In November the Beat participated in a campaign for the upcoming Image book Butcher Baker by Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston, which debuts in March. The campaign consisted of a month of panels paired with slogans — some of which were profane others bizarre, some just plain funny. During the course of setting things up, I started chatting with Casey about various aspects of working in the comics industry today: how creators craft a career and what avenues to pursue in a quickly shifting landscape.
Along the way we thought it would be cool to put some of it in sharable form. Casey obviously has quite a career to draw examples from: for the past decade plus he’s worked steadily at the big two while still putting out a sizable body of creator owned work from a variety of publishers. As part of the Man of Action Studio (along with Steven T. Seagle, Duncan Rouleau and Joe Kelly), he’s co-created the hit TV show Ben 10, a genuine phenomenon among tween boys, and the newer Generator Rex. Man of Action was also signed to produce and story edit the new Spider-Man cartoon for Disney as well. All of which gives him quite the unique perspective which follows:
THE BEAT: So Joe, for a whole month we featured a series of bizarre, filthy and mysterious teasers that turned out to be in preparation for your new book BUTCHER BAKER with Mike Huddleston. What the hell ever gave you the idea for this kind of promo?
Joe Casey: Okay, look… we’ve all seen teaser campaigns before. We know ‘em, we love ‘em, we can’t get enough of ‘em… but I was kinda curious just how long one could be sustained. Turns out, a month of weekdays was just about the limit. But we had the material available, Image was down with the idea (and, in fact, Eric Stephenson had helped me hatch the initial plan), so I figured why the hell not? I think maybe I thought, on some unconscious level, it would reassure readers and retailers that we’ve been banking material way ahead of actually soliciting it… so that the book will come out when we say it’s gonna come out. But once I got into it, it morphed into something where I was simply having a good time with it.
THE BEAT: How effective do you think they have been? How would you measure the effectiveness of such a campaign?
Casey: Jeezus, I have no idea how you could measure it. Who knows if it’ll move the needle at all? But that’s not really the point. If anyone paid any attention at all – be it positive or negative – then I guess it was as effective as I could’ve hoped it would be. I’ve said this before; I looked at this teaser campaign more as some kind of weird performance art than anything else. Any actual awareness or promotion that comes out of it is a bonus. It was fun to watch it all play out, that’s about the most I’m able to say about it right now. Maybe with some time – and depending on how the book ultimately performs – I’ll gain some different perspective on it. But, y’know, now that I’ve had my laugh, it’s time to really get out there and sell the book. I know Huddleston and I are psyched enough about the work we’re doing together, so we felt confident that it could sustain this kind of weird promotion. If the book was weak sauce, we probably wouldn’t have even attempted it in the first place. But the book’s got a big pair hangin’, so we went for it.
THE BEAT: Along those lines, it does seem that in order to promote a project you can’t just throw it out in Previews and then sit back and count the filthy lucre. Those days are long gone. What do you think creators have to keep in mind when launching a new project now?
Casey: I think the same way that readers can inherently sense that creators are having fun when they’re doing a book, you also have to get that spirit across when you’re promoting it. When it’s truly authentic, enthusiasm fucking translates. On a personal level, I like having conversations like this. Assuming I have something to say, it’s kinda fun for me; it’s certainly not a drag or a slog or a burden on my time. Not to mention, I’m fuckin’ excited to get this book out there, and I want readers to know that. And for the most part, comicbook industry journalists and even a lot of bloggers right now — the ones that I tend to read, anyway — are pretty insightful in their writing, so talking comics with them is generally a pleasure. Of course, I’m also not playing a bullshit PR, “Guess what I’m really saying”-game with anyone, either; I pretty much speak my mind. That certainly helps. Not all creators have that luxury, unfortunately. But, no matter what, when it comes to pimping your product… at the very least, have a good time with it. Think outside of the box; be as original as you can with it; don’t hide your own enthusiasm for your work. It’s not at all “cool” to act aloof about something you’ve put your heart and soul into. Let your freak flag fly high. That might be the only way you can cut through all the white noise that’s out there.
THE BEAT: Have you ever had to give one of those “I’m doing the best work of my career”? interviews? It’s always either that or “I’m so excited to be working with soanso.” I guess we all have to do them at one point or another, but my eyes tend to glaze right over.
