Current Canon Builders: Venom

by Steven Harris

Current Canon Builders is an ongoing series that Critically Comics publishes that focuses on the stories of today that will most likely end up being in the canon of tomorrow. Since we typically reserve podcast discussions for completed works, this column will solely dedicated to works that are still being published, but have displayed the qualities of a book that will be discussed, analyzed, referenced and loved in the years to follow.

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Venom #7 cover by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayerand Frank Martion

Full disclosure, I do not identify as a Venom fan. Still, the core concept (a symbiotic alien who attaches itself to broken people to become a super powered anti-hero) is interesting and can lead to some pretty entertaining stories. The closest I’ve come to identifying as a Venom fan was during Rick Remender’s 2011 run that reimagined Venom as a covert special ops mercenary superhero. A large part of my admiration for that run comes from Remender focusing on Iraqi War veteran Flash Thompson and his own personal demons.

However, while the majority of fans enjoy this run, they still largely identify with the Eddie Brock version of Venom — the sometimes brain-eating lethal protector with an on-again off-again hatred of Spider-man. Personally, outside of the character’s initial story arc, I have never understood the character. He seems like a leftover artifact from the EXTREME! 90’s era of comics that never had anything more than surface level depth.  With a bias already in place, Marvel’s 2018 Venom series had a lot of heavy lifting to do in order convince me to read past issue one. Thankfully, that challenge was met

Under the guidance of Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman, Venom has become a must-read book. What was once a one dimensional character has become a compelling, emotionally conflicted anti-hero who is not only struggling to find his role in the world, but finding a way to stop an all encompassing and maddening cosmic horror. 

At the start of Cates and Stegman’s run, Eddie Brock is at an all time low. Living in a dirty apartment, Brock is established as a pill popping vigilante  who wrestles with his symbiote other. Cates writes the symbiote unlike any other writer to date.  Over the course of the series, the symbiote becomes much more than Eddie’s alien passenger— he is becomes a manipulative, abusive lover.  And despite all of the emotional trauma that the symbiote puts Eddie through, the reader can feel the pain Eddie has whenever the symbiote abandons him. The love between Eddie and his symbiote transcends the page, and is one of the most unique relationships in the comic industry  today. Through a LGTBQ lens, Eddie Brock is potentially the non- heteronormative hero that the comic industry has needed for years. Only time will tell how Cates continues to evolve the complicated relationship between Eddie Brock and his alien passenger. 

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Art from Venom #3, by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

The highlight of the first arc of Cates &  Stegman’s Venom book is the introduction of the new character Knull. The creation of Knull is a masterclass in how to properly introduce a new character. Knull’s background  is effortlessly intertwined with not just Venom’s history, but with the history of Marvel cosmic. What makes Knull stand out in the current comic landscape is not just his Lovecraftian aim to wipe out the light from the universe but his loyal Earth-based cult. While Knull is imprisoned in a far corner of the universe, a select handful of humans are convinced that Knull’s crusade against life itself is just. Stegman’s design for Knull takes inspiration from Dracula and is a perfect match for the motivation for that Cates has given with the character. Within their first arc, Cates and Stegman created a creator who is undoubtedly going to remain in the Marvel Universe for the  foreseeable future. 

While the introduction of Knull and revamping of Carnge are great reasons to check out the first arc of the series, the emotional core of Cate’s Venom run can be found in the second arc. The revelation that Eddie Brock has a son adds a much needed emotional anchor to the book. As Eddie fights to save the universe from Knull’s crusade, he must now also navigate the path of fatherhood. While not everyone has an evil symobite living within them, Eddie’s fight to deal with his inner conflicts while attempting to be a better parent is a struggle most young parents can deal with.  By giving Eddie a son, Cates has added another level of inner conflict to him that humanizes the mostly alienating character. 

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Cover for Web of Venom: Ven’Am #1 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

Furthermore, Cates is using the vast canvas of the Marvel Universe to simply tell some pretty cool stories. The Ven’am one shot is a gem of a story. The issue drops a symbiote enhanced solider in the middle of a war-torn Vietnam jungle. While there, the protagonist meets up with Wolverine and Nick Fury to fight rogue symbiotes. Equal parts Predator, Commando, and The Thing, the story Cates presents is the coolest forgotten story Marvel has produced in years.

