-fandom sometime back in the late ’80s while Chris Claremont was still at the helm.
(I’ll admit I was tempted to see how Kieron Gillen might play in the X-Men sandbox. I resisted the temptation anyway.)