One of the more fascinating comics Marvel has been publishing over the course of the last year has been Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman's Venom. The creative team has taken the character back to the realm of horror, with a more niche focus on Lovecraftian nightmare scenarios and apocalyptic insanity. With the sudden resurgence of Eddie Brock and his symbiote in the greater pop culture landscape due to the massively successful Venom movie, the version of the character Cates and Stegman have crafted on the page often feels completely alien (pun intended) when compared to the one mass audiences have experienced. This a-typical anti-synergy approach has actually been beneficial to Venom's comic book mythos despite how weird it all has been, and that weirdness marches on in the pages of Web of Venom: Venom Unleashed #1.
Long gone are the days of Venom being seen as a trashy, style-over-substance anti-hero relic of the '90s. Eddie Brock is more than a bullish reporter with a neck thicker than a tree stump, and the symbiote (be it Venom, Carnage, or whomever) has gained a new, terrifying dimension. This one-shot is part of a series of related titles designed to help shift pieces across the board in Venom's larger narrative, but still maintain a cohesive and isolated story that just anyone can pickup and enjoy. Venom Unleashed mostly succeeds on both fronts, giving readers enough information as to why the symbiote taken on the form of a lovable (yet still terrifying) canine.
The plotting of this comic is brisk and is nearly taciturn. When your main protagonist is a dog, there really isn't much need for extensive dialogue and narration. In fact, this issue could have been part of Marvel's wordless 'Nuff Said comic book initiative of 2002, with a few cuts here and there. The fact that it works well on a simple visual storytelling level speaks to Ryan Stegman's background in illustration. Stegman knows where he wants the proverbial camera placed and how it should get there, even when he isn't the one behind it.
As for Stegman's debut in terms of how well the script plays, it's kind of hard to say. There are very few speaking roles, so it's tough to tell if he has an ear for dialogue between characters in normal circumstances. The little bit of actual get in the main story (there are actually two in this issue) is pretty limited and acts as callback moments, especially in the final act of the main event. However, the visual cues are so strong, I'd love to see Stegman pen more books, if for no other reason than to see how well he can navigate a larger tale. The backup story in this issue focuses on Carnage, and the narration the sinister symbiote reads like a page out of Donny Cates' playbook. This could, of course, just be a case of Stegman working in the world he and Cates built and using their shared nomenclature when it comes to character speech patterns, but he nailed it nonetheless.
The art is this issue is solid, even though it would have been nice if Stegman was behind the wheel in that department as well. (In all fairness, we'd love to see Stegman behind the wheel in most comics; the guy is a virtuoso.) Pencilers Kyle Hotz and Juan Gedeon (along with a small army of inkers) bring their own flare to this book and render the symbiote pooch wonderfully, as well as the horror show that is the Carnage backup story. It's a bit unfair to judge them next to the writer's art from other books, but when one sees Stegman's name (and artwork) on the cover, there are certain expectations one might have going it. That expectation is Stegman's art.
This is by no means a strike against the book. If anything, this is a wonderful example of showing how important an artist's input is to the craft. For most comic writers (who aren't Alan Moore or Grant Morrison), how scenes are framed and the level of detail that should be on each page is often at the artist's discretion. But when an artist is writing the script for other artists, surely some level of shorthand is being used in order for everyone to be on the same wavelength. It's be fascinating to see Stegman's original script to test this notion's merit.
Overall, if you've enjoyed what Cates and Stegman have brought to Venom, you're bound to enjoy Web of Venom: Venom Unleashed #1. While it doesn't exactly feel essential to the main series, it is a fun detour and give a glimpse into the potential Stegman has a writer. The art is great and the plotting is fun. While not having read the rest of Venom and its recent offshoots won't necessarily make this book impenetrable for newbies, having the background doesn't hurt.