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CR Sunday Interview: Checking In With The Comics Writer Joe Casey
posted June 19, 2010

imageIt's our hope that we can run a lot more interviews at CR, including some with recurring interview subjects -- folks with whom we'll check back in given an opportunity or story hook. Interviewing a person a couple of times a year instead of one time and then never again allows for a different perspective on various issues, one we've been sorely lacking.

I've been sort of talking to the writer Joe Casey since 2003 this way already, and when I saw a recent interview of his at Comic Book Resources, I thought it raised some interesting questions about a mainstream creator's relationship to the work as it's presented on the market. -- Tom Spurgeon

TOM SPURGEON: Joe, you did an interview in support of a story you did for DC's Superman/Batman title. Some curious issues were raised in that interview. Let me see if I have straight what kind of set you off: you're writing this run on Superman/Batman and that it's being sold as a title much more directly relating to a 2001 crossover called "Our Worlds At War" than you intended for it to be while writing it. Walk me through this stuff, if you can; this is foreign territory for me.

JOE CASEY: It's certainly not up to me to delve into the editorial thinking up at DC. They do what they do and more power to them. It started simply enough: I was hired to write the book for this arc and possible future ones. I love the characters, I was stoked, it was a good time. It was suggested that the new approach to this book would be -- since it's somehow (and inexplicably) forbidden for it to exist in or even reflect current DC continuity -- tying in to past "events" and showing, I dunno, untold stories relating to those events. I wasn't completely thrilled, but I'm generally a get-along guy when it comes to WFH and figured I could fulfill the mandate while still telling a story that could stand on its own. An evergreen story, as they say.

So, that's what I did. I was vague about specifics, so readers who weren't familiar with the "Our Worlds At War" event wouldn't be lost. A modern writer's trick, basically, serving two masters... the Continuity Buff and the Casual Reader. Anyway, I thought I'd struck the right balance in the story. The mild surprise came when the printed book hit the stands, and this "Our Worlds At War Aftermath" banner was splashed across the top of the cover. I had no idea they were going that far in the branding of it, and it puts an onus on the story inside that, frankly, isn't there.

imageSPURGEON: Am I right in that your objection seems to be that it's kind of insane to sell a comic as a an extension on a nine-year-old crossover, and doubly so if that's not really how the story functions?

CASEY: Well, the "banner branding" is par for the course at both big publishers these days, whether it's "Blackest Night" or "Siege" or "Dark Reign"... but in this case I don't think enough time has passed for that particular story to be pushed from a nostalgic, marketing angle. Had it been more under the radar -- in other words, sans banner -- I think it would've been fine. Now, that's just one man's opinion... but I just went through this on the "Final Crisis: Aftermath" book I wrote last year.

DC did four of those mini-series, and despite all of them being pretty good (in my opinion), they didn't sell. And it was the way they didn't sell that wasn't simply indicative of content or the creatives involved. Was that because of the branding? We'll never know. At the end of the day, I don't "object" as much as I look at it and feel like certain retailers, certain readers are going to be turned off from even sampling what I think (I hope, heh) is a pretty fun story because the branding is such a turn off. Obviously, DC can sell their books whichever way they choose, and with the "Blackest Night" books they've done a pretty good job of it... but when it's also something that I've worked hard on, something that's got my name on it and something I can get tagged for, I'm going to have an opinion, especially when asked. I was asked, I answered.

SPURGEON: An excerpted answer from your CBR interview that didn't make the final piece somehow ended up on Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool. In it you assert retailers are now facing a challenge to sell a book with a nine-year-old banner on the cover...

CASEY: Well, that was a bit of snark in the heat of the moment, I'll fully admit. But that doesn't mean I don't think it's true. It would certainly suck if sales on the book trend downward -- more than normal in this market -- over the course of this story, based on the branding alone. Now, I'll take on the responsibility if the story I wrote is shit, but that's not exactly what retailers have to go on, in terms of how to pre-order a book.

My company now publishes books through Image, we've got the MOA bullet on everything we do, so I think I have at least some perspective on marketing and selling books. And, for chrissakes, here's a book that teams up two of the greatest icons in popular culture and it's not selling much as it is... it's just a shame that we live in a world where a book like this doesn't sell to the masses on concept alone. Hey, maybe all this shit stirring will give the Superman/Batman book some much-needed press... it sure as hell needs it.

SPURGEON: Let me access some of the marketing knowledge you've picked up over the years. Other than the specific corrective we're talking about -- the labeling -- do you feel there's a general way to market something like this comic or the Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance that you that comics misses out on? Do you feel similarly frustrated by things like the state of the retail infrastructure -- the number of stores and the geographical coverage they provide?

CASEY: Well, the Direct Market and how to properly work it will never be an exact science. Once you accept that, you're well on your way to a healthier, happier life. It's still the wild, wild west out there. And it's not always a matter of knowing what works... that's a crap shoot. It's more about knowing what doesn't work and avoiding repeat mistakes. Marketing trends in comics are rarely ahead of the curve... it's usually a situation where an approach gets driven into the ground to the point where it's painfully obvious that it's no longer effective.

