Monday, September 10, 2012


Written by Diane Duane

The Plot: A mysterious black figure escapes from its imprisonment on a nuclear submarine. Meanwhile, Peter Parker purchases a strobe slave, and in the hopes of improving the quality of his photographs, attaches a motion sensor to it. While patrolling the city as Spider-Man, he comes across a warehouse robbery led by the Hobgoblin. After neutralizing Spider-Man’s spider-sense with a gas, Hobgoblin escapes. Later, a large black figure steals radioactive waste from a warehouse and kills a homeless man. His friend reports to the media that Venom is the killer. The next day, Peter investigates the two cases at the Daily Bugle morgue and discovers that the Consolidated Chemical Research Corporation owned both warehouses.

The Subplots: MJ is still looking for work after being fired from the soap opera Secret Hospital. Peter, meanwhile, is worried about getting a debt consolidation loan approved.

Web of Continuity: This novel was published in 1994, taking place shortly before the events of the Clone Saga.

I Love the ‘90s: Peter is still using a darkroom to develop photographs, a process the novel elucidates in great detail. He’s also concerned about buying new, expensive color film because the Daily Bugle’s front page has recently gone color. The Daily Bugle has also recently switched to a computer paste-up program that none of its employees can figure out. When Peter goes to the morgue, he discovers that the archives are now on CD-Rom, and he utilizes a crude search engine to investigate Venom's previous activities.

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority: Kate Cushing refers to the Hobgoblin as an "ugly sonofabitch."

Review: Star Trek novelist Diane Duane wrote a loosely connected trilogy of Spider-Man/Venom novels in the ‘90s; my memory is that I enjoyed the first one, didn’t particularly care for the second, and never saw the third one on sale anywhere. On the rare occasions that I’ve encountered people discussing these novels online, Duane’s novels seem to be casually dismissed, which surprises me. Even if the second one didn’t impress me, I don’t recall it being offensively bad, just a little dull. Maybe the quality took a deeper drop with the third book, or perhaps online fans just can’t bring themselves to admit to enjoying Venom stories. Regardless, The Venom Factor starts off slow, but it has a nice hook and the story is thankfully going out of its way to establish Peter and MJ as a believable, likeable couple.

Duane demonstrates early on that she understands how to write the Parkers’ domestic life, as the first chapter opens with Peter nervously waiting at the bank, talking to an indifferent teenage employee who doesn’t know if his loan has been approved yet, and doesn’t know when the man who does know will be coming back. Peter is slightly relieved not to have any news, since he’s convinced the answer is going to be “denied.” He heads to a nearby photography store to buy supplies. His credit card is rejected, and purchasing the equipment he needs wipes out the cash in his wallet. He then spends the next few hours setting up a device that will enable his automatic camera to take better photos of himself as Spider-Man. I think he also steps in dog crap at some point during this adventure. It’s all classic Spider-Man, and Duane shows that she can handle the marriage just as well when MJ returns home, looking unusually worn after a fruitless day of auditions. Duane hits the right notes in these scenes; they’re not boring even though we have seen the Parkers deal with these problems before, and despite the seriousness of the domestic issues, the tone is never bleak or depressing. Peter and MJ’s relationship just feels real; a feeling the comic writers somehow couldn’t replicate as the ‘90s wore on.

Another impressive element of Duane’s writing is the research she’s clearly put into the book. I don’t know if she has an honest interest in photography or just read some books before writing the novel, but it’s clear she knows her stuff. Considering the plethora of Spider-Man stories that have been published over the years, it’s surprising that Peter’s interest in photography has so rarely been explored. I would be curious to know if any Spider-Man story outside of this one applied real knowledge of specific camera equipment or film supplies into the narrative. I believe that the issue Duane is trying to address, that an automatic camera would probably produce terrible photos of Spider-Man during a battle, was already addressed with a shortcut “hidden microchip” kind of solution in the comics, but it’s admirable to see her working out a plausible explanation.

She’s also done her homework on the characters, to the point that a lengthy recap of Venom’s history includes events from a series of back-up stories from early ‘90s Spider-Man annuals. Even in Marvel’s desperate bid to reprint everything Venom, I’m not sure if anyone bothered dredging up the time Venom learned about heroism in a rural truck stop. It’s a part of his history, though, and Duane puts it to use.

Now, is anyone going to believe that Venom is truly the culprit behind the murders? Of course not. Even if you’ve never read the comics, the extensive recap of the character’s history goes out of its way to emphasize his current status as an anti-hero, and to reinforce that he’s always had a twisted desire to “protect innocence.” It’s clear that some other dark monster with a prehensile tongue is stealing radioactive waste and killing people. If Duane overplays this red herring, that will get old fast. However, the Hobgoblin’s role in the story still works as a mystery, and it’s a lot of fun to see the two greatest Spider-Man villains of the 1980s in the same story. So far, everything’s working. Considering the state of the actual Spider-Man comics in 1994, this was probably a welcome relief.


Diane said...

Re the photography business: I live with a writer who also happens to be a photographer. OH GOD STOP TALKING TO ME ABOUT DOING YOUR OWN DEVELOPING (says the weary writer: or so she said ten years ago. Or twenty.)

As for writing married life well: this is what happens when you hire, well, married writers who have actually been *conscious* for significant portions of their marriage. :)

And as for the rest of it: I love Spidey (and MJ) dearly. So sue me.

G. Kendall said...

As a fan of Peter and MJ, I was very happy to read a Spider-Man story at the time that actually treated the characters realistically and didn't dismiss MJ as a shrew or crybaby. And I always thought the focus on photography was an interesting angle to explore.
Thanks for stopping by.

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