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. 

Current Canon Builders: The Immortal Hulk

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.

The Immortal Hulk #18 cover by Alex Ross, May 29, 2019

The Immortal Hulk launched in 2018 under the helm of writer Al Ewing, artist Joe Bennett, and cover artist Alex Ross. All three creators have been producing the work of their lifetime on this book, and each month the book steadily increases in sales. As of June 2019, the first issue alone has received over five additional printings. The reason why the book has been a critical and sales success has been the lighting-in-a-bottle these three creators have managed to capture. Due to Al Ewing’s commitment to build upon the foundation laid by past Hulk stories and Bennett’s hauntingly grotesque and unrelenting artwork, The Immortal Hulk will undoubtedly make its way into the canon of the greatest comic books of all time because it it providing readers with a story that’s never been seen before. 

Al Ewing is tied with DC Comics’ James Tynion IV for best writer that readers may have slept on during the past few years.  Al Ewing got his start in comics by writing Judge Dread for 2000 AD. Shortly after his debut, Ewing was quickly snatched up by Marvel, and has since primarily resided at the House of Ideas.  Ewing has consistently displayed his versatile writing skills by authoring books such as the grounded and street-hero focused Mighty Avengers, the mythical and anti-heroic Loki: Agent of Asgard, the bombastic U.S. Avengers, and the high-concept Jack Kirby-inspired comic Ultimates. In 2018, Ewing was one of the writers who collaborated on the weekly event series Avengers: No Surrender with Jim Zubb and Mark Waid. It was during this event that Ewing had the opportunity to revive the Hulk and set the stage for The Immortal Hulk.  

The Immortal Hulk #1 cover by Alex Ross, June 6, 2018

One of the reasons why The Immortal Hulk has been so widely successful is due to the creative team’s restoration of a horror-infused status quo for the character. Prior to Immortal Hulk, the Hulk has gone through a variety of incarnations. For the past decade Marvel has pushed the idea of the Hulk being more of a superhero over the idea of him being a monster.  Marvel has forced the superhero label onto the Hulk by making him an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., providing him with a supporting “family” cast  of other gamma powered heroes, and making him the only person capable stopping the villainous Bruce Banner (at the time, Dr. Doom has separated the two personalities into two separate bodies).  An argument can be made that Greg Pak’s Planet Hulk and World War Hulk storylines were more mature in content because they focused on the Hulk being more of an antihero, however there is still a greater emphasis on the physicality of the monster over the fractured psyche of Bruce Banner.  The character has not had a run primarily focusing on the Hulk’s monstrosity since 2000’s Paul Jenkins’ tenure on the book; Jenkins’ run was more of a government conspiracy thriller that had more in common with X-Files than Transformers. 

Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk pulls its inspiration from Peter David’s eleven year tenure on The Incredible Hulk. Peter David has added more to the Hulk’s character than other writer to the development of Bruce Banner’s mental illness. It was under David’s direction that Banner was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and developed multiple versions of the Hulk (such as Joe Fixit, the Savage Hulk, and Professor Hulk). Instead of focusing on the pure brutality of the Jade Goliath, David focused in on Banner’s struggle to control a crueler, more demented and streamlined version of his repressed self. 

While building on previous classic runs, Al Ewing is cementing his run on the Hulk by adding new elements to the character. The driving force of the book is the new personality known as the “Immortal Hulk” which provides the character with previously unseen powers. This new “Immortal Hulk” persona only emerges at night and has the capability of resurrecting Bruce Banner from fatal wounds. In addition to conquering death, the Immortal Hulk personality is by and large the cruelest iteration of the character with his own perverse ideas of what justice is. In The Immortal Hulk #2, the Hulk buries a man alive in his son’s grave (along with the son’s radioactive corpse) after it is discovered his experiments are what lead to his son’s death. It has only been recently revealed that the “Immortal Hulk” identity is a retooled version of the “Devil Hulk” personality.  This rehabilitating of the Devil Hulk persona goes well beyond retconning — it is not a simple hand waving technique by Al Ewing to re-contextualize a previous story to benefit his own story.  Al Ewing is building on what came before and forging his own path forward by adding more to the mythos of the the Hulk than almost any writer that has come before him. The level of Ewing’s writing for the Immortal Hulk is master class comparable to the work Alan Moore did on The Saga of Swamp Thing. 

