Marvel’s King in Black has shown the biggest problem with major comic book events. Donny Cates’ King in Black has been one of the most impactful Marvel sagas in quite some time. It helps that Cates has been building up to this event for years, not just in the pages of Venom, but also in other books like Silver Surfer: Black. The end result has been a story that, although ostensibly about the tongue-slavering symbiote antihero Venom, has consumed the entire Marvel comics universe.
The scale of this story is absolutely spectacular, and it’s easy to see why Marvel decided to transform King in Black into a line-wide event. Knull, the god of the symbiotes, has escaped his imprisonment on the planet Klyntar, and he has come to Earth. Eddie Brock managed to give the Avengers warning, but even they weren’t enough, and Knull successfully conquered the planet. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have finally begun a fightback, though, bolstered by the arrival of Knull’s ancient nemesis – the Enigma Force.
As tremendous and effective as King in Black may be, though, it also demonstrates the fundamental problem with Marvel’s approach to such comic book events. The main story is told in an ongoing miniseries, one that is relatively self-contained, while side-stories are told in one-shots and tie-in issues. Unfortunately these spin-off tales are mostly inconsequential, with the curious exception of Black Cat, which explains where Doctor Strange got an Asgardian staff in King in Black #4. In one notable case in the King in Black: Black Panther one-shot, the conclusion of the story actually contradicts the main series. It sees King T’Challa break a hole in the symbiote layer coating the Earth, one that is mysteriously absent in King in Black #4, when the Silver Surfer’s intervention is required to create just such a gap for the Enigma Force to break through.
This is the fundamental problem with taking a (tremendous) self-contained story, and transforming it into an event. Such an approach requires meticulous planning, in order for the tie-ins to feel both relevant and significant; but they also can’t be too important, because you want the event miniseries to stand on its own. It’s actually really difficult to strike this balance, and few events succeed; the best example would likely be 2006’s Civil War, which set up a broad narrative designed to consume the entire line while allowing individual writers a remarkable degree of flexibility.
A further issue is that only the most skilled writers can handle the disruption to their ongoing narrative caused by a major event like Knull’s arrival. In terms of King in Black, the most successful tie-in writer is undoubtedly Gerry Duggan, who has skillfully woven the symbiote storyline into his Savage Avengers run. He has found a smart way of tying the battle against Knull into his own ongoing storyline by building conflict against the ancient cannibal Sorcerer Supreme Kulan Gath and granting Conan a symbiote weapon to use against him. While readers can still sense the disruption, they get the feeling momentum is building within the book itself. But such mastery of event tie-ins is something that comes with experience, and for every Gerry Duggan there are another five writers who struggle.
King in Black will surely go down as one of Marvel’s most successful events. At the same time, though, it isn’t perfect – and in fact it subtly displays the flaws of the entire phenomenon that is a superhero comic book event.