The Basement Tapes: Issue #2

Tue, August 3rd, 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.

Some of you may know, Fraction and I have something peculiar in common: We're both veterans of Column Culture. We've both been there, in the trenches, week-in, week-out, talking shit and alienating folks left and right. Ah, the good old days. And yet, here we are again, kicking it out to be picked at and scrutinized by the most gloriously opinionated audience in the entire, choking miasma of pop culture. I figured I'd find out where Fraction's been since the conclusion of his last self-confessional outing…

CASEY: So, it's been over a year since you closed out the POPLIFE column on this very site. The world wept. But, they say time heals all wounds. In this freaky business, a year can be a lifetime. Attitudes can change, personal edicts retracted, epiphanies reached, all that good stuff. So, my question to you is, where's your head been since the end of POPLIFE? Are you still holding fast to your "squirrely and unpredictable" stance you left us with? You've had a pretty kick ass piece of comicbook fiction hit with LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS and you've got more stuff to inflict on the reading public soon enough... where are you at now with this whole comic book industry thang? And where do you see yourself -- and your place in it -- at this point?

FRACTION: Yes, wept. Wept tears of Joy.

Let's see: Where am I? Older and wiser, I hope. I scrapped a lot of the dumb preconceptions I had that I think only a year (or two, or three, or whatever) of doing the work would shake. The few POPLIFE columns I've revisited tend to make me wince-- uselessly cocksure and arrogant. A lot of contempt prior to investigation, a lot of wishful thinking, and a lot of ignorance bred of inexperience that masquerades as posturing. So it's been a year of wizening, I hope; I've come around to a lot of thinking, but there's a lot of things I'm even more committed to-- you go around the block a few times and, suddenly, you've got a gait to your step and the backbone of an idiom, you know? All that kind of stuff that comes from doing the work. Or trying, anyway.

I had pitched some stuff to an editor at a company somewhere, and we got on the phone with one another and it sorta became a shouting match between he and I-- friendly sparring, if I want to be kind, but not the kind of call you want with an editor who can, you know, sign a check or greenlight your book or whatever. Basically because I was trying to sell something un-sellable; LOTI was yet to be released, I just had my, like, web rep or whatever, and had started getting contact info and exploiting it-- wasting everyone's time, pretty much. Anyway, we're yelling back and forth, and the argument comes down to, you know, him saying "Write what sells," and me saying "Fuck you," but not really for the right reasons. Not literally, but that was the subtext of the whole thing.

And I realized the second I hung the phone up I was backing the right horse the wrong way; I was saying fuck you just because I kinda like it-- and it was easier to pretend I was too cool for the party instead of the reality that, ha ha, I wasn't actually invited-- instead of having any kind of ideology or integrity that I was defending.

And through that call I really sunk my teeth into the idea of trying to emulate a career like the Coen Brothers, or Soderbergh; journeymen attacking a million different genres in ways not done before-- but still getting final cut. Like, I know I'm not going to be Gilbert Hernandez, I'm not going to be Alan Moore-- but limiting yourself, limiting your options because your faux-hipster posture dictates it is retarded. It's like starting a riot by burning down your own house.

So that's a really long-- and maybe not entirely clear-- way of saying that I'm trying to pick my pitches and swing for the bleachers, instead of standing outside of the ballpark, trying desperately to convince myself that I'm too good to play for the Yankees.

CASEY: Curious analogy, since I'd be hard-pressed to name who actually is the Yankees of the industry right now...

From my perspective, you're in a good place, because the work that's out there right now with your name on it -- MANTOOTH and LOTI -- were really well-received without pigeonholing you into a particular niche too early. You've still got a chance to define yourself, and it sounds like you've taken a couple of hard knocks outside the glare of printed, publicly-consumed work. Small consolation, I know, but it makes a difference if you're going to be in this for the long haul.

Personally, I think the "journeyman" tag undersells what guys like the Coens and Soderbergh really do, which is to find artistic merit while operating inside the more "obvious" genres. Hell, Kubrick did it, too. I think you did the same thing with LOTI. And I'm certainly down with the "final cut" theory... there are more opportunities than ever to do work where that kind of control is possible. I think it might've been the best thing for you, career-wise, to ultimately not be involved with the line you're referring to.

But I'm wondering why you'd refer to your pitches -- which I remember getting a look at -- as "un-sellable"...

FRACTION: The one I was referring to was a multi-arc, long-form science fiction thing that opens with, I swear to god, the most offensive 3 pages I've ever written. I don't want to seem like I'm wearing my Mark Millar hat -- I'm not trying to be hype-y and hyperbolic. Seriously, it's the most offensive thing I've ever written. And it was calculated to be so, the idea being that 3 really filthy pages would set the tone for the arc right off, would immediately taint the scene and, if it worked and if you read the first three pages, you'd have this, like, stain in your mind you couldn't get out. And it would feel way dirtier and seedier than it actually was.

