While in our world alternate realities, murder and mayhem sound remarkable, they are all in a day’s work for Ben Day, superhero star of Image Comics’ ongoing series “Hell Yeah,” created by “Glory” and “DC Universe Presents” writer Joe Keatinge.
“Hell Yeah” follows Ben, a twenty-something loser with superpowers and no ambition. However, after discovering that someone is killing off every version of him from alternate realities, Ben is propelled into action. Drawn by Andre Szymanowicz, “Hell Yeah” is Keatinge’s first creator-owned series and one of his oldest ideas, the story and plot began when he himself was a young twenty-something and before he began working on the editorial side for companies such as Image Comics. The first five issues set up the world and brought the first storyline to a close, with a second arc introducing Martian villains beginning with January’s issue #6.
With “Hell Yeah” set to make its return in 2013 after a brief hiatus, Comic Book Resources caught up with versatile writer Keatinge to talk about the series, the end of his run on “Glory” and his ongoing Marvel series “Morbius: The Living Vampire.”
CBR News: “Hell Yeah” #6 comes out in January and you just finished the book’s first arc, in which readers discovered Ben’s mom is behind the alternate reality murders. What’s next for Ben after that reveal?
Joe Keatinge: The first five issues are really his origin story, which may have gone on a little long, but whatever! [Laughs] It’s all Ben Day being the guy he is, and it’s him growing up and realizing that being a jerky young twenty-something really doesn’t get you all that far. So we jump ahead five years later and he’s working for the Man; he’s a secret assassin for the superheroes of Earth and he gets involved in what seems to be a pretty routine job on Mars, and everything goes horribly wrong. The first five issues of “Hell Yeah” are about being young and stupid. The second five issues are more about getting older and getting a lot of reality checks and realizing that your life’s not everything you wanted it to be. But people are getting their heads punched off and stuff, so that’s really important.
We’ve seen how superheroes have impacted Ben’s specific Earth, and now in this next arc we’ve got super villains coming in. Who are these villains, and why have they waited so long to come out of the woodworks after the superheroes?
So far in “Hell Yeah” everyone’s kind of been a jerk. There’s not really — I think a pure good guy, unless he’s Superman or something like that, is pretty silly — and I do really like Superman, let’s get that clear. But with “Hell Yeah” I wanted to have shades of gray. There’s no pure good guy, there’s no pure bad guy. There are really awful people on Earth and in the real world, so I thought it was about time we saw those people in “Hell Yeah.” But what does super villain really mean? One person’s super villain may be someone else’s liberator, or one person’s doomsday scenario may be someone else’s salvation. I really like the title “Lost Super Villains Of Mars” so it was kind of oversimplified, but it just goes to hell towards the end of issues #5 and #6! [Laughs] Again, a lot of it comes out of Ben really realizing — not that everything he knows is wrong, but realizing the universal concept of the reality you expect growing up does not necessarily reflect the reality that exists. What you perceived or wanted to be true growing up doesn’t really match what you’ve been given as an adult.
And in Ben’s case it’s not just his reality but all the alternate realities as well.
That kind of tones down in #6 through #10. Issues #6 through #10 is really about Ben’s world just falling apart and just being destroyed. Where the book is at in issue #10 is an entirely different place than where it was at issue #5 and it will probably require some sort of long break afterwards, which I don’t want to say too much about. But the end of #10 is probably one of the more gut wrenching things I’ve ever written and I’m getting ready to start doing that soon. By the end of the book it’s not going to be dark and gritty because that’s so cliched, but all these checks are being cashed either by Ben or checks that were written by generations before his that he’s got to deal with. Again, everything will just go horribly wrong! [Laughs] It’s a very different type of book; I don’t want the same thing every issue, and something like “Hell Yeah” is creator-owned, which makes mixing it up pretty huge.
You’ve compared “Hell Yeah” to “Watchmen” before as an example of approaching the same idea from a totally opposite viewpoint. Instead of looking at how people would realistically try to be superheroes and how the real world would impact them, “Hell Yeah” examines how the real world would be impacted by actual fantastical beings.
