Joe Keatinge loves comics. He loves reading them -- the writer's currently reading through Dave Sim's epic self-published black and white series "Cerebus" now -- and he loves making them. You can see how much with his current monthly books from Image Comics "Hell Yeah" and "Glory," the first completely creator-owned, the second one the many critically acclaimed relaunches of Rob Liefeld's Extreme Comics properties.
"Hell Yeah" follows the adventures of Ben Day, a super-powered young man who discovers that his alternate dimension counterparts are being picked off one by one and he's the next target, while "Glory" features the titular warrior woman training a young girl named Riley to help her fight an intergalactic war. While the books differ in content, they share Keatinge's desire to have a lot of fun with the comic book medium. Unfortunately, they also differ in sales, with "Glory's" sales slipping necessitating a price hike from $2.99 to $3.99 with November's #30 in order to keep the book alive. CBR News spoke with the writer to get the low down on "Glory" and "Hell Yeah," find out how "Cerebus" is influencing his writing, and discover how he dealt with the worry of leaving his secure job to write comics.
CBR News: It must have been nerve-wracking leaving your job at Image to write comics. Has it been gratifying seeing props from reviewers, fans and fellow creators?
Joe Keatinge: It's certainly appreciated. Taking the leap from a full-time job with a regular paycheck and health insurance to a full-time job with -- well, who knows? Comics doesn't promise anything. Jack Kirby says they'll break your heart. There were almost two years of build-up and set-up to launching my books after I left Image. There was a lot on the line for me. Heck, in a lot of ways, there was everything. I had no idea what to expect.Â That said, obviously, I'm very happy and grateful at the reception. In the end, I'm most focused on creating comics I'm passionate about.
You mentioned all the build-up, but now that you're actually writing monthly books, has it been a challenge keeping multiple ongoings moving along at the same time?
It's definitely a huge challenge that requires a lot, but there's nothing else I would rather do. I'm not doing comics so I can "generate IP" or whatever. I want to create comics because there's no other medium on Earth that I'm as driven by. Would I love to write novels, video games, teleplays or screenplays? Yeah, absolutely, but comics is where my heart's at.
With a book like "Hell Yeah" where you're balancing a small army of characters and different dimensions, how do you keep track of all your beats and stories? Do you use notecards, have a wipe board or is it all in your head?
A lot of "Hell Yeah" has been mapped out for a really long time, which I feel is both a blessing and a burden. When I started I had this massive spreadsheet detailing everything that would happen -- where characters would go, how they would die and where it was going from there. Having worked through the first storyline I feel having things so meticulously planned out can be a bit of a restraint.
There was an interview with [Rob] Liefeld not long ago where he talked about how he treats every issue of every comic he works on like it'll be cancelled next month. I've taken this mentality with "Hell Yeah" going forward. I still have my plans and any mysteries I've already introduced maintain the same planned resolutions as they had before, but I've lost the need to hold tight onto other plans made years ago.
Its been massively freeing. The first four pages of issue #6 pretty much embody what I'm talking about. They introduce a new mystery I didn't plan before and while I have the resolution already planned now, it was exciting to create something new for this book I've previously thought about for so long. It certainly improves the experience of writing it. I'm very curious how it'll read.
Along those same lines, you obviously had a lot planned out for the first few issues of the series, but how far ahead do you have "Hell Yeah" mapped out?
I know what the last issue will be. I know what the last words spoken will be and just how the "Previously..." in issue #1 plays into it all. That said, it's a road map, one I've decided to improv directions on and allow for detours. There are stops I need to make on the way, but just how I'll get there is going to be a lot looser going forward.
How has your working relationship with artist Andre Szymanowicz changed now that you have five issues in the can?
I don't know that our relationship has necessarily changed. The guy has been one of my best friends for years, so we pretty much have a set way we interact and deal with each other. We're extremely forward with each other, which I believe makes us a good team. I think if you compare the work both of us did in issue #1 to what we've done in issue #5 you'll see a massive difference on both ends. I credit that to our working relationship.
What can you tell us about upcoming issues of "Hell Yeah?" You mentioned a mystery you hadn't planned on initially, can you tease that at all?
