Luke Cage History: From Hero for Hire to Hollywood
TV, Comic Books
Have you ever worked with someone who loves what they do so much that it’s infectious? That’s a solid description of Joe Keatinge, who writes Marvel’s Morbius: The Living Vampire, along with Glory and Hell Yeah at Image. He’s also someone with a restless love for comics in all of its forms.
Keatinge has been involved in the business for going on nine years, breaking in as a colorist before segueing to a staff position at Image. which took him from managing the publisher’s inventory to marketing its books. After overseeing the successful PopGun anthology, he shifted into writing comics himself with the double-barreled successes of Hell Yeah and Glory. It’s his work on the latter series that brought him to the attention of Marvel and DC, who enlisted him for Morbius and issues of DC Universe Presents. Through it all, Keatinge has been an outspoken advocate for the medium.
In our interview, Keatinge talks about his place in the industry as well as his far-ranging interests, delving into his creator-owned work (including collaborations with Frank Cho and James Harvey) and breaking down the perceived walls between different areas of comics.
Joe Keatinge: I’m catching up on virtually everything today, as I’ve been abroad for a bit, attending the Angoulême festival. Mostly Morbius, but a little Hell Yeah as well as looking over the lettering proof for the second-to-last issue of Glory. Then a couple of other things that aren’t announced. Plus, e-mails. Also, getting over that weird “time-traveler” feeling that comes with returning from being abroad after a while. THRILLING ACTION IN THE MIGHTY MARVEL MANNER.
Speaking of getting back home, didn’t I read once where you work out of a studio? Can you tell us about your workspace?
Yeah, I work out of Tranquility Base, Portland’s Greatest World’s Greatest Comics Studio. We have a number of folks in here, including High Crimes & Captain Marvel writer Christopher Sebela, I Cut My Hair cartoonist Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, The Tick and Tuned artist Les McClaine, Witch Doctor writer Brandon Seifert as well as illustrators Jon Siruno and Luke Mahan. We all have our own sections of a shared space. Mine has a view of downtown Portland, an empty box of Moebius cards, a Thanos action figure, two PopGun banners, a rack I got from Floating World Comics where I put the single issues of stuff I’m working on, the discarded corpses of coffee cups gone by, and my computer. One of my desks, inherited from Mike and Laura Allred, has a see-through plastic/glass top, so I can put whatever’s inspiring me in there. I’ve got some art from Roman Muradov, Ian MacEwan, Zack Soto, Joost Swarte, Matt Wagner, Geof Darrow, Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, and the Moebius cards that were in the box I mentioned.
I used to work from home, but I like having somewhere to walk to, somewhere that’s far away from a Blu-ray player as well as close by a couple of coffee shops and one of the best comic book stores in all existence, Floating World Comics. It’s where I spend the vast majority of my day, typing out comic books.
You mentioned that you just got back from a visit to Angouleme. You’re born in California, live in the Portland area – what draws you so much to European comics?
I am drawn to all comics. The idea of limiting yourself to what you’re reading by country of origin seems stupid. I read a lot of European comics, yeah, but I also read a decent amount of Manga. I just saw a ton of manhwa I had never seen before at Angoulême’s Korean expo.
I am a guy who gets stoked about anyone from Rodolphe Töpffer to Rob Liefeld to Little Thunder, whose favorite all-time comics range from Little Nemo in Slumberland, Corto Maltese to Savage Dragon. I don’t give a shit about where a creator comes from, when they existed, the format they published in, what they pee with or who they fuck. Are they doing cool comics? Great. That is the entirety of what I need to know to check a comic out.
To actually somewhat answer your question about European comics in specific — they read like they’re produced in some alternate universe where Seduction of the Innocent was never written. An alternate universe where comics are viewed as a legitimate art form by the entire populace, especially in France. Even The Louvre has recently produced comics of its own (published in English by NBM — and all highly recommended). All sorts of genres do extremely well. The storytelling is much more dense and usually more adult oriented. There’s such a massive wealth of material being published and produced there.
I’m a guy who loves the crap out of American superhero comics, but it is refreshing to see a place where massively successful comics can range from a goofy couple of vikings to a decades-running spy mystery to decades-running cowboy epics to — well, just about anything. And the formats — man, it’s hard to beat oversized hardcover albums. I just bought the French edition of WildC.A.Ts/X-Men: Golden Age solely because it’s Travis Charest art in a massive, hardcover format.
