Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Best and Worst of Joe Casey

It began with Tim Callahan, of course. In one of his "When Worlds Collide" columns, he did best and worst of Grant Morrison lists. The ten best and five worst. So, I thought to myself, "Hey, I should do that, but with Joe Casey!" And here that post is. As with Tim, I'm doing the ten best and five worst as determined by me. The comics chosen are ones that I've read and ones where Casey is the only writer, which both helps and hurts him. In the helps area, it eliminates a lot of early Marvel work where he just scripted or co-plotted (and it also eliminated The Death-Defying 'Devil from the worst list). In the hurts area, it also means no Mr. Majestic on the best list. Just warning you now.

The Ten Best Joe Casey Comics

1. Wildcats volume two #8-28, "Devil's Night" annual
This is Joe Casey's creative breakthrough work where he took his writing to that next level by taking a bullshit Image concept and writing it in a mature and sophisticated manner. People tend to cite Wildcats Version 3.0 as the better work, but it all began here with Sean Phillips (and Steve Dillon). Casey examined what it would be like for these people to live without a war to fight any more, struggling to break free of their old ties but always bound by them. It's a book about family and what happens when everything you've dedicated your life to goes away.

2. Automatic Kafka #1-9
The metafictional comic about comics about a former superhero android who is being hunted by the government to work for them, so he becomes a celebrity instead. With Ashley Wood, this book was improvisational, followed its own sense of logic, and, much like Wildcats, asked what happens next. This time, what happens after the superhero comic ends... the $tranger$ were the big team in the '80s and they ended, so what happens next? Do you become a junkie? What happens to fictional characters after their authors stop writing them? The Charlie Brown issue is a stand-out in this regard, as is the finale. Gone before its time, but that almost seems fitting.

3. Adventures of Superman #613-624
In his final year on Adventures of Superman, Joe Casey did something that I still consider one of the boldest and most forward-thinking creative decisions in modern superhero comics: he made Superman a pacifist. The embodiment of good guys punching out bad guys doesn't throw a single punch and if Casey didn't have Superman say it explicitly, I bet no one would have noticed. I still have no idea how DC let him... unless they just weren't paying attention. The move is completely in character and is the logical progression of the character. At some point, Superman should turn his back on violence in the hopes of finding better ways to solve his problems. Beyond that, these final 12 issues of his run are highly creative and feature some fantastic stories as Superman deals with fictional characters come to life, a secret government town populated entirely by superhumans, the Mxy Twins, and, in the final issue, a bunch of crazy-ass threats.

4. Gødland #1-present
Insane, fun, and always a joy to read. With Tom Scioli, Casey is doing some of his best work on Gødland. By the time it's finished, I could easily see it rising another spot or two. This comic seems an exercise, at times, in cramming in as many ideas and concepts as possible, and the pair make it work every single time. Describing it is often tough, because it is unique -- but the word I've used in CBR reviews, cosmitastic, always seems to do the job best. Not only that, but it will be Casey's longest sustained creator-owned work, which gives it a singular distinction. It has less than a year left and, honestly, I don't know how it will end. Not in a plot way, but in a "There's so much more you could do with this concept!" sort of way. This may be a book that exemplifies the "leave on a high note" approach to comics.

5. Wildcats Version 3.0 #1-24, Coup D'Etat: Wildcats
This comic is not quite as good as everyone likes to remember it being. There were a few truly brilliant issues where Casey examined the idea of corporation as superhero fully, but, a lot of the time, it was a compromised book full of action in an effort to please longtime WildC.A.T.S. readers. That said, it was still audacious, ambitious, and a damn fine read most of the time. It ended on a particularly sour note, cancelled before its time, so it doesn't read as well as a whole as it might have otherwise. It had some fantastic covers, though, initially designed by Rian Hughes, and looked quite unlike anything else on the shelves.

6. The Intimates #1-12
Another ambitious failure. The Intimates was an attempt to satisfy two itches at once: pander to the masses and experiment with what you can do with a comic book. The audiences for those two goals are quite different and neither seemed to like the aspects of the book geared towards the other group. The mainstream didn't like the experimental storytelling techniques, including the wonderful infoscroll at the bottom of pages; the rest didn't like the more mundane plots and stupid teen drama. Me, I dug both. This book suffered a lot towards the end thanks to subpar art, but Casey continued to show that he's a fearless writer, willing to take any chance in the hopes of pushing the boundaries of his talent. Say what you will, but the man is rarely boring.