"Hell Yeah Vol. 1: Last Day On Earths" comprises the worst day of Ben's life, which takes him from being a bit of a self-centered college student to someone who's forced to deal with the larger world. A world that happens to be comprised of super-people. #6 really begins the meat of the series, where this guy goes from there, the complexity of the world he has to deal with. It's a huge departure from the first five issues in a lot of ways. That worst day of his life made him grow up really fast. He takes on a new responsibility going forward. And the action gets insane. Things start moving at a much faster clip.
The first four pages of #6 start the mystery I was talking about earlier. I think page four in specific is definitely one of the series' biggest "holy shit" moments thus far.
Moving over to "Glory," which stars a young girl learning to fight at the feet of an intergalactic warrior, what kind of unique challenges has that dynamic given you as a writer?
The relationships in "Glory" are what I'm most into writing. In a way, that's really what the book is about. The relationships we develop in life, the families we build out of the people we meet as we grow older. How our dynamics with our family evolve or degrade over time. Individual people have inspired the series more than anything else. Yeah, it's done with a backdrop where people tear each other's arms off or whatever, but at the core -- the relationships are what it's actually about.Â
Youthful dialog can be a tough nut to crack, has it been difficult writing a convincing kid in Riley?
That's really for the reader to judge. I personally love writing Riley. Whenever our run ends I will miss her perhaps more so than any other character in the book. Writing convincing dialogue comes more from keeping an open ear than the process itself. Although, as the process goes on, you definitely find out the character's voice. I feel like I know Riley now more than ever. I've also figured out whose voices inspire her the most and was pretty damn surprised.Â
Beleszava, the flying, laser-eyed tiger beast from "Glory" #28, might be one of the coolest designs in a comic in a while. How long has that one been kicking around your head? Has this book been a good outlet for longstanding ideas or have you been coming up with them as you go?
A lot of things are very tightly mapped out. The double page spread in "Glory" #28 wasn't Beleszava's first appearance. She's been kicking around since the first issue, just subtly.
On the other hand, Ross [Campbell] and I allow the freedom for us to do things on the fly. In the case of Beleszava, I originally just had her leaping down and tearing out the entrails of the guy she's attacking. However, I felt it was lacking. Entrails are spilling all over "Glory." It needed something... else.
That's when I reminded myself that this was Comics, big C, and that means we can do whatever the Hell we want. So, I wrote in that she can shoot lasers out of her eyes. Why? Because a giant battle cat with wings leaping down on a monster shooting lasers out of its eyes is fucking awesome.
It's exhilarating to have those types of things explode out of the creative process. I think if you restrain yourself too much to prior plans -- something I feel I'm personally guilty of in the first five issues of "Hell Yeah," as mentioned -- you're not fully utilizing the potential of the medium. Comics should be electrifying in the creation process. There's no point to comics to be timid, restrained. Having a partner like Ross who can visually execute that electric charge at such a high voltage, so to speak, and share it with the reader... that's rare.
The sales on "Glory" have slipped a bit leading to a price bump. Some have speculated it's because the book features an almost all-female cast, but do you think that's the case?
Man, I hope "some" are wrong. That would be incredibly depressing.
I'm not really sure what to say about the sales. They're not exactly in the shitter, but they obviously necessitated a price bump.
"Glory" is, far and away, the most critically-acclaimed project I have ever been involved in. Best reviews, the most feedback, the most pure exhilaration from readers I meet. Even though "Popgun" won both an Eisner and a Harvey it feels like the reception to "Glory" has been even more enthusiastic. So why doesn't that translate into huge sales?
I have no idea. You could cite the market, but "Hell Yeah" is doing exceptionally well. You could cite the legacy numbering, but I don't buy that as not everyone started reading "Amazing Spider-Man" at issue #1. And I mean, whatever on the story, Ross Campbell is creating some of the most beautiful art on the stands from any company.
I will say, if by some means it was proven to be because of an almost all- female cast, I would take that as a sign to do more comics with all- female casts. My mind continues to be boggled by the phrase "strong female character" being used as a compliment to an exception. It should be the damn rule. A comic with an all-female cast shouldn't be some weird anomaly. It should be standard.
I don't even say this with any political agenda -- the fact that's even implied bugs me enough -- the way people perceive it being strange for over one half of the human population being primarily featured in any form of art and storytelling is downright disturbing.
