You might not know it, but Joe Casey is probably the most successful creator in comics. His name doesn’t result in as many fan squeals as, say, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, but unlike those two, he still approaches the medium with genuine enthusiasm and curiosity rather than outright disdain and boredom. And unlike the rebellious original Image founders, he’s still steadily cranking out vital, exciting work. Beyond all that, though, he’s one of the co-founders of Man of Action studios, the tv and film empire that has generated literal billions of dollars in sales through properties like Ben 10 and Generator Rex. He is also one of my favorite people in comics, a dude who says what he feels and never gives up on comics and whose perennially shaded appearance and distaste for daytime hours has fellow Loser City founder Danny Djeljosevic and I convinced he is some kind of vampire. When he e-mailed me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to “stir up some shit” with an interview, I said fuck yes with no hesitation whatsoever.
Joe and I exchanged e-mails over the span of a couple months, digging into everything from comics marketing to Image’s ascent to drugs to sex to rock and roll. We devoted nearly 10,000 words to whatever was on our minds, so I’ve broken it up into two parts, the first section of which is here before you, while the second will run at the end of the week. Joe made me promise to leave in all italics in his responses because “emphasis is important,” and he also asked me to call this The Last Joe Casey Interview. Make of that what you will…
Nick Hanover for Loser City: It’s been three years since we last spoke, and at that time you were in the middle of Vengeance, an underrated Marvel mini focused on quirky YA heroes that seems to have predicted the rise of things like Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers. Back then, you were also wrapping up Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker, a gonzo dissection of Watchmen that to my mind functions as the sexualized yin to Multiversity: Pax Americana’s more asexual yang.
In our last interview, we talked a bit about Image’s then growing cache and your belief that it was a “Wild West of comics,” a “free for all,” but now the bulk of Image’s output seems to come from very established Big Two creators publishing what are often existing independent properties they’ve had (Criminal, for instance) or working on material that very quickly finds its way into the world of tv and film (Sex Criminals, Zero and several other Image series all got adaptations announced over the past year). Meanwhile, DC has gone pretty far with letting editorial run their titles while lately Marvel appears to be trying more of the active, free for all recruiting that Image was doing in the early ’00s.
As someone who was at Image before the current boom and has also moved between it and the Big Two world with relative ease, how do you feel the comics scene has changed now? Do you still consider Image a Wild West? Or do you think it has become less scattershot and more consistent in tone and approach?
Joe Casey: First of all… three years?! Jeezus Christ. So… how should I tackle this fuckin’ question? Let’s take the Image Comics part of it first. Are they still the Wild West? For me, absolutely. But that has nothing to do with how they operate within the industry. It’s just how I choose to see them, because of the sense of freedom I continue to have there. If anything, the bigger successes they have with their stronger selling titles gives me the breathing room I need to do my quirky shit and not get tagged for it. Even though some of the weirdo projects I’ve done seemed to have sold well enough to justify their existence (for the most part). That’s always an unexpected surprise.
As for the overall scene? Sure, it’s changed. It changes all the time. Sometimes not quite fast enough for my tastes, but what do you expect? It takes time for the bigger boats to change course. On the other hand, it’s good fun to watch a bizarre situation like the Big Two trying to monetize diversity, for example. It’s also a kick to watch them market their publishing initiatives as though we weren’t all bored out of our fucking minds with what they’re publishing. It’s less fun to watch new creators get subtly exploited because a publisher wants to somehow appropriate whatever originality they came to the party with (not to mention, I’m sure they work cheap). But, y’know, it’s very much a “same shit, different day”-kind of thing, as far as I can tell. Sometimes I hold out for some “different shit”, for a change… but I’m happy to be in the position to try and provide what I’m not able to buy. To be able to get out in front of something, as opposed to just following some trend. That’s what my gig is all about.
LC: Another question I wanted to ask, as a kind of update since last we spoke, was about a remark you made then stating you hope superhero films become “more about the imagination and ideas that superhero comics do so well.” Last year saw the tremendous success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which many interpreted as a return to that kind of whimsy and imagination you mentioned, but do you believe that we’re going to see the films appearing in its wake take that trend further? Or do you think we’re going to see more work like Man of Steel, which went in the opposite direction?
JC: I dunno. My statement back then was probably more wishful thinking than anything else. In Hollywood, it’s all about the money, first and foremost. And, beyond that, it’s all about control. If you have an abundance of either one of those things, you can go pretty far in this town.
