Hot on the heels of Empyre and 'X of Swords,' the Marvel publishing line is plunged into another event. King in Black #1 sees Donny Cates continue the symbiotic saga he began with his Venom run as Knull seeks to ruin Eddie Brock's life just a little more. It's clear that this was always meant to be the event that Cates intended while Absolute Carnage was more of the publisher capitalizing on the success of that Venom run and expanding a single arc into a line-wide event. But therein lies some of the problem - can Cates capture lightning in a bottle again? The condensed nature of King in Black's opening makes it seem like this story wasn't meant to have two tentpole events. But for readers who have been enthralled with Cates' alien epic from the beginning, even a seemingly condensed first issue provides some solid moments from Cates, Ryan Stegman, and the rest of the art team.
Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer, and Frank Martin
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10
To Cates' credit, he's done a good job rebuilding Eddie Brock as a tragic figure in the Marvel Universe despite the fact that the writer's nostalgia for '90s Marvel comes through in so much of his work. Cates has brought depth to Brock and often carefully threads the needle between fan expectations for Venom and his own interpretation of the character. In this issue of King in Black, Cates gives Eddie a sort of classic put-upon dad vibe as Eddie must keep Dylan safe and enact the plan he's got to save the world. In a lot of ways, he feels like Bruce Willis in Armageddon and there's something endearing about that.
But as easy as it is to care about Eddie in this issue, the story comes at such a rapid-fire pace that every supposedly big moment doesn't have any lasting impact. That's because Cates and Marvel have already been there and done that with many elements of the plot. A bunch of symbiote dragons invading Earth feels a lot like a bunch of plant aliens invading Earth (Empyre) feels a lot like a bunch of Carnage symbiotes invading Earth (Absolute Carnage) feels a lot like a bunch of demons invading Earth (Inferno) etc, etc. That's not exclusively Cates' fault and he thankfully gets the invasion over with. Readers who didn't enjoy the slow build of 'X of Swords' will likely revel in the fact that Cates gets the "darkest day for the heroes" stuff out of the way early.
Knull wins. He's the god of all symbiotes, the creator of All-Black the Necrosword, a force more powerful than Gorr, Ego, and even Galactus. But it's hard to be as enamored with Knull as Cates seems to be. He seems intent on the connectivity of the Marvel Universe being the most interesting thing about it but continually looping disparate elements in on themselves doesn't make the world of this or any Marvel story feel any bigger - quite the opposite really. Cates pushes similar buttons to Geoff Johns. They are both fans turned fan-favorite writers who want to set their preconceived notions of these characters into stone. Though I do think that Cates looks for more opportunities to make his work rhyme with what came before than Johns does.
King in Black #1 preview
Ryan Stegman has gotten pretty comfortable drawing the world that Cates has cooked up and that continues to be the case. It's easy to see why the artist continues to get tapped for Cates' dark vision of the Marvel Universe. Together with colorist Frank Martin and inker JP Mayer, the art team delivers on the hopelessness and desperation of Cates' opening chapter to this story. But the coloring does lend emphasis to how one-note the storytelling is. Things are bleak for our heroes and Martin's coloring bear that out. Is it possible for an art team to be too in line with the writer's vision? That's not meant to be a dig - these elements are meant to work in tandem, after all - the art team is absolutely delivering on the premise and doing their best to add weight to what should be huge moments. But the speed of Cates' script turns scenes into mere moments that feel bombastic but lack real impact despite the artists' good work.
For fans of Cates' Venom work, King in Black stands as an exciting continuation of his symbiote story. But if you step back, it feels like Cates is almost going through the motions compared to what we've seen from him before. We know that he's a student of the genre and is looking to deliver a story worthy of the ones that came before him. But it often feels like he's playing at remastering them with some new glossy sheen. He'll remind you of the originals but isn't doing anything more than making them shinier. This opening issue isn't a bad place to start but it lacks the urgency of great events that have come before it.
Check out our list of the best Venom stories of all time.