Casey Counts the Ways of "Zodiac"

In an era where many comic fans complain of "writing for the trade" and slow, plodding arcs with little action, there are still plenty of comics and creators determined to deliver as much as possible in a 22-page pamphlet. In the case of Joe Casey and Nathan Fox's current "Dark Reign: Zodiac" mini series, the creators crammed their three-issue story with as many set pieces, psychopaths and super explosions as humanly possible. And Casey explained to CBR that this week's final installment should hopefully up the ante even more.

"We purposefully set out to get away with as much as possible to give readers their money's worth with this series, so we packed all three issues with as much mayhem as we could think of," the writer said of the villain-focused book. "I wouldn't say that issue #3 was meant to try and top the over-the-top-ness of the first two issues. But there is a pretty heavy payoff, in terms of Zodiac and his overall plan."

For readers who haven't yet caught the machinations of the most recent Marvel madman, the bag-faced anarchist that is Zodiac specializes in raising the firmament of the status quo in the most violent ways possible. Aside from carrying around the heads of the last astrological-themed Marvel villains in a sack and setting a trap for some of Marvel's biggest heroes by beating Johnny Storm to a bloody pulp, Zodiac's main calling appears to be busting the hump of H.A.M.M.E.R. head, Norman Osborn, by faking an invasion by Galactus...just to show what a real supervillain can accomplish.

"It's something that's in direct opposition to what's going on, villain-wise, in the Marvel Universe, with Norman Osborn running things and most of the villains falling right in line in his shadow," Casey explained. "It's about exposing the underbelly of this whole 'Dark Reign' thing for what it really is...a bad idea. Not a bad story idea in an editorial sense, but Norman Osborn in charge of U.S. national security is just a bad idea for the Marvel Universe and everyone who lives in it. But, as we've seen, it's not just the heroes that think so. My own point of view is always, 'Is this a good story?' In this case, there was a really cool story to be told."

One of the key elements that's had readers chatting in regards to the series is who and what, exactly, Zodiac is. While the villain unmasked in issue #1, the non-descript face behind the bag left some wondering if there was a mysterious man from Marvel's past to be linked to the new maniac. "I did see some online reactions to the end of issue #1, when Zodiac takes his mask off...and I guess some people thought they should somehow be recognizing the character as someone from the past. He's not. Part of the point of Zodiac is that, without the mask, he's still Zodiac. Through and through. And, as far as I'm concerned, he really doesn't have an origin, per se. In issue #3, we do get some back story filled in, but certainly not a full-blown origin. I honestly don't know how much we're purposefully trying to defy expectations of the typical super-villain tropes we all know so well...we're just trying to stay true to the character as he's been portrayed so far. And, let's face it, the Marvel Universe needs a character like this."

Certainly, Zodiac stakes out a piece of territory less seen in the Marvel U, especially since the start of Dark Reign. While the execution of his attacks (carried out by a crew of C-listers like the Clown and Manslaughter Marsdale) comes with the precision of a military strike, there is less personal revenge in Zodiac's quest as much as there is a need to turn the tables on normalcy. Casey sees this tendency as "not a more 'realistic' take...it's more of a classic take. Maybe even a throwback to the way villains used to behave. There was always something very pure about the villains that reveled completely in their evil-ness, that didn't hide what they were, that didn't apologize for what they were. Not every villain needs to be the 'hero of their own story.'"

Although, if Zodiac is, in a sense, the twisted protagonist of the tale, his obvious antagonist is Osborn - the character who represents everything on the opposite end of the villain spectrum. "That's just good drama. They're polar opposites, no doubt about it. And that kind of conflict can suck all the air out of the room. At the same time, I really like the roles that characters like Murphy and the Clown and Death Reaper play in a book like this. They're supporting characters, but the real story function that they serve is to illuminate the various personality types that exist against the backdrop of this larger, more direct conflict. Not everyone has the black-and-white worldview that both Zodiac and Norman seem to possess. In fact, most characters tend to live in those grey areas."

And with "Dark Reign: Zodiac," the characters on the fringes are proving just as much of a draw as the title players from Zodiac's rag-tag team. For example, look at Red Ronin - the giant Japanese robot who's primed to wreak havoc while Osborn chases the false alarm Galactus. "Oh, when I'm doing work-for-hire gigs, I'm always looking for underdeveloped characters to use. The more bizarre, the better," Casey said. "The Clown's been a favorite of mine since I first started writing comics professionally. I've used him a lot in the past, especially in my first few years writing for Marvel (and for all the continuity nuts out there, issue #3 answers a big question about the Clown that we've used in this series). With Red Ronin, I've never made any secret of how big an Avengers fan I am, particularly the first 200 issues. And anyone who knows those comics knows issues #198-199 by David Michelinie and George Perez, which featured Red Ronin. That's where I was first introduced to the character, and it was love at first sight (mainly because the story was so goddamned good). And Nathan's version of Red Ronin is so cool looking, I'm thrilled that it's in there.

"The thing is, no character has a stigma for me. Manslaughter Marsdale, I had no real knowledge of or affection for, aside from a brief scene in a Michelinie/McFarlane issue of 'Spider-Man' back from, I think, 1990. But once I researched him, I knew I could use him in our book. In issue #3, you see just how important he really is...along with a payoff that any fans of that character (if any even exist out there!) will really get a kick out of."

Casey also promised a few more details to be worked out by way of Fox's kinetic art stylings in a collaboration he described as working because "I just know how to write for this guy. We both love this book. and we loved working on it. I've been in this business a while now and I've worked with dozens and dozens of artists over the years. This was definitely a special collaboration. Which is why it's going to continue on in other projects. Stay tuned."

Does that mean a "Zodiac II" may be on the horizon. "I'd like to see the character show up again. It'd be great if he eventually showed up in other books. But that's not up to me," said the writer of the villain's potential life after Dark Reign. "As far as how Zodiac would operate if Norman were out of the picture...I don't think he'd change a thing. Whoever's 'in charge' is a target, as far as he's concerned. It doesn't matter who. Good guy or bad guy. True, the fact that it was The Artist Formerly Known As The Green Goblin incensed him more than normal, because he felt betrayed by one of his own. But fundamentally, he's fighting the symbol. Anything that represents 'order,' Zodiac will be intent on tearing down. Not a bad way to spend your life, is it...?"

"Dark Reign: Zodiac" #3 hits stores this week.

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