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Spotlight

Joe Casey and Ian MacEwan Travel to Yesteryear NYC in the Supernatural Brawler MCMLXXV

By Rich Barrett 

1975: the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. The arrest of kidnapped—and cult-converted—heiress Patty Hearst. The release of the first summer blockbuster, Jaws. Those 365 days were marked by a domino stream of newsworthy events, but comic scribe Joe Casey finds the year fascinating for far more sinister reasons, many of which occurred in New York City.  

“1975 was also the year that Anton LaVey made some significant modifications to the Church of Satan,” Casey says. “That year, for some reason, was a pivotal year for certain spiritual activity and abnormal ley line alignments. It was the year of the infamous Welcome to Fear City survival guide pamphlets, which were handed out to travelers arriving at NYC airports. It was the year the city itself almost went bankrupt.”

The result of that research is MCMLXXV, a fast-paced street-fighting adventure that takes place in the Big Apple during this pivotal year, as New York is plagued by towering monsters, supernatural ninjas, and other existential threats—all drawn with kinetic aplomb by Ian MacEwan. The pages unfurl a mythological hero’s journey in an urban setting, introducing a young African-American heroine who drives a taxi for a living… when she’s not saving the city with a tire iron.

For Casey, this is one more colorful, innovative road he’s paved into the comics medium. With his Man of Action Entertainment partners Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, he’s co-created a slew of projects including Ben 10 and Generator Rex, both for Cartoon Network, the upcoming Mega Man series coming to Cartoon Network, and the Zag series Zak Storm on Netflix.

Like many Image creators, Casey honed his skills early writing superhero comics for both Marvel and DC, before continuing to sterling runs on the relaunched Wildcats with Sean Phillips and its continuation in Wildcats 3.0 with Dustin Nguyen (Descender) and Rouleau. By the early 2000s, Casey released a series of more experimental comics, including the drug-fueled postmodern epic Automatic Kafka alongside Ashley Wood, and his '60s cosmic comics resurrection with Tom Scioli, Gødland. Despite his busy schedule writing and developing for TV, he continues to put out a number of engrossing Image books—his head-banging collaboration with Ulises Fariñas, New Lieutenants of Metal, debuted last July.

Casey and MacEwan first worked together when the artist filled in on Sex, a comic that analyzes the repression and fetishes of the vigilante population. Previously, MacEwan had co-created a comic called The Yankee, published online through the Study Group collective. MCMLXXV will be his first major ongoing series, and when Casey approached him with the idea, MacEwan jumped at devising a visual aesthetic for the grime and character of a pre-gentrified NYC.

“I love '70s Manhattan in film and how often it's portrayed as a sort of lawless wilderness,” MacEwan explains. “I wanted to treat downtown streets as these sort of dirty stone canyons. There was a huge garbage strike in 1975. There was trash everywhere, and it added to the appearance of a place that no one was planning on helping.”

The hero of MCMLXXV is Pamela Evans, a “bad ass” young woman doing what she loves: driving taxis and fighting monsters. She’s a visually interesting protagonist—young but seasoned; strong, wide-hipped, and lovely; she wears a cabbie’s leather cap over her short curls. Pamela tends to jolt headlong into trouble, leaving her fare waiting in the cab as she hops out to swing her glowing, magical tire iron at whatever manner of creature descends on the Big Apple. She’s a unique personality in comics right now—part grindhouse bruiser à la Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, part streetwise guide akin to Ernest Borgnine in Escape From New York.

“I wanted her to look natural and comfortable in clothes that were common, but not costumey for the era,” MacEwan says. “Being set in the '70s, the look of the book could have easily slid into blaxploitation pastiche territory, which is something I find problematic and wanted to avoid.”

Casey agrees with this aesthetic approach. “As far as I'm concerned, she's an archetype of the highest order. She's of a rare breed of postmodern champion that we really need right-fucking-now. Plus, she carries an enchanted tire iron. Take that, God of Thunder!”  

Buoyed by its singular setting and protagonist, MCMLXXV offers a wild romp at a breakneck pace but still manages to preserve a period-perfect kaleidoscope of rich details that not only resurrect the premillennial urbania of NYC, but offer glimpses of a novel mythology. MacEwan’s gritty, dry-brush inking and Brad Simpson’s moody colors add a tactile grit to the midnight concrete horizons, ensuring immersion beyond reference. An all-night DJ named Prefect Patterson complements the sensory experience with background running commentary, his scenes lit in sultry, red light. Flashbacks to young Pamela and her grizzled guardian and mentor, Damocles, are painted in hazy sepia tones.

MacEwan also aims to enhance his storytelling through an inspired use of lighting and shadows. Spanish cartoonist Jordi Longarón and his Harlem crime comic, Ronde de Nuit (perhaps not coincidentally published in 1975), influenced his approach. “The way [Longarón] drew murky city shadows was something I wanted to do my own version of,” MacEwan explains, “and I wound up playing with a lot of dry brush to light the streets as much as I could with my inks. I like the way city buildings at night look when lit only by street lights, so that they vanish into shadowy blocks as your eyes move up them.”

“I think, tonally, the series takes its cues mainly from the year in which it’s set," Casey adds. "Look at any media that originated in the mid-’70s, and the connection should be pretty clear. But that's just our jumping-off point. It's the world Pamela lives in. This is all about establishing a new mythology. Her story is one that can be passed down from generation to generation.”

Though it revels in retro flavor, MCMLXXV is very much a contemporary comic that looks back on that era with fresh eyes. Its African-American cast is portrayed without the stereotypes and biases that might have been present in most fiction created in 1975. “Even though this is technically a period piece,” Casey says, “there's a lot about it that's very of the moment, culturally speaking. The fact is, it wouldn't have even been made in the year it takes place in.”

“MCMLXXV is fundamentally about finding the myths in places where no mythology was believed to exist,” he says. “But there are legends everywhere.”