When done right, the trope of a big city detective investigating a creepy mystery in a small town can be very satisfying. The X-Files played with this concept over and over again producing some of their best ever episodes. Movies do it all the time too, from Wicker Man to Hot Fuzz, they work in this space to great effect. Here, in the Web of Venom one-shot Cult of Carnage, that small-town horror takes on a symbiotic twist, and it’s as gory and unsettling as you could hope for.
Misty Knight is on the trail of the missing agent -- not to mention former astronaut and occasional Man-Wolf -- John Jameson, and her investigation has led her to Doverton, Colorado. Since no bad story ever featured Misty Knight, Cult of Carnage is already off to a good start. The town was decimated a few years back by Carnage (in the mini-series Carnage USA), but when Misty arrives, it looks as though the town’s troubles are only just beginning. After quickly finding John without any clothes or memories, Misty helps him retrace his steps over the last few days, leading them to a horrific confrontation.
Writer Frank Tieri doesn’t just lean on classic horror tropes, he fully embraces them, and the issue is all the better for it. Carnage is a terrifying villain, more so than Venom, so by turning away from the superhero elements and diving into the horror genre really does the character justice. If the name wasn’t a giveaway, Cult of Carnage shows us a town that has turned to a dark new religion, seemingly in an effort to deal with the horrors they’ve previously been exposed to. Misty and John are alone in Doverton, and pretty soon it becomes clear that the whole town is against them. Tieri treats this as a detective thriller, with the secrets unfolding as John regains his memory. To his credit, the sense of dread is there from the start, and much like Stephen King’s classic Salem’s Lot, as the town deteriorates around them, the truth rises up like an undead horror to meet them.
There are times when the script feels a little stilted, and to truly capture the feeling of creeping horror that the creative team is going for, Tieri could perhaps have done with relying more on silence and the artwork to tell the story. That being said, there are some extremely graphic moments in this issue so a little levity from the protagonists probably helped to even out. Plus, this is an issue that follows on from not only Carnage USA but recent issues of both Venom and Web of Venom, as well as introducing readers to the complicated history of Astronaut/Man-Wolf John Jameson, so perhaps some exposition was necessary.
Danilo S. Beyruth's art captures that small-town dread really well, using tight close-ups and ambiguous foregrounds to get across the claustrophobia and sense of the unknown hiding around the corners. As the horror starts to overwhelm the story, Andres Mossa’s colors go from muted greys and blues to thick, deep reds and blacks. This is a story that deals with a lot of gory concepts and, mixed with Carnage who is by his very nature a graphic character, it would be easy to descend into outright gore and violence. Beyruth manages to reign it in, however, by focusing on the characters and their reactions to what’s happening around them rather than the things themselves, with only a few major reveals providing a shocking exception. This is a wise choice, as it not only builds the tension by waiting for those big reveals but helps to enhance the horror by showing the very real emotional and physical effects it’s having on the cast.
There’s a wider narrative being built in the Venom corner of the Marvel Universe, one that’s leading us towards the next big event Absolute Carnage later this year. What the Web of Venom series has been doing really well so far is providing various different approaches to the symbiote concept while simultaneously adding more and more revealing pieces to the overall jigsaw puzzle. While Ve’Nam did that by indulging in war and action movie tropes, Cult of Carnage takes a quieter, more sinister approach with its small town horror vibes.
Cult of Carnage has to do a bit too much work to make this an issue that works completely as a stand-alone issue. You get the sense that being its own thing was a part of the brief, but with so much reliant on what’s come before, as well as an ending that remains open to what comes next, Cult of Carnage is more of a compelling and creepy chapter of a larger whole than a one-shot horror tale. If you’re following along, however, this is undoubtedly an essential read.