One Last "Gødland" Conversation with Joe Casey

As I announced on Twitter last week, I will be wrapping up WHEN WORDS COLLIDE at the end of the year, stepping away from CBR after five-and-a-half years of weekly columns. In coming weeks, I'll have a year-in-review column, my Best of 2013 selections and a final exit interview conducted by an old colleague of mine. But for this week's column I had one last chance to talk to Joe Casey about "Gødland," a series reaching its end with the release of "Gødland Finale" this Wednesday.

"Gødland" was a series I first picked up with issue #1 at the very first Comic-Con International I attended, and I have certainly written about it a few times over the years -- most notably in "Gødland Celestial Edition Book 2," the oversized hardcover that features my lengthy essay on the series thus far, along with, oh, a couple hundred pages of Joe Casey and Tom Scioli magic -- and I've been interviewing Joe regularly over the past few years.

I just spoke with Joe Casey earlier this fall, about what was coming up in the "Finale," but I was able to read a sneak peek version of the final product, which, by the way, is a comic that may well end up making my "Best of" list even with only one issue released in 2013. Joe wasn't done talking about the series, so we talked again last week and here's THE FINAL JOE CASEY INTERVIEW (for "When Words Collide," at least), in which we talk about some of the stuff that's actually inside the "Gødland Finale" and what it all means, without spoiling a lot of the details for all of you unlucky souls who will still have to wait a few days to read the comic.

Tim Callahan: The "Finale" immediately launches us into the future. Why jump ahead 100 years, specifically?

Joe Casey: Y'know, it seemed like a nice, round number. We knew we wanted this story to take place in the "next millennium." That gave us some nice distance from the events of the series proper. Since the "Finale" is a coda to the rest of the series, there was this sense that it had to serve as both a first issue and a last issue simultaneously. And, even beyond all that, the series is fundamentally about evolution, so we wanted to try and actually show some.

When we last talked, you mentioned Stanley Kubrick and the "non-submersible unit" idea, so was "2001: A Space Odyssey" in your mind when thinking about this final issue and/or the series as a whole?

As far as the "Finale" goes, not the film specifically, but more the structure of it.  Kubrick definitely -- and deliberately, by all accounts -- changed the form with that one, and that's what I like to try and do in comic books, when I can. There's enough formula in mainstream comic books right now to last us all a good, long while. I'm certainly not claiming that this issue is the most radical thing you could do, in terms of storytelling. But it's at least a step or two away from those familiar formulas, which has basically devolved into serialized television writing -- quite a lot of which was probably stolen from goddamn comic books in the first place. So it's ironic that a lot of mainstream comics seem to play out like television series, in the macro and the micro. But, y'know, even Tom and I look at the "Finale" and wonder what it is, exactly. I think, even having been in the submarine for so long with this one, it's going to take a little while to figure out what we've done, what it means, all that stuff.

I don't know if I want to declare what I think it all means just yet, because it's not so simple to distill the entire scope of the series into a single thematic statement, but certainly an aspect of its meaning sits in the realm of "embracing Jack Kirby's influence and then moving beyond it." Do you see that as an intended purpose of the series? Is the "Finale" about embracing the "next-level" of Kirby's transcendent worldview or is it about new influences filtering through?

Well, I think even beyond Tom's initial style of artwork, we approached this whole thing with the idea of Kirby as its own genre: an over-the-top, balls-to-the wall way of presenting this kind of heroic fiction. Where bigger is always better. The grandest scale imaginable. But, I think you can see over the course of the series, there's always some push and pull happening. There's a tension there. We've never been slaves to that aesthetic. Tom would change his art style up, sometimes to mixed results, but he always had to freedom to do it. We realized early on that we're not trying to "re-create" anything -- we're using certain tools to create something all its own. For me, it's tough to avoid genre splicing, no matter what the project is. In this case, the idea was to splice the Kirby genre with even wilder influences. It's almost like a challenge you set for yourself -- is it possible to go bigger than Kirby? I would tend to bring things in like psychedelia and surrealism and a heavy dose of satire.

