The Basement Tapes: Issue #6

Tue, August 31st, 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 comic books between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

In his 2004 Harvey Awards speech, Neil Gaiman urged his fellow comic book creators to "steal from places that people aren't looking" when it came to their work. These days, that may be harder than it looks. In the world of genre-spliced comic books as the Holy Grail, the question is… is that even possible anymore?

FRACTION: I watched the Criterion Collection version of Fritz Lang's THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE a while back and it cracked my head open. Lang's editing links scenes together in this weird kind of call-and-response-- from the obvious (like someone will say "Mabuse," and he'll cut to Mabuse) to the clever (where the first shot of a new scene comments on the last shot of the previous scene). The first half-hour drops you into the middle of the story; you're forced to put it together on the fly. There's a wealth of ways he makes his cuts both invisible and essential; the editing tells as much of the story as the narrative does.

So, I'm writing my first serial thing in IDW's BLOODSUCKER TALES, available to preorder now, shill shill shill. And I decided to employ those Lang-style cuts, where there are visual or verbal links, comments, or just puns between the edits to keep the book tied together across, you know, 10 characters and 6 locations and 28 simultaneous plotlines or whatever.

And I realized the other day that Alan Moore used to do cuts like these, and then many others followed. I read an ancient Morrison interview (done by what I think was a fourteen year-old Mark Millar) where he says, in response to Millar's "I notice you use the Alan Moore panel transitions a lot," that "...I haven't been using them for a while now. Alan took that kind of thing to the limit in WATCHMEN, I think, and it's one of the superficial aspects of his style that a whole new generation of dour copyists is sure to pick up on... He's constantly thinking about his work and how to improve things and find new perspectives. If new writers could pick up on that, instead of latching onto thinks like transitions and grids then the world would be a much happier place..."

So, you know, I've already blown it, 2/3s of the way through writing my second issue.

What is it about comics that want to negate Visible Influence? Is it that art swipes are so cooked into our DNA that any trace of recognizable lineage is rejected? You run into anything like this?

CASEY: Well, the fact is... Alan Moore has his influences just like everybody else. But here's the difference as I see it...

When Moore and Brian Bolland brought out THE KILLING JOKE, I was a teenager living in the Southeastern United States. Not exactly a hotbed of worldly culture and certainly not a cradle of "alternative" artistic expression. In fact, it seemed to me to be a pretty closed off place. So here's this graphic novel that tells the origin of the Joker… I'd seen the original story of the Red Hood in some old Treasury-sized BATMAN monstrosity back in the 70's, but obviously these two Brits were adding their own thing to it. And it was stylized, to be sure. The young man who would become the Joker had a specific look to him... a weird, Kramer-like haircut (a few years before SEINFELD made it pseudo-fashionable), an ill-fitting suit and a perpetually befuddled look. As a teenager, I thought to myself, "Now that's a different way of looking at the character... where do these guys come up with this cool, totally original shit?!"

Silly me... I hadn't yet seen Lynch's first movie, ERASERHEAD. I'd seen THE ELEPHANT MAN (made me cry, y'know), I'd suffered through DUNE, I'd seen BLUE VELVET (Roy Orbison brought me to that one... snff!), but for whatever reason, I just wasn't enough of a Lynch enthusiast to seek out his first film. But Alan Moore had seen it. Brian Bolland had seen it. In fact, just recently, Richard Starkings (who hand-lettered THE KILLING JOKE, so that tells you how long ago it was) told me that Bolland had told Moore that ERASERHEAD was his favorite film. So, what did Moore do? He turned the guy that would eventually become the Joker into Eraserhead, and Bolland drew him like that. It even says so in Moore's script.

I look at THE KILLING JOKE now and the ERASERHEAD thing is so obvious, it's almost painful to look at. It's so... blatant. Thing is, neither myself -- nor any of my comic book-reading friends at the time -- caught it, because none of us had seen the movie. The creators' influences were not our influences. It was a case where the creators in question were older, of a different generation, and simply had different cultural references than we did. So when people give Alan Moore credit for bringing "outside influences" into mainstream comic books, they're absolutely right. But Alan was in his 30's and his audience was -- in the mid-80's -- primarily American teenagers. Not the worldliest group of individuals, on the whole. Of course, "outside" influences don't make Alan the most original thinker on Earth; he was simply genius enough to bring something new to the party... something none of us had ever seen. Absolutely we were going to hail him as the Second Coming.

(Hell, the guy completely changed my thinking about how comic books could be written and if it wasn't for him, I might not be doing this for a living today. In other words, blame Alan Moore for all the crappy Joe Casey comic books you've ever read.)

Right now... in 2004, it's a whole different ballgame.

It's painfully obvious that most contemporary creators are roughly the same age as the audience. We all -- creator and reader alike -- have pretty much the same cultural influences, or at least complete access to the cultural spectrum. Basically, we've all seen the same shit. Everything is available on video or DVD, and you can find just about anything on the Internet. Pop culture has bubbled up from the underground and nothing is kept in its own little corner anymore. What was once cult is now culture. If someone came out with THE KILLING JOKE now, despite its brilliance on its own terms, how many folks would be screaming about how the creators blatantly ripped off ERASERHEAD when it came to the Joker's origin?

I don't know if it's necessarily about "negating" Visible Influence. I just think we were all brought up to believe that comic books are the most original, most imaginative medium out there and we strive to live up to that rep. Plus, the readership is smarter. They're harder to please. More comic books have to legitimately be great, as opposed to simply reminding you of something that was great.

You may very well want to inject those "Alan Moore-style" scene transitions into your work. Thing is... everyone else will recognize the trick, too.

