Joe Casey breaks superhero mold with ‘Valhalla Mad’ and ‘Sex’

May 19, 2015 | 5:06 a.m.
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The cover for "Valhalla Mad" No. 1, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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The cover for "Valhalla Mad' No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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The cover for "Valhalla Mad' No. 3, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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Page 13 of "Valhalla Mad" No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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Page 14 of "Valhalla Mad" No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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Page 15 of "Valhalla Mad" No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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The cover for "Sex" No. 21, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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The cover for "Sex" No. 22, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

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The cover for "Sex" No. 23, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

Joe Casey doesn’t remember a time when comic books weren’t in his life.

A writer who has worked on some of the most popular characters in superhero comics, including Superman, the X-Men and the Avengers, Casey grew up as an unabashed fan of the medium, and the works of Jack Kirby were some of the very first books that caught his attention. During his trips to local drugstore spinner racks, Casey discovered Kirby’s work through random issues of “Eternals,” “Devil Dinosaur,” “Black Panther” and “Captain America and the Falcon,” and it made an impression that has significantly influenced Casey’s development as a comics creator.

“[Kirby] was a bit out of fashion at that point, as I later learned, but … he was never not great, as far as I’m concerned,” Casey said. “Once I really dove into the medium — once I knew I was a fan for life — I quickly went back and discovered all of Kirby’s work from the ’60s and early ’70s. The sheer amount of it had a big impact on me. Besides which, all of my heroes at the time were unabashed Kirby fans. I figured they knew what they were talking about.”

Casey said that as he gets older, he appreciates Kirby’s style even more.

Page 13 of "Valhalla Mad' No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Image Comics)

Page 13 of “Valhalla Mad” No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

“As I’ve done more of my own comic books, I look back at his stuff, and it’s clear that this was a creator who was able to directly access his own imagination and get it down on the page in a very pure, uncut form,” Casey said. “That’s tough to do, to cut through those things that might normally hold you back — your own self-consciousness — and really get what’s in your head onto the page. He was just gifted in his ability to do that in a big way.”

Casey has kept the bombastic spirit of Jack Kirby alive in projects such as “Gødland” for Image Comics and “Catalyst Comix” for Dark Horse Comics, using Kirby’s example to deliver ambitious ideas with fearless confidence. Last year, he had the opportunity to revive Kirby’s “Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers” with artist Nathan Fox at Dynamite Comics, and this week, he debuts a new Kirby-inspired Image series with artist Paul Maybury: “Valhalla Mad,” which follows three gods who easily could have been pulled from a classic issue of Kirby’s “The Mighty Thor.”

There’s a lot of Kirby in Casey’s life right now, but he doesn’t plan on staying in this mode for much longer.

“I’ve obviously had quite a few projects that really leaned into the influence his work had on me,” Casey said. “But I really feel like I’m at the tail end of all that. I think telling a story with that Kirby vibe, tapping into the spirit of his work, has become second nature to me now, I’ve done it so much. So I think it’s time to finally set it aside.”

In addition to the ongoing “Valhalla Mad,” Casey also writes the erotically charged superhero Image comic “Sex,” which shows a much different side of the costumed crusader lifestyle than Casey’s Kirby-inspired works. A riff on a Batman-like superhero that brings all the sexual subtext to the surface, “Sex” is a fascinating ensemble drama unlike anything Marvel or DC publishes, and it returns this month with the start of a new storyline.

Page 14 of "Valhalla Mad' No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Image Comics)

Page 14 of “Valhalla Mad” No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

Casey has found a lot of creative success by working on his own original superheroes, but he’s able to pursue these personal projects by working on licensed comics like “Miami Vice Remix” at IDW Comics, a gonzo reimagining of the ’80s cop drama. He’s also a member of Man Of Action, the writer collective that has worked on hit properties such as the television show “Ben 10” and the comic that inspired last year’s Academy Award-winning animated film “Big Hero 6.”

“Man Of Action affords us an enormous amount of freedom when it comes to our own, personal gigs,” Casey said. “That freedom is everything to me. How I work now is not that far removed from what I did constantly as a kid, sprawled out on my bedroom floor, writing and drawing my own comic books in my vast array of spiral notebooks. It was pure creation back then, with no real judgments involved. To even come close to that pure of an emotion is a great accomplishment, in and of itself.”

Hero Complex readers can view covers and pages from “Valhalla Mad” and “Sex” in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links below.

