The Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Maximum Carnage collects the entire colossal Symbiote-centric crossover from the ’90s, along with a few extras. The collection features a murderer’s row of Marvel talent in its pages, including Tom DeFalco, Terry Kavanagh, Mark Bagley, Ron Lim, Sal Buscema, and many more. Those are some major bonafides in this book’s favor, but the real question here is: how does this 14-issue long tale hold up nearly two decades later?
Honestly, the way you feel about the storyline of Maximum Carnage will likely vary, depending on how old you were when this story came out. From an objective point of view, it’s needlessly long and features way too many ancillary characters who barely have anything to do aside from argue with Spider-Man.
The story stumbles quite a bit, with several scenes of conflict feeling like they’re being reprised and agonized over multiple times in various installments. Peter’s family argues about whether or not Spider-Man is a hero, Peter argues with Venom and Felicia about attempting to kill Carnage, the Carnage gang bicker about their preferred methods of violence, and Carnage gets to spit some philosophy that feels cribbed from Phil Anselmo’s poetry journal. Rinse, repeat.
And yet, there is a goofy kind of sincerity to the whole thing that makes it feel strangely endearing. This is especially true when you place the story in the context of its original time of release. Spider-Man’s moral conflicts seemed almost old-fashioned in the wake of violent characters like Shadowhawk, Cable, and even post-Frank Miller Batman, all of whom have moments when they seem indistinguishable from the villains they’re meant to oppose.
Nothing says “nineties excess” like Carnage and his gang of heavy metal serial killers cutting the town up like Evil Ernie on a meth bender. And nothing says “classic superhero values” like Peter Parker absolutely refusing to sink to their level, even as all of the heroes around him go down that path. In this way, Maximum Carnage can be seen as both a time capsule and an indictment of the comics with which it shared shelf space.
At least, you can see it that way in its smarter moments. For all of that moral hand-wringing (and there is quite a lot of it), the story is still stretched terribly thin. Several chunks of the miniseries are devoted to scene after scene of Carnage and his brood killing streets full of people, followed by Venom, Spidey, and the rest arriving too late and seeing mangled bodies laying just out of frame. It’s a gnarly scene the first couple of times it occurs, but it almost becomes a violent white noise by part five.
Still, there’s a lot to love here, especially for Spidey fans of a certain age. All of the earmarks of its time period are there: everyone is rippling with muscles and mullets are the name of the hairstyle game. Characters stand around making bold proclamations and telegraphing their strategies for the benefit of the reader. Nightwatch is there, for some reason. Yes, Virginia, we are in the mid-90s.
There’s also the need to humanize our heroes, something that has always set Peter Parker apart from many of his costumed brethren. One of the constant threads in this story that works is the fact that Spidey gets badly injured almost at the very start of the action. He’s nearly out of the game at all times, constantly patching himself up and getting back out there. And while it could be argued that he’s being selfish by constantly running head-first into danger, we are with him every step of the way.
In many ways, Spidey is just as overwhelmed by the excess of the crossover as the reader. His incredulity toward how to handle the darker inclinations of characters like Venom and Dethlok helps to ground some of the messier bits of the story. His crisis of faith and refusal to give into the dark also leads us to one of my favorite panels from any Spider-Man comic, which I’m just gonna spoil right here.
If for nothing else, Maximum Carnage should be remembered as the story that showed Spider-Man pushing back against the darkness of the world and the comics industry itself. He didn’t do it in a metatextual way, but rather like the directly confrontational way Superman did in “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” He did it by participating in that nastier world, but refusing to play by its rules.
Maximum Carnage is a silly story, to be sure, but it also gives us a Spider-Man who is completely unwilling to compromise his values in the face of true horror. In a time when Batman was being replaced by a psychopath with razor claws and Wolverine was about to become an adamantium-less feral beast, Spider-Man doggedly showed readers that sometimes, a hero just had to stand by his principles long enough to win the day.
Okay, it’s not entirely subtle. They build a thing called a “Good Bomb” to use against Carnage, but dammit, this was the 1990s. You take the thematic strengths where you can get them.
Also included in the collection is the prestige format one-shot Spider-Man/Punisher/Sabretooth: Designer Genes. It’s about as over-the-top as that title would suggest, but without the benefit of the emotional through-line that Maximum Carnage has in small doses. Still, it’s a fun little caper, albeit with some particularly cringe-worthy dialogue from Frank Castle.
The artwork from Scott McDaniel is what really makes Designer Genes worth a look. He draws one lithe Spider-Man and manages to make even the hulking Sabretooth seem graceful in a few moments of action. Overall, it’s an odd addition to the collection that seems to be there simply because there wasn’t a more obvious tome in which to include it.
Overall, the collection is worthwhile for hardcore Spidey fans who have never experienced Maximum Carnage, or folks like me who haven’t revisited it in years. There are some bright and shining moments sprinkled throughout the main story that carry the story beyond its trashier predilections. It’s great to have it all collected like this. For more casual fans, however, the flaws in the story are glaring, and it may not hold everyone’s attention for it’s overly-long run.