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Cover art for Aboslute Carnage #4 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

With the launch of the Absolute Carnage mini-series, it is now more evident than ever that Cates and Stegman are producing work that will likely define their careers. The duo has reinvented the mass murdering symbiote Carange in a way that is absolutely terrifying.  The  90’s edge lord psychopath  is now more than a villain who murders for shock value; he is now a conduit for Knull’s will on Earth and is trying to awaken the elder god in order to bring about the end of the universe. Cates ability to make the return of Carange something that fans eagerly awaited for is nothing short of astounding. However, the best part of Absolute Carange is seeing the art trio of pencilst Ryan Stegman, inker JP Mayer and colorist Frank Martin cut loose. Stegman’s pencils are crisp. Mayer’s inks perfectly bring out the detail in the pencils. Martin’s color make the images pop off the page due to the nightmarish glow he’s added. No other artist team are this insanely in sync with each other right now in the comic industry. Each splash page feels destined to become an iconic image. 

With Absolute Carnage shaping up to be only the end of phase one for Stegman and Cate’s Venom saga, fans will be talking about this run for years to come.(Another testament to Cate’s unique vision of the the symbiote mythos is simply comparing the main mini-series to other souless tie in mini-series by authors who fail to modernize the concepts in an equally captivating way.)

 If Cates and Stegman can maintain the momentum, quality and dedication to continuing their well polished super powered anti-hero horror saga, this will not only become the defining Venom story – it will become the story that defines how writers can transform aimless properties into must- read fan favorites. Venom by Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman started off as underdog of a book that no expected much out of and in under two years have made it a book that will undeniably one day end up in the canon of all time great graphic novels and comic books. 

Killing Vertigo: How the Black Label Replaced DC’s Most Important Imprint

by Steven Harris

Since its inception in 1993, Vertigo Comics has been the home to foundational works such as Sandman, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Fables, Scalped, and Y: The Last Man. It is hard to imagine what the current comic landscape would look like without these books. Without the original content published through Vertigo, the creator owned comic boom that Image Comics has been enjoying for almost a decade now would have never occurred. (Vertigo does not afford creators the same control over their work that Image Comics does; publishing through Vertigo means that DC Comics/Warner Bros. owns the rights to book and not the creators.)

Earlier this summer, DC Comics announced that they were shutting down their Vertigo Comics imprint. The news came as a surprise and to the dismay of many long time comic book fans. For many readers, Vertigo Comics was the home for their first mature readers book and holds s special place on their shelf.

 However, Image Comics is not responsible for the death of Vertigo Comics. 

When they announced they were closing Vertigo Comics, DC Comics made it very clear that they were the ones to blame.  DC was shutting down Vertigo Comics as an attempt to streamline their publications. Staring in January 2020, DC will have only three labels on their books: DC Comics, DC Kids, and DC Black Label.  DC will continue to publish their in- continuity superhero books under their main brand, while all ages material will fall to the DC Kids imprint. The Black Label will be the isolated imprint that is meant for mature readers only.  In their official press release, DC Comics Editor In Chief, Dan Dido, explained ““We’re returning to a singular presentation of the DC brand that was present throughout most of our history until 1993 when we launched Vertigo to provide an outlet for edgier material….that kind of material is now mainstream across all genres, so we thought it was the right time to bring greater clarity to the DC brand and reinforce our commitment to storytelling for all of our fans in every age group. This new system will replace the age ratings we currently use on our material.”

In theory, their plan seems simplistic. It is only when you start to explore what the “Black Label” is that their plan to bury Vertigo Comics falls apart. At every new announcement DC seems to be undermining their original goals for the Black Label imprint. 

When the DC Black Label was announced in March of 2018, it was promised to be an imprint that would allow top tier talent to tell DC stories without the burden of continuity. Each book would have its own individual release schedule and format specific to each book (For example Batman: Damned and Superman: Year One are both oversized magazine format series while Batman: Last Knight on Earth has a traditional comic book format). With talent such as Frank Miller, John Romita Jr.,  Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo it makes sense why DC was giving a form of carte blanche with their characters to these creators. In the past, DC has enjoyed both critical and commercial success from the creative teams, so of course DC would grant them more freedom.  For writers who have not worked for DC in the past (such as Kelly Sue DeConnick and 12 Years A Slave screen writer John Ridley) that level of freedom on iconic characters is an immense draw. If the Black Label were to  only exist as a place to tell mature themed super hero stories, then both it and Vertigo Comics could peacefully coincide. However, the creative freedom promised to the creators may have been nothing more than a pitch to get readers interested.  The first issue of Batman: Damned featured a panel that contained a shadowy outline of Bruce Wayne’s penis as he was climbing out of his Bat suit. In re-printings, that outline has been censored out. Clearly, the Black Label does indeed have some limits that DC is not comfortable with creators pushing. 

DC’s creation of the Sandman Universe was the first warning sign. Spawning from 2017’s Dark Knights: Metal event by Scott Snyder  and Greg Capullo, DC Comics launched the Sandman Universe within Vertigo Comics. Each series published under the imprint has ties to Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman series. Despite early critical success, the Sandman Universe books have failed to capture a massive commercial audience. With Vertigo closing down, DC has already announced their plans to continue the books under the Sandman Universe banner, but under the DC Black Label imprint.  

