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A Short Interview With Joe Casey
posted December 4, 2005
 

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I've wanted to check in with writer Joe Casey for a while now, so when time opened in both of our schedules in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I leapt at the chance. I interviewed Joe Casey in 2003 for The Comics Journal, as kind of a wish fulfillment to interview a current writer of mostly mainstream superhero comics. I was struck by how honestly Casey engaged his various assignments, keeping in mind their role as disposable entertainment while struggling to find something of value to say through each vehicle.

Since that interview, Casey's settled into a pattern of work that reflects his desire to do independently-owned work and to play with the toys represented by the Marvel Comics of his youth. His Earth's Mightiest Heroes series, a take on the early Jack Kirby-drawn Avengers comic book, was a really straightforward fan's take on the early, primal Marvel characters. His portrayal of Iron Man was refreshingly free of "I'm an... alcoholic!" camp and I think touched on some issues of stepping away from something in order to let it breathe and survived, a way of looking at art that's probably the most sympathetic take on corporate-owned entertainment I can imagine, even if Casey didn't intend it that way.

His creator-owned work has run the indy comic gamut. In the film-option friendly werewolves on the moon romp Full Moon Fever, Casey gave readers extended action scenes and occasionally visceral horror. In The Intimates, Casey adopted various ornate narrative tools in order to depict the media saturated lives of its young protagonists. Finally, in GØDLAND, Casey and Tom Scioli are working through comics cosmic sagas in way that's way more immediate and direct than most comics that have a level of meta-commentary generally manage.

I hope to speak to Joe Casey whenever he feels like it. If you like this interview, please check out the GØDLAND site, and his once-weekly column with fellow writer Matt Fraction, The Basement Tapes.

TOM SPURGEON: Let's get the important issues out of the way first. Heidi MacDonald at Comicon.com's The Beat recently compared you to Don McGregor. As a student of 1970s mainstream comics writing, do you think this comparison is a good one? Is there someone you think is a closer comparison?

JOE CASEY: Heh... yeah, I read that. Good one, Heidi. It's funny, because McGregor was a bit before my time, so I never really read his stuff. I suppose I was kinda scratching my head on that one... I'm not even familiar with McGregor's creative attitude or whether or not he had some kinda rep as a troublemaker back in the day. I hope that's not what she was inferring, because I'm not out to cause trouble for anyone... especially me.

I honestly don't know if there is a comparison to be made with anyone, because a lot of the 70's writers who I would consider an influence were more formative influences, in that they were simply writing the comic books that I happened to be buying and reading as a young kid, rather than writers I sought out and followed and studied. It's like influence on a molecular level, y'know? As I've gotten older, I've certainly gone back and re-read these guys to see what it was I connected to so strongly as a kid. Writers like David Michelinie, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Jim Shooter, Archie Goodwin, Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas. I hesitate to think too deeply about how their work has informed mine, mainly because I don't want to mess around too much with the pure magic that those comic books instilled in me.

In other words... don't try to strip me of my innocence, Spurgeon...!

SPURGEON: If your innocence hasn't been beaten out of you at this point, I won't question it. How do you replicate that gut feeling on the page, though? Do you restrain yourself from over-analyzing what you do and try to follow certain creative impulses without second-guessing them?

CASEY: You know me, Tom... it's tough not to over-analyze. But I'm trying. I'm trying to live the life of an Artist in a Business-minded industry. It ain't easy. But it's a battle well worth fighting. I want this to be about the love of the job, love of the medium, love of writing, all that good stuff. It's about getting out of my own way and just creating for the sheer joy of it. If something I write can inspire that feeling in myself, then I guess I feel like I'm on the right track. And the bonus is when that can translate to the readers and the experience they're having when they read my work.

SPURGEON: When we talked for the Comics Journal interview, it seemed like you were heading into a period where you would be moving away from traditional big company superhero projects. But here we are, and you have any number of big-company projects planned. Is this you tending to your career? Where does this take you in terms of developing and refining your writing, the art of it?