And the book follows groups of kids basically falling apart and coming together, disposable lives lived too fast and all that-- not the most commercial of topics, approaches, genres, or anything. Lots of big downer endings, and tonal shifts, no main characters... And, as I said, this was pre-LOTI. So I got on the phone with this guy and was pretty much, like, "Hey! Check out my cool website! Buy my five-year book. No? FUCK YOU!"

Just not, you know, leading with my best shot, as it were.

CASEY: Yeah, I remember that one. I liked it. Then again, I'm not easily offended.

Do you think that writing those things, in some strange and inexplicable way, got certain things out of your system? And do you feel like you made some creative leap forward without the material actually seeing print? After all, I read that script, it worked for me, and it certainly would've worked as a comic book. So from where I'm standing, you don't necessarily have anything to prove in that regard. You ended up having the personal creative experience, which is at least one of the most important aspects of this stuff, isn't it...?

FRACTION: Yeah, this last year was about getting over a lot of stuff: fear of pitching, resistance to work, all that. There's something really freeing about losing the, uh, fear-of-ideas. Fear of not ever getting back to where-your-ideas-come-from or whatever you want to call it. Like, I've really tried to embrace that inner Kirby-- always more ideas. I've had a million, I'll have a million more, just not always when I need 'em. Some stick, some go away. Gutters and strikes, the Dude abides. But there's always more, there's always something new to think up, something new to do on a personal or artistic level. I've got some weird sense of pride in my idea-morgue. Because it's, I don't know if this is gonna make sense, but it's proof of saying yes, you know? Yes, I was asked to pitch for DISTURBING FATHER O'REILLY of all things and, yeah, I found a way to do it that excited me. Yes, I was asked to pitch the EINSTEIN VIOLENCE YOUTH BRIGADE series before it got cancelled, and I pitched the greatest EINSTEIN VIOLENCE YOUTH BRIGADE story I could come up with. Yes, I am turning Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla into action heroes, and I'm so out of my head into it I can hardly sit still when I type.

CASEY: And therein lies the beauty of this medium... these are things that can be fully executed in their most pure form. And the trick is -- as it sounds like you've discovered -- not to hold back. Let the ideas flow without a goddamn trace of restraint. The movies have caught up with us, but it only takes a few imaginative, original ideas to outdistance them again. We've always been so good at it. This medium is tailor made to infect the culture with ideas that are obviously light years ahead of their time.

So, now that I've come back down off my mountaintop, what's your POV on the biz as it stands? You've had your personal creative epiphany... so how does it fit into a real world industry paradigm?

FRACTION: I think it's good to have your ass handed to you, that's for sure. Not to diminish in any way how great LOTI was received, and how flattering that whole roller-coaster ride has been-- I mean, my year ain't been bad at all. From an A- in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and a massive coming out party at the Isotope, to just coming off a panel with Will Eisner and on and on. It's been a hell of a year.

Nor does my day job leave me wanting for thrills and excitement.

This is probably as close as I can come to quantifying myself w/r/t the industry paradigm as I see it: do good work, because comics needs it. I don't think this is the time for towing the line-- be it Batman or some kind of brainbusting webcomic that no one's ever thought of, now's not the time for pastiche or homage (and, the attendant irony of saying this and being the guy what wrote LOTI, a big pastiche if there ever was, doesn't escape me), hackwork or anything less than complete, Jack Kirby-grade passion.

God, that sounds completely dumb. Does that sound as dumb as I think it does?

CASEY: Sounds like Kirby-grade passion to me.

But comic books are the medium where we should dare to be dumb. Put it all out there and be unafraid to look like an ass. As far as I'm concerned, that's where the glory lies. The potential for true greatness (as opposed to industry perceived greatness). We're coming out of a disturbing period of industry "kewl" and thank Christ it seems to be over. I may geek out over the EMH gig, but I feel equally justified geeking out over my other, creator-owned projects. You can embrace all of it, if you so choose. Believe it or not, that took me a while to figure out.

So, then... I should take it that you're ready to look an ass...

FRACTION: Yeah, man, fuck it. Bitter gets boring. Live long, write hard.

You said it took you a while to figure that out -- what do you remember from your first year? Did you long-term any plans, did you have any plans? What would you say to the kid that just landed CABLE back in, what, '97?

CASEY: Well, even with a bit of 20/20 hindsight, I actually think I did a lot of things right in my first year as a pro. I swung for the fences every time, and I did what I could to make the most of the opportunities I was given. I worked with insanely talented collaborators on my first two important gigs, Ladronn on CABLE, Javier Pulido and Ed McGuinness on THE INCREDIBLE HULK. I think history has proved how important those guys are to our industry, each in their own way. So, more than likely, I'd do my damnedest to just stay the hell out of that kid's way and let him fly.

I'd much rather go back and talk to myself around 2000, just as a curiosity. Not that I'd change a thing. Every mistake brings you to the present, and if you're happy with the present, you have no choice but to embrace the mistakes that helped get you here.

And there are more mistakes to be made. I have no doubt about that. Bring 'em on. Now there's an antidote for bitterness, eh...?

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