How 'Maximum Carnage' Paved the Way for Tom Hardy's 'Venom'
1993: the height of the comic book bubble, a time when collectors were convinced that each No. 1 issue or special event could be worth untold thousands if they bought a copy and faithfully kept it stored in plastic sleeves and cardboard backing.
It was also the year Marvel Comics took advantage of that hunger for event storytelling and unleashed “Maximum Carnage,” a tale told weekly across all the Spider-Man titles that at the time was the biggest Spidey crossover event ever. It was the brainchild of editor Danny Fingeroth, who oversaw the growing roster of Spider-Man books the company published.
Heat Vision breakdown
The story is (theoretically) pretty simple: Spider-Man teams with his mortal enemy Venom (a man and an alien symbiote bonded over their hatred of the wall-crawler) to fight Carnage — himself an alien symbiote who joined with serial killer Cletus Kasady. After escaping from a mental institution, Carnage assembles a team of supervillain acolytes, and they paint the town red, killing dozens of innocent people as Spider-Man and his own team of uneasy rivals track them down. Most of the weekly “Maximum Carnage” issues saw Spidey contend with internal squabbles as his teammates nearly caught Carnage, only to have him continually escape. Despite the simple-seeming plot, creating the “Maximum Carnage” storyline was a logistical nightmare for the writers and artists who made it happen.
"Maximum Carnage" would expand beyond 14 comic book issues to include a popular video game (Spider-Man and Venom: Maximum Carnage), action figures and a theme park exhibition at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Florida. It got so big that even Marvel Comics' top talent to this day is fuzzy on how it blew up beyond their comics.
Twenty-five years later, the event seems prescient. On Oct. 5, Sony is launching Tom Hardy's Venom, a film the studio hopes can launch a universe of Spider-Man–related characters akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The studio is also developing movies based on key “Maximum Carnage” characters, like Black Cat and Morbius. Perhaps it could even build to a “Maximum Carnage”-style crossover someday — or at least a movie that will see Peter Parker cross paths with Venom and the colorful array of characters Sony has the rights to.
Here, the key players involved in “Maximum Carnage” look back at how it all happened.
Danny Fingeroth, then-editor of the Spider-Man group: It was the era of big crossovers, and I don't think Spider-Man had done one yet within the Spider-Man books. When I was a kid reading comics in the '60s, the good guys are the good guys. The good guys never killed. Gradually we got to this era in the early and mid-'90s where there were characters like the Punisher and Venom who killed people and there were characters like Spider-Man and Captain America who were more in the traditional mode of the clean-cut, never-give-up superhero. And then there were the outright villains. I wanted to do a story that would have to deal with those different points of view.
J.M. DeMatteis, Spectacular Spider-Man writer: Writers connect to characters the way we connect to people: Sometimes we click, sometimes we don’t. I never really clicked with Venom and Carnage. They’re strong characters, but not in my creative/psychological wheelhouse. That said, both were hugely popular at the time we did "Maximum Carnage," and remain so to this day. In fact, they’ve become classic Spidey villains. And I’m sure the Venom movie is only going to increase their popularity.
Eric Fein, associate editor, Spider-Man group: We knew that we’d need a catchy title to help with the marketing of the event. “Maximum Carnage” was the first thing that popped into my head. I pitched it to Danny and he liked it immediately. Before he made it official, he ran it by the writers to make sure they liked it, too. And they did.
Tom DeFalco, Spider-Man Unlimited writer and then-editor-in-chief: Danny Fingeroth conned me into doing the Spider-Man Unlimited book. He said, "Come on, this will be easy for you. It's a quarterly book." Then I found out the first story I had to do was part one of "Maximum Carnage," where I basically had to do the first part of it and the final part. I thought, "Yeah, this was great. It will be an easy thing every three months." Except I have to coordinate with all these other guys to do this freaking story. But I had a fabulous time working with all the other guys.