7. Codeflesh
Shorter stories, split, first in Double Image with a Larry Young-written story and, then, in Double Take with Matt Fraction's "Mantooth," Codeflesh was recently rereleased in a definitive hardcover with a new story (which I haven't read yet because I haven't gotten the hardcover... dammit!). The story of a bail bondsman who hunts down the superpowered criminals that skip bail while wearing a mask to conceal his identity because a judge ordered he couldn't do it anymore. It's a moody comic that evokes Will Eisner and also Spider-Man's relationship problems. What makes it stand out so much, though, is the final part of the story where Casey and Charlie Adlard deliver one of the most compelling and inventive stories I've read by having a letter written by Cameron take over the story: it fills the word balloons and sound effects, almost like a music video. It could have failed, but the two pull it off spectacularly. The book was good
until that final chapter, but that chapter makes it great.

8. "Autopilot" (in Reveal #1
An autobiographical short story with art by Sean Phillips, "Autopilot" often slips under the radar, but is a must read for... well, everyone who reads mainstream superhero comics. Casey reflects on the difficulties in working on franchise characters as you're pulled in so many directions: pleasing the fans, creating lasting art, pleasing the editors, just being able to pay your bills that month. It's the sort of story that changes the way you look at comics and the people who make them. It also provides some insight into what was going through his head while he worked on Uncanny X-Men, Adventures of Superman, and Wildcats.

9. Cable #51-70
His first big break and you can see a lot of where Casey went later in this book. His love of superhero comics comes out and his ability to both meet and subvert expectations is evident. On the one hand, he brings Cable's Askani past to the forefront and sets up a confrontation with Apocalypse that's been a long time coming; on the other, he moved Cable away from the X-Men and their little world, pushing him into the Marvel universe by moving him to Hell's Kitchen and having him team up with the Black Panther and Avengres, while facing non-X enemies. Most of the run also had some fan-fucking-tastic art by Ladronn. The story where Cable is hunted by SHIELD, "The Nemesis Contract" is one of the high points with both creators busting their asses and delivering some great comics.

10. Uncanny X-Men annual 2001, #408-409
Yes, the rest of the run was very quite awful (see below), but the widescreen annual with Ashley Wood and final two issues with Sean Phillips provided some hope that Casey could have pulled this run off. Focusing on the Vanisher as a drug lord, trafficking in a drug that temporarily gives people mutant powers, the team deals with him, first, like any other villain, but, then, they approach the situation from a more intelligent point of view. Since he sees himself as a businessman, Warren Worthington, another businessman, hits him that way: he buys off everyone that works for the Vanisher. An unofficial prelude to Wildcats Version 3.0 and a test run for Automatic Kafka, these issues are some of the best X-Men comics I've read and actually make me wish Casey had been allowed to stay on the book.

The Five Worst Joe Casey Comics

5. Gen13: Wildtimes
Part of the "Wildtimes" fifth-week 'event' from Wildstorm where creators took Wildstorm concepts and placed them within another time period. Casey takes Gen13 and sticks them in the late '60s/early '70s, using them to explore the Vietnam war and other elements of that time. It really just doesn't work at all with a lacklustre plot about Burnout trying to avoid the draft, and a bunch of lame cultural references, both real and fictitious. On the surface, this seems like a prototypical Joe Casey comic, but it lacks his usual wit and experimentation. It's not entertaining or enlightening... a very superficial book where the only redeeming factor is the use of the Teen Titans as instruments of the status quo.

4. Wolverine: Black Rio
A pointless Wolverine story in the worst cookie cutter sort of way. Wolverine goes to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival and we learn that he has a past in that city and it's coming back to haunt him! OOOOOH! Original! To be fair, Casey does at least avoid the usual "send Wolverine to somewhere in Asia" part of the plot, and has the friend from his past really just be a drinking buddy. But, there are zombies and lame shit like that. The door is left open for a follow-up story that's, thankfully, never come about. Oscar Jimenez provides the art and does a decent enough job. This was an early work in Casey's career and it shows. Sadly, Marvel keeps pumping out the Wolverine books -- I'm surprised they haven't asked Casey to do the follow-up yet. Probably because no one remembers this... or, at least, tries to pretend not to.

