When Words Collide

Mon, May 10th, 2010 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: May 10th, 2010 at 5:37pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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THE JOE CASEY INTERVIEW

Anyone who read last month's issue of "Superman/Batman" knows that something happened at the end of Joe Casey's run. The artist wasn't the one announced (or identified on the cover), and the second half of the script was credited to Joshua Williamson instead of Casey. I talked to Joe Casey about it, and talked about what he has planned for the future.

Tim Callahan: The internet bubbled up with a little bit of controversy regarding some things you said, or didn't say, or weren't fully quoted about, regarding your "Superman/Batman" run. That was eventually cleared up, but it did draw some attention to the work you were doing there, and now you're off the book only a couple of months later. What's the story there?

Joe Casey: Yeah, that wasn't the best time I've ever had writing at DC. Far from it, actually. Well, I should amend that...the writing itself was good fun. The published product, especially the last issue, not so much. I've never denied my love of those characters, I know how to write them, but that whole thing ended up being quite the debacle beyond anything I could control. I'll certainly survive, but I do feel bad for some of the people involved, not the least of which being the readers of that series. They deserved better than what they ultimately got. Then again, so did I. But, what can I say, I was just the writer-for-hire. And barely that, in this particular case. If nothing else, it really helped to point me back in the direction I need to be aimed in right now... which is full-on, creator-owned work.

TC: Can you talk at all about how the "Superman/Batman" situation was different from what you experienced with, let's say, "Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance"? Or your Marvel work over the past year, like "Dark Reign: Zodiac" or the current "Avengers: The Origin"?

JC: Well, one thing I'm happy to say is that my recent Marvel work has been nice and smooth, from the standpoint of actually doing the work. I used to tell people that there was really no difference between working for Marvel and working for DC, on a practical or even a creative level. This past year, I can't say that was the case any more. From my point of view, there was definitely a huge difference. It's always been smooth working with Tom Brevoort. He's way more progressive than you might think. Let's face it, no other editor at either of the Big Two was willing to give Nathan Fox the shot that Tom did. To me, that's pretty significant. The historical tales like "Avengers: The Origin," are always kind of a breeze to write, but something like "Zodiac" was a great example of Marvel making a bold move within a line-wide "event." And on top of the overall experience, the work turned out pretty good, too. It was interesting to me when a recent Internet ego surf revealed that "Zodiac" made a few self-proclaimed pundits' Best of '09 lists. I chalk that up to Nathan's art more than anything, but it was nice to see. Look for Zodiac's brief return in an issue of the upcoming "Heroic Age" anthology book.

At Marvel, I tend to bring the artists to the project. Either that, or I have a significant say in who I'll be working with. But I brought Nathan Fox to Marvel, I brought Chris Weston and Frazier Irving in for their first Marvel gigs. I brought Eric Canete back to Marvel after years in the animation wasteland. I just brought a great artist, Matt Camp, over to do what I think is his first Marvel work. So, I've had good luck in that regard. I'm the guy who lined up Eddie Campbell, Ashley Wood, and Sean Phillips to jam on "Uncanny X-Men" #400. Think about it. Eddie ("From Hell") Campbell drawing "Uncanny X-Men." I take a perverse pride in that.

At DC, I really don't have much input -- if any -- in who's going to draw my stories. And, well, we see how well that tends to turn out…

But, y'know...despite the round robin artists on it, "Dance," I'm still fairly proud of. I can't say the series is completely cohesive as a piece, but there's some good ideas there, some good character bits. It could've been stronger in a few areas. And, to be honest, more challenging in a few areas. Frankly, I wanted the Superbat cosplayer in issue #3 to be male -- or at the very least, androgynous to the point where you couldn't easily decipher the gender. I thought I described it that way in the script, but I guess male artists can't stop themselves from drawing tits, if given the opportunity. But, for the most part, I fully own up to that work. My voice is in there. As for "Superman/Batman"... I'm happy to wash my hands of the whole thing. It could've been something really great, really fun, but...as Alan Moore muttered so eloquently in Eddie ("Uncanny X-Men") Campbell's "How to be an Artist"... "Fuckadoodledo."

TC: I'm not surprised to hear that Nathan Fox would be a hard sell to some editors, given the white-bread nature of so much superhero art, but I do find it baffling, because he's just so damned good.

Going back to your aborted or mangled "Superman/Batman" run, for a minute, were you attempting to expand on the story you began telling back in the early 00s with your consciously-pacifist Superman and your exploration of the superhuman ideal? Was even a consideration at all? Have things at DC changed so much that you couldn't even approach this recent superhero comic book run with any kind of larger intellectual idea?