I can tell you one thing... I don't promote my creator-owned work until it's pretty much written and done. That way, I know what the fuck I'm talking about when I talk about it. At the very least, retailers are clear on what I'm selling. The promotion is based on actual content, not wishful thinking on what you hope it might be. But when you're willing to brand or label something before it's written or drawn, before you even know what it is and then try to shove it down the retail community's throat... well, that's a problem. Maybe it's just me...

SPURGEON: Before we get too far away from it, I have to ask: do you suspect that that excerpt wasn't included because it was more controversial than usual?

CASEY: Oh, I wouldn't think so. I know the guys at CBR pretty well and there's a degree of trust there but the thing is... when I'm willing to go on the record with something, it's because I want it out there. And if there's an objection to anything that I've said -- from either CBR or even DC, on any grounds -- I'd prefer to be notified beforehand, not simply edited without my knowledge. Even in the instances where I'm having a laugh, don't edit me... because that tone might be part of the message I'm putting out there. Don't run the piece if you choose, but don't edit me. Frankly, the questions I was asked were fairly innocent, indicative of a run-of-the-mill PR piece and I guess they caught me on a day when I felt like delivering some truth. I don't think it's much of a slam against anyone to say, "Wow, what a bizarre marketing strategy... I probably wouldn't have done that." Especially when I'd seen retailer reaction since the book came out that expressed exactly that sentiment in a much harsher manner. The guys at CBR have offered up their apologies over this situation, which are completely unnecessary, as far as I'm concerned. I'm cool with Jonah and his crew, always have been.

SPURGEON: This seems to fit into a perspective you unpacked in our initial interview back in 2003 about how the comics industry tends to treat creators in a brusque, unserious fashion -- that you're not treated professionally, as full creative partners. Do you think that this is an example of this? Has that generally improved since we did that interview several years back?

CASEY: Nah, but none of this has anything to do with me. On the one hand, comics is -- to use your eloquent words -- a "brusque, unserious" business. On the other hand, people are trying to do their jobs and more power to them. It's always fun to play the home version of the game, though. What's improved -- and it gets better every year -- is my attitude toward these situations that occasionally crop up.

As much as it's good fun talking about all this stuff now, these are not things that keep me up at night, Tom. It's still a fascinating, disingenuous, ass-kissing industry and if people knew the basic, day-to-day operating chaos of their favorite companies, they'd shit a brick. Or fall over laughing. And in those rare moments when even I'm too depraved to fit in, I just turn around with the guys in my company and sell another TV show or whatever. It's almost comical, and certainly ironic... by finally becoming part of the mainstream entertainment landscape, the comics industry has managed to actually minimize itself in a way that I find imminently exploitable.


SPURGEON: In addition to the power to turn around and sell TV shows, how have you been, Joe? Are you excited to see Gødland wrap up? I know you like to mix up your work whenever possible: what's next in terms of the role that Gødland plays?

CASEY: Gødland is rolling along, careening toward a conclusion that is hopefully going to blow people away. It's funny how something that started so freewheeling is becoming more and more precious as we get to the end. It's going to be a cool couple of months coming up. Aside from the regular series, the 5th trade collection is out soon, and we've got the 2nd Celestial Edition coming this summer.

Finishing Gødland is just the tip of the creator-owned iceberg. There's a lot of stuff that'll be announced over the next couple of months. I love the WFH stuff as much as the next guy... but I think we've finally reached that tipping point where comicbook creators are able to plant our flag and be known for the original concepts we create... as opposed to being known for the company-owned concepts we're hired to resuscitate. Sin City has far surpassed Batman in Frank Miller's oeuvre. I know I've gotten more mileage -- both professionally and personally -- out of something like Gødland than I ever got from writing the X-Men. That's how it should be, right...?

SPURGEON: Joe, while I have you, let me ask you this as a pro that's become as you say much more involved in mainstream media. Do you have a specific perspective on what Marvel's change in ownership and DC's change in emphasis and publishing management might mean for those companies? Is there anything that people haven't considered yet about these supposedly ground-shaking moves?

CASEY: I look at Disney/Marvel and any WB/DC moves -- such as they are -- as more examples of this grand game of Corporate Pac-Man, which is simply indicative of the world we live in now. It's fun to watch the demolition derby in full bloom. And I'm sure the people involved will be able to walk around like the big shots they are because of all that money at stake. That's great for them. I'm still on the side of the Artist, and trying my best to live that life. The Man Of Action Multi-Media Juggernaut has reps that look out for our business interests, so we can spend our time making shit up. Y'know, creating more things. Wait... we're talking about mergers and management and corporate synergy... must... stay... awake...

[edited because I didn't get a reference]


[Editor's Note: just to be as clear as possible, CR's since confirmed that the writer of Joe's article performed the edits in question on their own dime and neither CBR nor DC Comics had anything to do with how that profile appeared.]