Warning! This article contains some spoilers for King in Black #4
The enormous scope of Marvel’s King in Black event highlights how the elements that make it an effective line-wide crossover also limit its ability to be a great story. The Marvel Universe has been under attack by the forces of Knull the Symbiote God for more than two months, which is about half of the expected length of the crossover. This has provided plenty of story opportunities, as the dozens of tie-in issues, miniseries, and one-shots have featured all sorts of fan-favorite characters squaring off against the Lord of the Abyss’ armies.
The main King in Black limited series at the heart of the crossover is intended to be the culmination of more than two years of stories by writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Stegman in the ongoing Venom series. Their run has included the introduction of Eddie Brock’s son Dylan, the establishment of Knull and his backstory as the god of all symbiotes, and the Absolute Carnage event. It has all led to Knull’s arrival on Earth, where he seeks out Dylan, who can also control symbiotes. This is a vital part of his war against the Light and his quest to return the universe to darkness.
The biggest drawback to events like this is that the need to incorporate multiple unconnected titles diminishes the potential of the main story of Knull’s conquest. In order for a crossover to impact such a vast range of characters, from Namor to the Guardians of the Galaxy to the Fantastic Four, the threat facing the heroes has to be broad and easy to summarize. Readers picking up their favorite titles should be able to get the gist of what’s going on without having to read the larger crossover. The King in Black fits that bill perfectly. He’s the embodiment of evil who wants to cover everything darkness. That’s a generic enough conflict that writers can use it as a backdrop for Black Cat pulling off a heist where she steals Doctor Strange, or for Deadpool to assemble a new team of monsters. The symbiote dragons that make up Knull’s armies give every title a big monster for its heroes to fight. And the dynamic nature of the symbiotes allow artists a chance to create visually striking scenes.
The fleeting nature of crossover tie-ins means that each of these heroes can spend and issue or two beating up symbiotes before blasting them with sound or lighting them on fire, and moving on to something new the next month. But the main King in Black limited series does not have that luxury. Though he makes appearances in some of the tie-ins, Knull as a character has much more prominence in the limited series. The problem is that his character lacks the nuance and depth to make a truly memorable or engaging antagonist. He is simply evil and craves darkness. In King in Black #4, Jean Grey probes into his mind searching for weaknesses, and finds nothing but darkness. The conclusion of that issue implies that the secret to beating Knull is not something inherent in Venom, Dylan or any other main character from the story we’ve been following, but a God of Light who flies in from outer space and possesses Eddie Brock.
There are other areas where Marvel seems to have sacrificed the story of King in Black in favor of making it into a massive crossover. The wait time between issues in the main series is long. King in Black #5 is scheduled to go on sale on April 7, a full seven weeks after the fourth issue. Whether this is due to production issues behind the scenes, or because Marvel needs time to publish all the tie-ins before wrapping up the crossover, is unknown. But a major effect is that it feels like the event is being dragged out. The King in Black series certainly does have memorable moments, from Knull ripping the Sentry in half to Thor practically knocking the Symbiote God’s jaw clean off his face. Readers can’t help but be left feeling that the main series is spinning its wheels while waiting for the stories in the connected issues to play out.
The shortcomings of this storyline might not be as evident if the timeframe had been shortened, or if Marvel had not devoted quite so much of its publishing line to producing stories under the King in Black umbrella. Obviously the crossover has not reached its conclusion and we have yet to see how the ending of King in Black will play out and what ramifications it could have on the Marvel Universe. But as it stands, the strategy used in rolling out this event has created an interesting backdrop for a number of tie-in stories, while leaving the main tale at the center of it all feeling a bit hollow.