Putting aside that it has nothing to do with the original Funeral Pyre which featured Venom and Punisher (neither of whom are in this issue), writer Cullen Bunn and artist Joshua Cassara and Alberto Alburquerque’s Web of Venom: Funeral Pyre #1 is an issue full of good ideas caught in a tough spot.
What’s it about? Marvel’s preview reads:
For weeks, the serial killer called Carnage has been hunting former symbiote hosts and killing them. Next on his list is ANDI BENTON, formerly MANIA, who’s back to living in Philadelphia and without any symbiote to save her…The path of bodies that leads to ABSOLUTE CARNAGE continues here!
To be totally transparent: I am a diehard Venom fan. The stories featuring him are always my favorite Spider-Man stories, Lethal Protector was one of the first comics I ever bought every issue of, I like Cates, Remender, Bunn and all the rest. By extension, then, I am a Mania fan.
Andi Benton, introduced in Cullen Bunn and Declan Shavley’s Venom is a fantastic, complex, character that I can, and do, relate to. Her connection to Flash Thompson, to Agent Venom, to Mephisto and Hell but all informed by her own frustrations and anxieties are all well-crafted, intricate stories unto themselves and I think, one of the best parts of Bunn’s run with the Symbiote. Unfortunately, this issue, following up on Andi’s now Symbiote-less story and introduce the coming Absolute Carnage in equal measure spends too much time trying to convince you of that.
First, the good: This is a horror story through and through. Bunn is exceedingly good at those (see Unearth, Harrow County, etc.) and brings the same tenacity and haunting inexplicability to this. The elements focused on Andi’s inability to move past the loss of her Symbiote, both literal and psychological, are enriching developments. Is anyone rid of something that was so integrated with their body and mind? It would seem no. It would also seem that these feelings bear ill will. That, like the ghost of a loved one haunting us from beyond the grave, we can see our memories and fondness for something warp into something much darker, malignant, and aching. Andi feels pain much the way her Symbiote might, and that’s BEFORE the Hell-Mark and Carnage stuff shows up in this issue. This is all a great follow-up to when we last saw Mania, and a great introduction of some nuance, and complexity, to the Symbiote world at large.
The art perfectly accentuates this nightmarish malignancy. Andi walks the street alone but Mania is right there in a large window reflection – both an indication of their close connection and the fact that Mania is something reflective, the dark and frustrations of the character laid bare (it helps that it’s just a great design). As both the narration and Alburquerque’s art lean more into body horror – Carnage climbing out of a body split vertically – the horror elements are overwhelming, gross and awe-inspiring all the same — very much the way Carnage himself is supposed to appear to us now.
Unfortunately, this is all undercut by the book’s dual focuses and the inherent clumsiness in attempting to join them. Equal parts flash back and modern-day storytelling, the fact that this issue is intended to catch readers who missed Bunn’s run up to Mania’s history and character is inescapable. In fact, almost 1/3rd of the book is a re-telling of events that familiar readers are already aware of. Yes, this might be essential, but it can be done in a much more effective, and streamlined, way. Similarly, when left strictly to the narrative, the attempts to convey the threat Carnage poses, as well as create some forward momentum for this individual character’s story outside of this issue are clumsy and obvious. “I run. That’s Carnage! He’s a maniac! He’ll kill everyone! Everyone he sees! And I can’t fight him!” one set of narration reads, as if we’re not aware, and almost reading as a lack of faith in the artists to convey the horror of Kassady’s re-birth (re-death?) which they do exceedingly well anyways.
Ultimately, this is an issue just short of great and settling for good. It could do so much more, really push the conversation about Mania, about Symbiotes, about Hell in the Marvel universe (that Mephisto guy keeps showing up!) but it settles for connecting the existing dots for you instead. That’s frustrating, especially when there’s so much good to be had here, but not totally inexcusable. I get why this issue exists, I don’t fault the creative team at all (especially the fantastic, authentically gross and scary art) but I am found wishing it was something…more. Maybe Absolute Carnage will be.