The Basement Tapes: Issue #4

Tue, August 17th, 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.

The relationship between Artist and Audience. We all know what a reader should expect from a comic book (don't we?). But what should a comic book creator expect from his or her reader? Is it a relationship that only works when both sides meet in the middle? Is there an art to the art of storytelling beyond just telling the story…?

And in the end-- does it matter?

CASEY: Okay, let's act like fucking writers for a change...

I've always had this line I've occasionally spouted in interviews about the merits of the comic book medium. It's not the most original thing I've ever said, but it sure sounds good. It's the bit about comic books as "an interactive experience". And I actually believe it. I've gotten more out of my favorite comic books than I've ever gotten out of goddamned video games or even films. But that's me as a reader. Lately, I've been thinking about it as a writer.

As writers, artists, creators, etc... how much can we ask of the reader? We can put our work out there for consumption and do the best job we can with our craft, but how much of the readers' own experience and intuition can we expect them to bring to the party? Is it possible to overestimate it? How about underestimating it?

FRACTION: I don't know that I'd frame comics as being 'interactive', per se, but that might be years of dot-com damage speaking. Immersive, sure. Allowing no passive consumption, sure. At it's, I don't know, most noble, or most aspiring, comics mean creating a novel using a filmmaker's grammar, and maybe the best live in the overlap between.

I'm only saying that by way of preamble, and not that I think you (or anyone else, for that matter) need to hear it, per se. Just framing the argument...

Which is, honestly, I don't think there's anything you can't ask of the reader-- or shouldn't. From the most simple, formulaic pulp hackery to the grandest and sprawling heights of FROM HELL to the postmodern brain-bashing of something like STRAY TOASTERS, there's no such speed as too fast or too slow, at least, not one that anyone should honestly concern themselves with. I would like to think that my obligation is to the work, first and foremost.

I don't think anyone ever went wrong overestimating an audience's intelligence; smart and challenging work is a rarified commodity these days-- be it SLEEPER or EIGHTBALL. And, if anything, the mainstream is guilty as sin of underestimating its readership to the point where, at its worst, there's a sect of whipped dogs that have come to love those simple patterns that have strangled the genre and loathe anyone that dare tries to change it. Or to suggest, ha ha, that it needs changing.

CASEY: Well, I think even a by-the-numbers, formula superhero comic book asks something of its reader. I'm not sure what, exactly, but it asks something...

And I also don't think it's necessarily about overestimating intelligence as much as it is emotion. It's a lot tougher to genuinely emotionally challenge a reader than it is to intellectually challenge them, don'tcha think...?

I guess, more specifically, what I'm wondering is... as someone is creating, is what you want to ask of the reader part of the creative process? I know for myself, when I write characters, they tend not to wear their emotions on their sleeve. Sort of an Anti-Stan approach, I realize, but it's just my interpretation of more realistic human behavior. Now, in a way, I suppose I'm trying to give the readers a lot of credit, and I hope they bring a bit of themselves to the experience. On the other hand, I might not be giving readers enough to hold onto. I've certainly heard criticisms of my work at times that my characters come across as "cold". It's not for me to agree or disagree with that sentiment. But, in the past, I also realize that I might not have considered too deeply about what the readers would provide, or how much they would provide. Hell, it might just be my own failing as a writer...

FRACTION: I don't know that I necessarily work like that, if for no other reason than I'd drive myself crazy double, triple, quadruple-guessing whatever my first instinct told me. Because, yeah, it's way more difficult to present emotional challenges.

I remember the first time we got together and started with the shoptalk, I was asking what kind of scripts you wrote and how you wrote them. And as we talked, I got fixated-- and still am, to a degree-- on trying to distill what I write down to that one pure sentence, that one sort of perfectly Amy Hempel-style line that moves like a bullet, you know? And I remember you were using the example of how someone sits in a chair...

Am I nuts, or does this sort of boil down to a matter of subtlety? You can have, you know, the Silver Surfer with his wrist held to his forehead, weeping whatever strange and anguished silvery tears his beloved Shala Bal makes him weep or whatever-- pure, uncut STAN-- or something, god help me, quiet. Which, sure, when you're dealing with any Silver Surfer probably comes off as 'cold'. I don't think the mainstream can't handle something real and human and something that reaches beyond the mores of all that children's fiction.

I like it when comics are trashy, but that doesn't mean I want them to be cheap.

CASEY: Of course you're nuts. But that's beside the point...

Y'know, the thing is... an over-the-top, hand-wringing moment in any narrative can certainly elicit a response. And in the hands of skilled creators, it can elicit the absolute right response from a reader. The connection can be made, even with the most overwrought comic book story moment.

Of course, when it comes to subtlety, there is that minor problem in comic book storytelling of getting a reader to linger on any given image long enough to allow them to properly infuse that image -- and by extension, that moment in the story -- with their own intuition, their own experiences. It's something even Frank Miller claims to struggle with. So, with that mountain to climb with every single panel... it's even more important for a writer, artist, etc. to become adept at picking just the right dialogue, the right gesture, the right expression to emotionally involve the reader in the story in the exact way they intended. I mean, jeezus, talk about the invisible art...

