Joe Casey Talks: The Return of "Butcher Baker"

One of the best comics of last year seemed to disappear this winter. After a few minor delays, Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston's "Butcher Baker" hit issue #7 and then just...seemed to stop, in mid-story.

Clearly there was more "Butcher Baker" coming, but when?

The answer, according to Image Comics, is this week. "Butcher Baker" finally returns with issue #8, scheduled to hit shops this Wednesday. Joe Casey and I shot some emails back and forth to talk about the series coming back, and provide some context on what's been going on with the series. Casey, as he does, certainly has plenty of opinions about his comics and the state of the industry in general, and he isn't afraid to say what's on his mind.

Let's get right to it!

Tim Callahan: "Butcher Baker" #8 is finally coming out this week. Where do you want to start? With the series ranking as the 21st best comic of 2011? With its critical recognition from a viciously intelligent corner of internet punditry? With stories about how you took your time to workshop the script for the newest issue at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in the wilds of Vermont?

I may have made that last one up. But you can start anywhere.

Joe Casey: Well, it's time to strike up the fanfare, right? For some people, I guess this is a relatively momentous occasion. This issue in particular has been a long time coming, and I want the loyal readership we actually managed to cultivate over the first seven issues to know that their patience is about to pay off. At least, we hope it is. We threw a few extra pages in for added value. It's got a lot of cock and mayhem, two hallmarks of the series so far. There's definitely more fun to be had...

There was a bit of a delay between some of the later issues in the fall of last year, but the delay between issue #7 and the upcoming issue #8 is obviously a lot longer than you expected. Can you talk a bit about the delay, and if there's any connection between the delay on "Butcher Baker" and the delay on your other big image series, "GØDLAND"?

From the sidelines over here, it's easy to write off the delays on both by saying, "Joe Casey's probably cranking out scripts for the 'Spider-Man' television show, so he's getting behind on the Image work that doesn't make him much money." But I assume it's not as simple as that.

For the record, "Ultimate Spider-Man" is only one of the many shows we're currently running. My TV workload is batshit crazy and I'll completely cop to that, but it actually has nothing to do with the interminable wait between "Butcher Baker" #7 and #8. The fact is, Huddleston found himself in a tough spot, having over-committed himself beyond the point of rational thought. He fell way behind and there was nothing I could do about it. It's frustrating as hell and, in my opinion, supremely embarrassing. It's not helping the cause of creator-owned comic books when creators can't keep their shit together. Going into this, I thought it would be a fun, breezy ride that I could kick back and get my rocks off doing every month. Turns out, I've had to learn some harsh lessons from the experience.

"GØDLAND" is an entirely different deal. That one, I'll totally take the blame for. It had nothing to do with time or schedules... it was just that I had to figure out exactly how everything was going to play out, how to tie up all the story and character threads in a way that honors the work Scioli and I have done so far. But I can safely say that things are back on track and that issue #36 is one mind-bending motherfucker of a cosmic comic book. Which means the finale issue that comes after might actually end up being too intense for human beings.

So, aside from my chemically-fueled hyperbole, no connection whatsoever...

Since we have both "Butcher Baker" and "GØDLAND" on the table, let's jump into a bit of a cross-dissection of each. Because though you cite your "chemically-fueled hyperbole" in talking about the comics, there is more than a little hyperbole in both series themselves.

I don't know if you're of this, Joe, but neither series reads as particularly quiet or subtle.

When you're attacking a "Butcher Baker" script, is there a certain kind of hyperbolic state you get yourself into that's different from the cosmic hyperbole of "GØDLAND"? They are just so...excessive (in a good way, of course), I'm wondering how you work the amplification. How do you tap into that vein of creative juice, and are you tapping a different vein for each, do they feel similar at all, in the creation phase?

JC: Well, c'mon... since when were superhero comic books supposed to be quiet or subtle...?

The bombast comes pretty easily, to be honest. It's much tougher to make the quieter moments work, to sell the more subtle emotional beats. Sometimes, they end up working purely by accident, because it really depends on the alchemy between words and picture. Given that, I still labor more on those bits than I do the big, cosmic, ass-kicking stuff. Luckily, in both "Butcher Baker" and "GØDLAND," there's not too much of that to worry about. I would say they do share certain surface similarities, but I might classify "GØDLAND" as the "deeper" work, containing a bit more subtext and meaning. At least, that's how it feels to me. I don't know if I could tell you why I feel that way... maybe I've just lived with it longer, or maybe I feel like that series asks bigger questions. With "Butcher Baker," it's pure exploitation/grindhouse comix... while GØDLAND, on some level, actually struggles with the nature of existence, within the genre it occupies. And if its reach exceeds its grasp, well... that's just how it goes sometimes. At least there's some fucking ambition involved. "Butcher Baker" involves its own kind of ambition, but it's much more puerile.

