CCI EXCLUSIVE: Keatinge & Cho Reveal Their "Brutal" Sides

"Brutal" might not be the word fans think of when they hear the names of creators Joe Keatinge and Frank Cho, but that will change next year when their comic of the same name hits shops. Produced by Image Comics and announced Friday at their Comic-Con International in San Diego panel, "Brutal" started life as a pitch for another company that took a more realistic view on some familiar hero and villain tropes but has since grown into a project with the strength to stand on its own two legs. The book stars Stone, a mysterious assassin who not only gets paid big bucks to kill super-folks but seems to be getting more and more powerful as she does.

Comic Book Resources spoke with Keatinge and Cho about the people looking to stop Stone, how this comic allows them to vent some of their comic book frustrations and how a former Image PR guru teamed up with one of the most sought-after artists in the biz.

CBR News: How did you guys meet up, and how did "Brutal" come about from that?

Joe Keatinge: We met six or seven years ago when I was working at Image Comics. I was doing marketing and sales and everything, and I met Frank because we did an issue of "Liberty Meadows" and a few other things here and there. We became friends on the con circuit.

Frank Cho: I only know Joe because of his really hot sister. Then I realized who Joe was.

Keatinge: Anyway, we've been friends since. Last year I decided to go from working at Image to working on my own stuff, and we were offered to pitch for a work-for-hire thing. We started batting around ideas, it became something completely different and became something so far removed from the work-for-hire deal...I think we were kicking it around, and [former Image publisher] Erik Larsen actually suggested we make it our own thing.

Cho: I felt uncomfortable because I'm at a point in my career where I really don't want to do work for hire unless it's Marvel. Also, I didn't really know the character well and came up with this kind of weird idea, then Joe and I started spit-balling it together, and it became so far removed from the concept. I didn't want to be just doing work for hire because it's a pretty good idea. Then Erik chimed in and said, "Dude, just go ahead and do it as your own creator-owned stuff." That's how it happened. We kept adding to it, and it became "Brutal." It was a very organic process.

Keatinge: That's basically how we got "Brutal." It's funny, and I don't think I've ever mentioned this to Frank, but I'm also editing "50 Girls 50" and I was under the impression that it would be one of those things where we co-write it and then get another artist, but then he was like, "No, no, no, no, you write it, I'll draw it. That's it." It's not a strict writing process; it's very collaborative. Sometimes Frank will have an idea for an entire scene or I'll say, "How about this twist?" It's different than anything I've ever worked on before. When it comes to the title, I don't know how many titles we went through before coming up with "Brutal."

Cho: It really is a truly collaborative experience. I'll be writing a completely separate sequence, and then Joe will be writing something completely separate, and then we'll come together and see what we have, see if it fits into the overall outline. At this point, we have the outline down, so we're just coming up with one cool scene after another. It's been pretty fun.

Frank, what was it about this project that made you want to draw it instead of just co-writing like with "50 Girls 50"?

Cho: This is more something near and dear to my heart. "50 Girls 50" was essentially completely written by Doug [Murray], and I was invited after the fact to kind of edit it and tweak it. With "Brutal," [we were] creating it from the ground up, and I had a lot of loose ideas that I could never really use in other books, so I was able to pour all that into "Brutal." I'm a control freak, so I like to be involved in stuff that I've really put a lot of effort into, not to say I didn't put a lot of effort into "50 Girls 50."

We know that "Brutal" is about a super-assassin, but that's about it. What else can you tell us about the book's concept?

Keatinge: It's about this assassin -- who we've never said the name of before, but should -- who only goes by her last name, Stone. She'll take out any superpowered character, superheroes and supervillains, but one ground rule we came up with early on was that there was no purely good guys and no purely bad guys, so it's shades of gray. Regardless, she'll take down anyone from a Superman-type guy to a Batman-type guy or a Doctor Doom-type guy, she'll take them all out for half a billion dollars. She does have a support team, but it's primarily just this one woman, Stone, who has an exceedingly increasing amount of power. When she's first found, she's taking out non-superpowered people, just any sort of hit, but if you notice, she's progressively going after more and more powerful superbeings. Basically, what happens over the course of the first issue is she gets the attention of the wrong people by taking out some more powerful characters. The people behind the superpeople are getting pissed and go after her to see where the money trail is going. She's accumulated all this money, it's got to be going towards something. They want to take her out and also find out where all the money's been going.

