Joe Keatinge: It Keeps Getting Better and Better and Better and Better

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks


The thing about Joe Keatinge is that he really, really loves comics. Seriously, Joe is like a walking advertisement for how great comics can be, and how a smart and passionate guy can create comics that are fun, passionate, interesting, and often quirky. When I caught up with him at Jet City Comicon, Joe was his usual ebullient self, full of gratitude that the comics industry was treating him so well and ready for his next exciting challenges.

Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So you're doing a project for MonkeyBrain Comics.

Joe Keatinge: I've been doing a lot of stuff for them – single issues, print, trade paperbacks – but the thing I like about comics is that you can do so much and now the digital scene's another avenue to do stuff with. I don't view it like the print killer replacement thing; I view it as yet another format.

I'm a guy who has comics. I collect a lot of comics. I've got them in single issues. I've got them in trades, I've got them in hard covers – I've got them in all sorts of hard covers, giant, absolute, whatever – so I kind of view the digital as a version of that but where you can really manipulate the storytelling in a different way.

It was always in the back of my head that I wanted to pursue it, but it never really seemed like the right situation. The MonkeyBrain project came together, through Chris Roberson and Allison Baker, and I was like, "That's the way to do it. That's how you do it."

So I told them of this idea that I had, called Intergalactic which was this really odd idea for a comic. It's this sprawling family drama about these astronauts, in a world where we stayed with the space program and everyone in this family wants to kill each other.

It's very different type of book and the storytelling format was, I was like, "That's got to be digital." And I needed an artist who I could collaborate with that would really show that type of world well and so I teamed up with Ken Garing, who did Planetoid at Image which is one of the best new sci-fi books to show up in about ten years, along with King City and Prophet. So that's that, we will be coming out starting in November, December.

CB: Was it fun working digital?

Keatinge: Yeah, it is. There are a lot of similarities. I made it overly complicated for myself from the get-go just by giving myself certain rules on how I would do it. A lot of people are doing it so you can adapt it easily to print. I didn't do any of that. It very much is completely different in terms of approach. Not just in storytelling, cause I'm know for just like violent superhero comics – that's kind of my thing now – but this is very much the closest thing to, I used to say Game of Thrones with astronauts and a friend of mine was like, "No man, this is Dallas." And I was like, "All right, fine, Dallas with astronauts."

CB: That's a hell of an elevator pitch, I like that.

Keatinge: Yeah, thank you. I think astronauts are awesome, so I wanted to do something with astronauts.

CB: You can't beat astronauts.

Keatinge: Yesterday I was seeing those pictures where they're transporting a space shuttle in the back of a jet. How cool is that?

CB: I wish I could see that. I wish I was in Washington when that was going on.

Keatinge: So I've been fascinated with space programs my whole life and I just think it unfortunately really is a wildly underappreciated profession and pursuit and so that's another kind of driving force behind the series.

CB: So this is an ongoing series or are you just telling one story?

Keatinge: Well here's the thing. We have a limited story that has a beginning, middle and end. But part of the concept is, what if everyone stayed in the space program – every nation, every corporation – and astronauts drive the world economy. So at first it's about the first sale of an international space station to a private corporation and the family that surrounds that deal. But theoretically if Ken and I wanted to do anything else in that world, sure, but we're going to keep it focused on this one story for now.

CB: It seems like you can go all kinds of different ways with that.

Keatinge: Yeah, it's a really kind of open thing. Plus this family is huge so you could do stuff throughout the history or with other people and there's a lot of possibilities. But I'm keeping my eye on the prize; I'm really just focusing on this first comic.

CB: So you've done a lot of work creating these fictional worlds of your own, but you're getting to play in the Marvel universe now.

Keatinge: It is so crazy. Yeah. I'm not a guy who just started reading comics; I'm a lifer. There are pictures of me two, three years old with comics around. I didn't even know how to read. I don't know what my first comic was, but I do know, based on the photographic evidence, a lot of that was Marvel, especially Spider-Man and that whole universe.