It's not as if "Butcher Baker" has nothing on its mind, though. You must be saying something when you include Jay Leno, Dick Cheney and Buford T. Justice in a story with superhero trappings. And that's just for flavor. Or is it....just for flavor?

Again, I don't think you can have too much flavor, can you? Look at most mainstream superhero comics... could they be any blander than they seem to be right now? That's the elephant in the room, isn't it? When something as mindless and chaotic as "Butcher Baker" actually stands out, at least some of it has to do with the company it keeps. If there's a "message" to the series at all... then maybe it's some kind of wake up call to all the Marvel and DC books out there that actually think they're pushing the envelope, when it's all just more of the same ol', same ol'. Granted, that's not a crime... I think that, in this day and age, those companies happily exist primarily to give the readership a steady diet of comfort food crap, to keep them fat and happy. That's fine. Hell, it's the American Way, isn't it? Of course, they say our nation's overall obesity levels are off the charts...

"Butcher Baker" may have its share of empty calories, but your brain'll never get fat and lazy from reading it. To me, that's something, at least...

It does seem that there's an encroaching -- or, beyond encroaching, and by-now-pervasive -- lifelessness with the comics that show up on the shelves of direct market retailers. You've certainly talked about some of these kinds of things already in your "Butcher Baker" backmatter essays.

But is the average Marvel/DC comic now really any worse than it was five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago? Just looking at some mediocrity in the Top 25 of any given year you get: Brad Meltzer's Justice League (2007), Chris Claremont's X-Treme X-Men (2002), Peter David's Spider-Man 2099 (1992), late-phase Cary Bates Superman (1982), Gerry Conway Daredevil (1972).

Is the seeming blandness a real thing, or a perception by an aging fanbase who has already experienced thousands of versions of these stories?

Well, now you're just lobbing me the ball... I can go title-to-title here. Although, I dunno about this "Top 25" shit, but in 1972, Marvel was publishing Steve Englehart's first superhero work in "Amazing Adventures" and DC was publishing Kirby's Fourth World books. In 1982, Marvel was publishing Miller's last year of "Daredevil" and DC was publishing "The Great Darkness Saga" in "Legion of Super-Heroes" (and we were less than a year away from "Ronin" and "Thriller"). In '92, Grant's "Doom Patrol" still had the DC bullet on it and Marvel was publishing Evan Dorkin's "Bill & Ted" comic. Once you get into the 2000's, I take myself out of the name game, since I was actually working in the business.

My point being, in every other era you picked -- I'm assuming at random -- I could find something interesting and unique (at least, for its time) being published by the Big Two. That atmosphere does not exist now, no matter what they try and tell you. It's a sad thing, but only if you read Marvel and DC superhero comics exclusively.

So... is it blander now than it was back then? Fuck, yes! But only at Marvel and DC. Otherwise, it's like a Technicolor explosion of cool shit flying around in every direction. But now it's all being published out of houses like Image Comics, which is the only way something like "Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker" was ever going to exist.

Obviously that was a bit of a softball to you there (and, yeah, those eras were picked randomly), though you smashed it across the parking lot pretty quickly. So let's get into the real story a bit more deeply. If those other eras -- every other era that I threw at you -- had distinctive, boundary-smashing comics coming out from either Marvel or DC or both, what makes this current era different? Why is Image, where most creators make very little money, the place for something interesting to happen? Why not at Marvel and DC? Or, better, why then but not now?

I think, in what I lovingly refer to as the "so-called mainstream" of American comics, it was still a pretty rag-tag industry, fairly well hidden within the wider cultural landscape. But, in a weird way, that kind of anonymity breeds a certain type of ambition. When no one's looking, you tend to push the envelope even more. Plus, there wasn't really anywhere else to go, if you wanted to apply that ambition to superheroes specifically.

