When it comes to on-screen depictions of Venom, the mishandling of David Michelnie and Todd McFarlane’s creation in the 2007 Spider-Man 3 still stings, and Tom Hardy’s crazed yet slightly entertaining portrayal in the 2018 blockbuster Venom is fresh in the mind. But in the comics, writer Donny Cates and company have been able to take a silly character and put him at the center of a compelling and complex narrative-driven tale that exceeds expectations in all ways. It is not a far stretch to say this is best the character has been since Michelnie’s defining miniseries, Venom: Lethal Protector.
Venom: Rex collects the first six issues of the ongoing run from Cates, penciler Ryan Stegman, inker JP Mayer, colorist Frank Martin, and letterer VC’s Clayton Cowles.
Cates and Stegman establish from the beginning that this will be different from any other solo story featuring the alien being. There is no mention of Spider-Man in the beginning of the story—instead it starts in ancient Scandinavia, where a vile and nasty symbiote is attacking Norse soldiers while they scream for Beowulf. It is not your average beginning for a story about an already established character in Marvel comics, but as the story continues on into the modern day, this flashback pays off in a huge way as it leads into one of the most exciting parts of the story and an Avenger cameo.
Venom: Rex is named after a new character, Rex Strickland, who becomes the perfect catalyst for the new beginning of the Venom origin story. Credit is due to Donny Cates for creating a character that evokes many emotions while reading: one moment I was rooting for Rex, the next moment I was unsure how to feel about the character. Outside this collection, the one-shot Web of Venom: Ve’Nam features more of the character and his origin story.
Another character Cates brings into the story is the villain Knull, who is the god of the symbiote and a menacing character that makes Eddie Brock’s Venom look weak throughout the story. Once Knull is introduced, all hell breaks loose, and the story becomes this crazy ride that feels like a ’90s action throwback—the violence intensifies, and the artwork is reminiscent of Todd McFarlane and other comic artists, with the kinds of massive splash pages and demonic character designs that made Spawn the comic to have in the ’90s. Knull’s appearance evokes that instant feeling of villain at first glance, with his lengthy body and symbiote armor making him truly look like a god compared to Venom and Spider-Man.
Story-wise, Venom: Rex is one of the better-written solo stories that have featured Venom, for the amount of violence in the story is matched by exploring the relationship between Eddie and Venom. Cates is able to create a story that shows the reliance each has on the other despite the pain that both are going through. Eddie’s only relationships are complicated ones, mainly his endless battle with Venom and his not trusting Rex, while Venom is being pulled by evil thoughts and a thirst for destruction when the presence of Knull arrives. As the symbiote is being pulled towards the evil, this is the first time that he takes form into a red-and-black appearance that is the most frightening the character has recently looked.
Thanks to Ryan Stegman’s artwork on this series, Venom looks the best he has ever looked; with the use of splash pages and the amount of detail in every panel, Stegman becomes the star of the series. He is able to take two characters, Venom and Knull, that both have a nasty, gooey appearance to them and craft beauty of it—some of the panels look like they belong on metal album covers. See below for one particularly stunning panel featuring Venom and Miles Morales’s Spider-Man. The penciling by Stegman, inking by JP Mayer, and coloring by Frank Martin perfectly fuse into a thing of beauty, and it’s a perfect example of what the series has to offer in craziness and superb artwork. On the creative team, Clayton Cowles is also a standout with his lettering. Despite some creations that come off the page like the “Boom!” “Pow!” days of the 1960s Batman television series, Cowles is able to use that style effectively by having it blend in with the artwork.
The efforts of the whole team make this a Venom series that deserves attention among not just Venom fans but comic fans generally. If I have one criticism of the series, it’s the absence of a female character; the series only features four main characters and tends to act as a character study for Venom and Rex, but it is odd to read a comic without a female character in the story somewhere. It does not hinder the story, but adding a female character could add more layers to an already compelling narrative. Regardless, this series is the perfect jumping-on point for those who saw the film and a great collection addition for hardcore fans of the character. I will definitely return it to as long as the creative team stays on.