The Big Joe Casey Interview, Part TwoA comics interview article by: Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic
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 week. If you missed it, check out Part One here.
Here in Part Two, Casey dives into the thought process behind his current work, Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, giving insight as to how other writers' work has -- and hasn't -- influenced it.
Nick Hanover and Danny Djeljosevic for Comics Bulletin: Along the lines of "adult problems," Butcher Baker has so much going on that you'd never really see in a Marvel or DC comic. In particular, the issues focusing on Butcher Baker going through a sequence of "Nite Owl moments" with his impotency issues.
Casey: I tend to do that [sort of thing] to my characters a lot. I tend to take them out at the knees, so to speak. Because that's just interesting to me. It's an area I find worth exploring -- how adults deal with adversity. There's an added layer of meaning to the fact that he can't keep it up or is unable achieve orgasm; it's tied into the issues he's confronting in himself as the story goes on. I hope it doesn't come across as a cheap facet of the book. It's not meant to be for shock value or even comedic value.
CB: No, it's actually handled in a very adult sense -- real, emotional, with depth in it.
Casey: Well, that's the hope. Taken on its own, that's not necessarily something I would market a comic book with. "Hey, in this issue, our hero is impotent!" I probably wouldn't buy that. But it does shape the character in a very specific way. The thing about the Nite Owl comparison is that, for Nite Owl, he can put on a costume and fucking cut glass! And that, to me, is an easy solution -- he puts on a superhero outfit and all of a sudden he's not impotent physically or emotionally.
I think Butcher Baker's thing runs a lot deeper than that. There's no real fix to it. There's that bit in Issue 5 when he's in the middle of that fight with three villains and his internal monologue is that "this is better than sex, this is what I was missing." That's what you do say about something that makes you feel alive in response to an experience that made you feel like you wanted to crawl into a hole in die, but it's not necessarily truth. The fact that it's his narration [entails that] you have to take it with a grain of salt as thoughts that are happening in the moment. It's not a thesis on the character -- he's literally vomiting out his thoughts as he has them! I'm not saying that the solution to superhero impotence is going out and fighting bad guys, but the character hasn't learned that yet.
CB: I guess you could say that Butcher's comments about beating the crap out of the bad guys being better than sex functions like a drug metaphor. Is there something to that? Going back to your comment about comics being primal scream therapy, can you relate to Butcher Baker in that aspect, having gone through similar things yourself?
Casey: Not really. I've never been laid quite that low. Let me clarify, when I say the comic is primal therapy, it's not for me. I mean comics in general. I'm not working my own neuroses through this comic. If anything, I felt like I had to be together in order to write it. If I was this blubbering mess of a human being who tried to write this kind of comic book, it would have been a disaster. I feel quite the opposite of the character, like I'm at the top of my game at the moment, which allows me to explore these things with a writer's clarity.
CB: It's also interesting to see the psychedelic nature to the look of the comic, as well. It seems like artist Mike Huddleston is getting off on the deconstruction of comics, tearing down those walls in the same way you are with your writing. Is that why your partnership works so well, that you click on that level?
Casey: Yeah. We're doing it because we wanted to take it that far. Huddleston is insanely talented, but he's had to [do things like] draw a year of Gen13, you know, and go with the flow and get the paycheck. But I've seen other short stories he's done and his sketchbook, so I knew what he was capable of. We'd done a short story for an Image anthology called Four Letter Worlds that was actually a much more personal story than Butcher Baker will ever be. It worked out really well, and we wanted to work together again. It only took us six years to do it!
With him knowing the kind of work that I'd done in the past and me knowing what he's capable of, it was like we were both ready to leave it all out on the field. Occasionally I'll give him a suggestion like, hey, maybe you should take this approach with it, but, for the most part, I leave that up to him. If he has an instinct that a scene should be, like, sepia tones with one color popping, then he has the freedom to do that. And his instincts have been right so far. I haven't seen anybody react to the book with confusion [with regard to the art style].
CB: It seems like there are more books doing that now, too. Nick Spencer has been exploring similar breakdowns with his artists, for example. It's almost like there's some sort of movement amongst creators right now to be tackling the art that way. Do you get that feeling?
Casey: I don't see a lot of that, to be honest. Usually if I see experimentation on the art side, it's an either/or, [meaning that] the story doesn't live up to what the artist is bringing to it or the writing is there and the art isn't backing it up. It's rare that I see comics that are a perfect marriage of the best of both worlds. Maybe because I've been doing this for so long, it takes a lot to impress me. Something really has to knock it out of the park for me to sit there and not feel like I've seen it before. It's rare that any creator can do something where I can't recognize the ancestry. "Oh, they're doing Alan Moore circa 1988," or, "They're doing Frank Miller's Sin City." I've seen everything under the sun -- and I do it myself! Something that's really wholly original in both of those areas [writing and art] -- that's just hard to come by.