In a way, aside from the ownership aspect of things -- which is a big fucking deal, but let's stay on topic -- the monetary circumstances that most Image creators work under is somewhat similar, say, Marvel Comics in the early 1970s, where a creator probably made 10-20 bucks per page (plus, there was no royalty program in place). Forget about adjusting that figure for the era, that was not a lot of money to live on... you might as well be working for free (which is what I do on each and every creator-owned project I do). So those guys -- Englehart, Gerber, Starlin, etc. -- were really doing it out of love. Which is why, the minute they got fucked with, editorially, they were gone. These days, you can make a pretty decent living writing for Marvel and/or DC Comics, but the trade-off is that you have an editorial phalanx telling you what to write. But, for me and I think a lot of other creators, we weren't attracted to the art form because we thought it would be fun to have our creativity limited or, worse yet, dictated to us. Can you imagine some random editor at either company giving me notes on "Butcher Baker"? Forget about the content, I'm talking about notes on how it's written, the narrative tricks I employ, the shifting POVs, the way I cut from scene to scene, the words I put into the characters' mouths... that's a bit of my personality on display -- as it is with most creator-owned work, I think -- and I wouldn't want any editor getting in the way of that.

How does all of this relate to your Man of Action work, on the new "Spider-Man" animated series, or the various "Ben 10s," or whatever else is going on over there in Hollywood? There's this trend toward larger, systematic narrative visions from the editorial/creative retreats in comics, and that seems somewhat similar to what must happen with the production of a television show.

But why is that the way television shows are written? And does that kind of approach make sense for comics?

I suppose the approach makes sense when you're trying to legitimatize an industry that's previously been known for its haphazard business practices. And as soon as "Hollywood" and the comics industry started to cross-pollinate, the comics industry started to act more like Hollywood, usually in all the worst ways. As if a publisher acting like a second-rate television network was going to make it more attractive for a creator to want to write or draw for them...

In television, the writers room/"written by committee"-method is often a way to increase production, to get shit happening sooner and on a more cost-effective level. And I get that. Hell, I'm knee-deep in it. But television is mainly about making a product, and it's only been recently -- like, the past ten or fifteen years -- that television has actually gotten good. Live action, I mean. Ironically, it's as if TV took some of the best aspects of creating comicbooks and applied them in just the right ways... the singular creative visions, the long form storytelling, the exploration of continuity, the myth building, etc...

So, to answer your first question, the MOA-specific work brings my comic books into greater focus. I'm currently standing on both sides of the fence, I'm seeing the grass on either side and I damn well know which is greener. Which is why you won't see a "Butcher Baker" animated series anytime soon.

Just to jump back to "Butcher Baker" itself -- as a comic book -- you refer to it as "grindhouse/exploitation" and "empty calories," and while its story snarls onto the page in that kind of mold, you seem to have an agenda on your mind from the very first issue.

In the backmatter, you say, "The fact is, the big Work-For-Hire Publishers are currently mired in a swirling stew of impenetrable continuity and overly (and hopelessly dated) decompressed storytelling and all the daring experimentation that occurred there in the early 2000's seems like a distant memory."

You send a message there, and throw Butcher Baker at the readers (and the industry) as an antidote to the turgid mainstream. But while Butcher Baker is hyper-accelerated and frenetic and overloaded with sex and violence, it ends with an explosion that the title character detonates as he says, "Guess I'm not one for symbolism. Such as it is." Yet, of course, the characters actions, and the character himself, is pure symbolism. A super-patriot who used to punch out terrorists while lofting his shield, but now he's old and oversexed and doesn't have time to waste.

So what's going on there? And how does the self-aware and unafraid-to-rock-the-boat Joe Casey of the backmatter match up with the lack of self-awareness in the cynical superhero pastiche of the comic itself?

First thing's first... Miller's "Daredevil" was an "empty calories" series. Pure pulp nonsense. So was Simonson's "Thor." So was the Wolfman/Perez "Titans." As a junk food junkie, I think empty calories can be a great thing. And I also think that superhero comics, even the most disposable ones, are chock full of symbols (and/or pastiche, depending on how you wanna look at it). They can't help it. Might as well snuggle up to the fact, if you're going to make them for a living.

But I get what you're asking. Aside from the "more bang for your buck"-tactic that the backmatter essays serve to provide, I fully admit there is a bit of "do as I say, not as I do"-bullshit at work. But, in a weird way, I've branded myself based partially on my obvious contradictions as a creator in this industry. I've embraced those contradictions. Now, for the most part... I do this completely on purpose, because that perception actually frees me up to do whatever kind of work I want. I can do "Butcher Baker" and "GØDLAND" and sit on my creative high horse while simultaneously producing "Ultimate Spider-Man" and a bunch of other animated TV shows and not be accused of being a complete sellout. At least, not to my face...

