There's a lot of talk in comic books about doing something different with comic book characters and taking them in entirely fresh directions. It's often said that the biggest challenge facing a superhero comic book writer is creating storylines for characters where the supervillains aren't over the top, the plots aren't a copy of some other superhero plot and the history of the characters is being utilized. But if you're "Wildcats Version 3.0" writer Joe Casey and you're handed the reigns of Wildstorm's most well-known team of heroes, then you'd take a different approach.
No more super villains + making the leader a corporate mogul + introducing an almost new cast= Joe Casey's Formula For Fresh.
Since taking over the series a couple of years ago, when it was still "WildC.A.T.S," Casey has changed the focus of the series dramatically and turned into something much different, though he maintains, it's still a superhero book… just not the kind people are used to seeing. "It's a monthly series chronicling the rise of the Halo Corporation as a major force of change in modern society," explained Casey to CBR News. "It's about the personal and professional lives of the characters caught up in these world-altering events. Corporations are often portrayed as 'evil' or 'corrupt' but this series takes a different approach… the corporation as the ultimate superhero.
"Jack Marlowe is the CEO of the Halo Corporation. I like to call him the Android Formerly Known As Spartan. As far as the inspiration behind the character… I've tried to draw from the big media CEO's that are out there currently. I'm always studying the moves those guys are making. Hopefully, Jack Marlowe can learn from their mistakes.
"Grifter is the typical, gun-toting, mercenary badass of the cast. But, of course, ever since I've been writing him I've been doing everything I can think of to subvert that image (like putting him a wheelchair… it's tough to be an action hero when you can't walk). But, a strong self-image is tough to shake, and we'll be seeing Grifter go to great lengths to remain the badass he's always seen himself as.
"Mister Wax is something of a double agent, Marlowe's mole inside the covert arm of the National Park Service. If anything, he's sticking around to make sure Marlowe is as good as his word when it comes to Halo serving the greater humanity."
The concept behind this new "Wildcats" comic was influenced by something very simple- real life. "The world we live in. Nothing more complicated than that. I'm painfully aware of the influence that corporations have in our everyday lives. Peeking behind the curtain of corporate culture has always been an interest of mine and I certainly don't mind taking the piss out of it in a comic book series, especially one that's being published by one of the biggest corporations on Earth."
Something that isn't influencing this series is his other comic book work, an occurrence that is quite rare for Casey. "Oddly enough, my work on both Wildcats series seems to exist on its own. I'm happy to let my work on 'Automatic Kafka' influence how I write Superman, but this book has always been its own unique beast. Obviously, I've explored corporate subject matter in other books, but never to this extent."
For those fans of "Wildcats" who've been around before Casey's tenure, some complain that his cast, while larger than the characters he described above, doesn't include enough of the original characters and integrate the 'Cats' "rich history." "I was pretty satisfied with the sendoff we gave Voodoo and Maul at the end of Vol. 2," states Casey. "It's rare that these guys have a happy ending. And exactly what 'rich history' are we talking about here? The one where Voodoo was a stripper in love with a robot and Maul was a scientist who could grow big and get stupid? Those two existed for a long time without evolving past their clichés. I think I gave them more attention in Vol. 2 than any previous writer so maybe I feel like I'm justified in letting them live in peace, off-panel."
Two of the other characters taking prominent roles in "WC V 3.0" are C.C Rendozzo, a mysterious and dangerous female and the aforementioned Mister Wax who was created by Casey. "C.C. was actually introduced for a single issue early in the Lobdell-Charest run of Vol. 2 but I always liked her and thought she'd be a great bridge character for the underworld aspects of 'Version 3.0' (of which there will be much more). Wax has evolved since his introduction in 'Serial Boxes' and even as this series has gone on. He's the conscience of the cast, but as readers have seen, he's also got his own dark side. I feel like each character contains their own unique contradictions. That's what makes them fun to write."
If there's one thing that fans have learned to expect from Casey's characters in "Wildcats Version 3.0," it's that they're not clear cut heroes and villains, so it's often noted that the series feels like one of the most grounded superhero comics on the market. According to the scribe, this is intentional and there's a reason that no character in this comic, save perhaps Marlowe himself, seems above reproach. "I don't like cookie-cutter characters. I like seeing characters struggle with their own moral ambiguities. Believe me, it's something I do every day so to write these characters in a similar manner just feels more true to life. One thing I've noticed about hardcore comic book readers over the years… they can get upset when a character's decisions don't match up to their perceptions of what that character should do. I guess being able to predict a fictional character's actions gives a reader a certain sense of security but I'm much more interested in engaging a reader by presenting characters that, for the most part, are impossible to predict. I don't think anyone was expecting Wax to get back at his NPS superior by having a hypnosis-induced affair with his wife, but it gives that character a new facet to explore. I try to write all the characters, no matter how fantastical they may seem, like characters you might see on your favorite prime time television drama. Structurally speaking, this series isn't influenced by other comic books as much as it's influenced by things like 'ER,' 'The West Wing,' 'The Sopranos,' 'The Shield,' 'NYPD Blue,' etc."
