Superhero stories are complicated. It’s in their very nature as ongoing sequential stories. With Venom, however, the history behind the character is even more complex than others, because it doesn’t just stick to the page. Before he was a character, Venom, whose first standalone movie adaptation hits theaters (and will polarize audiences) this month, was just a costume.
Before that, he was an amorphous idea that earned a kid from Chicago a check for $220.
Venom’s real life origin story goes back beyond his first appearance, twisting through a toy company’s survey on kids’ favorite words, the creation of the modern superhero event comic and even the near collapse of the comics industry. Here’s how he became a coveted enough property to worthy of a major motion picture.
Spider-Man in a “jet black” costume with a “blood-red spider” in Marvel Age.
Cut to: Summer, 1982
Two full years before anything resembling Venom appeared on the page, Randy Schueller sent Marvel an idea for a Spider-Man story.
In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe refers to it as an unsolicited idea, and while Schueller himself remembers it as being part of a talent-scouting contest, Marvel wouldn’t launch their famous Try-Out Book until the following year. Either way, Schueller’s pitch — which suggested that Spider-Man should get a new suit that was “jet black with a blood-red spider” — got a response from Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, in the form of a Work For Hire agreement and a freelance paycheck.
Even if it was an unsolicited pitch, Shooter’s response isn’t actually that surprising. He himself had broken into comics at 13 after sending DC Comics a letter, informing them that he could do a better job of writing his least-favorite comic, Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s easy to imagine him seeing an echo of himself in Schueller’s idea for a new-look Spidey and deciding to take a chance on bringing him in. Unfortunately, Schueller never got the chance to script his story, with that part of the deal falling through after a few months. The costume, however, stuck around.
With the idea bought and paid for, the costume only needed the proper venue for its debut, and that was provided by a company that knew a thing or two about giving characters new outfits: Mattel, the toy manufacturer best known for Barbie.
From the cover of Secret Wars #1.
Michael Zeck/Marvel Comics
Inventing the event comic
In 1981, Mattel had attempted to branch out into the lucrative world of action figures by launching Masters of the Universe. The success sent them chasing Star Wars and DC Comics licenses, but after losing out to their competitors at Kenner, they approached Marvel with the idea of building an action figure line. The pitch involved not just the production of toys, but a tie-in event series published in tandem with the release. The comic would be called Secret Wars, based on market research that showed kids just loved the words “Secret” and “Wars.”
The result, of course, was a twelve-issue event comic called Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, a massive crossover that would bring in every major superhero (and villain) for one big story that would justify an entire line of toys. And Shooter and the rest of Marvel had no way of knowing whether it was actually going to work.
As much as we’re used to them now, Secret Wars was the first comic of its kind. If it was going to succeed, it would have to have a hook — multiple hooks, in fact — that would grab every possible reader who was keeping up with the Marvel Universe.
In April of 1984, every comic with a character who was going to be used in Secret War disappeared into what Spider-Man called “some sort of futuristic version of Stonehenge.” When they returned in May’s issues, they had all undergone some massive change. The Fantastic Four had swapped the Thing out for She-Hulk, Colossus was breaking up with Kitty Pryde for unknown reasons, and the Hulk had reverted back to his savage persona. And in each issue, there was a footnote telling readers that they should check out the upcoming Secret Wars story to find out why.
As for Spider-Man, well, as the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #252 declared, “The Rumors are True.” He had a new costume. Of course, those were “rumors” that had been hyped up by Marvel itself. Designs for the new costume had already appeared back in March, in the pages of Marvel Age to promote the miniseries and tease its consequences, complete with Schueller’s suggested red insignia.
Here in the present, we’ve been through a seemingly endless stream of costume redesigns, but in 1984, Spider-Man had been wearing that classic red-and-blue suit for 20 years. With the exception of a small handful, iconic superhero costumes had stayed the same for decades. Before Secret Wars, the most notable changes had been Batman adding a yellow oval to his chest and Wonder Woman ditching her star-spangled suit (and super-powers) for a brief period in the ‘70s, to which readers had not exactly reacted well.
The black costume, on the other hand, was a hit. So much so, in fact, that after 35 years of countless other redesigns for every superhero you can think of, comic book readers still know exactly what you’re talking about if you just say “the black costume.”
