Joe Casey is a lucky man. No, not just because of his nuptials last year, or because he’s been able to write some of the biggest icons in comics, from Superman to the X-Men. The smile on his face has nothing to do with the continued critical acclaim of “Wildcats Version 3.0.” It’s not just because he’s got a great new band or because he chronicled the early life of Bruce Wayne in “Batman: Tenses.” As Joe Casey told CBR News, there’s one reason the writer feels like a lucky man:
“It’s all about the Avengers. You have no idea how cool it feels to be able to say that.”
Starting in the summer of 2004, Casey begins a mini-series entitled “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” chronicling the first year of the Avengers, Marvel Comics‘ larger than life super team who defend the world from injustice. One might be quick to classify the series in the same vein as “X-Men: Children of The Atom,” where Casey explored the formation of the first five X-Men, or “Batman: Tenses,” where Casey examined the Batman’s first year as Bruce Wayne, head of Wayne Enterprises. “The real difference between ‘EMH’ and those earlier projects is how attached I am to the source material and the amount of genuine affection I have for it. If I had to pick one complete run of a superhero title to take with me on a deserted island, it would be ‘The Avengers,’ particularly the first 250 issues. Truth be told, I’ve never even considered putting this series in the same category as either ‘Tenses’ or ‘X-Men: Children of The Atom.’ This is just on a whole new level for me.”
Marvel Comics may seem like they’re creating their own trend of telling tales of their superheroes’ first year, with their “Emma Frost,” “Human Torch” and “Young Ancient One” projects, but in the case of the Avengers, Casey feels he’s doing something that hasn’t been done yet. “As far as the Avengers are concerned, it’s never been done like this. That’s not to say we’re reinventing the wheel, it’s just that this kind of in-depth exploration of the Avengers’ beginnings hasn’t been done yet.”
One of the perennial comic book fan questions is why the Avengers are called the Avengers? Even in their first appearances, it was never defined- the team came together as a result of common goals, not the shared tragedy their name implies. “That’s a good question,” laughs Casey. “Personally, I never really questioned exactly what the name meant, probably because the 70’s logo was so cool looking, I didn’t really care. Best logo in superhero comic books.”
If you talk to Casey, he’ll admit an unnatural love for all things Avengers and it isn’t because of his secret affair with Scarlet Witch. Unlike the X-Men or Justice League of America, arguably the two most popular super teams in comics, the Avengers had a facet to their organization that intrigued a young, happy go lucky Joe Casey. “When I first started reading comics as a little kid in the 70’s, ‘The Avengers’ was smack in the middle of a renaissance. It was the Technicolor epicenter of the Marvel Universe with great writing from guys like Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter and David Michelinie (the holy trinity of ‘Avengers’ writers for me) and great art from the giants of the era, George Perez and John Byrne. To me, being an Avenger was the closest thing a superhero could have to holding a job. I don’t know why, but I found that shit fascinating. And to my eight-year old mind, guys like Michelinie (whose comic book writing I could spend pages extolling the virtues of) were providing a glimpse into a real adult world, and I never felt like I was being talked down to. I still think ‘Avengers’ #181 — with that great Perez cover where Henry Gyrich is addressing a roomful of Avengers and saying, ‘Seven of you will remain as Avengers — the rest of you are out!’ — is a classic, metaphorical look at nonsensical government quotas. No other comic book series of the era tried to reflect the real world like that (except for ‘Iron Man,’ which Michelinie was also writing at the time). At the end of the day, beyond the villains and the battles they fought, the Avengers’ interactions with each other and the world around them were the most interesting bits for me. I definitely want to infuse ‘EMH’ with that same flavor.”
Now Casey’s passion for the Avengers is tried and true, but some readers might wonder why a man who’s written “Uncanny X-Men” and “Adventures of Superman,” the original series for both those iconic legends, was unable to write an Avengers series till now. It’s all in the semantics- it wasn’t that Casey was necessarily unable to write the series before, but he never saw a need to lend his unique voice to the greatest heroes in the Marvel Universe. “To be honest, I never thought it was in my grasp before. When I first broke in, the great relaunch with Kurt Busiek and the comeback kid, George Perez, was just about to happen. And, if you recall, it was a blockbuster. The pinnacle of the Heroes Return titles. So, for a writer as young and as green as I was, it just seemed like such an impossibility to even get near such a high-profile book or those characters. So, now… writing ‘EMH’ is like getting a gift. A gift from the adult me to the eight-year old me.