I do think that, especially as the "Finale" shows, my own personal worldview is very different from Kirby's. He was dealing primarily with mythology and finding some deeper meaning within mythology. Mine has more to do with personal transcendence, how people can incite their own individual evolution and especially how Art can play a vital part in that.

How much of the creation of the "Finale" was shaped by the stylistic variations Tom Scioli uses in the issue? You've talked about working Marvel-style on the series in the past, but I also know you wanted to more intentionally script the final couple of issues to wrap things up as best you could, so how much of the stylistic play was scripted and how much of it was bouncing off what Tom came up with on the pages?

Tom and I spoke pretty extensively going into the last two issues. We brainstormed a lot of concepts and basically reminded ourselves of some of the original intentions we had with the series. So, it turned out just as collaborative as it had always been, which I think was fitting. I had a few storytelling techniques I suggested, and Tom really nailed them, just as Tom suggested some things that we then incorporated into the book. There's a series of double-page spreads near the end -- that really make up one big image -- that's really our nod to the work of sci-fi illustrator Mike Hinge, someone who I'd known a little bit about previously, but Scioli really turned me on to his work in a big way. So, as usual, we're still pulling in inspiration from everywhere, from every direction, mashing it all together to make our own comic book statement.

Tell me more about that. What are some of the storytelling techniques you suggested, and what was the thinking there?

Honestly, it's kinda tough to go back and remember who thought of what, exactly. We just wanted this issue to be an experience, so in a lot of ways, it was "anything goes." I know there's a certain scene transition where I asked Tom to do a good, ol' fashioned '80s dissolve -- the kind of thing Frank Miller did a lot in "Ronin." Ours involved a Luxembourg castle and a snow globe. We also did some 9-panel grid work, which is not something we've done a lot of in the series. We did a very Starlin-esque "cosmic summation" page that turned out really well. And there's a sequence near the end where I had Tom leave room for a variation on the "info scroll" text bits I did way back in "The Intimates" series. So, y'know, things like that. The whole thing is really like a scratch remix of a lot of elements that Tom and I have either created for the series, or brought to it from our own, individual interests in the medium.

I don't think you and I have talked much about Jim Starlin's work in relationship to "Gødland," probably because the Kirby stuff is so much more obvious, but it seems like the "Finale" had a more Starlinesque flavor than even a cosmic summation would imply. If we can take a tangent into the realm of the Detroit cosmic for a moment, what about Jim Starlin's work really excites you? How do you think the Starlin influence has informed this series overall?

Well, to be perfectly honest, unlike your pal, [Chad] Nevett, I'm not a blanket, across-the-board Starlin fan. His work in the '70s is certainly the big deal to me. "Warlock" and "Captain Marvel" and all that stuff. But I had to go back and find those comics as back issues. The only pure Starlin work I bought when it was new was "Dreadstar," and I definitely loved that when I was a kid. But, after that, I kinda lost my mojo for him. But that's okay -- the work of his that I do love, I love pretty much unconditionally. At his best, he wasn't afraid to push the envelope of the form, synthesizing Ditko and Kirby and Steranko and coming up with something totally original. More importantly, he never shied away from the absurd, and would inject certain elements into his stories that, if you were just explaining them to someone, wouldn't seem like they would work at all. And yet, in the actual comic books, they always did. What that taught me was that no idea, no concept, no philosophy is too weird for comic books. Nothing should be off-limits. If you can think of it in your own head, then you can do it on the page.

What strikes me about both Starlin, to a lesser extent, and Kirby, to a massive extent -- and it's certainly true of "Gødland" -- is the idea of the comic book as a kind of super-symbol. I guess Grant Morrison would use the term "sigil," but that notion that comics are a kind of ultra-metaphor packed with a primal message seems like the core of what's going on here. I guess -- not just in "Gødland" but in other projects of yours, but we're here to talk about the "Finale" and so Adam Archer and the gang is as good a focus as any. If there's a question here, I'd say it would be this: what is it about comics that allow such storytelling at the almost purely symbolic level, and do you think of "Gødland" as a super-symbol more than a story about characters and experiences? Is there even a difference?

