Poplife: Issue #23

Thu, July 11th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process

THIS IS SO PARTY

When I was in LA last week, I had the chance to finally meet Joe Casey face-to-face. I'd interviewed Joe back in the day at SAVANT, and we'd kept in touch afterwards. Most recently, we split a book-- Funk-O-Tron's DOUBLE TAKE which saw he and Charlie Adlard's CODEFLESH back to back with Andy Kuhn and my MANTOOTH!.

Over a shitty salad and a shitty burger, we shot the shit for a while. It was good. I wanted to cover it in last week's column, but didn't because, well, I think it would've seemed uppity or namedroppy. And besides, no one wants to read a comics script on the Internet of two guys saying "Dude" over and over again…

Okay, one guy, really. Me.

Anyway. In six days time, the second book (after Micah Wright and Whilce Portacio's STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES, out yesterday) in Wildstorm's new EYE OF THE STORM line will be released. It's called AUTOMATIC KAFKA, and Joe Casey writes it. Ashley Wood draws it and more people should know about it.

So, anyway. I dropped Joe a line in the interest of recreating the pertinent bits of our dinner conversation.

So, by way of introduction and recap, what's been going on with you the last year?

Last year? I can barely remember last month. Let's stick with comicbooks for now... I'm hip-deep in writing AUTOMATIC KAFKA and WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 (mature readers superheroes, filling the void that Vertigo left open eight years ago). Still writing ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN (corrupting the youth of America through their icons). In the midst of writing the first six issues of KISS. Just finished my run on UNCANNY X-MEN (see Superman and youth corruption). HIP FLASK: UNNATURAL SELECTION is out this month. IMMIGRANT SONG is currently running as a back-up in Funk-O-Tron's newest BATTLE POPE mini.

Still writing MONOLITH for AiT/Planetlar. Just completed the final script for THE DARWIN THEORY (creator-owned for Vertigo... and who the hell knows when that'll be out). BATMAN: TENSES slowly creeps to completion. And Sean Phillips and I contributed the creator-owned AUTOPILOT strip to the upcoming Dark Horse anthology, REVEAL. On top of all that, the band continues to rawk and I'm starting a new screenplay this summer.

Whew… I gotta' sit down...

[Automatic Kafka]AUTOMATIC KAFKA is creator-owned growed-up comics from Wildstorm's new Mature Readers line. Which, in theory, sounds like a good thing, a needed and necessary thing, and yet the initial orders didn't reflect that at all.

So what does that mean? Does the DM not care about original material any more? Are books like AUTOMATIC KAFKA, or THE FILTH, or 100% doomed to not get seen just because there aren't pervert suits and magic rings? Does comics marketing begin and end with WIZARD?

Oh, they'll get seen by the right people, I think. But groundbreaking work is rarely a huge seller. Remember the classic image of the true pioneer... it's the poor motherfucker face-down on the ground, an arrow sticking out of his back, as one arm points toward the future, pointing the way for others after him to follow.

Yeah, but too often that arrow is friendly fucking fire...

Too true. Which brings me to your other question: Marketing and promotion in the comicbook industry...? Aside from the usual suspects that no one really pays attention to anymore… it's pretty much nonexistent, as far as I can tell. To me, it's a failure to take advantage of the obvious resources at hand. No matter how much grassroots marketing you do... in the areas where it counts, it still seems like a complete clown show to me. There are good people in those positions... smart, capable people. So, I'm at a loss as to why we're still in this fuckin' vacuum, despite the plethora of major motion picture studios picking at our bones like vultures looking for that last scrap of rotted flesh...

As far as AUTOMATIC KAFKA is concerned... I'm not surprised by the initial orders. We've intentionally been very vague about the content of the book, what it's about, what to expect, etc. Besides which, it's a mature readers title, which is going to cut into its orders. Mature readers titles from any company -- Marvel included -- simply aren't heavily ordered. The onus is on DC as to whether or not they can interpret the current market and what a new, mature readers superhero imprint should sell. As far as I'm concerned, we're stating out with basic Vertigo numbers, which is exactly where this imprint should fall in the minds of retailers, especially since the books haven't come out yet and we don't know how readers will react to them. I just hope DC is smart enough to realize we're staking out new territory, and that they continue to nurture the imprint through the necessary incubation period.

The Intentionally Vague Launch Strategy used on A.K. is very similar to what was done with THE FILTH, in that no one really knew what the hell the book was about when it hit... And then suddenly there was this beautiful and strange thing just THERE, right? The downside to that is anemic ordering from a gun-shy market. So... So it's spooky, yeah? Are DC/Wildstorm committed to a long haul, slow-build approach with these books?

