If you watch closely during the credits of Venom, the movie based on the Marvel Comics antihero arriving in theaters Friday, you’ll see that two creators get credit for birthing the toothy, oil-slick ghoul: Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie. The latter was a writer who was prolific, workmanlike, and sometimes transcendent, making notable contributions to the canons of Superman, Iron Man, and, of course, Spider-Man. The former was an industry-altering artist, writer, and businessman who changed the way the comics world saw both creators’ rights and spider webs. Far be it from me to question the finality of a Sony Pictures title sequence, but there was a time when the subject of Venom’s authorship was less definite.
Travel back with me to 1993, when a rather philosophical debate broke out in the letters page of—where else?—Wizard Magazine. The letters page of Wizard was an ur-comments section, equal parts fanboy hooting, self-congratulations, and industry bulletin board. It was there in the 21st issue that Michelinie wrote in to take issue with the fact that Wizard had previously cited him as Venom’s cocreator.
“I assume your writer was thinking of Todd McFarlane, the artist of Amazing Spider-Man at the time Venom made his first appearance, as the other ‘co-creator’,” Michelinie wrote cooly. “Todd’s visualizations were fabulous, and I’m sure Venom would never have reached the heights of popularity it has if it had been initially drawn by someone with less talent and imagination. Todd’s unique and intense visuals freed me to push the envelope in both dialogue and characterization, and his artistic contributions to the first Venom stories can’t be overemphasized. However, there was only one person who actually created Venom, and that was me.” He created the concept, the character that inhabited the symbiotic suit, and the story line that brought him into the Spider-verse. He even created the look of the character; McFarlane merely actualized it (impressively) based on Michelinie’s script.
Two issues later, Erik Larsen—another Spider-Man alum and cofounder (with McFarlane and others) of the creators-owned startup Image Comics—joined the fray to defend his partner. “Brother, that Michelinie clown’s got a lot of gall. He swipes the existing alien Spider-Man with its existing powers (it already hated Spider-Man) and puts it on a poorly motivated and poorly conceived character. Todd takes Dave’s description of a big guy in the existing Spider-Man outfit and adds his own touch of grinning face, with accompanying fangs, slobber, long teeth, and claws—and then Dave claims sole creation of the Venom character! Yeah, right. I suppose he’d claimed to have created Spider-Man, too, if he could get away with it.”
(It bears mention here that it was Larsen whose tweaks to the Venom aesthetics—weed-like fangs and a disturbing, Lovecraftian tongue—did much to shape the character into its modern form too.)
Then came Peter David, legendary Hulk scribe and comics world Deep Thinker, who took on the dustup in a letter to Comics Buyers Guide (consider this a comic book rag industry crossover). Perhaps unsurprisingly, he sided with the writer, and invented a self-effacing acronym for his dogma: the WACKO Theory. “WACKO” stood for “Writer As Creative King/Overlord.” The argument, basically, was that even though many hands are involved with the creation of a character, somebody has to be the ultimate originator, and so it is the person who first puts concept to paper. “Who created Mr. Spock?” he asks. “Gene Roddenberry, of course. Even though Leonard Nimoy came up with the nerve pinch and salute; even though others designed the costumes and prosthetics—Roddenberry is still ‘the creator’ of Spock and no one disputes that.”
In the end, the question of authorship was probably decided by formality. Comic book creation is a team sport made up of dynamic duos: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, etc. But the question of who created Venom is particularly sticky, and not just because of internecine squabbles. He’s a product of a long evolution of ideas.
Back to David: “Who did create Venom? Was it whoever came up with the concept of Spider-Man switching to a black-and-white costume? (Jim Shooter, who may in turn have been influenced by an intended costume switch for Spider-Woman, which became moot when her title was canceled.) Was it the person who decided that the costume was sentient? (Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz.) Was it the designer of the black-and-white Spider-Man costume? (Mike Zeck and Rick Leonardi, among others.) Was it the creator of the Sin-Eater story with which it was tied? (Hell, no.) Was it the guy who stuck in the tongue and teeth? (All Todd’s.) Considering the evolutionary nature of so many things in the comic book process, is it possible for anyone ever to be termed the creator of anything?”
I’m tempted to say that never has so much creative input amounted to so little, but before I start groaning in earnest, one note here bears mention. The origin of Spider-Man’s black suit, the one that turned out to be an alien symbiote that subsequently found a host in yellow journalist Eddie Brock to combine into Venom, was an ordinary comic book fan named Randy Schueller. As he recounted to CBR.com, he sent a letter in to a Marvel talent contest and suggested they put Spider in a black, living suit. “A few months after submitting the story I received a letter from Jim Shooter saying he liked the idea and wanted to buy it for $220,” he recalled in 2007. “I was thrilled!”
The black suit debuted in a company-wide crossover called Secret Wars, and it was a smash. Then, to abbreviate things, Spidey had a falling out with his new super-powered togs and forcibly removed them from his person. The symbiote, aggrieved, found a new mate in Brock, who was a sort of anti–Peter Parker—a “serious” journalist whose career was ruined when he ran an exclusive interview with a supervillain called the Sin-Eater, except it wasn’t actually the Sin-Eater. He lost his job and turned to weight lifting and suicidal thoughts, and eventually his resentment toward Spider-Man (who he blamed for his fall) led him to an unholy partnership with the living, black Spidey suit. He creepily stalked Spider-Man until he was finally unveiled as the web slinger’s new archnemesis in The Amazing Spider-Man no. 300.
