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. 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: In a recent interview Curt Pires singled out your taste in artists, saying you have your finger on the pulse of comics. You stand out as a writer who doesn’t have a “definitive” artist partner, like, say, Ed Brubaker does with Sean Phillips, instead you seem to be perpetually on the hunt for new artists, providing early showcases for some of the best in the business. What is your secret to snatching this talent up so early? And what does working with a constantly shifting array of artistic geniuses do for the development of your own work?
Joe Casey: Well, for those of you playing at home, let’s just put this particular question into its proper context. Here’s a list of the artists I worked with in 2014 alone (and I’m really hoping I haven’t left anyone out):
… now, I defy any writer in this business to have a better, more diverse, more extensive list than that. I mean, any writer. Fuck them, they can’t. And I’m enormously proud to have worked with all of these guys.
Most everyone I’ve worked with, I started out simply as an admirer of their work, if not an outright fan. Even when they’re brand new to the industry, I just know what I like when I see it. Other than that, there’s no real “secret”…I think I’m a fair collaborator, I want my artistic collaborators to always put their best foot forward on every page they draw. And I just try to help with that in whatever way I can. Hopefully, the results speak for themselves.
I never considered hooking my wagon to any one artist. I mean, I’m happy to do long runs with certain guys, when the project calls for it. But that’s on a case-by-case basis. Each project is its own, unique thing. I couldn’t have done GØDLAND with anyone except [Tom] Scioli. Same thing with Officer Downe and Burnham. I could go on. You’re right…each collaboration brings out something different for me in my work. Different artists and their different styles allow me to stretch my craft in different directions. I’m still learning new things all the time. And there’s a certain kind of energy that comes from creators working with each other for the first time. It’s the proverbial cherry being busted right before your eyes. I think it comes through for the reader, too. So I’m always looking to create that kind of alchemy. So, yeah, 2014 was a goddamn banner year in that regard. I’m hoping this year continues the trend, but honestly, I don’t know how I could match last year.
LC: Your approach to working with artists seems more collaborative than some of the peers you came up with, too. Your career started at the tail end of the “artist dominated” ‘90s but you gained popularity as writers were once again becoming the big cover credit selling point. Yet unlike your fellow early Image peer Brian Michael Bendis, your writing tends not to dominate the page; a Bendis book is recognizably a Bendis book no matter who he’s working with, while you shift and transform to match your collaborator. A complaint I frequently hear from comic artists (especially your Catalyst partner Ulises Farinas) is that writers today don’t let the art breathe. Do you think that’s a symptom of the comics mainstream shifting back to being a writer-driven field again? As a creator who is as much an artist curator as a writer, do you believe we’re on the verge of swinging back the other way, with “superstar” artists taking over once more or has the need for faster than ever turnarounds made that unlikely?
JC: Actually, I tend to think things are pretty balanced right now. The WFH publishers– the Big Two, especially– aren’t writer-driven at all. They’re editorially-driven and have been for the past ten years or so. And, as it happens, writers seem to be much easier to control than artists. At least, they are at those publishers. Because of that, the publishers tend to push the writers more in their PR. But, listen, if you’re a writer and you truly believe that the publishers– whose job it is to manufacture a corporate comicbook product that often exists primarily to maintain their various IP’s– are particularly “writer-friendly,” then God bless you. Enjoy the warm bubble that you’re living in for as long as it lasts.
But when you’re talking about artists, I really think the so-called “independent” scene– from Image Comics all the way to self-publishing– is bursting at the fucking seams with wildly original visualists (which is a word I might’ve just invented) who are really kinda pushing the envelope when it comes to the styles of art that can tell a great comicbook story. And I mean pushing the envelope in both obvious and subtle ways. It’s fantastic. When I first saw Benjamin Marra’s work, for example, it felt completely fresh and new…and, at the same time, I could see his influences plain as day. That combination was like a shot of adrenaline in my heart. Same thing with a guy like Nathan Fox. Clearly a huge talent. I’ve tried my damnedest to serve him well when we’ve worked together, and I’m never completely confident that I have.