David Michelinie, Amazing Spider-Man writer and co-creator of Venom and Carnage: The biggest challenge was that I wasn't writing the whole thing. The storyline was spread over several different titles, with different writers, and I was only in charge of the Amazing Spider-Man chapters. So I didn't have any say about what happened in the episodes between mine. Thus I had to deal with surprises the other writers would occasionally hand me. Also, the whole storyline was the editor's idea, so I was telling a story that someone else wanted told, rather than something I had generated, so I didn't have a lot of personal involvement in it.
DeFalco: Constructing the story like that is a real nightmare. Every once in a while, we broke out a big action bit that would appear in one chapter, but the guy beforehand, he'd do something a little too similar, so we'd have to change the next one, so we were constantly changing and revising and moving it forward.
Fingeroth: I don't know if it was specifically the “Maximum Carnage” meeting, but I remember one of the great things that happened — we had rented a conference room in a hotel and everybody was shouting at each other and yelling at each other and coming up with ideas. The phone rings. It's the front desk. "The people in the conference room next door are complaining you are making too much noise." What I said to myself was, "Wow, this is sort of what an editor lives for — the idea that your creative people will be so excited that they have to get a call from the front desk to pipe down."
DeFalco: I remember because of the way the story was constructed and how it kind of rocketed along from issue to issue, that there was a real positive buzz about it as it was coming out. ... It did fabulous [in the sales]. We were kind of on a [streak]. Pretty much everything we were doing was working out great. I always go back to the fact that we really were concentrating on doing powerful stories.
Fingeroth: One of the images that sticks in my mind is where Spider-Man is about to give up and Captain America holds out his hand. It ends on a full-page spread literally and figuratively lifting up his spirits and saying, "You can't give up." That really was — aside from the challenge of doing a multipart story and wanting to sell a carload of comic books — thematically, that's what we wanted to explore.
After the Comics: the Video Game, the Theme Song, and the Theme Park
John Pickford, video game designer: Before joining Software Creations in late 1990, I'd worked at a couple of other local development studios. I also spent a few years co-running a studio with my brother Ste and another partner, Steve Hughes, called Zippo Games, mostly making uncredited NES games for Rare as well as some Amiga/Atari ST titles. I was always hired as a coder, but I was increasingly more interested in game design, although that wasn't considered a viable discipline at the time. Soon after I joined Software Creations they/we were commissioned to make a Spider-Man and X-Men title (Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade's Revenge). During a company meeting, Ste and I pitched the idea of making a Final Fight-style beat-em-up game. But that was quickly overruled by the team working on it, and they went ahead with a more traditional platformer, which was the default approach at the time. Back then, with no game designers, when a project came in the actual design was left to the team developing the game. A team often consisted of a single coder and a single artist (with the coder very much in charge). This haphazard approach obviously hinged on those guys having some design ability, which was not often the case. Obviously, this was fine if the project was being converted from an arcade game. But that was a terrible approach for original titles. Development of Arcade's Revenge didn't go very well, and the project fell behind schedule with not a lot of viable work done. Acclaim was very unhappy and there was talk of legal action. In an attempt to rescue the project, pretty much the entire company dropped what they were working on and moved over to Arcade's Revenge. The end result was a mediocre platformer and presumably a loss maker for Software Creations. I believe this cost Software Creations the contract to convert Mortal Kombat to all console formats, which would have made them many millions.
DeFalco: Contrary to popular thought, we had no plans other than to just do a comic book story. The [Maximum Carnage] video game came later. The toys — everything came later.
Fingeroth: Since we had so many characters it would be perfect for a video game. I could not tell you who first said, "Let's do a 'Maximum Carnage' game." I wasn't surprised that it happened, I have no insight except, "Oh look, they made the game based on the storyline."