CASEY: Tough question there, Tom. Mainly because I fully admit -- as I did in the Journal interview -- that Marvel in particular still has a few carrots they can dangle in front of my face that get me excited on a purely fan level. And they dangled them and I gladly took them. It definitely relates to the weird reconnection I've been experiencing lately to those 70's Marvels I first read as a kid. But the thing is... when Marvel puts out a TPB of Englehart's Avengers: Serpent Crown storyline and I compare it to modern Marvel superhero comic books, it's like night and day for me. I don't care if it dates me... I think the 70's comics were better on quite a few levels that have nothing to do with how far we've all advanced in our craft. So, from there, I get interested in seeing if I can somehow meld what I liked about those old comics with a modern sensibility, with my own voice. And I want to do it with those specific Marvel characters, because that's where it means the most. Right now, anyway...

In the context of my "career," it's really just another strand of it. I've got a really good relationship with Image Comics and a few other indy publishers so I've got all the opportunities I could ever want to put out creator-owned, original material. But doing that doesn't exclude doing the WFH stuff if I can have fun with it.

I mean, I understand that I'm an adult looking back on the things of his youth and asking himself, "What was really of value there? What can I still take from those things without either wallowing in shallow nostalgia or -- God forbid -- sacrificing my adulthood?" I think it's a question that'll probably haunt me forever...

SPURGEON: Can you narrow down what appeals to you there even a little bit? If it's not possible for you to describe your own work, can you describe the differences between Englehart's longer serials and what's generally on the stands now?

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CASEY: A lot of it certainly has to do with the state of the industry then and now. Back then, series could run for quite a while before the realities of how much they were selling would catch up to them. Even a dog of a series sometimes got two years to play itself out. Twenty-four issues seems like a lot, doesn't it? Because these days, you might get six issues before they fold up shop because it's not a blockbuster right out of the gate. The ironic thing is... knowing that we might only have six issues, we're still wasting space, padding stories, taking forever to make our point.

Back in the day, when Englehart was writing Dr. Strange, every issue was jam-packed with stuff. Even the longer serials like his Avengers or Captain America were just bursting with cool stuff. With ideas, with action, with characters. Those series never took anything for granted. They strove to entertain, to engage, to really involve a reader on every page, in every panel. Those writers of that era had some freedom to create, but pressure to deliver. I like that. These days, a lot of mainstream comic books -- superhero books, fer chrissakes -- just assume that readers are going to keep reading, and keep buying. It's incredibly arrogant on our parts to think we can get away with that. Luckily, DC in particular seems to be waking up to the fact that every single issue should be an event. Every single comic book should contain its own nuclear explosion -- figuratively speaking, of course. I guess, in my current Marvel work, I'm trying to do that...

SPURGEON: Can you talk a little bit about how The Intimates imploded? It seems to me like you became frustrated both with how a series like that one progresses within a company, but also that comics itself, or the mainstream iteration of comics, is really unable to connect with The Intimates' intended audience in any meaningful way.

CASEY: Well, y'know... I discussed that at length with Fraction in a Basement Tapes column. I've been told that I might've been a bit too harsh in some of the areas I dared to venture into when talking to him about the circumstances behind the "implosion" (good word, that one). At this point, having gotten that rant out of my system, I'm a lot more mellow about it.

I don't think I'm frustrated with how the series connected -- or didn't connect -- with whatever readership it had. Every series gets the size of readership it deserves. I'm thankful that the readers who got it... they really got it. Maybe I was just in some weird frame of mind where I cared way too much about a series that I would never be able to creatively control from top to bottom, because I didn't own it. That's simply a bit of naivete on my part, which I'm certainly not immune to from time to time. On the other hand... I kind of like that I can still be naive like that about my work, no matter what the ownership circumstances might be. And should any publisher or editor ever hold it against me that I care so much about my work, even if it puts them in a slightly negative light by comparison? Goddamn, I hope not. Because, on a purely creative level, we should all care as much as we're capable of. If we're not, then why bother doing it in the first place? If we're not willing to put our guts, our souls, our balls-to-the-wall passions into our work, do we have the right to ask anyone to pay for it? Not in my world.