The creation story of Venom is central to his character, not in the straightforward sense but in a deeper one. His origin and visual evolution is central, because as Venom has evolved over the years in the popular imagination, he has explicitly not evolved at all. Sure, comic book characters are literally two-dimensional and have traditionally been moored to steady personas. But despite Michelinie’s work on the character, Venom is and has always been a cool suit that a comic book fan thought up and that an overindulgent artist wrought crosshatched fervor into. That’s what makes him so great. That’s it. There’s nothing else.
Venom’s creation and rise coincided with an artistic revolution in the comics world, a time when artists were suddenly brand names and antiheroes were the new moral standard-bearers, abdominal muscles were sold by the dozen, and legends like John Romita Jr. and Keith Giffen were in a footrace to see who could fit the most bullet shells onto a comic cover. If comic book art in general is a form that milks absurdity from reality, art in the late ’80s and ’90s was a process of bringing gravity to the absurd. Crosshatching signified seriousness. Veins stood in for realism. Meticulous detail in spider webbing meant technical expertise.
For instruction, look no further than McFarlane’s first Venom. It was tossed-off comic strip fare. By the time Todd fully realized his potential as a creative force, Venom had fully evolved from whatever Michelinie had envisioned into a fan’s wet dream of a badass idea.
Venom rules, indeed.
In the end, McFarlane drew only a few Venom stories: the debut, the return in no. 315 and nos. 316 and 317. Afterward, he got his own Spidey title (Spider-Man, no adjective) to write and draw; he did that for a year and a half before he left to found Image. Notably Venom never appeared in McFarlane’s own little fiefdom. By the time Larsen took his turn at Venom in Amazing Spider-Man, it was official: We were buying these books to see what excesses the artists could pull off. Venom was the epitome of the form, and the era.
It was all very cool and mostly pointless. As someone who would lay on the living room floor with a drawing pad open, copying these splash pages line for line, I couldn’t have come of age at a better time. But once the generation of newly empowered artists jumped ship, Marvel was left with not just a dearth of talent but also a bunch of empty, cool-looking characters that fans clamored for and other creators struggled to imbue with meaning: Venom, Cable, Gambit, etc.
Venom, for his part, was never a character, or not a single one, anyway. “Venom” was just the outfit; a symbiotic being with vague humanity, it was about the clothes. Eddie Brock passed it off to Mac Gargan (formerly Scorpion), who was followed by Flash Thompson and then Lee Price. There were others, briefly: Patricia Robertson and Angelo Fortunato and Anne Weying (more on her later). He was a costume endlessly in search of a person—a soul—to inhabit it. Venom wasn’t an angsty, semi-developed (or self-aware) character like the other popular violent antiheroes of the ’90s: Wolverine, the Punisher, Lobo, the list goes on. No, he was a trope, a rad-looking story line contrivance. He was everything teenage misfits like me wanted a comic book character to be without being anything at all. After Venom came Carnage, the spinoff character that was basically Venom without the humanity, which was, if it needs to be said, redundant. And then Toxin and Anti-Venom, about whom the less said the better. But hey, at least they looked cool, too.
I mean, of course Venom was popular, so popular that they had to make him into a (sort of) good guy and give him his own comic series. And of course he’s still popular, if aimless. Comics are a visual medium, and Venom is a purely visual thing. He’s an alien of the species Awesome from the planet Badass. One can imagine a great actor like Tom Hardy—or Topher Grace back in the day—seeing the blank slate Venom provides as intriguing as its franchise potential. Same goes for Woody Harrelson, who’s playing the guy who becomes Carnage, or Michelle Williams, who’s playing the aforementioned Weying, the ex-wife of Venom who eventually—yep—becomes Venom herself, or Riz Ahmed, who’s playing, if my research is correct, a pencil eraser with sunglasses. Jenny Slate is playing a character nobody’s heard of, which is perfect because none of these characters matter at all.
In the 42nd issue of Wizard, they did a fanfic-style casting of a hypothetical Spider-Man movie. It was a running feature in the magazine that seemed like a lot of fun at the time, back when comic book movies were nearly unthinkable. They tabbed Howie Long to play Venom, probably because of his build and his hair, and frankly, they made a great choice with what they had to work with. Because Eddie Brock was less than nothing, a character over whom nobody should be fighting too loudly over its authorship. He’s a video game PC, an automaton of angst, a drooling, toothy cipher for the bygone id of comic book hyperactivity.
As Larsen put it in his defense of McFarlane: “One-dimensional, hate-driven, revenge-hungry characters are a dime a dozen. … His rationale for hating Spidey was that if Spidey didn’t catch Sin-Eater he’d never get caught and he could continue writing his bogus articles, is completely idiotic. … What would Eddie have poor Spidey do—allow innocents to be slaughtered just for the sake of maintaining his journalistic integrity?”
You read that right: It’s about ethics in supervillain journalism.
I hope I’m wrong and Venom the movie is great, because Venom the character is awesome. But he’s awesome in an empty-calories kind of way. Don’t blame the writers and artists, though. It’s in his DNA. In the character’s earliest days, when he was still enshrouding Spider-Man, he would (and fuck it, I’m just quoting Wikipedia here) “envelop Peter Parker while he slept, and go out at night to fight crime, leaving Parker inexplicably exhausted in the morning.” Venom is exhausting. It’s right there in the character description.
Well, that and the fact that he’s literally an empty suit. As Randy Schueller, who conceived of the empty suit, put it, “when Secret Wars came out and I saw my costume idea executed in a completely different way than I had envisioned it, I was simultaneously thrilled and saddened. And when the idea of the black costume caught on, I was even more thrilled. And then when VENOM was created I was … disturbed.”
At least he got his $220. Putting Spider-Man in a living black costume was a good idea! Too bad nobody ever put anything else inside of it.