My point is…I think it is the artists of our medium who are the true creative mavericks right now. Most comicbook writers are either sellouts or sellouts-in-waiting. I know that sounds like a big fat slam, but that’s the mentality that most writers are forced to adopt to make a full-time living in this business. I had a bit of that, early in my career, too. You can move past it. But I don’t get that feeling from new artists at all. It’s really great and really inspiring to see.
For me, I just want to make good comics. And I’m just arrogant enough to feel like I know what makes good comics. I know it on an analytical/intellectual level and I know it on a gut reaction/emotional level. So, when I write comicbooks, I’m not auditioning to write primetime series television and I’m not trying to prove how pithy I am. I want the final, finished product to stand up as a comicbook that…y’know…deserves to exist. I’m not out to be a star… I want the work to be the star. If most creators landed there, I think we’d probably enter some sort of new comicbook renaissance. Who knows…maybe we’re right on the verge of it. It’s a nice thought.
LC: So many of the artists you worked with early on in their careers have become household names in comics, like Chris Burnham, but I’m curious to hear some of the names you feel haven’t received proper due. Personally, your run on Cable with José Ladrönn is one of my favorites, and I’m still amazed Ladrönn isn’t more celebrated in the states.
JC: For the record, Burnham would be thrilled to hear that you think he’s a household name…
Why hasn’t Ladrönn been more celebrated? I have no idea, because he’s one of the greats of our generation. Then again, he’s chosen to spend the majority of his time working on material that is decidedly outside of the so-called “mainstream” of comicbook culture. Y’know, Robert Downey Jr. has been a great actor and a full-service celebrity for a really long time. Why did it take a star turn in a “comic book movie” for the general public to suddenly remember that? Well, that’s just how pop culture works, isn’t it? I could only speculate on this… Ladrönn could be a “mainstream” superstar tomorrow, if he wanted it. But he doesn’t seem to want it. God bless him. Great guy.
It’s a little tough for me to list specific names –artists who haven’t gotten their due– because it’s about more than just talent. Again, see the Robert Downey Jr. example. It takes the right artist on the right project delivered to the public at the right time to bring out the best work. Personally, I think half the names on my list of ’14 collaborators should be recognized a lot more, based on sheer talent alone. But that’s not how the world works.
What’s great about the industry right now is that it doesn’t have to be a star turn on a corporate IP to get people excited or to put a creator on an upward career trajectory. That particular play is a little played out. If it wasn’t, then Greg Capullo would be the absolute biggest name in comics of the past three years, without question, based solely on his work on Batman, and I don’t even read Batman. But when I just flipped through it I saw Capullo– who can draw like a motherfucker– doing a major star turn. That’s the only way to describe it. Not only that, he’s doing it month in, month out, isn’t he? And yet…is he as lauded as George Perez or John Byrne were in the 80’s? Or the original Image guys were back in the early 90’s? Or someone like Bryan Hitch back in the early 2000’s? Is he a household name? Doesn’t seem like it. Back in the day, Capullo’s run would’ve been the hottest thing going, based on the art alone. Of course, Batman sells great. But it generally sells great. So why there’s not that top spin, I can only chalk up to the fact that the culture has changed. But I guess that goes back to your earlier question. DC pushes Scott Snyder (who I don’t know at all, so this is no slam on him) more in their PR, less so Greg Capullo.
I also see great artists pick the wrong projects at the wrong time and, by doing so, either their creative potential simply isn’t reached or they aren’t recognized. That’s always a big fat bummer to me, because when the talent’s obviously there, all it takes is a little self-awareness…a little career clarity…to push through to the other side. Hell, that goes for writers, too. And I speak from experience. There are a few times in my own career where I zigged when I should’ve zagged. It comes with the territory, I guess. Having a career means having those ups and downs.
LC: Speaking of things not getting their due, one of your more recent projects has been a revival of the overlooked ‘80s Jack Kirby property Captain Victory. You put together a murderer’s row of artists to bring this Kirby revival to life, with your Haunt partner Nathan Fox assuming primary artist duties while Jim Rugg, Ulises Farinas, Farel Dalrymple, Michel Fiffe and others provide art for shorter stories in the series. As GØDLAND proved, you’re a guy who truly gets Kirby, so what has it been like to revive one of his lesser known franchises? Was it hard to find artists willing to step into the shoes of The King?
