The Basement Tapes: Issue #10

Tue, October 5th, 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.

"Hey, dickhead, you just got lucky as hell!" Welcome to a career writing comic books. Time to dance in the minefield. Time to face front, true believer… and tackle some of the pitfalls and the pratfalls you never even considered when you were just some asshole in your one bedroom apartment in Nowheresville, U.S.A. wishing you could write for a living. The dream lives. Now Enter The Dragon…

CASEY: So, something I've been thinking about lately (why, I have no idea)... the concept of, as they say, "growing up in public." The idea that an artist -- any type of artist -- can often develop their craft in the harsh light of mass consumption. As opposed to hiding away in private, constantly honing your skills and getting all the crap out of your system, only to emerge as a working professional, fully formed and completely polished. In comic books... I just don't think it ever happens.

I broke in at a fairly young age (he said, wistfully), and before long I was writing some fairly high profile books at Marvel. For whatever reason, I was given some great opportunities and I took 'em and never looked back. Believe me, I'm well aware I wrote some wonky shit when I was trying to establish myself (JUGGERNAUT: THE EIGHTH DAY anyone...? Ee-yikes!). There's no doubt I was learning on the job, and I wrote a lotta crap out of my system that a few poor, unfortunate souls paid their hard-earned money for.

It's the nature of this business. Go back and find any creator's early work. Chances are it's pretty embryonic, from Alan Moore on down the list. When we get paying work, we generally take it whether we're 100% "ready" or not. Just getting that shot is such a one-in-a-million chance, and I'm pretty sure none of us sit around wrestling with the limits of our own talent. We just go for it and hope for the best.

So, my question to you is... since you're still in the initial, rosy glow stages of what will be something that looks like a career, do you ever think about this? Opportunity vs. What You Feel Comfortable Unleashing On An Unsuspecting Public. Let's hear your point of view, Boy Wonder...

FRACTION: Yeah, definitely. Wresting with this kind of thing is what finally pushed me into going after gigs, honestly. I was tired of being the most talented comic writer in my entire apartment and, you know, went off in search of a bigger pond to swim in. If for no other reason than you have to get your ass kicked-- a lot-- to get better. You have to fuck up, you have to fall down, and you have to have the... whatever it is... to stand up and put your best Ed Wood face on and declare "I'll just have to do better next time!" That's the lesson, I think-- that there'll be a next time.

And, too, that "you" was really me meaning 'me.' These were and are things that I needed. To put up and shut up and all that.

I mean, MANTOOTH! is a perfect example. The idea was in place long before I came aboard; I just drove Miss Daisy. I mean, it's a monkey that kicks things until they explode-- but, you know, it was a start and it was a deadline and it was responsibility. It was a commitment to practice, ha ha, my craft. And with Your Pal And Mine Larry Young egging me on, I practiced the shit out of it. Dumb as the final book may be, I can go page by page through those three shorts and say, oh, this is the page where I learned there's only so many words you should squeeze into a panel; this is the page where I learned you don't actually have to show the guy getting out of the car and going inside the building, you can just cut to inside the building; this is the page where I learned that people really think that Professor Stephen Hawking as a zombie is really fucking funny.

I'm a fan of the Early And Embarrassing. Like, it does my ego well to read something awkward and exploratory by writers I admire. Except Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, whose first batch of LOVE AND ROCKETS are inexplicably great, and they're arguably the worst of the run. Or Eddie Campbell, he was pretty much golden.

CASEY: Yeah, I love watching artists groping to find themselves. There's a raw energy to someone's early work that often can never be recaptured. Not that the artists in question would necessarily want to. I've looked back on my CABLE run and, while I appreciate the energy and the commitment I put into it, I wouldn't want to go back there. Not only did I learn my lessons, I earned 'em.

It is kind of neurotic, isn't it? That need to put yourself out there when a part of you knows damn well you're just a bit short of being absolutely "ready". Maybe there's something that drives us to the comic book medium that's intrinsically related to that need to potentially embarrass yourself.