Because it'd be a nice fucking change of pace.

Yeah, I'm not sure how I feel about it. This is an entertainment medium, and you want the audience to know what you're giving them. You want that awareness. On the other hand, the hype in our industry has gotten so out of hand... I'm just sick to death of that aspect of it. Guys like Larry Young get it right. He can promote the stinky shit out of something, and you never feel like you're being hustled. That's so rare these days. Like I said, I hope DC understands what the long term potential of this imprint is, and gives us the time and the space to find the audience I know for a fact is out there.

Well, there are 12 POPLIFE readers aching to know what A.K. *is* about. Shit, I don't think we've even brought up Ashley Wood yet...

[Page 1]It's about how nostalgia kills. Who knew that the 80's craze would hit in comic books just as we're doing a book that deals with the dark underbelly of exactly that phenomenon? Once more, my timing is just about perfect. If you like shit like TRANSFORMERS and THUNDERCATS, you'll fucking love this book...

Since the EYE OF THE STORM books seem to skew older and certainly have a non-comics look and feel, are you aware of any efforts to get them seen outside of the Direct Market?

I'm aware of the efforts I'm making. I'm not counting on DC doing anything in that regard, even though AUTOMATIC KAFKA is perfect counter-programming to the campy, feelgood, boffo box office of SPIDER-MAN. They're both superheroes... they're both about how with great power comes great responsibility. Okay… in KAFKA's case, with great power comes great street drugs.

It's the fucking Twenty-First Century, and comicbooks still have that same low self-esteem that's haunted us for the past fifteen years or so. Actually, I should be more specific… the comicbook industry seems to have that low self-esteem. Ever since the moral majority coughed in the wake of the mid-80's creative revolution, publishers have been shit-scared of actually being relevant to popular culture. Only in this business could a creative endeavor be penalized for being original and/or successful. Luckily, in spite of all that, good work can still come in under the radar.

That's... I know that's one of the things that appeal to me about comics. No one pays attention, you know? You can get away with all sorts of shit without the pressures of the outside world stepping on your back.

Yeah, the challenge is to make sure it's gets out there in some form to infect things from the underground up.

And lets talk about the trade dress itself. From the preview images I've seen, both WILDCATS and AUTOMATIC KAFKA are striking in their appearance. Where'd this come from?

It comes from my desire to do work that looks original and unique. I'm just a big fan of graphic design done right and there's not enough of it in comicbooks. But when you've got Ashley Wood doing covers on one book and Rian Hughes and Dustin Ngyyen doing covers on another, it just makes everything else look kinda old-fashioned.

Yeah. These things really, really look remarkable. When I read shit like Grant Morrison saying that, you know, 'Comics will be THE fashion accessory for the new millennium' or whatever, in my head some of them look like these books look...

Well, unlike me, Grant's on the good drugs. Comicbooks have to be a complete and total entertainment experience, from the reading of it to the overall presentation of it. We may be stuck with the accepted monthly format for now, but beyond that, there's all kinds of ways to change the form.

You're starting to do some OGN work. How's that striking you so far?

It's good. Those are the no money gigs, but they just feel right. MONOLITH for Larry and another project with Ash called THE TOMORROW KINGS. From a craft POV, it's as close to writing a feature film as you can get without just breaking down and writing a goddamn screenplay. It's also a different kind of discipline. It's easy to get lost in the middle of these things. You're on page 57 and you've got as much ahead of you as you've got behind you, without the crutch of the 22- or 48-page chapter breaks. But the end result is so much more gratifying.

You said recently in an interview online (location of which I don't recall, sorry), that you wanted to start ramping up your online presence. Is that where it's at? Are comics now a hand-sell industry? Will you be doing retailer outreach or any of that stuff? What's DC/Wildstorm marketing like, anyway?

[Page 2]If I could penetrate the mindset at work when it comes to publishers' marketing of comicbooks, I'd be a fucking genius. Or an idiot savant. I saw a house ad for the entire Eye Of The Storm line that absolutely put me to sleep. On my two books alone, we've got some of the best design work happening anywhere... and the ad looks like roadkill. But what are you gonna' do? I'm sure those guys -- whoever they are -- did their best, probably under an insane deadline that allowed for zero creativity. But I'd still be interested to know what they were thinking...

The online thing is tricky. I had a weekly column on one of Newsarama's earlier incarnations, and it was fun and a good laugh and it pissed people off a lot. Message boards became sort of a joke around the time the pre-X-launch hype was in full swing, and I just backed off from participating in any manner. I've never been much of a message board poster anyway. However, Ash and I have been showing up at the KAFKA section of the boards at http://dccomics.com and there's already an emerging alternative contingent to the kinds of posters I was seeing two years ago. So I want to cultivate that, if I can. I'm all for intelligent discussion.

