It's been a bit of a wait for the final issue, but in November of this year, Joe Casey and Tom Scioli's "Gødland" is coming to an end with the 72-page "Gødland Finale." If you haven't been reading the Image Comics series over the past eight years, you've missed out on one of the most aesthetically and conceptually ambitious comics available. What began as something that looked a lot like a Jack Kirby parody soon revealed itself to be a transformative version of the very thing it was parodying, without ever losing its Kirby-esque spectacle.
In an age when superhero comics increasingly began to look and feel like bland Hollywood movies, "Gødland" has shown that the artificial constraints of "realism" or "drawings of actors in costumes" or "writing for the collection" are papier-mâché idols that can be smashed with cosmic glowing fists or glorious beings from another galaxy. "Gødland" doesn't waste your time with simple, trite melodrama when grand, epic, transcendent melodrama is a feast best served with a Tom Scioli polish.
But while the series may be forever linked in the minds of readers with Scioli's unmistakable visuals, "Gødland" is also one of the Joe Casey-est comics the writer has ever written. It's clearly a personal and important work, even though the bombast of the series may make everything seem a bit farcical; there may be elements of farce in "Gødland," but that doesn't mean the series itself is a joke. It's, as Joe Casey puts it, "comicbooks." And only in comicbooks could something like "Gødland" exist.
I talked to Joe Casey about the series and about what's coming in the finale.
Tim Callahan: The comic launched in 2005. It was a different time in the industry back then. Or was it? Talk us through the context in which "Gødland" came to be.
Joe Casey: Was it that long ago? Holy shit -- eight years. To my mind, "Gødland" started the moment when Erik Larsen became publisher at Image Comics. I thought it was significant that he held that position and I sent him a congratulatory e-mail. From there, the discussion turned to what I could be doing at Image. I hadn't done a book there since the Codeflesh feature in the ill-fated "Double Image" book from 2001. I didn't have much of an idea for a series or, more importantly, an artist to collaborate with. Larsen pointed me in Tom Scioli's direction (who's work I already knew from "Myth of 8-Opus"). When Tom and I started talking, the type of book we both wanted to do was pretty apparent. And, when I look back, we've stayed pretty true to our original intent all the way through.
It was definitely a different industry back then, especially at Image. I would say that, in the hangover from NuMarvel, the experimentation happening at Wildstorm and the imminent return of Big Two event books, doing a creator-owned book at Image wasn't exactly fashionable at the time (even though it was -- and remains -- the best deal in the industry for creators). Sales of most Image books were kinda flat. Not a whole lot seemed to be popping there (although my addled brain could be remembering things differently than they actually were). I think Warren Ellis was just launching "Fell" around that time, experimenting with the $1.99 model. Even something like The Walking Dead might've been considered a "solid seller," but I don't recall its numbers at that time being particularly spectacular, especially compared to now. But, for me, that particular atmosphere has always been the optimal situation to create comicbooks in. There's a lot of freedom to be had when no one's paying attention, and we took full advantage.
Early on -- maybe upon fully-formed conception or maybe after you were into it for a few months -- how much of the comic was an experiment in form and how much was an experiment in content? Is it even possible to distinguish between the two in this case?
It's possible, sure. But I would say it was definitely two separate tracks in my mind, both of them moving simultaneously. Going into "Gødland," we knew, from top to bottom, that this was a "cosmic superhero epic," which to me is a genre classification all its own. Looking back, I don't think there were a lot of dyed-in-the-wool "cosmic" comicbooks happening in the marketplace when we started. So I guess we had that going for us. But it's one of those things that comics do extremely well, if you have the right idea and the right artist. And there was no better artist for this than Scioli. I was personally excited by the prospect of collaborating with someone that could draw anything (or, at least, was willing to entertain the notion of drawing anything). Early on, some of the creative experiments were about giving him things to draw that he never would've thought of on his own, like the courtroom scenes in issue #6. The experiments in form came from the way we made the comic, in that old school "Marvel method," where we'd discuss overall story points and create the characters, I would plot, Scioli would draw pages and I would dialogue them after the fact. It allowed me to cultivate what I termed an "improvisational" style of writing that I've utilized in my work pretty much ever since.
How tightly did you plot each issue of "Gødland?"
