Since his brooding debut in writer David Michelinie and artist Erik Larsen’s The Amazing Spider-Man #344 (1991), serial killer Cletus Kasady has become a familiar, fan-favorite fixture in Peter Parker’s rogues’ gallery as the most common host of the bloodred Carnage Symbiote.
Unlike the more amenable Spider-Frenemy Venom, Carnage has been defined by his unwavering tenacity, his murderous intent, and his ruthlessness. He doesn’t just hate Spider-Man, he hates everyone and everything. Sometimes hilarious but always hyper-violent, he’s a force of nature unlike many others in the Marvel universe, and his long and sometimes complicated history reflects it in both its lowest moments and its surprisingly dense and tense highs. Even Woody Harrelson has taken note.
That’s right, Cletus Cortland Kasady: serial killer… and serial storyteller! It’s more likely than you might think in our list of the best Carnage comics below!
Few villains have made plucky Peter Parker’s life more difficult than Cletus Kasady, but the ever-present Norman Osborn, usually seen donning the formidable Green Goblin title, would gladly, greedily give him a run for his money. When the two combine at the culmination of Dan Slott’s decades-in-the-making Amazing Spider-Man run? Things get frighteningly interesting.
Osborn, vowing to end the Spider once and for all, uses his immense wealth and means to capture the Carnage Symbiote, separated from Cletus for the time being in the Temple With No Name (seriously—more on that in a minute), and combine it with his long sought-after Goblin Formula to become a “Super-Symbiote,” all the more powerful when he knows Peter Parker’s most valuable secret.
His personal success everyone else’s demise, this new Red Goblin wields his renewed murderous power indiscriminately and in a manner befitting the most sinister Symbiote. Seeing the likes of Eddie Brock, Otto Octavius, Flash Thompson, and dozens more Spider-Allies defeated across a series of the most visually demanding, dense, and satisfying fight scenes of Slott’s years with the Spider-Verse—all brought to life by the immensely talented Stuart Immonen (shout out to the flaming skeletal Goblin glider design)—the Red Goblin arc makes the case not only for Norman being Parker’s most important foe, but for the Carnage Symbiote holding its own, too.
When Normie, the youngest Osborn, becomes the smirking and slyly sinister Goblin Childe under his grandfather’s guidance, for example, you feel the imminent peril, the intensity of the hate the two share for Parker, and the title-defining familial ethos that few others emulate.
The lack of any real Cletus representation here is a drawback, of course, but as Slott’s send-off it succeeds quite well and leaves long-standing narrative marks that show up later on this list. It’s a story built on decades of foundation, one that takes the murderous mantle that sidelined Carnage stories have built and coheres it into something really significant, silly web-swinging jokes and all.
Ah, “the one that got away,” a long-standing sentimental trope turned seriously sour in writer Gerry Conway and artist Mike Perkins’ 2015 self-titled Carnage series that follows Cletus falling into an FBI-placed trap as he attempts to end the life of Manuela Calderon, a victim who escaped death during Carnage’s initial killing spree decades ago.
Carnage succeeds in principle because, even though it includes the likes of Colonel John Jameson and Eddie Brock’s Toxin, it strips away the superhero-versus-supervillain artifice that most Carnage stories trade in. In place of New York’s spider-flinging skyscrapers there’s decrepit mines, in the place of Spider-Man just a handful of scared and outclassed soldiers doing their best, and in place of redemption, just increasingly dense dread playing into the hands of carnage incarnate.
The story loses a bit of steam when the bigger picture Cult of Chthon stuff takes over, sure, but those elements still introduce a cosmic importance to Carnage’s character that he will carry with him forevermore. And the book’s earliest moments and twists of fate as the very trap the FBI laid for Cletus becomes their own instead? Beautifully brutal in a way only Kasady can conduct. One of the longer self-sustained Carnage stories at sixteen issues.
Most Carnage stories are already sizable superhero affairs, but few could possibly be bigger than writer Zeb Wells and artist Clayton Crain’s five-issue story about Carnage taking over an entire town in rural Colorado.
Given the tools to succeed—in this case, dozens of unwitting citizens and the ability to clone his Symbiote and control them—the usually singular Carnage becomes a surprisingly effective murderous mastermind in this series that slyly subverts Rockwellian Americana, and explores just how connected Spider-Man, Venom, and Carnage himself really are. Wells brings the darkly funny patricidal pathos and Crain brings the sickening, slimy, sinewy sinister action.
Moments like Flash Thompson as fan-favorite Agent Venom nearly ending Cletus’ life and torture, only to be stopped by a still sympathetic Spidey, hit hard, and the Avengers-laden action hits harder with only a little too much dense but important lore to hold things back. This series also canonizes the names of Agony, Riot, Phage, and Lasher, the Life Foundation Symbiotes and children of Venom first featured in Lethal Protector, who have gone on to inspire a number of symbiotic spin-off stories themselves.
This recent four-issue anthology series featuring the work of writers Donny Cates, Tini Howard, Benjamin Percy, and artists Kyle Hotz, Sara Pichelli, and Greg Smallwood, amongst numerous others, may be small in scope, but it’s massive in sensation.
