Sometimes, all it takes to revive a good, but overused villain is some downtime. For instance, the Mandarin went unused in the pages of Iron Man for years because the writers and editors had difficulty reconciling his deep Communist roots with the post-Cold War world. John Byrne then brought him back for the epic “Dragon Seed Saga” and cemented him as Iron Man’s greatest nemesis once again.
Similarly, Carnage was one of Spider-Man’s most formidable villains ... in theory. In practice, his overexposure led to him becoming more of a joke and annoyance. When he was ripped in half and sent off into space by the Sentry in the pages of New Avengers, a good section of the fanbase wished him “good riddance.” But that was all the way back in 2005, and as per good old Marvel tradition, Carnage has returned. The explanation for all of this comes in issue four of Carnage: Family Feud, and it makes sense considering what we know about symbiotes.
Carnage has three main draws. First, he’s a symbiote, and again, despite overexposure, the symbiotes are some of Marvel’s most powerful and artistically interesting characters. Second, he’s completely insane. One reason why Carnage’s loss didn’t feel so major was because the new Venom, Mac Gargan -- the former Scorpion -- fit into his old niche quite nicely. Carnage: Family Feud feels like a thematic sequel to Sinister Spider-Man, although it doesn’t feel like a retread. With the Venom symbiote now in the hands of the much more boring Flash Thompson, that niche is open again, and Carnage can fill it with his own brand of terror.
The third draw of Carnage is his “family.” In the early '90s, Carnage had a killer cult, with which he carved a path of death and destruction through New York. It was made up of his girlfriend, the madness-inducing Shriek; Doppelganger, a mindless mutated version of Spider-Man left over from the Infinity War crossover; Demogoblin, a demon once merged with the second Hobgoblin; and Carrion, a plague-carrying clone of Dr. Miles Warren. This was the infamous Maximum Carnage crossover, which, like Carnage himself, suffered from overexposure. The idea was interesting, as was the premise that Spider-Man and Venom had to team up to stop him. However, the story didn’t need fourteen issues, and Captain America and Deathlok (amongst many others) didn’t need to get involved.
I bring all this up because Family Feud, despite the title potentially invoking Venom, is about Carnage’s resurrection and his reunion with Shriek and the Doppelganger. The Demogoblin and Carrion were thankfully left out; the last thing this story needed were direct ties to the Clone Saga. Shriek’s twisted loyalty to her symbiotic madman, and the Doppelganger’s pet-like nature, give Carnage a strong supporting cast. It brings to mind the Joker, who also inspires loyalty through fear ... and who, not coincidentally, was teamed up with Carnage during a Batman/Spider-Man crossover.
Writer Zeb Wells does an amazing job of making us care about these insane people, especially Shriek, who seems to be getting better just when her boyfriend returns. Loyalty and caring for others are major themes in the book, and they are combined with lots of symbolism surrounding dogs and their place in the lives of humans.
The main plot of the book is more of a set-up to get to Carnage’s full resurrection, and it’s telling that this series has Carnage in the title and not Spider-Man. When Cletus Kasady takes up the mantle of Carnage once again, he dominates the book by sheer force of will. His love of death, lack of intelligence and belief in his own invulnerability make him one of Spider-Man’s most chaotic foes. He comes across as an Unsub straight out of Criminal Minds.
Still, while Carnage drives the plot, Spidey is on hand to fight him, along with Iron Man. Wells is one of the primary writers of Amazing Spider-Man, and he certainly has a handle on the character’s mix of humor and responsibility. Back in 2005, Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Straczynski figured out somewhat independently that Peter Parker and Tony Stark would make a great team, and so Iron Man is here to give Spider-Man some much-needed muscle and guidance. As much as I like Luke Cage and the Thing, they would have felt out of place here. Tony is the straight man to Peter, and they have a strong older/younger brother relationship. (Imagine this book as Rossi and Reed taking on a symbiote-possessed Frank Breitkopf. If that made sense to you, then congratulations, you’re as big a Criminal Minds fan as I am.)
Carnage’s resurrection comes at the hands of one of Tony’s business rivals, Michael Hall, who uses symbiote technology to make a group of Iron Man knockoffs called the Iron Rangers. They are indeed Marvel’s versions of the Power Rangers, complete with visors and face masks molded in the shapes of noses and mouths. Hall treats them as a product line, and it ties in thematically with the business subplots of Invincible Iron Man. Wells’s sense of humor is on display here, usually in dark ways, such as how Carnage’s use of the Rangers evokes a major piece of Power Rangers technology.
Another character introduced her is Dr. Tanis Nieves, Shriek’s psychiatrist. She and Hall tend to carry the "idiot ball" when it comes to treating Carnage and Shriek, but Iron Man and Spider-Man at least point out their stupidity. Dr. Nieves has an interesting, if possibly unearned, fate at the end, which leads into the sequel to this mini-series, Carnage U.S.A..
The story is interesting, but the art is downright gorgeous. Symbiotes require some special artwork, or else they come off looking gloppy and boring. Again, see Sinister Spider-Man, wherein Chris Bachalo’s artwork made Venom stand out as a truly bizarre creature amongst the normal humans. Clayton Crain makes Carnage horrifyingly alien, with tendrils flying everywhere. Every panel is filled with immense amounts of detail.
On page three, for instance, when Michael Hall holds up a computer chip, you can see every individual whorl and wrinkle on his hands. That panel is one of a few that look like they’ve been drawn in 3-D without having to put on the nausea-inducing glasses. I do have some minor complaints -- Crain sometimes goes a bit too far with the shadows, and though he’s much better at it than Alex Ross, it’s sometimes difficult to follow the action.
Carnage: Family Feud brings back a memorable Spider-Man villain just in time to replace the newly dull Venom. The story is compelling, dark, and occasionally funny with what could be the best artwork of any Marvel book in the last year. It’s expensive in its current hardcover form, but a trade is coming out in March. Still, this is a book best enjoyed in a full-sized hardcover, where you have more room to digest the artwork. If you enjoyed Sinister Spider-Man, have a penchant for crazy villains or just remember how screwed up Carnage was the '90s cartoon series, then check this out.