The Basement Tapes: Issue #7

Tue, September 14th, 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.

Maneuvering the waters in an industry that places a high value on something being "hot" can sometimes take just as much effort as the actual act of writing. The winds of taste can change direction so quickly and so drastically, they leave bodies in their wake. Every new project embarked upon requires a judgment call. "Does this project fit in with current popular culture?" "Is there an interest in this material?" "Am I too original for my own good?" Should a writer even bother with being a Culture Vulture… or has it simply become a necessary skill in today's industry?

CASEY: So, I figure you probably tool around the comic book-related websites as much as I do. Something that's always interesting to watch are the various and sundry "bandwagons" that can occur within our twisted little culture. We could call them trends, sure, but I actually think that lends too much credence to what I'm talking about.

Every so often a publisher, an editor, a creator, a journalist, a blogger or even a random message board poster -- either on purpose or inadvertently -- attempts to kickstart some sort of mini-movement of style or opinion that sometimes, inexplicably, others seem strangely eager to attach themselves to. Sometimes it's even just a word or an intended catch phrase. Frankly, the bigger the platform, the worse it can be (which would lay most of the blame on publishers and creators)... someone somewhere espouses a new way of writing/drawing/creating/thinking about comic books and suddenly more creators are jumping on that bandwagon. So, I'm just curious -- just talking in hypotheticals -- what are the benefits of jumping onto a particular bandwagon? What does one get out of it?

FRACTION: Y'know, I've thought long and hard about this one and I think my working hypothesis-- and I stress "working" there, I still need to kick the tires of the idea and subject it to my normal rigorous battery of ideological play-testing and whatnot-- is that comics are stupid.

Intellectual trends or trends of style will come and go-- I mean, Rob Liefeld bought that house somehow-- and the internet's the right kind of perpetual soapbox to hash it all out. I'm thinking of the minor firestorm that Mike Sanwhasisname kicked off a few months back by slagging Darwyn Cooke, and the whole Pop Noir movement (as it was subsequently named-- at least I think it was subsequently.). I thought that was pretty great, minus some of the personal bile spewed at Sangawhozits, as Cooke et al. really have created a kind of look-and-feel that signifies, to my way of thinking, a real visual style-trend in comics, maybe the first since the aforementioned Liefeld launched a thousand careers. That's worth addressing seriously, because I think they're growing the grammar, as it were. And-- again, bashing aside-- you had some people seriously discussing the mainstream medium there for a bit, and the web made its own sort of info-cycles and it was good and interesting and didn't well all learn so much. So that's not so stupid at all, really.

Maybe the bandwagoneering comes from strength in numbers, strength in anonymity or virtual-ity or whatever.

Publishers are a whole 'nother story. Because they're dumb like hungry dogs and if they thought mother-raping was the next big thing, you'd get it in chromium covers and Wizard 1/2 issue premiums. Look at the 80's toy revival. Boy, that was a magical four months, wasn't it?

That kind of thing makes publishers look money crazed, shortsighted, and extraordinarily disrespectful. It's a step above hobo shuck-and-jive sob stories and just south of used car pitch-- So, Joe, what am I gonna have to do to get you into this M.A.S.K. one-shot?

But publishers get a quick cash spike, I guess. And they lose credibility amongst anyone that bothers to think about such issues.

CASEY: Y'know, where publishers are concerned, I think the bandwagon phenomenon -- when it comes to specific storytelling approaches or style trends -- is actually a misguided attempt to gain some elusive brand of credibility that they feel they don't already have. Which is why it never seems to work in that regard. Why else would Marvel make such a stink about lower-case lettering and then reverse their own trend only a year or so later…? Of course, DC tries it out on their FOCUS line of books (as Jemas-like a line of books -- that Jemas wasn't involved in -- that you could possibly imagine) and, well, we're seeing what's happening there

But when creators jump on a particular bandwagon, it can get a little funky. And, I'll cop to it right here, there were obviously one or two bandwagons I whole-heartedly jumped onto earlier in my career. Sometimes it's a fun ride, other times you just end up feeling... well, dirty.