Besides, the Internet used to be fun and informative and a bit of a laugh and it's gotten a bit grim and humorless lately. Between www.manofaction.tv and www.thesellouts.com, I'm trying to have a good time with it again. I don't know if it'll have any affect on how my books sell, but that's not really the point. The Internet is here for us to connect with each other on levels we're unable to in everyday life. Everything else is secondary, as far as I'm concerned.

You like getting feedback from folks? Does it ever fuck with your head?

Not really. It's all part of the gig. I know when I've fucked up and when I haven't... I don't need anyone telling me. As long as I learn from my own mistakes, the readers can think what they want and say what they want. It's a free country. I put enough pressure on myself anyway... I don't need it coming from the outside. I'm a much harsher critic of my own work than any reader could ever be.

How much do you pay attention to the market as a writer? You've spent the last year with your finger in some pretty visible pies, from the X-office to SUPERMAN to WILDCATS, and now it looks like your schedule is loading up with a lot more creator-owned stuff free and clear of franchise material. Where's this coming from, for you personally?

I pay attention to my own career. As mercenary as it sounds, I make moves based on what's going to benefit me in the long run... what's going to keep me working in a medium I'm desperately -- and probably unhealthily -- committed to. Now, that's not to say I make the right moves all the time. I'd say I'm batting about .500, but I'd rather take those chances, even if they don't always pan out. I'd rather try something and fail than live with the regret of not trying at all.

As far as creator-owned vs. franchise stuff, I try to keep a balance. It hasn't seemed like it for the past year, but in that time I've been gearing up for the onslaught of creator-owned material that'll be coming out over the next year or so. But, it's like Hollywood... the big summer blockbusters make it possible for the little indy films to get made. At least, that's how it should work in a perfect world. But the world is rarely so perfect, is it...?

Nah, I don't think its mercenary if you enjoy doing what you're doing, and challenge yourself as you go. We talked about this a little bit in LA, I think, and I'd like to get back to it here. My own idiosyncratic tendencies seem to keep me away from even trying to do stuff I didn't make up, but you seem to be able to go back and forth. How does that work for you, as a writer? Is one more satisfying than the other?

Every gig contains its own inherent set of challenges, and I like to be challenged. Aside from the obvious economics of it, I get a charge out of writing Superman. This is an icon with a recognition factor -- a true power -- that dwarves us all. And Wildcats was certainly a chance to do the kind of work-for-hire gig that inspired me as a kid... taking a book with perhaps a negative expectation and trying to turn it around, creatively. On the flipside, doing creator-owned work -- sometimes for zero money whatsoever -- is always satisfying. If I had to choose one over the other, I'd always pick the stuff I create, but I'm lucky right now in the fact that I don't have to choose. For now, I can happily do both. And, if I can get a few X-Men readers to check out a book like AUTOMATIC KAFKA, then as far as I'm concerned, the system works (just in terms of exposing them to different types of material).

Of course, this so-called "system" can only be considered a complete and total success when every single fanboy who reads Grant's NEW X-MEN is reading THE FILTH and loving it.

So, do you have trouble shifting gears? It sounds to me that SUPERMAN, WILDCATS, and AUTOMATIC KAFKA are all being written to appeal to three separate age-sets.

What IS your process, exactly?

[Page 3]I like having the diversity of different subject matter and different audiences. It's all about flexing different muscles. It's not hard to move from one thing to the other. I outline every issue pretty extensively, working them out page-by-page, so when it comes to the actual mechanics of writing the actual script, I know how the stories break down and I can just get into the craft of it. The moment-to-moment of telling a story. It's a method I first learned from Steve Seagle and I've just always used it.

What's the best advice you were given when you were starting out?

I gave myself some advice when I got my first real opportunity in the industry... "Don't hold back." Meaning, I pushed myself on every gig, as though it would be my last. I'd gotten a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I didn't want to fuck it up. I still feel that way, five years later...

What was the worst?

Well, that same advice I gave myself has also gotten me in over my head once or twice...

Do you believe in rock and roll?

It's the stuff that flows in my veins.

Party: Noun or Verb?

Party is actually the new, hip adjective. Try it in a sentence… "Dude, that was sooooo party!"

How many songs with the word 'party' in the title have you written?

None. Is that cynical...?

No, but if you listen carefully, you can hear Andrew W-K crying himself to sleep. Last question-- Elvis: Greaser Hood or Billy Batson Superstar?

The beauty of Elvis is that he's all things to all people. Elvis is the ultimate superhero.

Discuss this column on the Poplife Forum or on the Matt Fraction Forum.

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