So I'm starting off my run at Marvel doing an issue of in Amazing Spider-Man, the 699.1, that comes out in December and that's more or less like the zero issue for this Morbius: The Living Vampire on-going series that I'm launching in January. It's a blast, man. Hey, I love working with Marvel; my editors are great. We're kind of quiet, particularly about the particulars of the book right now, but I am loving it so much.

CB: So first of all you get to write Peter Parker and Mary Jane and all the others.

Keatinge: Well it's very Morbius focused, especially in that Spider-Man issue. I would love to do more in that world. I will say Dan Slott really has it down so well right now. As a fan, I am loving Amazing Spider-Man more than I have – and I've always loved Amazing Spider-Man – but it's such a golden era right now, it's so good, so awesome, but I would love to do more in that world for sure.

CB: You get to play in that playground anyway.

Keatinge: Yeah, exactly. Well there's some stuff. I'm playing and I'm in the playground. I'm not using all the toys, but I'm in the playground.

CB: And Morbius has always been one of my favourite characters from that.

Keatinge: Yeah, same here man. One of the reasons I really like Marvel Comics is because they have the best villains. One of the reasons they have the best villains is because they're really complicated. It's not just, "Hey, I'm Morbius; I want to take over the world." That's not his thing. In fact he's not a bad guy. It's just like awful things keep happening and he's responsible for them. He has sort of a battle with his addiction that he can never seem to overcome, but he's fighting to do it anyway.

Even someone like Doctor Doom, from his perspective he's like, "Why are you even fighting me? It just makes no sense." Even if you go as far as someone like Thanos, he did it all out of love, as twisted and sick as it is, it's all love based.

CB: These aren't people who want to conquer the universe. They've got more depth to that.

Keatinge: Yeah exactly. I really like that; it's not like the old '30s, '40s villains that are just like twisting their moustache or whatever, this is really complicated stuff.

CB: So you get to write a character like Morbius who's got real complicated moral dimensions.

Keatinge: Yeah, I mean people are like, "What's it like doing a villain book?" And I'm like, "It's not really, to me, a villain book.” It's a tragic book, that's for sure. He's a very tragic character but I think he's way more complicated than being good or bad or whatever.

CB: I think he's also tragic in a different way than Frank Castle is.

Keatinge: Exactly. In a way I kind of view him a lot like Peter Parker in the sense of like they're almost mirror versions of each other. Peter Parker has this great tragedy that he uses to overcome, but Morbius never seems to be able to overcome that. Peter Parker is convinced he's responsible but he's not, and Morbius is convinced he's responsible and he definitely is. So there's a lot to play with there.

CB: I haven't been keeping up with that character. Has he been appearing in the Marvel universe recently?

Keatinge: Yeah. Dan's been doing a lot of great stuff in Amazing right now. Peter Parker became a scientist at a company called Horizon Labs. It's a very exclusive organization and there are only a few people who are allowed at the level that Peter Parker works at and there was one that was like a secret, like, who is this scientist, and it turns out to be Michael Morbius. So it wasn't like he's necessary been fighting, well he did fight Spider-Man, but he was coming from a very different perspective and trying to do good and it was just blowing up in his face.

CB: So you really get to explore that character, play around in the Marvel universe. I won't ask you for any spoilers because you told me…

Keatinge: I am not telling you anything. I just like people reading stuff.

CB: Well yeah, I know, same way. I don't want to know anything about a movie before I see it.

Keatinge: I'm the same way, I'll avoid certain trailers not matter what. I think it's more fun to read a comic book than it is to read a paragraph on a website. I would hope so.

CB: Can I ask you about the Thanos?

Keatinge: Sure.

CB: So what happened with that?

Keatinge: Nothing. It was like, "What's this big story?"

CB: "What's the story Joe?"

Keatinge: "What happened? Did Starlin try to kill you?" No; plans changed; that's it. And I would say the same thing off the record and on the record. Stuff got shoved around and I got put on another book that I'm very passionate about as well. I'd love to work on something for Thanos at some point, I'm very happy that the artist of Thanos: Son of Titan, Rich Elson is drawing Morbius. The thing that really broke my heart, more than anything else, was not being able to work with Rich and now that I'm working with Rich I'm really excited.

