Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Symbiotes 101: The Biology and Behavior of a Fictional Alien Race

OrionSTARB0Y shares another analysis:

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 on the page. The symbiote—once thought to be a super-science wonder material discovered by Spider-Man on Battleworld during the first Secret Wars—has been a character of awe and bad-assery since its first appearance. It has been 28 years since the creature’s debut, and it has spawned numerous iterations of itself, including popular characters Venom (the result of Spider-Man’s living costume bonding to a scorned journalist), 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 28 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,” the title is debatable. This will be explained towards the end of the analysis. I’ll unofficially give the species the name Ineffigiatus parasites (Latin for “Amorphous parasite”), but for simplicity and in respect of the property and its fan base, I’ll continue to use “symbiote” to describe the species and its members.

First, let’s address a symbiote’s desires from its symbiotic relationship. Symbiotes seek three nutritional resources: phenethylamine, adrenaline, and emotions. Of the three, emotions are not palatable or tangible, and it is believed that symbiotes acquire a kind of psychic nutrition from emotions. We won’t touch upon a symbiote’s susceptibility to psychic influence just yet, though, so let’s focus on the other two sources. Adrenaline 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 second most important part of a symbiote’s diet is also the food source that truly holds the symbiote together. Phenethylamine is most often extracted by the Venom symbiote from two sources on Earth: human brains and chocolate. It is assumed symbiote prefer brains over chocolate (“We want to eat your brains!” becoming Venom’s famous tagline) because of the relatively low content of phenethylamine in chocolate. If consumed in mass quantities, symbiotes can sustain themselves with chocolate (as was depicted when Eddie Brock had learned this after the Venom symbiote went on a brain-eating rampage). Human brains produce sufficient amounts of beta-phenethylamine (PEA), and since it has been 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 over the phenethylamine found in chocolate. The reason to this preference will be explained later on along with a symbiote’s diet of emotions.

Agent Venom using a sonic blow horn
against the Toxin symbiote.
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.) 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.

The Anti-Venom antibodies in action against the Venom symbiote.
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 unsure 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 degrees. 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.

The Carnage symbiote demonstrates
its ability to adapt to a digital environment.
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 a past battle, 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 forms 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.

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 little benefit 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. The Venom symbiote was the first to actively pursue a more symbiotic and more permanent bond with a host as a result of a steady psychological degeneration over generations of spawns resulting in “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 expiration time 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. 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. Ideally, 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.

The three known true spawns of the Venom symbiote line: Venom, Carnage, and Toxin.

Venom's first use of the psychic scream,
which caused the symbiotes invading
Manhattan to commit suicide.
As mentioned before, symbiotes are susceptible to psychic influence. On the other side of that coin, they also possess psychic characteristics and abilities. Symbiotes can communicate between each other and their hosts through a psychic connection. Whether this ability is natural or had been acquired by a common predecessor 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 and digest is emotion. Symbiotes naturally lack emotion, and find a sort of psychic nourishment in their hosts’ emotional responses. However, their stomach for psychic nourishment is very sensitive and delicate as it is either physically or psychologically connected to their own psychology and mental construction. Any kind of psychic overload can prove detrimental—even fatal, as demonstrated in both the Planet of the Symbiotes and Minimum Carnage storylines when 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.

Krobaa, the most dramatic victim of a psychological
overload brought on by the intensity of human emotions

The Foundation Five are examples of evolved/differentiated
copy spawn of the Venom symbiote.
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 reproducer and exhibits and learns new abilities and characteristics with each generation, all the while carrying their predecessors’ abilities and characteristics passed down in a form of genetic memory. Therefore, whatever the predecessor learned or inherited will be passed down to the new spawn. As revealed in Venom vs. Carnage, the thousandth (1,000th) spawn in a line’s generations suffers a complete mental breakdown, resulting in the spawn’s psyche becoming completely malleable to influence. 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. An event known only as “The Spawning” has been teased by both Rick Remender and Cullen Bunn (writers of the current ongoing Venom title), but the workings of the Spawning with the symbiotes is yet to be known 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. When the event does come about in the comics, I will update this piece on the events and how they fit into or change my definitions.

Toxin first mentioning the mysterious event known only as "The Spawning."
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.

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 increases in required fields 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 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 their 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 then. Not like ├╝ber-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.