“The thing is… the projects I’ve done in my career that I’m most known for, or that readers might have the greatest appreciation for, were not things I was a fan of. Hell, they didn’t exist when I was a kid reading comic books. Cable and the Wildcats characters are products of the 90’s. The original X-Men were before my time. I never read Superman or Batman comics when I was young. This is the first time I feel like I’m writing something that I have a direct fan connection to, and it feels better and more natural than I ever would’ve expected.”
Imagine a tiny Joe Casey- still wearing his trademark sunglasses of course- dressing up in Hawkeye and keeping the streets of his hometown safe from evildoers under the age of twelve. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Casey does not admit to those antics, or the time he tried to tan himself enough to look like Falcon, but he did contribute to the mythos in a different way we’ll never see. “I never went that far,” smiles Casey, “but I did write and draw my own Avengers comics. In fact, when an issue would come out, and it ended with a ‘to be continued’ caption, I’d bust my ass trying to do my own version of the next issue before the real one came out. I’d try and continue the story in my own way. Most vividly I remember my own version of issue #195, ‘Assault On A Mind Cage.’ Turns out, Michelinie and Perez did the superior version.”
With such a long and well tread history of loving the Avengers, Casey feels confident saying the team could easily defeat DC’s powerhouse Justice League of America team and his perfect Avengers team shouldn’t need any help. “I’m an old schooler,” says Casey. “Once we get past the new Captain Marvel (now named ‘Photon’? Yuck.), I can pretty much sit back and say, ‘What the hell is that guy doing with an Avengers i.d. card…?’ Guys like Rage and Stingray, while great characters in their own right, aren’t really Avengers to me. And Sersi…? No thanks. It might be a boring answer, but for me, it’s all about Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, the Vision and Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Ms. Marvel, the Wasp, Hank Pym in all his many guises, the Black Panther, Wonder Man. Not to mention Mantis and the Swordsman. And the Beast, for Christ’s sake! He’ll always be an Avenger to me. The Falcon was a great addition, too.”
Unfortunately, the timeline of the Avengers’ development does not allow for all those characters to appear in “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” but Casey is ecstatic to be able to explore the nuances of the initial team. “All the originals. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Giant-Man, the Wasp, the Hulk, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Rick Jones, and of course Jarvis, who I’ve discovered is an absolute blast to write. At first, he’s a lot more intuitive about the Avengers’ potential than any of its early members. And readers will learn just how instrumental he really was in keeping the team together during the tough times.”
Passion can translate to a lot of different things in the writing process, from a writer’s block as a result of having too many ideas, to long reaching plans because of those same ideas. With “EMH” and Casey, passion has translated to one thing- fun. “The ‘EMH’ scripts are practically writing themselves. It’s the strangest phenomenon, actually. I’m just so jazzed to be writing this that I sometimes focus on ‘EMH’ to the point where I have to force myself to work on my other books.
“The difficulty, since it’s a finite mini-series, is knowing the experience has to end eventually. When I write the last page of the last issue, I fully expect the onset of a deep and lasting depression.”
Though in Joe Casey’s mind the Avengers are the premier super team in comics, he knows that much like with Superman, many fans wonder why creators are so passionate about these characters and so the writer intends to drive home an important point to fans. “If we do our job right, we’ll have taken the team from a point where no one — not even the heroes themselves — is sure if this whole thing is going to work out to the point where the team has earned its place as a respected institution in the Marvel Universe. The entire membership starts out at serious odds with each other and by the time we’re done, they’ll have literally been forged into a real unit. We’ll reveal an untold secret or two about how they managed to stay together, as well.”
