The Basement Tapes: Issue #11

Tue, October 12th, 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.

Joe had two, count 'em, two books as part of Wildstorm's EYE OF THE STORM line of mature readers books: the expressionistic deconstruction of AUTOMATIC KAFKA and the corporate boardroom superheroics of WILDCATS 3.0. Both have gone off to that big long-box in the sky, their seed finding no purchase in the barren womb of today's comic marketplace. In a Top 300 list dominated by glamour fascismo, tragedies in the rape-o-verse, and Batman sometimes, how is Our Man Joe getting back on the mainstream horse?

THE INTIMATES. And it might just be the most "Joe" book Joe's done yet…

FRACTION: When did you start working on THE INTIMATES? Not just when in your own career, I mean, but in the larger scope of the recent mainstream. I want to know what was cooking in your head, what bits of genetic muck make up THE INTIMATES' genome?

CASEY: This could set a lot of folks -- and especially my pals at DC -- on edge, but the idea for this series actually rose from the ashes of AUTOMATIC KAFKA. With that book, I knew it was a matter of time. It was so weird, so bizarre that even though we'd been promised a year by our editor... well, that was a promise just waiting to be broken. So, facing the prospect of that series going away -- and we're talking as early as winter 2002 -- I started brainstorming on what I could follow it up with at Wildstorm. So, in a fit of brain spray I shot out two pitches... one for a KAFKA sequel, called THE WARNING. The other was THE INTIMATES. So, I was in two mind frames at once... the KAFKA-esque experimentation and something overly commercial to reassert myself after the commercial failure of the KAFKA experiment.

Hard to believe they picked the overly commercial idea...! But, of course, you've read the first issue so you know it didn't take long for me to try and somehow meld those two mind frames into one series...

FRACTION: Yeah, no surprise there...

The carryovers I see from KAFKA are the obvious touchstones of some '80's comics-- NEW MUTANTS at its Claremont/Sienkiewicz coolest, and AMERICAN FLAGG!, which I'll come back to in a second-- and its narrative density. Whereas KAFKA was very much a cut-up, Burroughs-ian vertical stream of consciousness riff that the reader either got, or didn't, and it really didn't matter, THE INTIMATES is a much more horizontal, linear kind of density. The volume of information on the page simply can't be processed in a five-minute flip through (and, I tried at the MOA booth at San Diego, I'm sure you'll remember) which is maybe its biggest throwback to the past-- this book is an utter rejection of decompression.

You're doing something interesting with the narrative presence, too-- the "voice" behind THE INTIMATES isn't a static, omniscient narrator; it's almost a character. Which I'll get back to, but I wanted to talk about narration up top-- narration seems to have gotten to be a bit of a rarified creature these days, and THE INTIMATES finds a way to reject that trend but simultaneously turn it on its ear.

But first thing's first-- INTIMATES. ULTIMATES. Discuss.

CASEY: Picked up on that, huh...?

I get a perverse kick out of the Ultimates and I'm just enough of an asshole to say to myself, "If the Ultimates is the current 'hot thang,' these over-the-top superhero histrionics, then what's the aesthetic opposite of that? What would fly in the face of that style of comic book? If something is 'Ultimate,' then I guess its opposite would be something 'Intimate.' A book where all the histrionics are on the inside." Or something equally inane like that. Once again, my great commercial sense kicking in there...

And even though it makes for good promo, I don't really give much of a shit about the "Anti-Decompression" side of things. At the same time, I'm interested in exploring different styles of narrative. If I was going to write a book about teenagers, I wanted it to reflect their info dump, media swarm lifestyles. Everything all at once. Pulling out the cinema terms, I wanted to experiment with editing techniques. One of my favorite things about the original DARK KNIGHT was Miller's frenetic cross-cutting. No one has since attempted that kind of staccato narrative.

Your comment on the "narrative presence" has some validity, too. A big influence on the writing is THE OFFICE. Brilliant fucking television. In that show, the camera is ostensibly a documentarian recording the mundane events of this paper merchant office space. Each episode is edited in a documentary fashion. It's damn near eavesdropping. That's something I wanted to capture here... that you, as a reader, are actually in the classroom with these kids, eavesdropping on practically every mundane aspect of their lives.

Besides all that pseudo-intellectual stuff, I just think current comic books move too goddamned slow to keep kids' attention. As adults, we can gaze upon the decompressed style and be suitably impressed, but I can't imagine a 21st Century kid being anything but bored out of their skull. Of course, going back to Silver Age-styled, "compressed" stories aren't quite the answer, either. Pull out a Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN or a John Broome FLASH and a modern kid probably wouldn't even consider them quaint. So then what can we do in comic books to engage a kid's attention? I guess THE INTIMATES is my first shot at that new kind of comic book.

FRACTION: I knew a kid, he was seven or eight when I met him, and when he'd draw pictures of his favorite cartoon characters, he'd always drop the character's respective logo bug into the lower right hand corner of his drawings. So his drawings of Batman had a WB shield on it, etc. It was disturbing; Warner Brothers had branded the kid's imagination. And there in the bottom corner of every page of THE INTIMATES is a fucking logo bug...!

Part of the narrative presence-- bringing us back to FLAGG!-- is the INFO SCROLL, you call it in the script, that functions like a lower-third graphic, or maybe a headline scroll like on CNN. You've got these blocks of text, 50 word pops that flesh out the characters, the world, and really the tone of the book. The first issue lives up to the INTIMATE idea; it's a character piece, and an ensemble one at that- you've got, what, ten characters introduced here? Maybe more? It's a quiet book, all things considered, only it's got blasts of information everywhere, flashbacks and parallel cuts and fantasies-- even a comic within a comic drawn by Jim Freakin' Lee-- there's just a ton of information on every page, just not in a typical comic book way.

