The Basement Tapes: Issue #8

Tue, September 21st, 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.

The thrill of The Hunt. What more can be said? A diehard comic book reader knows it well. Without flying the flag at half-mast and raising a glass to what we used to call the "healthy back issue market," why not instead examine The Hunt for what it is now, and how we can still find that unique, fuzzy feeing of joy in the endeavor…?

CASEY: Y'know, a big part of growing up reading comic books was what I retroactively refer to as The Hunt. Hopefully, we all know the feeling... thumbing through endless long boxes, looking for something -- anything -- that'll maybe give us that thrill of discovering something new. Any longtime reader who's experienced it knows exactly what I'm talking about.

So, does getting older mean that we have to stop doing these things? Luckily, that hasn't been the case. Of course, finding comic book stores that actually carry a healthy back issue stock can be a hunt in itself, even here in L.A. But, thanks to websites like Mile High Comics, you can experience the thrill of The Hunt from your very own computer. Yeah, it's not exactly the same... but you gotta' go where the action is.

Keeping up with what's new in comics is fairly easy. For me, it's just part of the gig to at least keep and eye out on what's showing up in the stores every week. But that's not the same thing as The Hunt. The Hunt is about finding lost treasures... things that have been around for years and we've just never seen them or read them. The proverbial Back Issue Discovery.

So I thought we'd maybe trade info on a few recent finds. Stuff we've found that we didn't know existed (or, at least, we didn't pay attention to when it was new). Stuff that we've read and enjoyed either from an historical perspective or just for timeless entertainment value. In other words, no new releases. This isn't about hype. This is about the simple joys of discovery. I've got a few worth talking about, and I suspect that you do, too. So, here's one...

KING LEON by Peter Milligan and Jamie Hewlett. This was serialized over three issues of the American version of the British anthology A1, which the real Epic Comics published back in 1992. I guess you could say it's sort of a kitchen sink thriller about the illegitimate heir to the throne. Seems as though Queen Elizabeth had a bit of a wild streak back in the day, and that her first-born son ended up being the black sheep (literally) of the Royal Family. Leon is the son of that first-born child (believed by the establishment to have been killed at birth). So what begins as a mystery/chase strip soon evolves into a more socio-politically minded story concerning Leon's place in the greater scheme of things, once the secrets of his past come to light. It's about the choice he's forced to make... whether or not he's going to embrace his heritage or not. The pacing is great on this piece, and Hewlett's art has got that particularly British underground sensibility that I've always responded to. It's cartoony and true-to-life at the same time. The ending is appropriately bleak and, for my money, dead-on perfect. Milligan's a favorite of mine, and these kind of quirky narratives are what he's best at. I'd never heard of this strip before I stumbled onto it, but now it's one of my favorite things Milligan's ever written.

FRACTION: One of the best and worst things about being on the other side of the glass counter was having some kind of dibs on seldom-seen stuff that would come in or that you'd dig up from the back somewhere. Never managed to actually save any money or anything because, you know, there was all this stuff to buy. I'd half-bet that Shelton-- that's Shelton Drum, of HEROES AREN'T HARD TO FIND, the original Retail Superman-- still has a short-box of old CREEPY and EERIE and 1984 magazines marked with post-it notes that I never managed to buy. Hell, I got into Kirby by taking a shot on a random 20 dollar stack of FOURTH WORLD books at a HeroesCon, just for the hell of it. So I guess in terms of finds-- and, I know, Kirby only drew, what, two hundred and seventy-nine thousand comics in his life, so there's really not much "finding" involved-- that's probably my all-time favorite. Or at least the all-time most meaningful.