While Casey is no slacker in the writing department, he’s put extra effort into making his Avengers opus a project he feels that he’d want to read and explains the thematic elements he feels must be explored in the story. “I know what’s essential to me when I read an Avengers story… certain things that are unique to this team and this concept. Certain chords you want to hit. If you’re an Avengers fan, there’s a certain buzz you get from seeing them gathered around that big meeting table with the ‘A’ on it. There’s something about Avengers Mansion that just feels right. The quiet dignity that particular building implies, I guess. I remember a time when the Avengers h.q. was moved to some floating hydrobase thing. Totally lame. I love the fact that they have an official charter. In ‘EMH,’ we see the origins of the charter, we see the various renovations to Tony Stark’s mansion, we see how Jarvis had a much bigger hand in the Avengers’ early survival than we ever knew before. We see how they had to wrangle with the government to enable their own continued existence. I love the issues where the line-up would change. Avengers fans know exactly what I’m talking about when I say, ‘The Old Order Changeth.’ Well, in ‘EMH,’ I get to explore the very first line-up change and show exactly how it went down, including all the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Basically a lot of cool shit that I’ve always wanted to see.”
Collaborating with Casey on this project is artist Scott Kolins, known recently for his work on DC Comics critical darling “Flash,” where he worked with writer Geoff Johns and on “Avengers,” where he re-teamed with Johns. Kolins is an artist whose fanbase is growing everyday and Casey explains how he was snagged for this project. “Luck and timing,” he laughs. “Scott is great because, as a storyteller, he’s part of that George Perez tradition of storytelling without being an obvious imitator. What Scott really excels at is giving the reader more bang for their buck. His page design is nice and dense. Looking at some of his ‘Flash’ work, I’d end up going back and counting panels on a page and I’d be genuinely shocked. Seven-, eight- and sometimes nine-panel pages that don’t ever seem crowded. He effortlessly fits tons of visual information on the page and when it comes to a team book, that’s an invaluable gift that I plan to take full advantage of. Frankly, superhero comic books are still hung over from all the ‘widescreen’ crap and I think it’s time to put that style of storytelling to rest for a while.”
As mentioned earlier, Casey worked on “Uncanny X-Men” for about a year, meeting with mixed fan reaction and is willing to take some of the blame for that (“I wasn’t a huge fan of the X-Men when I took the ‘Uncanny’ gig, and you could see it in my work. Sure, it was a good career move, but for X-Men fans… well, I really disappointed them and that’s probably my biggest sin of all.”) Such an apologetic stance is not common for most comic book creators and for Casey, the mistake is one he carries with him deeply and vows not to repeat again. “I’m not sure exactly when I had that particular epiphany. But for me, looking back, it certainly shows in those comic books. I feel like the craft was there but the passion wasn’t, especially at first. Hopefully, I’m past the point where I’m taking jobs because of what they might mean to my career. A high-profile superhero assignment means nothing if I don’t have some sort of attachment to the material, I don’t care what it might do for my career. I’d rather just concentrate on doing good work, no matter what the “profile” might be. In the case of ‘EMH,’ I feel a huge responsibility to Avengers fans old and new because, in this case, I am one of those Avengers fans.”
That all said, don’t expect him to “apologize” for “Adventures of Superman:” he’s proud of the work he did on the series and says he eschewed other pressures. “I busted my ass on that book because I did have a passion for the Superman mythos. It didn’t stem from a childhood attachment to the comics, but it was just as powerful. I found my voice on Superman with my last year on the book and I couldn’t have been more passionate, even in the face of confounding corporate influence when it comes to that particular character.”
Riding the passion he feels, and wanting to show what he feels will be some of his best mainstream superhero work, Casey says he would understand why people might think he’d be intimidated by this project, but the truth is the exact opposite. “It’s daunting, only because I want more than anything to honor the history of the series. But, at the same time, it also feels like visiting old friends… friends that I grew up with. It’s very weird, but I’ve never been as comfortable writing straight-up superheroes as I have been writing this book.”
