Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Best of 2008: Joe Casey Comics

I want to discuss Joe Casey's work in 2008 since I have a strong interest in his work, as anyone who's read this blog before probably already knows. I will admit that I did miss out on two works by Casey, Nixon's Pals, Krash Bastards and that Youngblood remix hardcover that he scripted, which makes this post a little incomplete. But, let's not dwell on such details and press ahead.

The Last Defenders with Jim Muniz and Keith Giffen. I want to begin with Casey's non-creator-owned work since it doesn't reflect upon him as directly, especially in the long view where his creator-owned work obviously speaks more volumes about him. Not that this title doesn't tell us a lot as it was one of the more successful books Casey did this year, creatively. I don't have a huge amount to add having recently done an issue-by-issue analysis of the title. This book was probably Casey's most high-profile project this year and it worked fairly well. I think it's one of the rare books he's done for a company where he's managed to balance the plot and the subtext, commenting on the superhero team book, the relationship between writer and editor/publisher, and the relationship between fans and non-fans. How it will fare in the longterm may rely on if there is ever a follow-up to Casey's Last Defenders group. There hasn't been one since, but that could be because Casey hasn't been able to do one, or maybe it will just be ignored.

Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin with Eric Canete. His other Marvel work and his fifth "Fill in Stan Lee's Plot Holes" book for the company. This was also a very well done book with longtime collaborator Eric Canete on board with a more fluid and cartoony art style. Casey manages to turn isolated events in early Iron Man stories into a coherent plot and, really, just churns out a very solid superhero adventure. This book lacks in subtextual commentary, but his other works like this tend to. I'm not sure how effective it was as a tie-in to the Iron Man movie, but for a nostalgia project, it probably ranks quite high. It also demonstrates how to tie together old stories effectively, which is something Marvel is on a bit of a kick--old stories constantly mined for new material or retconning new revelations and characters into old stories. Casey manages to do that, but only to the point where these initial encounters with the Manadarin read a cohesive whole and actually add to each story's power, leaving the present unaffected or altered for the most part.

Youngblood with Derec Donovan. This book continues to disappoint with some good ideas, but lacklustre execution. When Casey took on this new Youngblood series, he talked a lot about how the original book was a forerunner for titles like The Authority, The Ultimates and X-Force/X-Statix as it was centred on the idea of "superhero as celebrity," and while that may be true, I've always wondered "So what?" The execution on those early Youngblood issues was awful, so that great idea was forgotten until done with skill. Now, here's Casey trying to do it again and it seems like a bad copy of X-Force/X-Statix since the concept was done very well in that book. Little that Casey presents here is new or original anymore and none of it is done with the same intelligence and wit that Peter Milligan had. Casey does push things further by making a superhero/supervillain fight openly a fixed gig for television, almost like pro wrestling, which would be an interesting idea if he pushed it further and made it more like wrestling where everyone really does work together. As it is, the heroes and villains actually do hate one another and it seems like a representation of the way people thought wrestling was: a bunch of guys who hated one another but, somehow, worked for the same company.

Recent issues have focused on the Televillain who simply spouts cheap cliches about television, offering little insight. The Youngblood team has split in two: one for TV and one real that couldn't stand the TV bullshit any longer. Now, that is a good idea and one that could be mined for material, but hasn't really been used yet in any meaningful way. Really, this book is a mediocre expression of some great ideas.

Gødland with Tom Scioli. I discussed Gødland a little bit already, but want to deal with what happens in the book a little bit more. I ranked this as the best Joe Casey comic in 2008 just above The Last Defenders as it continues to be one of the most pure doses of "Casey" that we get. This book is part ode to cosmic comics and part a continuing exploration of Casey's obsession with family. If there is one defining theme/idea to Casey's work, it's family (biological or otherwise). This is one of the rare books where an actual biological family is at the centre as Casey has usually explored the idea through created families, often arguing that they are stronger and closer because the members have chosen one another. And there's definitely an element of that here as Adam Archer and his sister Neela are at odds in some of the issues, her spurned on by jealousy to the point where she remakes reality to cast herself as the hero with Adam as the loser who lives in his sibling's shadow. My god, has there ever been such a direct demonstration of sibling rivalry? (Okay, yes, there has, but this one was still pretty damn good.) Beyond that, this book showcases the wild and "trippy" elements of Casey's writing that have shown up before. Since he and Scioli use the "Marvel method" of putting this book together with Casey writing a plot, Scioli drawing the comic and then Casey scripting, the dialogue tends to be a bit more free-wheeling and random than books where Casey writes in full script. Gødland is still the best "download" of what's in Casey's head since Automatic Kafka.

