"BUTCHER BAKER" COMES TO AN END? WHAT'S THE DEAL JOE CASEY?
Contrary to what may have been implied in some corners of the internet, the collaborative frustrations and possible behind-the-scenes creative team strife didn't put an end to Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston's "Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker" series, and the oversized hardcover collection of the eight-issue series is still scheduled for a December 2012 release from Image Comics. As Casey states in the backmatter of issue #8, "Butcher Baker" was planned as an eight-issue finite series from the very beginning. It just wasn't sold that way to the readership.
To find out why, I talked to Joe Casey yet again after reading the final issue.
We focus a bit on the content of "Butcher Baker" #8, but Casey also goes into some detail about his strategy for this series and what he was trying to accomplish by not giving readers the "Issue #1 of an Eight-Issue Limited Series" tag on the first cover. But first, the surprise cruelty of the unexpected ending...
Tim Callahan: "Butcher Baker" #8 came out. And now, after that long wait, the series is over? That's pretty cruel, you know.
Joe Casey: "Cruel" is a strong word, isn't it...? And I guess it all depends on your expectations of the kind of entertainment you were hoping for. We never promised that "Butcher Baker" would go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, the delay of the issue did kinda screw with a lot of what we were trying to do here, which is to say -- to the marketplace, I guess -- that it's not always necessary to telegraph the ending. It's not always necessary to market something as finite.
I actually think that most "mainstream" comicbook readers are old enough now -- and have been around the block enough -- to know most of the dance moves before we can completely execute them. When you come out and market something specifically as a "four issue miniseries," oftentimes it's like showing someone a map *before* they take the journey. Sometimes the fun of taking a journey is not knowing where you're going or where you're going to end up. That's what telling a *story* is all about, as opposed to marketing and selling a product. Ya feelin' me...?
I wanted readers to have a specific kind of reading experience and, lateness aside, I hope they had it. Then again, you're probably a better judge of that than I could ever be...
Sure, "cruel" is a strong word, and maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but when it was one of the few comics that was worth reading every month (for as long as that schedule lasted), there's a certain edge to its sudden conclusion. A razor-sharp exclamation point.
I do know what you mean about knowing the length of a series from a reader's point of view and seeing the "map" ahead of time. If it's marked as a four issue series, you pretty much know that issue one will have some minor conflict and then a cliffhanger with a villain or twist of some sort, issue two will be more exploration into that situation, issue four will be finding out that something even bigger is behind the trouble, and issue four is the big confrontation and resolution. 90% of all four-issue series have this same format, and we know it going in.
Had "Butcher Baker" been marked as a finite eight issues, everyone would have projected a similar structure, just with a bit more delay before the final confrontation, and some sideline action along the way. Which is basically what we ended up getting, though it didn't feel that way when we thought it was an ongoing. It felt like anything could happen, which, as you say, was exactly your point.
So, just to clarify, you always knew it would be exactly eight issues? Or did you just know that it was a finite story that would end within its first year (had it shipped monthly as planned)?
Yeah, it was always meant to be eight issues and done. It's one story. Actually, I kinda felt like readers might've been keying into the fact that it might not be an ongoing, infinite series simply because, even at issue #5 or #6, I still wasn't giving them any kind of temporary closure moments, as you tend to do on a monthly book. You'll build in those minor end points every two, three or four issues. It's part of the accepted macro-structure of a series that's meant to deliver "continuing adventures" or however you might want to frame it. "Butcher Baker," in its execution from month to month, was much more novelistic in its shape.
But it all comes down to the way stories are delivered. When you've got an audience that's as savvy as most audiences have become, it's tough to shake them out of their complacency and really take them on a ride. Even movie audiences are now "trained" to have an inherent sense of a movie's shape. They know it's going to be roughly two hours long, a lot of them even have a sense of the Hollywood three act structure, so most of the fun of being told a story is already significantly affected by all of that "pre-knowledge." Well, I wanted to see if I could mitigate some of that. Shit, I hope it worked...
The lateness impacted the way it was read, surely, but it also added a different scenario: anticipation for the delayed issue. I wonder how the anticipation/conclusion will impact the devoted readers. I guess we'll know by how loud things get on the internet by the time this conversation runs.
Speaking of that idea of reader reception, I'm wondering about something: so if "Butcher Baker" was largely an experiment in trying to subvert expectations via its delivery system, what kind of reception were you hoping for? In the end, "Butcher Baker" will sit on shelves as a collected edition, just the same as it had been announced as an eight-issue series. Either way the "permanent" edition will be the bound version, not the serialized one. So why mess around with experimentation during the serialization? It's a transitory readership, isn't it? Or is the monthly reader (had it come out monthly) the one that you're always aiming for, and the trade paperback/hardcover reader is just a kind of secondary market as far as you're concerned?
I think, in this day and age, the monthly, serialized experience is transitory -- but I guess, to me, that makes it all the more special. It's a moment in time that you can never recapture. Those of us who read, say, "Dark Knight Returns" in its original four-issue installments had a particular experience that anyone who wasn't there at the time, who've since read it in collected book form, will never be able to have. That's a fuckin' unique thing, isn't it?
