When Venom hits the big screen this weekend it will have been more than 30 years since the villain-turned-antihero was first seen in the pages of Marvel Comics. Although one half of the character first appeared as Spider-Man's sentient alien costume in 1984's "Secret Wars," Venom wouldn't appear until 1988, when the costume bonded with disgraced reporter Eddie Brock in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, unifying behind a thirst for revenge against Peter Parker.
While a hulking, slobbering, nightmare alien version of Spider-Man sounds like a natural home run for a villain today, when the idea was first floated Spider-Man had gone through dozens of less-than-impactful villains. In fact, aside from the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-designed villains like Dr. Octopus, the Vulture, Kraven, Mysterio, and Lizard, the House of Ideas hadn't created a major Spidey foe since the Kingpin, a collaboration between Lee and John Romita Sr. With Venom's debut in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #300, writer David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane changed all of that.
But Venom's origin story actually starts way back in 1981, when a comic book fan from Illinois named Randy Schueller thought Spider-Man could use a new suit. What follows is the story of Venom's origin, as told by the creators at Marvel Comics.
In the early 1980s, Spider-Man was everywhere, thanks to multiple cartoons, a feature on the Electric Company, a live-action TV show, and, of course, the comic books. According to then-Marvel editor Jim Salicrup, who wrote the comic that accompanied the Electric Company show, called "Spidey Super Stories," the superhero was becoming too kid-friendly.
"Spider-Man was starting to be perceived as a superhero just for younger children, as the audience for comics was getting older," he said.
In 1981, Randy Schueller was feeling inspired. A lifelong Spider-Man fan, he responded to a callout he saw searching for aspiring writers and artists at Marvel Comics. According to the Marvel editor-in-chief at the time Jim Shooter, Schueller's pitch was unsolicited. In his pitch, Schueller suggested that Spider-Man don a new black suit. It would be created by Reed Richards using the same unstable molecules from which the Fantastic Four costumes were made, he thought.
"The unstable molecules would flow into Peter's pores and allow him to cling to walls better," Schueller wrote in a letter recalling the concept to CBR in 2007. "For some lame reason, I had the Wasp involved since she was the resident fashion plate of the Marvel universe at the time. Remember when Jan would show up in every other issue of the Avengers sporting a cool new costume? I loved when they did that! So to me, it made sense to have her design the new spider suit when she was over at the Baxter Building for cocktails or something. Anyway, I saw the new suit as a stealth version of the original costume – jet black so he could blend in with the shadows."
According to Shooter, the sum of his suggestion was two words: "black costume."
"I had him paid some hundreds of dollars for those two words, though Marvel certainly had no obligation to do so," he recalled. "Just trying to be a good guy. The fan's letter sat in my desk drawer for a year. When Secret Wars came around and I was looking for ways that the war might change the participants (as wars are wont to do), I said, 'Aha! Black costume!'"
Prior to that, though, Shooter offered Schuller a chance to flesh out his story idea. In August 1982, Shooter sent Schuller a letter with the offer of $220 and a chance to work on his pitch with Marvel editor Tom DeFalco.
When Schuller's idea landed on DeFalco's desk, he noticed a few problems with the story. In Schuller's plot, Spider-Man changes his costume from red and blue (with black highlights) to red and black. Schuller also proposed that the costume also enhanced Spider-Man's agility and his ability to stick to walls.
"First, as the editor of Spider-Man, I decided that Spider-Man's costume was not red and blue with black highlights," he said. "I told my artists the costume would go back to its original look, which was red and black with blue highlights... just like it first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first few years of Amazing Spider-Man."
DeFalco said there was no way to visually show a difference between Spider-Man's current agility and ability to stick to walls and enhanced versions of these very same abilities.
"I worked with Randy and tried to construct a publishable story out of his ideas, an exciting story with a beginning, middle, and end. We struggled through numerous attempts until we gave up," he said.
With plans underway for Secret Wars in 1983, Shooter selected a number of artists to design a new costume for Spidey, with Mike Zeck's designs winning out.
"My instructions were 'black costume.' He's Mike Zeck, you don't have to give him much direction," Shooter said.
Although Zeck's design was eventually chosen as the winner, Rick Leonardi eventually tweaked the costume, DeFalco noted.
Although Secret Wars #8, released in December of 1984, marked the official debut of the black costume, it appeared several times prior. In May 1984, in The Amazing Spider-Man #252, The Spectacular Spider-Man #90, and Marvel Team-Up #141 due to shipping and/or printing issues. Additionally, Marvel Age #12 came out a full two months before ASM #252 and featured sketches of Spidey's new black costume with a red logo and web shooters.
In Secret Wars, the Marvel heroes find an alien machine that creates clothing for you as you envision it, and of course Spider-Man shows up late.