I actually think America has the potential to get there. When I started working professionally in comics about ten years ago people I told what I did for a living were outright shocked they still produced comics. Now people are much more keen to the idea. And look at what’s been massively successful in the last year. A black and white kind-of horror book that almost wasn’t initially published is now a mega-multimedia success and the highest selling comic of 2012. Then there’re those IDW Artist’s Editions. Man, oh, man, those are beautiful. Then look at a website like Study Group. Every single strip on there is completely different from the others. It’s inspiring to such such a wealth of material coming from essentially one source.
You know what I don’t get while we’re talking comics? Why Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press Books (focusing on comic strips from the late 19th, early 20th century) aren’t the highest selling comics on the face of the planet? The Little Nemo books alone are astounding. The Forgotten Fantasy one he put out recently is basically just bound inspiration. I read those over and over again and get renewed enthusiasm every time. Someone fix this and give Peter a ton of money.
Like I was saying about limiting your input of comics by region, I think it’s a bit silly in this day and age to limit your output by region. In this day and age, I think it’s imperative to view where you are as a creator on a global level. To not think of yourself as working in, say, the North American comics industry, but rather the global comics industry. There’s so much potential and opportunity for creators now. You’ll be seeing work coming from me from all corners of the globe — in the past few weeks I’ve worked on comics coming out initially from North America, Europe and Asia.
Do you speak other languages that help facilitate this sort of global approach to comics?
Absolutely not. I speak enough French to get around, but besides that, not really. Luckily it seems like the rest of the planet outside America speaks English. I don’t know why they put up with us.
I’ve known you for several years, going back to your time as Image’s marketing person. This is a tangent, but how does the news that comiXology is opening up an office in Paris and already snapping up publishers like Delcourt hit you? Especially since it lays the groundwork for making it much easier to read those comics when you’re back in the United States.
This entire comixology Europe move has been executed brilliantly, and Delcourt is the absolute ideal partner to launch it with. The French market widely influences what goes on in the rest of Europe. Guy Delcourt, owner of Delcourt, also owns Soleil and their distributor Delsol, which essentially makes him the owner of the largest privately held French publisher on the market. One could argue that title goes to Media Participations, but they’re a massive corporation without just one guy on top. Now, considering Delcourt’s massive success in connecting the American and French markets by The Walking Dead, Star Wars, etc.? It’s an incredibly well thought out partnership. I’m very enthusiastic about the results.
Your biggest series to date, Glory, is gliding into a finale next month with Glory #34. You’ve spoken to CBR about the finale specifically, but in terms of your career – what’s it like finishing this up, and doing so on your own terms and not shuffled out for another creator or something like what happens with some work-for-hire projects?
Finishing up Glory has resulted in a strange mix of emotions. It’s cathartic in some ways, knowing we got to tell the story we ultimately wanted to tell, with an unheard of amount of creative freedom on a work-for-hire book. It’s sad in a couple of other ways, as I know I’m going to miss these characters for all time and working with Ross for the time being. I’ve already written my last script — and Ross Campbell has already drawn it — but we’re in the process of putting #33 to press and #34 being colored, so it doesn’t feel quite over yet.
I am going to really miss Riley Barnes, but it was time to say goodbye. I’m grateful we got the opportunity to do so, in the way we wanted.
You and Ross Campbell were interviewed over at Comics Alliance about the ending of Glory, and one of the key things I took from that was how collaborative you and Ross were in the book. It seems he was actively giving story ideas and being part of the story process instead of just merely drawing the script pages you sent over. That’s a real difference from how most work-for-hire comics seem to go. Can you describe the team you and Ross make together?
I think if you’re making any type of comics — work-for-hire, creator-owned, what-ever — and NOT collaborating with the artist, you’re doing it wrong. This is a medium I feel works best when the writer and the artist work together to produce something with both voices heard. Having someone write over script pages without absolutely no input seems absolutely boring. If you’re a writer and don’t want another creative voice heard in your story, leave comics right now and write some damn prose. I think some of the worst comics are produced this way.
I care about what the artists I’m working with want to draw. On creator-owned books especially, I always ask them to send me a list of stuff they’re excited to draw. Sometimes I’ll already have a concept that fits that list. Other times I’ll come up with something entirely new. Like, I’m working on this book with James Harvey that we’ve kind-of-but-not-really announced. I had another idea I thought about doing with him. Then we started talking and came up with something else. I think we’re going to do a much more interesting series because of it.
