Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Spider-Man: Maximum Carnage

Not that long ago, I participated in a discussion a criminal justice professor hosted about comic book fans' outlooks on crime and punishment. Among one of the questions the professor asked was who our favorite villains were. The obvious answers were thrown out (The Joker, Doctor Octopus, Magneto) when the question came around my direction. My answer was a little known Spider-Man villain known as Carnage.

Created in the 90s during the heyday of the comic industry's blood-soaked "iron age" Carnage was a serial killer fused with a alien symbiote who used his powers to slaughter great numbers of people. The high point of his career was the 14-part Maximum Carnage storyline, where he recruits a gang of killers for his largest rampage, tearing the heart out of the city. As the violence mounts and the city breaks out in riots caused by the psychic powers of one of Carnage's accomplices, Spider-Man finds himself allied with a motley crew of amoral anti-heroes and psychopaths and struggles to hold onto his ethics as the world burns around him and his allies push him to fight murder with murder.

The Maximum Carnage storyline started when I was 13 years old. I was already pretty deep into the horror genre at that point and I adored the storyline. It had a lot of the theatrics and sturm-und-drang that young dumb kids like. Carnage and his makeshift "family" don't any real agenda beyond butchering everyone they come across and the heart of the story is how Spider-man, a character prone to an almost self-flagellating level of doubt, is going to deal with such an elemental force of violence. His allies were all heroes of the 90s and had no compunctions against killing Carnage, so Spider-Man is torn between stopping Carnage and committing an act he might never be able to forgive himself for.

It was, indeed, one of Spider-Man's best horror stories.

I haven't read Maximum Carnage in years. I grew up and my tastes got better (some day I need to do an article about my relationship with Evil Ernie, then and now) but there was always some weird soft spot in my heart for Carnage's bloody rampage through Manhattan. I eventually caved and ordered a copy through Amazon.

It was a blast.

For me, part of the appeal of Carnage is that underneath all the blood red armor and nightmarish liquid skin, Cletus Kasady is a very petty and banal individual.

There's something ugly and sordid about Kasady. He bears a passing resemblance to Alan Moore's Rorschach character from Watchmen. In the supermodel-beautiful world of comic books, Cletus Kasady is very unattractive. He's drawn with very closed, nervous body language. In short, he comes off as the squirrelly, nervous kid who can't get a date and is planning something terrible.

In addition, Carnage is unique among supervillains in the fact that he's barely operating with any sort of grand scheme in mind. He's not a maniacal genius like Lex Luthor or Doctor Doom. He almost willfully avoids having any sort of plan or overarching goal and lashes out at any member of his "family" who suggests any sort of higher purpose to the mayhem. It's easy to attribute Carnage's aimlessness as trite storytelling, but I feel the apparent shallowness of his motive is away to process whatever happened in his childhood.

Supervillains with bad childhoods were a dime a dozen in the 90s, but most of them cheerfully announce their traumas while committing their evil schemes. Kasady, on the other hand, seems to have created the Carnage persona as an avatar to run away from himself. I think that the nightmarish trappings, the garish action scenes, and the damaged psyche of Kasady himself keeps me fascinated with Carnage.

Maximum Carnage is pretty much the only kind of story you can tell with the Carnage character. His very first story arc is actually a better tale, but it's more confined and intimate and personal. Turning Carnage loose in New York City with a gang of killers, including one who can cause normal civilians to go mad, turns him into an elemental force of nature.

Strangely enough, the one character who comes off the worst in Maximum Carnage is Spider-Man himself. The dramatic crux of the narrative is that Spidey is forced to recruit allies who have less qualms about killing and he's forced to try to restrain his partners as he fights alongside them. His restraint, coupled with his almost self-flagellating sense of responsibility, make him heroic when fighting characters like Dr. Octopus or The Vulture, who do nothing more than rob banks and seduce Aunt May. Unfortunately, his extreme morality comes off as impotent when faced with a threat like Carnage.

There are several instances in the story where Carnage is at the heroes' mercy. As one of the anti-heroes move in for the kill, Spidey steps in with some wheedling "we don't need to sink to their level" speech. The anti-heroes begin fighting, Carnage escapes, and his murder spree continues. I suppose the writers were trying to paint Spidey as morally superior to his allies, but I can't help but feel that it would have been more morally correct to stop Carnage once and for all. He kills dozens of people after each escape and that seems like a very high price for the world to pay so Spidey can feel good about himself.

From what I've read, the writers cooked up the conflict as a way to contrast Spider-Man with the new breed of bloodthirsty heroes popular in the early 90s. Unfortunately, Spider-Man doesn't look good in the comparison. He comes off as a meddler and you get the sense the insanity gripping New York would have been handled a lot sooner if he didn't try to help

This type of story isn't for everyone. The writing is really melodramatic and hackneyed and bad (the bad guys are defeated in the 11th hour by a gun that shoots love) but it's a lot of fun to read. It's a superhero story, full of breathless exposition and punch-ups and childish morality, with just enough of an edge to push it into dark territory.

The Maximum Carnage storyline remains controversial among Spidey fans. Complaints range from it being too long and too cluttered to the story being far too grim for the title character. Still, Maximum Carnage is a completely engrossing read that was one of the stepping stones on the path to horror fandom.

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