By Gerry Conway, Mike Perkins, and Andy Troy
Villain comics are a weird concept overall. They make a certain amount of sense given that comics exist as a form of fantasy and wish-fulfillment, and villains actually do embody a lot of qualities and aspects that we, the audience, might like to have or indulge in. After all, heroes win in every story but villains are people who lose and lose and lose and always come back completely undaunted by their history of failure; that’s a kind of determination you can’t help but admire. Additionally, villains aren’t restricted by any kind of moral code, which makes them more indulgent characters so if they aren’t the murdering type they can be pretty fun to live vicariously through. Sure, it’s fun to see Batman bring crooks to justice or Superman save the planet, but no one is moral and pure all the time and sometimes we just want a character to help us let out our inner greedy, ambitious bastard. That’s why villain comics like Thanos Quest, Joker, Tomb of Dracula, or Lex Luthor’s takeover of Action Comics work as well as they do. And then there are books like Carnage.
Unlike the previously mentioned villains or villain attributes, Carnage is pretty much just a monster in every sense of the word. As a character he’s defined solely by his will to murder everything and everyone, that’s even who he was before getting the Carnage symbiote as plain old Cletus Kasady, serial killer. There’s no ambition or indulgences to latch onto and there’s no admirable traits lurking behind his villainy. He’s Grade-A scum. Thankfully, the Carnage comic seems to actually get this which is why, despite the name, this isn’t really a comic about Carnage, at least not directly. Carnage is actually about an elite group of Spider-Man supporting characters trying to catch the southern serial killer and his space goop friend. The whole set-up is a lot more reminiscent of a horror/action flick like Aliens or Predator than anything else, with Carnage as this sort of horrifyingly deadly but still unthinking thing advancing ever forward and leaving a wake of death in his path while we follow the handful of people who might be able to stop him. This makes our actual heroes Manuela Calderon, a marine and only survivor of one of Carnage’s massacres, Colonel Jameson, the astronaut son of J. Jonah Jameson and also Man-Wolf sometimes, Barry Gleason, an opportunistic industrialist looking to score big bucks off Carnage’s capture, and Eddie Brock, a government agent currently working with the Carnage symbiote spawn, Toxin.
Right from the word go the set-up and path of the narrative are honestly kind of predictable. The FBI and military have teamed up to try to capture Carnage, with the heavy implication being they aren’t bringing in actual superheroes because they plan on turning Carnage into a living weapon like they did Venom and Toxin. There’s a lot of fluffing about sonic cannons and setting a trap for Carnage, but you can basically tell nothing is going to go right and the situation is about to get really fluid really quickly as soon as Carnage shows himself. That’s just the nature of this kind of story, it’s not about breaking the mold of the horror-action set-up so much as it’s about doing it with a different set of army men and monsters. That’s part of why it actually works so well that a good ½ of the comic is really just exposition of the most blatant kind, with the characters all introducing themselves and recapping the plan even though they all should’ve met and known each other well before today. Even so, the actual Carnage trap is fun and well paced and the dialogue is still engaging enough to get you to care about the various army men assembled to stop the space monster.
Where things really break down is the artwork from Mike Perkins. The big problem is just how inconsistent the art ends up being. Sometimes it’s alright, but a lot of the time something will slip and characters will wind up with horrifying and twisted faces that in no way resemble humanity. During the big exposition dump of the comic’s first half nearly every other panel features some new hideous facial expression or weirdly proportioned visage that makes the heroes look way more like bloodthirsty monsters from beyond the stars. The inking is also incredibly inconsistent. Sometimes people end up looking infinitely too dark and shrouded in shadow while other times the inking is so heavy that people’s facial features just disappear. It’s a real shame because the coloring by Andy Troy is actually a real knockout. Most of the issue takes place in this eerie twilight miasma in the midst of an abandoned mine in West Virginia and the color palette of the darkening sky against the barren wastes of the mine gives a nicely foreboding sense to the whole enterprise. Carnage himself could stand to be better realized though. He’s being drawn a lot cleaner than usual, with essentially a red human body with tentacles and nowhere near the creepy sharp edges and teeth that Mark Bagley managed to imbue the character with.
All in all this was a mixed first issue. The good elements, in particular the schlocky mash-up of Spider-Man supporting characters with the basic set-up of a pulpy alien horror action film, work really well and is a pretty fun time, but the many art issues can make for dull reading and the lack of additional super powered beings beyond Carnage is a bit of a letdown. As mentioned Eddie Brock and the Toxin symbiote are on hand but they’re never utilized; though if he and Man-Wolf show up next issue to duke it out with Carnage that’d be a real saving grace. As it stands not bad, but serious room for improvement, you could do a lot worse.