Listen, I got a big kick out of GotG. It was a fun popcorn flick. Sure, it was a return to the kind of “whimsy” you referred to, but that kind of light touch was basically ripped off from Star Wars. Which, in itself, was a rip off of Westerns and Flash Gordon serials. You look at something like Ant-Man, and that seems to me to be a total DNA splice job between patented RDJ attitude and GotG “whimsy.” Fair enough. If that’s the Marvel movie formula, it’s certainly their prerogative to exploit the shit out of it. Although, it seems like some folks think Age of Ultron might’ve strayed a bit (although, let’s all maintain a little perspective… it’s a fairly recent phenomena that sequels make more than their predecessors, so let’s all calm down about AoU’s opening weekend totals).
Man of Steel was, to me, a very 1980’s revisionist version of Superman. Otherwise known as “grim and gritty.” Yeah, that ol’ chestnut. That’s fair enough, too. The DC movies will probably follow in that general vein… for brand identity in opposition to Marvel, if for no other reason.
My overall takeaway at this point is that none of it is still particularly new. And, if it’s imminently repeatable as a formula, at some point that’ll inevitably get stale. But I’m sure we’re still several billion dollars away from that happening. In the meantime, I’ll make funky films like Office Downe and beyond and we’ll just see how far that gets us.
LC: On that Officer Downe note, you wrote that comic right as more writers were beginning to view comics as a “proof of concept” paradise, allowing them to turn their unproduced screenplays into IPs that could then be picked up. But unless I’m mistaken, this is your first foray into turning one of your comics into a film property. Why this comic? And why now?
JC: Because the other producers found the graphic novel and wanted to do it, plain and simple. What’s funny is that they had no idea about the whole Man Of Action thing. They just read the comicbook and saw it as a movie. I certainly didn’t, at first. And, believe me, the original comic wasn’t a proof of concept of anything except for how much [Chris] Burnham and I could try and make each other laugh. Only in America could two comicbook knuckleheads — just trying to have a good time for fifty or so pages — end up belching out the source material for a multi-million dollar feature film which, as I type this, has already gone in front of the cameras and wrapped principal photography. We’ve got a cast that everyone’s excited about, definitely not your typical action movie actors. And the real laugh for me is that — as one of the producers and the sole screenwriter — I was on the lot every day, working as hard on this fuckin’ thing as I’ve worked on just about anything I can think of from the past five or six years. The actual filming, to accomplish everything we wanted to accomplish with this thing, proved to be one hell of a ride. I mean, it’s real-fucking-work, making a movie like this. By comparison, making comicbooks is like taking a vacation.
To be honest, I never had any previous designs of turning anything I’d ever created in comicbooks into some other medium. They’re all comicbooks… and proud to be comicbooks. In fact, I’ve always tried to make things that actively couldn’t be translated into other media, because that shows the true power of our medium. Staying several steps ahead of movies, television, videogames, etc. is what we’re all about, isn’t it? Officer Downe — the comicbook — is already five years old. The next thing of mine that might go before the cameras is fifteen years old. If anything, that proves how far ahead of the curve we are.
LC: I’m intrigued by the current approach you’ve taken with your Image comics, presenting them in ways that people are perhaps more used to seeing with pop albums or blockbuster films or even clickbait, with these tongue-in-cheek, “shocking” titles, like Sex, and self-aware, satirical hooks like The Bounce’s early pitch as “a stoner Spider-Man.”
In the case of The Bounce, you told Newsarama the story “isn’t what you think it is,” but it was presented with images of the Spider-Man-like character smoking a joint while hanging out on a roof or relaxing at home with a massive bong.
It seems like you’re consciously luring people into making assumptions about your work’s tone and aesthetic before they’ve opened the page, is this a kind of shock tactic to force people to take a look at the work? Or is this a sort of commentary on the way marketing frequently works in the internet era, with headlines about not believing what happens next, or forcing you to prejudge something without having the facts? Has this approach been effective?
JC: I don’t know about “effective”, but it’s sure as hell more fun than the usual PR bullshit that we’re all bombarded with on a daily basis in this industry. I’ll admit, I’ve treated the “selling” of my books as performance art in the past. The Bounce was a specific thing where I decided to go on in the press about a so-called “Spider-Man code” that I’d somehow cracked and applied to my own work. And some people believed me. But it was pure performance. The only “Spider-Man code” that I know of could only be cracked with the aid of a time machine, and getting the early 60’s Steve Ditko and Stan Lee together to somehow make comicbooks again. Other than that, there is no “Spider-Man code.”
