Few comic book creators talk as candidly about their behind-the-scenes experiences as Joe Casey. If you listened to the marathon Splash Page podcast with him last winter, you’ll know that he has a nimble mind, a relaxed attitude and a willingness to speak about comics in a way that few writers do. He isn’t afraid to talk about the disappointments he’s encountered in the superhero mainstream, but he’s always enthusiastic about trying new things, stylistically, whenever he gets an opportunity to play around in the world of comics, whether its in the Marvel Universe or creator-owned projects like “GÃ˜DLAND” or “Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker.”
He has a hugely-successful television writing career as part of Man of Action, so he certainly doesn’t need to write comics. But he writes the heck out of them, because he loves the challenge of working in the medium.
This July, he and Nick Dragotta will debut a six-issue Marvel series titled “Vengeance.” We’ve heard a little bit about the series over the past month or so, but Joe wanted to have a talk about what it means to work on a series that’s disconnected from the major Marvel tent poles of the summer. In short, we talked about low sales, low expectations, good comics and what it means to write an Event Comic without an actual event.
Tim Callahan: So…”Vengeance.” You and Nick Dragotta. We’ve heard some things about it already — a bunch of new villains and some high-profile faces of familiarity — but what is it really? What’s the concept?
Joe Casey: Good question. I’ve been trying to come up with some succinct way to explain it,Â if for no other reason,Â so I could justify to my friends and business partners exactly why I’m writing this thing, aside from the fun I’m having. So far, no such luck. Besides, for myself, I’m deliberately keeping it nebulous, that whole, “what is it?” part of the gig. I’m not completely sure I need to know the answer to that, anyway. What Dragotta and I are striving for is a story and a series that has the feel and the scope of an “event” book without the Marketing and Publishing Ass-Rape that tends to occur — beyond anyone’s control, I should add — when these things happen, with all the obvious hype and the endless spinoff series and the checklists and all that goofy shit. Besides, these event books don’t really have a “concept,” do they? I mean, aside from ripping off other event books. So, y’know, we’ll probably do our fair share of that, too…
I’m sure Event books have a concept. “Secret Invasion” was about “Who Do You Trust?” and “Civil War” was about “Punching That Guy You Used to Trust in the Face” and “Blackest Night” was about “That Guy You Used to Trust? He’s Dead. Oh, Wait. He’s Back from the Dead and Kind of a Jerk.”â€¨â€¨Okay, a concept is not a prerequisite, true. But then, how do you approach an Event book, regardless of whether or not it is a tie-in fest? Is something like “Vengeance” designed to have an epic scope? A wide array of characters? What is it that makes it feel like an Event while you’re writing it?
Just tons of shit thrown at the reader, all at once. A bubbling stew of different plotlines and character concerns, all of them hopefully coalescing into one white-hot supernova at the end. This is my sense of idealism talking here.
An event book is really just the presentation of an entire fictional universe in one, contained story. In the case of this book, we’reÂ violently confrontingÂ theÂ weird underbelly of the Marvel Universe, parts that you wouldn’t normally see, certainly not in the bright and shiny franchise books that occupy the top of the charts and get major motion pictures made out of them. The fact that this book will not sell anywhere close to those numbers –Â hell,Â I’m not expecting itÂ to sell any copiesÂ — allows for a real freedom that those other event books don’t really have. There’s too much money riding on them to be at all daring or experimental. Grant [Morrison] pulled a fast one on DC Comics by writing “Final Crisis” as a more personal work — and look what happened there. Personally, I loved it, but DC EditorialÂ ended upÂ regarding it much like they would regardÂ a fart in an elevator. But what he did in that bookÂ is certainly more of a model for me as a writer than any other “event” that’s been foisted upon the readership in the last five or six years.
Uh-oh. You’ve just kicked off a “Final Crisis” discussion. No way I’m passing up that opportunity!â€¨â€¨So let’s talk about what exactly “Final Crisis” did, then, besides being basically ignored by everything that followed in the mainstream DCU. “Final Crisis” was polarizing because it didn’t explain anything at first, played around with ideas and concepts from “obscure” comics from the past — Morrison-written or otherwise and jumped from high-point to high-point without the usual in-between scenes where characters process the events and provide context for the readers. In other words, it’s pretty much what I want from a comic book. But everyone seemed to complain about it in public. Even DC Editorial.â€¨â€¨How do you replicate that approach and why would you even want to?