CB: You are a creator who's unabashedly open about the influences you take. You do a lot of series that are obviously indebted to prior creators, like Gødland with Kirby and Butcher Baker now with the Watchmen stuff. But you manage to make all that seem fresh; it doesn't feel like a rip-off. You are almost "remixing" these references, for lack of a better term. How do you feel that you are able to make those stories into more than what they could have been?
Casey: Once I went through my mainstream comics "Teen Beat" phase -- you know, Superman, X-Men, that kind of stuff -- I got to a point where I went, "What's next?" I went through a phase about eight or nine years ago, where I confronted my childhood in comics. What did I like when I was 16 years old, and why did I like it? Does it hold up now? When I was a kid, the first DC series I bought was the Wolfman and Pérez New Teen Titans book. I loved that book. When I was in my early 30's and got the archive collections, I was so excited. "Wow, I get to read these things again, and I'm gonna feel that magic that I felt when I was a little squirt and had no critical faculties whatsoever, and it's going to be tremendous! I'm going to get some real inspiration from this."
Well, it was not at all the experience that I thought it would be. Those comics are quaint, but they didn't necessarily hold up. I gleaned a few things off of that, but I felt like I wanted to explore those things just to reassess my career, in a way. And in doing that, I did reconnect with a lot of things that I liked as a kid that had always had an influence on me, but they were sort of an unconscious influence, and I wanted to make them more conscious. When I went back and looked at Thriller by Bob Fleming and Caroline Eden, I remembered being blown away. Or Ronin or Elektra Assassin or American Flagg -- being exposed at a very young age to the potential of comics. But even going beyond that to guys like Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, David Michelinie -- those guys who were in the trenches at Marvel but were still trying to push the envelope in their own way.
So from that very intense period of exploring my past and exploring my influences, what emerged was this way of writing where I would take everything -- not just from comics, but music, cinema, literature, anything and everything I could get in there. I guess it started with Automatic Kafka, which exploded into Gødland and then everything else since then. It's my preferred way of working, because it's the most fun for me. As long as I'm not sitting here trying to convince people that I'm the most original thing or that I have no influences, I feel okay about accessing those inspirations and those influences.
CB: I've noticed that you tend to reference Watchmen very directly. There's a Dr. Manhattan in Automatic Kafka, there's the parody at the end of The Intimates and in Butcher Baker, the main character looks exactly like the Comedian. I'm wondering what Watchmen means to you.
Casey: I guess it's not just Watchmen, but it's that whole 80s grim-and-gritty period. It's no secret that what most people took from Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were all the wrong lessons for comics, and that always frustrated me. People looked at Frank Miller's Batman, and they didn't pick up on the discipline, the craft and the satire. He was an incredible social satirist. They just picked up on the dark, brooding Clint Eastwood, Bernhard Goetz, Charles Bronson aspects of it, because that's an easy hook. My personal opinion of Watchmen as a story is that the plot device at the end -- the whole alien life form kills a bunch of people so the Cold War ends -- kind of leaves me cold. But the techniques that Alan Moore used and the craft and discipline involved is the lesson to take from that work.
It's funny, the whole Comedian thing [in Butcher Baker] is sort of a confluence of coincidence. I didn't say to Mike Huddleston, "Make him look like the Comedian." I gave him some suggestions in terms of the costume. In my mind, we were sort of doing our own version of Captain America. That's how it started. I think the only reason Huddleston gave him that mustache was because when I saw him, I had a mustache like that! It was a little in-joke to me. All the stuff about the Comedian, I totally see it in retrospect, and I'm not bothered by it. It's kind of cool that people picked up on it in that way. But I can tell you straight from the heart, it was not the intention that it was going to be such a commentary on that character.
Now once I saw it in the character sketches, I said, if we're going in that direction, I can lean into it at some point. I'm not trying to resist something that just fell naturally. Alan Moore was a huge influence on me when I was a teenager who totally opened my brain up. He and Mike Baron were the guys who made me want to be a writer. The sexiest part of a comic book when you're eight years old is the art, so if you want to do comics you tend to want to be an artist, or a writer/artist. You don't really fathom that there are any other jobs. When I was doing my own comics as a kid, I was doing the whole thing -- writing and drawing and lettering and the logos. But Moore and Baron made me abandon my hopeless dreams of being an artist because they showed me that you can have a voice as a writer that can come through no matter who's drawing your book. You can pick out those guys' work no matter who's drawing it. Those guys are the ones who put me on the path, so I would never deny it whatever Alan Moore-isms pop out in my work. They're part of my DNA.