I think I know where you’re going. “Hell Yeah” has always been — and I’m not talking in terms of quality but in terms approach — like “Watchmen” is very much superheroes filtered through the real world whereas with “Hell Yeah” I try to do the opposite, which is filter in the real world through superheroes. The results are obviously very different, but I was interested in dealing with what would it be like to live on a world where magic imps from other dimensions exist, or Mother Boxes or magic rings. Again, that was more what my thing was in #1 through #5, but #6 through #10 is a very different approach. At the same time it’s more about Ben than the larger world.
Then are we going to see more of his mother or his supporting cast?
Issues #6 and #7 is definitely Ben’s story, it’s almost just him. “Hell Yeah” is one of the first things I’ve ever written, and actually I wrote a lot of it ten years ago when I was twenty about stuff I liked when I was ten, so that was really the first arc. It was one of my first comics ever sold so I was like, “I’ve got to throw everything in here!” I threw in a lot in that first five issues, maybe a little too much, so I feel like it’s time to scale back and calm down! [Laughs] But I’m really liking where it’s at.
With the change in direction, will “Tiger Lawyer” and the Popgun 2.0 stories continue to appear in “Hell Yeah?”
Yeah, I’ll run “Tiger Lawyer” as long as [creator] Ryan [Ferrier] wants to write it, it’s a page in the book — unless it comes in and it’s super racist or something, then I’d stop publishing it! Anyone who tells you they make it in their career fully on their own is full of shit, because there’s always some editor, some sort of mentor that helps them along the way. I’ve been very lucky in my career to have some amazing mentors, editors who gave me a chance, people like Erik Larsen hired me, Eric Stephenson taught me a lot when I worked at Image and has been pretty great, and more recently I’ve had guys like Stephen Wacker who brought me on at Marvel. He read “Glory,” he liked it he hired me on to do what became “Morbius.” People in your career help you out and I feel it’s very important to benefit the future of comics to pay it forward. Also right now I think there’s more exciting stuff than I’ve ever seen before out of every side of comics, whether it’s Marvel or DC or especially Image, or people self-publishing. When I saw Ryan’s stuff on “Tiger Lawyer” I was really excited and it was really cool and it was a comic I liked and I wanted to see and have people see it. I think it’s important to promote the comics you love and the talents you’re excited about. David Hahn is one of my favorite artists working in comics, period, and he was involved with the “Baby Girl” backup. Then in #6, #7 and #8 I’ve got a story written by Chris Sebela who has actually been co-writing “Captain Marvel” with Kelly Sue DeConnick, he did a thing called “Screamland” at Image and was just really good. Then we’re running a thing by Ryan Alexander-Tanner, and again it was just a guy whose comics I saw and I wanted to read his stuff. Either #9 or #10, it depends which comes out first, there’s a new writer named Jung Lee and Nico Hitori De, Nico did “Spell Checkers” at Oni Press, and again I just liked their stuff. There’s going to be a pretty huge break after the end of #10, that’s how far I’ve got it planned, but I liked “Tiger Lawyer” a lot, so if I can put it in my comic I’ll do it!
“Hell Yeah’s” regular artist is Andre Szymanowicz — as someone who is obviously very involved in picking artists and keeping an eye on new talent, what was it about Andre’s artwork that made you literally say, “Hell yeah!”
I’ve known Andre for a long time and he’s a guy who has similar sensibilities as I do in terms of what kind of comics we grew up with and what kind of comics we like. He’s a guy who’s potential I’ve always been really excited about — so I thought what better way to realize that potential then to be forced to draw an Image Comic during Image’s best year yet? [Laughs] His work on #5 was awesome and his stuff on #6 is going to kick ass! It’s really exciting to see him come into his own as an artist; “Hell Yeah” #1 through #5 I at least plotted most of that forever ago, so there’s a lot of me figuring out writing comics in there and there’s a lot of him figuring out how to draw comics. I think in the end it comes out to a book that I’m really happy about.
Turning to your other Image Comic, “Glory,” you’re heading into “War Torn” which is the culmination of the arc you’ve been doing on the book with artist Ross Campbell. Now there’s going to be an “Emitown” crossover with “Glory.” What made you decide you wanted to do a crossover in the final issues of the war?