I haven’t really put that much thought into it, other than what you just said. It just worked for me. To put it in the simplest possible terms, to me, it was just good. And I guess I’d like this thing to be good, as much as it’s in my power to make it good. I can’t replicate how Grant approached that series, because I’m not the writer he is. Nor would I want to, because what we’re doing is very different, as far as pure intent is concerned. But there was definitely a vibe to that book that I still respond to, just as a reader. It was ambitious and it was expansive and while it wasn’t a blatant launch pad for a bunch of new series (like the original “Crisis” or “Legends” was), it did point the way for a new direction for the DCU. A direction that no one besides Grant followed, but still…
Of course, there’s also the reality that a massive amount of peopleÂ bought “Final Crisis,” and no one willÂ buy this book. So, y’know, there’s that.
I’m going to push you a little on this to see where it leads.â€¨â€¨How does your attempt to make “Vengeance” good differ from your attempts to make any other comics you’ve written “good?’ I know, in some of your other work-for-hire projects, you’ve been given certain specifications and you’ve worked within those parameters — or bounced off those parameters as best you could. How does the concept of “good” comics fit within that schema?â€¨â€¨In other words, what I guess I’m asking is what kind of approach to “good” are you taking here? And how does that approach differ with this project?
Well, the thing is… “good” is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. When I say “good” I really mean something that I feel is worthwhile for me personallyÂ to spend time on, either as a writer or as a reader. I’m definitely playing more fast and loose with this one, on certain levels. Because, as you point out, there were definitely certain parameters on my other recent Work-For-Hire jobs, whether it was retelling the origin of the Avengers or having to tie into “Dark Reign” or whatever. Nothing like that really exists here. This one is so off the radar that there’s a lot of creative elbow room and I’ve been taking full advantage. Marvel didn’t tell me to do my own kind of “event” book here — that was all me.
In fact, once you really think about it, there might be a quantifiably better chance that this book could actually be “good,” precisely because it’s not under the intense scrutinyÂ that aÂ series has to deal with whenÂ they actually expect it to sell more than two copies.
Not only that, but I’m one of those guys that reaped the benefits of being there in the thick of it when “Writer-Driven” comicsÂ were what was pushing the rock up the mountainÂ — I’m talking roughly ’97-’04 — and now we’re fully into the “Editor-Driven” era of mainstream comics so the opportunity to do a book like this at the big Franchise Publishers is becoming more and more rare. You never know — this might be the only one this year.
Out of curiosity, would you consider your Image books like “GÃ˜DLAND” and “Butcher Baker” to be Writer-Driven? Or is the collaboration more fierce and furious on those projects than you’d get at Marvel or DC?â€¨â€¨And how, then, does Nick Dragotta factor into this equation? Is the writer/artist collaboration on “Vengeance” different than, let’s say, “Avengers: The Origin” or “The Last Defenders”?
Not to dodge the question, but I think I would consider my Image books Creator-Driven. It’s the only publisher in the industry where books are completely Creator-Driven. The ferocity of the collaborations that I’ve had at Image, I’ve tried to replicate them at my Franchise Publisher gigs whenever possible. ItÂ happens occasionally — Nathan Fox on the “Zodiac” book, for example. Criss Cross on the Super Young Team book was another valuable and potent collaboration.
And it’s becoming clear to me that Nick Dragotta is going to fall into that category of intensely satisfyingÂ collaborators. I’ve been a fan of his stuff since he worked on “X-Force/X-Statix”back in the NuMarvel days, and when we finally met and talked, he made it clear that he wanted to push the envelope a bit, to do something definitive. That alone makes it a love connection, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve been having a good time so far sending each other our more radical comic book influences, looking for things we can inject into this book.
For me, a Marvel gig like this can really serve as a laboratory. Nothing is riding on it — not sales, not my career — so it’s a great opportunity to let things fly and see where they land. Knowing an artist like Dragotta can either 1) draw anything or 2) is willing to try anything makes it a lot more fun.
This conversation is dangerously close to “Tim tries to pin this butterfly down and kill it dead and Joe tries to ride the beautiful butterfly of creative juice into the realm of imaginative splendor,” but now I’m curious about how you approach a work like “Vengeance,” beyond what you’ve already said. â€¨â€¨If (a) the out-of-the-spotlight nature of the book gives you great freedom and (b) you have an artistic collaborator who you can bounce ideas back and forth with and (c) you are treating this comic as your playtime lab of creative alchemy, then what restraints DO you place on yourself? I’m talking fundamental storytelling restraints, I suppose. Because my guess is “Vengeance” isn’t going to be a completely off-the-wall improvisational or nonsensical series of events, so what are your own self-imposed and/or learned values about what it takes to make a story work? How far is too far in a narrative? Does that fact that it’s a superhero comic automatically give it a framework within which you feel obliged to operate? Not so much? Did I get too self-indulgent with the butterfly metaphor?