JC: As I recall, every artist I asked seemed to jump right on board. For some of them, it was a love for the actual, old Captain Victory comicbook. For others, it was just an overall Kirby thing. And, I’d like to think, the overall vibe –as more and more artists were recruited– was that this was going to be a pretty bitchin’ club to be a member of. For me, it was all of that and more. It was a chance to be part of an all-star jam and every artist on the roster delivered above and beyond. And, to be clear, every artist involved was paid exactly the same page rate.
Not that I’m such a great judge, but I think it’s one of the best WFH things I’ve ever done. The sheer cosmic chaos of it…the primal incoherence of it all…was a goddamn glorious thing. I brought everything I knew about writing comicbooks to bear and even pushed through into some new narrative territory for me.
Not to mention, between GØDLAND and Captain Victory and now Valhalla Mad, I really think I’ve successfully burned through my own Kirby Kink pretty definitively. It’s cool to dive into such a primal influence, mine it for all it’s worth and leave it all out on the field. I know that language as well as I’m ever going to, so it’s probably time to speak in some different tongues for awhile.
LC: Your Captain Victory revival appeared at about the same time that Dynamite unveiled an exciting Flash Gordon reboot, too. Yet after some extremely excited early reviews (the AV Club’s Oliver Sava even used both works as counter arguments to Image publisher Eric Stephenson’s disparaging remarks about licensed properties) both series seem to have slowed down and gone overlooked by much of the comics press and readers. Do you think comics has soured on these kinds of revivals of classic comics? Or is it a John Carter situation, where lackluster marketing has failed to ignite proper interest?
JC: I think publisher branding is fairly important in our industry. Had Captain Victory been published by Image Comics, it would’ve sold three times as much as it did at Dynamite. Maybe more. That’s just the landscape we live in right now. Dynamite seems to garner a lot of sales the old fashioned way: tons of variant covers. But for our book, we didn’t do that (for budgetary reasons, I’m sure). And look, I give Dynamite a lot of credit for putting out the book in the first place. They’ve got some great people working there. But, yeah, Dynamite isn’t a company that’s set up to creatively market something that, as far as I’m concerned, leaned more towards the Art Comix side of things than it did towards their typical fare. Weekend previews appearing on a single website –one which successfully convinced people that it was somewhat cutting edge once upon a time but seems to have gotten really weird and confusing in the past couple of years –aren’t enough to ignite the kind of interest I think this book deserved. To me, every issue was an event and could’ve been presented that way. But, y’know, it was just another comicbook on a fairly broad slate, and a lower-selling one at that.
Part of the initial development of the series was me getting down and dirty with Nick Barrucci about budgets, which is not something most writers — or any writers, probably — would get involved in on a WFH project. But I’m so used to it on my Image projects, and I knew it was important to have that kind of honest conversation with someone I was doing business with, because this series was something of a risk for Dynamite. They just weren’t known to take these kind of creative chances. Not at all. And, quite frankly, still aren’t. At this point, I have no idea if the series will even be collected, which is a fucking mindblower, I gotta say. If any book would sell in a nice, hardcover edition, it’d be this one. But I haven’t heard about any concrete plans to do it, which is a head scratcher. But you never know…
Really, I’m just so proud of the goddamn thing. And, like I said, the artists involved were psyched to be a part of it. I just hope the folks at Dynamite prove to be just as proud by getting the collected edition out there someday. Hell, do it for the Kirby estate…!
LC: Comics marketing is fascinating to me on the whole, because in the world of music and film and so on there are marketing and publicity firms that are hired to bring in new audiences and forge concrete relationships with press. But every comics publisher I’ve interacted with, except Dark Horse, has recruited their internal PR people from comics. Do you think publicity is an area of comics that could especially use some outside perspective? Will publicity in comics become more important now that publishers are trying to court new readers more than ever before? How have your comics marketing experiences differed from your experiences in television and film?
