Joe Casey's "Vengeance" -- Part 2

Last week, Joe Casey and I began a conversation about his upcoming work on the "Vengeance" miniseries at Marvel. That discussion prompted polarized responses from readers, with some calling it a "great interview" and "refreshingly honest," while others called Joe's attitude "too cool for school," and the interview "uninsightful."

This second, and final, part of the conversation might answer a few more questions about what "Vengeance" is actually about, but it certainly doesn't tread too heavily into what the plot might be. And that's fitting, as you'll see, since Joe didn't exactly provide an airtight plot schematic of the series when he started writing issue #1.

So let's pick up where we left off last week, with Joe claiming that "Vengeance" won't change the Marvel Universe, but it may change the way readers look at the Marvel Universe.

Tim Callahan: Changing the way a reader looks at the Marvel Universe seems like a much more interesting approach anyway. I mean, who cares if the Marvel Universe changes? Everyone knows it's just going to change back, or change a different way, or both, within a couple of years. But if you can change the reader's orientation, that's the real deal. That's what sticks. That's what all the great comics have done, haven't they? 

Did the Moore/Bissette/Totleben "Swamp Thing" change the DCU forever? Not really. But it changed the way a generation of readers looked at DC comics.

Are you saying "Vengeance" is the Alan Moore "Swamp Thing" of 2011, Joe? Is this the book that's going to win all the Eagle Awards next year?

Joe Casey: Nah, it's only a goofy little comic book that stars a new Teen Brigade, revamps the Young Masters, puts a shiny new gloss on an old Jim Starlin character, tells the next chapter in the saga of the Last Defenders, gives readers a concise update -- not to mention some pointed commentary -- on the status of Marvel's most iconic villains and contains as many Easter Eggs as I could possibly fit into each issue. It's looking at Marvel Comics and driving a stake through the heart of the Aughts without sliding back into some weird nostalgia for the Shooter era or, Heaven forbid, the DeFalco years. 

'Course, I've only just finished writing the second issue, so who the hell knows how things are gonna turn out with this thing. I've got four more issues for this series to morph and grow into something even more unmanageable than it has been so far. But, y'know, that's part of the fun of it all. I'm not sure I could write a work-for-hire book any other way right now.

Eagle Awards? Do they still give those out?

They will resurrect the Eagle Awards just for your book.

Okay, I will probably get nailed with emails telling me the Eagle Awards do still exist. I know they do, and I know they were recently handed out for 2010, but guess what? They don't matter one bit anymore. Except when you sweep all the categories with your dangerous 21st century superhero non-crossover event that no one will read except me and Chad Nevett. Did you mention the Jim Starlin character just to make him start to quake with anticipation?

So, wait. You don't have the whole thing plotted out? You're writing a miniseries issue-by-issue and improvising as you go? Has Dragotta done any of the art yet, besides some character designs?

Well, like I said, the first two issues are written, Dragotta's probably halfway through drawing the first issue. Initially, I turned in a rough outline, basically just to clue the editor in on the general direction I'm going. I've got most of my set pieces laid out, but the real connective tissue, the character stuff, I'm making up as I go, writing a lot on instinct. Maybe it's not quite as haphazard as it sounds. I'm just giving myself plenty of space for inspiration to hit. But I'm pretty sure there's going to be a city-wide rave happening in Doomstadt, Latveria in issue #6. But the details of that rave, the mechanics of it, how Caligula-like it might end up being, I'll have no idea until I get there.

For instance, in issue #2, I knew we were going to deal with Bullseye, his legacy, how it's continuing on (past his death) and what it means to the new generation characters. How did I know? Well, Bullseye's on the cover of issue #2, so that kinda settled that. But I really didn't know exactly what that would entail until I sat down to write it. I knew beforehand it would be the Young Masters vs. Lady Bullseye and I knew someone was gonna die a fairly grizzly death. But once I really had to think of how it all played out, that's when a decommissioned Extechop facility became the setting, that's when the idea of this twisted love scene came up. That's when I decided to do this hyper-detailed, moment-by-moment fight scene between Lady Bullseye and the Executioner. So, y'know, when it comes to stuff like that, I rely on whatever skills I might possess and the enthusiasm I have in the moment.

The development of this book was a little rough going at first, so that ate up some lead time I would've preferred to have, but I think we're cooking with gas now. There are Marvel books that I'm sure are on tighter schedules. I hope not, though.

Were all the covers completed in advance, leading you to write Weisinger-style, with the covers as the inspiration for the story inside? Is it one villain portrait per cover?

Are you actually insinuating that Marvel is in any way like DC Comics circa 1952?! I think they'd be insulted by that. It's not like these are gorilla-themed covers! Y'know, somewhere Mr. Weisinger is rolling over in his grave. In any case, it is that rare instance where the covers got done far enough in advance of solicitations and, yeah, they're all villain portrait covers. As they should be, I think. We're using those iconic characters in very specific ways. I guess you could say they provide the general theme of each issue.

What can you say about those themes, then? And do you normally write with a sense of theme as the driving force behind the story, or is theme something that emerges out of the way individual characters react to the particulars of the conflict?