But it's not just the exploration of the human condition that's being hammered home in the newest volume of "Wildcats"- Casey is also trying to express some other concepts about corporations that simply weren't possible with the old series and wasn't right with his old penciller. "Volume 2 was about my collaboration with Sean Phillips. If another artist had drawn that series, it probably would've ended up much different. But working with Sean gave me the confidence to make that book into something that we felt was unique. Now with Dustin [Nguyen, artist] and Richard [Friend, inker] busting their asses every month, I wanted 'Version 3.0' to be just as unique unto itself, not simply a continuation of Vol. 2. A new #1 meant that it had to be a new kind of book. There's obviously a new focus in the HALO Corporation that wasn't there in Vol. 2. The concepts of brand building, product placement and corporate globalization have never been explored in quite this manner so it definitely feels like a whole new ballgame.
"The obvious conclusion that a lot of readers came to early on was that Jack Marlowe was the ultimate antagonist of the series. They were waiting for him to be corrupted by his power. Some of them are probably still waiting. I can tell you unequivocally that will not happen. To me, it's much more interesting to play out the idea that a corporation can be used in a completely altruistic fashion, that the mechanisms in place that most people would exploit -- and have exploited -- for personal gain can also be used as an enormous force of change for the better. I've been setting things up in the first year of the series for a massive, global shift that will take place in Year Two. I want to push these ideas into completely uncharted territories. Something simple like a HALO brand battery will end up impacting society in significantly profound ways, and we'll see it happen in Year Two. At the end of the day, this is a futuro comic book series, extrapolating scenarios that are being talked about every month in magazines like 'New Scientist.'"
With all the questions of morality and personal responsibility being posed in the pages of "Wildcats Version 3.0," there is potential for the series to become Casey's personal ethical soapbox and he explains that the superheroic origins of the core characters helps stop that from happening. "I tend to throw in a gunfight or a blow job when things get too heavy," laughs Casey. "It's really as simple as that. Taking those kind of left turns lets the reader know exactly where they stand. This is about entertainment. I don't want this series to turn into an economic textbook any more than the readers do, and it's certainly no lesson in morality. I just can't write characters like that. These are characters that -- no matter what their superpowers might be -- often make mistakes and then have to live with the consequences. All we're doing is telling stories and it's up to the reader to make a judgment (or not)."
One of those judgments being made by readers is whether or not they like Casey's approach to the villains in "Wildcats," which basically involves having none- an oddity for a superhero book. The writer prefers creating antagonists for the heroes of the stories, if the protagonists do qualify as heroes, and wants to leave the "I will rule the world!" creatures in the past. "I have zero interest in bringing back the wacky cosmic-styled villains that have been in earlier volumes. I prefer writing a book where it really comes down to the characters' personal motivations. There's much more tension and drama to be found there than in the typical slugfest. Besides, I think the reader would be hard-pressed to definitively identify exactly who the good guys and who the bad guys actually are…"
One case in which the lines would be blurred would be a crossover in the Wildstorm universe, specifically the mature "Eye of The Storm" imprint, and some fans have speculated that a fight between the Authority and Wildcats would be fun, given Marlowe's power levels, but Casey doesn't see it happening. "Well, who wouldn't love to see that? But, personally, I'd be happy if this imprint was the only group of books in the history of comic books not to resort to some sort of crossover. I don't think the readership of these books particularly wants one, and the fact that no other publisher is doing them at the moment pretty much tells me that crossovers ain't where it's at. Even the Superman books, notorious for crossing over with each other, are remaining separate in 2003. Frankly, I think the real market for these series is in the mass-market bookstores. If DC can commit to putting these series out in trade collections (as they seem to do with Vertigo titles without even blinking), then I think we've got a real shot at creating a healthy niche market that hasn't existed since the heyday of Frank Miller and Alan Moore in the 80's. I realize that's a long-term vision in an industry that rarely seems to think long term, but I'm in this for the duration, willing to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to this type of material. I think the Eye Of The Storm titles are the slickest, most commercial-looking comics out there so a crossover, to me, just seems unnecessary. Of course, we'd love to sell more books in the DM, and if the Suits suddenly decide that a crossover would goose sales across the line, I'm sure we'll be doing one whether we agree with it philosophically or not."
