The Basement Tapes

Tue, November 9th, 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.

TEAM COMICS. Dum! Da! DUMMMMMMM! Those two black-hearted little words have sent other, lesser columnists either running in terror or frothing with rage and now they've darkened our dorky little doorstep. And after some semantically-slanted Hokey Pokey, the question gets asked: can people making comics honestly give-or take-meaningful criticism? IS there such a thing as meaningful criticism? Editors: Threat or Menace? Questions. So many questions. All of which, in their way, are asking the same thing: how can we make better books?

FRACTION: There're a couple different definitions, in my experience, for the phrase "Team Comics"; Tom Spurgeon comes at it with knives out from the We Must All Pitch In school of thought, whereas comics readers are obligated to pay it forward, as it were. I tend to think of that not as "Team Comics" but rather 'activism'-- a dead horse if there ever was. Brian Hibbs, he of Comix Experience in San Francisco, erstwhile Savage Critic, and new dad, looks at it as what happens when a group of comics creators, be they writers or artists or pure cartoonists, get together and become incapable of speaking critically of anyone else's work, which is what I want to talk about.

So you've got the pro folks' conception of Team Comics as that it's a kind of confederacy, a brotherhood of likeminded folks fighting the good fight or at least trying to-- which, you know, I don't really find fault with, I guess. And the haters, the Savage Critics, have their finger on something I think is a very real problem, in that there's a tendency amongst comics folks to give other comics folks a critical pass all to often. While I could care less if that's "Team Comics" or not, I think the Hibbs Definition (not that he came up with it or anything, but he gave me the FUCK TEAM COMICS button) has pegged the root of the argument-- being that comics, and the people working within the industry, often times are either incapable or unwilling to level a serious auto-critical eye. I'd take it even a step further and argue that part of the downside of the democratization of fandom that the internet has provided are nascent cults of personality utterly unable to honestly evaluate itself.

I know that you and I were of a similar mind in getting this particular dog and pony show we call THE BASEMENT TAPES up and running: there's a lack of a certain kind of critical thought about the comics mainstream, especially from other professionals. I've never cottoned to the school of thought that says opinions are only validated by shared experience ("You've never made a comic, so what you say doesn't matter."); at the same time, though, I think you can gain insights from insiders worth listening to.

So let's talk about what's wrong with mainstream criticism these days. Team Comics? Too many definitions of Team Comics? General atrophy? Nobody caring? Nothing worth caring about?

CASEY: I think there's a Comicbook Darwinism that some people miss... just creating a complete comicbook from scratch is a laudable feat, no doubt, but its degree of difficulty is designed to weed out the lightweights. Although I agree, the lack of a harsh critical light to place these things under isn't helping matters. Not one bit.

And so there's another level of Darwinism that's much sneakier, much more ethereal: the critical evaluation. Right now, criticism in the mainstream is fairly subjective. From what I can tell, it generally emerges from an Early Adopter place, a groundswell of opinion that can have as much -- if not more -- to do with the cultural climate or, as you say, the creator's cult of personality as it has to do with the work itself. Folks read a book on the Wednesday it comes out and rush to post their thoughts on the message boards. How much measured critical thought goes into that kind of feedback...?

(Of course, it doesn't help when creators can't take even this emotional kind of criticism, but that's a topic for another column)

Hell, we touched on this in the inaugural column, way back when... but does the mainstream -- ANY mainstream -- warrant serious criticism? I'm not saying give everything considered "mainstream" an automatic pass, but if a random issue of TRADEMARK MAN or FRANCHISE FORCE has got some artistic merit or not... what's at stake here?

FRACTION: What's more is how much measured thought can go into reviewing on the same day part 9 of a 52-part story or whatever? It's like trying to evaluate what happens between commercial breaks 2 and 3 critically...

And while TRADEMARK MAN may not be particularly warranting serious criticism; and yet if one feels it necessary to do so, one should dig in and not give a pass to the hardworking team that brings TRADEMARK MAN to life month in and month out just because they showed up and did their job.

No, what I'm talking about happens much more on the outskirts of comic-dom, on the shelves up high and towards the back of the store that get the light foot-traffic and the lighter monetary attentions. I think the Darwinism you speak of has a massive failing after that first hurdle of Getting The Book Done And Printed. Once it's printed, far too often those involved get a pass. I don't think it's enough to get a book done, or a page drawn; I think just because you can make a comic doesn't always mean you should, or that it'll be good.

There's softness to comics criticism. Of course, there's always The Journal, but the problem with The Journal is that it's The Journal and can't really transcend it's own character. A sharp takedown of the hype surrounding BLANKETS or Dirk's evaluation of the X-books post-Morrison can be dismissed out of hand because, well, it's The Journal And Those Goddamn Elitists Hate Everything.

Nothing like a broad generalization, is there...?

CASEY: Actually, I tend to think that the more well-reasoned a criticism is, the more people reject that criticism. Fundamentally, no one wants to be told what to like. They certainly don't want to be told why to like something. Unless, of course, they already agree with the critic. Then it's a fucking love fest. Critics usually gain some measure of acceptance when they like the most popular things. And that's cool. Everyone wants to be loved.

