The Basement Tapes: Issue #1

Tue, July 27th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

So this started off as a conversation between Joe and myself in response to a career-spanning interview he did with Tom Spurgeon in THE COMICS JOURNAL #257. As a piece of comics journalism, commentary, or whatever you'd like to call it, Spurgeon's interview stands as a rare creature these days: a piece of serious critical thought on a body of work within the comics mainstream with little interest in spin, sales, hype, or apology. I began emailing Joe about the interview, which led into other topics of discussion and a realization on both our parts that there may be some value in recording these kinds of conversations: two folks working within the mainstream, speaking critically about the mainstream in a public arena.

While the above may be entirely bloodless, hopefully what follows is not.

FRACTION: So the idea for this came from you and I talking about the interview conducted by Tom Spurgeon at THE JOURNAL with you a while back. To me, seemed like a pretty clear line in the sand of some sort in your career-- so to get the ball rolling, I'll ask again: what kind of response did you hear back from the piece?

CASEY: It's been a while, but still not too much. After all, who the hell reads the COMICS JOURNAL anymore? It's not exactly the magazine it was back in the 80's, when it was the epicenter of serious comic book discussion, criticism and journalism, indy and mainstream. Kind of a shame, because the magazine still has some great writers in it, like Spurgeon, but the penetration into the current culture just isn't as great. I think Dirk might really make a go of it as editor, but we'll see.

And I don't know about a "line in the sand," but it was definitely a personal career pinnacle, simply because the magazine meant so much to me as a teenager.

FRACTION: Well, you could argue that the current culture's penetration into the independent press isn't so great, either.

Let me clarify: Comics Journalist X gets exclusive interview with Creator/Editor/Executive Y, only to find every serious question is dodged for 6000 words. Yet it still runs as "news," because it's 6000 words nobody else has. "Comics news" is a setup; it's all PR and advertorial. Spurgeon's interview read so entirely without spin or guile (not that Spurgeon would've let you get away with it any other way) that it felt like a kind of summation to me.

At the same time it's kind of disheartening to hear that people within the mainstream professionally aren't reading the magazine, either...

CASEY: Well, maybe they do and they just don't want to admit it.

And, to give Spurgeon credit, he and I had talked about the kind of interview we wanted to do... which was -- to me, anyway -- an "old school" JOURNAL interview where the creator in question strips away the pretense, the hype, every promotional bone in his body and just talks about the work, the career, etc. as honestly as he (or she) can. So he really led me right where I wanted to go, and thankfully, he also led me to some places I probably needed to go, but didn't know it at the time. That's a good interviewer. Or rather, a good journalist.

From what I've seen over the past few years, the Internet -- despite the best intentions of the best comic newsmen who work almost exclusively in that arena -- is driven by content first. These sites need hits, and to generate hits you always need something new, to keep people coming back. And so, the Hype Factor takes over. Hence the Net's association with the mainstream and its constant barrage of "breaking news."

It's always easier to go into Stan Lee-inspired PR mode than it is to delve deeper into your own creative impulses. It's all about spin. I've certainly done it. And, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if the Net should attempt the kind of in-depth stuff the JOURNAL can still accomplish. I don't know if casual browsers' attention spans are long enough to stand for it.

After all, you "surf" the Net... and surfing is about constant movement. You linger on any one wave too long... you wipe out.

FRACTION: The mainstream press is near exclusively PR-driven and its cycles are artificially birthed and manipulated-- I mean, how much "news" has been broken concurrent with a new issue of WIZARD that's been in the production pipeline for three months? You'll see PR hyping Marvel's 50% dominance of the direct market in January, but no analysis that, yeah, but that stunt was born of Marvel double-shipping 75% of their books that month.

So you've got a press that's been forcibly co-opted by the comics mainstream, a mainstream very largely co-opted by a singular genre, and the development of the DM over the last couple years is definitive proof that the trickle-down taste theory (that the success of the mainstream finances the existence of alternatives) is wrong. Now the mainstream has reached the end of some kind of cycle where it's running head-on into the last comfort zone it knew. You could argue any number of reasons for this, but the majors are playing it same as it ever was-- Marvel and DC have built a bridge back to the twentieth century and neutering progressive work while artificially inflating the sales charts and squeezing anyone not in a cape further and further down the charts, off the racks, whatever. The super-hero mainstream is the only game in most comic shops (the manga & shojo issue is a whole 'nother thing), and it's a bloated, unchecked pig.