It always varied, depending on the issue or the ideas involved. Sometimes I might have more of a handle on how a certain scene should play out, so I'd plot it more tightly. Other times I'd leave it more open and just give Tom the nudge he needs to take it to the mountain (which he almost always did). If a line of dialogue occurred to me during that plotting stage, I'd throw it in at the plot stage -- mostly to remind myself of it later when I was doing the final script. But I'd do as little of that as possible, because I wanted to come to the art with the freshest eyes, as though it were a clean slate. That's what made it fun for me.
It's funny -- when we first started "Gødland," it was right in the middle of the "writer-driven" era of mainstream comicbooks (an era in which my career benefited greatly, no doubt about it). So to make comicbooks in the old Marvel style was completely at odds with the process trends of the time. Since then, quite a few writers (and editors) who've emerged in the past decade have come out in favor of this method. I love when they talk about it like they've actually discovered something brand new -- or that it's now somehow "okay" to work this way and even using it as some kind of marketing hook. Sorry, guys, but it was always there in the toolbox.
What surprised you as you worked to create those early issues? What new ideas popped up that you didn't expect?
The first thing that surprised me, to be perfectly honest, was how good it felt to work this way. How comfortable it was. I can't do it with every artist, and some work situations demand that I go in full script, but with "Gødland," from the very beginning, there was just a vibe to what we were doing and how we were doing it. It all just came together like it was meant to be. That first year of the book, most of those characters were thought of by Scioli and I in our initial brainstorming sessions. So it was just a case of bouncing them off each other in different ways. I think Year Two was about taking everything we'd set up in #1-12, the relationships and the world itself, and pushing it all into a much darker place, upping the stakes and going deeper into the characters -- maybe much deeper in some cases than you'd expect from a comic in this genre, I dunno. Issues #25 up to #36 was, I think, an attempt to reconnect with that initial energy we brought to the early issues, but with more perspective, a greater command of craft -- and, on top of that, a much higher expectation of ourselves as creators. Maybe that's why the last batch of issues took so long to come out.
The middle 12 issues of the series seem headed in a different direction, at least visually. Scioli seems to try to break out of the Kirby pastiche and go with something more idiosyncratic or a bit more raw for a while there, but then he amps up the Kirbyesque spectacle in the final 12 issues. What were your discussions like during that middle period? Were you trying something different or was Scioli just experimenting with his style at that time? Was public reception or critical attention a factor at all?
Well, I always told Scioli, "It's our book. We own it. If we want to go off on different creative explorations, we absolutely have that freedom." And I think that was part of it. So as much as I personally missed the stronger Kirby influence -- mainly because I feel like he's so goddamn good at it and it gave the book a distinct identity that a lot of readers really loved -- I would always stand behind his personal stylistic choices, whatever they may be. And he had his own, personal reasons for going in those directions, but I was always willing to go on the ride with him. That's what it means to be a true, supportive collaborator. And those artistic experiments have continued to this day. As long as we were still telling the stories, that's what mattered most.
Let's talk a bit about your authorial voice in "Gødland," from a dialogue point-of-view. Instead of going with straight Stan Lee parody or Kirby verbal bombast, you have a kind of heightened reality-show-meets-pop-culture-allusion tonality going on. Or at least that's what I pick up from it. What's the "voice" of the language in "Gødland" and how does it differ from the other comics work you've done?
That came from the improvisational nature of the book. It wasn't parody or even an evocation of Kirby's style of writing. I genuinely felt an incredible freedom coming to those pages, and from the first issue I decided I'd just let it fly and see just how loose I could get with it. As it turned out, I could get pretty damned loose with it. But, for me, that just added to the energy of the book. And, of course, at some point, the characters take over. Their voices are right there, I'm hearing them pretty clearly. And, to a degree, those voices started dictating the story. It was the way I was playing Nickelhead in dialogue that led to the idea of him running the Standard and forming the first Super-Villain Congress. The villains in general became the surreal comic relief, and sometimes even a Greek chorus to the bigger Adam storyline. They didn't start out that way, but writing their dialogue from their first appearances set a certain tone.
I'm not sure how it differs from the work I've done since I started "Gødland," because it's absolutely influenced everything I've done after it.