Pickford: Despite that [Arcade’s Revenge] fiasco, our relationship with Acclaim survived, and we were commissioned to make another Spider-Man game, Maximum Carnage. By this time, I'd been promoted to a management/production role. This time, I was in a position to resurrect the Final Fight idea, which I successfully pitched to Acclaim (and Marvel by proxy, I guess). There were two main ideas I felt would l work well: 1) I felt the scrolling beat-em-up mechanics were better suited to comic book adaptations than the increasingly stale platform game format. Also, this format lent itself to much larger player and enemy characters, and I felt we could capture the comic book visual style better. 2) Previous Spider-Man games had focused on Spidey using his web to carefully navigate platform environments in an almost puzzle-like manner. While this was a decent game mechanic, I didn't feel it reflected Spider-Man at all. I felt he should be able to "travel by web" effortlessly across the city without constantly stopping to carefully aim his web with an undoubtedly cumbersome control mechanic. Acclaim seemed very happy with this approach, and the game went ahead in that vein.
Mark Flitman, video game designer: I was the Marvel producer at Acclaim (as well as The Simpsons, WWF and various other titles) and we were looking for something to base the next Spider-Man game on. The vp product development and I went to Manhattan to brainstorm with the people at Marvel. During the meeting, they told us about a new storyline coming up that was called "Maximum Carnage." We looked at the comics, which were not released yet, and knew that it was perfect for a game title.
Pickford: I don't think Marvel supplied any materials apart from the comics, but they had lots of requirements — most notably, they wanted a lot of different characters featured and playable. This was a major point of contention in that there simply wasn't enough memory on the cartridge for more than a couple of fully playable characters. The eventual solution we came up with was the “cameo system” where various Marvel characters could be called in to help out occasionally, usually by killing enemies onscreen.
Flitman: From what I remember, someone from [the band] Green Jelly [pronounced "Green Jello"] was a huge Marvel/Spider-Man fan, and somehow we got together. I don’t know who’s idea it was to include [Black Sabbath's] "Mob Rules."
Pickford: I'd never heard of the band. It was something that landed on us near the end of development and was explained as some sort of marketing stunt.
William Manspeaker, lead singer of Green Jelly, which provided the soundtrack for the game: In around 1992 we had flown to a music seminar in New York, but this was the grunge era. Nobody cared about the punk rock puppet band. Nobody will even talk to us. We're not getting any press whatsoever. Totally discouraged, we're walking down the New York streets with our costumes. And by chance, we happen to pass the Marvel building. So, we're like "You know what, who the fuck cares? We've already lost at every try that we've tried. Let's put the costumes on and let's just walk right in and see what happens." And we put them on and go in. "We're here to see Marvel." We're up in the elevator. We're looking at each other, "Oh my God, they think we are supposed to be here." Next thing we know, we're in the main writing room with all the artists. There's every single Marvel artist working on every single comic. We're in there and nobody knows why! But everybody's excited. It was very bizarre. Big full costumes. Everybody started talking and hanging out and next thing we know, "Oh my god, Stan, Stan you've got to meet Stan!" Next thing I know I'm in this meeting with Stan Lee. We're talking, this and that and costumes. And I pitched this idea — “We're not really looking for a comic book deal, we're more interested in doing some sort of games. Maybe doing some soundtracks to some sort of Marvel games or something.” He was very intrigued by that idea. A few years later, I got called back into Stan's office here in Los Angeles. They rehashed that idea and they said, "Would you be interested in doing all the music to the games and perhaps doing a promotional song for the game?" We were working with KISS at the time. I remember sitting there with Gene Simmons talking about making music for a video game, being the first band to do that, and I remember him going, "Bill, what are you getting out of this? So what if years later they write about how you are doing it first. How much money are they paying you?"
DeFalco: Over the years I've worked on a number of video games, but I've never owned a video game system. I was handed a copy of Maximum Carnage. "Wow this is cool, I wonder if it's actually based on the 'Maximum Carnage' storyline?" Because I didn't have a system I had no way of checking on it. I gave the game to one of my nephews. Sometime later I was visiting and he said, "Oh yeah, I liked your comic book story." He had never been interested in comic books. I said, "Which comic book?" And he said, "The 'Maximum Carnage' comic book" and I said, "The game?" He said, "No, the story!" That's when I found out I reprinted the story in the game. That was the first time I found that out. I remember thinking, "Gee, I wonder if Marvel paid me for that reprint?" Because they are legally obligated to pay me. And because I got distracted with other things, I've never followed up. And I guess it's too late now.