Emi [Lenox] is one of five artists illustrating short, two page stories that are written by me in “Glory” #32, and I’ll say it, “Glory” is going to be ending — Ross and I have told our year-long story and that’s it, that’s the end. One big part of that story of “War Torn” in specific is there’s a war that’s about to break out and everyone knows it’s coming and it’s on a much bigger scale than we ever hinted to in the book and everyone is convinced they’re going to die. So Riley suggests, “Hey, what if we all had some final moments to ourselves? If we’re all going to die, maybe we should take care of business!” [Laughs] So we get all these two page stories about what these characters do in their final moments.
To give a little more back story, “Emitown” is an auto-bio comic about this cartoonist named Emi Lenox and in the real world she has a dog named Henry. She and I are very close, thus she and her dog and I are very close, and Henry in “Glory” is directly based off her dog Henry, and what personality that dog has is how I write Henry the character. He’s become my favorite character to write on any series I’m writing, so I’m going to miss him when the run’s over, but he really is Emi’s dog, so I thought it was appropriate for the Henry segment to have her meet my Henry! Then Sloane Leong is doing a Nanaja story and Greg Hinkel is doing a story about Gloria West, Owen Gieni who is our colorist is doing a story about Riley and Jed Dougherty is doing a story about Glory’s parents.
So issue #32 is going to be entirely these stories and then you’re run ends with the war in issue #34?
Also #31 at the beginning of “War Torn” is everyone realizing the war they’re fighting is not the war they thought they were going to fight. Issue #32 is everyone saying, “Whelp, we’re all going to die so let’s say goodbye to our loved ones!” Then #33 is the exercise issue, it’s twenty-eight pages of pure comics. There’s no price increase, it’ll be $3.99 and that’s the war over one big exercise issue. Then #34 is our final issue, and it’s the epilogue to everything, basically, of the entire year so far.
Your work on “Glory” has garnered a lot of attention, from editors at DC and Marvel to critics and fans in general. While you’re leaving “Glory” would you like to come back to the character, or do you feel it’s time to move on to a new creative team?
I feel that our story is told. We had the opportunity to stay on the book, but it really seemed like if we were to continue it would be an entirely different book. I’m very much of the philosophy you should leave the party before you overstay your welcome, and I really feel we have a solid year’s worth of stories here that I’m really proud of and I’m grateful to have been working with Ross and Owen and all the other colorists and Eric Stephenson, and especially Rob Liefeld. It’s a big thing in my career, it’s my first big work-for-hire comic, and it’s the thing that’s gotten me all this work and attention. I love the characters, you get attached to these characters even though they’re fictional; that being said, I do have one final “Glory” story in me, it’s a short story and I would do it if Ross would draw it, and I would need the right venue to do it. I don’t want to say anything about it, but I do have one final, short eight to ten-page story. But beyond that, I’m happy where we left off!
Ross Campbell has really been an impressive force on the book and it’s been fun seeing him draw a giant, gross Glory — a female character who is hulking and scarred and has a lot of muscles and really can’t be sexualized at all. Was Ross’ take on Glory as this giant warrior one of the reasons you wanted to work with him on this story?
Well, I would argue about calling Glory gross; I think she’s beautiful in her own way. Just because she’s Hulk-like doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her own sort of beauty to her. When first came onto the book and when I was pitching the book it was a big thing for me that Glory looks like a warrior, even more than a superhero. Just someone who was trained from birth to destroy things and that kind of deal. In general it’s really important for me in my comics that not just women but that human beings really are portrayed the way that they are in reality. I know many women and they’re all different shapes and sizes and skin colors and personalities, none of them are cookie-cutter, some of them are gay straight, bi-sexual, whatever, it doesn’t fucking matter. I just want people in my comics to reflect that. I want there to be a huge diversity in my comics and I find it disappointing that overall there’s not in comics as a whole.
So when it came to finding a “Glory” artist I was talking to Brandon Graham, actually, because Eric Stephenson brought me onto “Glory” and asked me who would be good for “Prophet,” and I was like, “Dude, the best sci-fi book in the past couple of years has been ‘King City.’” We brought on Brandon Graham and Brandon became my sounding board, still is, and we threw ideas back and forth with each other. He suggested Ross and Ross and I really clicked. We had all the same sort of views on what we liked in comics and what we didn’t like and what we wanted to better in some small way comics and show that beauty is not limited what a woman looks like in comics. Beauty can be this huge, muscular gigantic warrior, or can be someone skinny or overweight or whatever. I’m a big proponent of individual beauty not being limited to some sort of societal standard!