FRACTION: Well, sure, we've seen the same things, but does that make it all sacrosanct as raw material? I don't buy into the thought that having influences, reflecting influences, or just plain showing that you've paid attention and learned something about craft from those that came before you somehow negates anything you've brought from the table.

Is this heading into reference/influence/homage/rip-off territory? Christ, I hope not. I can feel people clicking over to Augie already…

Where's the line-- today, I mean-- between, say, Moore and Bolland being into ERASERHEAD and it showing up in KILLING JOKE or Bendis doing THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY in JINX?

CASEY: Where's the line? Hey, pal… Readers decide where the line is. Every single time. And if the readership happens to be in the mood to cry "rip off" instead of "influenced by"... then that's exactly what they're gonna' do.

But, you're right. Does that mean we can't use what we've learned, process what we've absorbed, challenge ourselves as creators from time to time? Hell, no. If you've got the jones to indulge in countless one-word narrative captions in glorious Frank Miller-circa-'85-mode, then why not? It's your creative journey. You take it the way you want to. Take it to the mountain, bay-bee!

I suppose if we really did have a growing readership -- and I mean really growing, not just the incremental growth of the last few years that we all pat ourselves on the back over (thank you, Variant Cover God and the Church of Retailer Incentives!) -- then we could make a stronger case for ourselves.

Look at manga. From my perspective, not the most original subject matter (or the most original approaches to that subject matter), but that readership is probably seeing that stuff for the first time, just like we did in the 70's and 80's. They don't know from references/influences/rip-offs... and God bless 'em, one and all. This is their time of discovery and they're completely entitled to it.

But back to our business. Y'know, thinking back on my own career, there are countless times where I've blatantly ripped off a storytelling technique cultivated by my creative ancestors. I did an ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN riff with Ladronn in CABLE that I'm still shocked I didn't get raked over the coals for. I channeled Matt Wagner circa '88 in a dopey CAPTAIN AMERICA annual I wrote back in '99. Not to mention the countless Steranko "homages" I've instructed my artistic collaborators to execute (yeah, I know... me and every other creator of the past thirty years). Comicbooks as rap music... and I know I've sampled shit like I was Sean-Fucking-Combs.

Hell, maybe some creators can get away with it and others can't. The question I'd put to you is... are you willing to find out which camp they put you in...? Are you another Grandmaster Flash or are you another P. Diddy?

FRACTION: Hah-- yeah, honestly, I don't care what camp I get put in. Make mine X-Ray, I guess. I can think of a million worse things to be than someone that wears their influences on their sleeve or being called on it. God forbid people that have some working knowledge and appreciation of their history and mechanics make comics.

What kinda leaps out at me there, though, is that you made the hip-hop allusion, which I kinda like. One of my favorite records of the year so far was DJ DANGERMOUSE'S mashup GREY ALBUM. WHITE ALBUM isn't my favorite Beatles record, and I don't think any DJ is good enough to make Jay-Z not suck, but, man, that record actually sounded like something new. Comics are such a weird, bastard medium anyway; maybe hip-hop is a good analogy.

CASEY: It's another set of skills to cultivate, I suppose. If you're gonna' revel in your influences, right there on the page, you'd better be goddamned good at it. It better be entertaining and affecting on a level that's a lot deeper than a simple identification of origin.

I think you hit on something, though... comic books as a "weird, bastard medium." That's something I love about it, too. It's one of the innumerable reasons why I wanted to write them as a kid. But has the readership grown to that age where their own expectations of what the medium should be are inherently unrealistic? Is the readership too old to accept comic books for what they truly are? C'mon, people... as far as I'm concerned, being a weird, bastard medium ain't a bad thing at all. In fact, the weirder it is, the more freedom we have.

And, okay, there are times when personal expression in a bastard medium to begin with is going to wear its influences on its sleeve. We're all just part of the Big Story anyway, aren't we...?

FRACTION: See, I've got one up on you here-- in a way-- in that I've not been thrown into the vagaries of having to deal with readership expectations month in and month out. So I can talk a big game, safe in my ignorance of having to deal with the vagaries of reader expectation.

The readership reaching a certain age is a huge issue with the caliber of books that are out there right now-- at least within the mainstream, which I guess I really don't need to qualify anymore but, you know, so we all know I'm not talking about Dan Clowes' readership or anything. There's this, like, mass of lifers, of comics hard timers that are the bedrock of the sales charts. Comics, like TV, are more often that not built on a situation that's forced to remain static-- you complicate the situation, but at the end of the day, it returns to the way it started. And that's what the hard timers want, you know? They want that static; they want the comfort of the familiar, not the shock of the new. Not shock at all. You can spiff it up and spin it just so, but the expectation demands a return to default. I read this great John Cage quote today: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."

Sanders is reading CIGARETTES ARE SUBLIME, and we were talking about it while going over some FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE pages. The author, Richard Klein, is using the Kantian definition of the sublime to describe cigarettes; that is, something that causes simultaneous enjoyment and horror. Which I like a lot; it's exactly what I've been groping towards when I call comics "trash." Comics should be like cigarettes, comics should be illicit, gorgeous, sublime. I wish more mainstream comics felt like something cool and bad for you, like something that could get you in trouble. And I don't care where they come from, or how they get that way.

So, uh, to bring the whole thing full circle, maybe the trick is to refer to the text you're referring to within the text itself-- the way Alan Moore did in WATCHMEN where whatsername's mom is watching the OUTER LIMITS episode that has the same punch line as WATCHMEN itself. I should have had Cole, Juicy and Billy sitting down and watching CHARLEY VARRICK at some point in LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS. Lex'll watch MABUSE at some point in JUAREZ. Of course then I'd just be ripping off Alan Moore, so fuck all y'all.

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