I suppose I'm exploring the anarchy of youth, the confusion you deal with when you realize the world you thought you knew, the world you'd hope you could count on, is a much more complex place than you were prepared to deal with. That awareness usually occurs via a combination of age and education. For me, it happened around 15, 16 years old. I remember that shit slamming me pretty hard at the time. But I imagine it happens to kids these days at an even younger age, like around 12 years old. 

Now, you take that particular brand of adolescent angst and transfer it to teenagers existing in the Marvel Universe and you're off and running. If you look over the publishing history of the Marvel Universe, you could probably point to maybe three books that seemed to connect specifically on that teenage level: "Spider-Man," the original "New Warriors," and "Young Avengers." In fifty plus years, that's not a whole lot. Even Spider-Man didn't spend a lot of time in those teenage years, even though that's when he was at his most potent as a character.

And this applies to both heroes and villains. If you're a teenaged super-villain, just starting out, you might look around and see that all of what should be obvious role models are either dead, completely fucked up, or they've become one of the good guys. Or maybe you're aiming to be a superhero but you happen to think the Avengers and the FF have become fairly ineffectual, that they're not the pinnacle they used to be. So what do you do? What path do you take? That kind of shit -- in the context of a multi-faceted, franchise-filled superhero universe -- is fun to write about.

I'd add the Runaways to that list of Marvel-teens, and the supervillain/generation thing is more explicit there, but I see your point. In any case, most of those comics fall into the "Burden of X" category, not as in the X-Men, but as in: the Burden of Responsibility (Spider-Man) or the Burden of Living Up to Your Idols (New Avengers), all of which fit into the general Marvel Burden schema. "Fantastic Four" could be read as the Burden of Guardianship or Family. "Hulk" could be read as the Burden of Secret Shame, etc.

So is it safe to say that your take on the generational struggle in the Marvel Universe is less about the Burden of Youth and more about shaking things up? More about rebellion from the status quo? And is that your way to comment on the state of superhero comics, or is it just a parallel path?

I guess there's some commentary there, although it hadn't occurred to me until you just now mentioned it. But, hell, an inevitability of my writing these days is that it's always gonna be in there somewhere. I've written too many superhero comic books over the years to not do that, in some fashion. And, to carry on with your "Burden of..." theme, I'd probably go with the Burden of Discontent. Being a teenager with any sort of ambition that the world around you doesn't immediately facilitate is like having an itch that you just can't scratch. And there are all sorts of ways to explore that. The Teen Brigade has their own way of dealing with their general dissatisfaction of how the big, iconic superheroes are doing their job. The Young Masters have their own way of confronting the fact that Marvel's iconic super-villains simply aren't what they used to be.

And you're right. I forgot about "Runaways." Fuckin' hell. But, if I put some real thought to it, I might suggest that "Runaways" was more of a concept, more of a deliberate set-up, than simply plopping random teenaged characters into the modern Marvel Universe and seeing how they react.

True. "Runaways" didn't seem to need the Marvel Universe. The Marvel stuff ended up as more than just window-dressing, but the series wouldn't have been radically different -- at heart -- if it had been set outside of the Marvel U.

Here's something that popped into my head before I got sidetracked by the "Burden of..." train of thought: In "Vengeance," you're doing the Young Masters and exploring the rebellion of youth in a world that has become aged and withered. Over at Image, you're doing "Butcher Baker," which is about a late-in-the-game superhero who is a near parody of virility and machismo in his golden years. It's more than near parody, really, but I don't want to diminish it by saying it's just a parody. It's a post-parody, filled with bile and big rigs.
Is there symmetry between "Butcher Baker" and "Vengeance"? Are they two sides to some kind of coin I can't precisely describe? Are they compartmentalized in your mind, or is there some bleeding between the two?

Well, only three issues of "Butcher Baker" have come out, so it'll become more clear how I'm dealing with the "machismo" aspects of that character and that series. It's not what anyone is assuming, I can tell you that much.

However, I can say with some certainly that, these days, none of these books get compartmentalized when I writing them. There are elements of everything I'm doing that are bound to bleed into each other in all sorts of ways. At the moment, I'm definitely interested in writing pre-prime or post-prime characters. There's just more to work with there. 

I'm not sure how I'd approach writing any character that was considered "in their prime" at the moment. I have a sense that a lot of writers are experiencing that particular kind of confusion right now, even when it comes to the big iconic characters. Seems that way, anyway, from the stories that are being told. I do know that, when I was writing "Adventures of Superman" on a monthly basis, I was extremely interested in writing a modern, iconic superhero fully in his prime. It was definitely a challenge that I explored in different ways over the course of that run. Same with "Uncanny X-Men." When it comes to those popular franchise characters, I feel like the obvious cliche is to drag them through the mud, to lay them low, simply so you have the dramatic arc of building them back up, returning them to glory, etc. But it's more of a rush to attack them as characters at the top of their game and to find a new model of story that engages the reader on different levels than yet another variation on Campbell's hero's journey.

Wow. what a weird tangent that was. In any case, I think the real horse race is to see which is ordered more, the Marvel book or "Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker."

Probably the one with shirtless Doctor Octopus on the cover. Tough for Butcher Baker to compete with that, facial hair or not.

Lemme tell you something, Tim -- any version of Doc Ock not drawn by Steve Ditko would end up a smear under the rear wheel of the Liberty Belle in about two seconds...

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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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