Up, Up And Away… Casey talks 'Adventures of Superman' and 'Automatic Kafka'

Mon, November 25th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

Adventures of Superman #610
Adventures of Superman #610
If there's one thing that everyone knows about Joe Casey, it's that he writes "Wildcats" for DC Comics' Wildstorm imprints and aside from a recap of his career, you won't be hearing that series mentioned again in this interview. The often outspoken and controversial comic book writer has been writing some of the most popular fictional characters in recent times, from the X-Men to Superman, both drawing very different kinds of attention and his newest venture is original series "Automatic Kafka," an abstract superhero series that has drawn fans in as much as it has confused them or even drawn criticism. But through it all, Joe Casey is a comic book fan who says he is having a great time doing what he loves and in an extensive interview with CBR News, he spoke about two of his most time consuming projects, "Automatic Kafka" and "Adventures of Superman," choosing to speak first about the latter.

"After working almost exclusively at Marvel, I'd started weaning myself off of writing mainstream superhero comic books," says Casey of his time just before coming onboard "Adventures of Superman." "I was writing 'Wildcats Vol. 2' and a few creator-owned side projects and that was about it. Joe Kelly and Jeph Loeb are two of my best friends in the business, so when the 'Adventures of Superman' gig became available, I guess they bribed Berganza into giving me a shot. Two years later, I'm still here."

And jokes aside, Casey says the appeal of working on "Adventures" is simple- it's Superman! "Well, he's the first superhero, isn't he? He's the mold from which all other heroes sprung. I'd had a lot of fun working on the 'Mr. Majestic' [with upcoming 'Superman/Batman' penciller Ed McGuinness] series for Wildstorm, so I always thought it would be a gas to write the original. 'Mr. Majestic' was an exercise in 'Big Hero Comics.' That 'widescreen' style was in vogue at the time, and the series was our contribution. To be honest, I got that particular storytelling style out of my system after the first six issues. At the very least, it put me in a headspace to be able to tackle a character like Superman, who operates on a large dramatic canvas. "

The approach that Casey takes to writing the Man of Steel isn't quite the same as his fellow writers on the Superman comics, whether it be Joe Kelly on "Action Comics," Mark Schultz on "Man of Steel" or Steve Seagle on "Superman." "All this lip service that my fellow writers give about putting the 'Super-' back into Superman or focusing on the '-Man' in Superman drives me nuts," admits Casey. "It's the equal balance that makes the character work for me. That's the way I try to portray him. I like the fact that he's as capable an individual as you're going to find. Self-aware to a fault, this is one superhero who's literally seen it all. I'm playing him as the most powerful pacifist in the universe. There's nothing boring about a character like that. It makes testing him even more epic. And I've always tried to keep the character a bit tight-lipped. Superman doesn't make speeches. He doesn't have to. If he wants to open up and have a soul-searching conversation, that's what he's got Lois for."

Speaking of the main characters in "Adventures of Superman," Casey says there isn't much he really has to say in terms of introducing them to readers. "I think the best part about writing Superman comics is that everyone pretty much knows the characters already. From Superman and Lois to Perry White and Jimmy Olsen. I approach them as a writer with a healthy respect for the mythology, but just enough of a subversive edge to put them through their paces."

One aspect of the Superman mythos that "everyone has always known" is the Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle of sorts and that was eliminated in the nineties when Lois and Clark were married, though that hasn't kept it from being a hot topic to this day. "On a personal level, I've always felt the love triangle is essential to the overall mythology of Superman," says Casey. "Having said that, as a writer, I've really had fun making the marriage work for me. It's a character dynamic that does contain a lot of potential for drama, tension and even humor. My favorite 'marriage' story I've written is coming up in 'Adventures of Superman #613' (Feb. 2003), where you see exactly how Lois and Clark keep the spark alive in their relationship. Lemme tell you, this is one kinky couple…"

Adventures of Superman #611
Adventures of Superman #611
Casey's admittedly frank and "subversive" approach to writing the adventures of Superman have helped to differentiate "Adventures" greatly from the other Superman series and Casey explains that his style of writing has been evolving as result of many recent events. "From writing 'Automatic Kafka' and its inherent experimentation, a whole new attitude toward writing superhero comics has opened up for me," explains Casey. "And, it's been affecting my Superman work in a way that I've realized harkens back to another period in the character's long publishing history. Historians eventually classified it as the "Weisinger Era", named after Super-editor, Mort Weisenger. There's a great book by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs called 'The Comic Book Heroes.' In it, they described the Weisenger Era of Superman like this… 'Weisinger and his writers had developed a narrative technique to dramatize heroic passion almost to the exclusion of violent action.'