In the case of comic books and how they relate to my career now, there's really two brands being built simultaneously... the work itself and me, as the creator. "GØDLAND" will one day stand on its own as a complete work, but as a creator, I have to keep moving, keep working, keep redefining what I do. I'm like a shark, constantly in motion. Plus, I've been doing this long enough now that no one project is ever going to be an accurate reflection of who I am in an overall sense. Put them all together, and maybe there's a larger picture. But even then, I don't know if I'm that kind of creator. Someone like Paul Pope, you can see the obvious connective tissue between "Heavy Liquid," "100%," "One Trick Rip-Off," "Escapo," "THB" and even "Batman: Year 100." In many ways, they're all of a piece, even beyond the fact that he drew all of it. But that's not really how I work... and not just because I'm a writer who doesn't draw. Every project seems to stand on its own, there aren't a lot of readers who stop to consider my "body of work" (such as it is). Spurgeon had a pretty good take on it a few years ago, but I think I've evolved even beyond that.

Like I said before, with "Butcher Baker," there is an inherent message... but it's more about execution rather than story. The story really doesn't matter. So far, it's been a roller coaster revenge tale with a few gnarly twists along the way. With "Butcher Baker" -- the comic book series -- what I'm really saying to everyone else who makes superhero comics is, "Don't look at the pretty face, and don't look for the heart... but check out the size of its balls."

So it's all about intent, then? Trying for something more? The effort rather than the result?

How do you reconcile your seemingly contradictory views on Art, then? Not "art" as in the drawings on the page, but what you talk about as capital-A Art in the backmatter of "Butcher Baker" #2? You write, "Art exists as an absolute. After all, you can't grade personal expression, can you?" Then you go on to say, "...you cannot define Art. Simply put...Art is."

But yet you hold certain works of comic book Art higher in regard than others (as do I), mostly based on a works ability to do something more spectacular than the other comics of the time.

So, are the bland, mediocre superhero comics of today still Art, and, if so, then how can you say they have any less value than anything else that's out there. At a certain point, don't you have to take a stand for one kind of Art being better -- at least for you -- than other kinds of Art, and in that case, aren't you exactly doing what you say you can't do, "judging personal expression"?

I don't think it's a semantic argument, by the way. I think this is the very core of "Butcher Baker" -- attacking notions of art and story and peeling back expectations around them to try to find meaning, even if, as you say, there's an emptiness inside.

There are definitely certain comic book works that hold a special place in my heart. But, then again, that's down to personal affection, not so much a critical judgment on quality. In those instances, when it comes to the "ability to do something more spectacular than other comics," I would now say that, for whatever reason, they simply touched me. A lot of people thought "Thriller" (by Fleming and Von Eeden) was incomprehensible crap when it first came out. But in my pre-teen opinion at the time, it was genius. Now, that doesn't make it a better comic if you put it under the critical microscope, but I was and still am entitled to my opinion.

The "mediocre" superhero comics... I'd call them that because they're not doing anything for me. And I look around, it seems that quite a few folks share that opinion. I also know a lot about how the sausages are made, so it's tough to separate insider knowledge from simple consumer opinion. Obviously, I can take a step outside of my own opinions and factor in a little perspective... that's where I understand that Art -- something created from nothing meant to communicate ideas or emotions -- is beyond judgment.

With "Butcher Baker," it's not about everyone thinking it's cool, like some sort of PR-engineered groupthink bullshit. I think it challenges each individual who picks it up to form their own opinion, based on their own, personal views about comicbooks, what they like/dislike and why they like/dislike it. That's the stand I'm taking with the book. Hopefully, the form I'm fucking around with is how readers receive their Art, how they take it in, and what those expectations really are...

As "Butcher Baker" #8 comes out this week is there anything else you'd like readers to consider? Or anything you'd like to remind them about that we haven't had a chance to talk about?

I would say, to the readers out there, I'm sorry for the delay, but clearly we're back on track. If it's possible -- and I'm kinda feeling like, for most readers, it is -- ignore the months-long delay and pretend this came out just thirty days after issue #7, which is how it was meant to be all along. Just try to jump back on this runaway train like it never stopped. I mean, c'mon, if you like superheroes that indiscriminately let their big dicks hang out, if you like super-villains who can't keep their personal, religious epiphanies in the proper perspective, if you like wild-ass car chases and fiery fucking explosions, then this is definitely the comicbook for you.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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