With the price raise, it's clear that you and Image both believe in the book and have plans for it. What can you tell us about those plans?
The price bump is there so we can reach our natural conclusion and that's what we're building towards right now.
When I first took on the assignment, my gut instinct was to map out this huge, sprawling epic that would span dozens upon dozens of issues. I did just that -- created this huge plan for where everything would go. I had a set ending that would take us to "Glory" #100, which would make it 70-something issues for Ross and me. However, as I started writing the actual scripts, getting more and more into the characters and story it became clear it wasn't really that type of story. It was something smaller, more personal, which probably sounds odd for a series known for its ultraviolence. As I mentioned, my favorite thing about the book are the relationships and it became apparent pretty quick the threads those relationships weaved had a natural conclusion much, much sooner than I anticipated. I gotta stress, if this series sold 200,000 a month, I would be saying the same thing. Maybe another team would take over in that case, but Ross and I would still go.
Anyway, the story just doesn't work anymore if it goes on sprawled out like I originally intended. I'm very happy with where we're heading to now, but it's going to be pretty bittersweet. I got attached to these characters in a way that makes ending even their natural conclusion heartbreaking. But it's the ending Ross and I want.
I do have to publicly thank Rob Liefeld and [Image Comics Publisher] Eric Stephenson for ensuring the full story does get told. You don't always get that opportunity and it means a lot that they're giving us the proper send off.
You have a story in the CBLDF Annual. What can you tell readers about that? How is it working with Mike Allred again? What does he bring to the table on a creative front?
Here's an exclusive announcement: our story is the first official "Hell Yeah" crossover, "Madman Vs. Hell Yeah," written by me, illustrated by Mike, colored by Laura [Allred] and lettered by my pretty-close-to-exclusive letterer, Douglas E. Sherwood. So even on just a craft level it's a blend of each part of each book. On a story level -- well, I don't want to say much about it. What I will say, it's definitely informed by first reading the Tundra-published "Madman" #1 in Santa Monica, CA's now sadly defunct Superior Comics and having my young mind warped by this black, white and blue "superhero" comic where a dude eats someone else's eye then has an existential crisis. All with some odd border under the panels and a flipbook on the corner. "Madman" really hit me hard.
There are moments in "Madman Vs. Hell Yeah" illustrating Madman's entire run, but there's a lot more to it than being a fan letter to the series. However, I'd rather people experience it for themselves. On a technical level, it's ultra compressed comics without any of the tropes of typically compressed comics. There are not an overly dense amount of panels or dialogue, but it condenses down a crossover miniseries into four pages.
I think what Mike and Laura bring to the table is that they're Mike and Laura Allred. They're top class cartoonists and colorists respectively. This will be the second go 'round I've had in working with them -- the first being the "Next Issue Project #1: Fantastic Comics" #24 story, 'Stardust the Super Wizard' -- and it's been hugely educational each time. Collaborating with people like them makes you a better creator.
I know from Twitter you've been reading through Dave Sim's "Cerebus" lately. Has that influenced your process at all?
I first attempted to read through "Cerebus" over ten years ago and stalled out at 'Reads.' I just couldn't make it through the Viktor Reid material. This time around I found that stuff enthralling. I think having a decade of work in comics publishing shed a different light on the proceedings. Same with the beginning of the Viktor Davis stuff. The end of it... well... I'll get to that in a sec.
I feel the decade of personal experience also makes me appreciate just how brilliant the political satire of High Society is, to the religious examinations in 'Church & State' and 'Rick's Story.' It's definitely a different read this time around. In a way, I'm glad it's worked out that I didn't make it through until now.Â
Word's still out in just how "Cerebus" affects me on a whole. I'm trying to reserve judgement or consciously thinking through its influence until I've completed the run. Right now I'm on 'Going Home,' which I can say is absolutely one of the most beautiful comics I've ever read. I mean, I have over a hundred pages left to go, so I have no idea how it gets resolved, but my God -- the work Sim and Gerhard do together is nothing short of phenomenal.
I think it's a damn shame the controversy over Sim's beliefs -- specifically about women at the end of 'Reads' -- overshadows the creative achievement these two accomplished. For the record, I'm also not at a place where I want to publicly comment on said beliefs to any great extent. For now, I'm only discussing the craft.
