Remix - Joe Casey On Everything Under The Sun: The Big Ass Interview, Part 1

Tue, March 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Jonathan Ellis, Contributing Writer

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Joe Casey Illustration by Hope Larson ("Flight Comics") and Bryan Lee O' Malley ("Lost At Sea," "Scott Pilgrim")
Welcome to the remixed, remastered, funkified and sexified big freakin Joe Casey Interview. Originally presented on PopImage.com in October of 2004, we bring you this interview updated with new material and preview art.

When this interview originally went live Joe had three new series hitting the stands over November and December: "The Intimates" with Jim Lee and Giuseppe Camuncoli from Wildstorm, "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" with Scott Kolins from Marvel and "Infantry" with Clement Sauve from Aftermath comics of Devil's Due Publishing. Since originally conducting this interview we've seen five issues of "The Intimates," the debut of "Infantry," the remaining issues of "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," received confirmation about the forthcoming "Fantastic Four: First Family" mini-series and seen Joe's name grace the pages of Variety as his original graphic novel from Ait/PlanetLar Press; "Full Moon Fever," was optioned for film. We thought it was time to talk to Joe and play catch-up on these series and the ones still ahead.

Following your work on "Wildcats," "Automatic Kafka" and "Superman" you seemed to take a sabbatical from comics for a while, then recently you return with, not one or two but three new superhero series? What had you been doing in the downtime and what was it about these projects that encouraged you to return?

Lemme tell ya', it never felt like "downtime" to me...! I've been writing more than ever. Not only the three new series, but several OGN's for Larry Young, an original screenplay (or two), and a whole mess of new songs. It's just timing that three projects all hit in Nov./Dec. "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," in particular, has been written for months. "The Intimates" was pitched and approved about two years ago, but the wheels turn slowly at the monolithic, icebergian DC Comics. But it's all good. I guess it either makes me look like an unstoppable comic book writing juggernaut or an overworked, sleep-deprived sap. U-Decide! Besides, I'm way too young to even consider the idea of revelling in anything that might possibly resemble "downtime". Downtime is for losers and old people. I love my job and I usually end up loving whatever kind of shit I get myself into.

For a while, the notion of comic creators as rock stars was thrown around, which has since seemingly been debunked. As one of the few people that actually fell into that category, how did you feel about that label and for that matter, was or can it be a fitting portrayal?

The "comic creator as rock star"-thing was and is pure bullshit. If you want to be a rock star, the comics biz is the last place you're going to find that particular kind of gratification. And I gotta' be honest, on many levels, it really doesn't hold a candle to blasting an A chord to a throng of screaming chicks and everyone should just accept that. Having done both, there's definitely a difference. Comics have so many more of their own special virtues but being any kind of a "star" really isn't one of them. This cult of personality nonsense has really got to stop. My favorite writers weren't my favorites because of how "cool" or "hip" I thought they were. They were my favorites because they wrote cool comics. Mike Baron. David Michelinie. Steve Englehart. Frank Miller. Howard Chaykin. Alan Moore. I don't recall any of these guys being overly concerned with their image. Nor was I ever particularly envious of their lifestyles - whatever they happened to reveal about them, which wasn't much - other than the fact that they were writing comics professionally. Sorry, but "Wizard" is not "Maxim." Not even close. It's really a weird sickness that probably has a lot to do with the perceived "Hollywood-ization" of comic books and the complete misunderstanding of the Stan Lee Persona Phenomenon.

Y'know, I'll admit this is all just my personal bullshit I'm throwing around, but I think I've been hip-deep in this business long enough to have a pretty good sense of what's real and what's not. Obviously, not everyone feels this way, but I'll take being a person over a personality any day.

I think you've just described "Comic Creator Corporatism" as for the relation between creative to consumer, I've seen both sides, hideous fans and thin skinned creators. Fans can be vicious spiteful and just down right crazy but at the same time I get kind of sick to see the creators who surround themselves with cliques whose sole purpose in life is to feed that creators ego. But what may be worse is when it's true, that readers really don't get it or don't even take the time to bother. Should creators not bother trying to create intelligent works? Because there's already a whole stable of people in the industry that will write down to the readers. "The Filth" is a prime example of a series readers didn't get, though many who didn't get it didn't seem to read it either. Another good example... "Automatic Kafka."

