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The One That Got Away: Reading the Ending of a Spider-Man story that I began reading in 1995.

The local comic book store for me growing up, was an almost literal hole-in-the-wall called Altered States and was too far away for me to get to by myself.  This severely limited my comic book reading, as I would seldom be able to obtain the next issue in a story arc and thus would be left hanging indefinitely.  I therefore stopped reading comics, having read too many interesting (or plain confusing) middle-of-an-arc issues that never got resolved.

Well, I guess that’s the ending.  Who the hell was that ghost guy with the beard back on that snow planet? I’m confused.
What’s a “The Force”?  Only seeing the middle of a story sucks.

One of these stories has haunted me since reading it; it fully captured my imagination, excited me, and left me with such a lasting impression that even now, seventeen years later, I want to know.  I guess to a certain extent, I need to know-to have closure to a story and narrative that has lurked in the back of my memory since childhood.  I imagined all manner of ways the story could end, but resolved myself to not knowing.

Today, I am going to re-read this story and its finale and finally see how the story ends.

But first, I’m going to write a primer from memory, to describe the scenes that grabbed me and what I remember of the plot and action of the story; to commit to digital paper the bits and pieces of the story that are still lurking in the corners of my mind.  We’ll see how they shape up.

So: Spider-Man: Planet of the Symbiotes.

In the beginning, there was Venom.

This one eats brains…instead of trying to win a date with Tad Hamilton.

As a kid, Venom was one of my favourite characters.  The idea of an inky alien creature that granted all the powers of Spider-Man but fueled by aggression and violence, that knew Peter Parker’s identity and that sought to destroy him personally as well as in battle was incredibly engaging.  The two characters interact wonderfully, with Venom testing and challenging Spidey in ways he normally isn’t, and Spidey proving time and time again that ingenuity and superior intelligence trump brute strength and pettiness every time.  Venom is the more powerful super hero, but Eddie Brock (the hard luck reporter who merged with Venom) is weaker than Peter Parker.  When done right, it’s a fantastic dynamic (one explored very well by the cartoon, but also in the game Maximum Carnage, which granted a longstanding childhood dream of getting to play as Venom.)

As a result, I was always excited to stumble upon a comic book that dealt with these two characters and so in 1995, one of my very infrequent trips to the comic book store (it was too far away to reach except by bumming a ride from my Mom, until I got better at biking, but by then I was going there for Magic the Gathering instead) yielded this story: Planet of the Symbiotes, starring Spider-Man, Venom, and (sigh) The Scarlet Spider.

Wasssssssuppppp??!!  He’s about as relevant as that catchphrase, now.

This was during the that bizarre time when Marvel’s editors decided that the Clone Saga ought to be more than just a story about Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly; instead, they wanted to swap Ben in as Spidey and transition Peter out.  They knew they couldn’t rush this, so they gave the Scarlet Spider his own series for a bit, building him up as a hero in his own right before letting him take on the mantle.  The reasoning for this, I’d imagine, was similar to the train wreck of One More Day: to clear the slate on Spider-Man, ditching a lot of the messy backstory and baggage, such as marriage to pave the way for new direction and new relationships, etc.  Even though I hated the idea of swapping in a new (albeit kinda the same, since he’s a clone) Spider-Man at the time, it still makes more sense to me than the bizarre “deal with the devil” retconning of One More Day.  In any case, at this point, Scarlet Spider was just another neat Marvel character running around and (god forgive me) I thought he was really cool.  The costume was striking, particularly the external web shooters.  I was even okay with the blue, sleeveless hoodie (I repeat, blue, sleeveless, hoodie.) because it was the 90’s and fashion was legally dead.

Sorry, everyone.

More important to me, however, was the Spider-Man and Venom team-up as well as a further exploration into the nature of the Symbiotes.  To this point, the most we’d gotten was Carnage, Venom’s twisted offspring, which was a wicked cool character visually and (though he became a bit of a joke) allowed us insight into Venom itself, but not its race.  The promise of a full invasion was hella exciting.  Like the first time someone suggested that there could be multiple Mandalorians and mocked up a video of an army of Boba Fetts: one Venom, awesome.  Lots of Venoms, even more awesome.  Here’s what I remember of the story:

I picked up mid-stream (at issue 4 of 5), with the invasion having already begun.  There is a frame from this that I obsessed over as a kid, because I didn’t quite understand what was happening in it, wherein a newscaster delivers the fact that Symbiotes have taken over heroes across the country, including SYMBIOTE CAPTAIN AMERICA and, I think, symbiote Wolverine (though that may be my memory combining later images of symbiote Wolverine from the Web of Darkness video game).  The image of Captain America as a symbiote was awesome and I remember getting really excited about the potential for seeing lots of Symbioted up heroes and how awesome they could be as enemies.  Then the Symbiotes invaded the studio and there’s this frame of the newscaster being infected and his toupee is flying off his head (in one of the stranger tropes of the 90’s that essentially dictated that every reporter has a hairpiece.) I understood the toupee thing, but I had no conception of toupee glue and as such was fascinated by the small square of glue stretching up to the rug as it flies off his head.   I was fixated in the way only the young and the curious can be and still vividly remember that one frame, because of the time my young mind spent working through it.  It is one of maybe two images from a comic that I retain from youth.  (The other was an awesome issue of GI Joe wherein Snake-Eyes infiltrated a Cobra facility and thought he heard enemies hiding beneath the floor and thus stabbed his sword through the ground into an enemy ninja’s hand.  The concept of a sword piercing one’s hand stuck with me.) The irony of this, of course, is that this one frame in one of the more minor moments in the book, but one that obviously had a major effect.  I hope I get a chance to tell the illustrator someday that his one random panel struck such an odd chord with me.