The Immortal Hulk #8 cover by Alex Ross, November 7, 2018

One of the best things that Al Ewing has done so far in his current run is emphasize body horror in a way no other Hulk writer has done. Everyone understands the basic idea that in order for Bruce Banner to become the Hulk, his body must change. However, current artist Joe Bennett emphasizes the physical strain that Banner’s body must grow through to become the Hulk. Bennett is unrelenting in showing the pain on Banner’s face as his body must contort and expand to almost three times its size.  Previously in the run, the Immortal Hulk lost a fight with the Avengers and was subsequently dismembered in attempts to subdue the beast.  Despite having his body parts separated and placed into different jars, Ewing has demonstrated that this new Hulk can not be stopped by conventional means. The Immortal Hulk overcame this obstacle by maintaining control over his severed body parts and telepathically forcing his body together again.  Furthermore, the new design of the Abomination is pure nightmare fuel. See below for both Joe Bennett and Alex Ross’s interpretations of the Abomination’s new haunting design:

Interior art from The Immortal Hulk #18 by Joe Bennett, May 29, 2019
Cover art from The Immortal Hulk #19 by Alex Ross, June 12, 2019

Bennett is an entirely different league than most comic book artists currently because of his John Carpenter inspired designs.  In addition, the legendary Alex Ross is knocking it out of the park each month with his covers that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. No other major superhero book on stands is pushing the envelope with their character designs the way Ewing, Bennett, and Ross are. 

In addition to body horror, Ewing is bringing an undeniable existential horror to the book. The book’s second’s arc sees the main cast dragged into Hell and coming face to face with The One Below All — a demonic entity who wants to use the Hulk’s gamma energy to force his way out of Hell. The One Below All is a Lovecraftian monster who represents all of the worst aspects of mankind and wants to influence individuals into giving in to their darkest desires.  While battling the demon in Hell, the main cast are forced to interact with their deceased loved ones and struggle with the knowledge that they ended up in Hell.  The most troubling moment is when the Immortal Hulk’s true motives are revealed. He believes that if humanity stays on its current course, it is fated to be completely wiped out by a combination of nuclear warfare and seismic shifts in climate change — and that if humanity has any hope of surviving, he has to destroy the world himself before they are given the chance to do it themselves. As real world political tensions continue to rise and people deny that climate is real, it is hard not to argue that the Immortal Hulk may have a point. 

Interior Art from The Immortal Hulk #15 by Al Ewing and Joe Bennet, March 20, 2019

In addition to redefining Banner’s relationship with the Hulk, Ewing has emphasized how other characters have been impacted by simply knowing Banner. During his run, Ewing has resurrected both the previously dead Doc Samson, and Betty Ross. Both Samson and Ross are struggling with their new own individual status quos. As a result of knowing Banner, and thereby being exposed to some form of gamma radiation at some point, both Samon and Ross are now immortal as well. Knowing they can never die has opened up a personal hell for both characters, and will ultimately have ramifications on how they interact with Banner moving forward. It should be noted that Ewing has created a new character for this run who possibly has the most interesting voice in the book. Jackie McGee is a reported who has spent most of the series trailing the Hulk for her own purposes. Jackie reveals hat her home was destroyed the Hulk and that she secretly envies his power. She explains to the Hulk that she doesn’t envy his strength, but instead envies his ability to show his anger. Their entire relationship is astonishingly insightful into the gender and race politics of modern America. Instead of skirting around what would be an uncomfortable issue for most writers, Ewing tackles it head on.  

As of June 2019, nineteen issues of the series have been published and Ewing has indicated that the creative team has not even hit the half way point in their story. If what has come before is any indiction, readers are currently experiencing a story that will be talked about for decades to come and forever alter the way we view the Hulk. 

Episode 1.05 – Secret Empire by Nick Spencer

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

On the fifth episode of the Critically Comics podcast, Steven and Tara discuss the Marvel comics event Secret Empire by Nick Spencer! This episode covers the event series that focused on an evil Hydra controlled Steve Rogers taking over the Marvel Universe. Now that two years have passed since the series ended, did the event live up to hype? Is making Steve Rogers a nazi a step too far or is it an incident where life imitates art? Listen and let us know your thoughts on whether or not Secret Empire goes into the canon of all time greats!

Mini-Episode 1: Interview with Colorist Rico Renzi

by Steven Harris & Tara-Lawson Harris

Join us for our first episode of the Critically Comics podcast! This past weekend we had the opportunity to comic creator Rico Renzi. Renzi is best known for his work on Image Comics’s Loose Ends, Vertigo Comic’s Goddess Mode, and Marvel’s Spider-Gwen and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. We talk to Renzi about his process, what it means to include people of color in his work, how he felt seeing Spider-Gwen on screen, and what books he would include in the comic book / graphic novel canon.

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Episode 1.03 – Squirrel Girl by Ryan North & Erica Henderson

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

Download and listen through iTunes!

On the third episode of the Critically Comics podcast, Steven and Tara discuss Marvel’s Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson! This episode covers the first three volumes of the series and the representation of the character in outside media. Will Squirrel Girl be the best comedy series to be introduced into the canon or will it divide the hosts? Join the debate and let us know what you think of the series!