Of late in comics, there seems to have developed a trend of creators approaching characters they may not have initially had any interest for and then tackling them from an “outsider’s” perspective, which they feel benefits the work. It’s not something that Casey agrees with and knows from previous experience, does not enhance the work. “I guess I’m just at a place where I’m at odds with the notion that being unfamiliar with the continuity of a certain character or concept somehow qualifies you to write stories that are more “accessible” to a general audience. I think it came from a time when certain comic books — some high profile books — were just so lacking in entertainment value that a justified charge that could be leveled against them was that they were impenetrable to the casual reader. But continuity doesn’t equal inaccessibility.
“I’ve taken on books in the past where there was plenty of dead wood to either clear away or simply ignore, like ‘Cable,’ for instance. But in the Avengers’ case, I revel in their history. Why else would I be taking on this kind of ‘historical’ series?”
Though that trend may be in place, the opposite, namely creators following their passions, has paid off in dividends of late, with Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee breaking recent records with their work on “Batman” and Geoff Johns and Mike McKone wowing fans with their high selling “Teen Titans.” They’ve been able to pay tribute to the past without fans accusing them of hanging on the minutiae, examining all the unimportant small details, and Casey has his theories on their success. “The superhero concepts that stand the test of time hit certain notes over and over again. In a weird way, that’s the new definition of ‘continuity,’ as opposed to the minutiae you referred to. But the Batman concept isn’t just about Batman. It’s about Alfred, the Batcave, the Batmobile, Gotham City, the Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Catwoman, the Penguin, Two-Face, etc. All that great stuff is essential to Batman and to pretend it’s not does a disservice to the fans. It’s easy to see that the examples you bring up share one important quality… Jeph, Jim, Geoff and Mike are all huge fans of the characters they work on. Obviously, Geoff and Mike are fans of the classic Wolfman-Perez ‘Teen Titans.’ Even if they’d never said it in interviews, you can tell from the book itself, which is why I like it so much.
“The risk of this approach — creators embracing these things as a fan and with a fan’s passion — is obviously a legitimate concern. But part of our job is to make sure we don’t get lost up our own asses. To make sure the minutiae doesn’t take over.”
But the definition of “accessible” seems to be relative, as some argue for varying degrees of continuity to be involved, to the idea that superheroes have been around too long to be accessible to new readers. “A well-told story is going to be accessible, no matter what’s involved,” purports Casey. “Regular television viewers can follow a show like ‘The Sopranos’ from season to season, and just like comic book, a show like that involves a large, involved cast of characters, complex storylines and occasionally convoluted histories that must be addressed from time to time. Hell, even ‘Seinfeld’ would refer back to previous episodes, sometimes in simple, quick bits of dialogue. Didn’t seem to hurt its popularity in the mainstream. I think these superhero comics, some of them with forty years of history behind them, can operate in the same way.”
Sometimes it can be hard to be a constant fan of one superhero or superhero team, as the rotating creative teams bring different flavors to the characters and it’s not always a fan’s cup of tea. “The great thing about being a fan is that seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm for whatever it is you’re a fan of. Like any long-running series, ‘The Avengers’ has seen its share of low points since its heyday when I was a kid. There was a period in the mid-90’s when I couldn’t even look at it, couldn’t recognize it. But I always had the old comics to go back to. Those books were still inspiring to me, and still are to this day. The series may suck at times, but I’ll always be a fan.”
In addition to his extensive comic book career, Joe Casey is also a rocker, playing guitar in a new band, but he doesn’t ever act ashamed of his superhero fan nature in front of his band mates- he is who he is. “Best Of Seven is in a Hollywood studio recording right now, making the big noise with the Robb Brothers producing. As for being ashamed of superhero comic books… if a creator is ashamed of superhero comics, don’t work on them. We all need to do work we’re passionate about, whether it’s superheroes or not. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
“The toughest part about adulthood is maintaining the enthusiasm and appreciation for the things we loved as kids. Obviously, we all have to grow up and there are certain things you inevitably grow out of, but the great thing about comic books is that, when they’re done well, they can feed your soul both as a kid and as an adult.
“No one gives me crap about comic books. Everyone who knows me thinks it’s one of the coolest jobs someone could have. And they’re right. If anyone is drowning in the ‘backlash’ of reading and enjoying comic books then they obviously need to hang out with some new people.”