Can you say anything more specific about that James Harvey collaboration? That seems magnetic.
I don’t want to say anything else right now, but I will confirm it is magnetic.
Also at Image is your ongoing series Hell Yeah with Andre Szymanowicz. Back when I interviewed you when this was first coming out you mentioned how it was inspired by the early Image comics, but I can’t believe how much you’re bringing it in without making it seem derivative and trite. How has that concept developed now that you’re six issues into it?
It’s basically going to shift every five or so issues. Hell Yeah, more than any other book I’m doing, is one where I can do virtually anything I feel like. The first five issues were me writing 90s Image Comics, for better or worse. The next five are me writing my dream Grindhouse-style Supersploitation revenge comic. After that? We’ll see. I have a loose idea of where I want to take it, but it seems silly to limit myself with it. It’s become obvious it’s never going to be a monthly, ongoing series, just in terms of how it’s produced, but it will be the comic we want, every time.
The book experienced some delays over the past few months – can you set us straight on what’s going on, and what the future of Hell Yeah looks like?
I could tell you straight on what’s going on behind the scenes, but who really cares? I do feel an obligation to tell people who have invested their time and money into the book that, yeah, the book has ran late and whenever it runs late, let them know again, but beyond that — do people want to know what’s going on in detail? Seems unnecessary and boring.
Anyway, the format will be adjusting a bit to take care of these delays. We’ll be doing the series in five-issue chunks. No. 10 ends this series of Hell Yeah. Then we’ll do another, probably around five issues, whenever it’s ready. I’m in no huge rush. I’d rather have a book we’re proud of than a lesser book that was produced monthly. There have been a lot of lessons learned on this series, that one first and foremost.
A while back you were teasing another creator-owned book called Brutal with Frank Cho. Since then Frank’s got Savage Wolverine and your freelance schedule has filled up with projects at the Big Two, but is Brutal still something you and Frank plan on doing at some point?
Yeah, we still intend to do it through Image and Delcourt. The book got announced a bit prematurely as Frank’s obligations to Marvel were a bit more than anticipated, so we’re keeping our mouths shut about all things Brutal until it’s actually ready to go. It’ll eventually happen.
In addition to Image work, you’re also keeping busy at the Big Two. Over at Marvel you’re doing Morbius: The Living Vampire, a big deal considering the character’s origin and the climate of comics. What’s it like being tasked to put this guy back on the big stage, now that you’re well into writing the series?
It’s been enjoyable. Marvel had an idea of where they wanted a character. I presented a pitch. Steve Wacker liked it. Sana Amanat organized everything, then I was paired up with Rich Elson and Valentine De Landro. So, that’s what it’s like. Enjoyable. I like writing science-vampire comics and have a great team to help make that a reality.
You were originally going to make your Marvel debut doing a Thanos series that was pulled back in favor of what turns out to be Jason Aaron doing a Thanos book. These things happen, and you’re still with Marvel so it looks like everything’s OK … but what’s it like coming from Image and being involved with such a layered company as Marvel and rolling with these kind of punches?
I’m telling you, every single publisher you will ever work with are going to have their own “kind of punches.” The way Marvel operates is different than Image, sure, but in the end, while writing comics is by far first and foremost my passion, it’s also my job. You just need to an adult and deal with whatever bumps there are in the road.
I will say, Marvel’s been ideal to work with. When the plans for All Things Thanos shifted, they were upfront with me and we immediately commissioned more work. The way Axel Alonso and Wacker took care of both Rich Elson and me was something I will never forget. Likewise, Eric Stephenson, Erik Larsen, Robert Kirkman and Jim Valentino have been in my corner from almost day one of my career. You don’t take relationships like that for granted. I’m looking forward to working with both companies for the foreseeable future, rolling with whatever punches come my way, because that’s the damn job.
Over at DC we see you taking on a couple issues of DC Universe Presents before it’s finale. You’re quite popular it seems in New York Comic offices – how’d you end up debuting at Marvel and DC so relatively close together?
I wrote Glory. People seemed to really liked Glory. I guess that’s my breaking into comics advice – write your Glory.
That’s good advice.