This is actually the second time that I’ve interviewed Joe Casey.
Months ago, I’d planned this grandiose super feature that would pose the same set of questions to all four members of Man of Action (Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Steve Seagle, and Duncan Rouleau), but it didn’t quite come together. I’ve been promising Casey for months that I’d be harassing him with updated material very soon, and after chatting a bit in San Diego, and following the pattern that launched Year Two (lead with a big interview), Casey’s returned to Ambidextrous. Along the way, we cover Superman, Wildcats, Mr. Majestic, Batman, Automatic Kafka, and what his feelings are about the game five years in…
It’s well worth the wait I think…
Brandon Thomas: Let’s start big. With the recent announcement regarding the Superman titles, how will you be wrapping up your run on Adventures? Any stories you regret not telling?
Joe Casey: Well, I knew quite a while before this all went down that I wanted to wrap things up on Superman by the end of 2003, and that’s how it’s worked out. We all knew, but we just weren’t press whores about it. I don’t think it’s necessarily “news” when creators decide to leave a gig, especially when it’s a year before our last issues were going to hit the stands.
Having said that, this entire last year on ADVENTURES for me has been fun, being on my own and not having to worry too much about what the other titles were doing. I’ve had a blast but I knew it was time to go. Over the years, I found out the hard way that there’s simply too much we’re not allowed to do with Superman in the regular comicbooks, and I wish the next batch of writers all the luck in the world. They’re gonna need it. They’ve certainly got the deck stacked in their favor, artistically, with a powerhouse like Jim Lee drawing one of the books. We would’ve killed for that kind of artistic star power, but at the same time I place extreme value on my collaborations with Derec Aucion, Mike Wieringo, Duncan Rouleau, Charlie Adlard and Carlos Meglia. Those artists did a fantastic job on the issues we worked on together, so I have no complaints about that. I think I have one final Superman story in me. Someday I’ll get to tell it, but it’s certainly not meant for the monthly books. It’s a much bigger story than those floppies can contain. It would have to be a special standalone thing, like a hardcover or something like that.
Thomas: Everyone has their own theory about why or why not the S titles aren’t sitting higher on the sales charts. What makes writing the character difficult?
Casey: I love the character, so writing him wasn’t difficult at all. Like I said, I had a ball with it the whole way. At times, there can be pressure to juice things up if the sales aren’t where you want them. Hence, you get a fan favorite like Jim to draw the book. I’ve never been a fan favorite… that’s not my gig. So, I rarely cracked under that particular pressure. Once I accepted that all of the so-called “radical” ideas I had about Superman weren’t going to fly with the higher-ups, I just decided to kick back and simply concentrate on telling some cool Superman stories. At the end of the day, I realized that was my gig. If DC Comics can’t sell Superman comic books — no matter who’s working on them — then that’s their problem. It was never mine.
Thomas: Do you think that your run on Mr. Majestic with its BIG, self-contained stories prepared you or put you in the mindset to write some truly inspired Superman material?
Casey: I guess, in terms of big hero action comic books, some of what I learned working on that book was able to carry over to the Superman gig. But, in retrospect, MR. MAJESTIC was more of an anti-continuity series, where Superman comic books are oftentimes very much about continuity (sometimes to the detriment of the stories’ dramatic effectiveness, unfortunately). In retrospect, the Majestic stories were much more pure. But on the other hand, there’s no substitute for the original.
Thomas: Moving on to the critically-acclaimed Wildcats, if you count volume 2, you’ve written roughly three dozen issues of Wildcats. What makes this a title that Joe Casey has to have his name on?
Casey: Keep in mind that, although some truly great writers — James Robinson, Alan Moore — had spent time on the book, no one was exactly lining up to write WILDCATS. For me, it was a great opportunity to try and do what past creators I respected had done with other lower-tier series… which was to take them at perhaps their lowest point and build them up into something cool and worthwhile. That’s all I’ve been trying to do with WILDCATS, in both series.
Thomas: The recently released 12th issue of volume 3 effectively closed off a couple plotlines, while starting a few more. Are you pleased with the progress you’ve made, and the time you took getting there?
Casey: The real experiment of the first year of VERSION 3.0 was one of pacing. In essence, we took a full year to introduce / establish / develop our main cast of characters. Now, going into year two of the book, I’ve come back to a more balanced sense of pacing, where every issue will have its share of hot superhero action, quiet character moments and social future drama. I’m in the middle of writing issues #16 and #17 simultaneously and things feel great. The overall story has gained its own momentum, and I’m just running to catch up with it. Needless to say, big things are in store for this series… one of which being the return of my Volume 2 collaborator, Sean Phillips. I can’t tell you how psyched I am for that…
Thomas: One big standout of the title are the slick production values and unique cover design. As a writer, how important is something like this to you, and what’s the process involve?
Casey: Comic books are a visual medium. Of course you want the books to look as slick as possible. You want them to be as visually unique as possible, since most comic books look so fucking alike it makes me sick. This started when Sean Phillips was doing the covers for the tail end of Volume 2, which were fantastic. With VERSION 3.0, the synergy between myself, designer Rian Hughes, and Dustin Nguyen has been amazing.