JC: In my opinion, comicbook marketing is pretty much a mess. I’m not even sure that “outside perspective” is what’s really needed. Any perspective would be welcome at this point. Obviously, I’m biased, but I think Image has done a better job than most at positioning themselves and their product in a certain kind of light. Proof of that is pretty easy to measure: how many other companies are trying to be Image right now, both in the material they’re publishing and, most tellingly, in the way they’re marketing it? But even Image has experienced difficulty keeping someone in that focused marketing job position over a long period of time. It’s a tough gig. Maybe the reason it’s so tough is that — from what I can tell — there’s no real way to cut through all the noise that exists out there. It’s an uphill battle all the way.
I know I said this before, but treating the PR on my creator-owned books as a kind of weird performance art is the only way I know how to approach it so the marketing has a chance to provide some sort of unique experience…one that can somehow relate to the experience of reading the work that’s being marketed. But, hey, what the fuck do I know? My books generally sell cult numbers, so obviously what I’m doing isn’t the be-all, end-all answer to anything.
I suppose my experiences in the TV and film industries have given me a much more measured view of the bigger publicity machine and how it can work. In those worlds, everything is fairly calculated. Everything is well-planned. Marketing campaigns are multi-tiered affairs meant to maximize impact. Timing is everything. In comics, there are nods to those industries in the way we do things, but it’s generally just about commanding the most bandwidth. Just like in the retail stores themselves, where publishers– especially the Big Two– are trying to push each other off the shelves with a glut of their own product, they tend to do the same thing in marketing. It’s about who can make the loudest noise. What’s funny is how much energy they expend trying to convince the audience of certain things that they’d like to be true. Like how original they are. I mean, c’mon, how can any rational, thinking person not see that the Big Two’s 2015 events– DC’s Convergence and Marvel’s Secret Wars— are the exact same fucking thing?! I don’t give a goddamn about execution…conceptually, they’re the same. I don’t care who copied who, it’s still weird as fuck. But that’s the game they’re playing…who can rip off whom first. Now, don’t get me wrong– that can be a fun game to play if you’re a desk jockey that’s not responsible for being creative at all. But at least be honest about it…it’s the kind of game that corporations play. Artists don’t play that game, if they can help it.
LC: There was a recent piece by Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner that went in-depth with the necessity of waiting out those downs, no matter how long it takes—in his case, he didn’t get a professional gig until he was 30 and Mad Men was notably rejected by every network he approached. When did you first feel you were “successful?” What were the lessons that were the hardest for you to learn creatively, that you wish had been imparted to you when you first tried to break into comics?
JC: Well, here’s the thing…originally, I had one goal and one goal only: to break into the industry. Once I’d sold my first script (to Eric Stephenson, ironically enough), then I had to quickly come up with a new goal: to stay in the industry. Both of those goals constituted different levels of “success” for me. First I just wanted to be in the game, and then all I wanted was to keep playing. Beyond that, I soon realized what I wanted most of all was creative freedom. Now that I’ve achieved that (thanks mainly to my current relationship with Image), I’m not sure if there is any true measure of success beyond that. Any idea I come up with, I have the opportunity to develop it, to execute it and to put it out in the world. There’s no greater buzz, believe me.
Creative lessons aren’t that difficult to learn. What I mean by that is, it’s always a good thing when you arrive at something new in your own craft. Business lessons, on the other hand, can often be tough to swallow, depending on the stakes involved. Now, when I look back on my career, I have to think that I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to take my hits and bounce back from them fairly quickly, if not come back even stronger.
When I look back at my younger self, all I can think of is that oft-used phrase, “Ignorance Is Bliss.” Frankly, I was a fuckin’ bull in a china shop when I first broke in. But, then again, I probably had to be. I couldn’t afford not to be. When you have nothing to lose, you just go for it. No questions asked and no quarter given. And if the current Me was somehow able to talk to the younger Me from twenty years ago…I can only assume that the younger Me would’ve told the current Me to fuck right off. Which is how it should be, y’know?