PREVIEW: ‘Valhalla Mad’ No. 1 cover | Page 13 | Page 14 | Page 15 | No. 2 cover | No. 3 cover | ‘Sex’ No. 21 cover | No. 22 cover | No. 23 cover

In a recent email conversation, Casey delved into the creative process for his various series, what his different artists bring to each title, and the value of a strong design sensibility.

You’ve spent a considerable amount of your career writing mainstream superhero properties for Marvel and DC. What were the major lessons you learned writing for those publishers?

It can be a lot of fun writing the icons you grew up with. I enjoyed it when I did it. And I do remember having some really good, productive working relationships with some of the editors I dealt with. Specifically, Tom Brevoort at Marvel and John Layman (pre-“Chew”) when he was at DC/Wildstorm. Those were guys who knew how to cut through the [junk]. But what I mostly learned was that when you write for Marvel and/or DC, you can get trapped into relying on these large, often unwieldy corporate mechanisms when it comes to making comic books. But the fact is, you don’t need that big machine to do it well. Creating comic books can be a small, more personal endeavor. And if you can get it to that place, you get better results. And we all get better comic books. Now, that sounds like such an obvious thing, but I had to learn that. Or relearn it, as the case may be. Plus, it seems to me that guys who stay at those publishers for too long tend to get institutionalized (both figuratively and literally). Now that’s some scary [stuff].

Page 15 of "Valhalla Mad' No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Image Comics)

Page 15 of “Valhalla Mad” No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

What would you like to see from mainstream superhero comics? 

Well, that’s a valid question, but I really don’t have a dog in that particular fight. I don’t read too many comics from the so-called “mainstream” (and, by that, I assume you’re still talking about Marvel and DC) anymore. I’d like to, but they just don’t speak to me on any significant level. I’ve seen it all before, two or three times over. To answer from a business perspective, I’d like them to get even more boring. That just makes my books look that much more interesting.

You’re working with an eclectic assortment of artists in Nathan Fox (“Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers”), Piotr Kowalski (“Sex”), Jim Mahfood (“Miami Vice Remix”), and Paul Maybury (“Valhalla Mad”). Do you adjust your scripts to play to the strengths of your collaborator?

I try to. It’s part of my job. On the other hand, sometimes I see something in an artist’s work that hasn’t been completely cultivated yet, an aspect that they themselves haven’t explored yet. Having Nathan Fox draw a Kirby creation ended up being two great schools of comics colliding in a really interesting way. It’s like a great mash-up. Something new comes out of it. Having Paul Maybury draw “Valhalla Mad” in those late ’60s Kirby rhythms makes for an interesting final product.

“Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers” and “Miami Vice Remix” are both based on established properties. How do you maintain the spirit of the source material while still delivering something fresh and new? 

By not being completely beholden to them. I’m professional enough to provide what’s necessary, but at the same time, if I’m not bringing something new to the party, then what’s the point of taking the gig in the first place? You’ve got to make it work for the current readership, whoever they are. To be honest, I’m not really a retro guy, I don’t have too much time for nostalgia, so when I take these on I’m always looking for some kind of creative justification. In both cases, the main one was working with the artists involved. That alone gave me the juice to try and reimagine them, especially in the case of “Miami Vice.” Seems to have worked out OK. I wouldn’t want to make a habit out of it, though.

The cover for "Sex" No. 21, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Image Comics)

The cover for “Sex” No. 21, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

With “Sex,” why did you want to write a superhero book that focuses specifically on sexuality? 

Well, most of them do already, they just won’t admit it. But the way superhero comics fetishize both the human form (male and female) and close-contact violence makes it pretty obvious. To me, anyway. There’s some serious sublimation happening in most superhero fiction and it’s been that way for decades. I just wanted to drag it out into the light and make it the primary subject matter of a long form narrative.

You’re juggling a lot of plotlines in “Sex.” How much of the book was plotted at the start? Has the narrative changed in any ways you didn’t originally have planned?

The way I write long-form monthly comics is to establish the characters and the initial relationships and then let them eventually tell me where the story needs to go. Once I get a sense of that, I tend to plot in large chunks. That gives me a few signposts to go by, but plenty of wiggle room to improv as I go along. I figure, if I’m surprised by the way a story plays out, there’s a good chance the readers will be too. “Sex” involves a lot of characters, a lot of story threads to keep track of. And there’s definitely a trick to keeping all those balls in the air each issue (no pun intended), but I like that challenge.

Why the decision to highlight certain words in the dialogue in “Sex”? What do you think that adds to the reading experience?

