Up In The Sky…: Casey, Gray & Wright discuss Wildstorm's Eye Of The Storm

DC Comics publishes a lot of different comics under different imprints, but one imprint that defies easy labels is the Jim Lee founded Wildstorm line of comic books. It's "Eye of The Storm" mature readers imprint has provided readers with a decidedly different take on superheroes and CBR News caught up with some of the most popular creators on their books to explain what makes "Eye Of The Storm" so unique.

"Stormwatch" writer Micah Wright started, "The creators who are currently working in the Wildstorm Universe are a pretty varied bunch: you've got me, The Newbie; Joe Casey, The Rock Star and Ed Brubaker, reviver of 'Catwoman' and author of the best police procedural book in comics. Add in some of the best artists working, remove all of the 'rules' of working in a comic book universe and you've got a recipe for good books."

On a similar note, "Wildcats Version 3.0" scribe Joe Casey says that the older audience of his comrades' books helps to differentiate the work. "In the case of Eye Of The Storm, it's all about that Mature Readers label on the cover. That alone frees us up to do things with the superhero concept that you can't do anywhere else."

The characters in the Wildstorm Universe are also relatively new creations, generally free of the heavy continuity that encumbers most other superheroes and Wright provides an example of how that gives him freedom. "If I want to have one of the major characters in the Wildstorm Universe go crazy and kill the head of the United Nations, I can pretty much do that. If I want to create an excellent villain that everyone loves, only to kill him off three months later, I can do that, also. My only limitation is 'don't kill original members of the WSU unless it's for good effect.' In general, the rules at Wildstorm are pretty relaxed... there's no story meeting I have to go to with the other 90 writers working on a Spider-Man book of some kind where 'The Storyline For Next Year' is dictated to me. I'm allowed to write the types of stories I'm interested in reading. My job is not to service a corporate trademark in order to keep it viable for a film deal at some unknown future moment."

Without continuity, Casey says he's also free to shake things up and isn't forced to leave things as they began with any individual issue. "At Wildstorm, it's not about maintaining the status quo, which immediately sets us apart from everyone else," he contends. "In the DCU especially, there's always been an unspoken edict to maintain the status quo and not really experiment, conceptually, with the characters and what they can do in the world, despite the fact that it's a completely fictional world. They don't want you rocking the boat, lest the AOL/Time-Warner police come and arrest us all. But, for whatever reason, the Wildstorm Universe has always been about actively challenging the status quo and transforming it in various ways."

But the chances that these creators can take with Wildstorm are, on the surface, similar to what a creator could do at Vertigo and Image, but Wright says in his case, it was a matter of finding someone to publish his work. "In my case, WSU were the only people willing to listen. As I'm sure all of your readers know, it's exceedingly difficult to break into comics (as is generally the case with any field) and even now as a published writer with 19 issues in the can, 13 on the shelves and a trade paperback in the top thirty, I still can't get anyone at any other company to answer my emails or phone calls. As for Ed and Joe, I have to guess that it's due to the relative lack of 'rules' imposed on the WSU by editors and executives. Freedom to tell the story you want to tell means a lot to a writer."

In the case of writer Joe Casey, he's an established writer and had more choice in working with Wildstorm. "My relationship with Wildstorm goes back a few years now so I think I've engendered a degree of trust that allows me to experiment there. I feel like I've done my best work in comic books for Wildstorm so infecting them with something like 'Automatic Kafka' was a no-brainer. Frankly, Vertigo might be too editorially timid to publish anything like 'Kafka.'"

Writer Justin Gray, who's become well-known for his writing on the acclaimed "21Down," found his position at "Wildstorm" through hard work and a good contact. "I was lucky in the fact that my good friend and living legend Jimmy Palmiotti -- who you might recognize for his work on almost every comics title published -- was talking to Wildstorm about developing some projects and he graciously asked me to be a part of it. Jim Lee and the folks at Wildstorm were generous enough to overlook the fact that I was an unknown, something that other companies at the time weren't so eager to do. Obviously I have a great deal of respect for the way they treat creators because of that."