Cho: The main villain is not even a villain; he's actually a billionaire businessman who's just curious where all the money is going, so he hires her just to follow the money. He realizes it's going to all these really high-tech weapons. That piques his curiosity, and it leads to this massive, massive twist at the end where you think it's going to this one point, but [winds up] completely on a different page. The big reveal at the end of the final page --

Keatinge: Don't say anything, what are you doing?[Laughs]

Cho: It's going to really, really throw people off. So far, I think it's going to be a really pleasant surprise.

Keatinge: I don't want to speak for Frank, but one of the things we wanted to do early on is [figure out] what you can do in this book that you can't do at Marvel or DC. I think there's a lot of potential in the superhero genre that's underutilized at corporate companies. So, yeah, it will be very violent and everything, but I also [wanted to explore] what you can do in the story of an Image superhero book, it's limitless. Forget the ending, I think the series will shock people beyond the obvious ultra-violence of the book.

Cho: We're doing a lot of realistic things. Like, in a horror movie, some people go in a dark room. Why would you do that? Turn on a light. Stuff like that. We're trying to make it grounded in common sense even though the action and situations are super-ordinary.

Speaking of the ultra-violence -- which we can see a glimpse of in the teaser -- was it liberating to let loose like that?

Cho: Oh yeah. I love violence. I'm a very violent man. [Laughs] It's basically everything we wanted to see and do in regular comic books that we can't do. So we're venting, I guess, through this comic book. Don't you want to see Batman shoot people or Superman destroying shit? Stuff like that. We wanted to see everything we want to see in comic books that we don't see.

Keatinge: For me, it's a similar thing. Frank has a lot more experience than me with Marvel or DC, but for me it comes from seeing these restrictions as a reader. With "Brutal," a lot of it is venting, even though I haven't done anything within the restrictions of the Marvel or DC universes yet. [This is me] having my say on what superbeings would do and how they would react.

Cho: There's a sequence with [a character like] the Joker. Why does Commissioner Gordon let this bastard live when they have S.W.A.T. teams with snipers who can just take him out? We address that. Common-sense stuff. We do a parody of Tony Stark-Iron Man as a true playboy warmonger. We show people with so much money they can get away with anything [like] Charlie Sheen. It's going to have a lot of little interesting character studies that you don't really see in regular comic books or that you can't really do in a regular comic book. This is a mature title, right?

Keatinge: Beyond. It very much is. Image has these ratings now, and we're going to be in the top tier I'm pretty sure. It's not so much that we want to do violence for violence's sake. It's part of it, and there's a reason it's called "Brutal." There's a reason why it's so violent, but I'd rather people read the book and see why Stone is unrelenting in what she does; she does it all for a reason. The thing that always frustrated me in comics and in general is when there would be ultra-violence for no reason. A larger part of it is that -- and this will age me a little -- I was raised on early Image books. You'd read the interviews about them, and they sounded like the coolest things ever. I remember "Comics Scene" interviews with Rob Liefeld, and "Youngblood" sounded like the greatest novel ever written, and when you're that age, it seems like it, too. If you go back and read them, they're still fun, but they don't necessarily have the depth to them that you imagined as a kid. What I want to do, with my contribution to "Brutal," is make it that comic I wanted as a kid even if that's not the reality of the comics I read as a kid. Stuff that had no borders or restrictions, but also had a depth to them and a reason for things to happen.

Cho: I'm doing it for the women and money.

Keatinge: There's women and money? We need to talk about that. [Laughs]

Cho: I remember what the original title was. Joe came up with the title "Hardcore," but we couldn't use it because it was already taken by [Robert] Kirkman.