But it wasn’t just a sartorial change. It was a suit with its own set of super-powers that could respond to Peter Parker’s thoughts and instantly eliminate the old “running out of web fluid” plot device. It only got more interesting over the next few months — before it had even shown up in the pages of Secret Wars, it had already been revealed to have a mind of its own. It was a symbiotic life-form that could take over Peter’s body and wanted to bond with him permanently, for what we could only assume were sinister purposes.
Spider-Man and the symbiote in Secret Wars #8.
Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck/Marvel Comics
Finally, Secret Wars #8 hit the stands, and things got even weirder. If it hadn’t been obvious that the black costume was a big deal already, this cover shows it. While a dozen heroes and villains brawl in the background, Spider-Man is front and center, looking at his own new set of clothes, with a cover blurb that breathlessly announces “Amid the chaos, there comes… A costume!”
That origin story for the new suit that everyone had been wondering about for eight months? It turned out to be the product of a high-tech costume-making machine. Even weirder, it was also revealed that the design of the new Spider-Man wasn’t actually Spider-Man’s design after all. The issue before Spidey got his new costume also introduced a new Spider-Woman, whose costume was… well, it was the black costume, right down to the big white spider. Spidey even admits in Secret Wars #8 that he was “subconsciously influenced” by this new unrelated Spider-Woman while dreaming up his new costume.
Back in the regular monthly title, the black costume appeared to come to an end in a pretty sympathetic way. After being blasted off of Peter Parker’s body and contained by the Fantastic Four, it escaped and once again attempted to bond with Peter. This was the story with the famous scene of Spider-Man driving the symbiote off of his body by subjecting it to the deafening ringing of a church bell. As it dissolves from the sonic attack, the symbiote pulls Peter to safety, with what can only be described as the gooey equivalent of sad puppy dog eyes. Had it, at last… learned to love?
Nope. Not really, anyway.
Spider-Man comics are monumentally self-referential, even by the standards of continuity-heavy superhero stories. There’s no event so weird, no detail to small that it can’t come back in one form or another. What would’ve happened if someone else got the corrupting powers of that costume and wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice that Peter had to keep away from it?
Eddie Brock and the symbiote.
Thus: Eddie Brock, boldly crafted by writer David Michelinie as an Evil Spider-Man. Like Peter, he’d been a journalist who was disgraced when he published a story disproved by — of course — Spider-Man. Thanks to artist Todd McFarlane, he was also massive, a hulking brute.
Bonded together, Brock and the symbiote became Venom. The character’s visual connection to a beloved costume changed combined with a new hulking design to make him incredibly popular. So popular, in fact, that by 1993, there wasn’t a month that went by without a solo Venom comic on the stands — 22 miniseries published consecutively to form what was essentially a five-year ongoing title.
It’s easy to see the appeal, too. In order to justify his role as a protagonist, Venom was pretty much a combination of Spidey and the Punisher, mashed up to form a “lethal protector.” Like other ultra-popular characters of the early ‘90s like Wolverine and Cable, he was willing to kill his enemies in pursuit of a skewed idea of justice. In other words, he wasn’t quite a supervillain, he was just someone (or someones) who really, really hated Spider-Man.
That’s the foundation of Eddie Brock as Venom, and in the years since, it hasn’t exactly gotten any less complicated. Brock found Jesus and gave up the symbiote, auctioning it off to a crowd of villains. It eventually wound up in the hands of Spider-Man’s high-school-bully-turned-friend-turned-war-hero, Flash Thompson, who used it in battle as Agent Venom.
Brock would later return to symbiote-super-powers as, wait for it, Anti-Venom, who was just Venom with an inverted color scheme. Later, he bonded with other symbiotes before finally becoming Venom again, and also briefly loaned the original symbiote out to Peter Parker so that he could fight the Green Goblin, who had bonded with another symbiote, Carnage, to form the Red Goblin. Also the symbiote itself would be revealed to be part of an alien race called the Klyntar, and bond with everyone from Rocket Raccoon and Groot to the Hulk.
In other words, it’s comics. Maybe more than any other character, Venom is rooted in a universe where someone can go off to space and find a costume that secretly wants to eat their brain, while also prompting people to use phrases like “vulnerable to fire and sonics” as though they are things anyone would actually say. It’s the product of a kid pitching a story and a toy company wanting to justify its action figure line, bonded, well, symbiotically, with the excesses of the superhero genre.
Chris Sims is the former senior writer of the Eisner Award-Winning ComicsAlliance. He has written comics for Marvel Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, and Oni Press.