If you've read Gray's work with Palmiotti on "21Down," you won't be surprised to learn that he's a superhero fan, but believes it's hard to introduce new spandex clad characters in today's market. "I like superheroes as storytelling genre, but I find introducing new ones to be extremely difficult. I have this initial feeling of dread because the wealth of existing ideas and the problem of doing something unique in a market where the audience knows the genre intimately. The last thing you want to be is derivative and there's a sense of trying to reinvent the wheel especially where origins are concerned. That being the case I tend to focus on the personalities of the characters first, their hopes, dreams and motivations that, not so much the costume and powers, is what keeps people interested."

While the characters in "Stormwatch: Team Achilles" may be hunting superheroes and the titular hero of the DC Comics series "Vigilante" may not be your typical do-gooder, Wright shouldn't be labeled as an outright hater of superheroes- he just has specific tastes. "I am sometimes, I'm not other times. I feel that the 'Eye of the Storm' books are labeled 'Mature Readers Only' so I want to write stories I'm not going to find elsewhere. Politics is something that no one is willing to touch with a ten-foot-pole, especially in these histrionic and suspicious times, so that's what I write about. "

It's probably Joe Casey's name that's most associated with superheroes, having been involved strongly with Superman and the X-Men, but you'll see his most personal vision for super heroes in his Wildstorm work. "I have a warm spot in my heart for superheroes, since I read them almost exclusively as a young kid. Now, as an adult, I'm interested in the power of the concept on a cultural and socio-political level. In 'Wildcats Version 3.0' especially, you can see how the idea of the characters being superheroes is a jumping off point to deal with broader issues."

Looking at the superhero line up of Wildstorm comics, from Warren Ellis' groundbreaking work on "Authority" to Ed Brubaker's espionage and relationship heavy "Sleeper," it's obvious that on some level, the company is committed to producing superhero comics that push the envelope, not maintain the status quo. It might lead some to speculate that there's a mandate asking writers and artists to purposely raise the bar on the craziness of their lead characters, but Casey says that isn't the case, despite the intense amount of creativity flowing out of Wildstorm. "There's no mandate. I'm just trying to write stories that don't feel like the same old thing. I'm convinced that a lot of mainstream superhero creators seem to be trying to recreate or somehow reclaim the comic books of their childhood. They write and draw books that are probably damn close to what they read as kids. That's fine for them, but it just doesn't work with me. I've called it 'comfort food' in the past, and it's an apt description. On my best days, I think these books are as new and fresh as anything that's come out of the mainstream in the past few years."

Similarily, Wright says it all comes down to doing the essentials well and making sure you create a solid foundation. "Story is character and plot. Plot should derive from the natural actions of the characters you've set up... anything else just isn't satisfying or seems forced. I think that those of us working on Eye of the Storm titles have found a fertile ground at WS to do stories, which are more about character than stuff exploding. I mean, things explode in 'StormWatch,' but they do so for a reason deriving from character.

"I feel blessed that I share a label with other writers who approach the work in the same way. Joe Casey, Justin Gray, Ed Brubaker, Robbie Morrison... these are some of the best writers in comics these days and I'm proud to share a Universe with them."

If you're thinking of really taking things to the next level and defying expectations, Gray facetiously explains the pitch for a new series you'll be seeing from him at Wildstorm- co-written with Jimmy Palmiotti of course. "Originally I didn't give any thought to taking superheroes to the next level I simply write from my own perspective on things I'm familiar with, but since you posed the question I'm considering what the next step in the evolution might be. I think it is going to be something like 'Still Life With the Woodpecker,' maybe just 22 pages of a bunch of costumes on hangars talking about their experiences in the field, comparing villains and outlaws, stain removing techniques, which hero has the best hygiene-- that sort of thing. With so many heroes dropping their costumes in favor of a more realistic appearance I think its time the costumes had their own book."

Aside from pushing the boundaries for visual and creative concepts, "Eye of The Storm" superhero comic books also seem to each deliver distinctive messages, whether it be warnings of human nature or lessons on the politics of life. Some of the series even explore the positive effects that corporate America could have on the world and the complex situations that the military must face when it acts with integrity. "Genre can be a vehicle for self-expression, if you're committed to exploring that," contends Casey. "I think we generally deliver the basic requirements of superhero comicbooks every month, but the real meat is the singular voices that we all provide to each of our series. How 'bout that for cheerleading? Go team!"