No, everything is great, everything worked out really well and everyone keeps trying to get some sexy, scary story out of me but there's just nothing.

CB: Damn it! I want gossip, Joe.

Keatinge: No, I don't have any. My editors have been really friendly. I'm the worst guy with gossip right now. I've had great luck with editors and stuff like that. Maybe I'm just very lucky in my career, but my editors have been all awesome, Marvel's been great to me.

CB: Man, you are the worst.

Keatinge: I am. I'm boring.

CB: I want gossip damn it.

Keatinge: Well I got nothing, sorry.

CB: Well the first trade of Glory is out.

Keatinge: The first trade of Glory is out which is really surreal, to have it actually be out and collected and everything is really bizarre.

CB: Are you happy with how first arc turned out?

Keatinge: I'm very happy. I mean it's cool but from our perspective, to see where we started and like figuring things out and the way they became. Ross and I joined the book together, partnered up and everything, I love it; it's a great book to write and I'm looking forward to continuing to do so. The next issue came out in October with issue 29. But yeah, the first trade had everything you need, six issues.

CB: I love how you think you have a handle on a story and then it completely shifts under you.

Keatinge: Thanks man. Keep more of that coming.

CB: And you've got those amazing vistas from Ross Campbell too.

Keatinge: Ross is astonishing, especially the stuff we're doing in 29 and up. It keeps building. It keeps getting better and better and better and better.

CB: So the thing I see that's a pattern between Glory and Hell Yeah is that you just like creating these complicated worlds where you just kind of don't quite know what the back story is, you're kind of stuck having to figure things out.

Keatinge: Yeah, that's true.

CB: I should say stop, but that's a big part of the experience.

Keatinge: Yeah, with Hell Yeah in particular I maybe did it a little too much, but it's always been in my head for so long. But starting with the next arc, issue six, things kind of simplify a lot and there's more of a focus on a specific character. I'm kind of doing the reverse of what I should have done, I guess, but oh well.

CB: Do you feel like that? Do you feel like you're still learning as you go on?

Keatinge: I guess you always are. That's the thing right? If you think you're never learning then you're boring. I'm at a point in my career, I should say when I started doing Hell Yeah it was my first on-going series ever, so I'd edited it a lot, I'd done short stories, but I had never written anything on that scale before, ever. So there's some fumbling there. But I've got an editor now, I'm working with Ron Richards, and I got an inker for the artist. I'm really happy with where it is now. So I'm hoping people can look back years later, look at that trade and be like "Wow, holy cow!"

I just read all of Cerebus, and it's interesting that I found myself thinking, for the stories of that first trade, "It's not very good."

CB: No, it gets good right around the beginning of "High Society" and then he very quickly becomes great and he never stopped for about 150 issues and then just goes crazy.

So you want to be like Sim and just reach a level and just get better and better?

Keatinge: I want to skip the misogynistic crazy part, you know, the rest of it. I don't want to disparage him too much. He's got views I don't like at all, but it was a brilliant work and I don't want to get into a huge tangent. I am pontificating about Cerebus a bit whenever I do interviews now, because I feel that it is still a great work. It could be an offensive work, but when it comes to the literature that I read whether it's comics, or prose, or whatever, I don't want stuff that always is like what my viewpoint is.

There are certain volumes that get completely ignored like, everyone knows "High Society", "Church & State", but I love "Melmoth" and I really liked most of "Going Home", which was really solid. I loved "Guys".

CB: The thing is, he never was afraid of taking chances with his own work. He produced books that were radically different than the ones before. I have all the 300 issue run, all the original books. I have a CGC certified Cerebus #1.

Keatinge: Wow, you're hard core.

CB: I'm hard core.

Keatinge: I just bought a bunch of trades for my birthday.

CB: I have original Sim head sketches, I mean I've got all kinds of stuff; I've got the animated Cerebus portfolio.

Keatinge: Do you have a Diamondback set?