LC: Commercially, one of the biggest ups you’ve had has been Man of Action. Do you think your time in the comics trenches set you up for better success in animation? With the increasing number of creators flocking to animation via franchises like Adventure Time, do you expect comics and animation to become even more tied together now?
JC: Y’know, I probably don’t have the best perspective on that. The thing is, I was never a big animation guy. It was never my particular jam. Sure, I watched certain cartoons when I was a kid, but I grew out of them pretty quickly (probably in the same way that most people grow out of reading comicbooks). So I just never had any real love of the medium. So to have found myself somewhat entrenched in that world is, I guess, some kind of cosmic joke that’s been played on me. I’ve written (or co-written) more episodes of animated series television than I ever thought I would. More than I ever wanted to, really. But I suppose, as a side business, it’s a pretty good one. It’s hard to argue with the amount of success that MOA has had in that arena. And I guess it takes a certain amount of willpower not to dive in balls deep and really milk it for all it’s worth. There’s definitely money to be made there.
But, I gotta say, the massive double tap impact of Ben 10 and Big Hero 6 really took any pressure off attempting to further conquer that particular area of entertainment. For me, anyway. I mean, I just don’t see anything ever eclipsing the success of those two things. Billions of dollars in merch and a goddamn Academy Award. What else is there? So I’ve kinda been able to drop whatever baggage I might’ve been carrying around. Maybe there’s nothing left to prove in the world of animation. We’ve done it. Do we have to prove that we can do it again? And again? And again? Y’know, when is it enough? We talk about that a lot within the company, actually.
Now, like I said, the money’s not bad. And we’ve got plenty of animation projects brewing. But I’m just talking about the medium being creatively satisfying for me on a personal level. It barely was before. I like telling stories, so I was able to find my way in, but that only goes so far before you smack into the inherent limitations of the form (and the format). And, in series animation, there are many.
LC: We’ve talked a lot about your passion for the medium of comics, and making comics that embrace the medium itself, but I’m curious to hear what works from outside comics you’d say have been most influential on your style and voice as a creator. I ask because a common complaint levied against your generation of creators is that they only pull from comics for influences, meaning they operate in an artistic bubble and can’t see beyond the field, which restricts them and leads to circular, derivative work. But you’ve always struck me as a comics writer who not only understands the medium but also understands how to add to it by embracing outside culture and staying hip to the zeitgeist without making that overbearing.
JC: I really don’t think of it necessarily of bringing “outside influences” into my work, even though it’s obvious (to me, at least) that I’m massively influenced by both music and cinema. I look at it more as my responsibility– to myself, if not to the readers – to bring the entirety of my own life experience to the work. To bring everything I have boiling inside of me to whatever I’m writing so it can inform that work in some way. And, y’know, that life experience consists of a lot more than just comics. It’s the only way I know to maintain my own voice as a writer. No one else has lived my life and no one else has the exact perspective that I do. And with each new project, I’m subconsciously– or, sometimes, even consciously– reassessing where I am in my life and infusing that into the work. I’m working on the next wave of new shit right now, and I feel like I’m right in that moment, right in that sweet spot, of letting my own life filter into whatever genre explorations I also happen to find myself in.
Specifically on the zeitgeist tip, I have to say that what I’ve often tried to do– to admittedly mixed results over the course of my career– is to identify the current zeitgeist and then do the exact opposite of that in my comicbooks. I’m not big on fads. I mean, some trends are fun to watch but I’m never particularly motivated to actually join in. And, y’know, if you’re looking to distinguish yourself in this industry, running one way when the majority of your peers are running another way is certainly one way to do it. In my heart of hearts, I’m trying to create a new zeitgeist. To me, that’s what creative artists are obligated to do. It’s true that some artists reflect their culture, sometimes in a very profound way, but other artists actually shape it through their work. That’s where I’m trying to go with it.
Either that, or I’ll just do my part to blow the whole fucking thing up. Now there’s a legacy worth leaving…
Don’t forget to read part one of The Last Joe Casey Interview!
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