Writer Donnie Cates' Marvel Comics titles Thor and Venom have finally started again, following a pause due to the industry-wide COVID-19 shutdown. But while those comics were on hold, Cates was able to focus on his creator-owned comic books.
In addition to wrapping up his work on his series Babyteeth, Cates has been preparing to launch no less than three still-untitled creator-owned series alongside some artists who should be very familiar to longtime fans of Cates' work.
Newsarama spoke with Cates during the pandemic, catching up on his creative plans and discussing how his perspective on the industry has changed since his years as a retailer.
Newsarama: Donny, we previously talked about Venom and Thor, and you said the COVID-19 pandemic had let you focus on your creator-owned titles. By our count you have three projects in development - in addition to Babyteeth and Redneck. What can you tell us about the books you're working on?
Donny Cates: I'm actually done writing Babyteeth now – I finished that a while ago. Marvel allows me to do a certain number of creator-owned titles, so I'm getting them out there as much as I can. Idle hands, and that kind of thing. I have so many stories to tell.
I've got one book that I can't name yet, that hasn't been announced, that I'm doing with Dylan Burnett who I worked on Cosmic Ghost Rider with, with Dean White on colors. That's coming soon – stay tuned for the details.
I will go ahead and say, that book with Dylan, you've seen teasers of art he's done with a big ass sword in it. I'll just go ahead and answer the question on everyone's mind – yes, that book is connected to God Country in some way.
People have been asking me for years, are we ever gonna see another story set in the world of God Country or any connections to it. I've always said "no" – but I also have to remind everyone that I've always said I'm a liar by trade. [laughs]
So be on the lookout for that.
Nrama: You've got books with your wife Megan Hutchison and your God Country/Thanos co-creator Geoff Shaw. What can you tell us about those projects?
Cates: I'm doing a book with Geoff that we'll announce some time this summer. It's the biggest and craziest thing I've ever attempted in my life. The fact that it's so out there, and so big, and that it might not work, is one of the most exciting things I've ever been involved in. Like, I'm not gonna break Thor – I can try and be as crazy as I want to, but ultimately Marvel will make sure Thor is OK.
I like the idea of getting out there without a safety net with Image, trying all these crazy story ideas I have. Like, what if a mom was raising the antichrist, but it's really a love story about a mom and her baby. It gets my creative blood hot.
And there's the book with Megan, that she's drawing. Dee Cunniffe is coloring that. He's also coloring my other book, which everyone thinks is called "God Hates Masks" cause I've put up teaser art with that phrase, but that's not the title. I haven't revealed the title of any of these yet. When I announce something, you'll know. I'm not known for being subtle. [laughs]
So yeah, over this next year, I'll be launching three new independent series.
Nrama: We're not really getting into the details of these stories because they haven't been announced yet, but one thing that comes up a lot is the people you're working with. Geoff Shaw, Dylan Burnett, of course your wife Megan. What is it about building these longterm partnerships over the course of multiple stories that works for you so well?
Cates: In some cases, like the book I'm doing with Megan, that's actually how we met. I approached her because I love her art and I thought she'd be a good fit for this project. It was a weirdly natural connection that just kept growing. You say building relationships, I literally built one with her because of working on this book. Not to say the story is a romance or a love story or anything like that - it's one of the more grim stories I've ever told. It's like an underwater Cormac McCarthy novel, like The Road but underwater.
And Geoff, we've known each other over 10 years now. We went to school together. We both have the same values in storytelling – he knows how to draw for me, I know how to write for him.
It's the same thing with Ryan Stegman, who I've worked with on Venom. You find someone who fits your creative personality in a way that works well together, that people seem to vibe with – why break up a good thing? When Venom is done, whatever Ryan's next project is will be with me. We're sticking together too. When you find something that works, when it clicks, it clicks.
