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WonderCon 2019: Spotlight on Donny Cates

Fast-rising comic book writer Donny Cates appeared at WonderCon 2019 to discuss his career, which maybe hasn’t been as fast-rising as it would appear from the outside. Cates mostly answered audience questions and topics ranged from how he began his career, pouring his emotions into his writing and a peculiar visit to Alan Moore. Of course, Cates discussed his comic books, from Image and Marvel, including Venom, Guardians of the Galaxy, God Country, Redneck and others.

Donny Cates WonderCon  

Comic Book Beginning

Cates grew up a life-long comic book fan and even learned how to read at an early age from Spider-Man comics. As an adult, he managed a chain of comic book stores in Austin, Texas. He loved that, but those stores went out of business due to the owner not paying his bills. So Cates went to art school to be a penciller. However, he was in classes with artists like Tradd Moore and Geoff Shaw and realized that he was nowhere near as good as them. Instead, he started working with them to make comics, and moved towards writing. He then became an intern for a year or so at Marvel Comics. He was tasked, among other things, with writing the one or two paragraph recaps at the front of Marvel Comics in 2010 and 2011. He was considering working for Marvel in a production role, but Editor Mark Paniccia gave him the advice that if he wanted to write full-time he should NOT take the Marvel job because if he was bad at the job, no one at Marvel would be inclined to give him a writing gig. On the flip side, if he was great at the production job, he would be too busy to write and no one at Marvel would want him to leave that role, so they wouldn’t be as inclined to giving him writing work. So he left the company and began writing in fullest.  He eventually landed a project at Dark Horse Comics called Buzzkill. That led to a few other series at Dark Horse. Cates thought his career was taking off.

  donny cates buzzkill

However, things didn’t go exactly to plan after that. None of the three series Cates wrote at Dark Horse sold well and all were eventually cancelled. Cates was at a tough point in his career, but felt it was important to persevere. “Dark Horse wanted nothing to do with me. They’re all wonderful people and I don’t begrudge them this at all, but my books just weren’t selling at all…. No one was really interested in me at all.” Cates also went through some serious medical issues at the time. At a crossroads, the story that would become God Country was born. Cates felt, “I have one story in me. I have this one thing I want to do and I’m just going to tell this the way I want, in my own voice, in a Texas voice… I pitched it and pitched it and pitched it and no one wanted it.” He teamed up with his old art school buddy Shaw and eventually Image Comics Eric Stephenson gave Cates a conditional green light. Cates was basically broke but Shaw really believed in the story and went ahead and did the first eight pages as a favor to show it off. Then the series got green light. It began a huge success from the first issue. Cates soon got emails from executive and agents. “That was January 11, 2017 and it hasn’t slowed down since that day.”

God Country screen play

Back when Cates was struggling, he had pitched God Country to Legendary Comics, who rejected it. Part of the comic book proposal was that Legendary Studios would have had the first film option. So Legendary could have had the option by just paying $5,000 to green light the comic. Years later, after God Country was huge success at Image Comics, Legendary Studios did end up purchasing the film option from Cates for an amount significantly higher than $5,000. However, as a part of the new deal, Cates wrote the screenplay for the movie version of God Country.

Cates God-Country-1

Writing advice

“You can’t have any quit in you,” Cates said. “The only people who don’t make it in this industry are the one who give up. Everyone that I know… if they’re getting better and they’re working, all of them have broken in. Breaking in is the easy part. Breaking out and getting people to pay attention to you, that’s a whole different thing… Honestly, I don’t know what it was between God Country and Buzzkill and stuff that was the difference. I don’t know what it was about the work that made people show up, but just keep going. But don’t settle – always try to change your game up… If you find something that works, dare yourself to take away the next time. That’s how you’ll grow. And read a lot.”



Talking about his work on Venom, Cates admitted that he was a huge Venom fan growing up and related closely to the character and his alter ego Eddie Brock. “Eddie is very much me. Eddie is probably the closest proxy to who I am behind closed doors. I find Venom is best when it’s a metaphor for addiction, and I’ve been pretty open about this that I’ve struggled with that stuff in the past.” Cates related to the dark side of the character. “You wake up every day wanting to be the good guy, but there’s this shadow that makes you not be a good guy. So that’s Venom for me.” Cates also said that Venom can be a dark book, it’s for a reason that will eventually pay off. “There is a plan in place. I am doing this all these dark thing to him, and putting him through all of these horrible things because there is a pay-off at the end of it. We’re going somewhere.”

Cates Stegman-Venom

Peter Quill

Cates is writing the newest volume of Guardians of the Galaxy and feels that he wanted to have a different take on Peter Quill. Peter has lost a lot in the recent history of the Marvel Comics – he was “killed” by Gamora in the recent Infinity Wars series, which was both horrific and a betrayal. Drax was also killed. So Cates wanted to connect his Guardians of the Galaxy to that storyline and have Quill be going through some things emotionally and basically be having PTSD. He also wanted to differentiate his version from the one in the MCU (played by Chris Pratt). “There’s elements of Chris [Pratt] in there, but way more of my run is influenced by the Abnett-Lanning stuff. In you notice in my first issue of Guardians, he’s flying his ship and his tape deck is shattered. That was me being like… we’re not going to be jamming out to ‘70s tunes. We’re going to get bloody. At a certain point you make it your own character… It’s your interpretation. They don’t want me to write [Jim] Starlin’s guy. They don’t want me to write Abnett and Lanning. They want me to write mine. So you kind of re-interpret things as needed.”

Cates GOTG-1

Alan Moore

Cates relayed the story about meeting legendary comics writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Killing Joke). Cates had made a done a joking publicity stunt for Venom, in which he declared the title “Better than Watchmen.” Unrelated, Cates and Shaw were in the UK for a small comic book convention when their driver mentioned that they were very near Northampton. Cates asked why that was important, and the driver said that was where Alan Moore lived. Cates’ response was “Fucking let’s go!” Although their driver was not enthused, he took them to Moore’s house.  Cates knocked on the door and Moore opened it. “He was so nice,” Cates said. As soon as Cates mentioned that he and Shaw made comics, Moore was excited and came out and talked to them. Cates told Moore than his favorite book was Miracleman, to which Moore said that he didn’t like it and has problems with it. They talked about comics on Moore’s porch for a while and took a selfie. Cates later posted the picture on Twitter with a joking message that Moore had agreed that Venom was in fact better than Watchman. This caused a stir, but Cates admitted they never talked about Venom at all. “There’s no way I would ever do that.” However, from Moore’s daughter, Cates heard that Moore thought Cates’ Twitter post was hilarious.


Future projects

Cates teased a new Marvel project without giving any details. Asked if there was any character at Marvel that he really wanted to write that he hadn’t done yet, Cates answered, “Yes, but I can’t tell you what it is because I just got it… When I got to Marvel, I said that there’s two characters that I want more than any in the world, and it was Venom and… you’ll see.”


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