The Basement Tapes: Issue #13

Tue, October 26th, 2004 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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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.

Endings: It's the thing that comes after the middle. Some comics end. Some comics just stop. What's the difference? Dig deep with us now as we go wandering down that writerly path once more trying to shine a little light on one another's processes. Is stopping an art, a science, or whatever makes the most sense at the time? And how do you end a column about endings?

CASEY: So, the major work you're known for in comicbooks at this point is the OGN, LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS. A kickass little action thriller that really grabs you and holds you until the final page. You put the book down, and you feel satisfied. All I was really left wanting... is another Fraction-written OGN as soon as possible. So, get on the stick, willya?

Anyway, the point is... you haven't been institutionalized by the serial format that dominates mainstream comicbook culture. I'm assuming you come to your OGN's with the fairly simple notion of writing a story with a beginning, middle and end.

However, I look around and I see that for quite a few modern storytellers, it's not so simple. The concept of endings is something that mainstream comicbooks -- their creators and their readers -- seem to have trouble grasping. Writing monthly superheroes certainly promotes the never-ending story. After all, you're maintaining a trademark and trademarks can never really end, can they? But with the advent of mini-series and, to a lesser extent, the story arc, the opportunity to provide some sort of ending to whatever story you're telling becomes much more feasible.

Except that most mainstream comicbooks still aren't very good at it. In fact, they kinda suck at providing good endings. And, on top of that, most mainstream readers aren't used to appreciating endings if and when they happen to occur... mainly because they don't get enough good endings to be able to identify them.

Look around at the books that are currently in fashion. Personally, I see a lot of well-done set-ups (beginnings), some great story meat (middles), and piss-poor endings. Stories that simply... end. Or worse, just peter out when the pages run out.

Is it just me... or do you see this, too?

FRACTION: Well, the beauty of a graphic novel, to me, is that it's a closed system. You can do whatever you want to as a writer and not give a good goddamn as to what's coming next. I wrote, "They were never heard from again," at the end of LOTI because I think we, as comics readers, tend to think that if someone survives then there'll be a sequel. Not that it was a great ending or anything, but I wanted to do all I could-- short of killing everyone-- to shut the door behind me.

But, yeah, boy, the Deus Ex Machina gag still gets a lot of play in comics, especially in the mainstream. Maybe that's what happens when you've got to end back at square one, when you've got a static situation as your default position. Death isn't permanent in comics, so why should any story actually resolve?

And let's not be so cold and heartless as to call them "trademarks"-- if you're writing a book or characters you've been following since youth, chances are you've got a genuine affection for them... how, then, could you kill Lois Lane? How could you make Superman quit? I'm trying to think of what a real "ending" would be in Metropolis, you know? Superman might be lousy as a character in fiction, but he's perfect as a character in serial fiction.

I remember hearing a story about, I want to say it was Jon Bogdanove's kid, answering the phone at the Bogdanove residence in the middle of that Death Of Superman stuff. And on the other line was either an irate reader or a mudminded journalist hack that demanded to know how it felt to know that his father killed Superman. The kid, if the story I heard is true, replied, "My daddy didn't kill Superman, Mike Carlin did," and hung up.

(My apologies to Messrs. Bogdanove, Bogdanove Jr., and Carlin if I've mangled or made up that story.)

I want to try and do a series of limited series. A couple things I'm ramping up work on are planned out like that-- a large story told in self-contained chunks. Best of both worlds, maybe.

CASEY: First of all, if that "Death of Superman"-story you related is true... then that kid is my new hero.

I don't even mind a Deux Ex Machina once in a while, as long as it's done well. But that almost seems too much to ask these days, too. I was talking to a good friend of mine about this, also a superhero writer of some prominence, and he was lamenting how many bad writing habits he's picked up writing the big franchise characters. I couldn't disagree. There was a moment a few years ago when I know for a fact I was veering dangerously close to the complete embrace of formula and clich because I was getting a lot of work and those kinds of stories always seemed to please my editors. Pretty soon I figured out what a disservice I was doing to the readers...!

This new thing you're thinking about... the question I would ask of you is whether or not these self-contained chunks you're describing eventually add up to a larger ending? Basically, how are you approaching this from a story construction point of view...?