CB: I have two Diamondback sets, autographed. I met him at the Spirits of Independents store in 1995, at the Westin Hotel in Seattle, so yeah, I'm a big fan.

Keatinge: Yeah, I love that stuff.

CB: The easiest interview I've ever done in my entire life was an interview when I was working for Amazing Heroes in 1990, right after Cerebus 150 came out and he basically just talked for two hours. I asked him like five questions; the guy just went. It was amazing.

Keatinge: I probably have that issue.

CB: Yeah, on Amazing Heroes #201, the cover is Cerebus burping. But yeah, he took chances, he did something different. However you feel about his views, he was doing exactly what we wanted a creator to do, which is put himself out there, nakedly, and share his view of the world.

Keatinge: And you know with Gerhard as well, the contribution he made is huge. Like some of those "Going Home" landscapes should be in a museum.

CB: Yeah, they're spectacular.

Keatinge: I love it and I wish more people appreciated it.

CB: I think you've got to get into it the right way. You've got to find the gateway comic for you and then go from there.

Keatinge: My thing was, I hit a point where my career's been largely focused on, well, I came in through creator-owned comics. I started colour flatting Savage Dragon, I worked at Image Comics for six years and since I'm embarking on the stage of my career where I'm doing creator-owned comics, I felt like I had to read it. I had to read this thing; it was like my pilgrimage or whatever. And so for my birthday I found an eBay lot, it was the whole thing, all sixteen volumes.

CB: So Sim was always a big believer in never working for the man, so to speak. He got bitten by Marvel, but you're doing work for hire as well as creating original arcs.

Keatinge: I have no objection in doing work for hire. I have no objection with working for Marvel and DC. They pay me a very well to work with characters that I love and my experiences have been great. The things I do there are different from the stuff I do and I love it. I have no problem with it whatsoever, for me personally. I know it's not for everybody, but it's for me. I like it.

CB: I was just talking to Chris Roberson about that, which kind of brings us full circle back to MonkeyBrain. He's been burned by them, I think, but his career arc has been different from yours too. Do you feel like a lot of that just kind of depends on who you are and what you bring to it?

Keatinge: Sure, everyone's experiences are going to be different. My other thing too, is that I want to approach all different types of comics. And I like the experience that I'm having at Marvel. For instance my friends are talking about how getting notes from editors is like a big controversy which I don't get. If you're working on somebody else's character anyway and you're not expecting notes, you're crazy.

I mean, I hired an editor for Hell Yeah, I like that. I like that the feedback I've been getting has always been sound. It's always like, "Hey, this would make a lot more sense," and I'm like, "You are totally correct." And only if there was something that I didn't agree with, I'd fight for it but my editorial experience has been really solid. I'm happy about it. I love working in those… you know it's such a cliché, that you're playing in the sandbox, again…, but it's true, I really like that, I'm really enjoying it.

Like I as saying earlier I'm really a bad guy to go to for complaints and gossip.

CB: Damn it Joe, I want to hear stories.

Keatinge: My editors are really cool, my editors are great to work with. Stuff just spills out of my mouth, you know what I mean? So that's it completely; I just like the experience. I don't know; it's fun. Different strokes for different folks, but for me, I like it.

CB: So in 2013 I guess we'll see, can we say, more Marvel books, it that fair to say?

Keatinge: I would love to, sure.

CB: As well as Glory and Hell Yeah continuing. That means you'll be writing like crazy.

Keatinge: I'm writing like crazy right now, but I love it. The thing is that there's no Plan B for me; comics, that's it, that's all I want, it's all I want out of anything. So like, "Oh, you're going to write comics all day and your deadlines are crazy?" That's what I want, that's the life I want.

I want to be creating different types of books. Hell Yeah is very different than Glory, which is very different from Morbius, which is completely different from Intergalactic and the other stuff I'm working on that I can't get into yet. I like that. One of the reasons that I like the medium so much is because it allows you to do different types of comics and the type of stuff I do in Marvel or wherever, I almost slipped so many times, whatever else I'm doing.

CB: Hello readers, you can read between the lines if you'd like.

Keatinge: But anyway, I like comics, the end.

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