I loved "The Filth" in the most glorious, unhealthy way (which was probably the point of the series, right?). I know what my relationships are with my favorite works of art, comic books or otherwise. I guess from my own point of view, I've got a pretty level-headed outlook as a fan... and so as a professional, the best I can try to do is foster that same type of relationship with whoever is reading my books. You certainly don't get that by writing down to them. And, besides that, I think I try and project a bit of Anti-Fame whenever possible. The last thing I want is to have my ass kissed by anyone.

Back to the person vs. personality issue you brought up. Do you find it hard to fight when people get preconceived images when they hear you took your "Superman" & "X-Men" money and locked yourself away with a bag of drugs or when you seem to have perfected the "wearing sunglasses indoors" look?

I never said it was a "bag" of drugs, did I...?

And people don't seem to realize that sunglasses allow me to sit at the Man Of Action booth at any given time of the long convention day and fall fast asleep without anyone realizing it. Trust me, I would never mistake practicality for personality.

Good ideas and lasting stories, as more new projects come out the ratio of what's good in the creative pool seems to lessen, and what actually is good tends to be ridiculously expensive. What steps do you take as a creator to help promote a new series?

As you can see, I pound the virtual pavement when I have to. I put myself out there and try to build that awareness. Not that I mind. Not at all. I'm really glad for the opportunity to try and get readers interested in reading the books. And if I can present some sort of alternative view of a comic book writing career, a change from the "ENVY ME!"-approach that I see some creators take, then I'll be happy to try and do that.

Kay, be honest, 'cause almost every creator has a bad interview story, what's the worst part of doing these interviews?

Trying to sound like we know what we're talking about! Plus, I hate to repeat myself from one interview to another, and the more you do, the tougher that gets. Besides that, it's actually good fun to talk about something you're excited about. Sometimes it's even therapeutic, in a weird way. In the best interviews, you're being taken to task - in the nicest way possible, of course - for some of your decisions by the interviewer, and often forced to try and verbalize and reconcile things that you may have done on pure instinct. Tom Spurgeon interviewed me for "The Comics Journal" a year ago, and he really looked at my work from an angle I'd never imagined. By doing so, he forced me to look at my own work from a different perspective, which was invaluable.

Being a fan of genre films, do you have any genre comics in the works?

Quite a few. Practically all of them are for Larry Young, who is the all-powerful purveyor of modern pulp fiction. "Warhead" is a sci-fi war epic (as if the name didn't give that away). "Krash Bastards" is a futura-samurai manga and "Full Moon Fever" is a sci-fi horror thriller I wrote with a friend of mine, Caleb Gerard. And my good friend and artist extraordinaire, Charlie Adlard, is chipping away at a new magnum opus he and I are doing together. Hopefully, at least some of these will see print in 2005. These are all no-money projects, so it's not like anyone's working on deadline. But I'm collaborating with some great artists, so when they do come out, I think it'll be worth whatever the wait turns out to be.

For me, it's liberating to break away from writing superheroes every once in awhile. Here's a great clich: you get to flex a different set of creative muscles. Blah, blah, blah...

When you say manga do you mean manga influenced or are you actually trying to do a piece in manga style?

Both, I guess. It'll be in the traditional manga format as we know it here in the States. Those dimensions, read right-to-left, the whole bit. It'll be AiT/PlanetLar's first "authentic manga" (as the fine folks at TOKYOPOP label it).

We'll come back to these new books later, right now we're going to focus on what's in stores. Starting with… "The Intimates."

THE INTIMATES

"The Intimates" #4
"These teens are learning to save the world... one class at a time! Welcome to the Seminary, where teenagers learn how to be super-heroes. It provides the backdrop for "The Intimates," a new series co-created by Jim Lee, with writer Joe Casey, and penciller Giuseppe Camuncoli.

"The Intimates" follows the misadventures of Punchy, Destra, the Duke, Empty Vee and Sykes as they cope with a curriculum that includes Secret Identity 101, NuPhysics and even Morality Class - everything they'll need to one day become great super-heroes.

But things aren't what they seem at the Seminary, which contains a dark secret even the retired super-hero faculty may be unaware of! These kids are the future of the WildStorm Universe - but right now they're late for gym class!"

"The Intimates" issues one through five are in stores now.

There are a few things that separate this book from other superhero team books, for instance, not everyone necessarily wants to be a superhero but also there's no core villain, so the antagonists will be, each other?

Think back to when you were in high school. There were no "villains." There were assholes, sure, and there were kids you hated (for whatever mindless reason), but no moustache-twirling, "I wanna' take over the world"-villains. When you're a teenager, everyone around you is alternately your best friend and your worst enemy. That's simply the minefield you have to maneuver as you're learning the socialization skills that will serve you during adulthood. And honestly, I find those types of relationships can be much more interesting to write than the clear-cut, black & white, "good vs. evil"-paradigm of most superhero comic books. It's also an excuse to be emotionally operatic. When adults act like that, it's sad and pathetic and you can't help but think, "Well, that person still has some growing up to do." I could tie this sentiment to the comics industry as a whole, but why stoop to that level, huh...? But teenagers can indulge in wildly large-scale displays of emotions and it works. Because that's what you do when you're a teenager and you think your entire world is ending over some random comment made in passing... you overreact. It certainly makes for good stories.

You'll be playing on the "Your best friends are the ones you rag on the most" sort of mentality?

Sure, when they're not outright betraying you in some form or another. But that's the Darwinism of high school, isn't it? Its high drama is designed to prepare you for the shitstorm of adulthood. Pretty great, huh...?

"The Intimates" #5
Not only can readers expect it to be a hard process for the students but the teachers as well right? Failed superheroes trying to command an audience while surrounded by tense and abrasive teenagers.

The adults portrayed in "The Intimates " are just as flawed as anyone. Hell, most adults are a failed something, aren't they? It's the realities of growing up. It's definitely an interesting dichotomy... one side of the fence is all about wild optimism and intoxicating angst, the other side is all about the virtual hangover of your teenage years. Some adults never get over that, do they? In the series, I do try to play the adults as genuine. Good teachers are always trying to break down barriers between themselves and their students. In "The Intimates," most of the teachers spend their time trying to impart the notion that it's not "us against them"... meanwhile, the kids are basically saying, "Fuck you. You're 'them' whether you like it or not!" I think there's something really joyous about that outlook. It's not just reckless abandon... it's about intimate abandon. The abandon within yourself. Maybe it's just me, but I find that shit extremely resonant.

I mentioned this before, cool has become clich. Now everyone wants to go back to being a geek, or are just fed up.

Well, the fact is... pretending to be anything can be fairly exhausting after a while. Geek chic is just another fashion phase and people who are really into all this stuff truly transcend fashion. I'm looking forward to the time where we each balance our unique individuality with that obvious universal commonality. We're all single organisms within a larger one.

That said, do you try to approach a team book as a specific representative or microcosm of the world at large?

In so much as "Gilligan's Island" was a microcosm for society, yes. Human interaction is probably the most fascinating thing that ever occurs on Earth. How people deal with each other, for better or for worse, is what it's all about.

Another set apart is the feature of a cast of "teens acting as teens." Was it really that easy to remember what it was like when you were a teen?

"The Intimates" #6
Some scars just stay with you. The personal issues of your childhood are issues that you have to deal with your entire life. The bullshit doesn't end when you turn 20. Besides, you're also talking to a guy that's living out the dreams he dreamed for himself when he was a kid. That has certainly helped when it comes to viewing my own life in its totality, rather than separating it into "childhood" and "adulthood." If you're fourteen years old and you want to be a circus acrobat, but at thirty-five you're an accountant, then that disconnect is probably a lot more obvious. But not for me. I'm doing exactly the things I wanted to do since even before I was a teenager.

