Butcher Baker The Righteous Maker is the book the teenage me wanted to make back after reading The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and American Flagg! With a cover which looks like any generic report cover bought at a Walgreens adorned with its magic marker scribblings of a title and creators, to the anything-goes approach to storytelling and artwork, Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston write and draw a story that features everything there is to love about the deconstructionist superhero comics of the 1980s. There’s sex, drugs and rock and roll ( or at least the attitude of rock’n’roll.) There’s disregard for authority and a take-no-prisoners approach to the works and pictures. Everything is laid out there on the page, as visually captivating as any page Dave Gibbons, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz ever laid to paper. And it’s not all just surface sheen as Casey and Huddleston also create a story that approaches those old stories about un-heroic heroes and dares us to say we like them because the heroes are “real” or “cool” or even question whether they’re really heroes at all.
Joe Casey must have read too much Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin because this book channels the spirit of rebellion all three of those creators infused their career-making works with. Casey creates a story that’s a blend of 1970’s Marvel cosmic, infused it with the narrative decadence of the 1980s and views it with an ironic 2012 eye. His story of a hero that’s equal parts the Comedian from Watchmen and Captain America, with a bit of US 1 thrown in for good but obscure measure shows how much we accept as heroism is really just a blatant narcissism of a supposedly do-gooder hero.
The Righteous Maker isn’t a hero. He isn’t a role model in anyway but Casey and Huddleston pattern him on the patriotism of Captain America. While he may wear the colors of Cap, he stews in the same moral filth as Alan Moore’s Comedian. Like the Comedian, Butcher Baker is a hero by reputation who has long outlived his usefulness. While starting out that way, Casey and Huddleston really create a Dark Knight Returns-type story for a character who doesn’t have the same historical or cultural cache that Batman does. They create a hero who’s living in a future he never thought he’d live long enough to see and show him just as lost and purposeless as Miller’s Bruce Wayne is at the beginning of DKR.
Instead of following the maudlin and melodramatic leads of Moore and Miller, Casey and Huddleston take their tonal cues from Chaykin, injecting a heavy dose of satire and irreverence into the story. They follow Chaykin’s sarcastic lead in The Shadow, Twilight or Blackhawk, books that are really easy to read on that surface level and accept that surface as the thoughts and intentions of the creators. It’s the easy way out to read a Chaykin book and think the characters are thinking and saying what Chaykin would say. Peeling back that surface, you can see how Casey and Huddleston are using this story to look back and react to the works that so inspired them.
While Moore and, to a lesser degree, Chaykin have moved on from their subjects or tones of the 1980s, Miller has moved forward with time and continued to evolve (or some would say devolve) along the same lines as a storyteller as shown in All Star Batman and Holy Terror. Butcher Baker actually reads very much like the more recent work of Miller, taking on this superhero as the ultimate moral authority approach to storytelling. But where it really is hard to separate Miller from his ethnic screeds in Holy Terror, Casey and Huddleston give you all of these clues throughout the book that Butcher Baker needs to be partially read as a comedy.
Huddleston takes on credit there as it’s hard to view a lot of his artwork as anything less than having outrageous fun with Casey’s story. Embracing the trucker/superhero debauchery, Huddleston throws every weapon he has in his artistic arsenal at the page, determined to outshine Casey’s madness with his own. Unlike a lot of contemporary artists who approach a page very seriously and cinematically, Huddleston draws comics with outrageous proportions, unreal colors and he realizes that a panel of a comic book is still a part of a comic and not a still frame plucked out of a movie.
The art in this book makes you remember the joy of surprise and the enjoyment of the image that Bill Sienkiewicz put into Elektra Assassin and Stray Toasters. That joie-de-art is what gives Casey’s story the bump up from being one massive joke about superheroes to being an explosion of comic booky goodness. Huddleston makes every panel an event, building off of the previous one and depicting a moment in an entirely new way. Never taking the story too seriously, Huddleston uses every artistic tool at his disposal to create moments in time that can only exist in comics.
The mixture of art styles, particularly the way that Huddleston mingles simple black and white drawings with splashes of color on nearly every page, creates a bit of mystery as you’re reading the book. There is no singular Huddleston style that you can get used to and gloss over as you read this comic. The thrill of turning each page, of seeing the stunning explosions or soft whispers of color pull you through the book. Huddleston’s visual strategies change every couple of pages, showing you something that can be pulled off wonderfully only in comics.
Imagine if Elektra: Assassin had the influence on comics that Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns had? If every comic after Miller and Sienkiewicz’s masterpiece had been influenced by it instead of the “grim and gritty” imitations that we got. Then every comic would have looked like Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker and superhero comics would have been a lot more fun for the past 25 years.