How it works is that I generally throw out a bare-bones idea of what the cover could be, based on the story content of the issue in question. Then the four of us (editor Ben Abernathy is integral and always involved in these discussions) bat ideas around and make improvements, refining the concept of what the cover should be. Then, once we’re all in agreement, Dustin puts together the art. Sometimes it’s a full painting, sometimes it’s a piece of computer-enhanced art, sometimes it’s mixed media. Then it goes to Rian, who does the overall design, logos, etc. He literally “builds” the cover. Then we all take a look at it, and sometimes we tweak a detail here or there. But the idea is always to achieve the best result. It’s been great so far, with no ego involved on anyone’s part. And, obviously, the final product speaks for itself. Why Dustin and Rian didn’t get nominated for any cover design awards continues to baffle me. Actually, it pisses me off. But I think the reason is because no one has ever put comicbook covers together in this manner before, and the various nominating committees couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that this is how magazines are done every day.
Thomas: Was there anything in Year One of ‘Cats V.3 that you wanted to try, but didn’t?
Casey: Not a thing. Everything we wanted to do, we did. Now, if only the goddamn thing sold better…
Thomas: Automatic Kafka was a book that I really dug. Did doing this project offer any lessons on how the comic industry exists today, and what will and won’t make it in the market?
Casey: Not really. We knew going in that a book like this was going to be a tough sell in the kind of conservative market we’re operating in. But we also didn’t give a fuck. We took our shot and let it fly. What I learned were lessons in how to let my creativity flow more freely, and just how much you can get away with under the auspices of a “superhero comic book”. They were lessons I’ve been able to apply to just about all of my work since, from Superman on down.
Thomas: Wildstorm is home to a lot of your work. What does the imprint offer creators, and what are they doing better than anyone else?
Casey: I don’t necessarily differentiate publishers from one another. It all comes down to the ideas, the characters and the editors I’m working with. At Wildstorm, Ben Abernathy is my editor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s one of the best in the business. Wildstorm in general has provided me a lot of freedom and a ton of support. C’mon, who else would’ve dared publish nine issues of AUTOMATIC KAFKA? They may very well want to disavow it now (and who could blame them?), but the fact remains they stepped up to the plate and put that book out there. They shoved it in people’s faces as part of the Eye Of The Storm imprint launch. A dark comedy about a drug-addled robot crawling his way through the underbelly of celebrity culture… how often does one of the Big Two put out a series like that in this climate? Answer: not very often. Maybe AK makes a case for them not to do books like that, but I’m happy we got to do it before they learned their lesson.
Thomas: What did you have planned for Kafka at this point? Fill us in on what we’re missing…
Casey: If you read all nine issues, then you’re not missing a thing. That final issue was planned from the beginning, it was just a matter of when we were going to have to slot it in. AK was one of those books for me where the plot was the least important aspect of the series. It was more about character explorations and our hamfisted attempts at celebrity cultural satire. To me, it was a mood piece more than anything else.
Thomas: I’ve been waiting forever for your Batman series to drop. What was the delay and what’s your interpretation of the Batman mythos? Do you think you’ve touched on an aspect of the character that we haven’t seen quite yet?
Casey: Well, the wait is almost over. The first issue of BATMAN: TENSES hits at the end of this month. If I can remember back that far, the original creative impetus of the series was all about asking myself… could I write a decent Batman story without all the “props” that most folks seem to rely upon when they get their shot at Batman?
So, in TENSES, there is no Bat-signal, no Commissioner Gordon, no Robin, no Joker, no Penguin, no Catwoman, no Alfred, even! There’s a bit of the Batcave and some hot Batmobile action, but that’s basically it. I wanted to approach this book as though Kubrick were making a Batman film. I wanted something austere, something that explored the character without beating you over the head with all of my stunning revelations.
I wanted to look at Batman from a specific point of view… which is basically the fact that being Batman is easy. It’s complete kid wish fulfillment. But being Bruce Wayne, adult male, is what’s the tougher gig for him. No amount of training in the Orient is going to prepare a developmentally arrested individual to be able to properly function in the company of other adults. Here’s a guy who’s sensibilities were basically frozen at six years old by a traumatic event. Dressing up like a bat and beating the shit out of people is an immature response to trauma. It’s exactly what an emotionally wounded six year old would do. But Bruce Wayne during the day is obviously NOT a six year old, nor can he act like one if he wants to survive in the adult world, not to mention the business world.
Granted, this was my thinking four years ago, when I originally came up with this story. I was much more uptight back then. If I were writing a Batman story right now, depending on who the artist was, I’d probably go full-on superhero with the guy. Probably to the point of ridiculousness. Bring back Rainbow Batman and shit like that. There’s a hint of it in TENSES, but if had the same gig now, I’d be writing a Batman that was all smiles. He’s a guy who’s beat the system. As Batman, he gets to dress up, be anonymous and act out his aggressions and be that kid that most people are forced to leave behind when they become adults. Batman doesn’t have to do that, and I’d imagine he’d be loving every minute of it.