Charlatan Ball with Andy Suriano. Oh, what a failure this book has been. Very much the little brother to Gødland, the art style is in a similar Kirby-influenced vein and I don't think it would be wrong to guess that Casey and Suriano also use the "Marvel method" here. But, where those things work well in Gødland, they just don't cohere well in Charlatan Ball. I've said before that using Kirby as a major influence in this magic-based book doesn't work as well as using Kirby for a cosmic-based book, because you don't associate Kirby with magic the way you associate him with cosmic. You associate Steve Ditko with magic thanks to his work on Strange Tales with Dr. Strange. I really do believe that if Casey and Suriano had looked to Ditko, this book would be ten times better and work very well as a companion to Gødland. But, let's be honest, which artist's influence is blatant doesn't impact the book all that much.

Honestly, this book often reads as Gødland-Lite. Take "The Gang of Four Gods" that showed up in recent issues: they look and act like the sort of cosmic beings you'd find in Gødland, except with less depth and character. Chuck Amock is a cowardly and whiny protagonist, which could work, but doesn't. Caesar the Rabbit is a very funny/strong character, very much in that gruff Ben Grimm mode of Kirby character. Demon Empty is the only main character that references a Kirby creation (The Demon) really and, again, works alright.

Another place where the book fails is the on-again, off-again metafictional references that have popped up in, what, two or three panels? What is the purpose of those? Hell, one was just outright weird where it seemed that Casey and Suriano were discussing the comic while on the set of a porn film (which may be based in real life for all I know). The haphazard use of these moments signifies in the micro what's wrong with the book: it doesn't know what it wants to be. The tone is wildly uneven, the plot seems to get going only to be derailed and then get back on track to get derailed again... Sometimes, Chuck seems to be aware of what's going on and, then, he's a moron. I've only seen an issue or two solicited for 2009 so far, so maybe this book won't last much longer--which is unsurprising as I imagine the sales aren't large and I've yet to read any strong, praising review of an issue.

"Flip Falcon in the Fourth Dimension" (in Fantastic Comics #24) with Bill Sienkiewicz. A short story in Fantastic Comics #24, which is the first (and, so far, only) release of Erik Larson's "Next Issue Project" where they do the next issue of a Golden Age comic book. Casey teamed with Bill Sienkiewicz for an odd, trippy story about a scientist who must undergo a transformation to stop his assistant/lover from destroying the space-time continuum through time travel. This is definitely one of Casey's strongest works this year as he's forced to distill a lot of ideas into a few pages, helped greatly by Sienkiewicz (whose participation is great if only because it's cool to see Casey working with the biggest obvious influence on Ashley Wood, Casey's partner on Automatic Kafka). I may have to do a longer write-up of this issue as part of my "Lesser Known Joe Casey Comics" series.

The Death-Defying 'Devil with Alex Ross and Edgar Salazar. Another Golden Age throwback, but, here, Casey is working with Alex Ross, co-plotting the book and then scripting it. Only one issue came out in 2008 and it wasn't that strong. I don't have anything to add that wasn't in my review of the issue.

And that does it for Joe Casey's 2008 aside from the trio of graphic novels I didn't get. An off year with only a few really strong books and a few really weak books. However, what I want to stress is that even the weak books are still interesting and show potential--of course, continued unrealised potential gets very annoying over time. We'll have to see what 2009 holds for Casey.

As well, I know I promised my top ten books today (and this post yesterday), but things got delayed and I'd rather take my time and make sure my top ten post is really well done. So, I don't know when it will go up, but sometime during the weekend at the latest (I hope).