For a long time, I did feel like the monthly comics were essentially a loss leader for the inevitable collected edition, but I've evolved past that simplistic thinking. You're right, anyone who reads the final, collected hardcover edition of "Butcher Baker" won't have the same experience that anyone who read it as it appeared monthly had (hopefully). But both experiences are complete valid. They're just different. In terms of what I was "hoping" for with the serialized release... I guess I want readers to feel that same pulp, art house thrill that I felt when I was reading, I dunno, Simonson's first year of "Thor" or the first seven issues of "Thriller" or the first year of Giffen's "Justice League." Those series (as well as countless others of that era) had a particular rhythm that came specifically out of reading them in monthly, bite-sized chunks. "Butcher Baker" never aspired to be anything other than that kind of ride.
"That kind of ride" is rare, as you know.
So how do you -- did you -- go about creating that feeling? Though you cite some of the comics you wanted to recapture the flavor of, you didn't mash "Thriller" and "Thor" and "Justice League" into "Butcher Baker" at all. Okay, it has plenty of weirdness, and a massive scope, and humor, but not in the vein of any of those other comics at all. I guess what I'm asking is, what does it mean to try to take the reader on that kind of serialized ride? And don't you try to do that with every series you write? What makes "Butcher Baker" different for you?
Well, I kinda pulled those titles out of my ass. I could've named a dozen more series that gave me the same, monthly buzz when I was a kid. I guess "Butcher Baker" was as much of a shameless attempt to give readers that same buzz as anything I've ever done. Just throwing as much wild, grindhouse-style shit at them as I could think of. The tone of the series, the characters, the concepts, the over-the-topness -- it all seemed to lend itself to a particular, warm embrace of the serialized comic book as its own, weird aesthetic.
It's kind of an art form, in and of itself, to take these specific parameters -- the limited page count, the monthly delivery dose, the superheroic tropes, etc. -- and be as audacious as we can. At their best, that's what superhero comic books are for me. When you have that enthusiasm for the work you're doing, I think it translates to the readers. They can tell when you're into it, and they can tell when you're not. And I was way into it. Plus I was having some good fun, which also translates. Not to mention, Butcher himself was this over-the-top, hyper-sexualized ideal of a superhero trying to take one, last victory lap, so I suppose in some respects, I was able to squeeze in a bit of meta-commentary on the genre itself at the same time. And, y'know, hopefully there was a tiny bit of originality sprinkled here and there, too. Maybe...
I thought the final issue's climax -- when "Butcher Baker" goes into exposition mode to explain how this weird cosmic being came to be -- and it's a deranged story in the middle of that sequence there -- and then the entire reveal turns out to be nonsense -- that's a bit of a high-wire act there, isn't it? You're hinging what seems to be some "moral of the story" on the word of a bastard of a superhero, who wants everything just to get out of his way so he can go about his business.
That could be read as a commentary on the superhero genre, couldn't it? With a strong warning about the ultimate irrelevance of looking for any kind of deeper meaning in these simpleminded stories of pure id. Which makes the comic's deeper meaning a rejection of the very meaning that it proposes.
You may have folded the entire genre back on itself, while taunting the expectations of its delivery system. Just maybe.
I tend to think there's always a bit of truth in the lie, y'know? Even if the details are false, there's something about the intent that somehow rings true. But it was also just the kind of mind fuck tactic that you need to combat an unknowable cosmic being. I guess it was a bit of a high-wire act, at least in terms of modern comic books, but I did like the idea of turning the series' protagonist into an unreliable narrator. The fact that we depicted the Absolutely's "origin" visually was part of the fun, part of the toolbox that you possess with comic books. Which is to say, it's a particular brand of weird narrative tangent that seemed to happen in most of the comic books I grew up reading, so why not...?
But I like your analysis of it, too. Makes me looks like I know what I'm doing.
Looking back on "Butcher Baker," now that it's done, is there anything you would have done differently? Obviously you had no control over the art delays, and, as you say, that screwed up your plans, but is the "Butcher Baker" that's out there the "Butcher Baker" that you intended to release into the wilds of the readership? And what did you learn from the whole experience, ultimately?
I think, ultimately, "Butcher Baker" is a certain kind of comic book that I feel needs to be a part of the overall conversation. With most mainstream superhero comic books boring the shit out of most readers (at least the ones who'll still bother to talk about them), a series like this can at least try to remind them that there's still some life left in the genre. There can be superhero stories that aren't so editorially mandated, so corporately mandated, that aren't just paycheck gigs for the guys who're making them, that aren't simply pure "product." Some people seemed to really get off on the energy of this book, and that's a pretty cool thing, in and of itself. I think it certainly earned its place as a "Fuck You" comic book, and we don't have enough of them on the stands right now.
Personally, as a creator of this junk, I feel like I got a lot of stuff out of my system on this series. I would compare it to something like "Automatic Kafka," where I dove in specifically to break a few rules, kick down a few doors of perception (even if they existed only in my own mind), and try to push myself as a storyteller on both an idea level and a craft level. I don't know if "Butcher Baker" will be as much of a touchstone work for me as AK was -- time will tell on that -- but I can definitely see what they share, spiritually. With superhero comic books in particular, I'm always trying to get closer to my own uncut, creative id, to squeeze as much out of it as I possibly can, and then leave it all out on the field. I certainly didn't hold anything back on this one, and that's a pretty good feeling.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.