"Without even realizing it, I had finally come around to this exact way of thinking about the character. All my blustering about changing the current superhero paradigm and getting rid of the mindless super-villain slugfests (not to mention the parade of hi-tech bank robbers… gimme a break!) and amping up the Weirdness and Imagination Factor of the character was all done first in the Weisenger-edited comics of the 50's and 60's. This was a time of Imaginary Stories, a cross-dressing Jimmy Olsen, the expansion of Kryptonian lore, the Legion of Super-Pets, etc. The myth was exploding in all different directions. In retrospect, the stories themselves might seem quaintly antique, but the experimentation that was happening then has not been matched since. In 'Adventures' in 2003, that's where the Hollow Men, the new 'Champion of the Oppressed,' the Metropolis Superstore, Heroville and the Mxy Twins come from… that sense of 'anything can happen' in the world of Superman."

While Casey is having so much fun letting his imagination and ambition run wild on "Adventures of Superman," he says that in some ways the hardest part of working on the series was getting to the point where he was comfortable just doing that. "Letting my imagination go, letting the kid out, and just writing from the gut has actually made the gig much easier. I've been trying to marry the relevance of the world around us with the sheer lunacy of the Weisenger Era to come up with a new beast. Lately, I've just been doing my thing. Obviously, I read what Kelly and Seagle are up to, but it doesn't really affect the stories I'm writing. As far as DC giving me creative latitude, I think I know the parameters of what's acceptable for the character on my own, so I never really need that kind of corporate supervision."

While some find balancing the iconic nature of Superman and their own sensibilities to be a difficult task, Casey says that overall, it hasn't been too difficult a task for him. "It's not difficult at all," he says confidently. "You have to have one to illustrate the power and the complexity of the other. I love the slice of life aspects of the myth, and have a blast writing them. I love writing conversations between Lois and Superman, two characters with so much emotional history, but still containing so much energy, set against the backdrop of this fantastic fictional universe."

Over the two years that Casey been writing "Adventures of Superman," his approach has been described as "political" because of the thematic content of many of his stories, tackling issues from the responsibility of Superman in the world to addressing social injustices around the world. When asked if he's out to make a political statement or purposely turn Superman into a political icon, the Super-scribe says that the reasoning behind his approach is simple: it's time for something different. "I'm always fighting to have the stories be more topical and-on some level-more relevant to the world we live in," expounds Casey. "Otherwise, why are we doing this? Complete and total escapism? Is that what we want right now, at this moment in history? Like I said, I'm trying to deliver the best of both worlds, experimentation and socio-political relevance.

"For years, superhero comic books operated by a fairly strict formula. Superheroes and super-villains duking it out, with a bit of soap opera subplot thrown in for whatever reason. It's become pretty stale for me. I just don't want my stories to be predictable. With most superhero comics, you can almost telegraph the ending. So, at this point, I want to try and change the form on how superhero stories can play out, and I'm using the biggest icon in comic books to do it."

Another way of changing the way things are done is avoiding long drawn story arcs, which is something Casey is adamant about in "Adventures" and is the reason why his is the only Superman book without a long running story arc in the background. "I find long story arcs don't work in a multi-book franchise like the Superman titles," contends Casey. "Better to keep the stories short and tight whenever possible. Two- or three-parters at the most, like the 'Heroville' story that moves through issues #613-615. I wish I could've condensed that one down to two issues, but there was just too much stuff I wanted to get in."

Adventures of Superman #612
Adventures of Superman #612
It's often hypothesized by comic book fans that there's a lot that Superman writers want to say, but can't because of the nature of Superman. Being an iconic character, the perception is that DC Comics won't allow many changes to the character and so the status quo must be maintained with each story, but Casey says that isn't a problem for him at all. "The idea of maintaining the status quo has been a recurring theme ever since I started writing the book. It's been my way of metaphorically addressing the fact that we're dealing with a heavily trademarked corporate symbol, while still trying to write stories that have some emotional impact. I keep things fresh for myself by trying to push the envelope within the parameters that exist, in terms of content and storytelling. Just because I can't have Superman say 'shit' doesn't prevent me from inserting a flashback sequence that takes place in Metropolis in the late 50's and takes us to Clark's high school days in Smallville, or have Lois and Clark appear in their own TV show called 'The Kent Farm.' Those kinds of narrative tangents keep it exciting for me."