Anyway, my career has been primarily focused on creator-owned comics thus far. My first job was color flatting "Savage Dragon." Then I worked at Image for almost six years in all sorts of positions. I already mentioned "Popgun."
As a writer, my first releases were either creator-owned by me or the person hiring me for said work. I felt that it was important to finally read through a work that was so essential to inspiring people in creating their own comics. I feel we take it for granted now. Some twenty year-old in Canada self-published a Conan parody which transformed into a 6,000-page epic life story of a mercenary becoming a prime minister becoming unemployed becoming prime minister again becoming a pope becoming a fugitive becoming a bartender becoming... well, I'm finding out now.
That's over 300 self-published issues that mostly maintained a regular schedule, finishing on the month he always said it would. At this point I've had five issues of my own creator-owned book come out and that's with a publisher backing me up. It's not an easy task. To think he did it, at a time when he had to establish his own market and distribution during the 1970s when even the direct market was still a relatively new concept, is phenomenal. The fact it survived so many turbulent times -- the 1980s black and white boom/bust, the 1990s distributor wars, and so on -- just makes me even more enthralled with the achievement.
In a way, it's sort of my version of creator-owned pilgrimage, making my way through this huge work when I'm at a relative beginning point. I think it's something everyone wanting to make creator-owned comics should go through.
Its certainly been educational. Just what that education ends up inspiring, well, again, word's still out.
I will say I'm largely enjoying it though. Are there things I take issue with? Absolutely, but I think if you only read literature you won't take offense to, you're going to end up pretty boring. Even with that material aside -- again, I never hear 'Going Home' in specific talked about. At best I hear about how amazing the lettering is in the latter quarter of the series. And yes, the lettering is some of the best the field's ever seen, but my God, these landscapes Gerhard's illustrating belong on a museum wall. The relationship between Cerebus and Jaka plays out -- thus far -- true to life; I can't stress "thus far" enough. Right now they just started hanging out with an F. Scott Fitzgerald stand-in and it's enjoyable.
I've also been surprised how much I'm enjoying things I hear people blast a lot of the time. One of my favorite volumes has been 'Melmoth,' which is primarily about the death of Oscar Wilde. I could see how it might've been frustrating to read on a monthly basis, especially since Cerebus spends most of it in shock, but I found it incredibly engrossing. It's made me tempted to do stuff like that in my own books. There are two events I'd love to touch on, even briefly -- specifically Bud Cort finding out Ruth Gordon passed away and then the last days of Wally Wood. I've never thought of incorporating those into my own comics, but it's becoming very tempting. For now, Ernest Hemingway's incorporated into "Glory" as of issue #29.
Anyway, the point is: everybody go read "Cerebus."
"Thanos: Son of Titan" hit a snag at Marvel, but are you talking with Marvel and DC about other projects?
There's a whole lot more than talk going on. At Marvel, I can't exactly say what just yet, but Steve Wacker announced immediately after the "Thanos" cancellation came to light that I was doing something for the Spider-Man office. Same with Rich Elson, the "Thanos" illustrator. They've been amazing to work with -- from Steve and Sana Amant to Axel Alonso and C.B. Cebulski to Ryan Penagos, Arune Singh and James Viscardi and a ton of people in between. Everyone there made me feel very welcome. I'm a very happy guy over at Marvel. Am I disappointed "Thanos" hit said snag? Yeah, absolutely. Â It was a huge labor of love for me. That said, I'm way more exhilarated by what the future's bringing with them. Marvel's a very exciting place to be right now.
At DC... well... that would be interesting, wouldn't it?
What's the status of "Brutal," your book with Frank Cho? Is it still set to come out this year?
We're still planning on it coming out eventually. All things in retrospect, I think Frank and I were just too stoked to keep the project to ourselves and jumped the gun a bit. He's a very enthusiastic guy, as am I, and "Brutal"'s very much something we wanna do. Frank's got his Marvel series to draw and I've got a bunch of stuff to write, so the time's not right at this moment. When it happens, it'll be well worth the wait.
While waiting for Keatinge's Marvel work and the debut of "Brutal" from Image, be sure to check out the first "Glory" TPB and "Hell Yeah" #5 on September 5 and "Glory" #29 October 17th.