And, like you said, there are times when it’s all part of the reading experience, putting a particular work in some sort of context — be it true or false — to try and control the readers’ perceptions as they’re opening the book. The Big Two do it all the time… “This issue: everything changes!” It’s almost funny, the way they assume a certain kind of ignorance on the part of a readership who’s median age at this point is probably somewhere between 33 and 40. So I try to play my PR games on a slightly higher level.
For my own work, I do tend to get very meta with it all. Sometimes, I just can’t help myself. The relationship between “art” and “artifice” — especially as it relates to a commercial field like comics — is something that I find pretty fascinating. Then again, I might just be too self-aware for my own good…
LC: I think that self-awareness is a big part of what makes you such an intriguing writer, particularly since I’ve never gotten the sense that you’re doing it in a way that reeks of ironic detachment. If anything, you seem to genuinely care about your characters and their problems. For all the meta PR presentation, Sex especially stands out to me as a very adult look at its titular subject, and I mean that in a maturity sense. A lot of critics have honed in on the book as a sort of Batman story, but I’ve read it as an extension of the impotence subplot of Butcher Baker, where you’ve got this hero living trying to move on while stuck in the past, living out the lyrics of Weezer’s “Tired of Sex” but not sure how to fill that void. The impotence here isn’t sexual like it was in Butcher Baker but mental.
Sex also premiered almost in tandem with Sex Criminals, which takes the opposite approach, showcasing the absurdity of the act of sex, skewering the importance we place on it. As a writer who has never shied away from exploring the sexual aspects of the superhero fantasy, I’m curious if part of the gimmick of the Sex PR work is to help readers digest what you’re actually doing. These past two years in particular we’ve seen a lot of controversies and conflicts around sex and its representation in comics, but do you think the environment is getting more friendly towards your style of “adult” comics? Or do you think it will still be necessary for some time to hide this facet of the material behind a humorous, tongue in cheek front?
JC: I don’t think what we were marketing was all that tongue-in-cheek. The series is called Sex and there’s tons of sex in it. I don’t know if that qualifies as a “gimmick” or not. I do think I led with a superhero trope that I thought readers could recognize (the trope in this case being, “the retired superhero”). But that’s just a way into the material… and once you’re in, the deeper themes can be explored. So I guess, in some ways, you’re correct in your assessment. But it wasn’t a gimmick or any kind of bait-and-switch scenario. I think I deliver on my promise in just about every issue. But the real idea behind Sex is a pretty simple one: being an adult doesn’t mean you’ve got everything figured out. Now, you can apply that idea to relationships, to sexual interactions, to your work life, and especially to your inner emotional life, your relationship with yourself. It’s a series about the struggles with intimacy. The struggles with maturity. We all have them. We all have some — as you say — “void” within in us that we have to try and fill in some way. And I’m not giving it to you with a wink and a nod…trying to have my cake and eat it, too, from some detached vantage point in clever-clever land. This is serious subject matter to me. I know that issue-to-issue, it might not seem like the bigger themes are always there…but that’s because I’m not hitting you over the head with it. I’m treating Sex like a novelist would treat his (or her) work.
I don’t know about other books. I guess I need to catch up on shit. I haven’t read Sex Criminals or any other current “adult” comicbooks that might be floating around out there at the moment. But I hope there’s a lot of them. I don’t really care what the subject matter is, because the ultimate goal is to have total freedom, to be able to create any kind of comicbook and for it to have a fighting chance in the marketplace. Superheroes are great. I love ’em. I like writing them. This might be an old argument, but it still holds true: the Marvel/DC superheroes…they’re ultimately fiction for kids and when they dominate the marketplace, it places limits on other things that creators might want to do. Other ideas, other genres, other types of fiction. Those things get squeezed out when one kind of comicbook is what’s mainly being ordered. I guess that’s changing…I only hope it’s a permanent change and not just some sort of weird fad.
LC: The other big taboo subject that gets associated with you is drugs, so seeing you and Jim Mahfood team up for Miami Vice REMIX had me instantly thinking of self-awareness in a different way. Having read the first issue, that comic feels like the most hallucinogenic work from you in a long time and the whole comics culture at the moment seems more druggy—I’m thinking of the rise of writers like Ales Kot and Curt Pires, who are blunt about their intake. Is there some meta-commentary in MVR’s excessiveness and trippy narrative? Is that project meant as a kind of comment on both the return of heavy drug culture and unending ‘80s nostalgia? And would you say a shift away from isolated alcoholism in comics towards a more druggy, party atmosphere is a good or bad thing?