Besides, if that teenage readership still exists out there, it's our job as writers to be able to speak to them. To write something like "The Intimates," which sets out to try and depict the teenage experience (in an admittedly hyper-realistic fashion), you're communicating more directly with that audience. You're not so much dealing in metaphor, as you would if you were writing "Superman" or "X-Men," you're dealing more in documentary. You're documenting something akin to your own experiences and hopefully finding something universal within that.

The stakes are really high when you're a teenager. You cling to your perception of life because, to you, that is reality. It doesn't matter if that perception is accurate.

While it may be a writer's job to speak to those teenagers I get the unfortunate feeling that they may just not be paying attention. I mean, when you can epitomize a generation with a Good Charlotte song…

Oh, I have no doubt that there are very few teenagers haunting the comic book stores, if that's what you're inferring. But I can't let the state of the market - good or bad - affect what I write or what I create. I think there's a need for this type of series whether it immediately connects directly to a teenage audience or not. It may succeed or fail in the current marketplace, but I just write 'em. It's DC's job to package 'em, choose the format, and sell 'em (in this case, anyway).

"The Intimaes" #4,
Page 2
It's a little less "they're not buying" and a little more "they're not listening" if you follow me.

I guess I'm not sure who "they" are, in this instance. If you're talking about teenagers themselves, there's no use in proselytizing. When I talk about "speaking to" a teenage readership (again, whether they exist or not), I'm talking about trying to give them something that they don't outright reject, as they probably do with most modern superhero comic books these days. As far as that's concerned, I think the best you can do is hold up a mirror to their experience. Give them something that - on some level - is recognizable to them. At least, that's what we try to do with "The Intimates."

One failing I've seen with writers trying to appeal to younger audiences is to jam in random pop culture references, even in inappropriate places or just obscure names, or most importantly, assuming that younger readers are the MTV generation. Which is far from the truth, MTV fans are like Bush supporters, apparently they're out there somewhere, but they're just no one you know. How do you avoid falling into the same traps?

The easiest way to avoid that trap is to create a new pop cultural landscape that your characters inhabit. Something completely fictional, but still recognizable. It's a different kind of world building, but it's also part of the fun.

And I actually think younger readers - if they're out there - are the post-MTV generation. They're more instinctively media-savvy than any previous generation so my job as a writer is simply not to talk down to them. I think that, despite the rush we all make for the newest, shiniest thing to hit the shelves (whatever it may be at any given time), even younger readers want something genuine. They want a bit of substance behind the spectacle, so much so that they're willing to infer substance where there generally is none. That's pretty telling. If "The Intimates " was all surface detail, it wouldn't be worth doing for me. The real attraction I had to this series from the beginning was the desire to depict genuine emotion in the last place you'd expect to find it. It'll be up to readers to decide if we achieved it.

So it really is the exact opposite of "The Ultimates."

In more ways than one, I'm afraid.

"The Intimaes" #4,
Page 7
I think there will always be an inherent "cool factor" when it comes to fucking with characters people love because it creates the illusion that people are doing something new. I can be the same way when it comes to seeing independent or other media artists whose work I love turning their attention to characters I grew up with.

I can't argue with that. For me, it depends on the creator more than the characters. But I see your point. I guess I've been trying to produce some work that eschews that "illusion" you're referring to, and provides something a little more real. Like I said, I think that fundamentally, most people will respond to something genuine over something that's merely spectacle for spectacle's sake. Who the hell knows if we're succeeding in that, but at least that's our intent.

There's some interesting iconography in the designs and costumes, like the Star of David shaped classroom. Was this part of your original plan or were these ideas that grew out of the design process?