The cast of villains in "Gødland" is particularly absurd and compelling, and we'll have to talk about those lovable weirdos in a minute, but I'm curious about the character of Crashman. He's a Captain America type without being an obvious patriotic analogue, and while he's not quite at the center of the series, he plays an important role -- or seems to be positioned as an important character -- in the first year or two of the book's existence. Where did Crashman come from and what did you want to explore with that character?
Crashman came from a few sources, aside from the "patriotic hero" mold that several characters have fit into over the decades. He was a counterpoint to Adam Archer, while still being a protagonist. Where Adam was met with suspicion and fear, Crashman was embraced and loved. I also liked the idea of a pre-fab superhero, one that was marketed and focus tested for maximum affection from the public. That's what made him so ridiculous. And then what we ended up doing to him seemed very fitting to me, aside from the obvious shock value of it all (which we're not above, I might add). All part of the theme of evolution, I guess.
What about Adam Archer? Is he just the quintessential cosmic unfolding? The naive human who becomes aware of something greater? His name and origin has a Charlton Captain Atom quality, but his experiences and actions evoke something more cosmic. He's at the center of almost everything in the series, but he doesn't really seem like the protagonist. How do you view Adam Archer and did he develop the way you and Scioli had originally imagined or did he become something different than you had planned?
From a macro-story/allegorical point of view, Adam Archer is us. His evolution is our evolution, humanity's evolution. And, yeah, he not an "everyman.".. he's special from the moment you meet him in issue #1. But then we're all special, aren't we? That made more sense to me as an audience identifier. If "Gødland" is the kind of comic you're into, then you're not normal (that's a compliment, by the way). So to have Adam as just a normal guy didn't make sense to me. He's got unique abilities, he's got some psychological damage, he's got loads of personal issues -- I think that describes a lot of people, y'know? So, taking that character as a surrogate for all of us -- we could show a particular type of human evolution -- an emotional one -- the kind that I can personally relate to.
Maybe this relates to the theme of evolution as well, but would you say "Gødland" has a psychological schema as part of its structure? You've certainly played around with some Freudian aspects with some of the characters -- I mean, you have Ed, Eeg-Oh, and Supra as Kirby-esque space gods -- and there's the whole strange case of Basil Cronus and Discordia. I guess my question is: How do you map the psychology of the series, or is it all part of the improvisational act of creation? And if the latter is true, what draws you back to the Freudianisms so often?
Hell, I'd like to think the psychology of the characters is a part of everything I do. It's where the real meat of the work is for me, even when it's not right up front for the readers. But it's really where you find all the drama and I hope it's part of what people might remember about the series overall. I guess the way they come about is part of the initial inspiration for the characters. Sometimes there are certain emotional dynamics I want to play out -- often things I feel like I haven't seen in other comicbooks before -- and so I set up the necessary character relationships in order to play them out properly (and interestingly, I hope). And I'm sure I get some sort of weird kick out of grafting these dynamics -- especially the deeper, more subtle ones -- onto the more outrageous characters, like Basil or Neela Archer or the Tormentor or Discordia or even Kadeem Hardison (can I get an "amen" from the Dwayne Wayne Fan Club?).
What about those villains? They aren't even really villains in a traditional sense, though they may plan vile deeds. How do you balance their appearances in the series and keep them from overtaking the narrative. They are, for the most part, more interesting than Adam Archer, mostly because Archer has the straight man role and the villains can be as crazy as you and Tom can imagine. How did you maintain the through-line of Archer's development without saying, "Let's just go follow Discordia or Friedrich Nickelhead for a half dozen issues?"
In my creator-owned books, I really just think of the "villains" as characters. There's not a lot of morality at work, once I really get into them. On top of that, as I've often pointed out over the years -- the title of the series is "Gødland," not "Adam Archer." This is a series that tries to present a complete universe and, ultimately, it's always been an ensemble piece. So, to be honest, yeah -- there were occasions where I didn't feel like I had to maintain Adam's story each and every issue -- although, looking back, I guess I did, for the most part. But it wasn't because I felt any kind of pressure to do it. And, seriously, there are elements to the villain characters that fall right in line with the evolutionary theme of Adam Archer's character -- the self-awareness that finally comes to Nickelhead, especially. Not to mention Neela's acts of independence and the various choices she ultimately makes. Okay, Basil's "evolution" is a bit murky in places, but I feel like it's all there if you really look for it. Not that I'm asking anyone to -- whatever they get out of reading the series is their personal business. But, to answer your question -- as a writer, I'm ultimately not opposed to anything "overtaking the narrative" if it makes for good comics.
