Maximum Carnage: A Look Back

I was a kid when I first read Maximum Carnage and it became my favorite comic book series. How well does the story hold up over time? Is it still as good as I remember or was my innocent childhood love misplaced?

It's funny how we latch on to things as children, accepting them despite their apparent flaws. We can connect with books, movies, events, songs, and just about anything. Somehow, we could look past the flaws that we see as adults and like something simply because we honestly enjoyed it. We did not have to analyze every detail, filtering through our minds about what was good and what was bad. Back then, you could enjoy something just because. We all have those guilty pleasures we gained as kids. Now we look back and wonder, 'What on earth we were thinking'. I love Godzilla movies, old Speed Racer cartoons, and even the song Thunderstruck by AC/DC's 'Thunderstruck', simply because of the events and feelings I had at the time I experienced these things. Comic books are no different. Sometimes we can read a comic and it is cemented in our minds; we can build it up so much that we remember it being better than it really was.

I was eight years old when Maximum Carnage hit the stands. It was the first comic series I had ever bought from the store. I acquired other comics from yard sales and stuff, but Spider-Man's fourteen-part mini-series, Maximum Carnage, was the first series for me to own, fresh off the stands. Well, I did not buy it, my mom bought it for me. Every week we went to the local grocery store. One day, I saw Web of Spider-Man #101. This was part two in the Maximum Carnage series. The cover amazed me, 'Part 2 of 14' it read. A fourteen part comic series sounded amazing, and Carnage was a really cool villain. I must have asked on a good day, because my mom said 'yes'. We even went home and read each issue as it came out. (I actually did not get the first part in the series, Spider-Man Unlimited #1 until a few years later at a flea market. Even though I was missing the first part, I quickly got the gist of what was going on.) Spider-Man was after Carnage who just broke out of jail and was now hurting people. Carnage started getting more allies, so Spider-Man needed more help as well. I quickly recognized some familiar faces: Venom, Black Cat, Morbius, and Captain America, but just about everyone else was brand new to me. Characters like Cloak, Dagger, Deathlok, and Demogoblin quickly gained a soft spot in my heart. This series lead to multiple action figure purchases, such as Doppelganger and Deathlok. I even bought the video game for the Super Nintendo, with its bright red cartridge. For years to follow, whenever I would go on a road trip of any kind, I would take the Maximum Carnage series with me. I must have read it through dozens of times as a kid. The books themselves have been through the wringer; the pages are bent, discolored, water-damaged, and even taped together, but I don't plan on selling them. I could never sell them. They are what started my passion comic books.

No comic series had more of an impact on me than Maximum Carnage. It also affected my overall view of comics, at least as far as crossovers go. To me, it was perfect. Every crossover should aspire to be Maximum Carnage. With all the close calls for the heroes, villains causing chaos, last-second rescues, and many iconic images, what wasn't perfect? When I decided to write my first review on Maximum Carnage, and it's appeal to me as a child, I realized it had been a couple years since I read it; probably close to seven or eight at least. Therefore, I wanted to go back and reread it, the first comic series I ever bought as it was released and review it, fifteen years after the original release date, close to eight years since I had last read it. How good was the series? Was I blinded as a child? Could it really be the greatest mini-series ever?

So, with my modern read-through, what was good? It's hard to say, because every issue changes writer and artist, something I didn't notice when I was eight. I quickly caught myself dividing in my mind the good writers and artists from the bad. Some writers constantly used cheesy one-liners all through fight scenes, which made parts unbearable. Others had nailed the characters' voices perfectly and I wish they would have handled the whole series. The most impressive writer through the whole series was David Michelinie. He was the monthly writer for Amazing Spider-Man at the time and it is obvious why. He has the right blend of getting the characters' voices right, and humor, but not stooping to the level of corny one-liners. Another noteworthy writer is Tom DeFalco. I will be honest; he is a little too cheesy for the most part. He only writes two issues, bookending the series; parts one and fourteen. I was very disappointed with part one, and was not impressed with DeFalco's writing, but he redeemed himself big time with his delivery of part fourteen. As far as artwork goes, my favorite was Michelinie's partner on Amazing Spider-Man, Mark Bagley. You might have heard of him. Hands down, his artwork is easily the most consistent through the series. My honorable mention for artists goes to Ron Lim, Tom Defalco's partner for the most part. Lim pencils part one and the second half of part fourteen. Part one is good, but Lim's civilians do not look natural. His superhero scenes look great, but his regular Joes could use some work. He really knocks it out of the park in part fourteen. This is the best I have seen Venom. Ever. The fight scenes between Venom and Carnage are very creative, attacking each other as only symbiotes can. Lim also did the cover artwork for Spider-Man Unlimited #2, part fourteen, one of my favorite covers of all time.

Now, let us take a deeper look at the story itself. There were moments that still triggered major nostalgia. However, there were also moments that made me say, 'That was ridiculous; I don't remember that at all'. Probably the most impacting moment of the series, and the turning point for the good guys, is after the battle in the park in part nine. Carnage and his gang had got the best of them, leaving the heroes for dead. Spider-Man is beaten, ready to give up hope. At that moment, he is met by a figure, saying, 'How 'bout a hand son? You look like you could use it'. It is Captain America reaching down to help Spider-Man. I still cannot help but grin from ear to ear whenever I read it; but as I said earlier, there were moments that made me cringe. Seriously, sorry to spoil this series that has been out for fifteen years, but the good guys won with a gun that amplifies the goodness in their hearts and somehow turns it into a force that damages their foes. Maybe I am off base, but that seems a little farfetched to me. When I was younger, I just thought it was some powerful blaster. I didn't realize the gun beat them with sunshine and rainbows, or 'a counter tide of inner light' as part thirteen refers to it.

Despite this, the final issue is still magic. I enjoy everything: the fight between Venom and Carnage, Peter and M.J. making up after their fourteen-issue-long fight, and then the three-way battle to end the issue. The only thing that disappoints me is that there are no long lasting changes from this series. Ultimately, everything ends just the same as it started. Carnage and the others are back behind bars, Venom slips away in secrecy, and Spider-Man lives on to be the hero another day.

Does my childhood memory of Maximum Carnage hold up to my current read through? Absolutely. Despite the super cheesy one-liners, and terrible plot device that is the 'tide of inner light', I still loved reading through this again. The appearance of Deathlok, Captain America, and the fight scenes between Venom and Carnage all take me back to my eight-year-old self, where I ignore the flaws of the series and enjoy it just because I can. Through this I learned that no matter what happens in our lives, or who we become, we can always find comfort and enjoyment in the things that were fun as a kid, even comic books.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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