Casey: Hey, if it’s genuine, I think that kind of hyperbole is okay. Then again, when you’re a creative person, your best project is always your next project. Having uttered that incredibly canned line, I do tend to go for scatological apeshit rather than overblown self-hype. It’s just more fun for me to go that route with it. When it comes to Man Of Action stuff, the more corporate stuff, sometimes you have to toe the party line, dance the happy dance, whatever. Oftentimes it feels like that’s mainly what they’re paying you for.
THE BEAT: The whole reason I wanted to talk to you was because we’d been having an ongoing conversation about, I guess you would call it, comics career management. The level of anxiety about surviving in any creative field is at volume 11 these days, partly due to online file sharing, but also due to the proliferation of sheer information and social networking and playing Pocket Frogs on your iPhone other things that take up time and money that used to be spent on advances and royalties and page rates. When did you realize that in order to be a successful comic book writer you were going to have to do things other than just sit home and write comics?
Casey: You and your Pocket Frogs…
THE BEAT: Breeding rare virtual frogs is very relaxing!
Casey: So they say. Personally, I don’t know where the hell this “anxiety” comes from or why anyone would have it. Just keep things interesting and let the rest sort itself out. That’s how I’ve always tried to work it. It wasn’t much of a realization for me or even any grand plan on my part. I’m a whacked out creative type, Heidi… I just go with my gut mostly. I’m sure there are times when that approach might threaten to hurt my so-called “career”, but a lot of times it’s really kinda helped.
Comics is a culture. You have to immerse yourself in it if you’re going to survive, much less thrive. And I gladly and proudly immerse myself in it as often as I can. And you’re right, that goes way beyond just sitting on your ass, writing comics. Clearly, it goes way beyond the books themselves. But as much as we may moan about the “good ol’ days” – and I do my share of moaning about it, believe me – that’s not the world we live in anymore. And let’s not forget… we all wanted it this way, didn’t we? We wanted out of the ghetto. We wanted to swim in the mainstream. Now we do and we have to live with the consequences. And I gotta’ say, I dig the challenge of confronting this new world head on, diving into it and seeing what we can accomplish… without losing that divine spark that’s made me unconditionally love comicbooks since I was five years old. The landscape may have changed, but the love affair is still going strong.
THE BEAT: What’s the hardest part of being in the bigger pond now? Are there advantages?
The advantages? You can see those in our relationship with Image Comics, where we pretty much get free reign to do whatever projects we come up with. We certainly don’t abuse their trust, but it’s nice to have what amounts to an automatic green light for the books we’re interested in doing. That’s where something like BUTCHER BAKER comes from. That kind of freedom absolutely opens up your creativity in strange and wonderful ways.
THE BEAT: You are part of Man of Action Studios. To be frank, I’m really surprised that more creators haven’t started this kind of branded content production studio. And you’ve had a little bit of success, creating one of the signature franchises of the past 10 years as far as young boys are concerned with Ben 10, and Generator Rex and the Spider-Man TV show. How did Man of action come about?
Casey: A “little bit” of success? Geez, Heidi… you’re tough to please. The inception and the real codification of MOA was all about timing and opportunity. And since then we’ve spent ten years building up our company, bit by bit. Believe me, it took a while for folks to grok to exactly what we are and what we do. Personally, I feel like we were on the forefront of that fairly recent phenomenon of comicbook creators being tapped to work on outside media tie-ins. We just didn’t put out a big press release every time one of us sneezed on a studio lot. We’ve kept our heads down, we’ve done the work, and now ten years on, I guess we’re able to both assess and — to a certain extent — enjoy what we’ve done. Having said that, it’s not over. Not by a long shot. We really feel like we’re just getting started, and in a world where, more and more, the old systems of entertainment (including content and delivery) are crumbling all around us, we’re uniquely poised to take full advantage of the ensuing chaos. Bring it on, motherfuckers.
THE BEAT: Was there a “Big Break”? for Man of Action? I think to a lot of people it seemed like you guys had teamed up and then 10 years later there was Ben 10. There must have been incremental steps.
Casey: Lemme tell you, I think there’s a lot of comics industry folk that still haven’t fully connected us to BEN 10 and its unholy penetration into popular culture. And that’s fine. But other than getting that particular show on the air, there’s been no “big break”, in the manner you’re asking about. I think we look at this more in a “slow and steady wins the race”-kind of way. From our perspective, it’s all been incremental steps. That’s the secret to real career longevity, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t worry about winning the big lottery, you worry about the smaller shit that’s directly in front of you. It’s all one script at a time, one project at a time.
THE BEAT: Why do you think there are not more studios like Man of Action?
Casey: Now that’s a tough question to answer. Why aren’t there more MOA-type entities out there? The glib answer is, “Because no one else has worked together writing pretty much all the big comicbook franchises that exist. Because no one else wrote the first X-MEN: LEGENDS video game. Because no one else created BEN 10. Because no one else created GENERATOR REX. Because no one else produces and story edits the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN show. Because no one else consults on BAKUGAN. Because no one else has a co-pro deal with SAMG or countless other global entertainment companies.” Like I said, that’s the glib answer. But it doesn’t make it any less true. You add all those things up — not to mention the shit we don’t talk about — it adds up to a lot.
We haven’t followed any pre-existing formula or battle plan. There’s no template for what we’re doing here. We’ve been very lucky with the properties we’ve created and with the gigs we’ve been offered. We’ve taken on each challenge that was presented to us and, for the most part, we’ve never fucked up too badly. That counts for a lot… in this town, especially. You cannot put too high of a premium on simply Not Being A Fuck Up. The other side of it is being a forward thinker whenever possible. Not just in your ideas, but in your ideas on how to do business.
THE BEAT: At San Diego last year, I ran into you guys on the sidewalk after the Eisners and gave you shit about not sounding your horn more. Everyone looks at the Mike Mignola and Bryan Lee O’Malley and now Robert Kirkman as Hollywood success stories, but not as many people know that the four of you have created an iconic character. Do you guys have a press agent? Do you think it would help?
Casey: Well, like I said earlier, it’s kind of funny how few people connect Man Of Action with the shows we’ve created, even though they might be very aware of the shows themselves. We’ve done little PR experiments here and there over the years, but we’ve never really done any kind of full court press with the media. I couldn’t tell you why. Laziness, maybe? I dunno… maybe it’s just our particular style. It’s like comparing Tarantino to the Coen Brothers. They have the same job, essentially, but Tarantino has a pretty open, gregarious relationship with the press, while the Coen Brothers tend to keep to themselves more. Who’s to say which is the better approach… I guess it depends on your own disposition. Also, maybe it’s the fact that there’s four of us… it’s not one guy that can more easily be the focal point of a press story. That makes a difference, I guess.
THE BEAT: How would you characterize your monetary participation in Ben 10? (this is a sneaky way of asking if you get licensing money without asking it.) Did MoA have certain things they wanted for Generator Rex that they didn’t get on Ben 10? You can’t have been in Hollywood this long without some kind of story that left it hard to sit down for a while.
Casey: Okay, lemme say this… any success that anyone has, you have to look at it in context. Remember back in the 90’s, when the term “Hollywood option” probably had the average fan thinking, “Wow, that guy must be a millionaire now”? I would hope that most people have since become savvy enough to understand that a typical option — the initial money that you might get when someone wants to turn your comic into a movie or a TV show — might be enough to cover… oh, I dunno… a month’s worth of groceries. So, here’s some context for BEN 10… at this point, you can go almost anywhere in the civilized world and see BEN 10 merchandise for sale. It’s fuckin’ global at this point. Go on Amazon.com and search “Ben 10” and see how much shit comes up. Hell, Amazon has its own “Ben 10 Store” as part of the site. Just about everyone else who works in the animation game has, at some point, talked about wanting their own BEN 10-type property. Man Of Action created that property and obviously we get a creator’s cut of the back end, as would be expected. The bigger it gets, the better we do. You don’t need to be a CPA to figure that out. Now, obviously we have no idea if GENERATOR REX will duplicate that kind of cultural penetration, but it kinda feels like anything at this point is gravy for us. We’ve already scored a big win in this arena.
So… that’s how I would characterize it. Yeah…
THE BEAT: In the time that Man of Action has been together, have Hollywood types come to see comic book types in a different way? Is it still a hard sell? Sometimes I get the feeling that studio wonks are just humoring us.