Speaking of phasing out old concepts, one must wonder if Casey could see a day when the old characters in the series become redundant and "Wildcats" is really all about Casey's creations. Casey isn't going to say yes or no, but does comment on some specific characters and explains his philosophy on why certain characters exit the series. "Seeing how a character like Zealot will fit into all this will be interesting to see. But she does fit into the overall plan for the book. I want to stress that NO character is ever considered 'irrelevant' or 'redundant.' If anything, I'm trying to prove that any character -- no matter how ill-conceived or one-dimensional they might seem at first -- can be interesting to write (and, hopefully, to read). If I have an idea tomorrow on how to bring Warblade back into the book, I'll do it. But, as it stands, that particular character seems more interesting to me as a guy who stays out of the picture for awhile. His decision to retire from the 'Covert Action Team'-biz gives him a more human dimension. Readers may not agree with every character decision that I make, but that's par for the course with this gig (or any gig in comic books, for that matter). The occasional disgruntled reader just comes with the dinner. Besides, when they get upset by something a character does (or doesn't do), all that says to me is that I've been successful in engaging them in the story. If they didn't care, they wouldn't get so pissed off."
Some readers are a bit put off by Casey's sense of humor, specifically a scene in which Mister Wax used his mind control powers to make his boss' wife perform sexual favors, but the scribe says that this is an adult book and believes that the readers can put the humor in perspective. "This is a book written for adults. I'm confident they can handle anything I throw at them. So anything that happens comes out of character. That's where real humor comes from. And, in the case of 'Version 3.0,' the blacker the humor, the better."
But there's also the group of people who say that "Wildcats" doesn't need to be a mature readers comic series and that Casey could write a perfectly good comic without all the cussing and gore, which he admits is always something a writer considers. "That's a valid argument, but I'd turn it around… why can't a book with the freedom to go all-out with sex, language and violence also be intelligent and thoughtful? I'm also not afraid to write to a specific audience. I'm well aware that retailers are hesitant to order Mature Readers titles in any great quantity. It's too bad they can't get more mature readers to shop in their stores because we're producing material that any literate adult would enjoy."
For those readers well-acquainted with Joe Casey, you might remember his "Crash Comments" column in which he described his plans for his then upcoming project "Uncanny X-Men," saying how he would change the way people perceived superheroes and take them in new directions. To many readers, "Wildcats Version 3.0" is everything that "Uncanny X-Men" was promised to be, but when asked to compare the two, Casey is reticent to think in those terms. "I honestly don't know. I really don't think in those terms anymore. Taking on the X-Men comes with a lot of attendant hype and you're pressed to say something that sets you apart from the other bazillion writers that have worked on -- and will work on -- that franchise. Maybe we achieved that to a certain degree. Certainly Grant [Morrison, writer of 'New X-Men'] and Frank [Quitely, artist with Morrison] did, as far as I'm concerned. But at this point, I'm just trying to write comic books that I'd want to read if I was still on the other side of the fence. Maybe there's more freedom to take chances and possibly change perceptions on lower profile series, but I'm doing things mainly for my own personal enjoyment. Everything else is gravy."
As previously mentioned, the main story of "WC V 3.0" involves the HALO Corporation becoming a major world power, but readers have yet to see it's impact on the world. "Every so often I'll do an issue with very little physical action and really focus on the corporate maneuvers in greater detail," explains Casey. "Issue #6 was like that and issue #12 will be, too. I want to show that a scene where Spartan faces down a hall full of angry stockholders at the very moment he's about to buy them out can be just as suspenseful as any standoff with a supervillain. Those moments contain just as much drama as a tried and true punch out. As for HALO becoming a world power, Spartan's stated ideals are not empty rhetoric. He will change the world in what at first will seem like a very simple way, but the ramifications -- social, political, global -- will be huge. These batteries will absolutely revolutionize the world."
The current plot lines running through "Wildcats Version 3.0" are not all are far reaching as the HALO story and Casey explains that some stories are finite. "The movements of the HALO Corporation provide the overall momentum for the entire series, while there are mini-arcs that play out in the foreground. Those mini-arcs include the search for Agent Orange in issues 1-5, and the New Grifter story currently running in issues 7-10."
