The Basement Tapes: Issue #5

Tue, August 24th, 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.

I think this little back and forth speaks for itself. Fairy tales can come true… it can happen to you. Welcome to the latest Cinderella story. But just remember, as Bruce Dickinson sang… it's two minutes to midnight. So let's all take a moment to indulge in the American dream… not to be spiritually enlightened, but to be FAMOUS.

CASEY: There's a meaningless little cultural theory I've got that I affectionately call, "Fuck Fame." It refers to the kind of fame/celebrity/notoriety that exceeds someone's talents and is -- from that point on -- based primarily on how many people want to fuck them. These days, Britney Spears is not famous for being a singer or a dancer. She's famous for being Britney Spears. How many guys want to listen to her songs? None that I know of. How many guys want to fuck her? Probably more than I could count. Here's a better example. Jennifer Lopez. Good dancer? Sure. Hell, she was a Fly Girl. Actress? I'll give you that one, too. Singer? Well... in any case, for a few years, that's what she was. A dancer/actress/singer. If I'm being overly generous, she was simply an entertainer. But, at some point, she achieved Fuck Fame and all of her talents became secondary to her ass. She became J-Lo and nothing else she did seemed to make a bit of difference. She's not judged on her work anymore, unless you're judging the amount of media penetration (no pun intended). Her ill-fated nuptials are examined with more depth that her latest movie or album ever will be.

Actors and musicians often seek Fuck Fame because they feel it empowers them, raises their profile, enhances their bankablity in the marketplace. Hence an actress' photo spread for FHM or MAXIM to kick start the worldwide masturbation sessions. Or how about the fact that Madonna, Britney and, God help us, Xtina all got blonder as they got more famous (because platinum blondes are, apparently, inherently more fuckable)? Xtina sought Fuck Fame to such a degree that she went so blonde, she had to go black. Of course, the true nature of Fuck Fame is that it supersedes the quality of your work. As long as people want to fuck you, that will be the criteria under which you get work, not matter how bad it is.

How does this relate to the comic book biz...? Well, I start to wonder if there aren't a few creators out there -- of this generation or maybe the next -- who not only desire Fuck Fame, but also actually think it's achievable. But, c'mon... it's probably the most delusional ambition a creator could have. I guess I don't blame anyone for having it... but is it really an integral component of building a career? I guess if you consider Carmen Electra a career role model, it is...

See where I'm going with this...?

FRACTION: Ahh. What lies beyond for they that dare to dream to be more than just "comics famous?" I love comics famous. That's when you can go into a convention center somewhere and have a thousand people waiting for a few moments of your time and you walk around like royalty that's decided to mingle with the hoi polloi, but you take one step outside and you're just another guy in a windbreaker hoofing it to Arby's. Comics famous.

I dunno, has there ever been a real example of fuck fame in comics? Frank Miller in Rolling Stone? What about Alan Moore, when he was in? Rob Liefeld and his 501s? I bet at least 66.6% of the people on that list never set out to land media coverage; now, it seems like if I had a dollar for every creator that bailed on doing a project because of issues over "media rights," I'd have, like, six dollars. People fall asleep dreaming of what they'll wear on the red carpet before they've created page one, or even panel one. It's that whiff of legitimacy, of validation, maybe. And people get into comics, people are creating comics because what they really want to do is sell a summer blockbuster, or rack up those ancillary spin-off products. So the work suffers.

The second you start going after Fuck Fame, or even sadder, Comics Fuck Fame, you sorta lose whatever it was you had to say. I don't trust creators doing things "for the fans," you know? Creating by committee. Start pandering for public acceptance with whatever it is you're creating and you might as well just start writing multiple-choice comics.

This calls back, in a way, to one of the earlier Tapes we did-- finding analogues in the Hollywood star-system. Who wants to be J-Lo? Where's the creative reward in starfucking your way onto tabloid covers? As long as we're grasping for metaphors in service of finding a career parallel, why not look at Soderbergh and Clooney. Clooney especially. Who had some kind of revelation on the road to Damascus, I guess, because suddenly he stopped doing ONE FINE DAY and BATMAN FEVER and has gone and made himself the most unpredictable, un-commercial, and interesting actor this side of Johnny Depp.

CASEY: To me, Clooney only became interesting as an actor primarily because directors like Soderbergh took a chance on him with edgier roles and riskier material. Had certain directors not had the foresight to use Clooney's celebrity heat index to help their own projects get greenlit, he might've been stuck in tent poles and bad romantic comedies forever.

To bring it back to our own little community... if we apply the Clooney/Soderbergh analogy, any creator, writer or artist who thinks they're Clooney in this analogy is -- as far as I'm concerned -- misguided in their thinking. The "George Clooneys" of our biz are the Spider-Mans, the Batmans, the X-Mens. In other words, the characters are the ones with Fuck Fame. In this analogy, the creators are the Soderberghs, the Russells, the Coen Brothers, and all the other writers and directors with the vision to take something and elevate it through the sheer will of their talent.

