DALLAS — Have you heard of Donny Cates?
The Dallas Morning News reports he’s a 32-year-old comic book writer from Garland, living in Austin, who has brought the Lone Star State to the forefront of the comics world.
Marvel in July announced he’ll be writing its new “Doctor Strange” and “Thanos” series as part of an exclusive writing deal.
So who is this guy?
Cates has spent his fair share of years in the comics industry, working with publishers like Dark Horse Comics and Heavy Metal Magazine, building himself a grassroots movement that’s rarely seen in mainstream comic books.
In just the last year, Cates has released three original series: “God Country,” a West Texas-set fantasy adventure; “Redneck,” an East Texas-set horror book in the vein of “The Walking Dead”; and “Babyteeth,” the story of a teenage girl who gives birth to the anti-Christ. You could say he has a diverse portfolio.
Each of these three books has set the charts on fire with reprints and sellouts at the publisher level and a whole lot of buzz surrounding the semi-fresh face from North Texas.
But it wasn’t always so easy.
Sitting at a two-seater table at the back of Sali’s Pizza & Pasta in Garland, Cates recounted the early years of his writing career, working on original titles “Buzzkill” and “The Paybacks” and how a few years after working an editorial internship with Marvel Comics, he thought he was going to die.
In mid-2015, Cates was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, a sudden inflammation of the pancreas — what he called retribution from his body for all of the drinking he did. He recalled waking up one night at 4 a.m., screaming at the top of his lungs, writhing on the floor in pain.
“It felt like someone was stabbing me,” he said. He motioned to his wife, Liz, and she drove him to the emergency room. The doctor immediately knew it was pancreatitis, but Cates said the moments before knowing whether it was acute or chronic were unbearable.
“I made a decision while holding my wife’s hand that if that doctor comes into this room and tells me it’s chronic, I’m gonna check out,” he said. “In a 24-hour period, I went from everything being totally OK, having a career I loved on the rise, to making a decision that I was going to take my own life.”
The pancreatitis was of course acute, and Cates was prescribed heavy medication for three months, lived on a liquids-only diet and dropped more than 30 pounds. He hasn’t had a drink in almost three years.
During those three months, he also finished work on one of his original series, “The Ghost Fleet.”
“There’s a reason Ghost Fleet gets real (expletive) weird real quick,” Cates said. “You can mark it, between issue four and five is when all this (expletive) went down.”
But his time laid up wasn’t all bad, and Cates said his loss of memory and “waking up” from his three months of painkillers helped him to build one of his most successful, more recent titles: “God Country.”
“God Country,” with art by friend and “Buzzkill” collaborator Geoff Shaw, follows Emmet Quinlan, an elderly man from West Texas living with dementia. He’s cared for by his son and his son’s family, a wife and son fed up with Emmet’s violent outbursts and disregard for those around him.
When a massive tornado strikes the family’s home (and the surrounding town), Emmet finds a mythical sword among the rubble named Valofax and is cured of his illness, but he’s thrust into a battle that is literally hell on earth. Cates’ original idea raised the question, “What if Thor’s hammer had landed in a trailer park?”
But Cates said despite the fantastic nature of its story, “God Country” is about what someone would do if they got their life back — and how far they would go to keep it that way.
“In a lot of ways, the Alzheimer’s aspect of ‘God Country’ comes from what I went through,” Cates said. “To not be able to be a son to my parents or a husband to my wife. I felt all of those things.”
Cates, amid a stupor of pain medication, had a moment of clarity. He recalled what had happened to him and drew lines from that fog of memory to Emmet’s character in the book. This awareness, Cates said, helped to strengthen a series that was planned to be six issues from the start, no more than that.
And the success and cultural impact of “God Country” has been felt throughout the comic world since its release in January. A tag at the end of the book’s second issue has Emmet telling a god that Valofax is his now, and that its previous owner will have to “come and take it,” a phrase familiar to most Texans.
Now, T-shirts and pins sporting the series’ sword and slogan have been sold, riffing on the “come and take it” flag and its symbolism while also adding the flare of Emmet’s newfound clarity. The success of “God Country” also helped to push Cates’ next series, “Redneck,” a vampire horror book from the publishers of “The Walking Dead.”
The story, influenced by Cates’ own family and drawn by artist Lisandro Estherren, is set in East Texas and tells the tale of a family of vampires who own a cattle farm and barbecue joint, keeping human contact to a minimum as they live in fear for their lives.
“The kind of overarching message of the book is a family trying to overcome the sins of the past,” Cates said. “They live off of cow blood instead of human blood now, and they take the meat, sell it and repeat. Everything is cool.”
Cates likened the book to a magic trick, as it presents readers with a clan of horribly grotesque “monsters” but humanizes them through somewhat relatable means. JV, the family’s patriarch, just wants to keep his loved ones safe.
“It’s a book about blood,” he said. “But not in the way you think.”
The series was quickly followed by “Babyteeth,” a passion project for Cates and artist Garry Brown that tells the story of a 16-year-old girl named Sadie, who is pregnant with the anti-Christ, and the trials and tribulations of being a teen while also literally raising hell.
“She doesn’t care about prophecies. It just sucks that her baby drinks blood,” he said. “But what kid doesn’t come with unique challenges?”
With three bona fide hits, a healthy following of fans and a dash of controversy, Cates is on fire. So what’s next for the Garland native?
For Cates, it always comes back to Marvel Comics.
“These were the books I learned how to read with,” he said.
Around 2010, Cates interned with Marvel, and he worked with its writers, editors and artists to assist with production. That also meant going on the occasional coffee run. A handful of years later, Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso would call him from the same cafe he’d make runs to with the news: Marvel wanted to bring him on — exclusively.
“He was standing in the place, getting coffee, where just six years ago I used to go and get them their coffee,” he said. “I legit started crying. Reactionary, I rolled a tear down my face.”
Of course, that exclusivity wasn’t announced until July, but there’s more: Cates is taking on “Thanos” and “Doctor Strange.”
The former will tell a villain’s tale, billed by Cates as “Thanos wins,” and will release ahead of next May’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” a film that will see the big purple baddie Thanos take on a collection of Marvel’s movie heroes, including Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy. His creative team from “God Country” will be joining him on the title.
Cates’ “Strange” run will follow up superstar writer Jason Aaron’s acclaimed “Doctor Strange,” a run that has helped to reinvent the character of Stephen Strange and all of his Jack Kirby-influenced weirdness for modern readers. Cates’ way of shaking things up?
“The Sorcerer Supreme is no longer Stephen, it’s Loki,” he said. “It’s a story about Stephen, just disposed from the Sanctum Sanctorum.”
Cates also recently handled co-writer duties on a few issues of writer Nick Spencer’s “Steve Rogers: Captain America” and “Sam Wilson: Captain America,” two series neck deep in the controversy of “Secret Empire” and Steve Roger’s time as a fascist dictator.
“I’ve got to say, despicable Cap is so much fun to write,” he said.
For Cates, his career is a dream come true, and he’s excited to be a part of the company that got him into comics. Above all else? He’s just excited people keep letting him write cool stories.
“I’ve never taken time off from comics,” he said. “But what no one tells you about breaking into the industry is that now they’re all written by your friends. The illusion is spoiled (laughs).”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News