I think the "pop noir" thing you mentioned was actually much more genuine than the prefab trends I'm talking about, mainly because the entire blow-up inspired people to put that particular kind of art style under one banner, one classification, simply as a way to defend its merits. In that particular case, it was all about providing a context, which I think is an important step in any critical thinking. And, by the way… NEW FRONTIER fokkin' roolz.

But then there's the strange, dark side... like when everyone started using the term "widescreen" to describe their work when all they were doing were appropriating certain panel shapes and throwing a lot of mass destruction into their stories. Kudos to the lovely Grant Morrison for that one. Or the related misinterpretation of exactly what "decompression" was all about. God bless our pal Warren, but I think he created as many monsters in the past five years as Miller and Moore did in the 80's, with everyone misunderstanding the true merits of their work and subsequently churning out reams of horrible "grim n' gritty" comic books. Hell, Warren's still having to answer for a technique that he picked up from other work… he just happened to be the poor soul who gave it the name that everyone else was desperate to latch onto.

FRACTION: Creators are just as guilty of it as publishers are. It's the Gold Rush mentality that comes from a starvation diet; it's the stink of desperation. Nothing succeeds like excess, which is the same bad thinking that's kept comics in its perpetual rut, the bubble mentality of riding your gift horse until it drops, to maul a couple metaphors in one go.

If I sit back and look at, like, my favorite creators, the creators whose work continually inspires me again and again, the creators who've brought a singular vision and idiom to their work-- Kirby, Eisner, Broome, Pratt, Moore, Chaykin, Matsumoto, the Hernandez Brothers-- you see a group of people that push ideas out with this incredible velocity. I don't mean you get innovation every single time at bat, but there's a force to the new ideas when they come, there's a restless energy that comes from thinking at great speeds and intensities. You can feel these guys banging their heads against the wall until one of the two crumbles. They'll fail more than they'll succeed, but... the common denominator there is that, worst case, reach should always exceed grasp. And I'd rather read a Moore or Hernandez "failure" than some hack's success at repeating what's come before.

And there's a dearth of ideas and energy in the mainstream right now, for whatever reasons. It's hard to think forward when the mainstream is anchoring you to twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. So, like, Darwyn Cooke comes along and finds his way into a style movement and it's a huge deal-- but at the same time, I think it's kind of boring.

Actually, I've always wanted to ask you this-- you play a lot of little games in your work. The 16-panel grids in your SUPERMAN book; the contrary nature of the narrative in WILDCATS; all these weird attacks, some more successful than others, come out in your work. How much of that is you just balls-out doing craft experiments, and how much is you reacting against the system you're a part of?

CASEY: Both, I suppose. I can certainly appreciate spitting in the face of whatever's in vogue at the time (AUTOMATIC KAFKA, anyone?), but I also get jazzed when I stumble onto new storytelling techniques, or when I can try my hand at old techniques that no one else seems to be doing at the moment (as relating to the last TAPES topic… I can steal with the best of them). And let's face it, when you're writing a franchise character like SUPERMAN, where the Powers That Be generally desire artistic innovation like you or I desire a dread disease, finding those intellectual games to play can be your only salvation as a writer. And, as I found out last year, that personal energy doesn't last forever. Eventually, it runs out. At that point, you just gotta' get the fuck outta' there.

Success and failure are almost abstract concepts in this regard. When you clear out all the bullshit - which is admittedly tough to do -- the act of trying something new is really where it's at. That's why the bandwagon syndrome is especially dangerous. And this doesn't just apply to comic books, but personally I can be as dismayed as I am excited by something new and different that I see coming along, because you can almost guarantee that we'll have to suffer through countless rip-offs of Whatever-It-Is to the point where the original inspiration gets almost completely corrupted by what it's spawned.

What's really frightening about all this is that now you can probably add the general retail community to the list of bandwagoneers, which I never thought I'd ever see happen. At this point, it's a vicious cycle. From my perspective, it's looking more and more like purposefully rejecting whatever bandwagon is popular means you risk drowning in the marketplace. In other words, bucking trends can cost you your job. It makes you question yourself, "Do I want to be original... or successful?"

