When it comes to high stakes gambling, there's no city like Las Vegas, where games of chance and skill can create fortunes and decimate lives. This February, Vegas will be the site of a contest that will determine the fortunes of every living person in the Marvel Universe when two of its premier infernal beings go to war with the prize being nothing less than control of the Earth. The only thing standing in their way is four renegade heroes.
This is the premise behind the upcoming "Venom: Circle of Four," a tale by writers Rick Remender, Jeff Parker and Rob Williams and a team of talented artists. Kicking off February 1 in the extra-sized "Venom" #13 by Remender and artist Tony Moore, the storyline teams Venom with the Red Hulk, Ghost Rider and X-23, then runs through "Venom" #13.1-13.4 before coming to a close in March's "Venom" #14, also by Remender and Moore.
Regular readers of "Venom" know that the title character's civilian identity is that of Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's one-time high school nemesis and current friend who lost his legs while serving in the Middle East. Thompson's sacrifice led to his recruitment to be the latest host for the alien Venom symbiote. As Venom, Thompson has to keep the monstrous symbiote under control while serving as a covert operations agent for the government. During a decent mission, Thompson ran afoul of an enigmatic global crime lord known as the Crime-Master, who discovered Venom's true identity and is using this info to threaten his friends and family, blackmailing Thompson into working for him.
Despite this backstory, Remender and his fellow writers have taken extra care to make sure that the storyline is completely accessible so new readers can pick up and enjoy "Circle of Four." "We wanted to make sure that it was not only a payoff for people who have been reading the book up to this point, but it also served as a jumping on point for new readers because there's a lot of big things coming up for Flash," Remender told CBR News. "When I was cooking this story up with Jeff Parker, Rob Williams and editor Jeanine Schaefer, we were still in the early stages of 'Venom,' so we've been working on this for quite some time. It was something that was important to all of us, that it not only be this self-contained, very accessible, berserker, little mini-event, but that it also give pay out for people who have been reading 'Venom,' 'Ghost Rider,' 'Hulk' and 'X-23.' She wasn't able to be part of the project, but we did talk with 'X-23' writer Marjorie Liu about some of her ideas so we could incorporate some of them into this.
"Knowing what was going on with the four characters well in advance of planning this, we were able to then pick up some threads of what was going on in the other books as well as adding in some threads," Remender continued. "When all these characters come crashing together for this story, all of the books have lead to this, especially 'Venom.' Flash's journey to Las Vegas and everything that has been going on with him has been very specifically tied to this, as well as a few other future arcs."
The current "Road Trip" arc in "Venom" setting the stage for "Circle of Four" recently saw Flash Thompson take on Captain America as he absconded with the Venom symbiote and went A.W.O.L. on a mission for Crime-Master. In issue #11, in stores now, Cap set one of the Marvel Universe's most relentless and expert hunters, the Red Hulk AKA General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross on the trail of the fugitive Venom.
"This is the collision of two heroes with prominent military backgrounds. If you're after an A.W.O.L. Army corporal who has taken the Venom symbiote, who better than Thunderbolt Ross to go apprehend him and bring him in for Court Martial? That felt like it wasn't just Cap giving a super hero instructions to go fight somebody. It felt more like a natural decision. It's always nice when the character fits the mission," Remender explained. "Plus, it was fun to have Ross hunting someone down again. That was one of the reasons we seeded it very early on. He's off hunting Venom and we see him inching closer in issue #12 before everyone collides in issue #13."
Flash is tasked to head to Vegas to steal something for the Crime-Master, but unbeknownst to him, the item in question is something very valuable to some of the Marvel U's most evil and dangerous entities. "Blackheart and Mephisto are involved. This was going to be a cool mini-event, so we thought, lets make it so insanely huge in scope with what's going on here that these four characters will be in way over their heads," Remender said. "These characters are not exactly the Avengers, but we've got a Hulk, Ghost Rider, who's crazy powerful, a female equivalent of Wolverine and Venom. You're actually looking at four pretty powerful characters. They needed a threat that was of such a scope and size that it still seemed well beyond anything they should be dealing with. A war between Blackheart and Mephisto fit that bill.
"The thing that Flash has been sent to acquire plays a pretty big role in what's going on," Remender continued. "Again, we've been building this story for so long, it was easy to connect the dots and make sure that one thread lead to another naturally. We start off with a heist story that then feeds into the rest of the craziness as Flash discovers what it is he's stealing and from whom."
Mephisto is one of the Marvel Universe's more prominent and powerful infernal lords, and Blackheart is his offspring. Sometimes Blackheart appears as a tall ebony hued being with a long tail and spiky hair like in Anne Nocenti and John Romita Jr.'s issues of "Daredevil" where he first appeared. Most recently, he appeared in "Ghost Rider: Heaven's On Fire" by Jason Aaron and Roland Boschi where he took on the form of a young boy named Kid Blackheart.
"They're both the same character. This is the kid, grown up a little. I'm always very mindful of the dance between the raindrops of continuity and want to make sure things connect and I respect what has come before," Remender explained. "We've gone to great lengths to ensure that all that is dealt with. This Blackheart was that human-looking kid who'd been kicked out of Hell, and now he's grown up a little bit -- unnaturally so."