FRACTION: I was reading the most recent EIGHTBALL tonight, the DEATH RAY issue; there's a panel on the last or second to last page with a read so subtle that I missed it the first time through. And it's a pretty important panel; it changes the whole story in a way that... well, if it registers, it registers, and you get one kind of story; if it doesn't, it doesn't, and you get a different one.

And, for a while, it was driving me nuts-- Clowes isn't a poor draughtsman, nor is he a poor writer or cartoonist by a far stretch, and yet-- there, at the money shot, more or less-- he didn't simply chose to whisper, he chose to imply that he may be thinking about almost barely brushing against the reader's shoulder. The result, then, wasn't only to magnify the importance of this one single image, this one abstract shape and color field but to magnify the importance of the entire work. And so back I went, to the first page, and read the entire work again, lingering longer on the pages and panels and choices that I had perhaps lost in that mad rush to the end.

The alternative would've been to create some kind of DUM! DA! DUMMMMM! sort of moment, a big reveal, a big loud shocker both gaudy and cheap-- it would've ruined the work, in a way. And I just marveled over that decision, at that control Clowes showed there. He pivoted an entire 44-page story on a single panel, and chose to underplay it and hope for the best. Now, I'm dumb but I'm not that dumb; I have to believe that other folks missed it, as well (skimming reviews proves this to be at least a little true). The invisible art, as it were, passed me right on by.

CASEY: Well, the question is... the fact that you missed it the first time around, does that say more about Clowes as an artist or about you as a reader? After all, he put it there for you to find, you just didn't find it the first time around. However, you could argue that you should've gotten it the first time around. So, if that's the case, is it really your fault that you didn't?

I dunno... I sure as hell don't have all the answers here. Not by a long shot. But I do think this is part of a larger issue... the command of craft. Dan Clowes is undoubtedly a modern master, so who in their right mind is going to say he doesn't have command of his craft? Not me, pal. So maybe in EIGHTBALL #23 (which is damn good comics, btw) he opted for the subtle, single-panel story linchpin -- the moment you initially missed -- to, in some sense, weed out his readership. It's like a litmus test for readers... sure, you can read it, but do you get it? Know what I mean...?

FRACTION: Sure, sure. And it was wholly my fault for missing it-- I was in that rush-to-finish, you know? I'm a horrible reader of mysteries, because I want to get to the end faster and plow through shit as fast as I can and end up missing a good third of what's on the page.

And, rather than a litmus test for readers, it struck me as litmus test for the format itself-- it's a 44-page story, in a saddle-stitched booklet, and its about a "superhero" and, most importantly, a comic book. That moment was a rejection of the most popular tropes of that particular format, a rejection of the Stan-esque, giant neon arrow of making absolutely sure everybody gets it because it is loud and shaped like a giant neon arrow style of writing-- of creating-- comics work in that format. Can you emotionally engage a reader with a character that's a complete cypher? What about with an enigmatic ending? Clowes certainly did.

Or, here's a more mainstream example-- Batman loading up his synthetic kryptonite towards the end of DARK KNIGHT #4. Miller gives us a single shot, in silhouette no less, of Batman monkeying around with one of those Homer Simpson gloves-in-a-box deals. He shows us Bats shoving the ace up his sleeve, but I don't know that anyone got that shot the first time they saw it. And yet there it was, that one last twist all spelled out for us, but it wasn't until a second read-through that what was going on became clear.

So-- and watch me bring this full circle-- how much can you ask of the reader? As much as you want, I think-- as long as you're prepared to wrestle, and even lose, with the burden of craft.

CASEY: You know, when we're felling particular "hip" in our glorious geekdom, we actually grow balls big enough to occasionally equate comic books with music. Now I feel like it's merely a hipster doofus thing to say since, upon closer scrutiny, the comparison holds little water.

To quote liberally from Chuck Klosterman (who's got as good a grasp on my own generation's era of pop music than anyone else I could think of right now), one of the most glorious things about rock is that it's an art form whose audience is more important than the art. I don't necessarily know if that same theory applies to comic books, though. But if Dan Clowes is really the master we all think he is… it's because through his work, he's created a singular experience that lots of people can end up having on their own (as all comic books are generally experienced: alone). The constant in every creator-to-reader relationship that we can all have when it comes to a "popular" work... is the creator.

So, maybe a comic book creator works to connect with at least one reader on some deeper level. We're asking a lot of one reader... one faceless reader out there that puts in exactly what we're asking for on their end to make the work of art in some way "complete".

Then, our commercial sense kicks in... and we pray there's more than one of those readers. On a good day, thousands. On a great day, tens of thousands. But, for me, I don't think I'm looking to create so much a communal experience as I am an enormous pool of singular experiences. At that point, I can freely and without shame -- as you say -- ask anything (and everything) of the reader, because it's not the faceless, demographically classified mob that publishers market to. It's one face, behind which are thousands of personal experiences, millions of experienced emotions, and a gajillion questions about the universe... all of them being brought to bear as they sit down alone with a comic book.

Pretty fuckin' great business we're in, eh...?

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