It sounds like a joke at first: What if Batman got addicted to drugs? But legendary Batman writer Denny O'Neil took a laughable premise and turned it into one of the best character portraits the Cape Crusader's ever seen.
Batman: Venom shows off everything that makes Denny O'Neil one of my favorite writers. His work shows off an incredible ear for the musicality and quirkiness of human speech and he intentionally tethers the superhero idea to its pulp predecessors. His superpeople were always human, able to stumble and recover in ways that made them more relatable and more heroic. He first won acclaim with Neal Adams, as part of a writer/artist team that pulled Batman back into the shadows after the character's goofy popularity during a 1960s camp TV show.
Decades later, O'Neil spent a long time as the editor in charge of Batman at DC Comics and his tenure generated many of the character's modern high points in the recent Bat-mythos. A dead Robin, a new Robin, Bane? All of them happened under O'Neil's stewardship.
Originally released as part of the Legend of the Dark Knight series that featured rotating creative teams, Venom serves as a thematic lead-in for the Bane character. This five-issue arc introduced the super-steroid that makes the masked villain freakishly strong, with Trevor Von Eeden on layouts and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez providing inks. Garcia-Lopez is one of comics' unsung heroes, a man who helped develop a look for DC's most famous characters that showed up on bedsheets, lunchboxes, stickers and all kinds of other merchandise. And Von Eeden crafted some of the most visually daring superhero comics of the 1970s and '80s, with angled layouts and a style that went from detailed to impressionistic with ease. He could damn well tell a story, too, and Venom shows off his talent in spades.
You know how there are moments from favorite comics movies and games that you can quote by heart at will? Venom is full of those for me. It's being reprinted to capitalize on the impending release of The Dark Knight Rises, as the film features Bane, a supervillain who uses Venom to become superstrong. However, tie-ins aside, Venom stands as an example of the kind of writing and drawing that doesn't happen any more, with third-person narrator captions that serve as the writer's voice and steady, unassuming artwork that unfurls with a clean, nearly-perfect precision. Here's why it works.
S The panels here work in two ways: they show how strong Batman already is but also show how his brawn isn't enough.
S The first chapter of Venom begins with Batman failing to save a human life. It's an extreme move, plot-wise, but exactly the right one to set up the temptation that a young Batman would fall prey to. Guilt's a key component of the Batman construct that orphan Bruce Wayne built. As a psychological identity, it's very much the work of a boy who felt he couldn't do enough.
S Batman also works runs on channeled obsession. Von Eeden and the other artists make that come through in certain panels, flashing the vision of the little girl Batman couldn't save as he throws a punch.
S Batman beats up people all the time, but rarely with this kind of response.
S This story arc stands as one of my favorites because how wonderfully acerbic O'Neil makes Alfred. For all the sarcasm, though, you never forget that Batman's butler is more of a father, completely dedicated to the soul-crushing work Bruce Wayne's chosen to dedicate his life to. Alfred Penyworth is what keeps Batman from falling into a spirtual abyss and when he's not there, Batman's moral compass goes awry. Alfred's doing his best to puncture the kinds of excuses that addictive personalities tells themselves about their substance abuse. They need it to help them get through life in some way.
S "There are only four": Batman, you've got a problem.
S "You look okay to me": The moment really resonates for me, because it shows that even though all normalcy left his life years ago, Batman isn't totally cut off from being able to connect with someone. A bit of foreshadowing for Robin here, too, I think.
S "I'm gonna hurt you a while.": A motif that gets reinforced here: every time Batman smiles or laughs in Venom, it's a sign that the Dark Knight's state of mind is going from bad to worse.
S "Sirens shrill… he is muddled": This is that worse part.
S "Something is wrong": Batman can't keep fooling himself. He's too in tune with his mind and body to keep swimming in denial.
S That cover! It screams at you: Buy me, because look at what happens inside!
