Comic veteran artist Mark Bagley may not have created the Eddie Brock/Black suit/symbiote union known as Venom, but over the course of his expansive career as an artist for Marvel comics, his hand has guided the popular anti-hero through many of the character's most iconic moments.
His relationship with the character goes back years, starting with his first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man into his extraordinary run on Ultimate Spider-Man with writer Brian Michael Bendis, and even on through to today where he had the chance to return to the character for a recently completed five-issue miniseries.
Mark recently sat down with SYFY WIRE to talk about his history with Spidey, symbiotes, and his thoughts on a Spidey-less Venom movie.
Your first issue was Amazing Spider-Man #345 back in 1991, filling in for the regular artist at the time, Erik Larsen. Were you aware that this single issue would lead to becoming the regular penciler for the book going forward?
I thought I was positioned to take over for Eric. I just did the best job I could on it and at the time I don't think I knew Eric was leaving a book, with all of the Image stuff. Everybody leaving happened pretty damn quick as I recall. So, I just tried to do the best job I could. It came up pretty well, I thought. And when Erik had [initially] gotten the book, I thought I was next in line too, so I wasn't counting my chickens [laughing].
Your first issue saw Eddie Brock, who had been separated from the Venom symbiote at this point in the storyline, reuniting with his "other," as they escaped from Rikers Island Prison. You also created Eddie's cellmate at Rikers, Cletus Kasady, who would later become Carnage. Any idea at the time of how popular that character would become?
Of course not. I had no idea, to be honest. I wasn't a big Venom fan and at the time, I just thought it was another story. I really didn't gather the fact that Carnage was going to be such a big deal.
Beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #351 and lasting through issue #415, over time, your depiction of the wall-crawler became distinct. A lithe, athletic, dynamic Spider-man. What were you looking to bring to the character to make him your own as you started that run?
At the time, I don't think I really thought about it that way. I didn't think I'd get ever really make him my own. I mean, I never felt like I lived up to what John Romita was doing, what John Romita Jr. was doing, and what Gil Kane did. I would look at the way I drew him and go, "Man, I'm not nearly as elegant as these guys are." I was just trying to get better. I was doing the best I could at the time. When it comes to thinking like I was making Peter Parker mine, I kind of felt Romita Jr. had the inside track on that and I was just trying to keep up with what he was doing. You know, I am modest [laughs].
So during your Amazing Spider-Man run you were more focused on…?
I was really just more about the story than anything else. I love storytelling. I love the idea of visually breaking down the story. Back then we were working off of the Marvel [method] to stop a plot. I don't remember exactly how long [writer] David Michelinie's plots were. Probably eight to ten pages. I would lay out the book and tell a story visually and then he would come back and script it. It's changed over the years. Now we're working on full scripts. But I was just having a blast doing that sort of thing.
Your long run on Amazing offered you ample opportunity to draw Venom, what do owe your version of Eddie Brock's look to?
At the time I was so excited to be doing Amazing Spider-Man. I was just having a blast, drawing him. Venom was a big part of it at the time. And I came to enjoy drawing him. And actually picked up a few things. At the time Adam Kubert was doing something involving Venom and Ghost Rider. The whole drool dripping down his face and off his face. I mean he really ratcheted up the whole drool factor. I kind of saw that it looks pretty cool. Then kind of glommed onto that.
The 1993 mini-series Venom: Lethal Protector seems to be the basis for the upcoming Venom film. You worked on the first three issues of the mini-series while still working on Amazing Spider-Man at the time. Was it just a case of having too much work on your plate that kept you from completing the project?
I got sick. I was doing Amazing Spider-Man and Lethal Protector. I could do the two books a month. I was a couple of issues into Lethal Protector, and I got misdiagnosed on a Friday. By Sunday morning I was in the emergency room. I got shingles. I was in excruciating pain. My wife thought I was going to die.
[Marvel] asked me and "I said I can't do this." They said, "well, do you want to drop off of Amazing and finish Lethal Protector? We can back that [release date] up." I said, "Look, Amazing is my book and the one I really wanted. It's the on-going and it's something I've always dreamt about doing as a protective thing. I would rather just drop off and do Amazing." I had to skip an issue or two on Amazing during my recovery. But, I was back on it fairly quickly and so Ron Lim took over on Venom and the rest is history.
What do remember about working on Lethal Protector?