FRACTION: Yeah. I think that I-- and probably everyone else reading stuff on a regular basis-- have gotten sick of reading shit very obviously being written for trade. So, yeah, I want to tell stories bigger than 22 monthly pages can contain, and I don't want to just have that 22nd page be an arbitrary cliffhanger inserted into a story to give it a logical breaking point; the flip side are the economic realities and blah blah blah. You certainly know what I'm talking about. What I would like to try is writing interlocking arcs that form a large, long-form kind of story without compromising the integrity of either the individual arcs or the individual issues that make up those arcs. So, then, I'm trying to figure out how to make self-contained issues that can form a coherent arc. There are books out there doing it, or coming close to doing it, I'm not saying I came up with the idea or anything…

What I want to do after that is to try and convince the publishers that I'm writing for that after each four, five, or six or whatever-issue arc that there should be down time during which a collection comes out to try and get more people into the book. And if the numbers aren't there then, well, worst case is I've written a miniseries that's hopefully been collected and stands on its own. Best case is you have a hardcore base digging what you do and you can maybe build from there. It doesn't seem any more or less stupid to me than having an ongoing running concurrent to collections coming out; best I can figure, you're actually kind of minimizing the money risk that way.

CASEY: Well, now you're talking about the HELLBOY model or the SIN CITY model. These are damn good examples of giving the reader concentrated, adrenaline shots of story, while at the same time, building a larger, ongoing continuity and -- on the economic side -- building a library. And, from a completely crass, commercial point of view, a new #1 issue every year doesn't hurt either. There are still a few speculators out there, y'know.

I wonder if the majors didn't have such heavy publishing quotas and their obsession with market share, they might more fully adopt this model. We're already seeing something similar with these so-called "seasons" of books. It seems to me, the only problem is one of perception. You never know how retailers or the Direct Market audience will respond to that kind of publishing plan stated outright. They tend to be somewhat cynical about these things. They hear, "series of mini-series" and they often run screaming. Although Jay Faerber seems to have made a go of it with NOBLE CAUSES.

Do you ever wonder if the subject matter you're dealing with is best served by this approach you're suggesting? In other words, does what you're writing about effect the format in which you want to present the work...?

FRACTION: SIN CITY was the first time I remember seeing someone bucking against the constraints of issues v. collections. My timeline might be off, but I seem to remember the issues of THAT YELLOW BASTARD just kinda stopping or being very obviously padded to get to a natural breakpoint... and then there was FAMILY VALUES, the standalone OGN. So why not a series of OGNs...?

NOBLE CAUSES also very much got me thinking. What Jay's doing is, I think, the only sane way to launch a superhero book into the mainstream anymore if you're not, you know, regularly in the pages of WIZARD. And I think NOBLE CAUSES may have done exactly that for Jay-- when I hear his name, it's NOBLE CAUSES I think of first, not his Marvel stuff or any of that. And, you know, what good does sweating the DM response do? What's the alternative? Cancelled at issue 9, or 13, or whatever. You may as well try to execute a publication strategy that builds an audience-- that tries builds an increasing audience.

Marvel's pushing trades out before the ink is dry on the last issue of an arc, so there's nothing... I mean, I remember when collections were a kind of special thing, you know? And like what happened with Marvel's line of "graphic novels" or DC "prestige format," it's become a meaningless appellation. So it's not like a regular comics reader is going to see a collection and think, oh, hey, this must be worthy of being collected. Anything is collected nowadays, and the collections are solicited before the arc is done.

You look at a book like SLEEPER, though, and the trade does better than the monthly...

To get to the second part-- the subject matter doesn't really play into my thinking, but the handling of it does. Does that make sense? The format, as you put it, is very much designed around this kind of intention, but... like, it could be a crime book, a horror book, or a superhero book... that doesn't matter to me, really. The two former, though, certainly lend themselves to decisive endings, maybe. Traditionally, anyway. I don't think there's any rule, though, that corresponds with any particular genre.

What about you? Where's your head at on this kind of thing nowadays?