I took a bit from Douglas Rushkoff's writings about teenagers and the possibilities of futura teenage culture and just started riffing from there. I also read a bit of Bruce Sterling for inspiration. The Seminary classroom designs are actually based on fractals. I guess I wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. On some level, I think we're trying to present a new kind of school, maybe an idealized version of what a school could be... but at the same time, we still want it to feel like school feels, that institutionalized feeling when you walked down the hallways of your own high school.

The desks are also set up so they're faced away from each other, so that even in a small room they are distanced from one another.

They're simply not arranged in strict rows. Like I said, the classrooms are based on fractals and the chaotic desk arrangements are meant to foster a different type of interaction between students and teachers. You'll also notice there are holographic chalkboards on every wall, so that no matter where you look, you're receiving information. The Seminary - just like the series itself - reflects the intense info dump mediascape that teenagers live in. But even the teachers know they can't compete with television. In the first issue, the cast's homeroom teacher gives a speech about the role of the teacher in modern education. More theories I nicked from Rushkoff, by the way.

"The Intimaes" #4,
Page 12
Could you introduce us to the cast and what roles they'll play? Jock, fat chick, rebel, smart guy, sexy girl?

Well, they may seem like that on first glance, but it's going to be a lot of fun watching those "types" get subverted over the course of the series. I've done it before. Grifter was always the macho, gun-toting badass in "Wildscats" and, in "Version 3.0," I put him in a wheelchair almost straightaway. The revelation was that it didn't take anything away from his character. In fact, it added a dimension that I didn't even know was there. What started as an interesting plot development led to a deeper understanding of the character than I had before. So, I'd like to do that with all these characters... Punchy, the wise ass. Duke, the all-American type. Destra, the sexed up ice queen. Empty Vee, the insecure, overweight girl. And Sykes, the enigmatic weirdo.

So which one is more likely to be found carrying a copy of "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs?"

Besides me? Punchy, definitely. Maybe Empty Vee, too. I love that book, although "Fargo Rock City" speaks to me a little more. But between Klosterman and Andy Greenwald, I've actually gotten a subscription to "Spin" for the first time in my life.

The comic within a comic by Jim Lee, is this a source of inspiration? Entertainment? Instruction?

Entertainment... or possibly corruption, if you want to get all Wertham-esque about it. It's really just another layer of information we wanted to pile on to the already voluminous mountain of stuff this series contains. And, hey, there's every possibility in the world that some readers enjoy "Supersonic Espionage Boom" more than they do "The Intimates." One of them has Jim Lee art, so you never know...

Was Cammo [Artist Giuseppe Camuncoli] brought on by Jim?

Yes. And thank God he did. Cammo's work has been a revelation. He's always up to experiment and push the limits of how you can tell a story. I think he's been my greatest ally during this whole development process.

"The Intimaes" #4,
Page 13
One thing "The Intimates" reminded me of on first glance was the old parody "Doom Force" one-shot. Is this series intended to be viewed with a sense of campiness in regards to the overall feel of the book?

From my point of view, not at all. We're trying to mine the depths of emotion with this one, in every way we can. The series is meant to evoke, not lampoon (although there is some satire inherent in the concept). Plus, the way we're telling the stories... the documentary feel that owes more to new wave sitcoms like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "The Office" - as well as what I thought was a groundbreaking TV series last year, "K-Street" - than it does to other comic book series. It's rarely about setting up punchlines, it's mainly about observing behavior. I wanted to write a series that contains all the flash and balls of a full-on superhero comic book but with an added sociological bent that other "teenage superhero" books have never really explored. As far as I'm concerned, the title says it all.

I see you're working with Rian Hughes again on cover designs. Is there an overall theme you'll be going for or will the designs be conceived on an issue-by-issue basis? I noticed the first issue seems to mimic the popular mag format.

Rian designed the logo and will be designing the covers, just as he did on "Wildcats." He and I talked for a long time about the approach for this series, what the visual style of the covers should be. We came up with something that I think will relate to kids that are more plugged into general pop culture rather than only comic books. Think of a cross between "Blender" and a Japanese toy magazine. Large amounts of info and text all at once. Just like the comic book itself.