Heh — “out-of-the-spotlight”? You’re so polite. Let’s just call it for what it is: this book will not sell. The market’s not built to support books like this, no matter how good they are. Hell, I’ll be surprised if you buy it, Tim. I can’t imagine that I’m doing a great job of selling it here. Then again, that’s not why I’m doing this.
The restraints I place on myself? That’s an interesting question, because I am trying to challenge myself at the same time I’m maybe challenging the readers. Why do it, otherwise? I’m certainly not worried about the story not making sense. You’re right, it is a superhero comic book, chock full of all the things you read superhero comic books to experience: good guys, bad guys, big action, romance, moral dilemmas, high stakes, cosmic angst — all that shit. It’s all there in this book. I don’t feel obliged in any way. I love that stuff. I want to cram as much of it into every issue as I can. And there’s no such thing as too much.
For example: one thing we’ve decided about the new character, Miss America Chavez, is that she doesn’t wear underwear. Believe it or not, that was an important creative decision. I think it says something about herÂ personality that she deliberately goes out into the field sans underwear. You can see it in the art. How’s that for selling it?
On the other hand, along with a small detail like that, we’re also dealing with the nature of order and chaos and what it means in the Marvel Universe. We’re presenting the next generation of young heroes and villains, both of whom are wrestling with what it means to exist in the current climate of the Marvel U. If “Fear Itself/Flashpoint” are the Pink Floyd/Emerson, Lake and Palmer of event books,Â we’re the goddamn Sex Pistols.
Then again, the Sex Pistols imploded after a year or two, didn’t they?
Why won’t it sell, though? I’m going with some full-on Socratic irony here, because I know how the direct market works, but let’s follow this up a bit with some more details. Because, it’s the kind of thing that should sell: a mix of big-name villains and new characters, it will actually have stuff happen in each issue, it doesn’t feature drawings of Josh Holloway or Nicole Kidman in every scene, it doesn’t require a commitment to a million other comics. It’s got the pieces that everyone always says they want in a superhero comic and, yet, it will probably sell 40,000 copies less than “Fear Itself: Volstagg’s Dilemma.”â€¨
â€¨You’ve expressed that you like the idea of the no-expectations, no-sales kind of series because of the freedom, and I want to see you and Dragotta unleashed as much as anyone, but isn’t the direct market broken if a series that gives readers what they say they want doesn’t actually end up in the hands of those readers? Who does the direct market serve, then? And, I suppose, is it any different than its ever been? Has quality ever really factored into consistent sales?
Is it any different? C’mon, it’s pretty bad out there, Tim. The Direct Market’s not broken, it’s just plain broke. The Diamond Top Ten are selling in the mid-60’s and below, aside from the occasional “event bump.” That’s fuckin’ bad. It’s like, mid-70s bad. But at least back then, there was no real editorial management and creators had the freedom to sell the toys in any way they could. Some great comic books came out of that dire period. It’s when guys like Englehart, Starlin, Gerber andÂ McGregor thrived.
So, to put a really positive spin on all this, I look around and all I see is opportunity. I see it with my creator-owned work and I see it with a WFH book like this. If Marvel is willing to publish a book that sellsÂ like assÂ and it seems like they’re not overly concerned with what happens in it, what better opportunity could a creator ask for? If we’ve hit bottom, there’s only one direction to go.
Having said that, you can’t move in that direction by 1) doing the same things that took you to the bottom and 2) being fearful that you might go even lower than the bottom. What this book represents to me are two creators — Dragotta and myself — deliberately pissing in the face of that fear. In some ways, it’s the only way that I, personally, can try to help in retraining the current readership to expect more, to demand more, to embrace the danger of superhero comic books and the ideas they can contain. And, at this point,Â in the Marvel/DC airspace, you have to do it on books that are, in some ways, designed to fail. Certainly no one wants to admit out loud what a sales dog this is gonna be. But why not? It would be completely disingenuous of me to go out there and pimp this book like it’s going to “change the Marvel Universe as we know it.” All I can promise is that it might change the way you look at the Marvel Universe.
Christ, even that sounded a little pimp-ish, didn’t it?
NEXT WEEK: The finale of the Joe Casey interview, in which we discuss Lady Bullseye, gorilla covers, the schema of the Marvel Universe and some things that are actually inside the pages of “Vengeance.”
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan