Getting Closer (Part 1): Joe Casey talks "The Intimates"

There's no easy way to define the DC Comics/Wildstorm output- it goes from quirky to mature to downright bizarre, but it always garners acclaim. Much of the same can be said about writer Joe Casey, who's work on some of the biggest icons in comics ("Adventures of Superman" to "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes") has generally been well-received and has found great cult success with his offbeat mature work on "Wildcats Version 3.0" and "Automatic Kafka." It only seems natural to bring Casey and Wildstorm back together and this time the project is "The Intimates." As part of a multi-part spotlight on this new series, CBR News spoke with Casey and learned more about the series that was co-created with superstar artist Jim Lee.

"Teen superheroes in school. That's the easiest tag I can put on it," says Casey about the series debuting in November. "Those four words seem to conjure up every emotion that 'The Intimates' will be dealing with. Back in the Stone Age, when I wrote the 'X-Men: Children of the Atom' mini-series, I really connected with those characters in that specific incarnation, depicting them as teenagers in a way we'd never really seen before. If 'COTA' had any creative pitfalls, they stemmed from the over-arching 'superhero' plot I grafted onto a story that was much more interesting just dealing with the characters' emotions. So, 'The Intimates' is an attempt to depict teen superheroes without the obvious 'good vs. evil' scenarios that superhero comic books always seem to engage in. I wanted to write a series that dealt primarily with emotions, the intimate lives of these characters. Being a teenager is probably the most dramatic, heightened experience of a person's life. No drama is too small, you feel things on an epic scale, every emotion is at its most heightened, and just your day-to-day existence can be an obstacle course of sociological landmines and amusement park-styled self-actualization. Teenagers are constantly defining their own identities at the same time the world is bearing down on them, repeatedly shaping and re-shaping their views and attitudes. With all that shit going on, why would you need super-villains to make a good story?! Well, you don't."

From Agent Wax in "Wildcats" and the myriad of unique foes in "Adventures of Superman," Casey has been lauded for his unique character creation and depiction, talents that he explains will be utilized in "The Intimates." "We wanted to sketch out specific 'types' and then subvert them. It's pretty much how I approach the creation of any superhero character but I think we really hit the jackpot with this cast. So, here are the main five characters…

"Punchy wears one of those 'punching puppets' on his hand… one that can punch through walls. It was accidentally discovered when he was trying to dig his way to China in his backyard sandbox. Other than that, he's a typical teenager. Too smart-assed for his own good. Takes his Ritalin every day. Plugged into the culture. Reads too many spy comics (although he's got great taste in comic books… his favorite spy series is drawn by some cat named Jim Lee).

"Destra is the untouchable, stuck-up prom queen (that is, if the Seminary had a prom… which they'll have before the series is over) who's affectation is actually a deadly weapon… she bites her fingernails, and can then spit the pieces like explosive, incendiary devices.

"The Duke. If the Seminary had a football team, he'd be the star quarterback. The general consensus is that he's going to be the next Great White Hope of the world. The Wildstorm Universe has never really had a Captain America-type, someone whose presence inspires others. That's the Duke… or at least that's what everyone hopes he's going to be.

"Empty Vee turned permanently invisible after she was exposed to a meteor that crashed in her backyard. Ironically, her only superpower she seems to possess is her ability to make herself visible (which is probably the last thing she wants to be).

"Sykes is the mystery character of the cast. He wears a device that emits a high-level, close quarters null field that envelops his entire head. Unfortunately, the null field also limits his ability to communicate with his fellow students, which creeps them out to no end."

The process that led to Casey working with Lee on the series was, as you might expect, full of sex, lies and long nights of loving… or Casey just might be jerking our chains, when he says the collaboration came about "Through Match.com, of all things. Here I was, working at the guy's imprint for five years and it took the magic of internet dating to get us together on a project…! However, once the initial awkwardness wore off, our sensibilities seemed to mesh and things have gone smoothly from that point onward. Jim's an extremely generous collaborator so our time spent working on this has been an absolute pleasure."

These two would seem to have very different creative sensibilities- after all, it was Lee (along with Brandon Choi) who created the superhero team of Wild C.A.T.S and it was Casey who made them into the latter day Microsoft in "Wildcats Version 3.0." "Well, it's almost as simple as saying that Jim's an artist and I'm a writer," says Casey of their different perspectives. "Inherent in those two words are numerous differences in approach. But here's the great thing about comic books… those two approaches, when done right, can perfectly compliment each other. Along those same lines, I'd say that we're both very collaborative creators. Jim understands and appreciates what a pure writer brings to the table and I certainly bow down to practically all of the great artists I've been lucky enough to work with. When it came to the Intimates cast, I've created quite a few things for the Wildstorm Universe myself, so maybe it was inevitable that Jim and I pitch in on something together. From my end, I was excited to tap into Jim's imagination. He's obviously got a great sense of visual design, especially when it comes to superheroes. So I had a blast giving him little nudges in one direction or another, and seeing what he came back with. I think it shows in the final designs. All of the superhero costume tropes are present, but Jim pushed them in slightly new directions. I honestly think that if teenage superheroes actually existed, this is probably what they would dress like. They'd be dressing for TRL as much as they're dressing for the next super-villain battle."

Someone is bound to- as many have- compare "The Intimates" to other teen series such as DC's "Teen Titans" or Image's "Invincible," but Casey is quick to discourage direct comparisons. "Here's the funny thing about that… when I pitched the series and Jim climbed onboard, the only teen superhero book that was out was 'Teen Titans.' Now, anyone who works with DC knows that the development process over there can be akin to watching a glacier melt. It's a slow process. That can be good and bad. Good in the sense that, by taking your time, you really get to do things right. Bad in the sense that, between then and now, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a teen superhero book. They're fuggin' everywhere! In hindsight, seeing all these other series spring up made us push ourselves to be that much better, that much more distinctive. No matter what anyone tells you, there's not a tried and true 'formula' for books about teenagers. If anything, you have to make them more original in content and approach than your average superhero series. Right now, I look at a lot of teen superhero series and I see fairly conventional approaches to the material. So, in the face of that it becomes obvious that we need to try and take it to another level.

"Ed Brubaker once told me his impression of the book… that it was 'Teen Titans' meets 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.' That's actually a pretty brilliant encapsulation of the series, so a big shout out to Ed for thinking of it. I don't think we're trying to put a new spin on old stories. Instead, we're really pushing ourselves to tell new stories using character archetypes that are somewhat familiar to superhero readers."

The series will be comprised of single-issue stories- no six-issue "epics"- and Casey says the reason is "Because this 'decompression' bullshit has me bored to tears. I think it alienates exactly the kind of readers we want to get back. Teenagers are used to massive amounts of info input all at once, from the moment they're aware of the multi-media surrounding them. So, in the face of that, how could slow-moving stories possibly engage them on the level they're used to?

"Now, I want to clarify, the opposite of decompression doesn't mean wall-to-wall action or mindless, exploitive knock-down, drag outs between the good guys and the bad guys. That can be just as boring as endless talking heads or pseudo-moody 'noir' comics. There's absolutely a way to meld the emotional depth that modern comic books convey with the info dump, visual crack that comic books do better than any other medium. That's what we're most interested in achieving with this series. If we can give it all to you every month, balls-to-the-wall, just like the best weekly television series do, then I think we'll have moved the game slightly. Hopefully in the right direction."

If there's a long term plan, either in terms of plot or character for this series, Casey isn't about to give it up quite yet, though he does encapsulate his mission statement succinctly in a fashion that he feels will please readers. "The long-term plan is to make good comic books. On the other hand, I don't take anything for granted. It's tough enough launching a new book in today's market so I try not to think too long term, if I can help it. Doing single issue stories means that each individual issue will stand on its own. I think about it, again, like a TV series. You can watch a good, intelligent sitcom 'in order' and get a certain type of experience. Often, each episode can build on the previous episodes. On the other hand, if you happen to catch a random rerun, you can still enjoy it for its pure entertainment value, divorced from the larger continuity of the series. Other than that, I will say that we want readers to embrace these characters. A lot of time and thought went into their conception, so it would be great if readers become as passionate about them as we are. I think we might be on the right track. I watched folks at San Diego request sketches from Cammo of certain characters from 'The Intimates,' a book they had only just heard of that weekend at the Con! If I'm remembering correctly, Destra was the most popular sketch request. Back in the day, my favorite comic books were all about the characters. Storylines come and go, but if you had a favorite character, you were a fan for life. We'd love for 'The Intimates' cast to engender that kind of favoritism among the readers."

Casey's well-known for layered subtext in all his work- and those who read "Automatic Kafka" know Casey doesn't mind throwing it all at you- and is keeping it simple for this series. "Usually the subtext makes itself obvious to me as I'm writing. I'm six scripts deep into this thing, so at this point I think the theme of the series is 'war is hell.' Or maybe it's 'girls just wanna' have fun." Wait… I've got it. The theme of 'The Intimates' is 'the children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.'"

The biggest challenge that Casey feels he's faced in this series is of his own creation- single-issue stories. As he explains, there's now a greater creative onus on him to create new and exciting stories more frequently than in some other books. "Here's a little secret about decompression… it's a lot easier to write stories that drag on forever than to write single-issue stories. Look at it this way, when you write in a decompressed style, you really only have to come up with two stories a year (six issues each… otherwise known as 'writing for the trade', y'know). But if you're committed to doing single-issue stories, you have to come up with a new one every month. You tell me… which is the cushier gig? So, in that regard, this series has been extremely work-intensive, for all of us. But, of course, I think we've got a really cool, unique book here, so all the hard work is definitely worth it."

Since the series is most definitely set in the Wildstorm Universe, and most of the series are mature rated, one has to wonder how Casey's "all ages" book will work with the more "mature" characters in the universe. "To be honest, I never even think about that stuff," smiles Casey. "I know it drives my editors nuts, but if I want to stick in an Authority cast member as a cameo (like we do in issue #1), then I just do it. And then they yell at me. But for me, the Wildstorm Universe has never been very continuity-restrictive, so I just look at it as a big playground to roll around in. Look for a guest appearance by a character from my first Wildstorm series, 'Mr. Majestic,' in issue #2."

Jokes aside, Casey has made a name for himself with some of the most critically acclaimed cancelled superhero work in recent years and then the artists from those series achieving a great degree of fame- such as Dustin Nguyen's tenure on "Batman." Artist Giuseppe Camuncoli- better known as Cammo- is the new sensation on "The Intimates" and Casey explains how the European artist became involved with this project. "Jim brought in Cammo, and it was 100% the right choice for this series. Cammo has brought a look and feel to the book that was beyond my wildest dreams. Honestly, before he came along, I had no idea who would be the right artist for this book! Now, I can't imagine anyone else drawing it. As for other editors stealing artists, it's a scummy, deceitful practice and hopefully that won't happen here. But, hey, if Cammo gets an opportunity for fame and fortune on another gig, I'd never stand in his way because I've grown to love the guy. All I can do is make his experience on this book so fantastic that he never wants to leave. So far, so good."

Casey also says that the entire creative team, from Lee to Cammo to editor Alex Sinclair, have provided him with a unique creative experience. "On any project I do, I try to work with creators and craftsmen who are as passionate about their work as I am. I've been really lucky in that regard and 'The Intimates' is no exception. Everyone from Jim on down the line is primed and pumped to make this a great series. Cammo in particular goes above and beyond the call of duty with each new issue. Sometimes I throw him the wackiest shit and he continually knocks it out of the park. There's nothing the guy can't draw. Despite the fact that I rule with an iron fist, we're all very generous collaborators, completely respectful of what each person brings to the table. It's the only way I can imagine working.

While Casey won't quite reveal if he has any more comic book projects in the works, he does have another creative endeavor that he'd like to promote. "Just gigging with my band, Best of Seven, since we just released a new EP. Recording a solo record on the side. I'm always doing a million things at once but y'know… life's too short to just sit around watching our asses spread. Creators create, so that's what I try to do."

A big concern with a new series is customers "waiting for the trade" and jumping on the series only after the first collected edition is available. Though Casey acknoqledges how that can be a problem for "The Intimates," he isn't sure what to say to fans. "I wouldn't know what to tell them. I think we've reached a saturation point with trade collections. Marvel has pumped out so many in the past few years, DC's trade program and how it schedules releases has become completely confused in its thinking, and now with the recent manga explosion, it's tough to know how to maneuver that market. I don't even think about trade collections anymore. Maybe I've just learned my lesson. Right now, I'm content to put out the individual comic books and concentrate on giving the monthly readers their money's worth."

On Casey's column "Basement Tapes," co-written with Matt Fraction right here on CBR, Casey has put forth a 'cool' persona that many find admirable. But does that mean if one of Casey's books actually proves to be a success that he'll become a "sell out?" "I'm so beyond the whole 'cool' thing at this point," he laughs. "And 'selling out' is such a weird concept after doing this for almost ten years professionally. Being a cult writer actually has its advantages because the only pressure involved is the pressure I put on myself to do the best work I'm capable of, work that I'm personally proud of. Jim has said that 'The Intimates' will push me over to the dark side and make me a 'commercial' writer… but I wrote Superman and the X-Men and managed to steer clear of being commercial so I don't know what he's thinking! I'm much more content to, as Joseph Campbell put it, follow my bliss."

The entire Wildstorm team is hoping for a big launch of "The Intimates" and Casey says he hopes everyone reading this article picks up the first issue. "For better or worse, this series will be completely singular in its look and approach to the material. To be original in mainstream comic books continues to get tougher and tougher. Everything's been done several times over. Teenage superheroes are time-honored subject matter, stretching all the way back to the original Spider-Man. But I think we've stacked the deck with this series. My collaborators are the best in the business, from Jim all the way down the credits' list. Cammo's work, in particular, is going to blow people away. I always feel incredibly lucky when readers -- even if it's just a few of them -- connect with and enjoy the work we do. But I've learned that the harder we work, the luckier we get. And we've knocked ourselves out on this series, on every conceivable level. I'm just excited for the book to get out there and for readers to see what we've been cooking up for the past two years."

Check back with CBR News tomorrow for an interview with "The Intimates" co-creator Jim Lee.

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