Are big belt buckles the next hot fashion trend?

C'mon... when have they ever been out of style?

"The Intimates" is a teen superhero romance comedy... is it challenging to create a climax in a single issue when action isn't the focus, especially considering any new series will only get a limited amount of attention from readers?

It's obviously more work-intensive than doing Part Whatever of Six. It's getting back to the idea that, if you write a monthly comic book series - twelve issues - it's your job to come up with twelve stories, if not more. These days, the demands of writing a monthly are fairly light. Two stories, six issues each, and you've got your year all set. That's a pretty lightweight load, if you ask me. My editor read a mock-up of the first issue of "The Intimates" and commented that it felt like reading three comics worth of material. Of course, I appreciated the sentiment, but it also underscored how ridiculous things have gotten. As far as I'm concerned, setting out to "write for the trade" has become a crime and a rip-off, no matter how well written it may turn out to be. If you're that kind of writer, it might be better to stay out of monthly, serialized comics and write OGN's. I just think these incrementally slow-developing stories are killing us in the long run.

With the fourth issue now in stores how has the series been received thus far?

"The Intimaes" #4,
Page 20
Well, it's a brand new series… and that brings with it a minefield that any new series will have to manoeuvre through. Even "successes" like "Ex Machina" are relative, and it's a mountain that Wildstorm has yet to figure out how to climb. And I certainly don't mind confusing readers or even pissing them off because the series is not something immediately recognizable to them. It's not for everyone. Obviously, most of the work I do is not meant to be an across-the-board, tentpole, popcorn crowd-pleaser. For me, personally, it's the most work-intensive series I've ever done… but I look at that as a good thing. It's very much in the vein of writing for TV, where you sweat balls over every episode and just getting them on the air is this massive undertaking. Same with this series. There's so many elements involved in putting it together, if we even make it a year, I may end up collapsing from exhaustion.

I do think there's a sense of some readers still "leaning the language," so to speak. We're probably delivering stories in a manner that most mainstream superhero readers aren't exactly used to. I hope they stick with it, because it is all going somewhere. And Cammo's art is always a spectacular thing to behold.

I hope it just has to do with the visuals then the content, I mean readers are already pre-conditioned to the "news-ticker" style with everything from the real news tickers, pop-up video, cut-away's in television shows to even just working on the computer or using the net and having multiple windows open. So long as you don't replace show for tell it should be fine.

Complaints I had heard had to do with the colour of the font set against the background colour making the text hard to read. If anything, I found the Jim Lee panels of art to be abrupt because they're so different from Cammo's art.

Yeah, the white lettering on the orange info scrolls was a misstep. We would've fixed it sooner, but what can I tell you? I tried to get it changed in time for issue #3, but I don't run the universe. Starting with issue #4, that'll no longer be an issue. And the jarring nature of the Cammo-to-Jim switches are actually meant to be jarring. The gag wouldn't work as well if it were any artist other than Jim.

While you may not be a John Waters stereotype, were there any characters in "The Intimates" you feel closely resembles yourself. Keep in mind, in reviewing the first issue I described Punchy as a creepy got-caught-masturbating story just waiting to happen.

If you can break down the characters according to "type," then I don't think any one of them are taken from my own teenage experience. But I certainly saw those types all around me. I wasn't interested in creating a catch-all, stand-in for the typical comic book reader. This ain't the fuckin' "O.C.," okay? I find that shit to be somewhat pandering, an easy way to ingratiate yourself to your intended audience. I want readers to be somewhat surprised - maybe even shocked, to some degree - if they find themselves identifying with any of the characters, because there are usually several layers of crap before you get to the "universal" aspects of these kids. I don't think anyone expected Punchy to be such a dickhead in issue #3. But that's all part of the journey of discovering a new series, I think.

Thus ends part one of the big freaking Joe Casey interview. Be sure to check out part two on Thursday morning for details and news on "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes," "Infantry," "Full Moon Fever," "Warhead," "Krash Bastards" and more. Including some exclusive preview art.

 
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