During the events of "Circle of Four," Blackheart is competing with his father for some specific reasons. Remender feels those reasons are fairly spoilery, so readers who want to enter the storyline completely in the dark will want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. "Readers who aren't afraid of spoilers and need more information on the story to be sold, keep reading: Blackheart brings Hell to Earth, and if it weren't for our heroes, it would work. It almost spreads, and Hell definitely takes over Las Vegas," Remender revealed. "The power struggle is definitely a classic father and son-style rivalry. In this case, the son has been ejected from Hell and forced to live on Earth with no powers. Blackheart is just a person here, so he's trying to show his father up. What he does is, he starts to bring Hell to Earth, which will return his powers and obviously consume every human soul on the planet, giving him a big win over Daddy."
If Venom, Ghost Rider, X-23 and the Red Hulk have any hope of stopping the coming apocalypse, they'll have to find a way to work together -- and quickly. "The story needed to feel very organic, given the fact that none of these characters are really team players. When we do see them come together, it's not in a way you've seen before. It's very chaotic," Remender said. "That's part of the joy of it. Also, going into this, it was important that we not only have really strong character arcs and that each one of these characters has something very important and life changing happen to them in their arcs, but that it was completely unpredictable."
While there will be quite a bit of fun interaction between the members of the "Circle of Four," the circumstances they find themselves in dictate that interplay between them comes while dealing with the problems at hand. "There's not a whole lot of time to consider what's going on when the characters first meet. What was really important for us in crafting this was giving the story such incredible velocity that the characters are constantly catching up with the events taking place around them. There's no time for small talk at all," Remender remarked. "Any time I get involved in something, I try to take a huge story and see how much we can whittle it down. This thing started out monumental. We whittled it down to 130 pages, which is still a lot, but the 130 pages are just jam-packed. There's so much velocity that there's no real time to sit and chat. You're going to see what kind of people you're currently surrounded by based on their actions, and that's probably how it should be."
Present during all the chaos is Johnny Blaze, the former Ghost Rider who plays a vital supporting role in "Circle of Four." "The four characters involved in this story all have interesting supporting casts, but the only character who had a natural story to tell was Johnny Blaze," Remender said. "He plays a really big role in this story as well as Alejandra, the new Ghost Rider."
Remender is enjoying having Blaze, Venom, Ghost Rider, Red Hulk and X-23 explore the Hellish Las Vegas of "Circle of Four," and the writer made sure his longtime collaborator, artist Tony Moore, would have his share of fun bringing the opening and closing chapters of the story, "Venom" #13 and #14, to life.
"Since this story stars some lesser-known characters, we wanted to make sure it was of such a quality and had so much love poured into it that, hopefully, every review is four and five stars and everyone who reads it goes so crazy over it that people who might not have been initially interested, based on preconceived notions, will have to go out and pick it up," Remender stated. "To that end, this not only speaks to Tony's strengths, but he's turned in the work of his life. The first issue is 30 full pages, penciled and inked by Tony with color by the very talented Val Staples. I think this story is some of my best work, and I know it's Tony's best work. I think people are going to be floored by it. It's unlike anything else in the stores. It's gorgeous."
Remender promises interested readers who pick up all six issues will get a relentlessly paced and exciting story with quality writing and art. "After we got the plot stuff moving, it was really important to everybody involved that this be a character piece," Remender said. "Like with any good story, once you've got your set pieces and your backdrops and you hit your structural beats for the plot, you then want to figure out how character plays into that. That, of course, changes the plot elements, and they become these two things that are baked together.
"Without giving away what happens in #13.2, when Jeff comes on for #13.3, the story takes a turn that I don't think anybody would ever anticipate us taking. It's a character piece," Remender continued. "So it does slow down for that one issue in such a strange and crazy way, but that issue is Jeff pouring all of his love and time into 20 pages of defining who these four characters are in a way that new readers will come out of this loving these four characters. Hopefully, the response generated is positive enough that we can bring this team back together at some point."
If the title characters of "Circle of Four" ever do reassemble, chances are they'll be a changed lot, since the creators involved are using the tale to set up a new and interesting stories for their characters. Rob Williams will use the fallout of "Circle of Four" to set up his final "Ghost Rider" story and Jeff Parker recently told CBR that the developments of "Circle of Four" will lead the Red Hulk into a supernatural adventure that begins in the 50th issue of his "Hulk" series. For his part, Remender plans on using "Circle of Four" to further Flash Thompson's story as well as elevate the character's profile in the Marvel Universe.
"I don't think anybody is going to expect what's going to happen coming out of this. It drastically changes one of the characters and has a pretty huge impact on the other three," Remender said. "I don't think it's secret that Venom is going to join the Avengers, but the how's and why's of that are a secret. The circumstances of how he comes to join the Avengers are pretty surprising -- I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve."
"Venom: Circle of Four" kicks off February 1 in "Venom" #13.