Lest one credit all of "Wildcat Version 3.0's" success to Casey, it should be noted that penciller Dustin Nguyen has been getting a lot of acclaim for his pencilling and Casey is happy add to the fanfare. "I've said this before, but Dustin's the MVP when it comes to this book. He lobbied hard for the gig and the passion he has for the material was evident even before he drew Page One of the first issue. The guy is so good at what he does, I feel it's my duty as a writer to give him things to draw that he'd never be drawing in another superhero series. This is a book about characters, and that means we have to see the emotions on their faces, in their expressions, in their gestures… and Dustin nails it every time. I'm convinced there's nothing he can't draw. And, of course, a big shout out has to go to Richard Friend, who I think is the perfect inker for Dustin (and one of the best inkers in the biz right now). Richard's contributions to the book cannot be measured."
Another visual aspect of this series that jumps out at the reader is the unique cover design, which changes with each story arc, and Casey reveals that he was very careful to make sure that this series had some of the best covers on the market. "My favorite comic books have always been on the cutting edge of graphic design and it's taken me years to get to a point where I can insist on the books I write to try and match the inventiveness that influenced me. From the very first whispers of 'Version 3.0,' I pushed to have Rian Hughes involved in cover and logo design (I think Rian was involved before Dustin was even attached to the series). I've been a fan of his for more than a decade so to work with him is truly an honor. With each story arc, I send around an e-mail to Dustin, Rian and Ben Abernathy and I tell them what the stories are and possible imagery and/or approaches. Then I just get the hell out of the way and let Rian and Dustin start riffing back and forth. Eventually, they come up with something brilliant and I occasionally add in my two cents at the final stage. Honestly, the covers are the most collaborative part of the process and I think it shows in the finished product."
Casey's happy that so many critics cite "Wildcats Version 3.0" as one of the "most forward thinking superhero comics" in today's market, but he says his main concern is just putting out a good product. "I just hope we're giving them a worthy alternative to 'straight' superhero comic books. I'm not so wrapped up in sales figures… I just want to do good work with good collaborators. The fact that we're being recognized in any capacity is gratifying as hell.
"It seems like readers are digging the book. I'm sure there are some old school fans that hate where I've taken the characters, but that's just par for the course. I'm much more interested in grabbing readers who never would've been caught dead with a comic book about a 'Covert Action Team' of spandex-clad superheroes and giving them something unexpected. The best part about reader reaction so far is that it seems like they understand the book and what it really is… much more so than even DC Comics does.
"That means that the audience is ahead of the corporate curve and I love when that happens… with anything."
Outside of his own work, Casey says that he isn't enjoying a lot of comic series these days, but has a few recommendations for readers. "Not that many current series, to be honest. 'Raijin Comics' has some great serials going. 'The Filth' is a blast. These days, I'm more of a history buff… going back and looking at books I might've missed the first time around. I just had Dark Horse send me a copy of a 'Marshal Law' one-shot called 'Super Babylon' that I didn't even know existed. It was a scream. I just got a run of the Quality Comics' 'Time Twisters' series, which are mostly reprints of 'Future Shocks' strips from 2000 AD. Definitely some funky stuff in there…"
There's a lot that Casey has planned for the future of "Wildcats Version 3.0" and while he won't spill all the beans, he will share some with CBR News and its readers. "We're in the middle of the New Grifter story right now. With Grifter's legs still broken, he's doing whatever he can to keep himself in the thick of the action. And believe me when I tell you, he's going to go a lot further than even this story suggests. Issue #11 is a one-off story that focuses on Sam Garfield's nervous breakdown and exactly what's up at the accounting firm where he's been working (at Jack Marlowe's request). I can promise you that everyone I've introduced in the series so far will get their moment to shine. This includes Agent Orange, C.C Rendozzo, Ramón, the Beef Boys, Ladytron, NPS Agent Downs, Fagin and Donovan Tyro… all of them. I look at this series as an ensemble cast of characters and I love writing them all. But the big storylines that will run through Year Two will be HALO'S stake in the global fuel economy as well as the return of Zealot and Coda War I."
If you're still on the fence about reading "Wildcats Version 3.0," Casey is more than happy to answer the question of whom this book is best suited for and for whom this book is not. "First of all, the series is published under a Mature Readers label for a reason. It ain't for the kiddies. I've been writing 'Adventures of Superman' primarily for younger readers (and the young at heart), and that's not taking anything away from that book, because kids deserve the coolest, most mind-blowing comic books we can give them, as sophisticated and intelligently written as any fiction aimed at adults. But I think there's a large segment of the current readership that might want to move on from superheroes, but they still want to read action/suspense/adventure/sci-fi comic books that somehow reflect the world around them. That's the audience I'm writing for, mainly because I'm part of that audience."
from July of last year where you can also hear
music from Casey's band "The Sellouts."