Across twelve distinct stories, Black, White & Blood paints a deft, defiant picture of Carnage as a madman genius. He fights with sharks, haunts the Old West like a grisly blood-soaked ghost, laughs in the face of fate, and has fun doing it. Most importantly, though, he draws those same reckless, maddening qualities out in the people around him, because these vignettes aren’t just pictures of Carnage across time, they’re explorations of the violent, contagious wound he leaves on the people and places he tears through, too.
Succinct, silly, and surprisingly narratively significant, this is the kind of grounding, far-reaching collection that’s able to do a lot with little.
A short, four-issue, but deeply important Carnage-centric story from writer Patrick Milligan and artist Clayton Crain that dives into Cletus’ ability to make everything, even having a kid, about himself.
Venom vs. Carnage takes place on the advent of the Carnage Symbiote giving birth to future Symbiote mainstay Toxin, but not without Carnage’s signature sinister subversions. His childlike jealousy overwhelming him, Cletus decides to force that same spawn on unsuspecting New York City police officer Pat Mulligan, leaving Venom and Black Cat to clean up the city-collapsing collateral.
Venom’s pained but impassioned plea for Cletus to team up with him and bring down their shared symbiotic burden at the midpoint simultaneously makes sense, tugs at the heartstrings, and exposes the sickening bond all the alien spin-offs of Spider-Man share that drives their stories to be compelling.
It’s a familiar exploration of fate, family, and frustration but filtered through the eyes of cannibalistic, carnivorous Carnage. Crain does the heavy lifting to make sure everything within Kasady’s reach feels interconnected, sensible, and singularly disturbing.
There’s an argument to be made that between its five main issues and dozens of tie-ins, writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman’s “Absolute Carnage” event, the center of their years-in-the-making Venom run, is “too much.” But isn’t that the point?
Carnage is too much. For all of Eddie Brock’s internal turmoil and self-effacing pathos, Cletus Kasady’s resurrected Dark Carnage is the opposite. He’s big, loud, violent, undisputable, and despicable. He’s… absolute, and his plan to forcibly take out the spines of every Marvel character who’s ever hosted a Symbiote is no less so. Cates and Stegman drive the point home in what could arguably be considered the best arc of their run: a knockdown drag-out fight between Carnage and all of humanity on the precipice of the end days, with Knull’s arrival and eventual apocalypse overshadowing everything.
Stegman’s masterful imagery, like Dark Carnage’s new skeletal appearance, Mac Gargan being overtaken by waves of sickening Symbiote soldiers, and the sinewy underground spire from which Cletus directs his hordes, underlines the direness of Venom’s situation. The art couples with Cates’ sensible interpersonal beats: Dylan and Eddie Brock reconciling their at-odds father/son relationship and Cletus’s desire for revenge make the case for Carnage not only being a reasonable threat to Spider-Man’s storied history of successes, but to the larger Marvel universe too.
God may be coming, but Carnage reigns in the meantime.
A fourteen-issue crossover series from the likes of Tom DeFalco, Ron Lim, J.M. DeMatteis, David Michelinie, Mark Bagley and more, Maximum Carnage is likely the Carnage event that most readers are already familiar with, having inspired video games, toys, and countless other cash-ins. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rank among Cletus’s best.
A straightforward story about Carnage losing his Symbiote and still finding a way to come out on top, there’s a lot of seminal moments here, like one of Venom and Spider-Man’s few team-ups to fight the bigger foe, Carnage finding his family in Shriek and Doppelganger (featured prominently in later runs), and the rest of the Marvel Universe starting to take all this Symbiote stuff more seriously. But the most important takeaway is that it’s fun.
Fight scenes feature the likes of Venom, Carnage, Spider-Man, Cloak, Dagger, Captain America, Demogoblin, and more going all out, and the quieter moments highlight Carnage’s sick sense of humor as he talks around and ruthlessly taunts his laundry list of foes.
You can say that it falls apart with the literal love ray at the end, but the journey to that is too much chaotic, Carnage-driven fun to deny.
Finally, the tippy-top of the Carnage crop is none other than his first real run in David Micheline and Mark Bagley’s Amazing Spider-Man #361-363. A fuse initially lit by his debut in Micheline and Larsen’s #344, Carnage’s eventual explosive assault on all things Spider-Man was all but guaranteed, and this three-issue mini-event cements his legacy as one of the best ever to do it.
The main catch here is that unlike Venom, Carnage isn’t singularly focused on the series-starring web-slinger. No, he’s after everyone. Finally freed, he tears through his past, through random citizens and friends to make his point (written on walls in his own blood) clear: that “Carnage Rules!”
The eventual forcing of Parker’s hand to ask for Venom’s help for the first time, coupled with the increasingly weird supernatural sci-fi stakes that would later paint all Symbiote stories, sets the tone well, and Bagley’s character-defining art makes the sinister elements sing amongst satisfying superhero synchronicity. The most bone-chilling moment of the series of increasingly violent skirmishes comes early on when a victim asks Carnage why he’s doing what he’s doing, only to hear Cletus reply “’Cause I can.” The direness of the situation gives a reinvigorating energy to the run that would help define Spider-Man’s moralistic center and ability to overcome all odds for a long, long time.
Carnage has indeed ruled since day one.