Ah yes, a superhero story you can sink your teeth into. When Venom claws its way into theaters this weekend, it’ll mark the biggest moment yet for one of the most infamous villains that Marvel’s Spider-Man has ever faced. Tom Hardy is Eddie Brock, a down-on-his-luck journalist who fuses with a symbiotic alien entity to become the long-tongued, sharp-toothed, shape-shifting title character. Directed by Zombieland‘s Ruben Fleischer, the movie is set outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe of which Spidey himself is now a part, giving the character a chance to slobber and shine as an ultraviolent vigilante on his own.
But long before he became the star of a blockbuster movie (his second after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3), Venom began as an afterthought — a living breathing backstory for Peter Parker’s badass black costume. How did he go from these humble beginnings to holding down a franchise-approved solo film? (Albeit one that, shall we say, isn’t getting the most favorable reviews.) Wrap your tendrils around our guide to the character for the answers.
Before he was a character, Venom was a costume.
Imagine if the Joker started out as a clown outfit that Batman wore for circus-themed missions … and you’ll have some idea of just how odd the path that this character took to antihero superstardom really was.
Back in 1982, comics reader Randy Schueller submitted an idea to Marvel for a storyline in which Spider-Man acquired a black costume (with a red spider logo, rather than the familiar white one) made of “unstable molecules,” i.e. the Marvel Universe material from which the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards made his team’s uniforms. More than mere fabric, this outfit would be able to adjust to Peter Parker’s needs, as well as enhance his powers. Controversial Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter bought the idea from Schueller for a cool $220.
It took a couple of years for the new white-on-black look to make its first chronological appearance in the pages of the company-wide crossover “event comic” Secret Wars #8, courtesy of a design by artist Mike Zeck and a script by Shooter that saw the Webslinger acquire the costume on an alien planet.
Though the issue came out in December 1984, the costume had popped up several months earlier — first as a sketch in March’s comic-length newsletter Marvel Age #12, then in a Spidey story set after the events of Secret Wars in May’s Amazing Spider-Man #252, plotted by Roger Stern, written by Tom DeFalco, and illustrated by Ron Frenz.
… And also an alien parasite.
During their Amazing Spider-Man run, DeFalco and Frenz fleshed out the origin of the liquid-like black outfit, which would respond to Peter Parker’s thoughts; it would even hijack him in his sleep for late-night crimefighting binges. Sure, it looks badass, but it’s not merely a futuristic crimefighting costume or the self-repairing clothes writer/artist John Byrne had devised for the martial-arts hero Iron Fist (an influence on Stern’s concept for the costume). It’s a sentient, symbiotic alien entity, one which bonds to a human host and bestows them with incredible powers while still maintaining a mind of its own.
That “mind of its own” thing is the rub. Though he digs the power-up, Parker quickly learns that this “Symbiote” wants to bond to his body permanently. By exploiting the alien’s vulnerability to fire and sonic energy — and with a little help from the Fantastic Four — Spider-Man separates himself from the costume, which slithers off to find another host to inhabit.
Eddie Brock, the host with the most.
The entity that became known as Venom would go on to link itself to many Marvel characters, including Peter’s childhood bully Flash Thompson and the villain Mac “The Scorpion” Gargan in the main Marvel Universe and a T. Rex (!) in the post-apocalyptic Wolverine tale Old Man Logan.
But its most famous host is Eddie Brock, a journalist who blames Spider-Man for his failed career. His intense hatred of the Wall-Crawler, coupled with the symbiote’s intimate knowledge of Spidey’s secret identity and immunity to his danger-detecting “spider-sense,” made their combination — referred to collectively as Venom — one of the superhero’s most dangerous enemies.
In the Extreme 1990s, Venom was an antihero for the times.
The Brock/symbiote Venom debuted in Amazing Spider-Man‘s 300th issue in May 1988, written by David Michelinie and illustrated by a young superstar-in-the-making named Todd McFarlane.
In some ways, the bad guy is a supervillain cut from the old-school cloth: an evil mirror image of the hero he fights, like Superman and Bizarro, or the Flash and, er, the Reverse Flash. But future Spawn creator McFarlane’s wild style and penchant for horror-tinged aesthetics got punched up even further by his successor on the series, Erik Larsen, who emphasized those sharp teeth and that slobbering tongue, making him a very modern man-monster. With a ndesign that emphasized shape-shifting and sheer brute force, Venom was Spider-Man by way of Giger, Carpenter and Cronenberg.
But after Spider-Man rescued Brock’s estranged ex-wife, Venom realized the man he thought responsible for all their collective woes was actually a pretty alright guy, and something changed. Beginning with the 1993 miniseries Venom: Lethal Protector, launched by Michelinie and legendary Spider-Man artist Mark Bagley, the character repented of his villainous ways — though not his penchant for biting people’s heads off. So he became a vigilante.
Sharing both his murderous methods and his black-and-white look with another of the era’s most popular characters, the Punisher, Venom’s antihero incarnation sustained several solo series. He even teamed up with his one-time nemesis to take on one of several of the even more deranged symbiotes that the original Venom entity had spawned — a blood-red monstrosity that bonded with a serial killer called Cletus Kasaday and called itself Carnage. (Keep your eyes peeled, moviegoers.)
And yes, he made Tobey Maguire do an evil dance routine.
Remember Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films? From the 2018 vantage point it’s easy to forget, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy took pop-culture by storm while the Spider-Man franchise has been rebooted not once but twice. Still, the director’s first two outings were considered the highwater mark of the superhero genre.
Until Spider-Man 3 came along, that is. Marking Venom’s cinematic debut, the movie has a bad rap for being overstuffed and tonally inconsistent, which it deserves. Yes, the version of the character created when the symbiote bonds with Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock is pretty lackluster. But while it’s still attached to Tobey Maguire’s Parker, it turns him into a swaggering parody of emo coolness, which Raimi conveys with what can only be described as an evil dance routine.
Regardless, the movie stopped the Sony-owned Spidey series in its tracks. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot that followed in 2012 also ran out of juice after only two outings, but not before the Venom symbiote popped up in a brief cameo in the second installment. Plans for a solo outing set in that franchise went nowhere.
The Tom Hardy experiment.
After Sony inked their deal with Marvel to incorporate Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, they maintained the rights to handle related characters more or less on their own. Whatever else it might be, Venom is a test case for this parallel universe. The casting of Tom Hardy, an actor whose turn as Bane in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is either the best or worst thing about that whole series depending on whom you ask, indicates that the studio is willing to take some risks, while the edgy adolescent violence and humor align the project more with Deadpool and DC’s Suicide Squad than the squeaky-clean MCU.
Which brings us to October, 2018. Indeed, if Venom takes off, a solo movie for the vampiric Spidey villain Morbius starring Jared “The Joker” Leto is in the works. Considering that Spider-Man himself is nowhere to be found in these side projects starring his rogues gallery, this is all pretty strange. But for a character that started off as a cool new color scheme for his archenemy’s wardrobe, strangeness has always been the status quo.