In the case of Justin Gray, the writer says he needs to feel that the stories he produces means something and explains that he can't produce mindless fluff. "I don't see much of a point in writing anything that doesn't impact the reader on a personal level or stir up some internal response. I feel it's a disservice to the person that plunks down 3 bucks for a comic with my name on it if I'm writing simply to cash a check. As far as an underlying message, I'd like to think most people come away from reading '21Down' with a pretty good understanding that crime doesn't pay, but what I hear most often is 'Mickey's really hot.'"

Wright agrees with his Wildstorm comrades in arms and says that he sees the opportunities presented by Wildstorm as ones not to be missed, as they're unique in the industry. "Yes, I feel that we've been given a chance to push the boundaries of what is expected in a typical Superhero comic. It would be foolish of us not to accept the challenge. I think that a lot of fans have reacted negatively, and a lot have reacted really positively. Hopefully the vast majority who haven't ever read any of these books takes an opportunity to scan through a few of them someday. The least we promise is that we're trying something new."

Part of that something new that Gray mentions involves protagonists mired in shades of gray and choosing complex themes to permeate their books. Giving the perceived notions of the average comic book readers, one might assume that a casual reader would be turned away by protagonists who seem amoral rather than clear-cut "heroes." Some have even called the "Eye of The Storm" comics depressing because of all the moral ambiguity some characters display and turning away some characters with admittedly, more fleshed out characters, is something Micah Wright says he considers. "Yes, that is a worry, especially in comics. In most other types of storytelling, readers have been led to understand that heroic characters are often flawed people, but that doesn't seem to be the case in comics. There's a big streak of American comics readers who feel that comics should be about white hats versus black hats and anything else is a waste of their time. This is why, in many ways, I feel that Superheroes have held American comics back as an artistic medium. An example: in issue #7 of 'StormWatch,' the leader of Team Achilles kidnaps a United States Senator and replaces him with a shape-shifting mutant. People automatically leapt to the idea that our hero was no hero whatsoever... here he was undermining America's democracy!

"Now, in that issue, I had this Senator openly bragging about how he'd paid Islamic Superterrorists to burn the United Nations to the ground, but some readers just couldn't see beyond that one fact: our 'hero' had kidnapped a Senator. In later issues, it was revealed that this same Senator had authorized a military strike on an alternate Earth, killing all 5 billion people who lived there. Again, these same readers still feel that our protagonist characters who replaced the Senator are too morally gray for their tastes. So, yeah, there's just no changing some people's minds about anything. If you're the type of person who needs their heroes to be stainless, pure people dressed in stretchy pants, you're not going to find much in my book, I suppose. If you understand that good people sometimes do bad things for what they consider to be good reasons, you'll probably like it."

Don't go looking to slam Casey's Wildstorm work for being depressing, as the writer believes he's creating a very bright adventure. "Personally, I think 'Wildcats Version 3.0' is one of the most optimistic series out there right now. Generally, most human beings are mired in shades of gray, so why would I write these characters any other way? Besides, comic books are such a niche art form, I wonder if there is such a thing as a 'casual reader' anymore."

Another way to look at this, contends Gray, is that one must remember that all people have very different perceptions of what makes someone admirable. "The concept of what makes a hero is based solely on perception. Just recently there was this news story about a criminal that violated his parole and during that violation rescued some kids from a burning building. The police promptly arrested the man and sent him to jail. Call him an amoral hero, but he did the right thing at the right time and that's infinitely more interesting to me than the guy that saves the universe once a month. There are tons of books with clear-cut moralistic heroes and heroines and I think there's room for all types of stories."

Something else that helps to differentiate the Wildstorm superhero universe is the lack of crossovers and according to Wright, don't expect it to change soon. "No, we haven't yet, but if there ever is a crossover, you can be sure that it's something which comes from the writers and not from Editorial... 'okay, it's summertime, it's time for Garlictacuss to attack the Wildstorm Universe' is not the WSU way of running the books."

Once again establishing himself as one of the laid back and funny guys in comics, Gray says he's not into crossovers… or that's what we think he means. "I myself am not into cross dressing, I mean I don't have anything against people that do, it's a free country and I think you should be able to express yourself in any way that makes you comfortable. I suppose it would be interesting to put a cross dresser into '21Down,' but I'm not willing to do the research. What? Why are you looking at me like that? Can you repeat the question?"