Thomas: You and Ladronn of Hip Flask first teamed up on Marvel’s Cable, and are now producing one of the industry’s slickest productions. You said once that Hip Flask was going to show everyone else how comics should be produced. Do you think anyone’s learning?
Casey: Of course not. Does this industry ever really learn anything? One thing you can always count on is that, in the comic book business, the same mistakes get made over and over. You can set your clocks by it. Maybe I take some sick comfort in that fact since this is an industry where you can count on very little. But Ladronn is not your typical artist. He’s not part of the rat race. He’s completely devoted to the permanence of his art. For me, I can be a sucker for fast fiction and the kinetic energy of the pulp idiom, but Ladronn is methodical in his commitment to perfection, and on some level I really admire that. And aside from the fact that he’s one of my best and oldest friends in the industry, it’s always nice to work with a visionary artist.
Thomas: Are there any creators that you will drop everything to work with?
Casey: No one that I can think of. I really don’t work like that. My career has never been about riding the coattails of the latest “hot” artist on the block. For better or worse, I don’t want to have a career like that. Most of my collaborations have happened very organically, and for what I feel are the right reasons. Even when I have been privileged to work with top-selling artists (as I have, on the rare occasion… one of which I can’t talk about yet), it’s been about the work, not the press. I look for interesting collaborators, artists that help me bring my A-game.
If I’m lucky, there’ll be more future collaborations between myself and personal faves like Sean Phillips, Charlie Adlard and Javier Pulido to look forward to. And there are certainly artists I’d really like to work with that I haven’t yet. Doug Braithwaite and I have talked about doing something together. That would be a blast, because I think he’s evolved over the years into a fucking fantastic artist. At San Diego, I think I talked Rian Hughes into working together on some interior comicbook stuff, which would be a dream come true for me, just to see his panel-to-panel art again. From DARE to REALLY AND TRULY, Rian’s always been one of my favorites.
Thomas: I think Autopilot from the Dark Horse Reveal anthology was an exceptionally strong story. How do you prevent from falling into a rut, when working on so many titles, and dealing with so many editors and creators?
Casey: I’ve actually cut back on the number of comic books I’m writing at the moment, mainly because I’m doing a lot of work outside the medium. Writing for TV, animation, video games, etc. takes up more of my time right now than I ever thought it would. Certainly working in those fields makes me appreciate the creative freedoms that comic books provide. That appreciation goes a long way toward keeping me out of any sort of “rut”. Besides, it allows me to be a little more selective in choosing what comicbooks I want to write, and I’m definitely grateful for that freedom right now, because it means the work will hopefully be better than if I was just grinding shit out to pay the rent. Now I can write a creator-owned horror series drawn by the great Steve Parkhouse for next to no money. I have that kind of freedom at the moment. And there’s a level of personal fulfillment there that really feeds me, much more so than a paycheck could. Money’s nice, but I’m in it for the art and the fun of comicbooks… which, as we both know, is the greatest storytelling medium ever invented.
Thomas: Of course. Over the course of your career, have you ever taken an assignment that you now regret?
Casey: Certainly, in the past, there were gigs that I took for questionable reasons, careerist reasons and/or financial reasons. You live and learn. But it’s pointless to regret anything because every decision I’ve made was part of a journey that I’m still in the middle of. And I’m in a pretty good place right now, so why curse the bad decisions… since they inform where I’m at now just as much as the good decisions do.
Thomas: You’ve written just about every major character from the Big Two. Is there someone else you’re aching to take a crack at?
Casey: Yes, but I’m trying to do something about it so I’d rather not say what it is. Needless to say, there are very few company-owned superheroes that I really have a burning desire to write at the moment, but there is definitely one specific title that I’d like a crack at.
Thomas: Where is Joe Casey five years from now?
Casey: Oh Jesus… I have no fucking idea. But, to be honest, I’m fine with not knowing. I much prefer the challenge of the unknown. Five years ago, I never would’ve predicted I’d be where I’m at right now — wherever that is — so I can only hope the next half-decade provides the same amount of surprises.
Thomas: Thanks for stopping by, Joe. I would encourage everyone to check out Casey’s website, shared with fellow Man of Action members Steve Seagle, Joe Kelly, and Duncan Rouleau at http://www.manofaction.tv. The first collection of Wildcats Version 3, Brand Building, hits your stores on August 20th, and Batman: Tenses bows in on August 27th. Available at fine retailers everywhere. Back in seven…
Thanks to all the readers that offered condolences over my floating car from last week, which I’ve just gotten word is completely totaled. Nevertheless, I will be making the short forty minute journey to Wizard World for all three days. There is even a possibility that I may get to do a signing with Mark Millar at the Arcade Comics booth. Now, how fuckin’ cool is that? If you happen to see me there, or on the floor, please say “what’s up.”