This winter, Marvel Comics is getting dark, and not just because of Daylight Savings Time. Knull, the god of all symbiotes, has arrived on Earth to wreak havoc and already beat the Avengers and the X-Men in a single issue.
The Earth has been completely enveloped in a massive layer of evil, mind-controlled goo creatures, and it’s up to the most washed-up guy in Marvel history to do something about it: Eddie Brock. When he’s paired up with his shapeshifting alien friend, we call him Venom.
King in Black, Marvel’s winter crossover event, is the culmination of years of plotting from writer Donny Cates, alongside artists Ryan Stegman and Iban Coello, a story that has wound its way through Venom, last year’s War of the Realms event, the Absolute Carnage crossover, and even Cates’ Silver Surfer: Black with Tradd Moore. Knull himself — then ancient creator of symbiotes, who can control the mind of any symbiote or symbiote-bonded host — is an inventive origin story for a footnote of Jason Aaron’s Thor run, turning the infamous black sword of Gorr the God Butcher (soon to be played by Christian Bale) into history’s first symbiote.
With one issue of King in Black on the stands and many more to come (if you count all the tie-ins), Polygon sat down with Cates to talk about his plans for the future of Venom — and telling the biggest stories that superhero comics will allow.
Venom (2018) introduced a broad audience to the idea that Eddie Brock and the symbiote have a partnership — it’s not just a guy covered in emo space goo. How do you see the relationship that makes up Venom?
Donny Cates: I do think that they love each other. One of [Eddie’s] biggest fears in life is being alone, and the symbiote provides that to him. He’s never alone. We’ve shown that when they’ve been separated in the past, Eddie tends to kind of spiral out or go to a dark place. But when they’re together — there’s this line that we keep going to throughout our entire run. “We’re better when we’re not alone.” Which has oddly become kind of great for this year. So yes, I absolutely do think that they love each other.
Polygon: You’ve said that Eddie and the symbiote are ‘codependent in a great way.’ Do you mean that, like, a great way for making story? Or...
No, I think that they’re ... codependent has such a negative connotation as a word. But when I say it, I mean that they are literally dependent upon each other emotionally. And in a, quite literally, symbiotic way. They make each other better. They are not as good apart as they are together. In past interviews I’ve said that word codependent, and people have misinterpreted it. It’s probably my fault for using the language incorrectly. But I’ve never meant it to mean that they’re bad for each other.
I think they’re codependent in a really great way. I think they’re both damaged people who help each other. They lean on each other, you know? Obviously, the symbiote faced rejection [...] when Spider-Man found it, it was in a cage, and then Spider-Man rejected it, and Eddie had just lost everything in his life — and they found each other. These two rejected beings with broken hearts found each other and made each other better. So that’s what I mean by is it is truly a symbiotic, dependent relationship. They’re better when they’re together.
And now, of course, you’ve introduced Dylan, the son of Eddie and Anne Weying, as facilitated by the symbiote. For readers who are just hearing about King in Black, what should they know about Dylan and Knull, the god of the symbiotes?
Well, I’ll start with this. In the past, we’ve always kind of thought that the symbiotes [reproduce] almost at random. Like when Venom spun off to make Carnage. And what we’ve introduced this concept [...] that because they’re part of a hive mind, they can kind of sense when danger is approaching. And so the idea is that they actually spawn when there’s a great imminent threat, to bolster their numbers to survive. In the past, we’ve seen them do this and we’ve tied it to Well, you know, Carnage kind of came around like, right before, or The Infinity Gauntlet [happened] or, or those kinds of things.
So the question is, what could be so dangerous that the symbiotes had to create something as powerful as Dylan?
Right, Dylan has the ability to mind control symbiotes that he’s not bonded with.
Yes, so he can control and destroy symbiotes. He kind of has the powers that Knull has, where he can remote pilot symbiotes. But symbiotes actually burn at his touch, they can’t bonded to him, which is kind of a defense mechanism built in so that Knull can’t [take Dylan over with a symbiote]. To use a weird metaphor, [he’s kind of] the Christ to Knull’s Antichrist, you know? He has a power set that would, that would allow him to stand up to this thing that’s coming.
Now the problem, though, is that I don’t think anyone expected for [him to be] 13. He’s not exactly ready. He hasn’t been trained, he’s not a superhero. He’s just a little boy. And that’s when this relationship that he has with his father is — I always describe it and say, if your son was trained from birth to be the greatest dragon-slayer in the world, and, at age 14, he was literally the greatest, most trained dragon-slayer in the world? As a father, you still wouldn’t let him go fight that dragon.
Because that’s your son and your instinct is No. And especially for someone like Eddie, Eddie very much thinks All this happened because of me. As we’re going through King in Black, Eddie’s biggest motivation is I don’t want to pass this darkness down to you.
And by that I don’t mean the symbiote that he has, I mean this ancient God and this thing that he feels responsible for. He wants what every parent wants for their child, to have a normal, healthy, happy life. He feels terrible that Dylan has had to go be along for, you know, his father being attacked by Carnage and all these things ...
Visiting alternate universes and weird jungle islands...
Yeah, exactly! And so going into King in Black, which is the ultimate thing, that’s why you’re seeing that’s Eddie’s motivation — more so than even defeating Knull — is I don’t want my son to have to do this life. Like an MMA fighter who’s the greatest MMA fighter of all time, but would be horrified if his child started to do it, too. Because they know how hard that life is.
King in Black is a culmination of two years of work, and it’s a sequel to last year’s Absolute Carnage. Are you the kind of writer who comes in with a plan or are you the kind of writer that comes in and says, I’ll wing it, and I’ll connect everything back as I go?
I’m a planner, a big planner. Before I ever wrote a single issue of Venom, I wrote an outline that included the first arc, the second arc, Absolute Carnage, Venom Beyond, King in Black. It’s all been there. I’ve had this entire run planned for almost four years now, and while certain things have tweaked and changed here and there, the plan was always this.
The plan was always — I did the math in my head and I was like, Man. [With] how many Venom issues there have ever been, King in Black will go right up until Venom #200. I remember way back in the day when I first started this thing, I was like, Man. I hope this works. I hope this plan works out. I hope people like this because I’m the biggest Venom fan in the world and my dream was What if I got to write Venom #200? Wouldn’t that be the coolest thing in the world? To be able to go back in time and tell 10-, 11-, 12-year-old Donny, Hey man, you know that book that you’re reading that you love so much? You’re going to be the guy who writes the 200th one of them.
And it’s far from our last issue. We have plans that extend past King in Black and past Venom #200 and all that kind of stuff. But to answer your question, to quote another famous character that we don’t own, “it’s all part of the plan.”
I’m deeply fascinated by cosmic superhero comics. They keep a pulp science fiction tradition alive in modern culture that doesn’t really exist in other mediums. The cosmic stuff clearly appeals to you, so I want to get your take on this. Why you like the cosmic sub genre, and why you think it’s held on in comics but not in other places?
Well, I kind of disagree with you saying that it doesn’t take hold in other places. Certainly Star Wars and Star Trek seem to be doing just fine. Those two little franchises seems to be doing just fine, you know?
I would posit that Star Trek wrestles with the cosmic stuff — but there’s a part of the fandom that doesn’t like it when you bring in Q and weird space gods and stuff. They think that that’s “not Star Trek.” I absolutely agree with you that that is super Star Trek.
I understand. Yeah, there’s a difference between sci-fi and then sci-fi fantasy, right? Of course. And Marvel does tend to lean more into the sci-fi fantasy stuff. To me, I was just a huge Jim Starlin fan as a kid. Green Lantern stuff was my favorite stuff in the world. The New Gods, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. All that kind of stuff was just blew my mind as a kid. It always weirdly felt like something I wasn’t supposed to be reading, like it was this forbidden text. These ideas are so crazy and out there.
I guess to me, the cosmic side of Marvel seems so limitless and so big, and the threats can be so big, in a way that if you’re writing Daredevil or Iron Fist, or any of the street-level kind of guys — there’s different tones to them and I suppose I gravitate towards ... a book like Cosmic Ghost Rider wouldn’t really work if that dude lived in Brooklyn.
