Sunday, April 29, 2012

Comics You Should Read: Maximum Carnage

It is entirely possible that I should instead call this "in defense of Maximum Carnage".

Apparently, critics hated it. Reportedly, Marvel staffers quietly mocked it. But Maximum Carnage is one of my favorite Spider-Man stories of all time.

In my anecdotal experience, Spider-Man fans can be divided into two groups (usually by age): Those that think Venom is really cool...and those that think he is one of the worst things to ever happen to the Spider-Man mythos. Now, I'm not a die-hard Venom (or Carnage) fan, but I don't hate them...and I love this story.

I'm not going to be quite as picky with spoilers, because this story is almost 20 years old. If you don't know who Venom is, he's Eddie Brock, a newspaper reporter whose sensationalist journalism gets discredited by Spider-Man, and who bonds with the alien symbiote that forms Spider-Man's black suit. Carnage is Cletus Kasady, a serial killer who has bonded with a spawn of the Venom symbiote. As the story begins, Venom is becoming an anti-hero in San Francisco, Spider-Man is mourning the death of Harry Osborn and Kasady is locked in Ravencroft Asylum (the Arkham Asylum for the Spider-Man family of books in the early 90s). Oh, and Spider-Man's parents have seemingly returned from the dead, apparently spies who spent 20 years locked in a Soviet prison.

In Act One, we waste no time in discovering that Kasady's symbiote has mutated and now lives in his bloodstream...and he breaks out of Ravencroft, slaughtering the staff along the way. He joins forces with another inmate named Shriek, and the two set out into the city, wreaking havoc. Soon, they join forces with the Spider-Doppleganger from Infinity War and Spider-Man (who promised Mary Jane that he would give up being Spidey for two weeks - and broke that promise hours later), gets his ribs busted fighting Shriek and Doppleganger. Venom catches wind of Carnage's return and heads to New York...where Carnage lures HIM into trap. Cloak and Dagger join Spidey, but Dagger is seemingly killed by Shriek, and by the end of the first act, the city is rioting...Spidey is losing his grip, Dagger is dead, Cloak and Black Cat have joined Venom in a bloodhunt for Carnage and Carnage has added the Demogoblin to his twisted "family". In fact, part five (written by JM DeMatteis) ends in a powerful scene where Spider-Man fights off a mob and vows that he is done showing mercy.

In Act Two, Morbius joins Venom, Black Cat and Cloak and the four of them are nearly taken apart in a nightclub (where Mary Jane is also present) before Spider-Man saves the day. Spidey and Venom decide to break into Four Freedoms Plaza and steal a sonic gun while Morbius has to withdraw in the sunlight and Cloak goes searching for Firestar (Human Torch is off planet). Meanwhile, Deathlok attacks Carnage's crew (which has also added Carrion to the mix), and is taken down in a chilling juxtaposition as Spider-Man declares that Carnage's "family" will have to fall in the face of science. Deathlok is saved by Iron Fist, and Carnage proves resistant to the sonic gun...but not Firestar's microwaves. This builds, again, to another amazing high point in which Venom pushes Firestar to kill Carnage but she resists...until Spider-Man tells her it's the only way. Firestar, holding Spider-Man as an example of a real hero, agrees to do it...only pulling back when Spidey tells her to stop at the last second. Venom lashes out at Spider-Man, only to be captured by Shriek and Carnage for more torture. Spider-Man, physically crushed and emotionally suffocating, is left looking for another way...when Captain America offers him a hand.

In Act Three, Black Cat, Morbius, Nightwatch and Cloak have aligned with Venom (who is still captured by Carnage), while Spider-Man, Captain America, Deathlok, Iron Fist and Firestar have joined forces, seeking a better way to end things. They discover that Shriek is, literally, the source of the riots...she's been broadcasting hate ever since Carnage broke her out. Black Cat, injured, drops out of the fight, Morbius bails out with the rising sun, Nightwatch also pulls out and Venom goes missing after breaking away from Carnage, whose family is beginning to implode (what, psychopaths can't get along?!?). Cloak returns to his church seeking guidance...and discovers that Dagger is still alive, inside of him. Dagger, overloaded on "light" becomes the rallying point against Shriek, and her, Iron Fist and Deathlok rig together a "good bomb", which turns Carrion back human, redeems Shriek (at least temporarily) and seemingly kills Carnage. In the end, we find out Carnage is still alive, but even more unhinged, and the series ends in a three way brawl between Spider-Man, Carnage and Venom that results in Venom slipping away, Carnage being taken into custody by the Avengers and Black Cat performing an 11th hour save in a character moment showing her learning from Spider-Man over Venom.

While the story does get anvilicious at points, it is a great example of not only good over evil, but good over grey as well, with the antiheroes all either folding in the face of adversity, or being inspired by the heroes (Black Cat by Spider-Man, Cloak by Dagger, even Spider-Man by Captain America). Peter gets encouragement from Aunt May, in turn showing Mary Jane that what he does is really important, because he makes a difference every time he saves a life, causing her to go off on the cynical Richard Parker.

The story is criticized for having too many guest stars, but in a city wide massacre by supervillains, other characters SHOULD get involved, and the only truly superfluous hero guest stars are, arguably, Nightwatch and Deathlok.

The writing is noticeably done by multiple people (the regular writers for each book), with JM DeMatteis hitting the highest points of the series (especially in parts 5 and 9). At the time, I didn't appreciate Sal Buscema's art, but reading it now, he's a fantastic storyteller who makes the most of his every panel. Mark Bagley, as always, draws an amazing Spider-Man (pun intended), though his Mary Jane looks about like she should die any minute (and dear lord is she trotted around in skimpy outfits for the enjoyment of the fanboys).

Moments like "You'll get no more mercy from Spider-Man!", Spider-Man telling Firestar to NOT stoop to Carnage's level, Captain America's helping hand, Mary Jane telling off Richard Parker, Mary Jane telling Peter that she understands why he has to do what he does and Spider-Man explaining to Venom that he sees Venom the same way Venom sees Carnage are all tremendous highlights.

I've read various articles online that just trash the story out, overanalyzing it, accusing it of oversimplifying things...but forget that. Maximum Carnage is about heroes being heroes even when the rest of the world is going crazy. And that ain't bad.