FRACTION: I don't think the comics mainstream is designed to handle original work much anymore. Look at where the Big Two are heading for the next year, you know? Nobody wants a bigger pie, they want a bigger piece of the other guy's pie and they're gonna get it by doing what he's doing. It's like a feedback loop of the uninspired. Nobody wants to create the next Superman, the next Batman, the next Spider-Man.

Well-- maybe nobody can afford to take the risk.

It seems like style iterations-- the superficial ones like you've pointed out-- are like slapping a new drink-holder on last year's car and calling it a new model. Comics have mistaken innovation for accessorizing, invention for homage, and meaning for surface. Even in its roots, the mainstream has always been a game of commercial one-upmanship-- CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN begets FANTASTIC FOUR-- and beating the other guy at his own game. It feels like comics have fostered an environment where there'll never be a new Jack Kirby, because they don't want his kind anymore; Marvel and DC are far too willing to choke their own spirit of invention.

CASEY: Well… the Blame Game is fun to play, but I think at some point you have to let it go, for the sake of your own sanity if for no other reason.

Surviving in this business means seeing it for what it is. Thriving in this business means going one step further and using that knowledge to occasionally beat the system at its own game. That's where I let go of my frustration with the other components of the system and point the finger right back at myself. If a publisher hires me to do my best work and then they can't sell it because they don't know how to market it or a retailer can't or doesn't get it into the hands of their customers, where do I go from there? Well, the answer is... forward.

You brought up Kirby (could we find a better touchstone? I don't think so)... think of how maligned he was during the 70's. DC Comics basically shat on him when he was doing the purest, most undiluted work of his life. He went back to Marvel Comics and did some AMAZING work that, inexplicably, even Marvel staffers made fun of. In the face of all that, he still went his own way. I mean, c'mon... he was Jack Kirby. You think he's gonna' jump on any bandwagon?! For Christ's sake, he fucking BUILT bandwagons for a living!

I can't fault your cynicism. How many times are we bombarded with reasons to give up the ghost? But are we gonna' change Marvel or DC? Are we gonna' change how retailers think? Not in a million years. And I don't particularly want to, anyway. As creators, we have our own unique set of responsibilities to concentrate on. The bandwagon is out there -- whatever it may be at this particular moment -- so do we jump right on it and cash in while we can? Or do we chart our own course, popular opinion be damned?

Think about it... what would Jack Kirby do?

FRACTION: Honestly? I think he'd throw his hands up in frustration and go get a job in television where he'd be fabulously compensated for every new brainbomb he'd drop on millions and millions of people.

CASEY: I want to think that, sure. But, on the other hand, Kirby was such a natural at creating comic books... the perfect congruence of creative mind, heart-staggering talent and artistic medium. Who can say if he would've found the same proportionate amount of success and/or recognition in some other field...? For me, the best thing about Kirby was his specific, lifelong commitment to this medium. But I digress...

FRACTION: Well, look-- there's no blame here. The mainstream is what it is and I there are parts I don't like and, if you can change it you're a better man than I, Gunga Din.

So, that's your point, though. If you play the game, play well. If you decide to get down in it, you get down in it and do the work. Any kind of revolution that'll happen will start from the inside, anyway.

CASEY: Despite the bandwagon theory, I still have to believe that true revolution comes from individual expression. One creator at a time...

FRACTION: Which goes back in a way to something we've talked about before-- if you're at bat, you swing for the bleachers when the pitch is right.

And you really hit on the killer issue, I think-- "popular opinion." You pander to popular opinion now and you're just gonna look stupid when your bandwagon goes belly up on the side of the road. And if the mainstream exists to perpetuate itself, then the bandwagon exists to pander. It's the basest of instincts laid bare, the shuck-n-jive money-grab. It's creatively bankrupt. There's no future in it. There's no what's next.

CASEY: Only the next bandwagon, my friend. Like the forbidden fruit…

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna' go read my MADBOMB TPB again.

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