The initial "Eye of The Storm" launch was fairly high profile and featured posters for retailers to display, trade ads and a lot of publicity via comic book news websites, but it's no secret that the books haven't exactly been burning up the sales charts. "Creatively, it's all been good," says Casey. "As a commercial 'launch,' I think it could've been done better. But that's obviously my opinion. At the end of the day, I just write the books."

That's a sentiment shared by Wright and he further clarifies the kind of success that the creators at Wildstorm aspire to achieve. "Well, there's success and then there's 'success.' None of the books have been breakout books, which outsell X-Men, but I'd say almost all of them have been breakout storytelling, which out wrote most books on the shelves. We're successful in that we're reaching an audience of post-superhero readers -and- current superhero readers. We're successful in that we're telling stories the way we want to tell them. We're not so successful in the 'yo, my pockets is full of bling-bling' fashion. Then again, I look at what movies, music and books are the most popular with the average person and I ask myself 'do I really want to be the Britney Spears of the comic book world?' The answer is a decided no."

Gray's happy with his success at Wildstorm, but there's something more pertinent that he wants to comment on, saying, "The idea of Micah in a catholic schoolgirl outfit just scares the hell out of me."

Creative success is fostered by an open environment and Wright, a man who obviously loves and respects the management at Wildstorm, says he's been given a lot of leeway. "There's a lot of freedom to do what I want. That's a rewarding aspect. The hardest aspect is balancing the old WSU continuity with the new stories... someone pointed out to me the other day that Backlash can heal himself by turning himself into mist, but Ed Brubaker has him stomping around in 'Point Blank' with a robotic leg because his leg was blown off. Who Knew? I'm certainly not going to read 500+ comics from the early 1990s in order to discover these things, and yet, that point was known by someone who took great offense at it's deviance from established Wildstorm Continuity. Maintaining the balance between respecting the work which came before and writing new work is one of the hardest aspects of this job."

Freedom can be an enemy and Casey says that since he was allowed to do what he wanted, turning "Wildcats" into the corporate intrigue, morality tale and political caper known as "Wildcats Version 3.0," he's had his nose in the books. "I've never done as much research on a series as I have for 'Wildcats Version 3.0.' That's always a pain in the ass to slog through, even though I have a deep interest in the subject matter involved. But, I've worked with great artistic collaborators like Dustin Nguyen, Richard Friend and Ash Wood on these books so it all evens out in the end. I've also never pushed myself as far as I have with 'Automatic Kafka,' and that's certainly been a rewarding experience."

Gray is succinct, simply saying, "It's all fun and its all rewarding otherwise what's the point?"

Still, top ten sales aren't something any of these men would argue with and in a day and age when Ed Brubaker has to provide money back guarantees on "Sleeper" just to get more heat on the series, it would lead some to wonder if fans and the press are ignoring "Eye Of The Storm" comics all together. "Yes, there is a certain feeling that we've been overlooked by the fans, by mainstream comics press like Wizard, and, at times, by DC itself," admits Wright. "Not always, and not often, but there were a lot of concerns early on that none of the books were getting any trade ads in the Vertigo books which have a readership closest to the one we're searching for. I think some of those problems are being addressed now, though. 'Sleeper' certainly got a big push and vote of confidence from DC recently, and I'm glad for it... it means that someone at DC realized that Ed Brubaker was writing one of the best superhero comics out there, even if only 9000 people per month buy it or whatever."

Ask Justin Gray to answer the questions posed and he'll tell you to examine the issue more carefully and explains why. "I think there's a deeper issue here and I know I'm going to piss off the wrong people but it's obviously some kind of conspiracy headed up by The Superhero Union of Costume Manufacturers. Sure, it sounds crazy at first, but nearly all the best selling books feature costumed heroes. Take the X-men for example; they've been on top for years, why? There's like a million mutants running around and every one of those freaks needs a costume. That generates a lot of revenue for SUCM. We don't use costumes in our books so naturally we've got some enemies out there trying to keep their grip on power. The best way you can help fight the man is by buying Eye of the Storm comics."

The "mature readers" label on the "Eye Of The Storm" comics allows the writers certain liberties, as mentioned, but it's also something that's come under criticism- couldn't the same stories be told without the swearing, nudity and gore? "We have a specific label that allows us to write stories without the limitations of books that are aimed at an all-ages audience, and I take advantage of that," responded Casey. "I don't know if I'd call them 'adult comics' except for the fact that I try and write the characters more like real adults. Real adults occasionally swear and have all kinds of sex. I know I do (as often as possible)."

