Here’s a plot recap of the first three issues of Butcher Baker Righteous Maker: A retired super-hero—the titular Butcher Baker—agrees to go on one more mission at the behest of Jay Leno and Dick Cheney, a mission where he will execute all of his former villains, all of whom have been incarcerated in a prison facility for an unmentioned length of time. After Baker finishes orgy-ing it up with the trio of naked ladies that Leno and Cheney brought along to sweeten the pot, Baker gets in his truck, drives to the aforementioned prison, blows it up, and then, unaware that the explosion failed to kill all of his former enemies, begins to drive home. In the second issue, he goes to a truck stop to have a meal while the surviving enemies decide to join forces under the banner of revenge. In the third issue, he fights it out with one of his more aggressive former enemies while the remainder decide to team up and murder Butcher Baker.
And that’s the first three issues.
Just in case the sentences above are failing to convey the implied message, let the Journal be blunt: the plot to Butcher Baker isn’t that interesting. And while that plot is not too dissimilar from Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker’s Destroyer mini-series, in which they took the idea of a post-prime super-hero going on a mass execution spree and turned out the best work of Kirkman’s “I got a funny idea for a cover” only-concepts-matter career, otherwise Butcher Baker couldn’t be more far removed from Destroyer, or any of the other super-hero comics that Joe Casey claims are the Baker’s brethren in his back-of-the-book essays.
“It’s a motherfucking comicbook where shit blows up and a bunch of freaks try to beat the shit out of each other! What kind of personal feelings is anyone gonna have about that?”
That’s only one of the many quotable sentences that Casey leaves behind in the Butcher Baker back matter, and if you were interested in these comics merely for those essays, you certainly wouldn’t be alone, and it’s quite likely that you wouldn’t be disappointed in paying for them, either. Despite Casey’s consistent protestations that the essays are “brain vomit” and “thoughts I haven’t quite figured out yet,” they add a level of importance (and to be honest, excitement) to the comics they surround that isn’t apparent at first glance: specifically, that Casey’s goal with Butcher Baker is more than just to provide a reading experience, but an actively emotional event, an experiential moment where readers are jolted out of their complacency with the current state of comics. (To be accurate, Casey is most concerned with super-hero comic readers. To be even more irritatingly accurate, Casey also likes to use the word “comicbook” to describe these things.) It’s not enough to just read Butcher Baker and think that it’s a good super-hero comic–it isn’t, actually, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be eventually. You’re supposed to read it, think that it’s badass, or cool, or locked in, or some other repurposed word like dynastic, and then you’re supposed to recognize that other comicbooks aren’t like this one. At one point in the second issue’s essay, it seems like Casey might be headed towards proclaiming the now classic (and maybe even clichéd) “go and make your own shit” ideology that the last decade’s hipster hero writers seem to think they created out of whole cloth. (Does Matt Fraction really believe he’s the first comics guy to have heard of Fugazi?)
To be fair, Casey doesn’t come right out and say all of what I’m saying he says, but Casey also talks a lot about presenting himself in the public forum in an exaggerated, fictional fashion—sort of like Blaise Larmee, but with sunglasses and cursing. Casey in his essays presents the state of the “comicbook” union as he sees it—one where super-hero comics are nearly across-the-board boring (which is really the only unforgivable sin these things can commit now that nobody has to care what they’re drawn like)—and then follows that up with a classic defense-of-corporate-work, by explaining that it’s sort of his fault for thinking that Big Two super-hero comics are places that allow for creative freedom in the first place. Little of what he’s saying is new, but his tone makes it feel fresh. With open contempt for his own argument, as well as a craven excitement to point towards the 5 Years Later version of the Legion of Super-Heroes and John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad run instead of things like Love and Rockets or Cerebus, Casey’s essays work as a Lutheran letter of intent: fuck being an artist, fuck being a hack, I’m gonna be a rockstar instead. What follows is a predictable, and yet still stirring guttural roar for doing-it-on-one’s-own, followed by a bunch of extreme promises regarding how what you’re reading is going to blow your fucking socks off your feet, whereupon they will walk down to the store and steal you a couple bottles of Jäger before returning home with a hot piece of ass in tow. And then, since there’s room, Casey will do his best to make his readers care about this particular ball-reamer’s art partner, all the while knowing that that particular strand of audience member abandoned this particular genre of comics long ago. (In keeping with the Journal’s commitment to “upping the stakes,” I’ll say something about Mike Huddleston’s contribution to Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, and that’s this: Mike Huddleston’s work is weird, fascinating, and ultimately rewarding enough that the comic is worth examining merely for his contributions. Like Ashley Wood’s work on Casey’s unjustly ignored Automatic Kafka, Huddleston is clearly free to explore different styles with which to tell this comic’s story, making for a comic that’s just fundamentally different from the titles it shares categorization with. Shorter version: This is one of the two or three non-Yosh Collective Image Comics that doesn’t look like it was drawn by a Texas Instruments Speak & Spell.)
The problem with Butcher Baker is this: it’s not an essay collection, it’s a comic. (Although a collection of Mike Huddleston’s drawings of naked women and Smokey and the Bandit cartoons with Joe Casey essays is not a thing completely without merit.) It’s an action genre comic with a bewilderingly dull heroic lead who’s completely submerged beneath a never-ending flood of what Joe Casey thinks is cool—some of which is, some of which isn’t: quoting Frank Miller’s aged version of Batman in the voice of Frank Miller’s aged version of Ronald Reagan is funny, but having the government use Jay Leno and Dick Cheney as messengers (complete with already dated late night jokes, as well as toothless political criticism) isn’t. So you get the aforementioned Smokey and the Bandit riffs, bad guys with Jihad in their name, hot naked women, penis-shaped door handles, repurposed Godland characters as a plot device, and so on. Some of it is going to land, but bad or good, it’s not a story, and at this point, it’s difficult to imagine Butcher Baker (the character) being able to star in one of those. Right now, it’s just got ambition, heart, and a pretty bewitching level of ‘tude–and if you don’t know how that particular song always ends, then friend, you’ve never read a Joe Casey comic before.