CB: You explore your ideas about comics theory in the back matter of Butcher Baker as well. It's this logical extension of the comic, something that you unfortunately don't see in comics very much. Did you have it planned from the beginning to make the back matter so important?
Casey: No, to be perfectly honest. At first I was just looking to fill pages. Each issue of Butcher Baker in terms of story is only 18 pages. Luckily, I think the story is dense enough that nobody has the gripe that, "Oh my god, it's only 18 pages of story!" But going into it, I thought that was really pushing it, so I have to put some shit in the back for anybody who had a gripe about the page count of the story.
It went through different permutations. I didn't know what it was going to be; I just knew that I had to fill pages. Ultimately, I went in this Lester Bangs direction where I was just vomiting out whatever I was thinking of at the time onto those pages. I was already in a certain headspace just doing the comic that it steered me toward those areas you're talking about. I knew what I was doing was my response to what I saw around me -- those kinds of comics that were boring the fucking shit out of me! So, I thought I might as well talk about that to some extent and see where that leads me.
I kind of forget -- what was in the back of #5 in terms of subject matter?
CB: You talk about the Tim Burton Batman.
Casey: Oh, yeah, the trailer. What does that have to do with anything? Nothing! I was able to crystalize my thoughts about that thing. I've had my opinion about that movie and the trailer forever, so why not, you know? It's kind of irrelevant to what the book is. I didn't think the book would sell particularly well, so I really thought I'd only be talking to two people -- you guys!
But certainly the response to the back matter has been pretty strange to me. People seem to really like it, and I don't know what to think about that because, again, it's as much improvisational writing as the comic is at times, where you're just letting it fly and seeing what sticks. Hopefully it's not completely incoherent, and beyond that I don't have as much perspective on it as I should. I hope it's not disappointing for people to hear that! I don't know if people want me to say, "Oh, I had this burning desire to write this manifesto!" It really wasn't that.
I've gotten fairly adept at the "sport" of the interview. I'm able to get certain information out there that I want to get out there, and I'm able to articulate thoughts I'm having fairly well. I'd done a couple of interviews near the end of 2010 that people seemed to respond to more than I thought anyone would. So the only sense that I had was that maybe I could -- instead of having to be interviewed by someone -- spout some of that fake shit in my own comic. I own the real estate, so I can say whatever's in my head. You know, I wasn't ever going to work that stuff about the Batman trailer into an interview (even though we just did), or at least go into the minute details like in that back matter piece.
I suppose that it scratches an itch for me in the sense that I am a big fan of comic book think pieces. There are guys out there now who are doing really great writing on comics. When I was coming up as a reader, I was a big fan of The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes and Comics Interview and all those fanzines and magazines about comics that took it seriously but still allowed for a bit of fun. That's part of my DNA, as well. The back matter is a chance to write in that way and exercise those muscles.
CB: One of my favorite things in comics recently was your interview with yourself in the back matter. It was fun and didn't come across as a bitter attack on interviews and media like those sorts of things can be.
Casey: If anything, I was taking those hits out on myself. I do know that in interviews -- I'm probably doing it in this one too -- I can pontificate and be pretentious, and I know how that can come across. So that was a chance to at least let people in on the fact that I know I'm being that way sometimes. And it's okay, because I am willing to concede that sometimes I'm completely full of shit. There are things I've said in interviews that, even a month later, I don't stand behind. I have this cycle in my career where I'll inflate the balloon, and then I'll pop it. It's the only way I can live with myself, where I can take myself seriously, but not so seriously.
CB: It's like you have to step back, like an artist who has to take on other projects. Many musicians do that.
Casey: Yeah. If you're making any kind of art, the only thing that gives it any kind of value is if you're able to step back and have some kind of perspective on it. I think artists in the larger sense, whether you're a musician or a writer or a painter, who have no perspective on their work -- I would doubt the sanity of those people. I would say that that's the mark of someone who has lost their marbles completely, because the fulfillment of artistic expression is having an opinion of art and being able to put it into the context of other art that you've created or your life in general. If you don't do that, you're only doing half the work for yourself. For the artist, there are two halves of the process; it's the creation and the assessment. One without the other is incomplete.
Come back tomorrow, when the Casey interview concludes with a discussion of the writer's use of sexuality in his superhero comics.