What I don't get is how can anyone who writes a big franchise and becomes well-known for it possibly think it's their own "specialness" that pulls the spotlight onto them? On the one hand, you've got someone like Jim Lee, who obviously understands that drawing BATMAN or SUPERMAN pulls in the big numbers. His issue of the Wildstorm COUP D'ETAT crossover sold, like, forty or fifty thousand copies. His first issue of SUPERMAN sold around two hundred fifty thousand copies. So, who possesses the Fuck Fame here… Jim Lee or Superman? Even Jim wouldn't hesitate to say that it's the guy in the cape. Then again, I don't get the sense that Jim wants Fuck Fame anyway. So then, we're not talking about him, are we...?

FRACTION: I've never really thought about it like that before. I just read an interview with Dick Wolf, and someone asked how he would've handled a FRIENDS-style whole cast negotiation; he said, well, there just would've been a season where Joey and Monica were gone. The rest of the actors would've fallen in line. Basically, he understands that he's more than just the LAW & ORDER guy, he's the protector of that brand, and brand reigns supreme. And, you know, the publishers probably feel the same way-look at Bendis in Chicago, you know?

And, besides-- who enters into any kind of creative endeavor to get famous? Little Stepford Celebutants, I don't know. With no voice but the voice of the people, tiny recursive echoes saying nothing. Andy Warhol may have been right, maybe everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, but he forgot to mention they'd all be so goddamn boring.

Maybe this all taps back into some kind of inherent, generalized neuroses within comics, I dunno. Like, everyone wants to be the cool kid in school for once, so creators mistake their personalities for the product. Your message board will soon be forgotten, and Superman will outlive us all.

Like, it's weird to me to see Mark Millar compare himself with George Clooney. Maybe it's telling that he models his career arc after an actor and not a director, or maybe it's an analogy made for the scale of point-- whatever it is, I don't quite get it. The pattern of his point, though, is clear (even if I don't dig on it, semantically): one for the art house, one for the cheap seats, one for the art house, one for the cheap seats. Which opens up its own can of worms, I guess, but the greater issue is... to what end? In the final analysis-- is there value in knowing that Mark has a greater career trajectory planned out? It's great that he does, and its great that his interests are more polymath than ULTIMATES especially, but, man, do you ever long for the days where the only two outlets for news of your favorite mainstream creators were, like, the Johnny DC columns or the Bullpen Bulletins (says the pot to the kettle…)?

CASEY: Well, you're talking about a time where fandom decided who was "hot"... as opposed to being told who was "hot." I see that as a big fucking difference.

Yeah, your breakdown of the "one for them, one for me" career path is pretty right on. It's also inherently flawed. An artist's job is to put his or her own artistic sensibility out into the world. The job is to be singular in some way. If that sensibility happens to perfectly fall in line with a wider, commercial sensibility, great for all involved. One thing I've learned -- and I'm pretty sure a guy like Millar knows this -- is that it's worth it to at least pick the commercial properties that you have an affinity for. Properties where you feel you can bring your own artistic aesthetic to it and something new comes out of it. I really do think Mark loves Spider-Man from when he was a kid... but, of course, then he turns around and refers to his Marvel Knights series as something akin to "the Spider-Man version of HUSH". I mean, c'mon... we all know Mark has a hankering for Fuck Fame. I'm sure he'd admit to it himself. God bless that little Scottish tomato...

Look, the neuroses you referred to do exist. They exist in varying degrees within all of us. Almost ten years in, I now look at any comic book creator who goes to any great lengths to prove to everyone that they're just "regular folks" is a complete poseur and needs to be taken out and given a good kickin', eh? We're all deranged human beings and that's just another reason why Fuck Fame is not part of our repertoire.

FRACTION: Deranged is right-- stranger, too, that comics feel the need to foster that entire cult of celebrity. The Wizard photo spread and all that. The absurdity of comics fame never ceases to amuse me on some level, nor do those that actively cultivates and seeks it. Comics Famous. Give me a break. Comics Famous is, I dunno, just south of NPR Famous and maybe a scoonch better than, oh, say Industrial Waste Management Famous.

I know, in my heart of hearts, that there's value to the Wizard spread, the self-aggrandizing interviews, all that-- but, Jesus, there are times I just want people to shut up and write (or draw). But there's a line that gets crossed somewhere, something important gets lost when you stop talking about the work and start talking about yourself. Comics, as an industry, has the same neuroses as a lot of people that work within it-- that poisoning need to be accepted, that need to be, sweet God at last, one of the Kool Kids.

There looks-- to me, at least-- like there's some kind of seismic shift in perspective and priorities that can happen as you begin inching your way up that Wizard chart. That said, I know if I got that particular phone call, it would be very, very hard to hang up.

CASEY: If comics really were "kool," then everybody would be reading them. The very concept of "kool" comes with a boatload of ancillary shit that keeps cable networks like "E!" in business. Comics have none of that. And thank God for it. Our neurosis is a unique one, shared by no other art form. And there are those that find the beauty in that uniqueness and revel in it.

But for the moment, let's hope that those who belong to the Cult Of Self-Acceptance aren't outnumbered by members of the Aspiring Cult Of Fuck Fame (whoever they may be). That'll change eventually. It has to. Each new generation is smarter than the last, and those that come next will undoubtedly see the ridiculous act of flailing around like an ass for the Gods of Celebrity to somehow anoint you for exactly what it is: Completely useless.

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