Tuesday, February 14, 2012

GN Review -- The Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Anti-Venom / Dan Slott, Chris Bachalo, Zeb Wells & Paul Siqueira

With it being Valentine's Day, I went looking for an appropriate graphic novel to review, and actually had a hard time coming up with anything relevant that wasn't cheesy, juvenile, or in some cases even obtainable.  I resigned myself to writing a real review, about a real graphic novel.  Then, as I sat down at my desk to write, looked at the pile of stuff I'd read and could easily write about, I saw it: the most perfectly appropriate comic book material for review on Valentine's Day!

I refer, of course, to The Amazing Spider-Man Presents: Anti-Venom.

Believe it or not, they actually really mesh, in their way.  I think Valentine's Day is a pretty lame holiday, and conversely, also happen to think Anti-Venom is a pretty lame super-hero.  Oh, so you want someone who can take on Venom?  Oh, but he's basically the SAME AS Venom, except he's been "charged" by Mister Negative so that he's the Anti-Venom?  Oh, and this allows him to heal diseases and eliminates any of the vulnerabilities the Venom symbiote once possessed.

I mean, seriously, can we say Mary Sue?  "Next time we square off, Venom, I'll totally KICK YOUR BUTT!"

But I digress.

This volume actually contains two stories, both revolving around Eddie Brock's relationship with a teenage girl named Jenna Cole.  "Black and White," by Dan Slott, focuses more on Eddie's attempts to do good and his despair at discovering that Martin Li, the man who gave him a second chance at life, is Mister Negative--who also, by charging the remnants of the symbiote in Eddie and enabling him to become Anti-Venom, gave him something of a second chance, at both life and super-heroing.  The second story, "New Ways to Live," by Zeb Wells, involves Eddie using Jenna's dubious connections and reliability to infiltrate and take down drug dealers and their various networks.  The Punisher, who's doing his own version of dismantling these same networks, eventually gets involved, and after learning Eddie's identity, reluctantly forms an alliance with him, mostly in the hopes of killing him whenever he lets his guard down.  Highlighted themes in the story are Eddie's recurring anger issues, and the struggle he faces in order to keep his old homicidal tendencies (which he honed to fine form back in his Venom days) in check.  These weaknesses are somewhat mirrored in Jenna, who's nicknamed "Jenna the Junkie" among drug dealers because she can't help her own dependency on drugs.

Now, please don't take my contempt for Anti-Venom as contempt for Eddie Brock.  I think Brock is a hell of a character, and one of the heavies when you consider Spider-Man's formidable rogues' gallery.  As Venom, and even before then, he was the picture of bitterness and spite, and made a vicious foil to Peter Parker's noble goody-two-shoes-ness.  When he lost the Venom symbiote and developed cancer, I was genuinely upset for how tragic his hate had made him, and that he was being resigned to such an ignominious fate.  I felt he would die and, like Kraven, become immortalized as one of Spidey's foes who died the way he lived.

He should have died that way.  But, like Aunt May, the writers just couldn't bear to take that kind of plunge.

Okay, back to the stories.  "Black and White" is basically an origin re-telling, with Jenna Cole introduced for further use down the road and an action yarn for Eddie to strut his stuff and suffer some internal conflict when he learns the truth about Martin Li and his alter ego.  It's actually not bad: the pacing is good, the obligatory expository elements are handled smoothly and in a way that serves the narrative, and the action sequences are pretty engaging.  Eddie's dark revelation at the end is well portrayed, and I will admit the imagery of him huddling against the cross gave me the strongly tragic vibe of a dark kind of Daredevil.

"New Ways to Live," however, felt like a little too flimsy of a story for me.  First of all, Eddie's relationship with a teenage girl is unsettling, no matter how you look at it.  If you assume he's roughly Peter Parker's age--and sometimes he's portrayed as older, physically--then at the very least, he's a good decade older than this girl.  Now, if you want to assume the worst, and that they're together romantically--the narrative is never clear (on purpose, I think) about this--well, that's actually less disturbing than other aspects of their relationship.  Romance can happen between consenting adults, and I'm not one to judge.  But when you consider that he uses this same teenage girl-woman as bait or as an informant against drug dealers--who are clearly some of the most dangerous, erratic and vicious scum out there--it really makes you wonder just how well his head is screwed on.

So anyway, they go on a crusade, with Jenna putting herself in very serious danger to get in with these dealers, and Eddie shows up, does the Anti-Venom thing and shuts them down, usually getting super pissed off when he sees the dealers corrupting Jenna, who can't seem to shake the temptations of her old drug habit, even with Eddie purging the stuff from her system on a regular basis.  Between his anger issues and her control issues, they both make promises to one another to stop their vices, which of course, neither is very good at doing.  When the Punisher finally shows up, you feel, unbelievably, like an adult has finally entered the room--a psychopathic, murdering adult, but someone who nevertheless has a code and sticks with it.

Art-wise, I also have to give "Black and White" the thumbs-up.  Bachalo's pencils are especially effective during Anti-Venom's fight scenes, where he's bulked up and has tendrils flailing all over the place.  He looks like a hybrid alien-monster, and yet one that still manages to convey a strange sense of familiarity through the grotesqueness.  It's a little too surreal in some places, but overall works for Slott's story.  Siqueira's work certainly doesn't suffer from excess surrealism--it's technically quite adept, actually.  He draws a lot of fit, well-proportioned women very well--Jenna's portrayals make me wonder if she actually is a teen here--but I can't help feeling like the illustrations don't go much further beyond physically perfect, healthy humans.  Even Anti-Venom is drawn this way, albeit a little more Hulked-out than the others.

Overall, it's hard for me to really rate this story.  Slott's story is pretty good, and the artwork there is sensational, but Wells's story is longer, and really causes some eye-rolling in places.  If you like Eddie Brock and want to see his latest adventures, I say go ahead and get it, but expect to be disappointed in places.  Like Valentine's Day, this volume may work for some, but I suspect it'll leave a lot of people shaking their heads in disgust.  Recommended, with reservations.

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