JC: I think maybe the hallucinogenic aspects are more about Mahfood’s art than anything I’m contributing. I’m simply leaning hard into the artist’s strengths, as any good comicbook writer would do. It’s funny that you ask about the meta-commentary of that series, because I wasn’t consciously trying to put any into it. I mean, zero. To me, it’s a romp. It’s a roller coaster ride. I’m just writing what I feel comes naturally, considering the subject matter. I never really watched the TV show when I was a kid and the only reason I took this gig was because Mahfood asked me to. He had already been hired and they brought me on afterwards. Personally, I think he could’ve written the book himself, but we tend to have a pretty good time when we collaborate and he was gracious enough to invite me to the party. He doesn’t work with many writers but he’s well aware how much of a fan I am of his art, and that I’ll go the extra mile to do right by him.
It’s interesting to me that you would put the book in context with any other work that’s currently out there. To me, it’s such a strange one-off that it can’t help but stand alone. Now, that’s not a judgment on anyone else (or their work), it’s just that I’m not paying the kind of close attention I’m imagining it would require to be part of any larger cultural thing, whatever it may be.
And as for the drug thing…well, I can certainly admit to going through a phase earlier in my career where I was a public loudmouth about things that are better left private. That’s not news. The truth is, I didn’t partake nearly as much as my reputation might suggest. And, when I did, it certainly wasn’t to fuel my imagination so I could write a certain kind of comicbook. That kind of work was written when I was completely clear-headed. Obviously, I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, the more “trippy” the story, the more concentration I need to make it all work the way I want it to. But y’know, at some point folks got an idea in their heads about me and I never bothered to correct them. Or I was just too lazy to correct them. Things tend to perpetuate when you don’t quickly and adamantly refute them. That’s fair. I guess I wasn’t too terribly bothered by whatever reputation I might’ve inadvertently gained back then. I’m certainly not bothered now.
LC: You might have a reputation for being a loudmouth, but I think people either forget or are unaware that you also consistently churn out works of haunting intimacy and raw emotion. My personal favorite of these is The Milkman Murders, a one shot you originally did for Dark Horse that got reprinted by Image a while back. I reviewed the reissue and it really struck home for me because I read it as a cancer story, that reading developing out of a statement you made in the backmatter about darkness “that can eat away at you over time.”
In that story the darkness eating away at someone is murderous rage and dissatisfaction with life. You’re generally a creator who calls out problems in comics without worrying about keeping your head down, but the comics community is seen by some as being held back because others can’t or won’t be as blunt as you. Do you think that silence and need to not ruffle feathers is a darkness eating away at comics over time?
JC: C’mon, that’s just human nature, isn’t it? Fear of making waves in some way? Although, we’re talking about comicbooks here, where any and all “ills” are often the result of either ego, ignorance or plain ol’ bad manners. Sometimes all three at once. Any “darkness” we possess most likely stems from our checkered past, going back a hundred years or more. And, look, I’d be the first one to admit that a lot of what I’m willing to bitch about is mostly down to personal preference. The bluntness involved is just my personality, for better or worse. I don’t happen to suffer fools gladly and there’s a fuckton of foolishness in this industry. But then again, there’s a fuckton of foolishness to be found in life, period.
I was a loudmouth before things like Ben 10 and the Big Hero 6 movie came along…I’ll probably be one long after they both end up on the pop cultural junk heap. And that’s because I love this medium, and for better or worse, I love this business. I love all the nuttiness of it, the army of socially awkward folks and the plethora of phonies that inhabit it. I’ve been around long enough that I think I can see the strings at almost every level of the industry, which makes it much easier to navigate. Honestly, from my humble perspective, I don’t think there’s any real darkness eating away at this thing we all love. I think we have our fair share of dickhead party-poopers, but every industry does.
LC: That question also connects to backmatter, a comics trait that seemed to be dying off until recently. I’ve always loved the backmatter you provide for your comics, I think the essays and “interviews” you do in your comics are often as vital as the comics themselves and you’ve basically perfected the artform of the backmatter. What about backmatter appeals to you as a creator? And why do you think it’s suddenly coming back in fashion, especially at Image where titles like The Fade Out and Bitch Planet are even making backmatter essays a selling point?