"The heroes use it to repair their outfits, which are battle-torn," Shooter explained. "Spider-Man arrives late. He's told about the costume fixer, but mistakenly goes to the wrong machine. It provides a 'costume,' but at that point, who knew what it really was?"
Shooter said he thought the costume should grant Spidey some new powers and came up with them on his own. When DeFalco was assigned to write the first appearance of the costume, he asked Shooter how and why the costume worked.
"He told me that I was the writer and it was my job to come with those explanations," DeFalco said. "That's when I came up with the idea that the costume was actually a living creature — a symbiote."
The point was corroborated by Amazing Spider-Man illustrator Ron Frenz, who worked closely with DeFalco throughout several arcs with the black costume.
"Striding across this dull, grey globe like a colossus of creativity, 'twas The Legendary Tom DeFalco who first lit the flickering flames of inspiration by decidedly determining that the black costume from beyond should indeed a living, sentient entity being," Frenz explained via email, channeling old Thor comics.
At the time, Shooter admits, he thought going with a living costume was too obvious a direction, the first thing most people would think of.
"However, I'd said 'anything you want,' so I honored those words," he said.
A VILLAIN IN THE SHADOWS
In the time of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Spider-Man's black suit proved to be a smash. It also marked a shift in tone for the web-slinger, as evidenced in arcs like "Kraven's Last Hunt." But, in storylines spreading across The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, and Web of Spider-Man, the symbiote started acting strangely.
After almost a year of black-suit Spider-Man stories, DeFalco and Frenz told the story of Peter Parker's divorce and ugly separation from the symbiote costume in Amazing Spider-Man #258. In the book, Spider-Man turns to Reed Richards and the Human Torch for help as he finally learns that his costume is alive.
With the Fantastic Four's help, the suit and Spider-Man are separated using a sonic beam. The Human Torch then surrounds the creature with fire to trap it. Enraged, the costume hammers the walls of its prison, left to plan and hunger for revenge on Peter Parker.
The next glimpse of the costume came via John Byrne in January of 1985. In a small epilogue in Fantastic Four #274, the costume escapes its prison in the Baxter Building with the help of a strange intruder.
By that time, Web of Spider-Man had launched, with writer Louise Simonson and later Danny Fingeroth plotting. With Issue #8 of Web, David Michelinie joined the team and oversaw Peter Parker's return to his traditional red and blue suit by Issue #14.
It could be argued Venom first showed up in the pages of Web of Spider-Man #18, written by David Michelinie and drawn by Mark Silvestri. In the issue, Peter Parker is almost killed as he's shoved in front of a subway train by an indescript hand. Micheline continued his tease in Web of Spider-Man #24, where a black arm can be seen coming through the window and grabbing Parker, who again is not warned by his spider-sense.
Initially, Michelinie said the teasers were meant to foreshadow a female villain. Michelinie said his original idea stemmed from his graphic novel, Revenge of the Living Monolith. In the story, a pregnant woman's husband dies when he's hit by a distracted driver who was watching Spider-Man fight.
"So the woman is traumatized by this, she gives birth, and her baby dies. She goes into a catatonic state for months, and when she comes out of it, she blames Spider-Man for killing her husband and baby. The rejected symbiote senses her hatred for Spider-Man, and joins with her," he told Comic Crusaders last year. "That was originally what I was teasing, the woman who would be Venom."
THE BIRTH OF VENOM
Enter Editor Jim Salicrup, who oversaw Michelinie's transition from Web of Spider-Man to Amazing that year. When Salicrup took over as editor of the Spider-Man titles, Peter Parker was wearing the black-and-white costume, based on the alien costume he'd gotten on Battleworld.
"The black and white costume was incredibly popular with the generation of fans reading comics at that time — 1984-85 — for several reasons," Salicrup said. "One, it was truly surprising that such a well-established, iconic Marvel character would abandon its trademark costume for something completely different. That type of thing just never happened back then. Usually, a Marvel superhero that wasn't selling very well would get a new costume as an attempt to boost sales, but a top-selling character simply wouldn't. Why mess with success?"
Despite the costume's popularity, editorially, Salicrup wanted to go back to the original red and blue costume, and got permission to do so from Shooter.
"My reason was simple," he said. "Despite the success of the darker characters such as Daredevil and Batman, I thought Spider-Man should remain Spider-Man, and not be a second-rate version of those two characters. Any character I edit, I strive to make as much that character as possible—to set it apart from other characters. To be true to their original concepts."
Around that time, Salicrup said, many of Marvel's top artists were leaving Marvel to work for rival DC Comics, but one artist, Todd McFarlane, was making the jump from DC to Marvel.
McFarlane met with all the Marvel editors, but it was Salicrup who offered him Spider-Man.
"He said he'd only do it if Spidey was back in the red and blue," Salicrup said. "I knew right away that we'd get along great!"
McFarlane said he was excited to do Spider-Man, and he also missed the classic red and blue costume.