It makes life easier and it makes the job way more fun, cause all these people are genuinely my friends. We'd be friends whether we were working together or not. I talk to Geoff or Ryan almost every day, talking about stories and everything else. Like, I know Ryan's kids, our wives are friends – and I live with Megan, of course. I talk to Thor artist Nic Klein almost every day. These are people I consider friends.
And making comics with your friends, there's no better life.
Nrama: Even before you were making comics, you were a presence in the comic book community. And during the COVID-19 shutdown, you've been staying engaged through podcasts and video chats and things like that. How has that influenced your idea about your role in the comic book community, even after things eventually get back up to full swing?
Cates: Doing videos and stuff like that, I have more free time on my hands because I'm not going to cons every weekend. So doing livestreams and stuff, that's been a way to stay connected to fans. When I was a retailer, I always liked how tight-knit and approachable the comic book community is. You can meet creators and talk to us, we're not like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or something, movie stars behind a wall. We're real people, and at cons you can come shake our hands and talk to us, and we can thank you for reading and staying in touch and stuff.
It means a lot to me that I can feed my family because of the fans. I take a lot of pride in the work that I do because of the fans. $4 is a lot to ask for 20 pieces of paper and 3 staples, so I work hard to make that mean something, to make it worth that value.
So during this downtime I've just wanted to stay in touch with everyone, with the fans and the community, and let them know they're not alone. We're all in this together. And it's been a lot of fun. What I've found is, it's easy to get trapped in the bad news and the doom-and-gloom, so if anything these podcasts and livestreams and stuff have shown me a lot of the good in the world that's still going on right now. How strong people are to be weathering through this, and how the community has come together to support their local stores and keep them going while there were no new comics coming out.
The doom-and-gloom types are sometimes louder. It's easy to get lost in the masses of people who are running away and avoiding the problem. But if you look hard and you engage, you'll see there are way more people running toward the problem, rallying to help. It's really reignited my passion for the fans and for the community and it lets me know the comic book industry isn't just gonna survive this, it's gonna come out stronger and better on the other side.
Newsarama: We've been following your career since its early days, when you were writing indie titles like Ghost Fleet and the Paybacks. Now you're working on some of Marvel's biggest characters. What kind of perspective on the industry has that journey given you?
Cates: I think it's why I put my foot in my mouth or get in trouble sometimes, or say the wrong thing, cause I still think of myself as that indie creator/retailer who's shouting into the wind. I sometimes… often… most of the time forget that people are listening to me now. [laughs]
I forget I have a huge microphone in front of my face, and I should be careful of what I say into it.
I always write like a fan and like a retailer – anything about sales, or my place in the industry, stuff like that, I try not to think about any of it. For me, most of my days are the same – I'm sitting outside on my porch writing comics. It's never changed for me. Granted, it's a bigger house, which is nice. [laughs]
I've said this before – I do three checks on every script I put out. The first check is for continuity, making sure I'm lining up on my storylines and plotlines. The second is for grammar and stuff – though that's really the editor's job. [laughs]
But the third check I put on myself is, is this comic worth $4? Cause when I was a retailer, I sold a lot of comics that weren't. So I like to think if there's a 'Donny Cates brand' – which, I've heard that phrase but for the life of me I can't tell you what it actually means – I'd like to think what it could mean is, if you read a Donny Cates comic, you're gonna get your money's worth. There's gonna be at least one moment that makes you go "Holy shit!". That makes you really feel like you got your money's worth.
Whether it makes you laugh, or cry, or pissed off, it makes you feel good about having spent that money and it makes you want to read the next issue.
I've been doing this for 10 years, and something I've noticed is that a lot of writers with a lot of longevity in the industry have experience as retailers. They've spent time as fans, and also talking to fans, seeing firsthand what actually sells, but also what really connects with readers.
But also seeing what disappoints people, keeping that in your mind too. The only thing that would disappoint me about someone's reaction to one of my comics is if they thought it was boring, not worth the money. If you pick up one of my books and you're pissed off about one of the story developments, at least I've engaged you. But what would make me feel like a failure is if your reaction was "Meh. That was boring."