When deciding the ideal direction of the Spider-Man titles, there isn’t much of a point to making declarations about most of the villains. I’d rather Doctor Octopus not be killed off, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. He’s replaceable, as are most Spider-Man villains. There are other mad scientists. I like the Kingpin, but there are other crime bosses.
I like the Green Goblin, but it won’t change the dynamic of the series all that much if Spider-Man goes five years without fighting Norman Osborn. Or even any of the Goblins. You could do the book just as easily without one or five of the bad guys, because they show up for an arc and disappear.
That said, there is one member of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery who requires special consideration.
Marvel has a choice with Venom that most companies would be envious of. On the one hand, Venom is clearly one of the most prominent Spider-Man villains. So there are several arguments in favor of just keeping Venom in that role, so that the writers, artists and editors are free to use one of the most popular Spider-Man villains without any constraints whenever they need a good antagonist. I’m sure writers on other books also appreciate the opportunity to bring an A-list antagonist to their franchise. It could be an interesting story to have Venom attack the Fantastic Four to punish them for their friendship with the wallcrawler.
On the other hand, Venom has become a separate franchise. The Venom monthly may not sell as much as the typical Spider-Man book, but it’s better than the alternative of not having a Venom title at all. Sony is also eager to spin the character off to a separate movie series, so it would be strange if Marvel didn’t have a corresponding comic book series.
A previous attempt hadn’t worked very well. Several years ago, as part of the Tsunami imprint, Marvel launched a Venom monthly. Numbers were initially strong, with the first issue debuting in the top ten. But then sales collapsed, and it was cancelled after 18 issues. One interpretation is that the lesson for Marvel was that they shouldn’t have tried again with a Venom series, but I think the strong debut indicated that there was interest in the book. It just had to be done right.
The major problem with the Daniel Way/ Paco Medina series was the concept. There wasn’t a strong hook related to the character. Instead, it was a fairly generic monster narrative with ordinary people as the protagonists, and the symbiote as a villain in a way that didn’t keep what was interesting about Venom as a Spider-Man rogue. Although, it’s worth noting that Marvel’s still making money off of Way’s run with the Ultimate Collection TPB.
As a villain, Venom is quite capable. He’s a twisted mirror of the hero, with most of the same abilities. Except he’s stronger, can circumvent the spider sense. And he knows Spider-Man’s secret identity. It shouldn’t be surprising that he was so successful, considering the niche he filled.
But a heroic Venom has an interesting hook, as the hero must struggle for control with the source of his abilities. It’s been a story engine in various iterations of the Alien Costume saga, but it doesn’t require Peter Parker to be the host. If it’s someone else, there’s the added drama that they can’t give up the suit, because that means they won’t have super-powers, and the ability to save lives that comes with that. There’s also something inherently cool about a guy who has Spider-Man’s powers, but a different moral code.
So far I’ve yet to mention Eddie Brock and the main reason is that none of what makes Venom cool requires his best-known host. He actually seemed to be the weak link in the character. His debut was excellent, but it had to be disappointing when this impressive mystery villain turned out to be a complete stranger. Later issues featured speculation in the letters page that the man with the alien symbiote was someone who had been introduced before: either Kraven the Hunter or the Clone of Spider-Man. In retrospect, either would have been an improvement, although the concept of the Alien Costume in the wrong hands was strong enough that it didn’t really matter who the host was.
The writers of the 1994 animated series did something that seems so obvious now. They introduced Eddie Brock as a rival of Peter Parker’s before the alien costume showed up. This was later used in the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, as well as Spider-Man 3. If the Marvel Universe was ever relaunched, I’m sure it would be incorporated into the official continuity. It’s a decision which made Brock’s hatred of Spider-Man slightly more understandable. But he’s ultimately a petty guy who should know better. Which is a poor motivation for one of Spider-Man’s most prominent enemies.
As far as I’m concerned, the best Venom story was Mark Millar’s twelve part Marvel Knights Spider-Man epic when Mac Gargan got his hands on the symbiote. Gargan had a suitable history with Spider-Man prior to the story, so his hatred of the hero was somewhat more understandable. Meanwhile, Eddie Brock became more interesting as a former supervillain. His experiences as Venom gave him added significance as an enemy of Spider-Man’s, or an ally.
While Gargan was a better host for Venom as bad guy, Flash Thompson is an effective host for a heroic Venom. With him as the lead, Rick Remender’s run on the title series has outlasted its Tsunami predecessor. And the monthly outlasted Remender’s tenure, with Cullen Bunn taking over.
The Flash Thompson Venom became a member of the Secret Avengers, adding to Marvel’s bottom line in another way. And the series has a compelling hook, with one of the best members of Spider-Man’s supporting cast following in the footsteps of both his hero and one of the Marvel Universe’s top villains.
So the dilemma for Stephen Wacker and anyone in charge of the Spider-Man line in the future is how to balance two overriding concerns. Should they allow Venom to continue as a separate title? Or should they cancel the spinoffs, so that Venom can be used as a villain? Because no one else has been as successful as Spidey’s dark mirror.
At this point, I think it’s worth keeping Venom as a separate title. From a purely mercenary perspective, there’s simply more money to be made that way, which allows Marvel to nurture creative talent and take interesting risks elsewhere. If Sony’s interested in Venom movies, it’s still in Marvel’s interests to give them more material to adapt. It’s also a good title, with a strong hook. I would prefer twelve issues of Venom an year (even though it’s usually a little more than that) to a handful of issues of Spider-Man VS Venom.
That said, the Venom monthly doesn’t mean that the character can’t be an enemy of Spidey’s. If Venom is ever needed in an antagonistic role, I’m sure they could work out some sort of crossover, and figure out a way to tie it to both books. This would be a little difficult, but there’s an advantage to that. By restricting how often Venom can appear as a villain, his appearances as such are more special. Whenever it happens, it will be a bigger deal.
There’s an irony that the option that allows Marvel to make the most money from Venom also prevents the character from being diminished as a villain, which makes him more successful in that assignment. Overexposure had been a problem in the past when he was just a bad guy.