venom: let there be carnage

Who Is Carnage?

A Hannibal Lecter homage? An answer to Joker? A gooey relic of ‘90s comics culture? The answer is a little of everything. Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

As a super-villain, Carnage is a study in comparisons. If Venom and Eddie Brock are motivated by jealousy of Spider-Man and thus permitted to be complex characters who edge closer to anti-hero status, Carnage is pure villain. A serial killer whose ties to Eddie are faint; Cletus Kasady was merely Eddie’s cellmate when Cletus bonded with Venom’s symbiote spawn. There’s a simple elegance to him — a villain so cartoonishly, transparently evil, taking the concept of a solo superhero story back to its roots.

To understand how Carnage came to be — all that ecstatic wickedness butting up against Eddie’s relatable waffling ethics — one must understand the comics environment that made him possible. In the early 1990s, comics fandom culture had begun to lionize artists over writers. Whereas creators like Chris Claremont had enjoyed celebrity status for years due to his run writing Uncanny X-Men, by the late ’80s and beyond, Marvel artists were becoming the superstars. Spider-Man, as a comics franchise, was lucky in that it boasted two such artists: Todd McFarlane, after a stint on the main Amazing Spider-Man book beginning in 1988, had just launched the adjective-less Spider-Man in 1990, and replacing him on ASM was Erik Larsen.

Larsen is on record as generally disliking Venom’s entire deal. He didn’t like the character of Eddie Brock, the story that tied him to Peter Parker (Eddie publicly exposes a man he believes to be a relentless murderer but Spider-Man catches a different guy for the crimes and, well, case closed, Eddie’s reputation is ruined), the idea of the symbiote (which had been rejected by Peter Parker, so both man and alien had reason to hate the superhero) — none of it. Consequently, when drawing the character — whose earliest appearance was a cameo in Web of Spider-Man #18 in 1986, followed by a more formal arrival in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 in 1988 — he pushed the monstrous details of Venom, distending the character’s jaw, giving him a long, pointed tongue, and adding teeth and slobber in abundance. If Larsen’s intent was to undermine the character, though, it backfired. The newer, grosser Venom was more popular than ever, becoming an early example of the stylistic extremes that would go on to dominate the aesthetics of comic books in the ’90s.

As a publisher, Marvel had been on a multi-year hot streak prior to the creation of Venom, and the hype machine was only ramping up. The response to every major success was more — more titles, more characters, and Venom was certainly one of those major successes. Marvel wanted to capitalize on his story potential, and fortunately ASM writer David Michelinie had an idea for a character who could emphasize Eddie’s complexities. Cletus Kasady was described as a serial killer in his first appearances, starting with The Amazing Spider-Man #344 in April 1992, but he never really fit the literary mold. His character was certainly possessed of a desire to kill just about anyone and everyone for the chaos of it (which would explain why his name was almost Chaos). But he lacked a methodology, his kills resting on the flimsiest of motives, especially after Venom’s symbiote offspring infiltrated his body and turned him into Carnage. It only mattered that he was thoroughly, unrepentantly evil, fueled by a more powerful symbiote that had to suffer the alien environment of Earth and thus developed abilities Venom could only imagine.

The Amazing Spider-Man #345 Illustration: Marvel Comics

Carnage was a killer, yes, but he was never given the narrative weight of killing, or even seriously threatening, another significant character in the Spider-Man universe. In his first encounter with Spider-Man (The Amazing Spider-Man #361), Carnage does manage to off some civilians, but they’re characters created solely for this purpose, an age-old comics trick. Contrast that against Venom showing up at Aunt May’s house in ASM #317, and the difference is clear: While Carnage might be a bloodthirsty menace, even possessing Venom’s ability to baffle Peter’s spider-sense, he never quite had the story impact of his predecessor.

