It's no secret that we at Comics Bulletin love Joe Casey. He's exactly the kind of wild, brilliant, independent creator that we champion in the medium, but he also hasn't shied away from getting his hands on some Marvel and DC characters over the years. And despite his highly successful involvement in creating television animation at Man of Action Studios, comic books remain his first love. That's why CB Managing Editors Nick Hanover and Danny Djeljosevic were thrilled that Casey agreed to talk to them a while back about his work — and talk he did! This is an extensive, interesting interview that we'll be presenting to you over the course of the next three days.
In Part One, Casey gives us a look at how he has managed to bring his unique sensibilities to mainstream comics, specifically in his most recent Marvel work, Vengeance.
Nick Hanover and Danny Djeljosevic for Comics Bulletin: We've been doing reviews of Butcher Baker, which has been one of our favorite books this year. Lately, we've been discussing how it's a comic book that also functions as comic book criticism. I was curious if that was something you intended. Was it meant to be the Lipstick Traces of comic books, where it's this really fun, kinetic theory on the form?
Joe Casey: Probably everything I do has that element to it, because I'm not in a vacuum and I'm paying attention to what's going on in the industry and the culture. So, if you're plugged into it and you're doing work in the field, it would be tough to avoid that stuff. It's swirling around in your head as you're creating the thing that you're creating.
And I like that, because it makes it more personal and makes it more a work that's in the moment. It feels natural to me. I don't think it's necessarily a criticism of anything else. It's more of a challenge. On some levels, it's like saying to everyone else out there, here's what I'm doing. I'm pushing it as far as I can push it at the moment. I've got my dick hanging out in the wind, let's see everybody else's dick!
CB: So, it is almost like an exhibitionism type of thing? You're getting all of your influences and your intent out there. Do you feel that other comics creators are, in a way, trying to hide who they are?
Casey: Well, no. I'm getting my energy out there. I'm doing this sort of primal scream therapy through comic books. It's not necessarily personal to my issues as a human being, but it definitely involves my feelings and thoughts about the business that I'm in — the life, work and career that I've chosen for myself. Writing comics isn't just about getting the job and doing the work and cashing the check. For me, it's such a personal form of artistic expression that I just have to go there. If I'm not going there, the work suffers.
I've done gigs in the past where I've just cashed the check and gone on with my life. But, in a way, my work is my life, so when I'm taking those paycheck gigs, I'm really selling myself short. I've tried not to do that in the past couple years, though I've certainly been guilty of it in the past.
CB: Would you consider something like Vengeance for Marvel one of your paycheck gigs, or do you think you've been able to reach a new plateau for the stuff you're doing for mainstream publishers?
Casey: I don't differentiate now [between] the work-for-hire stuff and the creator-owned stuff in terms of intent and the energy that I put into it. If I had been offered that Vengeance gig and felt like it was going to be a by-the-numbers book that [Marvel] just wanted someone to type up the script for and send it in and not think about any more, I wouldn't have taken it. But in that particular gig, I saw an opportunity to try some things and commit as much as I do in a lot of my creator-owned work. I'm committing different things and I'm using different energy, because Marvel is the biggest publisher out there. You're writing in a different context than in something like Butcher Baker or Gødland, which are really cult books. They'll never sell as well as even my lowest selling Marvel comics, because that's just the way the market is.
If I get that feeling that it's just a paycheck gig now, I won't take it. But Vengeance has been anything but that. And that has to do with the fact that Marvel came to me with such a blank slate. They had nothing. I mean, they had a title and a general idea of what it could be, but, beyond that, I was able to do my own thing. Once Nick Dragotta came onboard and he and I really clicked as collaborators, then I really knew that it could serve as a laboratory — which is what those gigs should be.
It's sad that things like The Avengers and Iron Man are now IP's, so the comic books are really there to service the IP and not to foster artistic expression or even push the envelope when it comes to storytelling or how to work with the medium. But something like Vengeance, which has no real onus on it in terms of IP or franchise is a reminder, hopefully, that you can still do [interesting] things in a mainstream or work-for-hire comic if you're willing to put the energy into it.
CB: Vengeance is like an event that functions unto its own universe, as opposed to being tied into the rest of Marvel. It feels like a world we don't really see in superhero comic books, with a youthful, party lifestyle type of thing.
Casey: Yeah, there's a bit of that, but it's current with the Marvel Universe. As much as I can come across as a lunatic sometimes, I do take a gig like that seriously. In some respects, Vengeance is a typical Marvel comic. If somebody who doesn't know me or doesn't know what I'm trying to do — or has no interest in what I'm trying to do — sees it on the rack [and thinks], "Oh, there's a Marvel comic — It's got Magneto on the cover. I know who Magneto is, I'll check it out," I do want it to deliver to that casual reader. So I'm not just completely ignoring [mass appeal] stuff.
On the other hand, there are things that I am absolutely ignoring very deliberately. Because, again, I had the opportunity to go in and say, " I've seen some things done with characters — even those that I've created — that were creative missteps, and I'm going to try to write some of those." And it was such an off-the-radar book for Marvel that I was able to get away with it.
CB: And it also seems that, using the characters who operate on the fringes of the Marvel Universe, you are able to have more freedom than you would otherwise have with Marvel.