Keatinge: We were so thrilled with that title, and then in the back of my head from writing up Image solicits from like three years ago, [I remembered] and I was like, "Oh shit!" We asked Robert if it was cool and he said "No," which is fair. [Laughs] No problem there, but then we came up with all these different titles, and it was funny because I think "Brutal" was a temporary title. Within the next day, you kind of mull over things, and it was perfect. It's probably even better than "Hardcore." It really describes the book and, for reasons I don't want to get into, it really is crucial to the story.

You mentioned playing off of established characters from Marvel and DC in a more realistic way. Did you come up with a list of characters you wanted to analyze ahead of time and then create the stories around them?

Keatinge: A lot of it came from goofing around. [Laughs] Like, "You know what would be cool? What if we did this with this guy!" And then as we started to write the story, things started to make sense. Then it expanded further. To say it's our version of a Marvel or DC character, I don't think it's really true anymore in the final work once it's been filtered through the different levels of coming up with the story. The story about a guy like Iron Man is so far removed from that now. To me, it's sort of -- and I don't want to sound to full of ourselves here -- but to me it's like the transition from Tarzan and Hercules to Superman in 1938. It's like, that was the inspiration, but as it filtered through it became this completely different kind of character.

Cho: Yeah, you're full of yourself. [Laughs]

Keatinge: [Laughs] I mean, in terms of how characters progress, and since we are conceiving these characters in 2011 versus 1963, we can take from our experiences and turn them into something else.

Cho: The great thing is that this is a great story. As we were writing the first story arc, we actually came up with the next two. We've got the first miniseries, second miniseries and third miniseries already outlined. There are so many great things happening in the story that it was natural to just keep writing, and literally the story wrote itself once we established that big twist and the purpose of the character. Everything just came out in a very natural way.

As comic fans and creators, how fun was it to build a whole superhero universe from the ground up?

Keatinge: It was awesome.

Cho: It was fun until Joe showed up. [Laughs] This is how we talk normally.

Keatinge: [Laughs] This is a look at what all of our conversations and conventions are like. If you're at Comic-Con, you can find out for yourself by stopping by Frank's booth.

It is fun. The reason I got into comics is, I think, very similar to why Frank got into comics beyond his lust for women and money, which is to be able to create whatever you want. That's why I love comics. To me we have this medium where we can do anything. When you have a collaborator like Frank -- I'll pay him a compliment -- who can draw anything and make it kick ass, there are zero restrictions on anything we could conceive with this book. I don't want to say too much about them, but the second and third miniseries take it to such a different place and where it will someday end -- and we do know where it will end, Frank don't say anything -- are wildly different. I can't say anything else about this without spoiling it. There are no restrictions.

Cho: The great thing about this book is that anything can happen. I guess that's kind of cliche, but it's true, anything can happen.

Keatinge: Actually, it's true in this case.

Is there anything else you want readers to know about "Brutal"?

Keatinge: The first miniseries is going to be four issues. We're keeping them at $2.99, so it's affordable and packed full of Frank Cho art and superhero stuff blowing up. If anyone's looking for a superhero book that's entirely different from anything, [this is it]. I read a lot of comics, and like Frank said, it is the biggest cliche to say that it's unlike anything you've ever read. But, as a guy who reads a ton of comics, I can definitely confirm that it's true.

Cho: It's fun stuff. Despite the violence and the profanity and the wrongness of some of the stuff in the book, it's actually a really fun book to read.

Keatinge: It was also important to me to get a lot of character into it even though that might sound ridiculous with a book like this. Stone has a support team and they're all very human. With one character in particular sort of like her manager or coordinator you get to see how this sort of over the top superhero stuff works through the eyes of a woman who doesn't have powers. Personally, I wanted to pack a lot into it without being overwritten. You hear a lot of complaints about comics being decompressed, but with this, in every issue I really want to pack a lot of ideas into it. I really want it to be a meaty thing and for you to feel like it's a big crossover event, but it's completely self-contained.

Cho: We have a laundry list of all the superhero-type characters to kill in very interesting and graphic and original ways. It's good stuff. If you grew up reading comics and want that extra whatever, this is the comic.

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