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Cates, Stegman Dissect Absolute Carnage's Heroes, Horrors & Cletus' New Look

As a nihilist, the symbiote-enhanced serial killer Cletus Kasady, better known as Carnage, was one of the most dangerous beings in the Marvel Universe. Recently, though, he became infinitely more deadly by finding god... a literal one. Carnage's patron deity is the massively powerful entity known as Knull, a being that wreaked havoc across Earth and the cosmos for thousands of years before being put to sleep. All Carnage has to do wake his god up, and in order to do this, Carnage is going to do what he does best: Kill a whole bunch of people.

In Absolute Carnage's debut issue, writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman took the story threads from their Venom run of the Cult of Knull and Carnage's murder spree and kicked them up to the next horrific level by unleashing their titular character on all the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe whoever wore a symbiote. The first issue found Spider-Man, Venom and Norman Osborn in Carnage's crosshairs, and more heroes and villains will be ensnared in the web of cosmic horror as the story moves forward.

CBR spoke with Cates and Stegman about the event and the horrific nature of their title character. The pair opened up on what roles characters like Spider-Man and Osborn will play as the story unfolds, what to expect from future issues and tie-ins, and whether this is the end of their long-running Venom storyline

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CBR: One of the things I enjoyed about Absolute Carnage #1, but might have caught some new readers off guard, is just how much of a horror comic it is, especially in the third chapter. Is this indicative of the larger story you're telling?

Donny Cates: Absolutely. The people who would be most surprised by that are readers who are coming to this event having not been caught up on Venom, because our work on Venom has been a sci-fi horror book from the first issue. Certainly things are ramped up with the introduction of Cletus, especially with him being an apostle of a god and wearing this crazy, dragon symbiote he has.

EXCLUSIVE: Art from Absolute Carnage #2 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer & Frank Martin

This was always our intention, going back as far as our first phone call about the book. To me, the built in core conceit of Venom has always been sci-fi horror; this idea of wearing an alien on you. So we've absolutely been driving the series in that direction.

I found a cool, little niche in the Marvel publishing line where there's not a whole lot of that going around. Certainly Immortal Hulk is a horror book, but it's a different brand of horror. So it's been fun to see this vibe be as accepted as it has been, and that's something that will go throughout our entire run

Ryan Stegman: When Donny and I attended a summit at Marvel, we stressed that people should know this is a horror event, because we couldn't remember a horror event ever even happening. There's been political ones and mystical ones, but we've never really had a horror one. I think we're in a time right now where people seem to want horror. That's great for me because my favorite comic series of all time is Alan Moore's Swamp Thing.

Cates: Yeah, Moore's Swamp Thing especially that first arc, was a huge inspiration for us.

As creators, what do you most enjoy about combining horror with the Marvel Universe?

Cates: A lot of things that I've done at Marvel have been trying to find places where I can shine with my own voice and the things that are most interesting to me. I'm not going to out-myth Jason Aaron. I'm not going to beat the big sci-fi ideas of Jonathan Hickman. There is a thing that I enjoy doing, though, that is in line with my tastes in media, and I feel like I do it very well. So I've tried to carve out that kind of a niche.

Stegman: I think anyone who knows me would not have guessed that I would do or excel at some sort of horror comic. Even I'm surprised at that, but the things I've always gravitated towards and liked in comics have always been very dark and horrific. So it's kind of strange to me that this book fits so well. It's almost like, do I even really know myself? [Laughs]

EXCLUSIVE: Art from Absolute Carnage #2 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer & Frank Martin

More than ever before, Carnage feels like a horror villain in both the way he looks and acts in this issue. What we're some of your inspirations both visually and personality wise for this take on the villain? I can't help but compare him to horror villains like Pennywise or Freddy Krueger.

Stegman: You should.

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Cates: I don't think we've really changed his personality at all. And as far as inspiration goes, I've said it before and will say it again; Carnage: Mind Bomb. It's a one-shot by Warren Ellis and Kyle Hotz, and it's the first time that, as a child of the '90s, I read a Carnage story and was genuinely terrified by it. Before that he was like this EXTREME version of Venom. You had the Maximum Carnage video game and all the tie-ins. So it was easy to write him off as this dime-a-dozen psychopath character, but then Ellis got a hold of him in Mind Bomb, and it is the most disturbing look into the mind of a person -- people forget about this -- who was Marvel's greatest serial killer even before he got a symbiote. There's a line in Absolute Carnage #1 that describes his body count as one that only dictators and plagues can hope to achieve.

Stegman: As for the look of him? I first drew it in the room at a summit. We were just talking about what we wanted, so I started to visualize it.

We knew that he was a corpse, and I wanted to show that somehow. So that's why we had the exposed spine. Because when he crashed back into Earth he would have just been a rotted corpse. We wanted to show that rotting, but also still make him Carnage.

I always wanted Carnage to have some sort of symbol. There was something about him not having one that always bothered me. So we gave him Knull's chest symbol. We pulled things from the story that we had already done, and it all came together pretty quick.

Cates: There's something incredibly off-putting about seeing Carnage in his current incarnation and realizing that when you look at him in that suit, it's not a human being. Every symbiote we've seen has been a layer on top of a humanoid figure, but when you look at Carnage it's like, “What the hell am I looking at?”

At the end of Absolute Carnage #1 Cletus does the unexpected and transforms Norman Osborn into one of his followers. So, what can you tell us about Norman's role in the series? How big a story is Absolute Carnage for Norman and his arch-enemy, Peter Parker?

Cates: It's a game changer for anyone involved. Anyone who has the misfortune of being a main character in this book is not going to walk out of it the same way they walked in.

