The Big Joe Casey Interview, Part ThreeA comics interview article by: Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic
It's no secret that we at Comics Bulletin love Joe Casey. He's exactly the kind of wild, brilliant, independent creator that we champion in the medium, but he also hasn't shied away from getting his hands on some Marvel and DC characters over the years. And despite his highly successful involvement in creating television animation at Man of Action Studios, comic books remain his first love. That's why CB Managing Editors Nick Hanover and Danny Djeljosevic were thrilled that Casey agreed to talk to them a while back about his work -- and talk he did! It has taken the last several days to present the entirety of this interview to you, and if you missed them, you can read parts one and two here.
Here in the final part, Casey discusses his willingness to delve openly into sexuality in his comics, as well as his take on the recent flood of superhero films.
Nick Hanover and Danny Djeljosevic for Comics Bulletin: One of the big things that we've been interested in is the way that you're breaking down boundaries of sexuality in comics. You're not afraid to show the superhero as a sexual character -- not just in a shock value sense, but as a person who has those needs and those desires -- and it's so uncommon to see that in comics. How did that came about as a plan for Butcher Baker? Was it just something that developed organically as the story created itself?
Joe Casey: I guess it's organic in the sense that for an adult male who has sex, it's part of his life, and if I'm writing something and I feel like it's applicable, I want to include the life experience in total as much as I can. But beyond that, the more conscious aspect of it -- and I think the superhero in particular -- tends to be symbolic of all kinds of repression. And I want to break that, because, to me, the idea of the superhero should be the exact opposite; it should be the liberation of the self, the liberation of the individual, and I think you can have that without it descending into a Caligula-like existence where you have no morality.
What I aspire to do in a lot of my work is to write characters who are not defined by any one trait. It's not that I don't like to write characters who are just sexually expressive or are just hyper violent, or are just cynical in their world. I like to shade the characters with as many factors as I can throw in there. That is what you're looking for in superheroes distinctively, in my opinion. They should be the most liberated of all. They should be the most expressive of everything that is the human experience, the rebels. Even in the case of Butcher Baker, there is this dark and comedic aspect of it. He can't keep it up, he can't finish the job when he's in there, but it doesn't define him.
CB: Fanboys almost have this kind of fear, in a way, of discussing those sexual aspects, whereas you don't seem to have that fear. You seem to be willing to talk about it and say, "Yes, this character is sex, this character is violence, this character is a lot of things."
Casey: That's why I think that the superhero is that symbol of oppression. It's such a cliché to say this, but no one should be ashamed of it. It's part of our culture. The stereotype of the family exists for a reason. And I think everyone who has a real connection to comic books, and superhero comics specifically, can at least identify that fanboy mentality.
What's sad about it, to me, is that the superhero tends to reflect that by being repressed and avoiding sexuality in its many forms, even though the visual image of the superhero is probably the most sexual kind of character you can come up with. They have skintight outfits, and the way they're drawn [features] every muscle completely defined. It's ridiculous that their look alone has a sexual vibe and yet [the genre] doesn't embrace it. In my opinion, there are plenty of other things you can be repressed about, but I don't think sex should be one of them.
CB: Even with Watchmen, there's this very dark outlook on sex. There are a couple of characters who are treated almost as sexual outcasts in a way, and their Super Gorillas are seen as some sort of kink. It's just fascinating that a work as complex and as developed as Watchmen still has that problem.
Casey: Look at Doctor Manhattan. You finally have broken down this barrier, if you will, of seeing male full frontal nudity in comic books, and he's the most asexual being in that whole book. And it was like, “We'll show you full frontal of the male anatomy, but we'll temper it by making that character whose junk you see hanging out there completely asexual, completely non-threatening. There's no masculinity, no femininity there, there's nothing. He's completely a flat canvas of nothingness.
CB: It's almost like this adolescent version of what they think sexuality is, without any of the complexities of it or without any of the emotional connection or any of the other stuff that goes with it -- just the physical element of it without anything else.
Casey: Butcher Baker is a superhero comic -- that's what it is first and foremost -- but I would like to think that maybe we're like the Underground Comix in the early 70's, with R. Crumb, Spain and those creators. They had to go through a period of really explicit artwork -- really misogynistic, sexually deviant work -- because they had to desensitize their audience to those thing, so they could get to the more mature work. When Crumbs got past all that stuff, then he started doing autobiographic scripts about his own issues with women and his own relationships with women, and they were a lot more measured and they weren't for shock value.
CB: We see a lot of the same stuff in Manga, as well. It's almost like once you break that taboo, you can move on to the more mature themes.
Casey: Exactly. You have to break the taboo because, once you do, people get over the shock. The readership will acclimate itself to anything if they are confronted with it long enough. They'll get over it, they'll assimilate it, they will take it all and say, “Well that's what comics do.” And that's great because then you can pull back and do stories that are more mature in their treatment of those subjects. I guess I do feel like I'm still in that [stage where I'm] trying to push buttons. I'm getting it out of my system just as much as I'm trying to let people read my work and be exposed to it. At some point, hopefully, I'll move into another phase where the work becomes even more expansive.
CB: I recently got into an argument with another comics journalist over a panel in a Thor comic that had been given a teen rating where Sif and Thor had just been in bed, they're covered in a bedsheet, and Sif makes some comment about Thor not being able to perform as well as he normally does. The journalist was freaking out about this, because, "Oh my god, think of the children. This isn't a Thor book, this is completely terrible and they shouldn't be seeing this, and this is just so wrong." It was a very tender scene; it wasn't explicit. There was no nudity, there wasn't anything like that. And, yet, there's this weird controversy with it.