Where else, then, is there a venue for thoughtful commentary and critique of the mainstream necessary at least in part to elevate it, if not the Internet? Beyond the unchecked, fawning pedantry or pissing that's marked the web's early development (and still clogs most un-moderated forums), there's a developing node of extraordinarily thoughtful analysis starting to blossom on several blogs and from several writers here and there-- and with the mainstream's choke-hold on the DM, where else but the web can such a thing exist? The mainstream is the only game in town, a system existing to perpetuate a system-you know, "Why bother thinking when we can all just be happy that Chris Claremont is coming back to X-MEN again?"

CASEY: Well, hell, it all comes back to the goddamned X-MEN, doesn't it...?

FRACTION: You're never going to escape, Joe.

CASEY: As for your rhetorical question… why bother thinking about it? That's like asking, "Why bother spending time with that chick who frustrates the hell out of you?" Well, the answer's obvious... because you're in love.

But you know the Hollywood axiom, "Nobody knows anything?" Yeah, that old chestnut. If no one has figured out how much that statement applies to the business of comic books...

Although I'm actually encouraged by the comics blogsphere, if for a different reason. I like the idea that the folks who go on every day and write and rant and comment are doing it for no other reason than they seem to be compelled to put their thoughts down in some sort of permanent record. I like that commitment to flying your flag to see who salutes it. I mean, it's not like anyone's paying them to do it. On my better days, I have to believe the blogs are all about passion, and I can dig that.

As for Marvel and DC... let's cut 'em at least a little slack. If all they ever do are slick, well-crafted, satisfying superhero comics that kids can escape into, then they've done their job and to expect more from either of them is pretty pointless. That's like expecting your average kindergartener to do advanced calculus.

(Did I just say "kids"? Jesus Christ, I am feeling optimistic today, aren't I…?)

FRACTION: Are they, though? Certainly not consistently enough for my tastes.

It feels phoned in as a matter of policy, it fees like it's all going by rote, repeating the same gags again and again. By and large, I mean. There are exceptions now as there were then, but mediocrity is the rule and the mainstream excels at choking off critical thought.

Jack Kirby's been dead 10 years-- And comics are exactly the same now as they were then. It doesn't feel like the mainstream's built to compete or evolve; the mainstream, the direct market, all of it seems to exist only to perpetuate itself. So yeah, man, I call bullshit. And I'm pleased to see that there are others doing the same in a way that's more profound than trolling on a message board or any of that nerdy jagoff crap.

CASEY: Ahhhh, Kirby. I don't know if superhero comic books were ever better than when Kirby was doing them, but I digress. When it comes to the so-called "mainstream," I tend to take a wider view. For me, personally, the mainstream in any media exists so the left-of-center work can exist in sharper focus. After all, you wouldn't have a genuine "alternative" unless it was an alternative to something specific.

I guess you gotta' ask yourself this question... would you want to apply intensive critical thought to the mainstream? Is that a worthwhile endeavor? I mean, I don't know if I'd waste too much time applying critical thought to the TV show FRIENDS outside of some sort of sick party game. I hate to defend the COMICS JOURNAL in this manner, but they probably feel the same way. Something that could be considered "mainstream" usually is because, first and foremost, it appeals to a wide and expansive number of people (hence, the main stream). In order to do that, you're talking about a common denominator (I don't want to go so far as to say it's the "lowest," but you get my drift). Inevitably, some folks equate anything that involves any kind of so-called common denominator as being the very definition of mediocre. No one I know, of course…

FRACTION: Yes. I'm exhausted by the Culture of Attrition that's developed around pop culture, trash culture, whatever-- that the race to diminish expectations and the resignation that things are supposed to suck is taken as an acceptable state of things. If some blip on the pop screen registers even slightly above "total shit," it's lauded and praised to high-heaven. Because we let it run unchecked; because we tell ourselves entertainment-- pure and unpretentious entertainment-- is supposed to be vacuous, thoughtless, uninspired and mediocre. When you foster a mindset of no expectations, you walk around pleasantly surprised all the time by pap not worth the time of day. It's like Karl Rove is the Minister of Culture and Infotainment-- you think George W Bush is a moron and then you see him putting two small, monosyllabic sentences together and you decide to vote for him; you think PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is gonna be dumb because it's based on a ride and Johnny Depp charms you into thinking it's a much better film than it actually is-- when at best it's a pile of shit with a cherry on top.