Over at Marvel they’ve got you doing “Morbius: The Living Vampire.” With “Glory” and “Hell Yeah” you’ve set a very specific tone and style — is Morbius similar to those other two?
I think it’s somewhere in between “Glory” and “Hell Yeah.” It’s a much more serious book than “Hell Yeah” was. But I think one aspect of “Glory” is that it has humor in the face of just horrifying situations, which is an unconscious running theme through my comics. Morbius is a book about this scientist, Dr. Michael Morbius, who has had a lifelong horrible luck that makes Peter Parker look like the luckiest guy in the Marvel Universe! He always relentlessly tries to do good but he just as relentlessly screws up. So we pick up with him having freshly escaped from the Raft, which you can find out in “Amazing Spider-Man” #699.1. He’s trying to finally do right again and everything goes wrong and he gets involved with some really awful, horrible people and a lot of brutal stuff happens. He kind of becomes this symbol for a corner of the Marvel Universe that never gets any attention or people standing up for it. He keeps making horrible decisions and people keep dying, so it’s an uplifting story! But it’s battling, how do you better yourself in the face of your circumstances?
How would you describe your take on the living vampire as different from what went before? Is it just that Morbius can’t catch a break?
That’s very much a good way to put it; he’s very much a guy who can’t catch a break. But he has, not necessarily an optimism, he’s not really an optimistic guy, but there’s a relentlessness to keep trying to do better. Again, he’s like the extreme version of Peter Parker. At least Peter will catch a break every once in a while, but with Morbius it’s just constantly goes wrong. But he has this scientific background and he has this corner of the Marvel U, New York specifically, that needs someone to stick up for it. He’s a combination of a little bit of Dr. House and a little bit of “Dexter” and you have Michael Morbius in the Marvel Universe.
There have been a lot of variant covers for the series that range from very horror-driven to funnier gag covers. How would you describe series artist Richard Elson’s interior art and style?
He’s got a lot of sensibilities I liked from sort of the Bronze Age comics, especially the Marvel stuff, while taking it into the 21st Century; it’s very innovative, the storytelling is impeccable. He’s one of the strongest storytellers in modern comics. So he’s thrilling to work with, and he and I were originally going to work on another project at Marvel that didn’t come together and the thing I was bummed out the most about was not being able to work with him. So when it came to “Morbius” and he was the artist I was extremely happy. I’m loving working with Rich, he’s so talented.
We’ve talked about pretty much every comic you’re doing, but has there been any motion on “Brutal” with Frank Cho?
“Brutal” is still going to happen. I think we announced it a little prematurely; Frank had his obligations at Marvel he had to fulfill, like “Savage Wolverine” and I quickly got “Glory” and “Hell Yeah” and “Morbius” and the DC stuff, so it kind of got put on the backburner. In the next couple of years we’ll see “Brutal” at some point. I’m excited to work with Frank it’s not a priority at this point in time. But one thing I’m really excited about is I’m doing my first digital series for Monkeybrain called “Intergalactic” that will come out as soon as Ken Garing, who is the artist, is done with “Planetoid,” his Image series. It’s a complete removal from everything else tonally I’ve done in comics so far, it’s my very serious straight-forward story about this family of astronauts in an alternate reality where everyone stuck with the space program. It seems to run a lot in my comics, but it’s the story of how screwed up this family is, this massive family dynasty of astronauts. I used to say its “Game Of Thrones” with astronauts, but then someone pointed out, “Dude, its ‘Dallas’ with astronauts!” [Laughs] It’s about the sale of the international space station to a private corporation, so there’s a lot of patriotism and how that gets destroyed and how this family are surviving and they all try to sabotage each other.
I love astronauts, I’m really thrilled with stuff like the space program and “2001: A Space Odyssey” is my number two favorite movie — number one is “Harold And Maude” if anyone’s curious! But I always wanted to write something about astronauts and how fascinated I’ve been with them, and that’s “Intergalactic.” That’ll come out in 2013. But I’m just working on a bunch of comics — I’m sure it’d be fun to write a movie or a video game or a novel, but comics is my first love.
“Hell Yeah” issue #6 is out January 16, 2013; the “War Torn” story arc continues in “Glory” #32 out January 23; “Morbius: The Living Vampire” begins January 2013.