JC: "Mangled" is a pretty good word for it, but maybe not in the way you're suggesting. The irony is... yeah, okay, I'll always write a pacifist Superman. That's just how I see him. It's funny that you would refer to "intellectual ideas" when it comes to that gig. I didn't even approach it as a chance to flex those particular muscles. I just wanted to write a cool story with two massive super-icons. No real exploration involved, just writing on instinct. I've been around way too long to allow myself to get really invested in a situation like this, where the deck is so often stacked against you, creatively-speaking. And yet, even with that mindset, the story still got fucked with (as anyone who bothered to read the final issue of the arc could attest to...for the record, I did write a script for the entire issue. But, in terms of what actually saw print, I wrote pages 1-11 and most of the final page). But I don't take it personally... why should I? I just sit back and laugh. Superman and Batman have survived a lot worse than this goofy story. Meanwhile, I'm blazing ahead with a metric fuck-ton of the most personal, genre-busting work I've ever attempted. Getting jerked around by some editor at a big publisher is almost like a palette cleanser for the real shit that's on deck.

Let me be clear... this is certainly no indictment of DC in general. Not at all. I truly love those characters and maybe now things are looking up there. I mean, Geoff being in the position that he's in is a pretty cool thing. I think fans should be as excited by the new potential as I was as a kid back in the 80's when the late, great Dick Giordano was making his moves... which, to me, will always be the glory days of DC Comics. I mean, there was "New Teen Titans," "All-Star Squadron," "Ronin," "Thriller," "Camelot 3000," "Swamp Thing," "Sword of the Atom," "Ambush Bug," "Infinity Inc.," "Crisis on Infinite Earths," "Dark Knight Returns," "'Mazing Man," "Watchmen," "Man of Steel," "Legends," "Batman: Year One," "Fury of Firestorm," "The Shadow," "Justice League International," "Suicide Squad, "Flash," "The Question," "Blackhawk"... I'm gettin' choked up, man.

TC: And, obviously, with a lot of that Giordano-Age DC stuff you cite, those guys were doing their own kinds of things, just in and around the DC Universe. (Even someone as continuity-focused as Roy Thomas was doing the "Roy Thomas" version of the Golden Age.) They didn't have many opportunities to write and draw stories out of the superhero mainstream -- Pacific was around, and Eclipse, and Comico, but there was nothing quite like Image, back in those days, to give them a chance to go their own way with some of their own creations and get some market penetration. And you've had some success with Image, certainly on a creative side, even the sales aren't as high as they should be. What's this "personal, genre-busting" work you're talking about? And is this a Kirkmanesque shift in how you see your comics in the future -- moving exclusively to creator-owned projects and leaving the editorial interference behind for good?

JC: No, I'm not nearly the lovable loudmouth that Kirkman has turned into, God bless his Kentucky-lickin' soul. To be honest, I do make a clear distinction between Big Two work-for-hire and work that involves, as you call it, "editorial interference." They're not automatically one and the same. At Marvel, I work with my editors to make comics. Most of the time, it turns out just fine. It's the way WFH should be, so I'm happy to continue working with anyone under those circumstances. What I'll do my damnedest to steer clear of from now on... is being edited either out of negligence, ignorance or -- worst of all -- spite. I'm sure almost everyone in the business has experienced at least one of those nightmares.

So, it's not an either/or situation. It never has been. I just happen to be on fire with new ideas, new books, and I'm fuckin' psyched about it. Maybe it's because, at the moment, I don't have a current, active gig at either of the Big Two. Things that are just seeing print now were written and finished months ago. So I'm in the luckiest position I've ever been in, creatively... when it comes to comic books, I'm able to concentrate solely on creator-owned work. That in itself is a pretty unbelievable thing to me. I'm waking up every morning, making stuff up, and then executing those ideas for print. It's actually the creative life I imagined when I was 10 years old, lying on my stomach in the middle of my living room floor, thinking up and drawing my own comics.

And, to be clear, when I say "genre-busting," I'm not saying that I'm suddenly writing period romance dramas or funny animal comics about the Holocaust. Not yet, anyway. To me, busting genres open is what commercial comic creators were doing in the 80's. Miller, Chaykin, Moore, Sienkiewicz, Baron, Mills, Chadwick, Wagner, Los Bros Hernandez... these guys are still my inspiration in that regard.

And, y'know, it's not all about sales. The fact remains, more people remember and talk about my...well, let's just call them "cult books"...than they ever talk about my time writing the X-Men (and thank God for that). What it's about... is personal expression. It's about creative freedom. It's about bringing into existence something that did not exist beforehand. Fundamentally, that's what publishing books at Image Comics represents to me.

