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The Originals: Joe Casey and Invigorating Originality

More than a few of your favorite Marvel and DC Comics creators have projects that you may not have heard of, depending on how closely you follow their careers. In creator-owned comics, they get to go wild and create a story that springs entirely from their own brow, and I love seeing the results of that. Once a week on ComicsAlliance, I’m going to take a big two creator, talk about why they’re good, and suggest you something original. This week, I want to talk about Joe Casey and invigoratingly fresh originality.
Joe Casey has written Uncanny X-Men: Poptopia with Ian Churchill, Wildcats 3.0 with Dustin Nguyen and others, Vengeance with Nick Dragotta, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance with Jamal Igle, Adventures of Superman with Derec Aucoin, Cable with Ladrönn, Dark Reign: Zodiac with Nathan Fox, and Fantastic Four: First Family with Chris Weston.

Joe Casey has had an interesting career. He’s had a few long-term runs on the triple A-list titles, Superman and X-Men titles specifically, and he brought a specific point of view and purpose to those books that I thought was very interesting. Portraying Superman as pacifist is a beautiful idea and the logical endpoint of what the character stands for, and Casey managed to get away with it for a year. In his Uncanny X-Men work, Casey explored fame, hate, and the idea of the X-Men being a paramilitary organization.

My favorite Casey works, though, are the littler books. Wildcats 3.0, the cult favorite WildStorm book where Casey and Dustin Nguyen brought superheroic concepts to politics and business. Dance, where Casey and Jamal Igle turned a concept Grant Morrison briefly used in Final Crisis into a thrilling superteam in its own right. Vengeance, where Casey and Dragotta reinvigorated a couple of old and dusty Marvel Universe ideas.

Joe Casey is good at bringing reinvigorating ideas to the table. Cape comics are, at this point, gleefully indulging in their own pasts. I say that with no malice or judgment, either. It’s true. Marvel’s big event Avengers Vs. X-Men features the return of the Phoenix, while DC rolled their clock back and reintroduced their entire universe. Everything old is new again, but that only goes so far.

Casey, though, doesn’t like to play in that sandbox so much as kick a lot of dirt around within the confines of that sandbox, and that’s wonderful. Casey can do flashback stories that have that fun old Roy Thomas feel, sure, but he’s at his best when he’s being disruptive, when he’s taking characters or concepts we know and chopping them up until they seem new again.

“Joe Casey is a disruptive force in cape comics,” that sounds like a great pull-quote, right? Here’s a good example, from Dark Reign: Zodiac, with art by Nathan Fox, colors by Jose Villarubia, and lettering (look at that lettering!) by Albert Deschesne:


At this point in time, the top cop in the Marvel universe was the villain Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin. He capitalized on his position and turned supervillains into faux heroes, turned supervillainy into something a little more organized and less chaotic. Dark Reign: Zodiac is a three-part story about what happens when people choose to actively avoid and attack Osborn’s sell-out supervillains.

“Supervillains are corporate now” was the new status quo. Zodiac is a book that asks one question: “So what are the real supervillains doing while the sellouts try to make money the clean way?” It’s a mission statement, and it is wonderful.

Joe Casey also writes Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker with Mike Huddleston, Godland with Tom Scioli, Officer Downe with Chris Burnham, and Doc Bizarre, MD with Andy Suriano.

Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker. Where to start? It seems like a story you’ve seen an infinite number of times before. There’s a superhero. He’s old, maybe a little washed up, but he has to do One Last Thing. Of course, he’s hyper-masculine, so that One Last Thing is easily done. It’s not coming out from the Big Two either, so you can get away with all the dirty language and show off all the naughty bits you want. Butcher Baker sounds cliché… but isn’t.

It starts out like Dark Knight Returns meets Smokey and the Bandit or Convoy. By the second issue, it’s clear that it’s going to become something different, something else entirely. Butcher Baker expands to become a book that explores the relationship between superheroes and supervillains, mentors and sidekicks, the difference between performance and action, and what it means when your job is your life. It’s also a rocking series full of nudity and violence, if that’s what floats your boat.

It’s hard to pin down Butcher Baker as any one thing, and that’s definitely a strength. For every juvenile joke — I believe Butcher gives one lady 23 orgasms partway through the series — there’s something profound lurking around the corner, a hero who is long past his prime and knows it. For every explosion of blood and guts, there’s a bit of mind-expanding psychedelia to force you to think a little bit.

It’s all over the place, but not in the sense of being scattered or unorganized. It’s just dense. Casey is throwing a lot of ideas at the wall, and almost all of them stick. He wants you to pay attention, to really dig into the series and the action on the page, and the best way to do that is to put as much meat on its bones as possible. There’s a little something here for everybody, I think, and Mike Huddleston’s amazing art (let’s be real: Butcher Baker is one of the best-looking books on the stands) makes Butcher Baker into a must-read.

Check it out on ComiXology. The first issue’s free.

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