I dunno, though. I guess I fall more on the side of "throw a bunch of monkey shit and see what sticks." If you've got the balls to put something out there for public consumption, and you've got the balls to deal with the slings and arrows that will inevitably come you're way if it sucks (or, to be more realistic, the oftentimes complete indifference that accompanies a substandard work of art), then more power to you. I don't want people second-guessing themselves. Fly your flag and see who salutes it. I'm fairly certain that the next Great Thing will bubble up from that very underground.

Maybe that "pass" is given to substandard work because we're just subconsciously relieved that someone else is making comics. That the artform is alive and well. That new people are still inexplicably drawn to telling stories in this medium.

You're on the money about one thing in particular... just because you can make a comicbook doesn't mean it'll be good. But, the fact is, most things aren't that good. It's only our continuing culture of lowered expectations that makes this dilemma so much more painful than it has to be. Maybe that's where the "softness" you're talking about comes from...

FRACTION: Sure. Sturgeon's Law and all that-- 90% of anything is crap. And yeah, you're right; Team Comics is all about being relieved someone else is making comics.

But it makes for shit criticism.

I think everyone can benefit from working with a smart editor-- especially at the start of their career-- but I've yet to meet anyone planning on being an editor at the outset. I've just alienated and pissed off every editor reading this. Aside from being someone to bust your ass about deadlines, I think having a trusted voice taking a look at the work as it develops and someone smarter than you to push you to make it better is crucial. And if you're wrapped up in… I dunno, a scene or any sort of community, a system develops and thus suffers systemic failings. Nature of the beast, I guess.

What do you look for in an editor? What's been your best editor experience so far?

CASEY: For the most part, my Wildstorm editors have all been aces. Tom Brevoort at Marvel has always been great, always a straight shooter. Honestly, Joe Quesada is a hell of an editor. He actually had some great feedback in the early stages of EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES. The funny thing is, I do think an editor can serve as a qualified critic. If they bring that sensibility to a project, that can be valuable. But it can't be the same type of emotional criticism you generally find on the Net (valid as it may be, in its own way). An editor's role is to integrate that emotional response with a deeper sense of critical thinking. And, believe me, they don't have to be "smarter than you" to do it. They just have to be smart, period.

Y'know, occasionally, you see "review posts" on the message boards or even on dedicated review sites in which someone will act as a de facto editor, and ask certain hypothetical questions that they feel the real editors should've asked. Those kind of comments amuse the shit out of me personally ("What was Axel Alonso thinking...?!" As if we could ever know that...!) but God forbid anyone takes them seriously. That's still an emotional response trying to disguise itself as insider, critical thinking. Wrapping an apple in an orange peel doesn't make it an orange folks.

Good editors are folks you can trust to be critics of your work in a way that's essential to improvement. Now, who you choose to trust is entirely a judgment call on the part of the writer, so trust at your own risk. But they are out there. I've worked with enough of 'em to know.

FRACTION: So is there an implicit trust from the get-go? How long does it take a relationship with an editor to develop? How long does it take to figure out your relationship with an editor is fucked up?

And have you ever walked away from a gig because of an editor you wanted nothing to do with? And beyond editorial, do you have any sort of peer group that you go to for feedback on your work? It seems most of us on my end of things could benefit from something like that.

CASEY: I've definitely backed away from things when because of the editor involved. These days, I call it career maintenance. The trust comes either over time or from reputation. Brevoort is a favorite editor of a lot of guys, so I pretty much knew it would be good from the start.

Things go south with an editor when you see the printed comicbook and gaze in wonder at the numerous re-writes that have occurred behind your back. That's a big no-no for me, but of course that hasn't happened in a long, long time. The reason? I stay the hell away from editors who do that.

Most freelancers know the skinny on most editors, and we definitely share experiences, good and bad. If someone asks me, I'm happy to endorse the good ones out there. If someone asks me and I choose not even to respond -- as I've done in the past -- I find that to be a fairly implicit indictment of the editor that's being asked about. Y'know, if you don't have anything nice to say...

FRACTION: Well, yeah but COME ON, we have a COLUMN. A column on the INTERNET. It needs slanderous, libelous, Behind-The-Music style ugly tell-alls and CONTROVERSY. Spill. Name names. Point fingers.

Oh, all right.

So, here, bring all back home:

For creators laboring without an editor of either good or bad judgment, do you think other people making comics can generate constructive and instructive critique and commentary?

CASEY: Well, here's the diplomatic response: Yes and No. Hell, take in all the opinions you can. They're all as valid as you want them to be. Or solicit as much opinion as possible and fucking ignore all of it.

Criticism is what you make of it. I think good, insightful criticism from any source tells a creator something he or she probably already knew, deep down. I guess I truly believe that unless you lack complete creative self-awareness -- which is certainly possible at times -- no one knows when your work sucks with more clarity than you do. If someone needs that outside input to screw their own head on straighter, more power to 'em. My personal take on it? Be your own harshest critic. Set impossible standards for yourself and bust ass trying to meet them. You never know... something good might come out of it.

FRACTION: I tend to think that critique makes me better. My process is weird and strange and internal and there's no faster way to get tunnel vision and lose your way than that. Any time I've droned on about that lack of comics criticism or critique-on either side of the equation-comes from that. Listening to the thoughts of the smart and observant makes for better work. And those first tentative steps where you're going into the world for the first time, that's when it's most important. Hearing it from people on a similar road as you just magnifies that, I think. Better criticism means better comics. It's not enough just to show up.

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