Despite Sandman being synonymous with Vertigo Comics, January 2020 will see the first publication of Sandman material outside of Vertigo Comics since its creation in 1993. (While some Sandman characters have occasionally shown up in the main DCU, no series primarily focusing on the characters have been published under the DC Comics brand.)  The decision to create the Sandman Universe as a separate brand was a conscious effort by DC to begin separating the connection that the Sandman IP once had with Vertigo Comics. It remains to be seen if creators assigned to the Sandman Universe books will enjoy the same supposed creative liberty as their Black Label peers. 

Announced in June 2019, Hill House comics will be an imprint of mature themed horror comics that will be personally curated by best selling author Joel Hill. The aptly named Hill House books will be launching in October 2019 as part of the Black Label. Only one of the four Hill House comics will be written by Hill. Aside from one book by industry pro Mike Carey, the remaining books will be penned by or other authors who are new to the comics industry.  By the time Hill House was announced, it was clear that Vertigo was already being put out to pasture. From a marketing standpoint, it makes since to create the small imprint and use the acclaimed author’s name as the primary sell point for the books. However, in hindsight — it seems odd to create a new mature readers themed imprint before killing the old one. If anything, publishing the Hill House imprint on the Vertigo banner may have been enough to ignite interest in the imprint again. 

Hill House won’t be the only original content published under the Black Label. The Last God by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Riccardo Federici is schedule to be released in fall of 2019. Separated from main DCU continuity, The Last God is an original creation and has no ties to the man DCU. With the original idea that the Black Label was created to give creators a space to work with pre-existing characters, its baffling that this series will be published under that label instead of at Vertigo Comics. The success of Tom King and Mitch Gerdos’s Sheriff of Babylon shows that fans will still flock to Vertigo Comics when an original series demands their attention. ( Fun fact: Sheriff of Babylon was been so well received, it has now been incorporated into the curriculum at West Point’s CIA training classes.) 

However, the absolute final nail in Vertigo’s coffin was the announcement of a new John Constantine: Hellblazer series that is being launched as a part of the Sandman Universe brand underneath the Black Label imprint. Many fans rejoiced at John Constantine finally making his way back to a mature themed series after spending several years as a part of the DCU proper. The original Hellblazer series ran from 1988 to 2013 for over 300 issues and acted a lighting rod for some of the best talent in the comic industry. As the longest running mature themed book on stands, Hellblazer was once the crown jewel for Vertigo Comics. To bring back a mature themed Hellblazer book under any imprint other than Vertigo Comics is a sign that DC has lost faith in their Vertigo brand. 

In a perfect world, the replacement of Vertigo Comics by the Black Label should have been easy. As originally promised, the Black Label could have been a place where mature themed stories could be told without being bogged down by continuity. The inclusion of new content under the Black Label muddies the water slightly — but it still could’ve worked by firmly establishing that anything published under Black Label was not in continuity. These simple but hard lined two rules would have justified the creation of the Black Label….

…but this is comics. Nothing is ever THAT simple.

DC has begun to republish several fundamental graphic novels and comic books under their newly minted Black Label. Books that were previously determined to be all ages are now being shipped under the mature themed Black Label. To publish Watchmen under Black Label, makes sense — However, the idea that Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman or Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier series are now going to be labeled as mature themed is absurd. Anyone who has read either of those books would not hesitate to testify to their inoffensive and earnest nature. By publishing this under the Black Label, DC is losing a potential new audience for those books. 

The idea that all Black Label series will be not bogged down by continuity is going out the window with Geoff Johns’ Batman: Three Jokers series. Originally teased in 2016’s Justice League #50, Geoff Johns revealed that at least three different individuals have operated in Gotham as “The Joker”.  Since this story originated in the main DCU continuity Justice League book, it stands to reason that when Batman: Three Jokers is published, it will indeed directly effect the main DCU continuity Batman. Already, DC is undermining their original idea that everything published under the Black Label is not tied down by continuity. 

Lacking a clear cohesive vision of what their Black Label imprint should be, DC Comics may have preemptively killed their most important imprint in Vertigo Comics. Vertigo may return someday, just like it arrived in 1993, as a lightening bolt from nowhere that changed the way fans view the comic medium. However, until then, Vertigo is now just a relic of the past — a talking point of the comic shop inquisition who will say “I was there when Y: The Last Man was being published monthly” as a way to bolster their own self importance. Instead of continuing Vertigo’s legacy of ushering in new talent and unforgettable narratives, DC Comics has lost faith in their imprint…a move that could ultimately result in fans losing faith in DC Comics.