Just personally speaking, it’s a place where my imagination is very comfortable. It’s why I like Thor so much as well, because the world of Thor and the Ten Realms and Asgard and the magic involved and the World Tree and all these things. To me, they have the same trappings of that sci-fi fantasy kind of world. I mean, Thor has as much in common with, with Star Wars as it does with actual Norse mythology. It’s wizards in space.
You can also just tell such cool stories when you have a character who has such an intense power set. You can tell stories with Thor that you can’t tell with Spider-Man. Because the thing that we love about Spider-Man is that he’s not the strongest guy in the world, but he keeps on getting up. That’s what we love about Spider-Man. We love that Spider-Man isn’t the strongest guy in the room, but he runs headlong into battle anyway.
And we love those stories but there’s something that I’ve always loved about ’80s and ’90s and ’70s comics where the battle seems lost and ... Ultron is about to mess everybody up and all the heroes are going to lose, and then thunder cracks and Thor shows up and the audience is like, Oh, shit. Not only is it about to go down, but everything is going to be okay. Because the big gun is here. I’ve always just loved the big gun.
And Thor is notably missing from King in Black #1. Are we looking at a big gun situation here?
Well, if you’ve been reading my Thor arc...
Sure, he’s in a ... he’s in a bit of a pickle.
A little, he’s in a bit of a pickle. There’s a reason why he’s not engaged in the battle right now. He’s got some stuff going on. But I will say this. I would imagine he’ll get there as quickly as he possibly can. I would refer you to the earlier answer that I gave you that I love the moment in comics where the thunder strikes.
On the subject of the cosmic in comics, did you watch Lovecraft County this summer?
Yes, and I loved it. I thought it was gorgeous.
Because it totally had a cosmic comics episode.
Yeah! It had a cosmic the whole season, time travel — and the first scene, the first episode is space aliens and martians and all kinds of H. P. Lovecraft monsters and all that kind of stuff.
Superhero comics walk a line. The whole idea is that they’re interconnected, but fans also don’t want to feel like they’re struggling to keep up — and can speak up when they feel that way. It be an an understatement to say that you like to keep your books interconnected. How do you, how do you personally keep that balance in your work?
I will give you the most honest answer I can possibly give you. It is so much easier to borrow from my own stuff than try and get into anyone else’s way.
If I just reference my own storylines, it means that I don’t have to bother Dan Slott as much or get in anyone’s way. I never want to get in [anyone’s way]. When we do these supermassive crossover events, when [I’m] quarterbacking these events, my thing has always been Hey, if you have a cool idea in your Daredevil book or what have you, then please come and play. But if you don’t, don’t feel like you have to. I don’t ever want my stuff to step on your stuff.
But luckily, the crew [of writers and artists] that we have at Marvel right now, we are genuinely all buddies. And so when something like War of the Realms comes around, we all give Jason [Aaron] our swords —
Literally! And say How can we help? Let’s do it. That idea sounds awesome. I’m so blessed to work with the best teams in comics and the best editors and editorial groups. The Spider-Man office and the Thor office are just incredibly supportive and amazing. When I pitch to the room something like King in Black, the response from guys who I respect immensely, like Jonathan Hickman and Dan Slott and Jason Aaron and Gerry Duggan and Mark Waid — all these luminaries that I grew up reading — or when I was running my own comic book shops, I would stock their books on the shelves — the fact that those guys are like, Oh man, that story’s cool. I think I might have an angle on that. I want to play with that.
It makes my heart smile. It’s what comics should be. It’s just fun, it’s just so much fun. I think that King in Black, while it is this big, scary event with big, bad stuff — I think it has all the trappings of what comics should be. There’s going to be scenes in King in Black that you’ll see, where you’ll go Man, they could never even film that. It does things with Jonathan’s X-Men or with Jason’s Avengers run. Things that only comic books can do. And I love that, and I think that fans can always tell when a group of creators is having fun. I hope and pray — and I genuinely do believe — that people can read that book and see that Ryan Stegman and I are having the time of our lives.