I haven't really seen anyone worrying about stuff like that with Butcher Baker, even though you're much more frank in it. And I don't know if it's just because it's at Image and doesn't have a teen rating on the front, but it's just fascinating to me that something that, on the surface, is more taboo will get less of a negative reaction while something that's more like what you see on primetime soap operas gets way more of that reaction.
Casey: I don't know who wrote that scene, but I'd argue that it sounds like a bad scene for Thor. I totally hear what you're saying, but I have to go one step further and say, "Do I even want a well-written scene of that nature in my Thor comic?" I don't know if that character is built to encompass that area of human experience.
To me, there's a difference between Butcher Baker, who is a superhero but certainly not an icon, and somebody like Thor, who is an iconic character. I wouldn't read a Thor comic because I'm dying to read about a guy who has trouble in bed. I want to read about Thor flying around and hitting people with his hammer, because that's what that character was built for. So that would be my only comment on that example.
But in terms of the content being inappropriate for whomever, yeah, it sounds completely tame. It sounds perfectly acceptable for a book that anybody can read.
CB: Butcher Baker is part of the Image Comics group, which is somewhere between the art/literary comic, which is read by a very specific group, and the DC/Marvel comic, which is read by another specific group. It's kind of bridging the gap.
Casey: Yeah. You read superhero comics as a kid, and then maybe when you're a teenager or a young adult, you read what you're describing-- bridge comics that still give you that four-color feel but that start to wean you off the simplistic nature of the comics you read as a kid. And then from there you are going to graduate to Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez brothers, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns and other "Art Comix," because those are appropriate reading materials for adults. You wouldn't be ashamed to read those in public.
The problem is that the culture has not gone that way. The culture has extended adolescent entertainment, if you want to call it that, really quite a long way into adulthood. So the culture doesn't demand for us to get rid of those things and just leave those things behind. I'm still dying to read really cool superhero comics that are totally inspirational and fulfill me. It doesn't have to be a non-superhero comic to do that for me. Some of the books that Image Comics is doing fill that void somehow. I really have more against the Marvel and DC cultures and how readers respond to that material as opposed to Image Comics, which is so scattershot to me. There's not an aesthetic there that I have to figure out and then follow. It's kind of like the Wild Wild West at Image Comics; it's such a free-for-all, which is what I like about it.
CB: It seems like a lot of writers are now either taking scripts that they wanted to be on television and on film and putting them in comics or writing comics explicitly with the idea of having them turn in to TV or film.
Casey: Yeah, that's a sickness that's infected the industry. When I do comics, I want them to be comics.
CB: Right. And I think for a lot of people who are really into comics, that's what they're looking for too. But it almost seems like publishers are either creating these customers (who are first and foremost TV and film fans), or they think that there is some huge portion of the readership who wants comics to be some other medium.
Casey:, I think that's almost an inevitability. Superhero movies are certainly a forced to be reckoned with and things are on TV now; it's what we now have to live with. I do think that if I have any concern, it is that it's the pure comics that are going to have less and less of an opportunity to get out there and be seen. I don't even know what you can do, because it's a pretty resilient trend so far. But I think that it is [just] a trend, and the end will come, as it did for westerns. They made Westerns for 30, 40 years before it lost its bite as a genre.
CB: It used to actually be the most money making aspect of Hollywood.
Casey: Yeah, and in the mid 60's it completely went away, for the most part, in America especially. And that will happen with superheroes in movies and TV. Actually, for the superhero, it doesn't feel like they got it right on TV and they never will, but the movie thing will eventually reach its expiration point and it will go away for a while. When Westerns started coming back, they came back in a more measured mature way and really good Westerns started to be made. If that trend happens with comic book movies, then what we're seeing now is not at all the interesting phase. It's what comes after that's going to be really exiting.
CB: Right now, most of the successful and critically acclaimed superhero TV shows have no basis in comics -- the first season of Heroes, Alphas, Misfits. All three of those shows are not adaptations; they're their own creations that might have some similarities to certain aspects of comics but are their own thing. Whereas the shows that try to bring what already exists in comics over directly kind of fall flat on their face.
Casey: That just depends. It's hard to pull of those costumes. They're pretty goddamn ridiculous, no matter how you light them. They look like ass; they're terrible, laughable, and that's the thing. Even in the Marvel and DC movies, everyone is so concerned with, "How do the costumes look? What do the costumes look like? What is the design? Which outfit is faithful, is an accurate translation?" It's a ridiculous cosmetic concern, but we're still obsessed with it. It's going to be nice when we get away from it and [the movies] will be more about the imagination and the ideas that superhero comics do so well.
I think some people's criticism of Green Lantern was that it had too much stuff in it. That is going the opposite way, where you might have a lot of spectacle but I don't know if you have a lot of ideas.
CB: On the other hand, Captain America was a movie that pretty much just embraced its campiness and it made the fact that this guy is wearing this campy costume a part of the plot. And it stuck pretty close to just having a focused set of ideas instead of trying to throw in five super villains. Basically, it was a good action war film that just happened to have a guy in a red, white and blue costume on the battlefield.
Casey: The thing for me though that stands out in that movie is the scene where they're at the camp and they throw the grenade and he's the one that jumps on it,when everybody else scatters. That is such a powerful, quintessential, heroic moment. That moment had nothing to do with costumes or the comis book aspect of it, [but it] had to do with that character and what he represented and what he was upposed to embody. It transcended the movie and was just a great fucking rousing, emotional scene. That's probably the best scene of any superhero movie that I've seen, because it would still be a great scene if it was in another movie. I could go on and on about that moment.
CB: That's a future back matter there?
Casey: No, I just shot my load there.
CB: This was great, Joe. Thanks a lot for doing this.