There is no magical formula on creating an iconic character. Hell, if there was, then there frankly wouldn’t be any iconic characters. There would just be characters. (Duh.) But you have to ask, what makes a character stick? What take a character like a Peter Parker and make him someone that, well over fifty years after his debut, we still care about him and his friends? And what makes us interested in the rogues gallery of villains that come after him.
1988 may not have been a year in comics that sticks out like other years but there is at least one reason why that year is important.
Venom. I argue that Venom is probably one of Spider-Man’s greatest foes. (I don’t believe there is ever ONE foe that tops any list. That’s purely my subjective opinion.) Venom is Eddie Brock, a reporter that thanks to the unwitting efforts of Spider-Man, is fired from his job. In his moment of despair, the alien symbiote that had initially attached itself to Peter during the original Secret Wars event in 1984 attaches itself to Eddie, finding a host that shares its hatred for Spider-Man.
This issue involves the characters debut. We start off with Mary Jane cowering in fear in her and Peter’s apartment. This alone is great. Any long time reader of the site will know that my biggest complaint of comics is that they rely too much on the assumption that the reader has read previous issues. While the reason why Mary Jane is cowering was covered in the previous issue, you don’t need to know why to invest yourself in the story. It’s a problem that comics have dealt with from their beginning till today. And I admit that when companies like Marvel have to put out the sheer volume of stories that they do, they will encounter times where it will be the responsibility of the reader to know a little bit of what is going on. But I still argue that a good writer and artist will find ways to clue people in to what happened in previous issues without assuming the reader has an encyclopedia knowledge of the story. If any comic book creator wants to know how to clue people in to back story properly, this is the issue they should study. All we need to know about previous issues is in the first panel.
From there it goes into Peter and Mary Jane moving into a new apartment. I was actually surprised at how little the actual story took up. The writer made a point of showing little moments in Peter Parker’s life which on the surface may seem like a distraction but actually come off quite well. I especially liked the scene of Peter and Mary Jane having dinner with Aunt May. It’s a little moment involving Mary Jane talking with Aunt May in the kitchen of her home about why she never visits and Aunt May says she doesn’t want to be a bother to the young couple. Mary Jane and Peter both tell her that won’t happen and Aunt May is overcome with joy. It’s a small moment but when you have such knowledge and compassion for the characters, it’s moments like this that make you love them all the more.
One issue I have is when Venom attempts to kill Peter. Too often in stories like this you have the bad guy go to some elaborate way to kill the good guy only to have the good guy find a way out when all along a bullet to the head would have taken out the bad guy just fine. It looks good to see the elaborate method but in reality it makes no damn sense if the bad guy really thought this would be a good way to get rid of his enemy. In this issue, Venom goes to the effort of pinning Peter Parker inside the bells that he had initially used to remove the symbiote by pinning him there with tons of webbing. Peter appears to be stuck but finds a way to escape and eventually capture Venom, bringing him to the headquarters of The Fantastic Four. I mean, wow. I am not a master criminal but even I know that something that elaborate will lead to failure. If Venom didn’t have a gun, he should have grabbed a damn brick and smashed his head in if he really wanted Peter Parker dead. Maybe they’re going for a Joker/Batman vibe here, a story of a bad guy that just doesn’t want to put his enemy down because at the end of the day he likes him. But in this issue at least it comes off as silly.
The artist for this issue was Todd McFarlane. Any comics fan worth their weight will know who he is. Apart from creating Spawn, his company is known for being the preeminent designer of quality figurines of everyone from superheros to KISS. Some artists are like guitar players. Rock fans know what I am talking about. Whether you like someone like Carlos Santana, when you hear him play guitar, you know it’s Carlos playing. When you see a Todd McFarlane drawing, you know who drew it. He has a very distinct way of drawing that is his signature. While I may have issue with Mary Jane’s hair or the fact that her waist line looks like she’s a starving child in a third world country, to have an artist of his stature draw for your comic is an honor, Todd McFarlane at his worst is better than most comic artists at their best. He could shove paint up his rectum, fart on paper, and it would be much better than most artists today. (Live with that image people.)
Being the 300th issue of Spider-Man, this issue had to bring the goods and boy did it. This is a textbook issue on how to write a good comic. Will each and every comic ever made live up to it? Of course not. Certain issues have to serve certain functions which means that they’re not always going to live up to the standards of a classic. But this issue brings the goods. It brings a nuanced bad guy, in 1988 mind you, that still interests us today. Venom is probably the last character I can think of in comics that really struck a chord with the audience. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong but I can’t think of another character that is so iconic that even a person who doesn’t actively read comics would know so well. Add to that masterful work from the great Todd McFarlane and you have a book that will stand the test of time as an instructional guide on how to write a comic book. This is certainly a comic that would be on the Mount Rushmore of comics.