JC: Well, first and foremost, I believe in trying to give readers their money’s worth, as much as I can get away with. I’m one of those consumers that wouldn’t buy a DVD if it didn’t contain a plethora of “special features.” I like bells and whistles an’ all that kinda shit. And the graphic designer on all of my creator-owned work, Sonia Harris, works with me to make sure that everything works together as part of the overall package. Hopefully, it all adds up to provide the reader, the consumer, whoever…with a more immersive experience than just your average corporate comicbook where random ads break up the story and there’s a real coldness to the overall presentation. The whole package should be a selling point, y’know? I mean, we are talking about making art here, right?
Regarding the specific content of the backmatter and the “letter columns” that I do…I grew up in an era of comics journalism that I felt went the extra mile to provide some sort of context for the work that was being done at that time. And I’m not talking about trying to second guess the mindset or the motivations of the creators…I’m talking about placing the work in a wider cultural or even historical context that gave it extra layers of meaning. For me, anyway. In any case, that brand of comics writing doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. We’re a long way from the heyday of the Comics Journal, Amazing Heroes and Comics Interview. Aside from a few notable bright spots, it seems like it’s just a lot of white noise out there in the comics blogosphere (hell, is that even a term anymore?) and a lot of personal, biased opinion masquerading as journalism. Now, I’m not really a journalist and I’m certainly not a critic, but there are times where I feel compelled to try and provide that context myself — of some sort, at least — for my own work. Besides, I’m a student of the medium as much as I’m a practitioner of it. Writing comicbooks isn’t always enough. I’m so in love with them that I have to write about them, as well. Or sometimes around them, if the mood strikes me.
To specifically address your question, I wasn’t wholly aware that it ever went out of fashion. But it takes a lot of personal initiative to write those things…for free, in most cases. But, hell, I’m writing my creator-owned comicbooks for free, anyway. Clearly I’m just trying to communicate with the readers out there, in whatever way I can…trying to make some sort of connection that means something to both them and me.
LC: That issue of “providing context” comes up a lot when I talk to creators. There is a general sense that modern comics “critics” aren’t providing criticism, merely commentary or recaps. And the personal opinion element you bring up is certainly an issue in an era where rabid fancultures morph into things like GamerGate. That said, a lot of critics complain that comics creator are unusually thin skinned when it comes to criticism, taking constructive criticism personally while refusing to share anything but hyperbolic booster reviews, leading to the departure of a lot of critics who get burned out on an industry where they’re loathed by fans and pros alike.
Is the issue that comics is now an exceptionally small world thanks to the immediate interactions provided by social media and thus not a hospitable climate for the writing you say those fanzines used to provide? Or do you view it as a devolution of criticism on the whole? Where and in what ways are comics critics doing it right?
JC: I think any time comics criticism is a means to discuss and analyze and even explore, and it’s done well, it’s pretty much all good with me. My work has been the subject of both “good” and “bad” critical writing over the years, and I can admit that I’m not all that interested in reading why someone simply didn’t grok something I’ve done and feels the need to go on and on about it, whether it’s to meet some word count quota or just to vent some sort of personal frustration. I find that usually ends up being bad writing, regardless of the subject matter. I’ve got a pretty thick skin, but life’s just too short to spend my time reading that shit. But if someone is truly examining the work from all angles, digging into the material, posing measured — albeit rhetorical — questions and blending both intellectual and emotional responses to reach some informed conclusions about how they interacted with the work…I’m interested in reading that. Reading pieces — of any length — about whether or not someone “liked” my work is not terribly useful to me. If something gets 5 out of 5 stars or 1 out of 5, I really don’t care. And I certainly don’t need to have my own story spat back out at me. But if someone were willing to honestly engage with my work without any bias, then give me a sense of how my work made them feel, whether or not it made them think (and how)…well, that’s the kind of comics criticism I responded to even before I turned pro. In fact, even now, that kind of writing can be goddamn inspiring.
So there’s definitely good critical writing out there. Sometimes it shows up in the most unlikely places. It’s never on the major, most trafficked comics-related sites. We all know which ones I’m talking about. But there’s a second tier of sites that are getting closer to what I see as at least interesting critical writing. Now, I don’t know if we have — or have ever had — our own Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs or even Roger Ebert. Actually, I know we haven’t. Maybe we never will. But, then again, critical writing isn’t as important in cinema or music anymore, either. It used to be kind of an essential part of the culture. Certain opinions could actually make or shape careers. But in comics, not so much. So, y’know, what it ends up being is more its own brand of entertainment than anything else. At least, that’s what it is for me. As long as it’s well-written, that’s really all I can really ask.
Head here for the last half of The Last Joe Casey Interview, where we discuss his phenomenal roster of artists, why comic publishers need to seriously improve their marketing and much much more.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover