Best Shots review: King in Black is well-written and excellently drawn

King in Black
(Image credit: Ryan Stegman/JP Mayer/Frank Martin/Jason Keith/Clayton Cowles (Marvel Comics))

King in Black began, as most Marvel events do, with an alien invasion. Knull, the sharp-toothed and leather-bound god of the Abyss, cut through the Marvel Universe like a hot knife through butter. The world immediately falls beneath his boot. Along the way, characters are disemboweled. New allyships are forged. New powers are revealed. At the climax of King in Black #5, Knull is easily dispatched at the hands of a cosmically powered Venom. Making your way through each double-sized issue of King in Black makes for a comforting and familiar read, and that's kind of the problem.

The King in Black #1 - #5 credits

Written by Donny Cates
Art by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer, Frank Martin, and Jason Keith
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Marvel Comics
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman have dedicated their last few years to ascending Venom to the A-list of the Direct Market, and while they're not quite done with the character post-King in Black, this event will surely stand as their most high-profile moment. Between his Venom run, Absolute Carnage, Silver Surfer: Black , and more, Cates has spent a lot of time building up the lore behind the primordial god of the symbiotes. Although the idea of an unfathomably ancient cosmic god of darkness is a solid archetype for a new big bad, Knull struggles to make an impression as the titular King in Black.

(Image credit: Ryan Stegman/JP Mayer/Frank Martin/Jason Keith/Clayton Cowles (Marvel Comics))

Stegman's simultaneously broad and spindly design suggests a supercharged shock rocker, and Cates keeps Knull as disappointingly shallow as his look suggests. He speaks eloquently of abyss and torment in the well-worn language of the super-villain, but there's no depth here. As he rips through the Sentry and plunges his trademark sword through Thor, you get the feeling that Knull is just the latest action figure in the toy box. When so much of this series hinges on Knull's motivation, a lack of actual character weakens the entire series. There's an underdeveloped plotline around Knull's interest in Eddie's son's growing powers, but ultimately the villain is easily crushed, and those powers were taken away at the series' climax. There's a great story to be told with Knull, but Cates hasn't quite hit on it yet.

Cates writes for the moment, always executed with panache by Stegman. Symbiote Iron Man. Corrupted Celestials. Venom: Captain Universe. There are loads of visually imaginative ideas across King in Black's five issues, making the best of Cates' expanded scope for the Klyntarians and their God.

Cates has an incredibly firm grasp on Marvel's heavy hitters, his dialogue is filled with character, and his plotting is tight and efficient. His Namor and Thor leap off the page with regal attitudes of contempt and responsibility, and there are a few amusing moments across the series as Blade forges an uneasy alliance with the vampires to fight off Knull's forces. There are appearances from Avengers and X-Men alike, but Cates maintains his focus on Eddie Brock.

(Image credit: Ryan Stegman/JP Mayer/Frank Martin/Jason Keith/Clayton Cowles (Marvel Comics))

Themes of death and rebirth feature throughout, filtered through that high energy, set-piece heavy style. Cates sets the stakes with the Sentry's brutal end, before knullifying some of the best Avengers and X-Men then offing Eddie Brock himself. The series runs at a rollercoaster pace, sprinting to the inevitably triumphant ending. When Venom, newly sainted with the Enigma Force, melts Knull's face-off, it's a satisfying end. Again, there's no real depth here, but there's no real attempt at telling anything other than a rollicking blockbuster of a tale either.  

Cates' sound effects game is top-tier too, with 'FRISSHH' and 'KRAKKA DOOMMM' peppered in among the standard 'BOOM' and 'KRAK.' Effects are a combination of those drawn in-panel with an evocatively shaky hand by Stegman, and by letterer Clayton Cowles, who approaches each sound flexibly with a tone-matching mix of colors and fonts.

Ryan Stegman's artistic sensibilities suit the goopy, horrific nature of the threat. He covers the page in stalactite-like teeth and thick globs of gore, maintaining boundaries amidst the chaos with thick white panel borders. Stegman tips his hat to Todd McFarlane with his renderings of Spider-Man and Venom, the charismatic smile of Venom's debut shining through. In another fun little touch, Stegman keeps Spidey's mask torn at the mouth throughout the series. It's a little thing, allowing for a deeper expression of Spidey's fatigue and desperation. His symbiote designs are all memorably terrifying, and he has a real eye for the cosmic. A melty-bodied Silver Surfer is a final act visual highlight, and the Enigma Force-imbued Venom is tastefully detailed with the constellations of the universe.

Finishing off the aesthetic side of things, Frank Martin and Jason Keith color throughout with warm orange and red against inky black. It's a consistent approach that doesn't waver throughout the series, shrouding the world in cloying darkness.

King in Black is well-written. The artwork is excellent throughout. And yet, you've read this story before. Cates and Stegman opt to tick off the greatest hits of 'stuff that should be in a Marvel Event,', muting its overall impact. Knull remains relatively undeveloped as a character, leaving him a generic doom-bringer who spouts dastardly cliches. 

And yet, there's some real craft on show in King in Black. Cates intimately understands Marvel's characters, lovingly pushing Eddie Brock to greater and greater heights throughout the event. Stegman offers up the finest pages of his career here, melding horror and superheroics to maximum effect. Childhood me would have worn these issues ragged. While the lack of ambition in The King in Black can't be ignored, it is one hell of a ride.

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Oscar Maltby

Oscar Maltby has been writing about comics since 2015. He has also written comic book scripts for the British small press and short fiction for Ahoy Comics. He resides on the South Coast of England but lives in the longbox.