The Basement Tapes: Issue #14

Tue, November 2nd, 2004 at 12:00am PST

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.

So, Fraction's back and ready to kick ass with his serial, JUAREZ, appearing in IDW's BLOODSUCKER TALES series (on sale now, kids!). Having already read the first few scripts and seen Ben Templesmith's gorgeous artwork, I figured it'd be worth it to do a post mortem, now that Fraction can boast his first significant color comicbook work. He's a sick mind…

CASEY: Right, then. I've read the first two installments of your half of IDW's BLOODSUCKER TALES. A plucky little number called "Juarez" (or, as you indicate in the script, "Lex Nova & The Case Of The 400 Dead Mexican Girls"). This is definitely a leap forward for you, in all sorts of areas involving craft and concept. Lex Nova's affectation of narrating his own life has always been a favorite of mine (although when I do it in real life, I get funny stares). So, first things first... how'd you land this particular gig?

FRACTION: Well, thanks, first off. And the gig came by way of Steve Niles. I might be wrong, but I think I said I wanted to bash his head in for coming up with the 30 DAYS hook on the Ellis forum? Something. Anyway. We were, y'know, Internet friendly or whatever and then I'd met him at San Diego the year before last and we hit it off-- same kind of bent, I guess. Like, we've both un-ironically referred to FANGORIA as Fango or whatever, I don't know.

So: I had written a short for Our Man Ashley Wood, and he convinced me to try pitching stuff cold to IDW, and then Niles started working as my advocate over there. I pitched for some stuff that went this way or that as Steve was getting into RETURN TO BARROW. The three 30 DAYS books were all at least tied to Barrow and I think he wanted to get into the world outside of Alaska. Anyway. I hadn't stuck my landing with any of the other IDW stuff and we were shooting the shit one night and there was BLOODSUCKER at the end of the call.

CASEY: It really is who you know, huh...?

So, I'm gonna try and get you going on two strands at once. On the conceptual side, did the gig -- meaning, the idea for a split book with Niles -- come first or did you formulate the story first and then pitch it? Either way, there are flashes of genius in this thing that I wish I'd thought of. First, the clowns. What the hell--?! Secondly, the idea for Lex Nova himself. Was he a character or a type of character that you'd already had bouncing around your head prior to this series?

And, on the technique side, you're using a fairly unique way of telling this story. I'm talking about the 8-panel grid template that I'm assuming the entire story conforms to. Off the top of my head, I remember that STRAY BULLETS has used that panel layout and possibly a Darwyn Cooke story or two. Is this just a formalist experiment or was there something about this particular approach that you felt was appropriate to the material...?

FRACTION: Niles had the split-book idea; beyond the practical-- he's writing like 17,000 things a month and all-- I think he wanted to give folks he likes (Dan Wickline follows my run, for example; Kody Chamberlain is drawing Niles' first serial) a shot at working with IDW and leveraging their exposure against the 30 DAYS brand. So Steve keeps his toes in the 30 DAYS water both creatively and editorially, and he gets to see where people take things.

Like, you know, the Clowns. I was born in Chicago and lived there through the John Wayne Gacy thing. I have a very serious Clown Thing as a result.

I don't know where Lex came from-- a deep-seeded desire to be Tom Waits, maybe. When Steve offered me the book, I immediately felt like, fuck, I was gonna blow it. Steve said, you know, shut up, fuck you, write what you want to write-- write a fucking crime comic with vampires in it-- my first instinct was to do something about Agent Norris, actually, the Scout, the Renfield-type character. Portrayed, of course, by Tom Waits in the Coppola flick. Hardboiled Scout. I guess that's Lex's DNA.

The grid-- Steve thought, literally, right off, that I should work with Templesmith. And while I could appreciate the strategy (that Steve could be breaking new artists while Ben was breaking new writers), I thought he was either nuts or fucking with me. Add to that that JUAREZ was my first serial book and the grid was covering my bases. I don't have a detailed map when I start, I just have big landmarks that I head towards; the grid would help me keep the pacing and stay organized. And if I was working with someone that hadn't really done comics before, someone that was as babe-in-the-woods as me, I was afraid of it all just being a huge mess.

I was done, or near-done, with the first part when I got confirmation that it was going to be Ben doing the book with me and I felt like a tool. But, on the up side, you're getting 8 awesomely dense Ben Templesmith panels a page. Fuck decompression!

CASEY: Y'know, Templesmith and I go back a ways. Before Niles got his well-honed hooks into him, I brought Ben to the fine folks at Vertigo almost five years ago and, aside from Heidi MacDonald (who, I should point out, was let go from the company after developing and delivering Vertigo's first bona fide hit in years: Y, THE LAST MAN), no one there seemed to vibe to Ben's work. I now cackle gleefully at their loss. Hopefully, Ben does, too.

I think Ben really took to the grid, actually. It's nice to see someone with that kind of style and verve locked down, to a degree. You really get to see how good they are when they're stripped of some of their standard... tricks.

One thing I really like about the first chapter especially is the way you cross-cut between scenes. Mid-page breaks are rare these days, for whatever reason I can't comprehend, but you seem to attack that shit with good gusto. How precisely did you outline, for instance, the first installment before you committed to the final script that I read? I'm not sure if I was seeing a pattern behind those cross-cuts or not...

FRACTION: Seriously? I didn't know that about you and Ben. That's fuckin' awesome. Apparently he drew some Ghost Rider stuff that got out on the 'net that Marvel didn't go for. Which, you know, fine by me. Their loss, my gain.