Casey: I think that's true. I mean, there are so many characters in there that I had to get clearance for a lot of them. Even ones who weren't being used [elsewhere] or weren't considered [to be] of interest. You still had to fly your idea up the flagpole and make sure that nothing got shot down. But, when they've got a big summer crossover event going on at the same time with a million tie-ins… they're not really looking at what we're doing with our little bo
ok. And I love that. To me, that's the perfect opportunity to do the kind of Marvel comics that I want to see.
And — I'm sure that they would refute this — I have a feeling that there are guys working at Marvel who are not doing exactly the kind of books they want to be doing. There's a tone at Marvel, there are editorial edicts, you kind of have to go with the flow if you want to keep working. I would imagine that there are probably some guys who are like, "I'm happy to be working, I'm not going to rock the boat or try to make any trouble. I'm going to just see which way the wind is blowing and let it blow me that way."
CB: Do you think that's something that happens a lot with the creators that Marvel brings over? You've had some experience with them in the past, correct?
Casey: Yeah, it happened to me. My time on the X-Men is kind of a mixture of going with the flow and bucking certain trends, but I think in hindsight that everyone would probably agree that I didn't get the balance right. I was pushing the envelope in the wrong way, and I was conforming in the wrong way. In retrospect, I maybe should've flipped that, and it might have worked out better. At least, it might have been work that I have more of a fond feeling for.
So, yeah, I've been down that road. [For] everybody who is in the "top ten" right now, it's so easy to see what their trajectory is, because I've been there and traveled down some of those roads. It's not rocket science to become a popular writer in the business. It's a fairly standard formula that's applied to almost everybody.
CB: Do you think the industry is getting better or worse for more adventurous writers? Is it easier for more adventurous writers to find sales success with something like Butcher Baker — even if it's outside of someone like Marvel?
Casey: I wouldn't say it's easier, because I have a big advantage over a lot of guys. You'd never begrudge somebody [at one of the Big Two] who's there making a living. People have to make money to support their families. I don't make my nut in comics anymore, so that gives me a lot of freedom within the industry to turn down things or do creator-owned work that, in the short term, doesn't make me a dime. In the long term, who knows, but in the short term I don't see any money at all — nor do I expect to. But you'd be surprised when you go into a project without those constraints or without that pressure at how liberating it is. It's a big deal to be able to write out of pure passion and pure love.
CB: Do you think that more creators now are exploring those other avenues and thinking of their comics in terms of how they can be utilized in other mediums?
Casey: Not at Marvel and DC, because we're in a new phase of the "hyphenate-driven" comics. In the early 90's, you had artist-driven comics with the Image crowd, then in the late 90's/early aughts, they were writer-driven, and that was the environment I came up in. And now, it's back to [being] editor-driven.
And editors are not the most artistically daring bunch you're going to run into. Typically, by and large, they are there to do a job, which is to get books out. To be fair, they don't have the luxury to sit around and think about how to progress the medium or move it forward. Their agenda is to produce periodical magazines. It's a very deadline-intensive industry, and that's their focus. But when this culture is so large, where is the passion going to come from? Where is the forward thinking going to happen? Not really in those environments.
Just an example: Fear Itself, the big Marvel crossover, was really representative of mainstream comics. It was a big seller, it takes most of the air out of the room, but it was born out of the fact that there was going to be a Thor movie and a Cap movie. So editorial said, we need something that involves Cap and Thor, and they put that to the writers. And I'm sure all along the way, the editors were there to steer that story into the areas that serviced what they needed from it. At the end of the day, you could have a perfectly polished piece of superhero entertainment, but it doesn't really float my boat. It doesn't seem like it would be very fun to write that comic book.
[With] Vengeance — going into it knowing that it was going to be counter-programming to Fear Itself — my feeling was, let's really be a counter-program to it. At the same time, to me, Vengeance is an event book. It's just all there in the pages of the [main] book. Hopefully it has the scope and the scale of a great event comic — though there have only been a handful of those, as far as I'm concerned.
CB: It seems very much in line with a lot of your other work, like The Intimates or Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance, which was very youth-centric. There isn't lot of that in superhero comics, which are typically about the thirty-something hero.
Casey: I agree, and I'd rather do those kinds of characters because they are a quick way to get to optimism and energy. They're not saddled with angst, necessarily. I mean, teenagers have their own kind of angst, but it's a very entertaining kind of angst that is always fun to watch. There's room to develop those kinds of characters because they're always in this sort of "proto-form." If I want to do a book infused with a lot of, for lack of a better term, "in the moment-ness" — something that seems culturally relevant to what's going on right now — writing teenaged characters is the easiest way to do that.
You can have adult characters with their fingers on the pulse of [what's current], but that always comes across as fake to me. I like to write my adults as adults who might not necessarily have time to be on Twitter or upload photos to their Facebook page. I like my adult characters to have adult concerns, even if it's a kind of magnified or idealized version of it. If you're going to step over that line from adolescence to adulthood, that's a different world and a different kind of book.
The thing about Butcher Baker is that it's been an attempt to have that same kind of energy in a book that's about someone who's deep into adulthood. But, hopefully, the way we're telling the story and the vibe and general tone of the book makes up for the downer aspect of the character, making it a fun read that keeps people engaged and involved on a visceral level without getting too mired down in the "Batman syndrome," where he's angsting about his parents again or mourning this or that again.
Check back tomorrow for Part Two, where Casey delves into his current Image hit, Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker!