The Marvel Universe is filled with imaginative creatures and beings of various curiosities and abilities, but up until now, one of the most reader-popular species has been as amorphous in its nature as it appears in print. The symbiote—once thought to be a super-science wonder material discovered by Spider-Man on Battleworld during The Secret Wars of 1984–85—has been a character of awe and bad-assery since its first appearance.
It has been 30 years since the creature's debut, and it has spawned numerous iterations of itself and offspring, including popular characters Venom (the result of Spider-Man's living costume bonding to scorned journalist Eddie Brock), one of the web crawler's deadliest foes; and Carnage, it's even deadlier offspring. Many writers and artists have graced their readers with hundreds of interesting and unique takes on the symbiote, but with the variety came discontinuity. A clear portrait of the symbiote's biology, characteristics, and nature has never been achieved. In this analysis, I will take all 30 years' worth of information and input into these properties and consolidate it all into one cohesive explanation of how and why the symbiote is what it is and does what it does.
Before I begin, I want to make one important note. Even though the topical species is officially titled "symbiote," that particular species classification is debatable. This will be explained towards the end of the analysis. I'll unofficially assign the species the taxonomy Ineffigiatus parasitus (Latin for "Amorphous parasite"), but for simplicity and in respect of the property and its fan base, I'll continue to use "symbiote" in reference to the species as a whole and its individual members.
Section I: Diet
First, let's address a symbiote's desires from its symbiotic relationship. Symbiotes seek two nutritional resources: phenethylamine and adrenaline.
Adrenaline (epinephrine) is primary in a symbiote's diet, evidenced by Spider-Man's repeated blackouts during the time he played host to the Venom symbiote. The symbiote would take control of Spider-Man's body when he slept and ventured into the night for a little web slinging and crime fighting. Instead of being a thrill junkie as Spider-Man had surmised, the symbiote merely required a balanced diet of adrenaline—something Spider-Man could easily provide with the help of his powers, making Spider-Man the Venom symbiote's most sought-after host.
The reason why adrenaline is primary to a symbiote's diet is never touched upon in the comics, but considering the function of the hormone, it's safe to assume that adrenaline plays a part in the way a symbiote functions. Adrenaline is an agonist, meaning that it binds itself to a chemical receptor and activates it to produce a biological response. We can therefore assume that the symbiote utilizes adrenaline to govern its physical and biological responses, including mobility, amorphous abilities, and digestion.
Human brains produce sufficient amounts of beta-phenethylamine (PEA), and since it's been scientifically proven that PEA has a sort of youth elixir property to it for both physical and mental health, it is assumed PEA is a symbiote's primary choice of sustenance over the phenethylamine found in chocolate. The reason to this preference will be explained shortly.
Section II: Weaknesses
Now, to truly understand a symbiote's biology, one must understand its weaknesses. Symbiotes possess three natural weaknesses: intense thermal radiation (or more simply put, fire), high frequency sounds (sonics), and Brock's Anti-Venom antibodies. The third is a newer development and the most unique of the three, as the antibodies are synthesized by the fusion of human white blood cells and mutated symbiote tissue. The antibodies act like white blood cells, attacking and incinerating normal symbiote tissue.
The nature of the other weaknesses (fire and sonics) suggests that symbiote tissue is unstable or weak in its molecular bonds. It should be noted that Hellfire supposedly has no effect on symbiote tissue, as demonstrated in Venom: Circle of Four. Additionally, microwaves have proven to be a most effective weapon against symbiotes as it combines both intense heat and vibration waves similar to sonics.
This instability accounts for a symbiote's amorphous physiology. It also explains the symbiote's diet of phenethylamine, particularly PEA; the instability of a symbiote's molecular bonds gives rise to a problem of rapid aging and organic degeneration, so the symbiote consumes and metabolizes PEA to constantly renew the strength of its molecular bonds. In short, symbiotes eat PEA to stay young, healthy, and alive. A disruption or the destruction of a symbiote's molecular bonds via fire and sonics cause the organism intense pain and agony, and can result in death by disintegration.
Section III: Physiology
As a symbiote is an amorphous organism, its physiological structure is a mystery. It can be assumed that its organs are amorphous as well, and can be naturally and cleverly concealed in its mass. Symbiotes do apparently possess organs, as evidenced by the Xenophage's (a symbiote's only known natural predator besides Anti-Venom) diet of symbiote brains and the Secret Avenger's efforts to "neuter" the Venom symbiote to reduce its ferocity. Besides a symbiote's brains and reproductive system, it is unknown whatever else a symbiote possesses for organs. It's unclear what kind of sensory system a symbiote possesses as well, but the Carnage symbiote has proven that the symbiote is able to "see" in full spherical 360°.
As with any organism, a symbiote must possess a waste removal system. I have postulated that a symbiote expends its waste by detaching portions of its tissue loaded with waste, which—like with any detached extension of a symbiote's tissue—totally and rapidly deteriorates.
A symbiote's mass potential is great, but not infinite. The extent of its tissue growth is dependent on two factors: whether it's bonded to a host organism and the amount of nutrition that is available at the given time. The symbiote can achieve a range of physical states spanning from solid to liquid, but has yet to exhibit a gaseous form. Both the Venom and Carnage symbiote have achieved a digital state in Venom: Carnage Unleashed, suggesting that symbiotes are extremely adaptive to their environment.
Traditional symbiotes cannot maintain the cohesiveness of the molecular bonds of a detached piece of tissue for long, but through evolution the Carnage symbiote and its offspring have been able to develop projectile weapon constructs made of their tissue that last much longer from the point of detachment. Symbiotes can develop a number of materials from their own tissue that are able to withstand the test of time to greater lengths than simple extensions of their mass—one example being the organic webbing the Venom symbiote learned to develop and perfect apart from Spider-Man's chemical webbing.
The symbiotes' constituent matter possesses two unique attributes, as well. First, a group of symbiotes can combine their matter into a single amalgam organism. This was first revealed in the case of Scott Washington and his Hybrid symbiote, which was originally four of the five Life Foundation symbiote spawns derived from the Venom symbiote. The amalgam symbiote, however, can be broken back down into its constituent parts, as was the case when the original Hybrid symbiotes were transferred to four U.S. Special Forces soldiers during Carnage: U.S.A. after Washington's death at the hands of Brock.
Lastly, the symbiotes' tissue possesses an exotic attribute that can decay the very fabric of the Microverse. The symbiotes once breached the Microverse in its ancient history and nearly destroyed it as the species rapidly propagated and corrupted its space-time fabric. The inhabitants of the Microverse were able to fight back and expel the symbiotes from the Microverse, thus preventing its destruction.
Part IV: Bonding
As to bonding with a host, a symbiote naturally only maintains a temporary bond until it has drained the host organism of the required nutrition, often leading to the host's demise. This relationship between the host and the symbiote often straddles the border between symbiotic and parasitic, with the symbiote offering only minimal benefits to the host. This is also true because, for the most part, the symbiote establishes itself as the dominant partner in the relationship, making the host all but powerless. There is a 48-hour window starting from the time of a symbiote's contact with a human host before the symbiote can assume a complex, "full" bond. The timer resets every time the physical connection is severed.
The Venom symbiote was the first to actively pursue a more symbiotic and permanent bond with a host as a result of a steady psychological degeneration over generations of spawns (which the greater symbiote populace refers to as "insanity"). The Venom symbiote can't bond to its host permanently as it hopes it could, but it can leave in its host organism traces of itself that can survive long past the natural expiry and allow for simplicity in future bonds if the symbiote and its host somehow become detached from each other.
Venom's offspring, Carnage, is the very first symbiote in the race's history to actually achieve a permanent bond with its first host, Cletus Kasady, by bonding at a molecular level. A large part of Carnage's constituent mass can be separated from the host and survive for a short time after disconnection, but the symbiote traces in Kasady's molecules can completely regenerate into the full symbiote organism at will once the separated mass reestablishes physical contact with Kasady or, assumingly, over an extended period time as the traces regenerate the symbiote's mass. Separation between Kasady and the Carnage symbiote is impossible without killing both organisms, whereas separation between any of the Venom symbiote's hosts and the symbiote itself is merely scarring and painful to both organisms.
Logically, this means that every true spawn after Carnage (i.e. Toxin) is able to achieve a permanent bond. The Toxin symbiote may have been unable to achieve a permanent bond with its first host, Patrick Mulligan, before it was forcefully separated from him by the Blackheart demon due to its infancy; however, the Carnage symbiote and Kasady were apparently able to quickly achieve a permanent bond not long after the symbiote's birth.
In Venom: On Trial, the neurotoxin MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine) was used to sever the symbiote's nerve tissue communication link with the human host, effectively disconnecting the symbiote and host's bond. The neurotoxin prevents the host's brain from producing dopamine, which the symbiote uses to establish a neural connection. MPTP, however, has since proven ineffective since the symbiote uses the host's adrenaline to create a counter to the neurotoxin—meaning that the symbiote can reestablish its neural bond with its host should the host become excited. This loophole renders MPTP as only a temporary solution to severing the bond.
Part V: Extrasensory Attributes
Symbiotes are susceptible to psychic influence; on the other side of that coin, they also possess psychic characteristics and abilities. Symbiotes can communicate among one another and their hosts through both a neural and a psychic connection. Whether this ability is natural or had been acquired by a common ancestor is still unknown, so for all intensive purposes, I shall state that these psychic characteristics are natural (consider: Charles Xavier of the X-Men acquired psychic abilities through natural mutation, most likely involving a greater use of his brain's potential than a normal human being's; perhaps the symbiote brain possesses a psychic receptor and other appendages).