Cargnage’s identity as a serial killer symbiote was, nonetheless, a convenient way to build on Eddie’s own history, as well as an opportunity for the writers to harness the allure of a recent hit movie, Silence of the Lambs. Kasady’s first appearances as Brock’s cellmate debuted during the advertisement run-up to the film, which was released in February 1991. It’s something that Marvel would keep riffing on. In 1993, Maximum Carnage was wheeled through an asylum secured to a gurney, in what can be read as an homage to Hannibal Lecter, occurring only a few issues after Venom directly quoted the cannibal killer. But Lecter isn’t Carnage’s only fictional character parallel. Cletus also fancies himself a funnyman, quipping his way through major appearances. It’s hard to say if it’s intentional, but given the glut of Joker media in ‘90s Batman comics and movies, Carnage’s characterization seems inspired by the DC arch nemesis — Carnage is, after all, an escapee from the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane (Marvel’s answer to Arkham Asylum), and there’s even a brief attempt to give him a love interest a la Harley Quinn, in the form of a fellow escapee named Shriek.

Readers would eventually find out that Shriek was at one point shot in the head, but her vague summation here echoes Harley Quinn’s transformation by the Joker. (Spider-Man Unlimited #1, “Maximum Carnage Part 1”) Illustration: Marvel Comics

Like Venom, Carnage was a hit, and his initial three-issue arc led to the fourteen-part Maximum Carnage in 1993, which in turn spawned a video game adaptation for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis consoles, its own action figure line, and even a Halloween event one year at Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure theme park. The rest of Cletus-as-Carnage’s comic book appearances followed a similar formula: Through some means or another, Cletus would lose and then reacquire the Carnage symbiote, break out of the Ravencroft Institute, and attempt to kill either Venom or Spider-Man. Occasionally, for a bit of variation, the symbiote itself would bond to someone else — Ben Reilly, Karl Malus, Norman Osborn, even Gwen Stacy in Ultimate Marvel.

As the ‘90s wore on, however, the ongoing saga of Spider-Man moved into new territory, focusing instead on the long-running Clone Saga and duplicates of Spider-Man himself, rather than Venom. Carnage became a bit of a relic, with briefer and more sporadic appearances until the mid-2000s. After Marvel came back from the brink of bankruptcy, the narrative was that the ‘90s were a bit of an embarrassment for the company — the concept of “extreme” comics was now laughable, and the tides turned toward law-and-order stories instead. There was a new Avengers team, and they worked with S.H.I.E.L.D., no longer an untrustworthy obstacle in superhero books but a global security force, a welcome presence for a comics readership in the early years post-9/11.

And so Carnage fell by the wayside. After all, he represented some of the worst impulses of the prior decade. He was unfocused, he lacked nuance, he was derivative, and on top of all that, he sported a signature stylistic trademark of the ’90s: the goo. Carnage was a messy goo monster, wavy tendrils and all, a design aspect that screamed overdone in an era when entire TV shows were dedicated to dumping large amounts of slime on willing, excited audiences. In the second issue of Brian Michael Bendis’s New Avengers in 2005, during a breakout from the supervillain prison called The Raft, Carnage was swept up in the hands of the Sentry (a Superman pastiche), flown into orbit, and unceremoniously torn in half.

In Venom: Carnage Unleashed #1, Carnage manages to attack a game developers through the internet. Illustration: Marvel Comics

But of course, this is comics, and when has a death ever been permanent? Carnage returned in extremely short order, this time with a pair of his own miniseries — Carnage and Carnage, U.S.A., in 2010 and 2011, respectively. These would see him restored and re-powered, and under the hand of incoming artists like Clayton Crain, even scarier. Crain’s digital work kept Carnage’s fundamental design the same, but with comics no longer bound to four-color printing processes, the added depth of digital art and coloring made him look positively horrifying in a way that his ’90s appearances had never really achieved.

Unfortunately, a slick new appearance didn’t do much to help the convoluted mishmash of sources that made up Carnage as a character. For the rest of the 2000s and 2010s, he popped up in events here and there, but the focus shifted to the symbiote itself, with less and less attention paid to Cletus Kasady. In fact, on multiple occasions, Kasady was either lobotomized or killed off by suicide, with Cletus’s body puppeted around by the alien bonded to it. It made for gruesome times.