S "Until this moment…": Bat-rehab, part 1. It's not quite an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Batman's essentially admitting powerlessness here.
S "Let's move out.": Bat-rehab, part 2. The look on the hero's face as he roots around in the bushes for a baggie full of pills. Perfection.
S "Got 'em": There's that oh-so-wrong smile again.
S The look on Timmy's face as the villainous experimentation stands revealed: shame, mixed with a yearning for approval. Another perfect panel.
S Thirty days in a cave. A great, if easy, metaphor for going cold turkey.
S "You and I don't make social calls": Batman's retained the grim focus that makes him what he is. And there shall be a reckoning. "Beyond your reach, Commissioner. Not beyond mine." Great use of camera angles in this scene.
S "It's not him. It can't be.": The villains of this arc represent the perils of intellectual detachment and might-makes-right thinking. Those concepts are two poles that inform Batman's own behavior, but neither the general or the genius deny themselves the guilt catalyst that makes Bruce Wayne a hero.
S "Years ago in the Orient…": This is the kind of moment that O'Neil excelled at: seemingly throwaway lines that throb with their own rhythm, revealing layers of personal history with each syllable. The panel reveals new depth to Batman's abilities—he can be asleep and awake at the same time!—while name-checking the character's debt to The Shadow.
S "Out for our constitutional, are we?": Like I said, few people wrote sarcastic Alfred as well as Denny O'Neil.
S It's a small thing , but I love how this chapter picks up exactly where the previous one left off. And there's the caption that starts with "A breeze laced with salt...". O'Neil was a prose stylist. To today's comics readers, the captions may seem unnecessary. But they add another vector of flavor to the action and word balloons, setting the scene and communicating what the mood of the "off-camera" moment.
S The death-trap: Denny O'Neil came up as a bit of mystery scholar and you can feel the influence of all that reading in the death-trap Batman faces after being captured.
S "What he became": How bad was Bat-withdrawal? Pretty bad.
"Attention to orders": Without spoiling what happens next, let's just say that it's a spectacularly cruel twist here that adds even more tragedy to a gut-wrenching story.
S "Not the kid, damn you.": It's undeniable that Batman's projecting his own childhood trauma onto the situation here.
S "He wasn't smart enough": The way Batman swings from extremes—a super-strong steroid addict back to a more mentally sharp detective—serves as a rebuttal to those who think Batman's cool only because he can kick ass. Batman's most formidable weapon is his mind.
Then: "The shadows he inhabits are cold and filled with grief." What an ending. Remember what I said before about moments that stick with you? Here's the one that I carry around with me all the time. On this page, you get Gordon congratulating Batman, only to be ignored. During the course of this storyline, each man's broached the impersonal border of things they shouldn't ask about each other and now their affects toward each other are safely back where they need to be. From where he sits, all Gordon sees is another win for Batman. But a victory can still be a loss, especially when two kids and the memory of his own failings linger to haunt the Dark Knight. All is as it should be with Batman, meaning that he won't be smiling for a long time to come.
Years ago, I read an interview with Denny O'Neil where he talked about his own struggles with alcohol addiction. It was the late '80s or maybe the early '90s—a time when open talk about substance abuse was still a dicey proposition—in some cheap back issue of a comics magazine. I remember the candor with which O'Neil talked about the pressure and loneliness of meeting deadlines and his own alcoholism. Sometime after that, I read Venom again. I was struck by the realization that O'Neil poured all that hard-won insight about trauma, obsession, need, elation and shame into Bruce Wayne's terrible ordeal.
It makes me ache even now to imagine how Batman's nagging doubts about his level of self-control must have mirrored O'Neil's in some way. Real people don't get the satisfaction of putting away bad guys or jumping off rooftops without a scratch. Real people just have to carry on with a quieter, more subdued sort of heroism. Denny O'Neil doesn't write many comics nowadays. That's okay. Most of those he turned out in his heyday have ensured that he's going to be a hero to me and many others for decades to come.