Now... let us all join hands and sing...

SPURGEON: I read your Avengers series Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and it seems like the character you had a real feel for there was Iron Man. He was the real dad figure in that one, and you could even say the series was all about his decision to honor and value something which he created by stepping away from it when he was doing more harm than good. Where does that fit into your ongoing examination of maturity in your books, and was there a message there for comic book writers and artists and their creations?

CASEY: I think it's a very mature decision to not hold onto things too tightly... to know when to let go. To have that wider perspective and understand how an action -- even if it doesn't benefit you personally -- can affect a greater good. I don't think that's too heavy-handed a sentiment to place on superhero characters, do you? Iron Man leaving the team was, in a sense, an act of self-sacrifice. That's what superheroes do. They sacrifice. That's what parents do for their children. That's what real friends do for each other. If, for no other reason but my own affection for the characters, I was able to imprint some form of deeper emotional connections between the Avengers' cast by putting the spotlight on acts like that and exploring the motivations behind them, then I did what I set out to do.

Of course, if I take the broader view of your question, I'm not sure if you're suggesting that all the shit I've created over the years would be better off without me... but you certainly wouldn't be the first one.

SPURGEON: I wasn't directly applying it to you, but I think it's an underlying, sometimes unstated argument about mainstream comics, that they're somehow better off for having had multiple cooks, or, to be more specific, that the Daredevil property is better off for having been around to be claimed by Frank Miller than if it had ended when Wally Wood left the book or whatever.

I mean, you and I both value singular artistic voices, I think, so it was curious for me to see this message coming across in
EMH.

CASEY: I think both Daredevil and the Avengers are good examples of the fact that -- in their original, Stan Lee-written incarnations -- they were not at their peak, creatively or artistically. Look, they can't all be gems right out of the gate, but obviously when the right creator gets their hands on the right property, there can be some alchemy there.

If I can allow myself the internal contradiction, I guess I can make the distinction between what's implied whenever any creator steps onto a Marvel or DC book, and when that creator heads over to Image or wherever to do his or her own thing. Different sets of creative values, but if you want to make a living in the mainstream, you'd better reconcile them fast.

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SPURGEON: Let me do another content question. The sequel to EMH is going to be set in the Roy Thomas/John Buscema era of Marvel's Avengers series. What was Roy doing on that title that you find interesting and want to dig into?

CASEY: Well, in retrospect I realize he was operating under certain editorial restrictions laid on him by Stan Lee. Roy wanted the iconic characters in there -- Captain America, Iron Man, Thor -- but Stan wouldn't allow it. But, as we both know, necessity is the mother of invention, so instead of trying to recreate the JSA comic books he'd read as a kid, Roy had to dig a little deeper and put these characters through their paces. It ended up being a different kind of soap opera than what Stan was doing in, say, Spider-Man or the FF. It's hard to say exactly what it was... but with Buscema's artwork, it just seemed a bit more human to me. It was like a very refined Lee-Kirby riff. For me, they were the first writer/artist team to actively build on the Marvel style and find new areas to explore.

I know that's not answering your question very well... but with EMH2, we're not trying to recreate anything. I just have such affection for those particular characters... Hawkeye, the Vision, the Black Panther, Hank Pym, etc... and I feel like Roy was writing them in their purest forms. That's mainly what I want to get back to, and give readers a story that showcases these characters in their prime.

SPURGEON: But what creative value does that have, Joe? If Roy and John are creating this really smart riff, I can understand if you want to bring something out in that riff, or honor that riff with one of your own. But if you're just living in Roy the Boy land for a while, that may be great for you, but why shouldn't a reader just buy those comics in some collected form? I used to own those when I was a teen; they're pretty solid books.