The city is in a zombie-film-esque state of emergency, with destruction and empty streets; the Scarlet Spider has lost his hoodie (which perhaps is the source of his power, like Mr. Butlertron’s magical soothing red cardigan?)

…I would still watch this.  Wesley.

And so, refusing to be hoodie-less Scarlet steals a hoodie, tears off the sleeves, and uses a sharpie to add his spider logo to it.  This was my first real exposure to the Scarlet Spider and I still can’t look at his costume without my brain quietly reshaping the logo to be hand drawn with a sharpie (I also, at one point, considered buying a blue hoodie and drawing the logo on it.  I was cool like that.) From there, he meets up with Spidey and Venom, who realize they need to shut down a Stargate-esque thing that is allowing the Symbiotes to invade Earth.  I don’t remember much beyond that aside from the final frame, where the heroes arrive to find an army of Symbiotes guarding the portal (also, the Symbiotes without hosts look silly.). “Oh, damn!” I thought, “This is going to be crazy!”

It would basically be like turning off Kill Bill Vol. 1 right here.

…and that’s all I got.  I re-read that issue several times and imagined a few possible finales but eventually moved on.  Pre-Internet, it was hard to keep tabs on characters; I got most of my understanding of the direction Spidey, Scarlet, and Venom were going through Wizard Magazine (about comics) and ToyFare which was my mainline infusion of the history of comics, cartoons, super heroes, and cult films and to which I can attribute the majority of my understanding of all of the above (it was one of the wittiest, best researched magazines I’ve ever read, for a long time.  The key writers went on to create Robot Chicken.  It was my first point of contact for Evil Dead, Battlestar Galactica, and most of the Marvel Universe beyond the X-Men and Spider-Man.  I still re-read back issues whenever I’m home and still find myself laughing out loud).  Through Wizard, I learned of the weird direction Venom took (they kinda forgot who Eddie Brock was, had him defending an underground city for a while, then he died…now he’s a whole different story).  I saw bits and pieces of the transition of Scarlet Spider into Spider-Man (I read a couple issues of it…Peter, believing himself to be the clone, retired but still present in the book) and even managed to catch the death of Ben Reilly (when flagging sales reminded Marvel that their clone thing was dumb) which allowed the ‘he was a clone all along!’ moment that signaled Peter’s return to his own damn series.

“Wow, that was crazy.  I sure hope nothing like this ever happens again.  Especially not a deal with the Devil that erases countless years’ worth of character development!”

Now it’s much easier to pull up a wiki or a review to find out what’s going on with a favourite character; the information is available and out there and as such it’s harder to have a hanging question like how these heroes beat the Symbiotes…which is kind of a shame, to some extent.  Without the limited access I had as a kid, wouldn’t have this neat connection to this one random story.  Which catches us up to today.

A little while ago, I was in a used bookstore and found the complete Clone Epic (as they dubbed it) across five thick volumes.  I didn’t want the whole story, but it occurred to me I might be able to find the Planet of the Symbiotes story in one of them, and sure enough, flipping through one I found my newscaster with his glue-tab.  It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since and I’ve been waiting for time to read it and write this.

So now, without further ado, on to Planet of the Symbiotes!

Glue-tabs and all.


Okay, so here’s the main issue with the five part story: much like Knightfall it is played out over several series.  The difference here is that the same writer is on all of them, so there’s some continuity there, but there is also some flat-out awful illustration as the 90’s was often so good at.  Also, because the story boils down to a character study in Venom, we get the same “I must protect innocent bystanders, but at what cost?!” speech about ten times.  It wears thin quickly.

As it turns out, I ended up with the best issue of the bunch in my young hands; the illustration is solid, the story makes sense, and there are a number of awesome moments.  It feels very much like Dawn of the Dead, which is of course a huge win.  At one point (where Scarlet gets his new hoodie) they are exploring an abandoned mall, everyone having barricaded themselves into their homes and the mood is actually very creepy.  It’s a lot of fun and includes some great panels, such as one where a symbiote is quietly sneaking onto a mannequin in the background.  They don’t make a big deal out of it, but it feels like a great little homage to zombie films of the like.

Also, the ending is far more epic than I remember; the Stargate (Actually called a Stargate, lol) is arrived at, but the symbiotes aren’t the biggest problem: Carnage has escaped and begun eating symbiotes and thus arrives, 40 feet tall and attacks our heroes.  Epic.