There are so many production aspects of comic books that are so formalized, oftentimes unnecessarily so. So this was a chance to try something just a little different. Some comic books go for the uppercase/lowercase lettering, others branch out with different fonts. Ours is just a slightly off-center way to approach the idea of emphasis in lettering dialogue. The colors definitely mean something, but it’s one of those things I like to keep to myself. I’m not entirely sure how much it adds to the overall reading experience (in fact, some folks are quite annoyed by it), but at the very least, it’s a minor thing that helps the book stand apart. Sometimes that’s a good enough reason to do something.

The cover for "Sex" No. 22, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Image Comics)

The cover for “Sex” No. 22, by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

“Sex” and “Captain Victory” have made very effective use of guest artists. How do you choose those creators?

I guess it’s just an intuitive thing. On “Sex,” I tend to find artists I want to work with and throw them a decent page rate to fill in for a chunk of pages. For some of them, it’s been their first published work, which I take some pride in. It was borne out of a scheduling necessity, but I think we’ve made it work for the book. On “Captain Victory,” I went for an all-star roster of artists that you wouldn’t immediately think of for that kind of material. But they all seemed eager to get in on the jam, and they all came through, big time. That book is really special to me, for that aspect alone. And, c’mon, where else are you going to see interior, panel-to-panel storytelling from Grant Morrison? I’m pretty proud of the fact that I wrote something that he drew. He’s a … good artist too. I wouldn’t have asked him if he wasn’t.

What sparked the idea behind “Valhalla Mad”? 

I’d been reading the old ’60s Thor comics that Kirby drew, and I noticed that there was a particular approach to his storytelling that gave those comic books a very specific rhythm. It’s a method he never deviated from in his last few years on the title. For instance, he’d use splash pages mostly as a way to present detailed character portraits, as opposed to using them for big action moments (as most of his peers did and as most artists still do to this day). So once I’d really broken down that approach, I wanted to take it out for a test drive, so to speak. Plus, I’ve always loved the “gods on Earth” trope. That was my favorite part of those old Thor stories. That juxtapositioning of the mortal and the immortal always fascinated me. So I wanted to bring that aspect more to the forefront and see what particular kind of drama we could squeeze out of it. Turns out, quite a bit.

The first issue of “Valhalla Mad” emphasizes how much New York City has changed since the gods last visited 40 years ago. How much of the book will be exploring the way American culture has changed since Kirby’s heyday?

I’d have to say we’re going to explore it more in a behavioral sense, more sociologically, dealing with how people react to their presence on Earth. And how New Yorkers in particular react. It also has to do with the passage of time, how it differs from an immortal’s perspective as opposed to a mortal’s perspective.

The cover for "Valhalla Mad' No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Image Comics)

The cover for “Valhalla Mad” No. 2, by Joe Casey and Paul Maybury. (Man of Action / Image Comics)

Maybury uses very traditional Kirby layouts. How do you think that affects the pace of the story? 

Well, like I said earlier, it was one of my original inspirations for doing the book in the first place. I specifically asked him to do it like this, to the point where I was simply providing him the panel shapes/layouts for each page. And seeing someone like Paul—who has his own art style, not at all part of that Kirby school of comic art —in that context was interesting to me. He didn’t know much Kirby when we started. I had to provide a lot of it and point him toward a few specific things he could look at to get a true sense of what it was we were doing. Luckily, he was willing to roll with my weird idea, and I think the results speak for themselves. His art, when merged with those specific storytelling “rules,” produces a certain kind of rhythm (and I know I keep using that word to describe it, but there really is no better word for it). I think he got a kick out of working with those limitations too. It’s something he never would’ve done on his own.

What are your larger plans for “Valhalla Mad”? The first issue starts as a night of revelry, but the end suggests there’s more to the story.

Yeah, it’s kind of a bait and switch. Things get really emotionally heavy as the series goes on. There are personal secrets to be revealed. These god characters have to confront the notion of morality as it relates to immortality. I liked the idea of a multi-layered experience where it starts out exploring certain story elements before giving you the deeper meanings we want to convey.

“Sex” and “Valhalla Mad” both feature very evocative production design. How much input do you have into that element? What do you see as the value of sharp production design? 

I have quite a bit of input, but the real work is done by graphic design guru Sonia Harris, who works with me on all of my creator-owned books. She loves comics, but she also tries to bring an outside perspective to the design aspects of these things, which is exactly the approach I like when it comes to the overall package. Every project is different, every book has its own “design identity.” We share a particular aesthetic, which is that these things — each and every individual comic book, trade paperback and hardcover — are themselves a form of artistic expression. It allows for even more opportunities to be creative, from initial conception right up until the moment we send it off to print. Believe me when I tell you: It all matters.

— Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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