I suppose, in the case of the "Finale," what we're really dealing with is less of a full-on narrative and more of a series of deeper ideas. At best, they're slightly connected vignettes, really. Hopefully, it's the whole "non-submersible unit" approach in full effect. When it works, it all adds up to something a bit beyond a "story." And, even after all that higher level bullshit, this comic book was our attempt at maybe breaking down the current assembly line perception of this art form -- where even casual fans seem able to discern between "writing" and "line art" and "coloring" in their assessment of a comic book. Where a lot of reviewers have a knee-jerk habit of isolating every step of the process in their reviews. But that insider knowledge can rob you of experiencing something in a much more pure way. This was a stab at merging everything into one, single piece of Art again. The comic book that you hold in your hands, it's a lot more than simply the sum of its parts. There's a true alchemy that happens. Forget about the process, and just lean into the unique, one-of-a-kind experience of it all. It's got to be more than "well-written" or "well-drawn" -- we've got to move away from that kind of compartmentalization. It's got to stand -- in total -- as a complete statement on the glory of the medium itself.

But if I can push a little bit on this -- what is that "glory of the medium?" And what makes comic books the avenue for the message you want to get across, in a way that, say, a film might not have been? And is the genre of "Gødland" also its meaning? Does that even make sense?

Maybe not so much the genre, but the object itself -- and the approach we took with it. I think, when you read it, there's a sense of total creative freedom that comes through. Even more so than the very first issue of the series. In other words, this one feels more new to me than issue #1 did when it came out. Thirty-something issues into a series, that's a pretty rare feeling. Even creator-owned books can quickly get locked into their own thing -- even if that thing is something great, we tend to cling to whatever architecture that we set up for ourselves. Either the kind we already know about or the kind we wholly invent. Other mediums adhere to their formulas even more. The "glory" of the "Finale," for me, is that we felt like we could throw out a lot of the mechanics that we'd built the series on over its run. We consciously embraced a certain kind of freedom and looked at this issue with the idea of, basically, "What can a comic book do? What are its inherent values? What makes it unique as a medium?" Trying to answer those questions -- right there on the pages -- is the glory I'm talking about.

Do you think the "Finale" stands on its own as a work that has an internal meaning? It's coming out, not as issue #37 of the series, but as its own single issue thing, so I'm wondering (a) why you decided to go with that approach, and (b) what you think someone who had never read an issue of the series might think if they just read this one issue? Even in its newness, doesn't it leverage what has happened since -- like the final fate of Friedrich Nickelhead or where Discordia ends up -- in a way that only means something if you've read the previous 36 issues?

I guess we tried to have our cake and eat it, too. There are definite callbacks to certain elements of the first 36 issues, like the very examples you mentioned (and more), but we did try to present them as though it were a standalone piece. Like I said, going for a structure that could work for a first and last issue in equal measure. For someone coming to it cold, whoever that might possibly be, I still think it's a worthwhile experience -- it makes its own statement. It's like picking up any random back issue -- like any Jim Starlin "Warlock" or a Kirby "Eternals" issue -- and having to make your way through them based solely on the info provided in the issue itself. That's a pretty great thing, as far as I'm concerned. I still crave that experience when I go bargain bin diving. And I guess for the loyal, longtime reader, it's an Easter Egg hunt from start to finish, which can be a lot of fun, too.

What are the big lessons you'll take from your experience with "Gødland?" Or maybe some lessons you've already learned and applied elsewhere in your writing?

That's a tough question -- only because it sometimes takes a while to process these things. More than anything, right now I'm just feeling really grateful that we got to end it on our own terms. It all just seems like it was meant to be this way -- and finishing something with hardly any regrets is pretty goddamn satisfying, lemme tell you. I've had my share of corporate series yanked out from under me over the years, so this was a nice experience to the contrary.

Creatively, I'd like to think that in future projects, I can just push myself to go even further out on a limb, in terms of ideas and experimentation and maybe even pure craft. For me, this series -- and the "Finale" issue, in particular -- sets a pretty high bar. I'm just self-aware enough to know that it provides a certain context that can serve me well, moving forward. If the very existence of this series in my own body of work gives me something not only to live up to, but to surpass, that's a pretty good motivator for me, personally.

"Gødland Finale" is due in comic shops Wednesday, December 11.

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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