#10 – VENOM #13-14 – CIRCLE OF FOUR
By Rick Remender with Rob Williams + Jeff Parker and Tony Moore with Lee Garbett, Sana Takeda, Julian Tedesco + Lan Medina and a host of others!
I love Flash Thompson as Agent Venom, and not an issue goes by that I’m not surprised by that. One of my fanboy pet peeves is legacy characters getting into the superhero dance. Remember Alfred as THE EAGLE in Batman? Supporting characters in superhero books often get duped into pulling on the capes and tights, when sometimes they’re best left by their own strengths, on the strengths of their character and what they say about our spandex-clad lead. And as an unabashed lover of Flash’s role as a gym teacher in the ‘90’s, as a war veteran in the BND era, and of course as a pug-faced bully clod in the Ditko days, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see him going the vigilante route, especially the symbiote route, pulling on the slime and making with the ‘we’s’ and ‘our’s’. As I so often am found in this hobby, I was wrong. Flash as Venom is fantastic, and his monthly title is fantastic, not afraid to go beyond the confines of NYC, that dreaded black hole of the MU, not afraid to venture into the world of the Hellstroms and the Blackhearts, not afraid to add supporting characters that nobody would think to add in a street-level anti-hero book. And this arc shows what makes this character special, and what makes this book special.
Our story begins with Eugene ‘Flash’ Thompson, sitting grubby and unshaved on a hotel bed, having just ditched NY and taken a government owned symbiote suit with him, screaming on the phone to his girlfriend, Betty Brant. After telling her to never call again unless his mother is in harm, he destroys the phone and downs a bottle of liquor. Pretty good way to say, ‘Boys and girls, this ain’t no Peter Parker.’ Pretty soon we’re introduced to our villain of the story, the owner of THE DEVIL’S DEN, the ultimate hub-bub of sin and debauchery in the world’s foremost exporter of it, forcing a cheating con to sign away his soul. Turns out this modish dandy is none other than Blackheart, banished prince of Hell. Soon we’re introduced to the other players in our story; Alejandra, the Ghost Rider, currently ignoring the well-intentioned attempted mentoring being bestowed upon her by Johnny Blaze, the original Ghost Rider, now without the spirit of vengeance. Then comes Rulk, set on a mission to bring Flash Thompson and the symbiote suit back to New York. There’s also X-23, the Wolverine clone that’s discovered the owner of the DEVIL’S DEN have purchased a vial of her blood on the black market. Now, I know you’re ready to turn your back on me right now, seeing as how a story of X-23 upset that somebody may be cloning her doesn’t seem like the freshest concept of the year, but bear with me. This set-up is going somewhere.
There was a lot of fanboy-love (and probably a fair amount of hate) for the way Rick “nineties weren’t all bad!” Remender found a way to re-team the new Fantastic Four. But there’s more to it than a fun continuity nod. This is, first of all, four characters that are defined by their connection to previously established characters and concepts. General Ross, the Red Hulk, has been a supporting character in the Hulk books for as long as Flash Thompson has been one in Spider-man. And his role was much more important. Not only was there all the juicy Marvel melodrama of him being the father of the love of Bruce Banner’s life, he represented one of the essential lynchpins of the Hulk story – he was the townspeople bringing the pitchforks to Frankenstein’s castle. Hulk can’t want to be left alone without someone after him, and that was Ross’ role. The idea of turning him into Rulk (though admittedly at first more of an absurdist gag-reel at the wilder concepts of the MU) progressed the characters story into that of a melancholic adventure story about a man trying to outlive past prejudice. He has a huge weight on his shoulders, a slapper of Watchers and Thor’s now working alongside the Avengers, a hater of Hulks who now is a Hulk. Now, pay special attention to why Rulk is even included in this story. He’s going after Flash for going AWOL. For stealing a Symbiote from Uncle Sam. Rulk is once again on a mission for Big Daddy America, the ultimate lost father figure role, that authority you’re always trying to make proud while simultaneously resenting.
Meanwhile, Alejandra is currently being taught lessons, lessons she wants no part of, from a male mentor figure that once held the role she now holds. If there was ever a story about the disconnect between young women and their fathers, it’s here. And what’s X-23’s reason for being in this story? To stop more potential clones of Wolverine from being created, to not let anyone else know the feeling of being a ‘fake person’, which is what X-23, in her soul, feels she is. She is a person without parental figures, and thus, in her view, not a person. This completely ties in to what the VENOM series has been about, and what Flash Thompson is all about. Can Flash ever accept that his Dad ran out on him? More importantly, can he ever feel proud of himself when he feels his Dad (or parental figure) wasn’t? That’s the question hanging above every character in this storyline.
Even Blackheart. The villain of this story’s motivation, every action he takes, every villainous deed he pulls on our heroes, is to please Mephisto, his father, and earn his throne in hell. Of course, he can’t do it. He’ll never be able to do it. In the climax of the first part of our story, when Blackheart brings hell to Las Vegas, doing what his father could never do, Mephisto is left stone-cold unimpressed. Bringing a small part of hell to a small part of Earth is a failure, far as the Devil sees it. And if Blackheart weren’t so hung up on pleasing Daddy, maybe things would have gone differently for him. Which is why our heroes succeed in this arc, and why a hero beats the villain in any good superhero story – they define what makes them different from their villain. In this case, it is very clearly laid out, as after Venom, Rulk, Ghost Rider and X-23 wind up face to face with Blackheart in the pits of Hell, their evil mirror counterparts are summoned.
Flash must go face to face against the Evangelist, who uses Flash’s fear of failing/becoming his father against him. Evangelist reminds Flash that all his life, he’s needed a crutch. “A football, a gun, a symbiote…” It’s always been about using something to drive a wedge between his image of himself and his image of his father, and yet, the one crutch Flash keeps running back to is alcohol, the same one that drove to all those beatings bestowed on a young Eugene. Flash overcomes the Evangelist by accepting his flaws and heritage are a part of who he is. Rulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider all face similar adversaries, and defeat them in a similar manner. After they literally defeat everything they are not, they are offered another perverse reflection of their lives.
After Alejandra removes Blaze’s protective pendant, the four characters are each shown their own false dream life. X-23 has a soul, and is embraced by a proud Wolverine. Rulk serves his country proudly, with an army of Hulks and hulk busters working together. Basically, each characters ‘perfect life’ is them appeasing their parental figure. Soon, the Heaven’s turn into Hell, and the four heroes are tortured in a world of complete and abject failure. They are soon pulled out of this by Mephisto, laying the cold harsh truth of reality back into their souls, and promising to give them one last chance to save the world, with a price. In a fun, climactic superhero/badguy showdown, the Venom symbiote and the spirit of Vengeance fuse with the Red Hulk to create the craziest thing ever. After our team take down Blackheart and restore Las Vegas (with some help from Doctor Strange and Damian Hellstrom), Flash is welcomed by Captain America into the Secret Avengers.
Now, this is hardly a ‘cultivation’ sort of story – things end with plots dangling and Flash has yet to overcome his issues with his father. But this five-part story was the one that stood out most to be as what made this title special. It treated the title character with a large amount of respect, refusing to lose all chance of an interesting story by making the lead ‘likeable’ or ‘charming’. It ventured into an often neglected corner of the MU, it used the idea of a shared universe to great effect, and it surprised me. It constantly surprised me. It was a small, intimate story about fathers and sons, mentors and students, authority figures and soldiers, told on the backdrop of Hell coming to Las Vegas and a Ghost Rider/Venom/Rulk hybrid attacking the son of Satan. This is superhero comics done right, and we’re only on number ten of our list.