Casey: Maybe they are, but does that even matter? If the money is changing hands and the work is getting out there, whether the studios are “humoring” us or not is kinda irrelevant. That’s akin to being worried about being liked. Y’know, the way I see it, we’re humoring them. As a lifetime comicbook creator, I consider that gig way cooler than any Hollywood job one might aspire to have. Execs come and go. Even big-time studio heads get ousted. Meanwhile, I’m still making the comicbooks I wanna make, exactly the way I wanna make ‘em. It’s a pretty sweet deal for me, don’tcha think?
THE BEAT: You have a bit of a different style of engaging with the internet than a lot of today’s creators, although you were sort of part of the “Warren Ellis” era of self-marketing. You don’t tweet or blog or Facebook. Why?
Casey: Holy Christ… I’m in awe of any creators out there who seem to have endless amounts of free time to Tweet or whatever the hell it is they’re doing online. They must have more hours in their day than I have in mine. Like I said, interviews are cool, because I like talking one-on-one with people. To me, the Net is just another delivery system to get the word out about something I’ve created… it’s not something I feel like I have an overly-intimate relationship with.
But you’re right, I was definitely part of that wave of guys that used the Net to try and carve out these goofy “rock star” personas online. Whatever. I guess it kind of worked, but I look back on that particular period and I think that maybe we were misguided about one or two things. Ultimately, it’s about the work. Your legacy is the work. Your voice is heard most strongly in your work. I want as many people as possible to know about the work… but I certainly don’t need them to know what I had for breakfast this morning or my random thoughts about this season of Breaking Bad or whatever. I honestly can’t imagine they’d want to know those things, anyway… and if they do, they’re definitely missing the point of my job. My work is the entertainment that I’m trying to provide here.
THE BEAT: A lot of creators seem genuinely frightened by potential changes to storytelling itself in the digital era. Are you? How do you see your tool set evolving in the era of the iPad?
Casey: The greatest thing about the iPad and, I suppose, the Kindle before it — and in the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t own either one — is that the dimensions of their screens finally match the dimensions of a comicbook page. As ridiculous as it seems, that’s the big breakthrough — not only for comics, but for all print media in general. To get away from the wider, smaller TV screen-based shape of most computer/laptop/iPhone screens, etc. and to embrace the taller, thinner shape that equates the shape of traditional magazine or book page… and the fact that it’s completely mobile… clearly, that’s the real game changer. It makes the idea of reading from a computer screen easier for people, psychologically. And that’s the only way to really sell new technology to the masses… by making it easy for them to accept, by making it feel like what they’re already comfortable with. “Hey, it’s shaped like a book, so I guess I can read on it!” I definitely don’t think there’s anything to be particularly frightened about. As far as I can tell, on a fundamental level, what we do as creators and storytellers isn’t really going to change.
THE BEAT: It seems like Image Comics has become the go to place for comics creators right now. Not only are there the Chew-level sales hits, but now all the hot books seem to be coming out of Image, and guys like Nick Spencer are getting picked up by the Big Two based on their Image stuff very quickly. What advice would you give a writer considering doing a book at Image?
Casey: I find it hilarious that Image would be seen as some sort of “stepping stone” that leads specifically to Big Two employment. Isn’t it obvious that doing your own comics is the goal, the ultimate career destination? Hell, for all of us in Man Of Action, it turned out that working at the Big Two was actually the stepping stone. To have full creative freedom — which is what we get at Image — is what all creators should aspire to. I mean, how does writing a character that 1) you don’t own and 2) you have little or no control over even compare to doing your own book? For me, it doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up on Marvel and DC and when I write those characters, I have a blast. I think the Spider-Man show is gonna be rockin’. But it’s definitely a momentary hit. Creating and crafting my own books is the buzz that keeps on giving.
THE BEAT: One of the problems with the Image model is that you do need to subsidize work on the first few months of the title. I know that is not a problem for you as thousands of Ben 10 backpacks fly off the shelves of Target, but how can a writer and artist minimize the exposure for the initial period?
Casey: That’s a good question, and for me there’s really only one answer… what’s life without a little risk? I’d be doing my own comics whether or not BEN 10 was a hit or a flop. We launched GØDLAND almost two years before that show was on the air. So I was doing plenty of work for no money before we had any real success in TV. If you love the process, you shouldn’t worry about “minimizing” anything. If you have to work at Target stocking shelves to subsidize your comicbook work, then that’s what you do. If making comicbooks is all about the money, then you don’t need to be making comicbooks. Just don’t even bother. There’s no secret handshake… just shut the fuck up and make comics. Period.