TC: What type of comics do you want to bring into existence then? I'm not talking simply about upcoming projects -- though I'm interested in hearing what you have planned, certainly -- but I'm wondering what kind of comics you want to create?

I remember seeing Will Eisner at his last San Diego Comic Con, and he was on a panel talking about, of all things, "Breaking into Comics," and he said, "I saw a need, and filled it." What need do you see in comics right now? Do you even think in those terms? Or do you think about what excites you or inspires you and just follow that idea as far as it will go?

JC: Yeah, it's not as calculating as seeing a vacuum and coming up with something to fill it. It's all about following my own muse. Which is how it should be. The comics-as-movie-pitch syndrome is a bunch of bullshit. It's gotta be a comic first. At the same time, if you follow your own creative instincts, sometimes you do end up filling a need. We didn't know we needed American Flagg or Mage or Concrete... until they came out.

What's really cool about creator-owned comics for me -- the way I do my books at Image -- is that you're able to work at the speed of thought. Robert Rodriguez used to talk about this a lot; it's all about working right at the edge of your own creativity. My problem with this business, my biggest stumbling block, is probably my enthusiasm, my own hyperactivity in a field where certain things -- at the Big Publishers especially -- take fucking forever to get going. DC, in particular, is notorious for their glacier-like pace when it comes to developing and launching new projects. Speaking of which, here's a good story that'll probably never see the light of day otherwise…

About two years ago, at San Diego, I pitched an idea to the editor of the "Justice League" books...something called "Justice League Academy." Maybe the most fan-friendly idea I'd ever had for either of the Big Two. The kids of the Justice League in a top secret "superhero training school" that not even their parents knew about (which solved all the inter-book continuity problems in one stroke). It had kind of a Starman-meets-X-Men vibe to it. Superhero legacy meets four-color melodrama. It was Wally West's kids, it was Metamorpho's son (who I gave powers to and renamed Megamorpho, the Energy Kid), it was Adam Strange's daughter, it was Animal Man's kids (the daughter also given powers and assuming the great, unused name, Changeling...while Cliff was the surly, Guy Gardner-type of the cast). Great characters that no one -- outside of Geoff's Flash stuff -- was doing jack-shit with. There was also Offspring, Plastic Man's kid...as well as a new character who was the son of DC's Hercules. Originally, it was a Batman-initiated program, but Damian Wayne (who I knew ahead of time was going to be the new Robin) was to quickly take it over and run it like Batman used to run the Justice League in the early Giffen issues (in other words, through insults and intimidation).

It was a book about superhero kids that would've been dark and dramatic. That pitch sat around at DC for months and months. I certainly told enough people about it...James Robinson thought it worked so well, he actually cursed me for coming up with it (just something that writers do to each other when they hear a cool idea). Hell, everybody liked it...including the JLA editor. But, it never got pitched to the higher ups. Y'know, it's DC...what's the rush?

Anyway, cut to a year later...a goddamn year...and I start to hear rumors about a book in development at Marvel called "Avengers Academy." And, sure enough, it's hitting this summer. Now, I'm sure it'll be an entertaining book and I'm not crying foul on Marvel's part at all -- I'm sure it's an unprecedented and unbelievable coincidence -- but, for chrissakes, the fact that DC got snaked on a name that, as far as I'm concerned, should be theirs by right...I mean, come on! Obviously, I got the "Academy" part of the name from the Legion Academy and the fact that it worked as a "JLA" acronym was just too perfect. This was a DC book that DC can't do now because they moved too slow. When shit like this happens, they should be fuckin' embarrassed. Now, that might all be changing with the new regime...I hope so, anyway...but we'll have to see, won't we?

On the other hand, with my books at Image, I can have an idea one day, contact an artist the next day, and on the third day we're rolling. We're working. We're creating. It's the greatest buzz you can imagine. It's why I wanted to do this for a living in the first place. Comics are supposed to be an immediate art form. Developing them by committee for years and years is just goddamn ridiculous. For Christ's sake, the entire Marvel Universe was thought up on the fly by three or four guys in about two years, total…!

On a more macro level, just to chime in on a subject that everyone else has, I think the "event" mentality does make it more likely that more books end up homogenized, more similar in tone, rather than unique unto themselves. Personally, I like that kind of challenge, but from what I've seen, it doesn't exactly foster creativity or ambition in most writers. One writer has one idea, one story, and most of the line is set for the year. Sorry, but no matter how good that one idea may be, that's just not enough ideas for me. And I'm speaking simply as a reader here.

Believe me, something as wacky and idiosyncratic as "Zodiac" showing up in the midst of Dark Reign is an anomaly, not the norm. So, to me, that just means creator-owned comics are even more important to the culture. Doing a run on Superman or the X-Men is no longer the career pinnacle it used to be, it no longer means you've achieved the highest level possible as a comic book creator. Not by a long shot. And I should know...I've done both.

Then again, this is all just one man's opinion…

TC: Let's talk about some of those creator-owned projects, then. You have "GØDLAND," which is in its third, and final, act right now. And, of course, there's that second "GØDLAND Celestial Edition" hardcover coming out this summer which features an essay by some guy about, I don't know, something smart. And I assume "GØDLAND" is a complete blast to write, and in recent issues we've seen an "Automatic Kafka" tie-in in the form of the deus ex butterfly. What else can you talk about with your upcoming work, what else is on your creative mind?

JC: This "tie-in" you're referring to taking place in "GØDLAND," even as we speak... I don't know anything about that. But the essay in the new hardcover...yeah, that's good stuff.

The next thing on the horizon is the "Officer Downe" one-shot that myself and Chris Burnham have dreamed up. We announced it at WonderCon for a July release. It turned out to be a blast of a book to do. Pure creative adrenalin exploding all over. It's like a European album of hyper-violence and badge-bearing bloodletting... only it's completely American made, baby. Something else that was announced last year is my next collaboration with Andy Suriano, "Doc Bizarre, M.D.," which has ballooned into a nice little OGN. It's a cool bit of madcap horror. Scooby-Doo meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hopefully, that'll be out by the end of the year.

But that's really just the tip of the iceberg. There's maybe five more projects that are in various stages of writing and development. Something with Mike Huddleston that we've been talking about for two years, called "Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker," a twisted, adults-only tale of demented superfiction and two-lane blacktop mayhem. It's a book where we're really going to experiment with the form a bit. Mike's a massive talent and he's specifically asked me to push him in artistic directions he'd never been pushed before. I told him, "Not a problem." I'm also doing a massive superhero maxi-series with artist David Messina, who was actually going to take over the art chores on my "Youngblood" relaunch before Eric Stephenson wisely advised us to do something creator-owned instead.

There's also a more highbrow, archival book project I'm doing with a fantastic new artist, something for coffee tables all across the literate world. And, at WonderCon alone (just three weeks past as we're talking now), two more projects sprang to life, with great, unique artists attached to both. I realize some of this sounds annoyingly cryptic, but I'm also wary of announcing things in too much detail before the fact. Y'know, I'm the kind of guy in bed that won't come too early. Most of these projects probably be seen in 2011. Maybe one or two by the end of the year, if all goes well.

Here's the thing, though... I wish there were ten more. Twenty more. This insane buzz that I've been getting lately from coming up with these projects, these ideas, these new characters is something I think I've become dangerously addicted to. It might be a real problem, worse than any drugs I've ever allowed myself to indulge in. Ultimately, I can only hope this is a healthy addiction, because there's no turning back now.

TC: Do you find it difficult to carry this kind of creative enthusiasm forward from conception through scripting through production and release? I can imagine that when you're in this kind of hyper-creative mood, where you just want to churn out the delirious ideas because of the thrill of birthing something new, that it might be difficult to sustain the fever of the initial impulse. Like you might get to page 20 of the script and feel the need to jump over to one of the dozen other percolating ideas. How do you deal with that?

JC: Well, once they're fully written (and, aside from "GØDLAND" and "Doc Bizarre," these new projects are all being written full script), I can just sit back and assume the producer role, just keeping track of all the art as it comes in, all the production stuff. Luckily, I love writing. You know how there are those writers who "love having written, but hate writing".... well, that ain't me. I've always taken a Lester Bangs approach to writing...just sitting my ass down and, at the best of times, getting lost in the act of it. Just reveling in it. It's real mad scientist stuff. Maybe it's because I remember working enough real jobs and so I appreciate the fuck outta what I do.

You bring up a good point, though... I do think sustaining that enthusiasm over a long haul -- seeing it through so it ends up in the actual books themselves -- is where craft and commitment comes into it. The ability to be wildly creative when it counts and to buckle down and actually do the work when it counts. These books don't just write themselves, y'know...

But I also like the ADD of it all... the ability to jump around when inspiration strikes. One of the other benefits of creator-owned comics is that, for the most part, we set our own deadlines. It's like a negative pick-up situation in Hollywood. We make the book, however long it takes, and deliver it to Image when it's ready to be published. That's an enormous difference from the endless treadmill of WFH. Now I can get into that, too...sometimes I dig on that pressure and I tend to work well under it. I've yet to be confronted by a Big Two deadline that I didn't kick square in the nuts and left drooling and whimpering on the sidewalk. Ask any editor I've ever worked with. But when it comes to my own stuff, I'll take as much time as I need and I'll let the artist do the same. I've found that's the best way to produce lasting work.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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