CASEY: Well, DC kinda bit us all in the ass with the discontinuation of the WILDCATS trades, but it's their economics, not mine, so what're you gonna' do? I suppose I've come back around to the point where the single issue means everything, even if it's part of a larger arc or whatever, every blast of 22 pages has to really kick ass. If I see another #1 issue of anything that's all set-up, I might throw myself out of a window. Writers who defend themselves by saying, "I don't write for the trades, it's just how I write comics"... well, maybe they shouldn't be writing monthly comics. They should be writing OGN's. This loss leader mentality where writers count on trade collections for their work to satisfy is completely missing the appeal of comicbooks. At least the appeal of superhero comicbooks. There's nothing wrong with disposable fiction just like there's nothing wrong with a good pop song.

Now you've got me on a roll here... the music analogy. Artists record albums, sure. And, in the end, those albums -- in their totality -- are the primary artistic statement. However, the business demands that you release singles to radio to promote the existence of the album. Those singles have to be complete and total experiences. Imagine putting out a single that was basically just one verse for three minutes and no chord changes? No one would want to buy the album. Comicbooks are the same way. The single issues have to rock on their own if a trade collection is even worth doing. A boring chapter in an otherwise great book is still a boring fucking chapter.

See what you've done to me? It feels like 1999 all over again...

FRACTION: From here on out, you cut and paste comments from COME IN ALONE and I'll cut and paste comments from MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS and we'll see if Jonah notices.

Here, let's get into WILDCATS for a minute and maybe dodge that fin de siecle shuck and jive shit...

You HAD to know you were pushing CATS way out there, right? I don't think it ever felt like it was being written for trade-- and it really was born when that was all the rage, so, you know, nice one-- but, at the same time, I always got more from reading it either in collections or just the issues in long chunks. Again, though... CATS was a book that rewarded its long-term readers. How did you go about planning the book out? And what kind of feedback were you hearing from Wildstorm editorial on it?

Concurrent to that-- you'd set the tone and style for CATS, what, three years before the book got killed? Tough to change those particular horses mid-race. So now, post-CATS-- how are you crafting a book like THE INTIMATES to function differently?

CASEY: I've said this in an interview or two before, but the thing that nobody really got about WILDCATS was that I was basically writing it as a novel. Each issue was a chapter of the novel and the trades were like reading several chapters all at once. I think that's where the long-term reward you referred to really comes from. Planning out the book always involved interlocking and overlapping character arcs. In this novel-like method of writing, there are no real defined breaks in the story (another significant ingredient of doing trade collections). Of course, to get us back on topic for a minute, the real ending, the BIG ending, was quite a ways off. To be exact, sixteen issues away when it got shitcanned.

As for the feedback I got from Wildstorm editorial, obviously they wanted the book to work commercially and I honestly think they were as confused as anyone was that it wasn't catching on and selling better. And, you're right, I'd set my course early on so there was no way I was going to start messing with the book's identity -- for better or worse -- to try and goose sales. I was willing to go down with the ship to maintain the integrity of the story I was telling and the way I was telling it. And, of course, I did go down with the ship. Glub glub.

Like we talked about two weeks ago, THE INTIMATES is 180 degrees away from WILDCATS in its approach. It's all about the single-issue story. It's sitcom writing. But it's not exactly EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. I know I'm repeating myself here, but it's more like THE OFFICE or, as Brubaker has said, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Or maybe K STREET, which is certainly not a sitcom but it employed a structure -- a method of presenting the narrative -- that I thought was fucking brilliant. I think, in some ways, you don't have to read issues of THE INTIMATES in order. The series is constructed in such a way that you could take any random issue, read it, and get what the setup, the characters and their world is. I don't know how unique of an approach that is, but it's certainly a change from the novelistic style of WILDCATS...

FRACTION: So, close us out, then: is that a failing of the medium or a failing of the marketplace? Or is it neither? And do you wish it were different?

CASEY: I think the medium is just fine. Look how long it's survived...! And the marketplace is what it is, and will always be whatever it will be. There's no reason to be bitter. I've got the job of my dreams from when I was six-fucking-years old! How many poor bastards can say that? THE INTIMATES is -- in its own clumsy way -- me trying to give back to an art form that gave me so much.

And, sure... I wish certain things about our industry were different. But that's why I'm doing the book. Change by example. It's the only way I know how...

Look at that. Somehow we found and end to this week's column. And, just like most comicbooks these days, it just wasn't all that satisfying an ending, was it? Then again, we're not telling a story here…

… or are we?

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