THE BEAT: Would you suggest any other options for creators who want hold on to their rights?
Casey: I don’t think there are other options, aside from flat-out self-publishing. And, by “self-publishing”, I mean either in print or on the Web. Image Comics is by far the best game in town. It’s the only publisher that I know of where you can truly bet on yourself, without a lot of interference from people who don’t have nearly as much invested in your work as you do. And that’s the game I want to play. I’m a grown man and I want to control my work fully and completely. I don’t want to be forced to share my media rights or be forced to have my properties pimped around by a representative that’s not my chosen representative. It comes down to whether or not you want to be just another cog in the machine… or you want to own the actual machine.
THE BEAT: You’ve had some harsh words for the mainstream editorial process in the past. Now, it seems that comics periodicals are in a very precarious position. Both companies are holding lots of meetings to figure out ways to get sales on the rise again. If you were sitting in one of those meetings what would you say?
Casey: The only thing I could possibly talk about is what I see strictly as a reader: I honestly don’t think that — aside from a few random bright spots — Big Two comics have gotten noticeably better as the editorial environments have become more corporate and more controlling. If they were, I truly believe they’d be selling better. But, hey, that’s just one man’s opinion. I know they’re in there swinging, there’s a lot of talent involved, people are trying hard to do their jobs well… but, just as a “for instance”, I still remember the early days of the Quesada/Jemas Marvel. The excitement generated in that period, I feel like the industry is still living off of today. Jeezus, that excitement made the return of event comics actually seem fresh. But, back then, they were playing pretty fast and loose with the biggest franchises in comics. I mean, c’mon, they gave a young loudmouth like me all the rope I needed to hang myself while I was writing UNCANNY X-MEN. They let Grant change almost everything on his X-book. These were their best-selling books and they let us follow our instincts and our creative impulses and, in Grant’s case, it worked out pretty well. When sales are in the crapper — as they were in the late 90’s and as they are right now — that’s not the time to be overly-conservative or overly-cautious. That’s the time to say, “Fuck it,” and just go for broke. Take chances with the material and the characters, for chrissakes! There’s a resilience there that’s definitely not being tested, and that’s a real shame. And sorry, but I don’t think killing characters and then bringing them back is going to cut it anymore. That bell’s been rung too many times. To me, there’s a huge difference between “creatively driven” and “editorially driven” and you can see it in the books themselves.
Fuck, I guess you could boil all that filibustering down to a simple sentiment: Make better comicbooks and they’ll sell better.
THE BEAT: In looking over the industry landscape, it seems like there are fewer options for creator-owned material than ever before. And yet The Walking Dead is the new Hollywood fairy tale story. Is creator owned material an endangered species or the way of the future?
Casey: Well, I’ll go you one step further… not only is creator-owned material the way of the future, self-sufficiency in general is the way of the future. The monolithic, corporate structures that, at one time, were absolutely necessary to get your work out there are no longer as needed and are, from my perspective, rapidly becoming obsolete. Like I said, the old systems are crashing all around us and it’s fucking great to be here as it’s happening. Y’know, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s the people having the Good Ideas that will always lead the way. The rest is just window dressing. Creators are the ones with the real power… because no one else in the chain can do what we do. No one else can think of the shit we think of on a regular basis, and having some talent never goes out of fashion. Add to that the knowledge and the capabilities to actually execute those ideas, and we’re fucking unstoppable.
THE BEAT: In five years what do you hope your career looks like?
Casey: Y’know, the old adage, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”…? Okay, I’m not quite there yet, but that’s the goal. I certainly don’t ever want to be content… but I want my career challenges to come from within, from a purely creative space. Strangely, I still have trouble even considering what I do as my “career”, per se. As much as I strive to maintain those boundaries for myself, a lot of the time, this is simply my life… so I feel like you’re asking me what I hope my life will look like in five years. All I can say for sure is that I’ll have five more years of experience under my belt and I hope that it’s reflected in my art, in whatever form that may take.
That, and I want my own jet pack. It’s time, goddamn it!