No wonder the ending haunted me this long.  As a kid, Carnage was also one of my favourite enemies; he was scary (a serial killer whose symbiote merged with his blood, so he could only summon it by bleeding) and could turn his hands into weapons.  Awesome.  This ending was right up my alley back then even though the moment itself escaped my later memory.

So, my issue was as much campy fun as I’d hoped.  The problem lay in the other issues; while this one pulls off a nice, Romero-esque alien invasion of Earth thing, the others wildly careen from Venom breaking up with his suit after fighting (I kid you not) “Neo-Luddites” who are using technology to destroy technology.  Seriously.  There’s an entire issues about this.  Spidey talks about Luddites every few lines, “We’ve got to stop the Luddites!” Awful.  And then Venom breaks up with his suit, after almost eating an evil Luddite’s brain, he asks, “Wait, is what we do my idea or your idea??” The suit (which looks ridiculous when not on Brock under this writer’s pen) goes out into the woods (presumably while the Charlie  Brown theme plays) and cries.

In case you missed it, the bad-ass alien symbiote that almost killed Peter Parker and became a brain-eating super villain was lonely so it went and cried.  Ugh.

So, emo symbiote summons other aliens to it by crying and they invade en masse.  The next issue deals with Scarlet, Spidey, and a sonic gun wielding Eddie Brock (whose long, luscious hair is now short cropped and appropriate again) battle symbiotes at the Stargate only to get pulled into it themselves.  Annnnnd here comes the awful.

They end up on a symbiote controlled planet, where the symbiotes are draining the native species of their life force (it should be noted that the aliens look exactly like the Aliens from the classic sci fi film franchise Aliens versus Predator…you know, before James Cameron and Ridley Scott fucked it up with those awful Alien films with that chick from Ghostbusters.  Hacks.)  So, they fight a bunch, the Venom symbiote has a weird “we need to talk” moment with Eddie Brock where they decide to team up for a bit in the Symbiote equivalent of “friends with benefits.”  The symbiote then explains how its species are a) addicted to strong emotions in their hosts and b) drains them til they’re dead then moves on.  BUT our very sensitive new friend wanted a forever friend (awwwwww…) so it merged with Peter Parker and then moved on to Eddie Brock.  The other symbiotes made fun of it for this, so it was super happy to have new friends.  But then they both broke up with it and it became sad.  Seriously, it’s like George Lucas wrote this origin for Venom.  Awful.

Right, so they get back to Earth and run around Romero style in the issue I read as a kid, ending with them ready to fight Carnage.

Then the artist shifts again (weak) and the fight with Carnage boils down to throwing a propane truck at him and running away.  Venom realizes if he can make the symbiote cry enough and amplify it, they can cause all the symbiotes to go comatose.  They do that (by merging on a molecular level, painful and ”””’permanent”””””*    *until no longer necessary, like when Eddie SELLS THE VENOM SUIT in recent comic history), but it actually kills them all.  It’s a lackluster issue, but there is a genuinely badass quality to the fact that Venom wiped out its entire species to save Earth.  And then there’s a throwaway line from Mary Jane akin to, “Eh, everything’s back to normal!”  Sigh.

So, all-in-all, the story that’s been haunting me did turn out to be a lot of fun still (which was a pleasant surprise, given how terrible the first three issues were) and I’m glad to be reminded of the 40 foot Carnage; so I’m left with kind of a strange experience.  I fully expected my story to be kinda terrible and have a ‘that would have been so cool as a kid…’ moment, but instead I still found it a lot of fun.  It reads like a cross between Terminator 2 (all the symbiotes in this one are sneaky and T-1000 esque) and Dawn of the Dead.  With Spider-Man.  Awesome.  But the other stories are genuinely awful.  They over-complicate and weaken the character of Venom immensely and while they certainly help move along the “he’s a hero now!” agenda, they weaken his time as a villain quite considerably.  Like the Star Wars prequels, there’s stuff we just don’t want or need packed into those issues.  There’s also the wildly inconsistant art, a lot of which is just generally awkward and ugly.  There are He-Man action figure proportions to some scenes and the suit on its own looks kinda like a wacky-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man.  And chiselled butts.  Man, they like drawing Venom and Scarlet’s chiselled butts.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to have taken this little trip down memory lane; I had mis-remembered the Symbiote Wolverine (though Cap was still cool) and who knows, maybe in another 17 years I’ll re-read it again and see what’s what.

Incidentally, while reading an unrelated io9 article, I was reminded what Eric wore all season in True Blood…

You heard it here first.  Eric Northman is a clone of Peter Parker.

Additional Reading

Clone High: Mr. Butlertron is a robotic butler on the incredible cartoon Clone High.  The episode being referenced involves Mr. B lending villainous Principal Scudworth his “soothing red cardigan” that helps him get closer to the students.  It turns out to be magical.  Like the show.  I’ll be doing a post on this show in future, but I can almost guarantee it’s better than anything else you could be watching right now.  Ever.