This review contains minor spoilers.
“God is coming” is a powerful phrase. A kind of mantra, it can be hopeful — a reassurance that your deeds aren’t for naught, that a heavenly realm free of pain and suffering awaits you after a life of pious service well spent. It can be largely dispassionate — a simple joy or dread to be found in the idea that nothing we’re doing really matters, that we’ll be returned to tabula rasa, that there are things out of our control and that we should feel free to our lives how we want. Most importantly for writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman’s Absolute Carnage #1, however, it can be terrifying — a reminder of the horrible things people are willing to do to appease their idea of God, and that most of all, we are powerless to stop the larger things in our universe, those which see us as spiders to be squashed at best accidentally or at worst very, very intentionally.
Cletus Kasady, better known as Carnage, finds purpose in the latter and this first issue of Venom’s biggest (and possibly best) story ever, takes that undying devotion to its extreme.
What’s it about? Normally, I would put the Marvel provided solicit here, but I think I can sum it up pretty well on my own: Carnage wants Eddie Brock dead, an almost ritualistic sacrifice to the Symbiote god Knull (alongside everyone else who’s ever worn a Symbiote) and he’s willing to go a hell of long way, tearing through flesh, blood, metal, stone and more to get it.
Cates wastes little time getting he and Carnage’s grim work started. An almost entirely new and original story, lifting thematic elements from those before it like 1993’s Maximum Carnage or Plant of the Symbiotes (name-dropped on the first page), as well as numerous other Venom stories, replete with reverence for and references to the work of Michelinie, DeFalco, Bagley, and countless others before him this first issue feels like both an end — wrapping up numerous plot threads that have been lingering in the Venom title — and a beginning, a paradigm shift that sets the horrifying trajectory of every story to come.
Equal parts heartfelt, terrifying, hilarious and hyper-violent, this first issue’s narrative fine-tuning and tightness can’t be dismissed. Cates writes with an urgency that heightens scenes like Carnage walking down a dark and damp prison hallway towards Eddie and Peter Parker with a hole in his chest — no heart to be found, symbiotic worms only — like you would expect. He writes with a sinister, nuanced tone that highlights the intenseness and moral dubiousness of the series’ minor antagonist, The Maker, like you would expect, too. But, in a more surprising turn, he also writes with a tenderness and sincerity that makes this massive issue (70 pages) feel whole, replacing Carnage’s lack of a heart with Eddie’s and Peter Parker’s.
What would you do if you had a year left before God came and wiped us all away like insects? Make art and friends, revel in your love, life, work and family? Eddie Brock spent it fighting tirelessly against his own impending doom, breaking up with the love of his life, violently re-negotiating what family means to him, and sick, scared and afraid. Cates does not dismiss or diminish those moments, spread throughout the run’s previous issues, in favor of a bigger picture; he uses the bigger picture to make them seem larger than life. From small, expertly paced and written dialogue-driven moments with Peter about how much they both hate Symbiote stuff, to more intense, meaningful ones like Peter’s insistence that Eddie tell Dylan that he’s his father because Peter knows what it’s like to grow up without parents, and finally to the emotionally resonant and rich relationship between Eddie and the Venom Symbiote, this story is made not by its big fights and horrifying imagery (of which there are many, many well done examples). Rather, by its quieter ones about a broken man who sees bad within himself and wants the world a better place because of it.
It’s important to note, now, that Cates isn’t the only one drafting this alien epic, however. Primary series artist Ryan Stegman, joined by inker J.P. Mayer, colorist Frank Martin, and letterer Clayton Cowles have created one of the most visually stunning and exquisitely produced first issues, let alone event comics, I have ever seen. Sure, there are very minor issues like the Symbiote looking a little too funny when it tries to emote (almost Jim Carey in The Mask-esque) but those melt away when the issue is taken as a whole. Replete with violence, gore, and toxic masculinity aplenty, the tone of the book is oppressive and singularly focused.
Stegman brings scenes like an emaciated Carnage, distended and ghoulishly expressive, descending on a defenseless Brock and Dylan to life with expert precision and intentionality. Every twist and turn in the issue’s numerous fights feels palpable and raw, and big moments like Carnage and Eddie sharing a shock, locked in each other’s grip and coursing with electricity like a deadly yin and yang, are given enough discreet room to shine.
Empowered by Martin’s minimal, but impacting palette — various blood and signature Carnage reds, Symbiote and shadow blacks, beiges, and dispassionate stone cold greys — and Cowles’ comprehensible and surprisingly varied lettering efforts, you’ll find that the art is given not only room to shine, but also to make a dreadfully strong thematic impression. The very first page, web strands expanding into the darkness in a mimicry of Venom’s own suit, offset by the red of Knull’s crest and the shining white of he and his army’s teeth, is a perfect example of the team’s dedication to this aesthetic, and it only gets stronger as the issue’s stakes ramp.
Finally, one is left with the impression that this issue was also carefully crafted to make a very good case for its existence hot off the heels of another massive event, War of the Realms. Just take a look at the opening pages, one dedicated to the Symbiote’s personal experiences with Knull, and then a gorgeous two-page splash dedicated to why everyone else should care. It’s not just Peter Parker and Eddie Brock that have worn and bonded with these strange, alien creatures: it’s Wolverine, Captain America, The Thing, Mania, Ghost Rider, Scream, countless others. God is coming for them all, Eddie just happens to be the only one that can see it for all the literal and abject horror it is. That kind of overarching picture, and structure for an event feels not only refreshing and exciting in the micro, but also like a rehaul of Venom’s thematic elements into a more appropriate straight up and down sci-fi horror story like they always should, can, and will be from here forward. Do you need to know what happened in Doverton, or who Lee Price is, or even what a Symbiote really is to fully get it? Sure, but this issue is also well crafted enough to stand on its own for new and old readers (even very old readers, starting with Lethal Protector, like myself) to embrace it wholeheartedly.
Will Absolute Carnage be able to keep up these production values, artistic and narrative cohesiveness, and thematic tension up over its coming issues or numerous tie-ins? It’s obviously impossible to know for sure, but based on the strength of this singular issue, it seems more likely than ever.
God is coming. Revel in it, find solace in it, or fear it, but you can’t ignore it.