Venom’s giant King in Black event packs a lot of destruction into one Marvel issue

Cower in fear, citizens of the Marvel comic book universeKnull has arrived, after a couple of years of everything from namedrops to hints and teases to foreshadowing so heavy that even Star Wars: Episode I wonders if things should be pulled back a little. This week’s first issue of King in Black is the culmination of everything that creators Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman have been building through their work together on both Venom and Absolute Carnage in the last few years — but does the latest big event book live up to literal years of hype?

Who is making King in Black?

King in Black is the latest collaboration between Cates and Stegman, who first worked together with the launch of the current Venom series in 2018. Their work on that book set up everything necessary for last year’s Absolute Carnage, their earlier event book together, which ended with what was, technically, the inciting incident for this series: the awakening of Knull, the dark god who created the alien race of symbiotes that Venom belongs to. Also returning from those two projects are inker J.P. Meyer, colorist Frank Martin and the omnipresent Clayton Cowles on letters.

What is King in Black about?

The basic idea behind King in Black is very simple: The guy who made all the symbiotes like Venom has come to Earth and he’s brought an army of symbiote dragons with him to cause trouble. (Once you get into specifics, things get more complicated, but we’ll get there in a second.)

It’s a familiar formula — one used by Marvel for last year’s War of The Realms event, in fact, if you substitute “dark elf Malekith” for “dark symbiote god Knull” — but one that usually works pretty darn well. Who doesn’t want to see all their favorite characters united against a seemingly unstoppable foe, when it comes down to it?

Why is King in Black happening now?

Avengers quinjets and the Fantasticar sweep over the Hudson river towards Manhattan as an army of symbiote dragons divebomb out of the skies and into its streets, in King in Black #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Donny Cates, Ryan Stegman/Marvel Comics

The cynical answer to that question is, “Because Marvel needs a crossover event every quarter, and the last one finished two months ago,” but we’re more than mere cynics here. For Venom fans, this event has been years in the making and likely feels overdue, and in terms of the wider Marvel universe, it arrives at a time when the heroes are distracted enough with their own plotlines that an invasion proves to be appropriately catastrophic.

Is there any required reading?

This is the first issue in a line wide crossover event that spins out of a three year old storyline from an ongoing series featuring a character who’s been around for three decades. There’s a lot of required reading, especially moving forward with a number of tie-ins listed in the editorial at issue’s end.

Despite Cates and Stegman’s attempts at recapping via Eddie Brock’s terse narration, the stakes can only fully be understood by checking out the current Venom series, along with their previous related crossover book, Absolute Carnage. Cates also snuck important backstory for the villain into his Silver Surfer: Black mini from a few years ago, elevating that to the level of required reading as well. It’s either a sign of the intricate, interconnectedness of the story he’s been building for the last three years, or proof that he’s a writer who wants to keep his back catalog in circulation as long as possible: You decide!

Perhaps the most unexpected continuity in the issue is the appearance of the Sentry, a character that few have likely been thinking about recently, in a scene that ties in directly to 2004’s New Avengers #2 and feels very much like Cates’ inner fanboy has finally achieved peace after 16 years.

The Sentry tears Carnage in half while floating in orbit around the earth, in New Avengers #2, Marvel Comics (2004).
Carnage and the Sentry in New Avengers #2. Ow.
Image: Brian Michael Bendis, David Finch/Marvel Comics

There are also unexplained references to Marvel’s last big event, Empyre, but you can ignore those and still make the story work. Just assume that the Avengers always keep defunct space armadas in orbit around the planet.

Is King in Black good?

In many ways, King in Black #1 is not a good comic, or at least, is a poorly-written one. There’s a reliance on telling instead of showing, with Cates offering some egregiously bad exposition, especially when it comes to the narration from Eddie Brock, who carries most of the issue. There are also countless examples of characters telling the reader that things are bad, as opposed to demonstrating why that’s the case — although even the attempts to do that go awry, with the issue seemingly being based on the childlike logic of “Who’s really tough? Well, my guy can beat them up! Yeah!”

In fact, the weakness of Knull as a threat undercuts the entire book; on the evidence of this issue, he’s entirely generic, with ill-defined abilities (he… can fly, is strong and can control goo dragons, I guess…?) and no real personality, which not only makes for a dull story, but also is a problem when the entire premise is based around the idea that he’s such a strong, inescapable force that any attempt to resist him is futile.

And yet… King in Black does exactly what you want the first issue of an event book to do: it introduces the threat, initially portrays the plight of the protagonists as futile and features cameos from characters who can then be spun out into their own titles, each available separately. Sure, it does it clumsily, but no more clumsy than Absolute Carnage last year or even the average Marvel Cinematic Universe project, both of which have legions of fans, so perhaps there’s something to be said for the simple, direct approach.

One thing that can’t be denied is that the book looks good: Stegman’s work mixes U.S. and Japanese influences to create a hyperkinetic blend of over-rendered, over-muscular cartoon characters with too many teeth and a lack of anything resembling a recognizable human emotion, as if My Hero Academia took over the Marvel Universe, all colored with surprisingly effective subtlety by Martin. It’s a beautiful, and beautifully melodramatic, look that elevates the material significantly.

One panel that popped

A trio of huge Symbiote-merged Celestials descends on New York City amid a swarm of symbiote dragons as the Avengers and X-Men look on in dismay, in King in Black #1, Marvel Comics (2020). Image: Donny Cates, Ryan Stegman/Marvel Comics

Does anyone else remember when Celestials were kind of a big deal, and not just dead or possessed husks to be lived in or used as cannon fodder to prove how big a deal your latest villain is?