Venom Vol. 1 collects the first six issues of the latest series to follow Eddie Brock and his gooey, extraterrestrial partner in lethal protecting. The issues are written by Donny Cates with pencils from Ryan Stegman, inks from JP Mayer, colors from Frank Martin, and letters from Clayton Cowles. In this collection simply titled, “Rex,” Eddie and Venom learn the eldritch origin of the symbiotes and face a monster on a city-leveling scale. Does the first arc from the new creative team deliver an origin story “better than Watchmen?”
In crafting a new origin for the symbiotes, Donny Cates does a ton of narrative heavy lifting and exposition work while telling an action-packed story of cosmic horror and sacrifice. Not only does he tell a compelling story on a cosmic level, but he also ties the symbiote to other pockets of the Marvel universe like Jason Aaron’s Thor: God of Thunder and Captain America. His dialogue feels pitch perfect for an action movie while still conveying just enough pathos maintain the emotional stakes of Eddie and Venom’s codependent relationship. Essentially, this serious handles big, dramatic conflicts, but manages to feel fun all the way through the volume. I’m the type of Venom fan that will always ask for more dialogue or introspection focusing on Eddie and Venom’s love for one another, but readers who are more interested in action over character drama will enjoy this series a lot. I was still invested in the characters by the end of the volume, so I can’t say that Cates completely under-serves the Veddie stans out there.
The thing that felt most awkward in the series was the complete lack of female characters. Granted, this is an arc that is very focused on Eddie, Venom, Knull–the series’ first antagonist–and to a lesser extent, Miles Morales and Rex Strickland; a symbiote host who ties into the new origin story. This volume really doesn’t stray from this small cast and Cates does a great job injecting these characters with voices that fit the tone of the series well, but this results in literally no female characters with spoken lines outside of a newscaster who appears a couple of times. This is less of a real knock on this specific volume and more of a hope for more women to be included in the series going forward. I greatly appreciate Miles’s inclusion in the series, though. Pulling in such a young character to bounce off of the over the top action made for some funny exchanges between him and Eddie.
Okay. Where to even begin with the artistic excellence that Ryan Stegman brings to the pencils on this series? There are so many spreads in this volume that feel iconic from a winged symbiote in a moonlit sky to Eddie and Venom armed to the teeth going toe to toe with a symbiotic dragon monster. The latter of the two spreads also features a huge hand-penciled sound effect which elevates the illustration to a level of excitement and bombast only comics can deliver. There are several other instances of Stegman hand-lettering the effects and it’s always one more energetic detail added to an already exhilarating illustration. This is also true of Stegman’s layouts throughout the series, which are varied enough to keep the comic feeling energetic while establishing a pace that doesn’t let you fly through an issue. There’s one page in issue #6 in which he lays out panels over top a splash illustration of Venom’s face that is possibly my favorite page in the volume, though it has a lot of tough contenders.
Normally my policy with rendering facial expressions is that doing more with fewer lines is usually for the better. Stegman’s expressions aren’t cluttered or overcomplicated, but he adds a lot of detail especially when it comes to the toothy grins of Knull and the symbiotes. This results in lots of almost cute expressions for Venom–which is exactly the mode one should operate in to earn my favor–and some ooky, kooky, spooky faces on Knull who at times feels like he belongs on a metal band’s album art. That’s a good thing considering the energetic tone of the series.
Where Stegman’s pencils meet JP Mayer’s inks best is when it comes to anything liquid from puddles of water to the slimy symbiote itself. Mayer excels at inking liquids to give them a thick, soupy texture that’s rounded out nicely by Martin’s colors to really sell the otherworldliness of the symbiotes. The first pages of issue #2 in particular have a lot of flesh and goo textures to render and Stegman, Mayer, and Martin work in perfect tandem to make the scenes gross, but oddly gorgeous. This is a series with a lot of black on the page and Mayer proves more than up for the task of filling in that space which adds a lot to the visual mood of the book and the action-horror vibe it gives off. Martin’s colors only elevate the series in that regard, using lots of darker hues with faintly glowing reds for ambiance. The dimmer lighting throughout makes explosions and flames really pop and Martin excels at giving fire a bright shine that leaps off the page.
I feel comfortable saying Clayton Cowles is one of the best working letterers in comics and he unsurprisingly brings his A-game to this volume. This is a very kinetic series and that comes through in the lettering from spikey word balloons to sound effects that dance around the artwork, enhancing the visual spectacle rather than taking away from the detail by covering up too much of the page. I especially love the work he did with Knull, whose fonts and word balloons feel spooky and archaic, like they appropriately belong to a character more ancient and god-like than a simple terrestrial villain. Thanks in part to Cowles tying the panels together with his careful, skilled hand, every single page of this volume is a visual delight that demands to be closely examined to appreciate how well each member of the artistic team performed.
On a less serious, but equally as important note. There may be a contingent of readers coming to this volume after seeing the latest Venom film from Sony. This is absolutely an excellent jumping on point for readers unfamiliar with the character. However, if you are a fan of the film who also enjoyed the deluge of sexy fanart which washed through the internet like a cleansing stream of goo and blushes and NSFW tags, this series will leave you wanting! The art team knows how to pencil, ink, and color a mean tongue and there are plenty to go around in this series, but the character’s inherent sex appeal goes criminally underused in this comic. Would it have felt a little unnatural given the tone of the book? Absolutely. Will this reviewer feel that anytime Eddie is shown with civilian clothes underneath the symbiote it’s a cop-out? Without question. Let me be clear: the untapped potential of Eddie and Venom’s sex appeal does not lessen the book’s quality in any way at all, but it is an opportunity for the team to further elevate the series going forward.
So, overall, is Venom Vol. 1 better than Watchmen? If the scale with which one measures these things only takes into account bombastic action, cosmic horror, and gooeyness of protagonists, yes. Venom Vol. 1 is indeed better than Watchmen. Maybe if Rorschach had tried dating whatever is in that ink blot mask of his, it would’ve stood more of a chance.