"As a comic geek, I wanted to draw the red and blue version I grew up with," he said. "I think I may have said to either Dave or someone else, that they've gotta get rid of that black suit."
As plans progressed for a return to Spider-Man's red and blue suit on Amazing #300, DeFalco replaced Shooter as editor-in-chief at Marvel. While he thought a costume change was cool, DeFalco didn't think it was special enough for the issue and suggested that Salicrup and Michelinie come up with a new major Spider-Man super-villain in addition.
"Tom was asking for a something a little short of a miracle," he said. When Michelinie pitched his idea of a woman wearing the symbiote costume, Salicrup was interested but not sold.
"I knew this villain had to be a meaner, bigger, and more powerful version of Spider-Man. Someone the fans could believe could truly defeat Spider-Man," he said. "So I do what editors do when they want to change such a major idea, I took it the editor-in-chief betting he'd suggest what I was thinking, and sure enough Tom did just that. That way, when I told David, I was able to 'blame' it on Tom."
Working in what was, and sometimes still is, called the "Marvel Style," Michelinie created very tight plot outlines for Issues #299 and #300, which introduced Eddie Brock and Venom, Salicrup said.
"Todd McFarlane drew the issues, and he added something that never appeared on the alien symbiote costume before — a mouth, with very sharp teeth, and a tongue," he said.
The super-long tongue, he added, was the brainchild of Erik Larsen, who followed McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man.
MacFarlane said that when David Michelinie first explained the Venom character to him in #298 and #299, he just assumed the character was a monster.
"It felt like this alienesque monster, some sort of big creature," he said. "At the time I just thought it served a purpose to move Spidey back to the old costume. How surprised I was later down the line how big this character would become."
Later, when MacFarlane got the script for ASM #300, he was blown away again.
"I just remembered thinking, 'Pardon? This suit is actually on a reporter named Eddie Brock? It's a human being underneath?' I probably would have designed it differently in those initial frames if I had known that."
After ASM #300 blew up, McFarlane said it became clear where he wanted to head with the design, a dark hulk of a monster, hunting Peter Parker from the shadows.
"I wanted to the people to feel, as much as possible, that Peter was in jeopardy, like there was this ever-present danger there," he said. "I always felt like Spider-Man's best fights were against larger, more imposing villains like Juggernaut or Rhino. With Venom I wanted Spidey to feel overpowered with this giant gorilla hunched over him."
With each new appearance, MacFarlane said Venom "kept getting bigger, bulkier, and gnarlier."
THE NATURE OF VENOM
According to Michelinie, Venom was created with the specific goal of ending Spider-Man.
"Venom's entire reason for existence, at least in the beginning, was to kill Spider-Man," he said. "A lot of people missed the subtlety in that, and derided the motivation with 'Aw, that's a cliche — every Spider-Man villain wants to kill him!' Not so. With the possible exception of Kraven the Hunter, Spider-Man's villains didn't even want to see him, let alone fight him. The only times they confronted Spider-Man was when he interrupted their attempts to commit crimes."
Second, Michelinie said, the comics had previously established that the alien symbiote didn't trigger Peter's spider sense.
"So I thought it would be fun to introduce a supremely dangerous character who could sneak up on Spider-Man without warning," he explained. "I thought it would be interesting to explore the effect that would have on Peter's confidence and security."
To point out the nature of Venom's specific goal, Michelinie even wrote a story where Venom was tricked into thinking he had succeeded in killing Spider-Man.
"And Venom then ceased to exist," he said. "The symbiote retracted into dormancy, and Eddie Brock was content for the first time since his introduction."
After Venom became a hit, Michelinie penned an increasing number of spinoffs and side stories with the character. His "Carnage" arc was a reaction to many readers' failure to grasp the antiheroic subtleties of Venom's character motivation.
"He had a strong sense of morality. Sick, twisted, misplaced, perhaps, but morality nonetheless," Michelinie explained. "Eddie and the symbiote both felt that they had been wronged; the symbiote had been rejected by its host (Peter), and Brock felt that Spider-Man was the cause of his career being destroyed and his life spiraling downhill. So together they reacted with what became Venom's secondary motivation: They sought to protect 'other' innocents from evil, seeing themselves as heroes even while they were mercilessly violent."
Hoping to make that clearer without spelling it out, Michelinie introduced Cletus Cassidy as Carnage, an analogue of Venom with one major difference: He was a true sociopath, with no scrap of morality or ethics, whose motivation was based solely on chaos and destruction.
Michelinie said there's nothing he actually loved about Venom himself, and he mostly feels sorry for the character.
"But I do love writing him," he said. "He's such a twisted, unpredictable character, and I'm delighted when my own creations surprise me. All I set out to do was write a story that I thought was pretty cool. I wanted to entertain and be entertained. Whatever happens beyond that is out of my control."