The most powerful psychic influence a symbiote can experience is emotion. Symbiotes naturally lack emotion; however, their tolerance for psycho-emotional influence is extremely delicate and directly affects both their physiology and psychology. Any kind of psychic overload can prove detrimental—even fatal, as demonstrated in both the Planet of the Symbiotes and Minimum Carnage storylines when both Venom and Agent Venom used a "psychic scream," in which the symbiote and its host released a powerful emotional burst through the symbiotes' collective psychic communications network. Insanity, as exhibited in the Venom symbiote line and the Krobaa symbiote, is a most common result of a symbiote's psyche becoming imbalanced.
Part VI: Reproduction
As to the topic of reproduction, symbiotes spawn asexually and possess the ability to produce only one true spawn. Symbiotes can also produce additional spawn, but these are most likely spawn cloned from the original reproducer (both evolved/differentiated and carbon copies). The true spawn is more powerful than its reproducer and the reproducer's spawned copies. Every spawn, true and copied, is evolved to a degree from their parent and exhibits and learns new abilities and characteristics with each generation, all the while carrying their predecessors' abilities, characteristics, and ancestral memory (the Carnage symbiote was able to instinctively recall an ancient memory in which the symbiote race recognized the Silver Surfer as an enemy in the Web of Carnage story) passed down in a form of genetic memory. Therefore, whatever the predecessor learned or inherited will be passed down to the new spawn.
Venom vs. Carnage, every thousandth (1,000th) spawn generation in a family line suffers a complete mental breakdown, resulting in the spawn's psyche becoming completely malleable to external influences. Toxin was the thousandth spawn in Venom's line, and Venom declared itself to be the 998th spawn, supporting the theory that symbiotes only spawn one true offspring per reproducer. Venom, Carnage, and Toxin are all the known true symbiote spawns in Venom's line present in the mainstream (616) Marvel Universe.
The reproducing parent symbiote and its spawn naturally antagonize each other to the point of homicidal intent. This is due in part to their violent nature and a struggle for precious nutritional resources. This murderous relationship can be thought of as a Darwinist one: a survival of the fittest between parent and offspring.
An event known only as "The Spawning" has been teased by both Rick Remender and Cullen Bunn (writers of the late Venom (2011–2013) title), but how the Spawning affects symbiote reproduction has yet to be revealed to the general public. I assume it may be correlated to a species-wide shared reproductive event involving the rapid spawning of more than one true spawn per reproducer. If the event ever does come about in the comics, I will update this piece accordingly.
Part VII: Symbiote–Human Relations
As to the other end of a symbiotic relationship, we shall now explore the benefits a host organism receives from a symbiote. Traditionally, a symbiote restricts the benefits it offers to its host to a minimum, preferring complete dominion with little to no resistance or compromise. A symbiote will keep its host alive long enough to extract the required nourishment, granting the host limited boosts in strength, abilities, and health for the host to execute self-preservation and to protect the symbiote from harm and danger.
Though the symbiote feeds on PEA, thusly reducing the host's lifespan dramatically, the symbiote substitutes the loss of PEA with a synthesized substance to keep the host alive until the PEA has been completely extracted, resulting in a quick death for the host. The symbiote synthesizes and provides basic nutrition for its host, especially medical care in the form of an increased healing factor closely related to, but significantly weaker than that exhibited in mutants such as Wolverine and Deadpool.
Overall, symbiotes traditionally try to maintain their hosts' status quo in health and well-being and care little, if at all, when the host dies after detachment. The value and quality of a symbiote's care plays in the symbiote's favor as well: the host organism becomes dependent and addicted to the symbiote's "gifts," and increased exposure to a symbiote makes it harder for a host to give up the bond, regardless of the symbiote's true intent. The Venom symbiote and its offspring, however, are more caring about their hosts than the rest of the hosts' species (again, resulting from the psychological degeneration). This may also result from a stronger emotional attachment to their hosts, considering humanity's emotional strength and influence. A notable example of this line's stronger attachment to their hosts is the Venom symbiote's selfless sacrifice for Spider-Man's life; under this circumstance, a "normal" symbiote would have sacrificed its host to save itself.
In the end, what have I learned from all of my efforts to give the symbiotes continuity in their nature and biology? The powers-that-be at Marvel did not really put much thought into continuity about minor details back when Venom and Carnage boomed in popularity in the '90s; at least not like über-fans like I do these days. (I'm not the only one…right?) I'm a detail junkie, and I love it when things and processes are explained. It's like bringing fiction into reality, even if most people read fiction to escape reality.
I began this effort because I wanted to understand what it would be like if symbiotes were actually real, and I've come to a logical conclusion: if symbiotes were real, we'd be lucky if we bonded to the "crazy" ones like Venom and its offspring. Symbiotes really are a violent, harsh, uncaring species, bent on self-preservation and domination. But they are cool as hell, too. So would I want symbiotes to be real? No. I'd prefer if they stayed in the pulps where they belong, and should be appreciated from a distance.
Did you make it to the end of this long first article? Congratulations! This will probably (most likely) be the longest article you'll see published here on A Dose of Venom, so the rest should be downhill—or is it uphill?—from here. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions about this article in the comments section below, and stay tuned for new content on this blog every Friday!