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Norman Osborn was the Red Goblin, so he was the main man. And he still thinks that he's Cletus Kasady. He's not the main man anymore, though, because the real Cletus is god tier now. So it will be real interesting to see these two men who both think that they're Cletus Kasady kind of vying for the top spot and to see Cletus put him in his place a little bit.

EXCLUSIVE: Art from Absolute Carnage #2 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer & Frank Martin

As for Spider-Man? My favorite thing that Peter Parker does is when he draws a line in the sand and says, “This far, and no further.” Those are my favorite moments; when Peter is so outclassed and out powered that he's like, “I'll die, but you're not coming over this line.” We get to have one of those moments in this book where Peter makes a choice to stand his ground... much to his detriment.

Your villainous cast also includes Doppleganger, Shriek, and potentially any of the other villains who have worn a symbiote. What can you tell us about some of the other villains we'll see in Absolute Carnage?

Cates: Between the main Absolute Carnage event and the Venom book that I'm writing, you'll see damn near every symbiote that has ever been. Then, in books like Lethal Protectors, Absolute Carnage VS Deadpool and Separation Anxiety, you'll see your Shrieks and your Doppelgangers.

When we were planning this event, our editors -- Devin Lewis, Lauren Amaro and Danny Khazem -- put together this enormous Excel spreadsheet of everyone who's ever had a symbiote. We looked at it and were like, “There are so many people! How are we going to do this?” We did our best to address everyone, though, even if it's just acknowledging that the targets got saved or they met a fate. Fortunately, a lot of them were dead, but we’re trying to give those deceased characters their due, too. Thaddeus Ross is just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm sure someone online will call us out for some bus driver we missed in some Annual or something.

Stegman: Those people got killed off panel.

Cates: [Laughs] Yeah, there's a reason that there is a mass grave in the first issue. It's my convenient plot device for people who ask, “What about this person?” They're in that grave.

EXCLUSIVE: Art from Venom #17 by Iban Coello & Rain Beredo

Obviously your core cast includes Eddie and Peter Parker, but who are some of the other heroes that you don't normally get to write or draw that you're enjoying working into Absolute Carnage?

Cates: A bunch we can't talk about! [Laughs]

Ryan and I pride ourselves on taking these characters very seriously. We're trying to elevate Eddie and Venom to a place we call “serious comics” and make the series into something really beautiful and poignant. That being said, the end of issue #3 has a moment that will make you stand up and cheer like you were in a Fast and the Furious film. It is the most metal, balls-to-the wall stuff we've ever done, and we're so excited about it.

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I can't say much more except that, for me, writing Spider-Man is always a joy. In fact, my favorite part of issue #1 was plunking Eddie and Peter down in a diner and having them talk.

This was the first time they've met in our run, and I write them like they're estranged brothers. They have this incredible bond that they don't necessarily like, but can't get away from. So if one of them needs help it's like, “God damn it! Fine.” Any chance I get to write Peter, I do. He's my best friend, and I love him.

Ryan is not answering, because I know his answer and he can't say it. [Laughs]

Stegman: [Laughs] As we speak, I'm drawing one of the pages leading up to the end of issue #3 that we can't talk about. It's pretty awesome.

In a recent episode of Ryan's Steg-Man & His Amazing Friends podcast, you touched on the fact that Eddie's son, Dylan, might not necessarily have been conceived in the usual way. Can you elaborate on that for our readers who didn't hear that episode?

Cates: Yeah if you read our second arc of Venom, “The Abyss,” there's a moment in issue #12 where we flashback to Eddie's ex, Anne Weying, handing Dylan off to Eddie's father, Carl. She makes a very small remark that could be interpreted as Eddie and her did not conceive this child. She found herself pregnant shortly after she bonded with the Venom symbiote.

The big caveat to that scene is, it's massively up for interpretation. I have not confirmed or denied anything, but it's worth paying attention to.

Is the mystery of Dylan's birth something that will be explored in Absolute Carnage? Or something that you'll look at later?

Cates: Yes to both.

Absolute Carnage isn't just a miniseries. It's a whole event of interconnected tales. So, for people with a limited budget are certain tie-ins more connected than others?

Cates: If you're a fan of our Venom run and you're on a budget, I'd say stick to Absolute Carnage and the Venom book that I'm writing. Those are the books that will most closely follow the threads from our run.

Stegman: We hope you read all the other stuff, but If you can't afford it, we've got you.

Cates: Yeah, we hope that you go and read all the tie-ins because all because those books are bangers. And as you read through Absolute Carnage, you'll notice built in places to jump off into those other stories if that's something you're interested in.

What can you tell us about the story you're telling in the Absolute Carnage arc of Venom?

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EXCLUSIVE: Art from Venom #17 by Iban Coello & Rain Beredo

Cates: In the Venom arc, we spend a lot of time with Dylan, who's been left in the care of the Maker and is unaware that Eddie is his father. We look at the perils he gets into while his dad is risking his life to save the world.

I want to be careful what I say about the Venom tie-ins, because I think a lot of collectors are looking at Absolute Carnage, but if I were a betting man, I'd look at the Venom tie-ins as well.

Finally, is Absolute Carnage the culmination of the larger Venom story you're telling, or just the closing chapter of the first act?

Stegman: Yes, this is certainly not the end there's even bigger things coming.

Cates: Yeah, you know how Avengers: Endgame was the end of the entire Infinity saga? This is like that, except there's a massive post-credits scene that sets up Phase Two of our run.

So your outline for Eddie Brock's adventures continues well into 2020?

Cates: Yeah, and beyond! If you want more behind the scenes stuff, check out Ryan's podcast that you mentioned earlier. We're going to do an episode that's a page by page walkthrough of Absolute Carnage #1.

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