Of all Marvel's attempts to launch Cletus Kasaday in his own series, Gerry Conway and Mike Perkins' "Carnage" #1 is the best use of the character in his own book. Using the title character as a force of nature around which the rest of the book is structured, Conway creates an atmosphere of terror and suspense accentuated by Perkins' dark, realistic artwork. The combination both grounds and unsettles the story, as it makes readers feel like anything is possible in a world hewing very close to our own. Conway dips into the tropes of the serial killer/horror genres and borrows the best elements of those stories, combining them with faces familiar to fans of the "Spider-Man" family of characters and setting up an opening story arc that could prove to be an atmospheric, fear-fueled bloodbath.
The pace of the first issue is good; Conway gets introductions and character motives in quickly after delivering an opening scene that establishes Carnage's homicidal and sociological nature as he calmly converses with a waitress in a diner full of patrons he's just murdered. The writer -- who made a name for himself on Marvel's horror line in the 70s -- knows how to deliver a steady feed of information and then cut loose with a big splash page of action. The cast of characters tasked with taking down Carnage -- including Colonel John Jameson and Eddie Brock -- are a ragtag squad with their own problems, from Eddie's off-kilter behavior to the sleazy mine owner who is clearly in this for the profit to the private security expert whose shared history with Kasaday may be more than she is letting on. It all comes together to create an appropriate '80s horror movie vibe, down to the defeat snatched from the jaws of victory as their plan falls apart on them.
Perkins assists in creating this atmosphere with a balance of detail and grime that practically comes with its own droning soundtrack. His grounded style is a driving force in making the violence seem more violent and the fear seem more real. However, his work still has a ways to go with the more fantastic elements of the book; he still hasn't found a good take on the titular character, whose odd and surreal design comes across as more of a strange red bodysuit than a fluid Rorschach of human and alien blood.
This is a good use of Carnage, a Freddy Kreuger-style villain whose series forces its characters to react rather than act. Keeping this balance is key to the future of the series and maintaining the tone of the book. Conway, also a veteran television writer, controls the pages and builds to Cletus patiently, allowing the characters to deliver motivation and personality, which will help them connect with readers when they inevitably become fodder for Carnage's acts of terror. The writer also does a good job of resisting the urge to make Cletus relatable; too much of that and the audience is rooting for a serial killer, but too little development and the character is nothing more than a weapon to point at various other characters to shred. Fans looking for some atmospheric horror and a good use of tertiary characters will want to check out "Carnage" #1.