Which brings me along to Richard Starkings & Comicraft, and, man, did that crew ever earn their place in the credits box. Not since FLAGG! has there been a book so reliant on text that it becomes a character in and of itself. You've got a ton of text and a ton of different text treatments going on here, from the old Characters Speaking Their Logos routine to the info scrolls... how has the design process of the book gone? How far is too far? It scans cleanly, it reads cleanly-- pages of THE INTIMATES feel sleek and heavy-- but what about a more David Carson-y kind of approach, has that come up? Tell me about how the design sense of the book came about.

CASEY: Well, shit, man... wait until you see the finished book in color...! I'm trying to break color habits that have been ingrained ever since Vertigo books started equating the color brown with some sort of realism. Fuck realism! We're bringing back pop art with a vengeance. Day-Glo as emotional currency. Fill in the blanks with some other dopey, pseudo-hip catch phrasing and you get the idea…

I'm convinced that you can't go too far with these things. If I'd wanted to sit with Richard and pick apart every facet of the lettering, I'm sure he'd indulge me because he's a consummate pro but there's only so many hours in the day. And yeah, the info scrolls are directly lifted from CNN. And the bug is part of a visual language that even kids who are too young to read can identify, recognize and comprehend. Just as decompression -- or Westerners' misunderstanding of it -- has turned most superhero comic books into bloodless, spacious things that can oftentimes take less than two minutes to read, I figured a kid's true media language is all about piling on information all at once. They learn how to decipher it, each in their own way. Giving readers more input than they think they can handle, but what comes out of that is that every reader finds their own narrative within the info we're providing them. Again, comic books as an interactive experience (that's right… that old chestnut!).

The overall graphic design is something that I think we're all contributing to -- writer, artist, letterer, colorist, logo & cover designer -- purely on instinct, but still with purpose and vision. I honestly don't know where some of this stuff comes from. But it's felt right so far. It feels like something you won't be able to get anywhere else. Without getting to heavy-handed, it's seems to be fully and gloriously embracing the idea of comic books being -- wait for it -- a bastard medium. Reflecting the culture while, at the same time, contributing to it.

FRACTION: Yeah, you know, I never understood why the color of horror was a kind of purple-y beige...

I think what's most interesting to me about this book is that, you know, after having the rug pulled out from under you on WILDCATS that instead of playing it safe, you're trying to put something out into the mainstream superhero world that plays it far from safe. You're looking to push the form and find some new ways of doing this kind of story... THE INTIMATES seems both really, really familiar and, at the same time, it's different, it's new. It's a book that, in a lot of ways, is picking up a ball that got fumbled sometime in the late eighties.

How did that go over at Wildstorm? I'd assume the pitch, at least superficially, wouldn't raise many eyebrows but when you started getting into all these different things that were going on, what was editorial's response when you said, oh, hey, Richard Starkings and Rian Hughes are gonna be just as crucial to this book as Cammo and Randy?

CASEY: Well, at the end of the day it is still teenage superheroes. That's a big market anytime. So, I'd imagine they'll tend to focus on that aspect rather than my nutty artistic experiments that comprise quite a bit of the series.

I did tell them early on that nobody but Richard and his crew would be able to letter this. No one else had 1) the skill, and 2) the patience to put up with my nit-picky bullshit. I don't know if they really believed me until we got around to putting together the first issue. Now, of course, they understand. At least, I hope they do...

Y'know, the surprising thing about the higher-ups of most entertainment entities is how little thought they put toward the artistic side of any creative endeavor initiated under their watch. That's not a condemnation at all. I don't think that's their job to think artistically. My job as a creator is to not freak them out with any of my ideas that might seem a bit too "out there". My job is to give them the basic facts that they, in turn, can use to justify it to their bosses. My job is also to engender trust, which I've spent six years doing at Wildstorm.

Of course, once the series got greenlit, I was off and running in my own, kooky direction...

FRACTION: Alright, so, bring it all back home and take us out: what is that direction? If "teen superheroes" is the surface, what's in the soul of THE INTIMATES for you?

CASEY: What can I say? Lately I've been on this kick of wanting to put out a comic book that's just dripping with raw emotion. There's a soullessness that's pervaded mainstream comic books. They tend to be too ironic, too inside, too much SEINFELD in their DNA. I wanted to try and tip the scales back toward something that hits people in the nervous system. What better way to do that than to try and accurately depict -- even in this fantastical setting -- what it feels like to be a teenager? What it feels like to be uncomfortable in your own skin. What it feels like to constantly grasp for deeper insight, but being too immature to ever process it. What it feels like to be truly indestructible, as teenagers generally are. In my opinion, it's the toughest thing for any creator in any medium to do... to evoke genuine emotion in someone through art. And, as far as I can tell, shared human experience is one way to do that. We were all teenagers... once.

That's the heart of THE INTIMATES, I guess. To try and evoke something genuine in the reader. Think about it... it happens less than you might realize. Even hate is usually prefabricated.

And, hey, if all that existential stuff doesn't float your boat... we've got Jim Lee onboard, drawing his ass off on the covers and the comic book-within-the-comic book. There's your real selling point, y'know...?

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