Wright's surprised that there are quibbles about the aforementioned issues and explains his thoughts on the issue, with an interesting closing note. "Hmmm, well, the primary 'adult' thing about my book is the level of thought I put into the politics. I also have my characters swearing like potty mouths because, hey, that's what a lot of soldiers do. Could the book exist without the swearing? Sure. Could it exist without the politics? Maybe, but then it'd just be another book about superheroes. I haven't gotten too into the sex aspect of things, but it's coming. I'm sure that people will be outraged by that as well, but hey, there are 80+ books a month from DC & Marvel which deal with PG-13 superheroes. We're four books doing something a little sexier, more violent, and more politically charged. If anything, I'd say that given the age of the comic book reading audience, we should be in the majority, not the PG books."

It's all about representing life accurately, explains Gray, and he adds, "I'm just amazed that certain words are still taboo, that sex and nudity still make adults uncomfortable and require justification when used in a story. The label is there to protect children from being exposed to the world of adults at too young an age. I completely agree with Joe's statement, particularly the sex part, that the characters we write act like adults. The things Jimmy and myself write about in '21Down' are based loosely on personal experiences, just be happy we'll water them down to a mature label."

Those complaints are, admittedly, few and far between, with the praise on "Eye of The Storm" books being generally quite high and it raises a question of why sales aren't higher. "Again, getting good reviews on twenty comics Web sites isn't worth one good review from 'Wizard' or 'Entertainment Weekly,'" Wright explains. "It's not a quality issue, it's a quantity issue. We've been completely overlooked by 'Wizard,' and 'EW' doesn't seem to be too into superhero comics. I'm holding out hopes, though."

It might just be an issue of getting the word out there, says Casey, who believes people just need to find Wildstorm to become enthralled fans. "I think when readers can actually find the books, they tend to like what they see. It's a crowded marketplace right now, and getting more crowded every month. Most of the time, I'm just wacky enough to feel like it's not a creative failure if these books don't sell in bigger numbers, it's a business failure. And I'm a creator, not a businessman."

People in the comic book industry are always talking about creators' rights, so CBR News decided to theoretically put the three creators- Joe Casey, Justin Gray & Micah Wright - in charge of Wildstorm and ask them what one change they'd make. "I'd give away one dollar bills to people who wrote in saying they liked the book," laughs the military veteran writer of "Stormwatch." "Hey, if it works for the California governor's recall ballot, why not for comics?"

From his previous comments, it's probably not hard to guess Joe Casey's choice and he offers them with no ill will. "Well, you always hope for better, more effective marketing whenever possible (which, admittedly, is not my strong suit). Wildstorm often seems like the red-headed stepchild of the larger DC Comics conglomerate, despite having the coolest books. Personally, I just do the best work I can and let the rest take care of itself."

With his trademark-winning smile, Gray says, "Well if the swearing, gore and nudity aren't working I guess I would opt for complex stories involving amoral characters that are mired in shades of gray. Oh, and the marketing, that sounds really important, too."

If this interview has you interested in any of the books written by these creators, you'll be able to find some teasers for their upcoming work. "Lots of exploding things, lots of politics, and lots of new ways at looking at Superpowers," says Wright of upcoming events in "Stormwatch." "Those are the hallmarks of the book so far. The next issue on the stands, #14, deals with the introduction of Citizen Soldier, a new flag-draped 'patriotic' super-villain, and his army of suicidal maniacs. It's bound to push quite a few people's buttons."

Fans of "Wildcats Version 3.0" can also find the first trade paperback, "Brand Building," now available and previous collections of Casey's "'Cats" work still in print.

Gray is also happy to offer some teasers, but he also wants to offer some choice words of thanks to some people at Wildstorm. "I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that the extremely decent and upstanding folks at Wildstorm comics, please see their Web site www.Wildstorm.com for other amazing and innovative comics titles, have seen fit to both re-launch and reposition '21Down' as an 'Eye Of The Storm' title. Watch for the new #1 in early 2004. Yes, we'll be getting that Mature Label slapped right on the front cover so be warned there might just be swearing, gore and nudity."

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