CASEY: You might have me on that one, Tom. I can't claim there's any great Artistic -- with a capital "A", mind you -- aspirations to a series like EMH2 (aside from doing it well, hopefully). It's an Avengers mini-series written by an Avengers fan for other Avengers fans to read and enjoy. Personally, I think there's at least some social value to that. When I was a kid, my love for that book wasn't something I could really share with anyone because I was the only one I knew who felt that way. Now, with the internet and my good fortune to be able to write these two mini-series, I can finally connect with other Avengers fans in a really focused way... a way I could've only dreamed of as a kid. Web sites like www.avengersforever.org... I mean, this is something that I would've killed for when I was seven years old.

SPURGEON: GØDLAND... is there anything that's surprised you about the effects on your own voice working in the cosmic mode? Are there any muscles you're flexing that you haven't flexed before?

CASEY: I'm really enjoying the improvisational aspects of writing the book. Tom Scioli and I work in the old Marvel method. I write a plot, he draws it, I go back in and add the dialogue. It's been really fun. Obviously, it's not a method of creating comics that would work with just any artist. With Tom, it just seems to sing for both of us. I don't know if I've got the proper perspective on it yet that I could tell you in what manner my "voice" works through this particular series. I do think, as a writer in general, I've pretty much found a voice that I'm comfortable with... so these days (and this applies to other work besides GØDLAND), it's about exploring that voice and discovering the different dimensions it might -- or might not -- contain.

Whew! Pretentious enough for ya'...?

SPURGEON: While I think it's easy to see how the cosmic superhero epic fit the zeitgeist of the 1960s, how do you think it fits into the time we live in right now? There's almost a media presence in the way you express the otherworldly in GØDLAND.

CASEY: Anything like that is purely instinctual. I honestly can't imagine GØDLAND being a grand statement on anything nor is it an attempt to tap into some new, 21st Century zeitgeist (even though, since we started working on GØDLAND early last year, we've seen a lot of publishers talking about a return to "cosmic" stories... I guess good ideas are claimed by many parents). I think it might fit in with the current social climate in the way that any pure escapism does. When things in the world suck or get overly dark and depressing, the Unrealistically Fantastic can hold a lot of appeal. Anything to help us forget who our President is right now (to give but one example). I think there's a surface simplicity to what we're doing that may provide that for our readers. There are certainly deeper ideas involved, too, but readers seem to be having so much pure fun with the book so far that I'd hate to start spoiling things by getting all intellectual on them now...

... although, in issue #8, we do explain the true origin of the Universe.

SPURGEON: I've noticed some of your overt attempts to draw attention to GØDLAND on-line. What's worked and what hasn't. What different about the comics Internet right now and when your started finding a voice on-line?

CASEY: The fan site at www.godlandonline.com is the blood, sweat and tears of Michael Murphy. It's probably one of the best sites devoted to a particular series that I've ever seen, which is why I agreed to contribute to it whenever I can. Plus it gives me a legitimate excuse to wax on about some other cool comic books that inspired GØDLAND in the first place.

Aside from the occasional bit of PR and the column at CBR, when it comes down to actually posting on message boards, I'm still of the mindset that, for the most part, professionals should stay off the internet as much as possible. Look, but don't touch. Creators who have their own personal message boards... I guess it's cool for them, but for me, I like fandom when it's purely fans buying the books and talking amongst themselves about it without being placed under the microscope. It's like the scientific POV where the mere act of observing something often irrevocably changes it. I feel the same way if pros interact too closely with the fans online, despite what I said about the Avengers website, which I have posted on (so sue me... I'm nothing if not contradictory). But fundamentally, it's already a skewed relationship, since these are people you want to buy your work. If they're thinking that they're your pals, well... that's not the relationship I had with creators I read when I was a fan, and I was just fine with that. And, most of all, I want readers to feel the freedom to express themselves without thinking they have to play politics (one way or another) because there are pros around, ready to pounce. And, ironically, I think our presence online promotes as much asshole behavior from posters as it does anything else.

So, to answer your qustion... a voice online? My work is my voice.