To encourage “geeking out” over “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” and simply having fun with being an Avengers fan, Casey will become a mainstay on the CBR Avengers/Ultimates Forum and be providing exclusive information on the mini-series set for the summer. However, this isn’t really about promotion for the book- it’s about Joe Casey getting to be a geek. “The honest truth is… I just want to be able to talk to other Avengers fans. I want to talk to people who know what an Encephalo-Ray is. I want to talk to people who know who was in the Lethal Legion. People like me, basically. I would’ve killed to have a resource like the Internet when I was a kid, pretty much alone in my interest in the Avengers and in comicbooks in general. It’s not just about a pro talking to readers… I want this to be about fans interacting about their favorite superhero team and just, as you so eloquently put it, ‘geeking out.’
“Let’s face it, I can talk about the Avengers till I’m blue in the face and that kind of interaction is exactly what the message boards were created for. So I figured I’d take advantage of the opportunity while I’m working on this mini-series. So, to that end, I’m hoping a nice, big boatload of people start showing up at the CBR message board. Just look for the EARTH’S MIGHTIEST THREAD topic and I guarantee I’ll be there, probably just about every damn day, to talk ‘Avengers’ and ‘EMH’ (including lots of behind-the-scenes stuff as the series gets closer to publication this summer) until we’re all blue in the face. I’ve already been in contact with Brian Cronin — a great board moderator — and I think a good time will be had by all.”
Despite the fact that Casey advocates such intimate discussion with fans, he hasn’t been an online presence in quite a while, something he’s happy to explain. “Well, like I said, interacting as a professional can be a tricky business. I’ve literally spent years weeding through plenty of crap to find good comic book discussion on the Net. Then, about a month ago, I was part of a very cool Wildstorm promotion where we performed what Jim Lee dubbed a “message board drive-by”. We jumped from board to board — CBR included — and it was such a positive experience that my position on posting online started to soften considerably. And, in this case, the ‘Avengers’ fans are folks I really want to have a dialogue with. After all, I’m writing this series for them.”
There’s a strong perception among the comic book reading community that a) comic books aren’t fun anymore and b) the fans have become too jaded. Casey sees some truth in those beliefs, but contends that it comes down to the fans themselves to dictate the course of comics. “One thing I’ve realized… I honestly think there’s a stigma to being an outright fan of something. I mean, a true fan where you have such passion for something, it threatens to consume you — but in the best way possible. People are definitely ostracized for being ‘too into’ whatever they happen to be into. Okay then, to geek out on something could make you the object of derision, but to be perfectly blunt, I feel more sorry for anyone who DOESN’T feel a strong attachment to something, anything. True fans are the lifeblood of any commercial artistic endeavor and I’m proud to say I’m fanatical about certain bands, certain TV shows and certain comic books.
“I guess it’s very much in fashion to keep a cool detachment from things. I suppose it makes you think you’re less vulnerable to attack but it also cuts you off from some of the greatest things in life. I’ve been that way in the past and I’m here to tell you… attachment rules over detachment any day of the week. You can’t be afraid to look uncool.
“Part of this whole thing — the message board interaction on CBR with Avengers fans old and new — is to reconnect with that part of myself I felt I had to put aside just to establish a solid career in this business. Well, I’ve established myself to a greater degree than I ever thought was possible and I’ve had amazing experiences as a professional. But when it comes to the Avengers, I want to be a fan again. Hell, I feel like I’m writing ‘EMH’ as one fan talking to thousands.”
Besides musical endeavors and comic book writing, Joe Casey is part of the creative studio known as “Man of Action,” with writers Joe Kelly, Steven Seagle and artist Duncan Rouleau, and while you probably have heard their names as the writers of Activision’s forthcoming X-Men roleplaying video game, they’ve also shown their ambition in other areas. “We’re knee-deep in animated shows at the moment. More video game stuff may be on the horizon, too.”
Traveling to any comic book convention, you’ll see Joe Casey in a short sleeved blue t-shirt and wearing his trademark black shades. But is he hiding his heat vision or trying to write the “Great American Novel” by not being able to see the keyboard? Casey laughs and offers no definitive answer, except the smile on his face.
“How’d you guess…?”