3. Infantry #1-4
Part of Devil's Due's "Aftermath" line of books that began in late 2004 and folded in early 2005. This book kind of goes around my rules about no co-writes since Josh Blaylock came up with the concepts for all of the "Aftermath" books, but since Casey is credited as the sole writer, I'm allowing it... if only to bring attention to it and recommend that you all avoid it. I haven't actually read the fourth issue, but I will someday because, hey, if you're going to look at someone's complete body of work, you've got to look at it all. I haven't read these comics in years and that's purposeful. Very generic, very lame plots with an awful lead character. Casey does his best to add interesting elements, but nothing he does works at all. It's all smoke and mirrors, and he uses similar concepts involving the government in other books much more effectively.

2. Uncanny X-Men #394-407
Oh, where to begin? When Grant Morrison and Joe Casey were announced as the new writers of the X-books, it was a cause for celebration. The X-books had long been in the hands of mediocre writers more obsessed with continuity than producing good comics -- mostly because editorial was more obsessed with continuity than producing good comics. But, now, we had two hot, creative, inventive writers on the books and things would never be the same again. Now, Grant Morrison went on to have a very good run that people remember and still talk about in glowing terms. Casey... well, I think his run on the book may be the most damaging thing to his career. If he is ever held back from an assignment or seen as "not ready to play with the big boys," it will be because of his run on Uncanny X-Men. From the get-go, it was sabotaged with Ian Churchill on art as his style just did not match Casey's. But, even with lacklustre art, Casey could have overcome, but he
was seemingly obsessed with the idea that pop eats itself and, so, did variations on old stories without actually saying anything meaningful. It seemed like an exercise in giving the audience what it wants, but in a way that makes them hate what they want... except not quite on purpose. Morrison did a similar thing on New X-Men, but with much more success. The second big storyarc of Casey's run involved a genuinely interesting concept with Banshee's X-Corps possibly acting as a rival organisation in Europe to the X-Men, run in a very different way, but even that devolved into typical bullshit. In many ways, what really makes this run so bad and so frustrating is that it always seemed like it was on the verge of becoming something worthwhile. A few different creative choices and it might well have been a classic run. Instead, it's one of three or four things that everyone remembers about Joe Casey.

1. Wolverine/Cable: Guts 'n' Glory
I can never say it better than I did in my original look at this book:
Holy shit is this a bad comic. I'm just going to skip right to Should this book remain forgotten and say, yes, OH MY GOD YES! It's a Wolverine/Cable team-up book with art by Stephen Platt. I don't think this book is forgotten, I think it's been blocked out by the collective memory of comic fandom, particularly Joe Casey fans. If you took this book to Casey at a convention, I wouldn't be surprised if he set it on fire, said "What comic?" and then beat you right there on the convention floor with the help of his fellow Mans of Action.

...okay, I'm going a little overboard, but this really is a seriously bad comic. It attempts to tell a story about Cable's early days in New York, and involves Canadian-government-employee Wolverine... and it's bad. On the first page, we have long-haired Cable walking the streets of New York in some weird fucking outfit that has shoulder pads. He's also apparently eight feet tall.

But, I shouldn't harp on the art... it's Stephen Platt. What does anyone expect?

I'll focus on the writing: Casey tries to give us some interesting bits, but they all fall flat. Cable gets taken in by a veteran who recognises that Cable has also fought in some wars; one of Cable's enemies travels back in time to kill him (and lands in Canada, which is how Wolverine gets involved); and Cable fights the Vulture (again, Casey placing him within the Marvel universe, not the X-verse). These plot elements could make for a good story, but they don't here. There's little characterisation--except for horrible cliches--and the story is difficult to read because of the art.

I can't believe I spent money on this book and that, because of my weird completist obsession, it will remain in my collection.

And there you have it, the ten best and five worst comics of Joe Casey's career. For more information on many of these books, check out my archive of Joe Casey posts where I've examined a large majority of these books on an issue-by-issue basis.