Marvel Comics’ Captain America was the only successful test subject of a World War II era experiment designed to create super soldiers . . . or so he thought. The truth of the matter is that “Operation Rebirth,” the program that created Cap, continued to operate after his disappearance at the end of World War II. Over the years, they developed a number of theories on how to create new super soldiers, and back during the Vietnam War they teamed with Nick Fury and the spies of S.H.I.E.L.D. to test one of those theories out; the creation of a symbiotic relationship between human soldiers and strange alien life forms living on Earth.
In the inaugural issue of their current Venom series Writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman introduced readers to Rex Strickland, a survivor of Rebirth’s symbiote super soldier program. In the August one-shot Web of Venom: Ve’Nam, Cates and artist Juanan Ramirez will flash back to Strickland’s younger days and show how the symbiote super soldier program began. CBR spoke with Cates about the pun inspired origins of the project, the role iconic Marvel characters and concepts like Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. play in his story, and the classic ’80s era action movie that influenced and inspired the tale.
CBR: If I were to do an “elevator pitch” for Ve’Nam it would be Apocalypse Now set in the Marvel Universe. Is that what you’re aiming for with this story?
Donny Cates: That’s 100 percent right! It’s a first for me in a lot of ways. I’ve never written a war story and I’ve never written a period piece. In the first issue of Venom readers met Rex Strickland. Rex was involved in the symbiote soldier program of Project Rebirth, which is what gave Flash Thompson his suit. There was a reveal in that issue that Flash was not the first by a long shot. There were people wearing symbiotes at least as far back as the Vietnam War.
Rex is a veteran from that time period, and in Venom #1 he shows us a picture of himself and four other men – his platoon. We saw the deaths of those other men at the end of the first issue, but at a Marvel retreat we were all talking about it. I want to say it was Dan Slott who asked, “What else are you going to do with those symbiote soldiers?” I was like, “They die in the first issue. It’s a set up thing.” He replied. “I don’t know. It’s a really cool idea. There’s meat on those bones.” Because he’s Dan Slott, he knows good story ideas like the back of his hands. So I said that I had the idea of maybe doing a one-shot of them in Vietnam; a Heart of Darkness kind of thing. Jason Aaron then said, “Ve’Nam!” He’s the one who uttered that delightful pun.
I laughed as soon as he said it and picked up my pen to write it down. Jason was like, “Don’t write that down! It was a joke. Don’t do that.” So I had kind of forgotten about it. Then when C.B. Cebulski called to tell me that the Cosmic Ghost Rider series had been green lit he also asked, “Hey, in the room you and Jason joked about Ve’Nam. But do you want to do it? Do you want to publish that?” I was like, “If you guys want to pay for it and publish it, hell yeah, I want to do that!”
So, I hope I’m not demystifying how Marvel Comics are made, but sometimes it is a group of friends in a room making jokes. Then someone takes you too seriously, and is like, “Let’s do it! As much as I joke around about the title it is sincerely important to the overall story.
It’s written by me and it’s canon. It’s also an important part of what I’m doing with Rex in this first arc. That’s the gag. You can’t do these things and not take them seriously. Because when you have something like Cosmic Ghost Rider or Ve’Nam the joke is already there, and the joke is, “Holy shit! They let you do that!” So when they open the book you owe it to the reader for the joke to be over and to take it as seriously as possible. It also makes the joke better. When they put the book down the reader is like, Holy #$%@! They really took that joke seriously.” [Laughs] That’s part of a great joke.
So, Ve’Nam is really fun. There are some surprise guest stars in it. I can’t say who they are, but I can reveal that neither are characters that I’ve ever written. They are also period appropriate, popular characters that people are going to be excited to see.
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