It's a great time to be a gooey slobber monster from another planet.
Last time out, Rick Remender gave us his swan song back in Venom #22, putting the finishing touches on the mission statement he set out with when he got the opportunity to redefine Eugene "Flash" Thompson, alcoholic ex-bully with severe father issues, as the star of his own series. Betty Brant had forgiven him for lying but declared she never wanted to see him again, his abusive father is dead and his impact is enduring, and he finally brought low the dastardly new Jack O'Lantern who's been tormenting him ever since the first issue. The slate was clean – or as clean as it can get for a reckless fighter like Flash – and thus, the torch has been passed to the new scribe, Cullen Bunn – a guy who's been working with Remender to handle the last big arc introducing the Savage Six.
Bunn's first issue is this week's Venom #23, and while it does feel like a fresh start – with a full-on recap for new readers and introducing tabloid reporter, informant, and obvious new love interest Katy Kiernan, Daily Inquisitor – nothing is cast aside. Instead, we plunge right into the lingering plot threads from the "Circle of Four" storyline, wherein Thompson, along with Thaddeus "Red Hulk" Ross and Laura "X-23" Kinney, have been branded by Mephisto as owing him a debt. While investigating a cult called D.O.A. – The Department of Occult Armaments (and rarely does a cult refer to themselves as a 'department') – he comes to find out their weird demon-soul farm or whatever is run by one Daimon Hellstrom, Son of the Devil, who until recently (the train wreck of Fear Itself) was working for the good guys – that "Circle of Four" included.
Bunn's dialog occasionally falls on the wrong side of the fine line between clever and "clever." Kiernan saying "What's the matter? Secret Nazi occult weapons division got your tongue?" as expository dialog doesn't work at all, and it feels like he's trying to hard to make her seem engaging, and it stumbles a bit. Then there's Flash mentioning to her that recon missions are called "Code: Uatu." Does every last schmuck in the Marvel Universe know who the mysterious, invisible, unknowable Watcher is? There's a kid who works at Horizon Labs whose parents NAMED him Uatu, for Pete Parker's sake. To be fair, one supposes that a Weekly World News-style writer like Kiernan, who specializes in secret conspiracy stuff enough to provide leads where the Avengers couldn't find any might have an inkling about the guy, but it still takes something away from him. Then again, it's a very minor nitpick to give a damn about the mystique of a cosmic baby-head man who lives on the moon.
Bunn does, however, give us Venom in full-on super-soldier mode, mowing down cultists with gunfire and taking on Hellstrom, learning that the Mephisto mark grants him some mystical protection from "blasts of balefire" and some limited power over demons. Not quite enough to deal with Son of Satan, though, because it looks like we're getting a demonic version of the classic toothy goo-monster emerging. Just what that '90s tongue-beast needed to be more like a Spawn character. The story is still an interesting one, and Bunn's unfortunate tics don't outweigh the meat of the Flash Thompson saga. The art from Thony Silas is also pretty cool, too, even if Kiernan is essentially Malin Akerman. The layout for the flashback recap is pretty cool, and the action sequences are entertainingly balls out.
If you want more of that there hulking ichor-monkey, however, look no further than Secret Avengers #30, where not only do we get to see that flipside of Venom, but it's also written by the guy who just left his ongoing – Rick Remender, giving us the best of both worlds. Last issue, we saw that big-mouthed beast waltz into The Hole, a bar in the middle of the supervillain nation of Bagalia, and pick a fight with the Taskmaster. Most exciting is that the Art Adams/Peter Steigerwald cover of SA #30 sports none other than the motherscratchin' Bi-Beast, who sadly isn't in the book at all. But I'll take any shout-out to my favorite Skull-Brothers any day.
While the contorted, pseudo-Humberto-Ramos art from Matteo Scalera here is hit and miss, sometimes looking ragged and slipshod and other times looking kinetically rad, Remender's story remains cool. I love the idea of a supervillain country, and I hope it doesn't go away with the revelation that it was all engineered by Max Fury of the Shadow Council to have a suitable army to offer to the three mystical crowns of The Abyss from which he's hoping to gain ultimate dark power. The action here is intense – Taskmaster kicking Venom's "black ass," then a timely intervention from the Irredeemable Ant-Man and a frenetic motorcycle chase through Bad Guy Town featuring some actually-entertaining smart-mouthery from Hawkeye. The twist at the end is highly compelling as well.
So we've got a double-dose of pretty awesome Venom action, featuring both sides of his current persona – the soldier and the savage. I was never a huge Venom fan before Remender came onto the scene, and now, I'm excited every time he shows up. The current incarnation of the symbiote has something for the people who loved the tentacled stick-um creatures in their heyday and the people who didn't. What more can you ask for?
SECRET AVENGERS #30