To be honest. I don't remember the fine details of how it was pitched to me. I knew it was something I wanted to do. It seemed like a pretty smart gig to take. That was my main idea about it. And when I got the plot, the rest took off. I look back at the issues and I realize I was drawing my ass off [laughs].
So did you design the symbiotes who are also set to appear in the movie?
You know, I did the cover to I think it was issue #3 or #4. Which has Scream, the yellow symbiote, the female. I designed her. I think that was the only one that I designed. I think I was off book and sick by the time the other one showed up.
So what are your thoughts on a Venom movie sans Spider-Man?
Seeing the trailer, it looks like Scream in there. I hear that Cletus Kasady gets introduced, but at the end of the movie, if what I'm hearing is correct. But the Spider-less Venom thing is a problem because without that iconic white spider on his chest, it's just this huge black blob of goo. A monster character with the tongue. The tongue is great. I mean, that's awesome.
But you know, I'm not one of these fanboys who loses a lot of sleep that it's not just like the comics or anything because, I understand the different mediums. They have different goals. But it's going be interesting to see how they make that work without Spider-Man. I think it's just basically going to be a monster story. If the character is anything like the comics, that's fine.
You went on to an 111-issue uninterrupted run on Ultimate Spider-Man. You got the chance to work with Brian Bendis; telling Peter's story from square one. You also got to redesign and re-imagine most of Spidey's classic rogue's gallery, including Venom. Some would say if the movie is borrowing anything from the comics, it would be your Ultimate look for Eddie Brock. How did that come about?
I knew it couldn't have the white spider on it, although I made a pitch for it. I think the first UItimate cover I did with Venom had the white spider on it.
But as the story progressed...?
The idea I had was that it had muscle memory from when it was on Peter for a short while, but Brian really didn't want to do that. I kind of came at it with the idea that if you really look at the way I drew the Venom creature in Ultimate Spider-Man, he's not your prototypical super villain body in aspect. It's more of a monster. My idea was he was a whole big ole cancerous thing, walking around. As I got later on into it, he had teeth growing out of his shoulder, out of his forearms, like things that just that were just out of control. And that was my idea of it.
You've recently had the chance to revisit Venom, with a few issues on the ongoing series, and a new five-issue mini-series. Venom: First Host. Were you looking to bring anything new to the table as you step backed into drawing Eddie Brock again regularly for the first time in a while?
No, not really adding any tweaks. I wanted to make sure everyone could see that I was drawing better [laughs]. Just doing a really good job in the actual art on it so that people wouldn't look at it and say, "Uh, his old stuff is looks better," you know? Especially with John Dell inking it. The inks are just unbelievable on it there. But that's why I'd like to do Amazing Spider-Man again sometime, just so people can see how my art has changed. Not like intentionally trying to change my style, but just showing that you grow as an artist, and you get better.
What else did First Host offer you the opportunity to do?
Venom has another baby in this mini-series. So I just designed and drew my first new symbiote in 25 years.
Were there any notes given in terms of what the new symbiote was supposed to look like?
It was pretty vague. Mike (Costa, writer for the mini-series) is honest about the fact that he doesn't get into the design too much, he likes to leave that to the artists and I sent in a bunch of sketches because it was pretty vague what this character is going to be doing. It was going to be stealthy and be able to change people's emotions, influenced their minds. but it was still pretty nebulous when I was actually having to do the designs.
Any stories from the initial design process left on the cutting room floor?
I must've done a dozen sketches and I didn't have a single one I liked. Basically, it was just a kind of a black figure, kind of loose. No real muscle tone and just kind of a loose figure. Like it's an infant, unformed, with a big white spot on its face. Apparently, it looked just like some character from Batman Beyond [a character called Inq.], the TV show, which I'd never heard. They sent me a picture of it, and I was like "Cot dammit!" [laughs]. I didn't actually have to draw it for like a month or two in the actual book. By the time came it came time to draw it, I said I can't do that. It's a terrible piece.
Something else came to me and it was this guy. So then I'm pretty happy with the way it looked, and I liked the coloring on the book. So story-wise, I think it works.
Did you ever imagine that 27 years after you jumped on Spider-Man and introduced the first Symbiote other than Venom into the zeitgeist that you'd still be drawing them today?
Well, when it comes to Carnage, I tell people at conventions, when they asked me for sketches, I say if I'd known I'd be drawing him 30 years later, I'd have made it easier to draw. You can't really do much with that face, and the tendrils and everything's just kind of a pain in the ass to draw. Honestly, it's nice to know that I've actually got something that has lasted as a character.