Some fans also blame Superman Group Editor Eddie Berganza for what they see as faults in the Superman line of comics and the attacks on Berganza are something that Casey can't accept. "Anyone who wants to attack Eddie has to go through me first," says Casey sternly. "Editing Superman is not the easiest gig in the biz. Needless to say, the man fights his own never-ending battle and I'm grateful to him for it."

One guy who is working on "Adventures of Superman" that seems to be getting universal acclaim is artist Derec Aucoin, whose more down to earth pencilling style has drawn a lot of positive attention from fans and critics. "I met Derec years ago at San Diego," says Casey of how the "Adventures" creative team met. "The first time he showed up on my radar was his work on the short-lived 'Quicksilver' monthly at Marvel. I knew then that he had chops. He did a few memorable fill-ins on 'Adventures' (some of my favorite single issues, actually), so when we were looking for a regular artist, of course we thought of Derec. Despite the fact that Derec's the life of the party, he really gets into the different storytelling techniques I throw at him and pushing the envelope in his own ways. I can't imagine any other American artist submitting to my nutty idea of telling my first chapter of the 'Ending Battle' story using the 16-panel grid template."

Speaking on "Ending Battle," the latest crossover to affect the Superman comic books, the often inter-connected nature of the Superman comics has never stopped being a hot topic since the series became intertwined years back and Casey does says that he has a distinct preference when it comes to connecting all the comics. "For every reader that bitches about the books being linked, there's another one that loves when we do it," contends Casey. "I personally prefer the books to be independent of each other. It breeds a healthy competition that makes everyone work harder to have the best book. I've actually enjoyed writing my issues within the larger stories I've been involved in, but having the freedom to guide your own book is definitely preferable."

The freedom that Casey has enjoyed on "Adventures of Superman" has led to some of the most memorable times in his career and the infamous writer says that he doesn't really regret a moment on the series. "No real regrets so far. It's all been a learning experience. The highlights have been the working relationships with Eddie and the other Superman writers: Jeph, Joe, Mark Schultz and now Seagle. For the most part, I've been allowed to tell stories my way-even ones that contribute to a larger crossover-so I've got no complaints. Sure, there are things I'd do differently in hindsight, but I'm pretty happy with where I've landed creatively with this book… and I owe that to the specific journey I took to get here."

Even the outspoken Superman fanbase that is known for being fiercely critical of the Superman writers, with Casey laughingly admitting that fans probably wanted to throw a few punches at him for various reasons, haven't been able to take the fun out of writing the "never ending battle for Truth, Justice and The American Way." "I'm sure a lot of them are screaming for my head," says Casey of the fans. "Par for the course with this character (or any big franchise, for that matter). But, first and foremost, I write for me. I'm the first audience for this stuff. And, to be perfectly honest, I hope readers of all ages can enjoy the book. But, if a small contingent-who probably spend a lot of their time griping on message boards-aren't happy with what we're doing, then I doubt anything we do is going to change their minds. I can appreciate their passion, but I just don't understand some of the negativity and nastiness that exists. I mean, aren't comic books supposed to be fun? I'd gladly trade in those readers for a new generation of kids who come to the material with no preconceived notions and no biases. Who knows if that audience is out there, but we're not going to get anywhere simply catering to a static fanbase that's been reading Superman comics since the Byrne revamp (or before). They want their comfort food, they want what they're used to. And I'm committed to writing stories that they're not used to. I've always felt like that's my job… to try and provide something new, and make the character of Superman-who's been around for sixty-plus years-feel new."

There's one specific criticism from fans, besides the comments about Berganza, that really gets under Casey's skin: calling Superman a "boring boy scout." "If Superman was such a boring character, I guarantee I wouldn't waste my time writing his adventures," says Casey firmly. "Now, I think it's entirely possible that Superman-especially as he exists now-doesn't exactly speak to the current generation of older teenagers and twenty-somethings who like their entertainment with a darker, angrier edge. Nor should he. This is why the interpretation on the 'Smallville' show is hitting a chord. I think Superman works best on two specific levels… as a character who fires a young kid's imagination, and then as a character who reconnects adults to their youth, after they've reconciled the horrors of adolescence (which, as far as I'm concerned, lasts until around age 30, if not longer).

"But, on the other hand, when I first saw 'The Matrix' and I saw the last scene where Keanu steps out of the phone booth and flies up into the sky… tell me that's not Superman! So, maybe the idea of Superman can cross all age groups. Certainly the character's inherent message is relevant to all ages."

With 'Smallville' being such a huge hit, one would expect that Casey might be tuning in every week to check out the "competition," but it turns out that he's been a bit busy. "Honestly, I've only seen the first episode and quick bits of others," admits Casey. "From what I've been told, the first season fell into a 'freak-of-the-week' formula, which is what I'm trying to get away from in the comic book. But now that Loeb is on staff there, I think his influence will really be felt in a positive way. Of course, I had a Sellouts [Casey's band, which can be found at www.thesellouts.com] gig on the night his first episode aired, so I missed it. Maybe Loeb has it on video…"

Automatica Kafka #6, Page 2
Automatica Kafka #6,
Page 2
But Casey's got another reason to be too busy for "Smallville"- he's been writing the offbeat and unique adventures of the characters in the new series, "Automatic Kafka." "Automatic Kafka was a superhero in the 80's, part of a wildly famous team called The $tranger$," explains Casey of the series. "Along with the Constitution of the United States, Helen of Troy and Saint Nick, they were celebrity superheroes, funded by their mysterious benefactor, the Warning. Needless to say, Automatic Kafka has not handled post-celebrity very well. He's struggling to find his place in a world that's gotten much weirder than it was when he was fighting superheroes and hanging out in a glamorous skyscraper headquarters.

"Yeah, he's my version of the robot superhero archetype. For me, that type of character has always been a powerful metaphor for disconnection and alienation, that feeling of being on the outside of whatever mainstream exists. For a robot trying to exist among humans, he's always going to feel like an outsider.

"I'd had the characters in mind for a few years. When you work in this business, you're always thinking of new stuff. Originally, they were part of another pitch that I never got around to submitting. When Ash Wood [artist on the series] came to Wildstorm, he wanted to work with me on something so I re-tooled the basic concept to fit the kind of comic book that I thought we'd have fun with. Ash and I share a love for that period in the mid-Eighties when mainstream comics were becoming more and more experimental, so it was obvious we'd try something in that tradition."

The narrative tone of "Automatic Kafka" is strikingly different from Casey's other work, which he says comes as a result of experimenting with his writing style and a real growth in his writing. "I feel like I've broken through a major wall in my writing, and certainly Ash's style of illustration pushes me in certain directions that I wouldn't normally be pushed if I was working with a more traditional artist," admits Casey. "The hardest part is not falling into the narrative clichs that I've become aware of-and certainly been guilty of-while researching and writing mainstream superhero comics for the past six years. When I first started at Marvel, if you wanted to keep working you had to give your editors and the readers a certain type of comic book. Structurally and dramatically, they had to hit certain beats. Every so often, I'd try some different narrative approaches, but getting that kind of storytelling through was always a struggle when I was still trying to establish myself. Besides, experimentation in the mid-Nineties wasn't encouraged, especially in superhero comic books. It was just easier to go with the flow and write superheroes in the way everyone was used to. It certainly kept me working steadily. But I'd learned the rules so well I started feeling trapped by them. At this point, I'm having a good time breaking them again."

Breaking the rules seems to be the name of the game when it comes to "Automatic Kafka" and anybody who's read the series knows that while each cover advertises the comic as a superhero series, the contents are arguably anything but that. It does raise the question- is Casey trying to mislead fans or show them what he perceives to be the potential within the superhero genre? "I think I know this market well enough to know what it sometimes takes to get retailers and readers to check out something new," says Casey of labeling the series as a superhero comic, when it seems to only thinly utilize the trappings of that genre. "We're like a wolf in sheep's clothing. The fact is… 'Automatic Kafka' is a comedy. An absurd black comedy, sure, but a comedy nonetheless. That's what it was conceived as, and that's how I've been writing it. But this market is currently geared toward primarily selling superheroes, so that's how we sold it. It's actually turned out better, because you're right, it does show readers the potential-not just of superhero comic books-but of the medium in general."

Automatica Kafka #6, Page 17
Automatica Kafka #6,
Page 17
While Casey's experiences on "Adventures of Superman" have allowed him to tell the stories he's wanted to, he admits that it can't compare to the creative freedom he experiences on "Kafka." "Between the fact that we created the characters and that we're operating under the umbrella of a Mature Readers label, I've got total freedom on this book," gushes Casey. "It's as liberating an experience as I've ever had in my career. Having no rules (except for the ones we choose to impose upon ourselves) is what making comics is all about."