The finale of the series is written, scheduled for a fall release. I know part of the delay was your own struggle with delivering on the promise of the series, after throwing so many cosmic and absurd balls into the air, and needing to end the series in a way that made it all mean -- something. Ultimately, did you approach the finale differently? How did you get past all of your self-imposed concerns and fears and produce something you're happy with? How did you do all that while still keeping that improvisational, balls-to-the wall "Gødland" tone we've seen since the beginning?
Well, there were two distinct parts to actually finishing off the series in the way we felt was deserving of the work we put into it. First came issue #36, which we released last year. That mega-issue specifically tied up a lot of the more plot-related balls that we'd thrown in the air. It gave some closure to the whole R@Dur-Rezz/Neela plot and the possible entropy-based destruction-of-the-universe story thread that we'd been building, and in Adam's solution to that situation, it pointed us in a direction in which the finale issue could be something decidedly different. I wanted one last blast of real storytelling experimentation in this series, so the finale jumps one hundred years ahead, and finally deals head-on with certain conceptual ideas that were introduced way back in issue #1. Some of those ideas admittedly got sidetracked by the actual plot of the series and the tangents we explored (as entertaining as they were). But they were always there, bubbling just underneath the surface of things. So there's a specific reason why this is branded a finale issue and not simply issue #37. I needed that narrative line in the sand, so to speak, to "evolve" the series into something that spoke to me as a creator in 2013 (as opposed to the 2005 model Joe who co-created the book with 2005 model Tom).
To that end, I've always been fascinated by Stanley Kubrick's "non-submersible unit" theory of filmmaking and I wanted to see if we could play that out in a single comicbook. It eschews the notion of a more straightforward, linear plot progression and, instead, provides a series of scenes, concepts or ideas -- and how those things balance each other out and how they connect to each other within the work leads you to have a certain kind of storytelling experience. Maybe a different kind of experience than you're used to. Sometimes the connections between these scenes and/or concepts are not readily apparent or even obvious, but if the final experience ends up being a worthwhile one -- and I realize that's a big "if" -- then the reader has to admit that it all added up to -- something. It definitely challenges the idea of what a "story" is -- and certainly a lot of the readership that my work probably draws from has been trained for years (if not decades) to accept a story only if it's delivered to them in a certain fashion -- but this finale issue seemed to be the right place to try and make that leap into something that leans more toward the non-narrative side of fiction.
As I understand the "non-submersible unit" idea, that's all about presenting scenes that are interesting in-and-of-themselves and letting those scenes, connected by narrative or not, carry the sense of the story. And I can see how you'd want to explore that technique -- it actually aligns more closely with approaches to poetry rather than prose, and comics have a lyrical, imagist quality that I think places the best comics in the realm of poetry no matter how prosaic comic book readers want their stories to be. But how do you take that approach in one issue at the end of a massive, thirty-seven issue story? How do you switch up the strategy like that at the end? How do you think it will go over with your audience?
I think the poetry analogy might be particularly apt, and not just because that approach seemed to be the way to go in dealing with these concepts and themes. The proverbial Big Questions. Just to be clear, it doesn't go so far into the dreaded George Lucas/"tone poem"-territory (ugh), but there's a certain vibe to it that hasn't felt like any comicbook I've ever written. It's definitely more lyrical, and you could argue that the non-submersible unit idea is very stanza-oriented, to a certain degree. In any case, it feels like there's a lot of uncharted territory here.
In terms of how it relates to the previous 36 issues, it's very much a coda. And, honestly, this was the strategy all along. I always knew the final issue -- wherever it ended up falling -- was going to be something distinct from the main body of the story. From a process standpoint, it's the kind of thing that gets me off doing comicbooks, and I'd like to think that the energy I'm feeling translates to the work itself and then to the readers. It's packed with a lot of cool shit that readers have never seen Scioli attempt, artistically. There are new characters and old characters alike, some of which have gone through drastic changes. The best part about it, for me, is that we found a way to illuminate the theme of Art-as-Transcendence as a major component of the story itself, which is what the entire creation of the series was about to begin with. And the last page -- holy shit, it really sums up the whole thing, the entire Gødland Experience™ in one blast.
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.