The other week, a friend tipped me off to some Hugo Pratt books just sitting in the basement of a weird used bookstore. So I went over there, and sure enough, there were three of the NBM CORTO MALTESE albums that I didn't have-- BANANA CONGA, THE EARLY YEARS and A MID-WINTER MORNING'S DREAM. Just sittin' there between CALVIN AND HOBBES and DAVID LETTERMAN'S BIG BOOK OF TOP TEN LISTS. I don't think any of his stuff is in print in English anymore, which is just tragic. It would be like Sam Fuller films not being on tape or DVD. Pratt's a creator on par with Toth, Raymond, or Caniff, in my eyes-- I mean, the guy's just embedded inside the comics genome, and you can't find any of his stuff; kids looking to earn their chops can't learn from the man's work.

Unless you hunt.

CASEY: Here's a wacky curve ball for ya'... earlier this year, partly because of my re-immersion in All Things AVENGERS due to the EMH gig, I rediscovered one of my favorite mainstream writers from when I was a kid... David Michelinie. Hell, the mainstream was all I knew about back then, so my choices were limited, but still... Michelinie was way ahead of the pack for me. In any case, I decided to look around to see what's been collected in TPB of his work. As it turns out, there's quite a bit. A few IRON MAN collections, a thick-ass STAR WARS trade, some SUPERMAN stuff and a virtual mini-library dipping liberally into his run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Now, I was never a huge Spider-Man fan, even as a kid, but Marvel's made it quite easy for me by recently releasing three trades of this material under some auspicious heading, "Todd McFarlane Visionaries" or "Spider-Man Legends" or some such bullshit.

I'm almost positive that I bought a few of these comic books when they were new, back in the day, probably because I'd always kept an eye out on what was "hot" and the Toddster was certainly hot when he drew Spidey (and before that, actually). Anyway, reading these in trade was truly a bizarre experience. A more concentrated dose of Spider-Man than I'd ever experienced in my life. I didn't exactly connect with the material on an emotional level, but taking just one step back I can appreciate how of their time these comic books were. No doubt there's a generation of readers whose appreciation of Spider-Man was derived from this specific period in the character's history, and I can absolutely see why. As mainstream fare goes, they're nice and tight, poppy and upbeat. Even the melodrama plays in the same way the old Stan Lee stuff still plays. Michelinie was undoubtedly taking a page from Stan's approach, and it really works here.

The original comic books came out in 1990 or thereabouts, and while some of the cultural references date themselves, I look at these stories as a good example of what superhero comic books do best, but seem to have lost... a sense of innocence without losing their ability to be clever. Comic books where you can safely put away your critical eye and just enjoy the spectacle for what it is. Every month a new villain, every few months a juicy emotional sub-plot involving Aunt May or Mary Jane or whoever the hell they were hanging out with back then. I don't know if we can ever get back to it in this exact way, but I guess that's what back issues are for, right...?

FRACTION: Didn't you name-drop Michelinie in the first AUTOMATIC KAFKA?

CASEY: Absolutely. The guy's a huge influence on my mainstream superhero work.

FRACTION: See, I'm always spooked to go back and reread that stuff. It never holds the same sway that it used to, and I feel dumb for falling for it in the first place. Like, one of my favorite Marvel books ever was the Claremont/Sienkiewicz NEW MUTANTS. And I'd sorta parted ways with them at some point, and came across a batch for not-too-terribly-much and sprung for it.

So even if some panels or characters had that post-faux-Michael Mann Wardrobe thing going on, Sienkiewicz was still breaking rules and writing new ones on a page-to-page basis. So that was cool, and totally worth the price of admission, and more than deserving of it's own, coffee-table-sized hardcover collection.

But the writing.

My LORD.

I mean, it's... purple, to say the least… it was, after all, mid-eighties Claremont, a Claremont at the height of his terrible, haiku-like, and logo-speaking powers. While there's something to be said for a writer having an immediately recognizable voice (even if it is through narration, and even if Tom Orzechowski's lettering is a lot of that recognize-ability), in my head now I think Chris Claremont's writing voice sounds exactly like Dr. Smith from the old LOST IN SPACE. Whenever I read any of his old stuff-- or, shit, even the new stuff he's got coming out with Alan Davis-- that's all I hear. The jolly nattering of a velveteen fop in space.

