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Donny Cates made a splash early this year with God Country at Image Comics. By July, he was signed to an exclusive deal at Marvel, and will be taking over both Thanos and Doctor Strange in November. MFR had the chance to talk with the writer and learn a little about his plans.

Cates began by talking about how he got the Marvel gig, and how far into his series he is:

I’ve been working on Thanos for a while now. I’m actually on like the fourth issue or so, and – Dr. Strange – I’m into it a little bit as well. This is, by the way, really odd for me. This is the first interview I’ve done since I’ve done this, and so I’m I’m still in like that “don’t say anything” mode. So it’s weird for me to hear my own voice saying I’m writing Thanos out loud. I had turned in a few scripts, and you know I don’t really know what the decision on their end was to put a ring on it, but I was having a great time. I mean all my editors are great. so far I mean it’s just been fantastic.

He continued by saying how “crazy” he’s going with his scripts:

…everything I’ve pitched so far they’ve gone for, and I have just been pitching the most bananas stuff. Things that I just thought not in a million years they would ever let me do. And they’ve just been like “yeah it’s great.” So I don’t know, maybe it was just that maybe they responded to me getting in there and taking a lot of really crazy chances and trying to do some stuff that – as a Marvel fan myself – I’ve never really seen before and things that I’ve kind of wanted to do for a really long time. So I don’t know. So far so good though.

Doctor Strange Donny Cates
‘Doctor Strange’ #381, Cates’ first issue. Art by Gabriel Walta and Jordie Bellaire.

A major discussion in comics right now is how far writers can stretch their characters before something breaks. Peter Parker and Steve Rogers have both caused their fair share of controversy in the past year, with some fans feeling they’ve lost their essence. We asked Cates how far he could go with Doctor Strange and Thanos before they ceased to be themselves. He couldn’t say much about Strange, however, as it seems he’s going to try to test the limits on that book:

Well, OK, so on Doctor Strange, you’re not going to understand right now why I can’t really answer that question. But in October, you’ll understand. You’ll come back to this and say, “oh that’s why he was being dicey about that.” Because, you know, I don’t think it’s a secret at this point that in Doctor Strange we have a bit of a new status quo. Loki is the Sorcerer Supreme. And where we find the good doctor when my run picks up is a very unusual place. A place we’ve never seen him before. And if I were to run my mouth off right now and talk about all the things you couldn’t do with Dr. Strange, you would read that issue and go “Well you’re a liar, like you’ve just turned the apple cart upside down.”

Cates was able to elaborate on the Mad Titan, though:

I will say, on Thanos, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to answer. Thanos is a character that I’m kind of weirded out how much I connect to him and how much I kind of understand his character. I keyed into what makes him tick kind of right away. It’s like, when you read a Marvel comic book or a DC comic book on that first page is the recap page or the title page, There’s always that little blurb above the character. You know, on Spider-Man, it’s “Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider and now he saves the day, blah blah blah,” right? On Thanos, the little blurb above his says, “he’s constantly consumed with a thirst for power and conquest.” That’s all it says. And I was like, well that’s pretty easy. Like I get that, you know?

Thanos Donny Cates
“Thanos Triumphant”, the start of Cates’ tenure on the book.

…what can you take away from Thanos? I mean the cool thing to me about Thanos is that, as far as bad guys in the Marvel U, no one has ever come closer to just winning than Thanos. I mean he did, right? He got the Infinity Gems and he killed half of all people in the galaxy…like, in existence right? And Thanos’ biggest bad guy is not any of the heroes. It’s Thanos. He always slips up on himself, right? And so what we’re going to be doing is imagining a world in which Thanos doesn’t trip himself up and he just does it.

Cates’ indie titles have been so popular with readers because he infuses them with his own experiences. They’re relatable. But is that easier to achieve with creator owned works? We asked him if he’s pulling from his own life for his Marvel books as well.

It’s hard not to. For me at least. There are certain themes in Thanos and Doctor Strange both that I’ll be able to speak to a lot more when the issues come out. They’re still so shrouded in mystery of what we’re doing, you know? But certainly, in both of those books, there’s big chunks of my life, big chunks of things that I’ve been through that I’ve been able to bring into it. Luckily enough, the two stories that I’ve been lucky enough to tell (so far – the ones you know about) have both kind of tapped into things that I’ve very much felt at the time.

Thanos’ constant quest for power and this notion that throughout the years he’s reached the top of the mountain and looked out and said “is this it? is this all this is going to be? I’ve gotten where I want to be and it’s not enough.” Well certainly as someone who, at the beginning of 2017, was a creator that no one cared about and then God Country came out and suddenly by June had an exclusive contract with Marvel, which is something that I’ve wanted my entire life, you know certainly those feelings of getting what you want and looking out and being like “that was faster than I thought it was going to take.” Like, what happens now? What do I want now that I have the thing that I wanted, you know?

And again I’ll be able to speak to these kind of themes and specific tones and things that I’m going to bring through once people start to read them. Thanos and Doctor Strange both have very different tones. Thanos is always going to be very big and very epic. I mean it’s hard to step in the shoes that Jim Starlin filled and not want to go as big and as brutal and as epic as possible. And then Doctor Strange, while he has all of those elements as well, this particular Doctor Strange has a very different kind of tilt to it. So I think that when you read Doctor Strange you’ll get what I’m talking about. You’ll read it and go, “OK, Donny is going through some shit here.”

Cates’ tenure at Marvel begins in Thanos #13 and Doctor Strange #381. You can listen to the full interview, where we talk more about Marvel PLUS, Donny’s creator-owned work, on this week’s episode of The Comic Show.