Comics Writer Donny Cates Casts Spells on Doctor Strange
Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme and big bad Thanos get a local scribe
There's a moment in Thor: Ragnarok that makes Donny Cates' head reel: It's when Doctor Strange and Loki cross paths. He says, "Those two characters talking to each other has been my life for the last six months."
Six months ago, Cates was one of the hottest writers in independent comics. This week sees his first issue writing one of Marvel Comics' most recognizable heroes, Doctor Strange. Next week comes his first issue of Thanos, the four-color "big bad" now known from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Cates is the latest Austinite making headlines in comics. His friend Chris Roberson created the comic iZombie, now a series on the CW, and guided the actions of Superman for a time. His fellow Marvel creator David Marquez draws the hard-brawling heroics of The Defenders. Recent New York transplant Evan Narcisse is penning Rise of the Black Panther with award-winning memoirist (and SXSW 2018 keynoter) Ta-Nehisi Coates. Marquez and Roberson have moved to Portland – another comics industry hotbed – but Cates laughs at the idea he would ever follow suit. He left Texas before – first to study sequential arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design, then to intern for Marvel in New York – but came back home. This is where his roots are, where his family is. "Texas forever, baby," he grins.
He could've taken a second internship at Marvel, potentially fast-tracking to an editorial post. Instead, he came back to Austin, to his girlfriend (now wife), and to infamous student hangout Posse East, which he calls "my seat of power." He became a fixture in the local comics scene as a manager at now-lost institutions like Funny Papers and Thor's Hammer. He had a simple mantra: If it was on his shelves, he knew it. "If you walk into a department store, and you ask anybody, 'Hey, is this a good hammer?' then they can tell you," he says. "If you walk into a comic book store, a lot of times you'll ask, 'Is this any good?' and they'll say, 'I don't read that.' That's bullshit. All my employees, I told them, 'You have to read every comic.'"
Eventually, all that comics knowledge flowed back out. In 2013, he wrote Buzzkill, a four-issue series with Mark Reznicek (drummer for indie rockers the Toadies), with fellow SCAD graduate Geoff Shaw providing the art. The story was about a superhero whose powers increase the more he drinks. Initially, Cates just thought it was a great idea. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I was a stone-cold drunk."
Getting clean changed his life as much as Buzzkill did. "It's not a shock to me whatsoever that Thanos comes out on the 22nd, and my three-year anniversary will be two days after. When I quit drinking, I had to find something new to be addicted to, and it became story and writing and work."
2017 was already going to be Cates' year. In January, the first issue of his indie comic God Country flew off the shelves, followed by his modern vampire riff Redneck. Out of nowhere, Marvel editor Jordan White called and asked him to pitch a story: Over a weekend, Cates drafted his first thoughts, then hunkered down at Posse East to fill out the draft. Jump to July, and Marvel announced it was signing Cates to an exclusive contract (with carve-outs for his indie creator-owned work). Suddenly, he's at a Marvel creative retreat. He said, "It was 12 of the best writers in the industry and me."
Cates specializes in subversive superhero tropes: like The Paybacks, about a debt collection crew that repos all those wonderful toys from bankrupt vigilantes. He's dabbled in the supernatural with backcountry vampires in Redneck, and magic in rural Texas in God Country. "A reviewer once said, 'Cates is very attracted to dangerous fuck-ups,' and that is the best description of what I write," he says. With Thanos, Marvel gave him the most dangerous fuck-up of all.
For Cates, that's a dream come true. The self-proclaimed Marvel Zombie grew up on its cosmic stories of deranged gods and psychedelic personifications of concepts like Death and Ego. In them, he found a strange kinship with Thanos, the intergalactic dictator who slaughters entire planets on a whim. Thanos is an addict; it's just that he's addicted to death. "It's this all-consuming passion for one thing that makes you blind to everyone else," says Cates. "It's like me getting to the top of the mountain as far as my career goes and finding out there is no top of the mountain. That's Thanos. He gets to the top of the mountain all the time and goes, 'Well, this isn't enough.'"
Cates is on top of the world but under the gun. The first collection of his Thanos run (drawn by Buzzkill buddy Shaw) will be released in May, the same month as the film Avengers: Infinity War. Also, he took over scripting Doctor Strange from Jason Aaron, who Cates praises as "my all-time writing idol." He freely admits to having "a full-blown panic attack" because of that responsibility. "When I came on [to write] the book, I really had to get it in my head: They want Donny Cates' Doctor Strange."
That's why panel one of his first issue shows the address plate outside Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum – 177A Bleecker Street – with the sign "Under new management." "I had to write that first panel as a statement to the readers as much as to myself."
It's not just an in-joke: In a massive change, Stephen Strange is out as Sorcerer Supreme, and taking his place is Loki, brother to Thor. For most of his 55 years in comics, Loki, like Thanos, has been just a villain. But Tom Hiddleston's screen portrayal of the Asgardian made Loki a household name. Having never been a hardcore fan of the character, Cates went back and read every appearance of the trickster god, even immersing himself in the Edda, the original Norse myths.
Rather than get bogged down in continuity and contradictions, Cates found the key to Loki in his eternal deceptions. Whatever anyone else wrote doesn't matter, because Loki was lying all the time. His unreliable narration makes him, for Cates, "a brilliant, unbreakable character." While Dr. Strange is defined by constant traits, Loki is fluid. "He surprises me on the page as much as anyone else," says Cates. "There'll be lines I'll write for him, and I'll go to bed that night, and I'll be thinking over my script, and it will dawn on me that he was lying in that scene."
Also triggering Cates' take on Loki was something intimate: his relationship with his brother Andy. Donny called his older sibling "my hero," but just as Loki grew up in Thor's shadow, Donny was Andy's mischievous tag-along. "My parents were like, 'Why can't you be more like Andy?" That pang of recognition gave him an odd empathy for Loki. "He's driven by acceptance and wanting to be loved as much as everyone else in his family, but never actually achieving it. When he comes close and falls back, he falls back hard. 'You want me to be this one thing? Then fine. I'll be that one thing. And I'll be fucking vicious.'"
It's the second time Andy has proven an inspiration for Donny. Babyteeth came from observing Andy's fears and concerns about becoming a father (though, unlike the dad in the comic, Andy never worried about siring the Antichrist). Cates calls his nephew "my favorite human being who lives on this Earth" and has made him a new guiding light. With his creator-owned comics, "I don't have anything that I can give that kid. My stuff is pretty fucking brutal." But with his Marvel work, "I keep him in mind with every issue that I write, because he'll be able to read these things long before he'll be able to read any of my indie stuff."