Man, was that ever a digression.

I think that a lot of my favorite books have been finds like that, though. Just random, why not?, kinds of expenses. And since there's so much great stuff that's unavailable in permanent edition-- Milligan is a perfect example of a guy that's done some real groundbreaking stuff that's totally lost to the bins-- it's the only way you can find it.

CASEY: Well, I think it's safe to say that, for us as writers, diving into most back issues will be an archeological experience more than anything else. That's certainly what those Michelinie SPIDER-MAN's were for me. Believe it or not, as a kid, I read NEW MUTANTS for the story and Sienkiewicz's art was both an added bonus as well as a shock to my pre-teen system. I can look back on those comic books in particular and now it's all about Sienkiewicz and the boundaries he was pushing in such an obvious mainstream, kids comic book.

Okay then, let's get out of the obvious mainstream for a minute. Anything else you've stumbled across lately that you might've missed the first time around...?

FRACTION: Yeah. Archeological is a good word. What struck me most was that-- let's see if this makes sense-- I was able to appreciate what Sienkiewicz was doing more, or at least, on more meaningful levels than when I first read them. As my own, ah, understanding of the grammar has evolved, you know? I knew the rules he was breaking, or reinventing, or honoring which made it that much more of a find for me.

You know, I first came across LOVE AND ROCKETS by accident. I knew it by name and reputation, but had never natively encountered it. At some point, Fantagraphics put out these slim, little volumes collecting whole stories-- I picked up, entirely on a whim at a Borders, a collection of Jaime stuff, the centerpiece of which was 100 ROOMS. So that was a pretty huge find for me, personally.

Recently, though-- no, not much. The Pratt books. The Chaykin SHADOW series, not too long ago, but that's not terribly great; and I was able to dig up the 3 issues of BLACKHAWK. I've noticed that it's getting harder and harder to track good stuff down.

So much of recent comics publishing has been such garbage that that's the shit that's rising to the surface, you know? The cutout and used bins in record stores are the same way now. Lots of Barenaked Ladies and Limp Bizkit to troll through. Last time I was at Amoeba records in San Francisco, I went through the bins and encountered, like, 80 copies of the CD from that band that did the FRIENDS theme. The physical detritus left behind by a one hit wonder, I guess. I would doubt very much that anyone in the greater San Francisco area still owns that CD, in fact. Comics are the same way recently-- All the cheap boxes are full of novelty crap from a few years ago.

I thought I was lost in a tangent there but I think I found my way back out of it.

Anyway. No, not much, recently. But-- you worked retail, too, right?-- you can take the boy out of the store but you can't take the store out of the boy. I've gotten really good and flipping through boxes really really fast, and Frank, the guy what owns the store where I shop, tends to know my tastes so if he finds stuff, he'll let me know. But I'm always gonna look.

What about you?

CASEY: Yeah, I've mastered the speed flip-through, as well. You get a much quicker eye for the things that you know are going to interest you.

Y'know... you mentioned Chaykin's BLACKHAWK. That was one of my favorite books when it first came out. As they say, it'll never be new to me. But it's never been collected, so that means there are copies floating around out there for readers to find on their own. That's a great thing. It obviously deserves to be collected (and why there hasn't been a Blackhawk movie yet, I have no idea. Well, I have a little bit of an idea why, but...), still there's a part of me that finds a bit of comfort in the fact that it can still be "discovered" by anyone who hasn't read it yet.

Jeezus Christ... I wonder if I'll still want to flip through a long box when I'm past retirement age? I've seen guys like Waid and Busiek -- guys who are much older than me, I'm quick to add -- giddy as schoolgirls while they're rifling through long boxes at conventions. I dig that they still have the fever, even at their ripe old ages.

I guess where there's life, there's hope.

The Basement Tapes Home | The Basement Tapes Archives

 
The Basement Tapes

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.