Today's comic market is not kind to new series, as Casey is well aware, but he says this hasn't stopped him from making long term plans for his virgin series. "This series rolls along the way it was always intended to, regardless of sales or reader reaction," says Casey confidently. "I'm going for broke here, writing the kind of comic book that I want to see. Sure, there's a bit of self-indulgence involved… but when you're creating a series from scratch, why not be self-indulgent? As I'm writing it, there is a bit of spontaneous improvisation going on, but that's simply part of the creative process. In terms of the plot itself, we'll see the introduction of the Constitution of the United States in issue #5, along with Automatic Kafka becoming more aware of the fragility of celebrity. Issue #6 focuses on Helen Of Troy, as Kafka embarks on a very $trange date. This leads to a mini-arc that introduces an old arch-enemy of the $tranger$. His name is Galaxia, and his head has been replaced by a small spiral galaxy. He's come to the Warning for help. Will he get it? Well, the Warning is always willing to provide help for those in need…"

In many ways, "Automatic Kafka" seems to be all of Casey's mission statements from all of his comics rolled into one. It seems as though he's exploring politics- in government and between people- and fame along with the idea of power and money all in one comic, whereas all Casey's other endeavors to this point had touched upon only one of these themes primarily. "Those are certainly themes that interest me," explains the author of "Kafka." "And this series is, in a way, a 'let's throw in everything but the kitchen sink'-type of comic book. But I think the real mission statement for 'AK' is to explore how stories can be told. The style that's in vogue right now involves either widescreen-style, cinematic storytelling or real down-to-Earth, Let's-Humanize-The-Superheroes storytelling. That's what the current readership is trained to appreciate… it's what they've come to expect from superhero comic books. Those are certainly valid approaches, but they aren't the only game in town. It's a fun creative challenge to look at what's popular and attempt something that flies in the face of it. And besides, history shows that what is today's 'underground' is tomorrow's 'mainstream' and I'd much rather be looking ahead than chasing a trend."

Artist Ashley Wood is also heavily involved in the creative process of "Automatic Kafka," contributing both the art and some plot ideas too Casey admits. "We talk a lot, so he generally knows what's coming up. For instance, we agreed early on that we'd do a solo Constitution story in issue #5. But Ash had no idea how it would play out until he got the script. I sit with these things alone in my office, sweating them out like a fever."

Automatica Kafka #6, Page 19
Automatica Kafka #6,
Page 19
Even though Casey is supremely confident in his work on "Kafka" and the future of the series, he is aware of all the criticism that the book has met with in it's short life thus far and does not mind addressing it. "Enough people seemed to get what we were doing, as far as I'm concerned," says Casey, responds to critics of the series who called it "impenetrable" or "incoherent." "I would've been shocked and-to be honest-suspicious if everyone liked the book. This is not a book for everyone and I'm fine with that."

Something else that raised eyebrows was a one-page essay at the back of "Automatic Kafka #1," which described the readers that would and would not like the series in Casey's opinion. "Remember, there were two halves of that text page," says Casey to those who call that essay pretentious. "The truth about where I stand was probably somewhere in the middle. I actually think I was right on the money in terms of the two types of readers… the cynical and the optimistic. Some readers probably took it harder than I intended it. I will say this… when someone is stung by a perceived criticism it's usually because they're guilty of it."

But Casey isn't one to stay too worried about the negative comments and feels that if he's connected with a group of fans, large or small, then he's done his job. "I'm so grateful to the readers who've embraced the series, bringing their own imaginations to its mysteries and secrets and all the various details we've been layering in. We flung this series out into the void, with no idea how it would fly, and it's actually found a small but dedicated group of readers that are now part of the journey. We're now communicating with them on a monthly basis. It's the kind of interaction that only comic books can achieve, and when it happens, it's magical. As far as the detractors go… well, sometimes you can judge how fun a party is by who doesn't show up."

[Joe Casey]
Joe Casey
If you're one of the many people who met Joe Casey at a convention this year at the Man Of Action booths, you've undoubtedly noticed that he has a certain fondness for sunglasses… so much so that fans wonder if fellow Man Of Action members have super-glued them to his head. "Why not?" laughs Casey when asked about the sunglasses. "What's so great about seeing someone's eyes? And if they're really the window to the soul, why give that away so quickly...?"

With his sunglasses still on, Casey heads back to the Man Of Action studios to finish the newest "Adventures of Superman" script and before doing that, has some parting words for fans.

"Anyone who reads comic books knows how cool they are. They certainly don't need me telling them so. It's the rest of the world that still needs to catch up. And they will... eventually."

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