However, growing up in public doesn't just apply to the work. At least not in this business, where creators are often called upon -- or at least compelled in some strange way -- to fashion some sort of public persona for themselves. That's where the real embarrassment can occur. You and I are both battle scarred veterans of the Weekly Column and I can tell you right now... there are things I've said under the auspices of the "op/ed" piece that make me cringe way more than some dumb plot twist I came up with in the X-MEN/FANTASTIC FOUR annual I wrote back in '98. The missteps that occur when you're finding your public persona can often overshadow the work itself.

And yet here we are doing it again. We're obviously a pair of sick fucking individuals...

FRACTION: You mention neurotic-- the compulsion to rush to market, at it were, before your time. There's a tightrope walk that can happen in doing that, where on one side you're subjecting yourself to the fire as a way to steel not only your ego or your nerves, but to-- quite simply-- get better. Like, I know bunches of people that want to be writers, and bunches of people that want to be artists, but I've never, ever met anyone that's ever said to me that they want to be an Editor. So while maybe you put something out and you're nowhere near your A-game, you put it out there, you finish it-- it's done and printed and you can't take it back, no matter how embarrassing the plot twists or how naively conceived of a notion it is-- and then, if you're lucky, you'll get criticism.

You know, to say nothing of the unending horror of Google and what it means for the ghosts of columns past.

Anyway: honest and intelligent feedback, especially aimed at weak work or just early work- is so, so, so important.

The other side is that whole Rah Rah Team Comics thing, that... vague and spineless school of blank platitudes and rewarding work simply by virtue of being completed. I dunno-another column for another time.

I don't even know where to start on the public persona thing. "It did the trick and sometimes I wish I could take some of it back," how's that?

CASEY: Does it do the trick, though? The media scream of "NOTICE ME!" certainly invites its share of vitriol from the unwashed masses. We've both been there, to varying degrees. At the end of the day, I just accept that it comes with the dinner. I guess I'm still struggling with what it really accomplishes at the end of the day.

Feedback on your work. Feedback on your persona. Actually, it all starts to blend together after awhile. It both instances, I agree... it's trial by fire. And I don't even bother to separate it into areas of "good" or "bad" feedback anymore, because aside from the occasional asshole, none of this shit is personal. Like you say, most reactions -- if they're honest reactions -- are valuable.

On my better days, I don't feel like either my work or myself are, as they say, "starved for attention". On the other hand, it's the need to maintain a viable career that causes us to seek out that attention. Otherwise, you don't sell books.

Huh. When I put it like that, I'm almost arguing that it's good business to make a few public missteps in both your work and your public persona. Makes life interesting for the readers -- and for us -- I guess...

FRACTION: Well, it did the trick for me, I guess. Or it did the first trick.

The thing is that-- you know, you have to get out there, get noticed. It's so easy for great work to be invisible to the marketplace. I mean, Marvel solicited 80 books this month. 80! And as trickle-down doesn't work, it's becoming more and more important to rise above the din of Everyone That Isn't Marvel Or DC, you know? A necessary evil, I guess. Shrill gets noticed a lot faster and there's no such thing as bad press, sure. In the fuckfame column, I said something about how nice it was when the only time you heard a creator's voice was from Johnny DC or in the Bullpen Bulletins. There are still times I feel that way, but realize, too, that if that were still the default, I'd be a reader and not a writer.

That's what it comes down to, though, isn't it? It's just one trick. If you pull it off, it gets the ball rolling. Then it's time to keep your head down and do the work or... shit, at least bring something new to the table. I learned that one the hard way. I think you see more and more people forgetting that persona is kind of like a skin you need to shed. Or maybe it's a kind of skin that gets tempered.

CASEY: Yup. I guess the public growth process is the way of the modern comic book career/business model. Mistakes in print are like a baptism of fire. I should know... I've been born again numerous times.

And I think you're right. It is just one trick. The trick of constant forward momentum, no matter what the cost. Hell, that's where art comes from, isn't it...?

FRACTION: Yes. Forward momentum and abject panic.

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