My favorite dead horse to beat w/r/t comics commentary is the CAHIERS DU CINEMA model-- beyond the "how" of impassioned writing by kids chomping at the bit to make their own films, you have to look at the "what" they were talking about. They assailed mainstream French cinema of the time as bloated, rote, and existing only to perpetuate itself while, on the other hand, praising trash auteurs. I mean, look at the American directors they were praising-- Nicholas Ray, Hawks, Ford-- these guys weren't working under the delusion of being capital-A-Artistes the way they're spoken of now, they made horse movies, or gangster pictures or whatever. They did trashy genre work and they knew it. Thanks to the thinking in Cahiers, though, critical thought began to see the art of mainstream trash. Look at THE GODFATHER. A pulpy, lurid trash book, and the film was supposed to be the same thing. And yet it ended up becoming more than what was expected. Trash was injected with art and you've got one of the most important American films ever made, by a guy that came up doing hard thinking about what you can do in spite of genre limitations.

So yeah, man, I'd rather read a great writer-- or at least a clever one-- trying to place Lisa Kudrow in the firmament between Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore instead of the US WEEKLY-style tripe that WIZARD shits out. If comic creators actually knew how to dress themselves, I guarantee you WIZARD would have a creator's fashion spread every month. The common denominator of the mainstream is only as low as we allow it to be.

CASEY: Hey, you'll get no argument from me when it comes to reading and craving intelligent criticism. On anything. When I can find it, I love it. Often, the writing that could be classified as such gives me more pleasure than the original work it's commenting on. An article like the one you describe -- putting Matt Leblanc or some other fucking actor in some sort of wider cultural context, well-researched and intelligently-written -- would undoubtedly be more stimulating to me than any given episode of FRIENDS. But I know I'm in the minority there.

FRACTION: Some of my favorite CAHIERS pieces are so deliberately, obviously obscure and hyperbolic-- like, there's a Godard piece that declares "Henceforth, there is cinema; and cinema IS Nicholas Ray." Nicholas Fucking Ray. I mean, don't get me wrong, Ray is great-- but that balls-out, rock-hand, hell-yeah declaration was over BITTER VICTORY. Find me ten people in a room that have seen BITTER VICTORY and I'll buy you lunch. Aside from JOHNNY GUITAR and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, no one (except for twats like me that read old issues of CAHIERS DU CINEMA) knows who the hell Nicholas Ray is, let alone can they name any of his work.

But that's kinda the point, I think-- Godard had the writin' footwork to say, yeah, sure, cinema itself is Nicholas Ray, and to do it with enough panache to pull it off but enough hyperbole to make sure that everyone knew it was at least a little tongue in cheek.

CASEY: Yeah, but that's part of what can be so great about that kind of writing. Years ago, I once read something about Axl Rose, of all fucking people... how he'd read CIRCUS Magazine (not exactly ROLLING STONE or CREEM in rock journalism spheres) as a kid, filled with depthless articles and insipid interviews with Elton John or Robert Plant or whoever... and he'd take that shit seriously. He didn't know any better… he didn't know that CIRCUS was mainly the home of mindless fluff pieces extolling vapid musical virtues and the perception of the "kewlness" of the rock n' roll lifestyle. The way lil' Axl perceived it was, as you say, gospel without irony. That informed his worldview, and that gave us the Axl Rose we all know and love today...

I'd say it's not just about lowered expectations in our culture, either. Let's look at our side of the equation. How many artists/creators/whatnot can you name that purposefully aspire to elevate "trash art" to a higher level? Those kinds of things tend to happen by accident. You know I've written this Avengers mini-series, EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES. Do I have any delusions that it'll somehow rise above its fanboy intentions? Not a one. Do I care? Not at all. I've gotten to that place where I'm more concerned about what a project means to me, personally. Like you say, any wider artistic context might be provided by a small contingent of French fans twenty years from now who look at my Avengers mini-series as something more relevant. God help them if they do, but that's a big fucking "might."

FRACTION: I think if you hear about a creator (from any medium) doing something "for the fans," then you've discovered the heat-death of the soul, plain and simple. But at the same time, where's the fun? Where's the love? I don't want to hate myself for consuming trash anymore than a creator hates his or herself for making it...

It's interesting to me to see you going into the AVENGERS book and compare it to you going into X-MEN. It sounds like you remembered to have fun again.

CASEY: It can happen on occasion. And yet we're still agreeing to do this goddamned thing! But, what the hell… might as well forge ahead, right? Two writers getting their Column Freak on once again. Fodder for ridicule and a hotbed for meaningless controversy. God bless fucking America!

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