Carnage didn’t really find a lot of purpose as a character until recently, with 2019’s Absolute Carnage miniseries. With five issues and a veritable host of tie-ins, newer Marvel writer Donny Cates attempted to do what writers before him had not. He began to build the lore of symbiote culture, tying it to an ancient extraterrestrial evil known as Knull. As Cates’ story unfolded, Knull became the center of everything symbiote-related. Knull created the symbiotes, he was the first to discover that they could be bonded to other creatures in order to enhance their (and thus his) power. The spider-emblem made famous by the black Spider-Man costume? The one that Venom wore? Actually, it was a dragon misinterpreted for a spider, a reference to the fleet of dragons to which Knull bonded the first symbiotes. Knull was a god of evil and darkness, imprisoned within Klyntar, the homeworld of the symbiotes, and he was prophesied to break free, to come to Earth, and spread his darkness eternally.

Carnage (2010) #4 (writer Zeb Wells, artist Clayton Crain) Illustration: Marvel Comics

Cates established early on that Cletus Kasady had died as an infant, but that Knull had, somehow, resurrected Cletus across the lightyears, so that he could serve as the avatar of Knull’s awakening. In all of his indiscriminate killing, in all of his chaos, Kasady had apparently been serving Knull’s will, albeit unknowingly. With the start of Absolute Carnage, however, that changed. Carnage took control of a cult dedicated to Knull and began pursuing the goal of reanimating his master in earnest, collecting bits of symbiotes left behind in various hosts throughout the years (and conveniently cleaning up a lot of old Marvel side characters in the process). He was eventually defeated by Spider-Man and Venom, but not before achieving his goal — Knull came back, and mounted his assault on Earth in the 2020 event The King in Black.

For better or worse, Cates’ story gave a kind of mythology to Carnage. It lifted the character out of the messy, one-note characterization he was famous for and gave him a sense of direction. Carnage was still a generally unfocused killer, but he had a unifying reason now, even if that reason was the age-old comics trope of a secret evil everyone feared and yet no one had mentioned until this issue.

In 2021’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage movie, Woody Harrelson (aptly of Natural Born Killers fame) plays Carnage, a casting teased at the end of the first Venom film. Harrelson’s Mickey Knox is a spree killer like Cletus, murdering with the same lack of ritual or compunction albeit  with more reason than his predecessor. Shriek will also make an appearance, played by Naomie Harris (Skyfall, No Time to Die). Whereas the previous Venom shied away from overt Spider-Man references, this one does not, though we’re not exactly at Maximum Carnage levels of cameos yet. (Michael Keaton’s participation in the upcoming Morbius movie as Vulture is a good indicator of how integrated these universes are becoming.)

No longer simply a perversion of Spider-Man’s mask, the Knull-influenced Carnage had eyes and a mouth that glowed with an internal flame. (Absolute Carnage #1, 2019) Illustration: Marvel Comics

The first Venom managed to introduce the concept of symbiotes as extraterrestrials without the baggage of events like Secret Wars (wherein Spider-Man found the black costume) and it also pulled together comic book concepts like the Life Foundation (the organization run by the first film’s villain, Carlton Drake) and the additional symbiotes found in the Spider-Man story Separation Anxiety (all without any overt ties to any other part of the Marvel Universe). It’s a popular trick with superhero film adaptations, one that lets filmmakers reinterpret the original concepts in fresh and exciting ways, and it worked here, allowing Venom to float a movie as his own character, rather than a reflection of Spider-Man. But that doesn’t mean Venom will stay in the shadows for long. There are unlimited opportunities for pulling the symbiotes further into the MCU. Let’s not forget that Sony has at least one trick in its back pocket: There Will Be Carnage is directed by Andy Serkis, who played the sound-wave-manipulating Klaw in the MCU. Symbiotes do have a weakness to sound after all.

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Who Is Carnage?