The thing I see in Ben's JUAREZ pages is that it… it's still of the 30 DAYS universe but it's a totally different animal.

The cross-cutting was... Yeah, I dunno. It was largely improvised. I had the dead girl's eye-to-hubcap cut; I had the "Who the fuck are these clowns?" gag, and that was it. I wanted to see if I could pull off mid-page Hernandez cuts with those MABUSE-style transitions we talked about to ease the jolt. And my strategy for beginnings is to front-load. Put as many pieces on the board as you can, so there's never just a waitress, never just a bank teller. You never know when that waitress needed to overhear a conversation, or find a wallet. So, I had 12 pages and, like, 12 characters to introduce, a scenario to introduce both of my own invention of that of the actual Ciudad Juarez (which I am shamefully plundering for cheap entertainment), and it had to span 5 or 6 locations and multiple timelines. All I could think was that if I made the scene-cuts come at the end of the page it was gonna feel episodic on a page-by-page basis and just choke to death in its crib.

CASEY: No, I totally hear where you're coming from. And I think it was absolutely the right choice to make. Obviously, I can appreciate the match cuts, but who hasn't tried a few of those, right? But these days, to crack the page into more than one scene is certainly bravura storytelling so, "Right on, brutha." It's also an extremely salient point that page breaks, while effective in their own way, can absolutely evoke that episodic feel, almost as though you were reading a series of one-page gags instead of a longer, sustained narrative.

So, what -- or who -- are your influences on your dialogue? The dialogue in JUAREZ definitely crackles with energy, beyond the way it connects the reader with the characters. It's actually fun to read. To be honest, I do get kind of a Mike Baron vibe from it. Not that it's what Baron would write, but in the fact that you have a voice. So, where's it come from...?

FRACTION: Well, a lot of it's just me trying to keep things as improvisational as possible. I'm terrified that everything I write is gonna be telegraphed like a parade-float down main street, so if I don't always exactly know where I'm going, then I have hope that I'm not leading the witness, you know? I'm starting to think about editing in a way-literal kind of sense, that it's not just jumping from scene 1 to scene 2, but literally paring things away within those scenes, shots, and lines to see what kind of story lives in the negative space. Blah blah blah blah blah, lookit me, I'm a writer.

The cutting stabilizes or jukes as the story stabilizes or jukes.

I think the dialogue comes from a desire for economy? My tendency is to write dialogue with lots of overlap and repetition and echoes and all that; Bendis so totally owns that in comics right now, though, that I try to strip it out. Lex doing his monologue shit gives me a little room to play around. Baron was all about economy, now that I think about it. Like, he always wrote so it felt like you came in five seconds late and were leaving ten seconds early-- so I can certainly think of worse things to vibe from. Strip it all down, get off the stage fast, and let the reader figure it out.

CASEY: It's a good way to be. And I think you hit the nail on the head with the word "improvisational" to describe what you're doing. It does have that feel. You're not leading the reader to information that's necessary simply to drive the plot forward. There's an immersion into the mood and the feel of this environment you're creating. And Ben's art just sells it even more.

Feel free to shut me down if we're veering too closely into spoiler territory, but now I'm curious... is Lex Nova the main protagonist of this story? Are you -- even in the back of your mind -- trying to establish a singular character here, one that might have a life beyond this particular story...?

FRACTION: Hah. Yeah, it's definitely Lex's story, but there are a few secondary characters that come along and push or pull the story away from him. Sometimes he's very much the engine and other times he's sucked into someone else's wake. Which makes it a lot of fun to write-- someone shows up and takes over for a little bit and drags the story away from my fundamental understanding of it. Me and Lex are in the same boat: we stormed into town thinking we knew everything about everything. And the story of JUAREZ is the story of Juarez kicking our asses for it.

That said... I like stories that have definite endings. I like periods at the end of sentences. Full stops. Y'know?

CASEY: Absolutely. And having a lead that allows for an occasional story tangent can be the best kind of character. Personally, I can see Lex Nova in all sorts of different scenarios and he works in all of them.

So, to widen the focus one more time, how's working with IDW been?

FRACTION: Pretty great, honestly. I understand how they've been able to create such a fierce loyalty with their creators and their readers. When the book started, Jeff Mariotte was the editor, and then he bugged out to live the luxurious life of a freelancer, so the edits got handed over to Chris Ryall. Who, while having an unfortunate fascination with his own poop, has been aces. So my first and second real editorial experience has gone well enough, I guess. I think I got just one 'You need to change this' note and it was for legal reasons-- otherwise these guys have gone out of their way to let me nitpick and revise and fret, as much of a fucking headache as it has to be.

And, y'know, they put me on their SDCC hype panel with Will Eisner (Who said, by the way, that he wants to do more books like his forthcoming EISNER/MILLER interview book. Specifically he said he wanted to do one with Alan Moore-- I don't remember reading that getting reported anywhere. Process-freaks like myself just had a minor embolism at the idea of reading a book of Eisner interviewing Moore and vice-versa for 350 pages...). So I have no complaints.

CASEY: Eisner... Moore... goddamn...

Okay, before I come down off the sugar high of that juicy prospect, let's close this one out with the basics. The first issue's out, so people should either 1) already have it, or 2) run right out and buy it. How long will JUAREZ run...?

FRACTION: First issue was out last Wednesday. It's 8 parts, 12 pages by me and Templesmith and 12 by Niles and Kody Chamberlain, with a bonus short story at the end of every book.

Boo. Yah.

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