SPURGEON: The fascinating thing about your discussions with Matt Fraction is that you seem to swing back and forth between a kind of stylized patter about being creators working in comics and these occasional jeremiads. Is it hard to find that balance between that column's responsibility to dispense with the truth and have it be a marketing forum to keep people apprised of your various projects?

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CASEY: Honestly, the balance occurs because the column is unashamedly both of those things. Any comic book pro with a column who claims it's not inherently a platform to promote themselves and their work is one lying motherfucker.

It's hard to have honest friends in this business and I'm lucky enough to have a few that I consider genuine. Fellow writers that I talk to pretty regularly about all kinds of shit. Occasionally, we talk about actual writing but probably not enough for my obsessive tastes, so I felt like Fraction and I in particular were both alike enough and different enough to provide some sort of entertainment in our discussions, whatever form they may take. And, as you well know, even talking about your own work (even if it comes across as pure promotion) can in some ways illuminate that work. For instance, when I talk to Fraction about his upcoming Image book, Casanova, I'd like to think I'm challenging him on things he hadn't yet thought about... and by forcing him to think about them, he'll stumble upon ways to make the book even better. It's a public service, really...

And "truth" is subjective. Whatever we're dispensing... it's really our own myopic view of things (as opinions invariably are). We're certainly not out to convince anyone of anything, and I really hope our personalities don't always get in the way of what I feel is some genuine discussions about craft, the industry, creativity and creative integrity, etc...

SPURGEON: You wrote recently about rediscovering and inventing narrative tools to use on the comics page? What is it about mainstream comics that you think makes certain tools kind of fade out of fashion?

CASEY: Nothing but the herd mentality. When techniques somehow fall out of favor or a new one becomes the new, cool thing... others jump on the bandwagon like their shit was on fire. People might not understand how deep the desperation goes in this industry. We're all racked with insecurities about whether or not the industry will turn away from us and the work will dry up and we'll all have to go back to college and get our degrees or finally take that substitue teaching job. Okay, some more than others, but we're creators on the edge, Tom. Today's Wizard Top Ten creators are tomorrow's comic book has-beens. That's the nature of the business, and I suppose it doesn't often promote independent thought or much visionary thinking. So, every so often a brave soul abandons a certain narrative tool or brings one back or, even more rare, invents one. Well, it's like ringing the dinner bell for a nation of starving dogs. I guess I do my best to ignore those dinner bells and just write in a way that makes me feel all warm and special inside.

SPURGEON: What is the reward for you these days, specifically, and how has it changed? I get a sense talking to you that it's more personal, but I'm not sure I can figure out in what way the rewards are more personal now.

CASEY: Well, let's see... I've been in love with this art form for all of my life, so it's hard to believe that anything is going to get in the way of that personal connection. What's changed is that I thought at one point that the industry was the point. The machinations, the politics, the ladder climbing... those things were way too important to me when I was starting out, because I felt I had to master those things to be a "success". But what I've learned about myself is that I don't want to measure success in those terms. To create work that I'm proud of, that I'd buy if I weren't writing it, that represents my specific artistic voice... the satisfaction of bringing my ideas to life... teaming up with creative collaborators whose work I respect and admire... those are the true rewards for any artist, aren't they...?

Related to that I guess would be the idea that I've cultivated these skills over time, I've refined them, hopefully gotten better at this art form... It can still be a bitch to write a good comic book, so that challenge can be its own reward, as well. And I'm just one of those people that believe that it's the hard-won skills that sustain over time. And with comic book writing, I still enjoy that constant challenge to raise my own game. I probably always will.

SPURGEON: I hate to put you on the spot as speaking for the entire mainstream, but I don't get a chance to talk to too many creators in your position. Drawing on your own experience and what you're seeing, is there a qualitative difference between working for each of the Big Two right now or are those kind of differences in approach more a figment of the fan's imagination and/or marketing people?