James-Michael Roddy, theme park maze designer: [I'd worked at] Horror Nights since 1999. After a successful season in 2001, there was a decision made to move the popular Halloween event to Islands of Adventure. This would enhance the 11-year-old event by leveraging the amazing thrill rides at the park as well as the well-themed locations. Our concept was to transform the Islands during the Halloween event into the scary versions of themselves. At Marvel Super-Hero Island, we thought it would be fun to play with the idea that the supervillains had taken over the streets and attractions. First, we devoured comics and scanned for the best, and also practical, villains. Toad, Carnage, Shriek, Crossbones: they all fit the bill. Remember, we were designing on a limited budget and had to consider costume builds, stunts and effects to bring these well-known characters to life. The maze was also designed with the intent and flavor of a carnival funhouse. I enjoyed the process, and it was a challenge to create scares and horror from characters that had only previously been seen in animation and on the page. From design to opening night, I would say it took about three to four months. The attraction ran only at nights in late September through Halloween in 2002.
Violence and Legacy
Fingeroth: Back then there were plenty of kids reading. You think, "What messages are we sending out there? What are we saying to kids?" Dematteis was very hesitant to get involved with this. He was hesitant to do anything that glorified characters like Venom and Carnage. My challenge to him was, "Here's your chance to tell stories that give your take on these characters and what's problematic about them." He rose to the challenge quite well.
DeMatteis: I think with Venom, and even more with Carnage, the characters become symbols of the kinds of violence and depravity in our culture that’s impossible to process. We all understand that people are flawed, but there’s a level of human depravity that’s often beyond our comprehension. And perhaps that’s what Carnage represents. He’s the embodiment of that incomprehensible behavior. It’s not just superhero comics, it’s popular culture in general. The crazed, debauched serial killer has become a staple, to the point where it’s a cliche. And "bleak chic," as I call stories that seem to revel in human darkness, seems to be everywhere. It’s not my cup of tea. I think it’s important to crawl through the dark tunnel, looking our own worst impulses in the eye along the way, but we’ve got to come out into the light, into hope, or — for me, anyway — a story has no lasting value. That’s really what the goal of "Maximum Carnage" was: to look at the over-the-top darkness that had invaded comics and come out on the side of the angels.
Flitman: Maximum Carnage was based on the 14-part comic story. Our challenge was to re-create the story in a game that allowed the player to participate and not let down Marvel fans. I really never gave any thought to the violence, I just wanted to create a game that accurately followed the "Maximum Carnage" story and have the player feel they were physically involved in the story.
Pickford: I don't think we thought about the characters in that kind of depth! The violence depicted was on the same level as similar games like Final Fight, which was the primary influence.
Roddy: I love the urban legends surrounding Halloween Horror Nights. All of our content had to be approved by Marvel. I know that we had Punisher, but there were no severed Spider-Man heads, Wolverine arms or bloody Captain Americas [as has been reported online]. The story of the maze was: The villains were roaming around the maze, hoping to use the park guests for their nefarious purposes. The superheroes were missing in action.
Michelinie: I did the best I could at the time, but I'm sure there are things I'd change after rereading it fresh after all these years. There's probably no story ever written, especially on deadline, that couldn't be bettered by a few tweaks.
DeMatteis: I think the story is a little bloated and overlong and would have worked better had it been shorter, more concise and focused on fewer characters. But that’s true of many, if not most, big crossover events like this, not just "Maximum Carnage." That said, however flawed, the story had noble intentions and has remained in print for decades. Something in "Maximum Carnage" really resonated with the readers, and who am I to argue with that?
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