On January 1, Marvel Comics relaunched Thor with a new series written by one of its hottest hands, Austin’s Donny Cates.
“As of right now, I’m the best writer of Thor this decade,” says Cates, a full-time Marvel writer who’s worked on titles like Cosmic Ghost Rider, Thanos, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Silver Surfer Black. “I’m also the only writer of Thor this decade.”
In the comics world, Cates has quickly emerged as a household name. The so-called “Bad Boy of Comics” was named one of last year’s top creators by Screen Rant, which wrote, “When handed the reins to a major character series, Cates has consistently flipped things on their heads and paved his own unpredictable unique path.” Meanwhile, the comics site Fortress of Solitude describes him “as recognizable a brand as the characters he writes about.”
Cates came to Marvel after a run of critically acclaimed independent releases, including God Country, a West Texas-set adventure that Legendary Entertainment is adapting into a movie, and Redneck, an East Texas-set horror piece about vampires who own a cattle farm and live off the blood they take from the cattle they slaughter for their family BBQ joint. Mortality figures prominently in Cates’s narratives. On the latest episode of the National Podcast of Texas, he details how a life-threatening 2015 bout with acute pancreatitis changed his outlook. We also discuss his long-term dreams, which include writing Spider-Man and Batman—and how Texas may figure into the future of Thor.
Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. Cates is almost wholly driven by the promise of someday charting the future for some iconic fictional characters.
“Ask yourself who is more real: you or Superman? You want to say you because you have friends and family and your existence ignites change. But so does his. Superman has been around longer than you are and will be around long after you. Whenever mankind ends up figuring out how to leave this earth and go and populate somewhere else, you better believe we’re bringing Superman there. He’s permanent. You’re not. So which of you is more real? Even if we’re the most successful men who ever walked the earth, our existence will not have made as much of a dent as Superman. We just won’t. It’s just not possible. Every person on the earth knows what that symbol means. That’s amazing. And getting the chance to be the guy who gets to hold that dude’s hand for a second and chart where his journey goes? What an amazing responsibility and what an amazing gift and job. And there’s less people who have written Superman than have been in space.”
2. Cates doesn’t believe in indulging in “fan service”—a term that originated with Japanese anime and manga and means intentionally plotting story lines to please the most rabid sections of your fan base.
“It’s not my job to give you what you want. It is my job to tell you what you want. The phrase that I hate the most in life is when people say, ‘Who asked for this?’ Whether it’s a prequel to Star Wars or some kind of Marvel film, people will ask, ‘Who asked for this?’ But no one ever asked for the first Star Wars. We’re not in the business of giving you what you asked for. That’s where innovation and amazing cool stuff comes from. I’m a very big fan of zigging when people think you’re going to zag.”
3. Cates credits acute pancreatitis with giving him the dark through line of all his work since.
“Before the incident, I was basically doing impersonations of other writers. I think that after the incident, you look at books that I’ve done, like God Country and Redneck and a lot of my work at Marvel, and it’s all about family and the abyss. It’s all about darkness and the idea that death is undefeated as a concept. And so knowing that death is undefeated, recognizing and holding onto the things that are really important is essential because it’s all gonna fall away for sure. That’s where my head’s been for five years and that’s what all of my writing is about. And I think that every piece of art that I’ve ever touched in my life and had touch me back comes from a place of fear. That’s always resonated with me.”