CASEY: I think there is a difference right now... because what I'm seeing from both Marvel and DC demonstrates very different philosophies in terms of what makes a successful superhero comic book. DC's is pretty obvious. Marvel's... not so much. But I only look at that particular situation with mild interest, really. I'm writing a lot of stuff for Marvel so if I feel they're missing anything -- and that would be completely my own opinion -- then I'm in a position at the moment to try and provide it. Other than that, I'll leave it to much more qualified pundits than me... like you and Heidi, the new gold standards of comic book culture-and-news blogging.

Actually, I do think the fans who pay attention to the industry are more savvy than even they realize. When they try to speculate on any one individual's personal agenda, they're usually way off the mark but in terms of the way the Big Two market themselves and how they put themselves out there... they tend to be pretty right on.

SPURGEON: When I saw you this summer at the San Diego Image panel, it occurred to me that despite their low numbers Image had an advantage in being able to offer a deal without any claim to cross-media or licensing rights. Is that appealing about working with Image? What kind of range of deals for that end of a property's business are out there right now, and how do you negotiate through it? Is retaining those rights important to you? What's your sense of how important it is in general?

CASEY: Image has the best deal in the industry. Period. I don't care what Vertigo can promise you in terms of promotional support from the Time Warner juggernaut, there's nothing that compares with one hundred percent creator ownership. Nothing. Tom and I have all sorts of options in terms of where we can take GØDLAND and it's completely up to the two of us to make those decisions.

Granted, it's all a bit academic in terms of other media, because GØDLAND is meant to be a comic book and if that's all it ever is, that's just fine with us. Comic books created specifically to serve as multi-media pitches is a phenomenon that makes my teeth bleed. In fact, I just saw an ad in a screenwriting magazine that was basically selling some group of comic book artists to the Hollywood community to turn screenplays into graphic novels. I couldn't believe it. Where's the purity, Tom? Have we all become such pirates?

I need to lie down...

SPURGEON: Are you treated better now as a pro than you were three years ago?

CASEY: Well, I haven't made enough Fuck You Money to really affect the kind of change in how I'm treated that I've always dreamed about, where everyone kisses my ass and makes every creative whim I might have into a reality...

But, in all seriousness, I tend to concentrate more on how I treat other people, pros and fans alike. Hopefully, I'm doing that better than I did three years ago. There's always room for change...

SPURGEON: What would need to change for a mainstream comic book, from superheroes to werewolves, to really connect with an audience in the way that superhero comics connected with older kids in the 1960s or the way manga does now with some kids? Do you ever worry that you're going to write something that would totally work on every level but it won't find its way to people? Can comics still be a popular art?

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CASEY: You might have me stumped on that one. I'm not the kind of creator who thinks too seriously about trends and what's going to be the Next Big Thing in comic books. Oh, I can pontificate with the best of 'em (as you've undoubtedly seen from my other answers), but it's not something I apply to my own work. If anything, I look at what's popular and do the exact opposite of that. And I've got the sales to prove it...!

I've got my gripes about the current delivery system, the Direct Market, whatever. I'm sure everybody does. I don't like that publishers are fighting for what are essentially scraps on the dinner table. So much emphasis gets placed on what things are selling, how much things are selling... that it becomes the story. Not what's inside the comics, but how many units were ordered. In a perfect world, everyone would be buying comics the way everyone watches TV, and so the story becomes about what's good and what's not because that ridiculous pressure to "break through" has been somehow alleviated.

Then again, I see articles all the time about TV viewership being down and domestic box office receipts being lower than last year, so I guess it's just the Great American Sport. Watching the numbers and keeping score.

Someone once compared the comic book medium to jazz or poetry. Both are fairly niche art forms now, but I don't think anyone believes that jazz music or poetry is going away anytime soon. If that's our lot in ife, then so be it. Let's just accept it and concentrate more on content -- making good comics -- rather than testing the glass ceiling of the Direct Market with the latest gimmicks (be it variant covers, shock value deaths or outside media writers). I mean, is that really something to be proud of? "I sold a shitload of (insert name of inherently meaningless product here)." Okay, great. Congratulations. Eight track players and pet rocks sold by the truckloads once, too.