The Basement Tapes: Issue #16

Tue, November 16th, 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.

Road trip.

In the last little bit, Joe did a bit of a tour that took him from LA to San Francisco, and then out to Wizard World Dallas during the week that saw both his long-time-comin' AVENGERS book EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES and his new twist on the teenage superteam THE INTIMATES hit the stands. What's the virtue of putting in face-time in the many stores and shows across the land? Can this kind of one-to-one outreach help foster an audience? Does Wildstorm cover airfare? The shocking answers wait within. Er, below. They wait below.

FRACTION: So, I was in Memphis for a week there and then got sucked up into ElectionLand and by the time I got back and got my mind right, you were off to The World Famous Isotope Lounge, the comics shop supreme owned by our pal and fellow CBR'er James Sime and then to Wizard World... Texas. I got to launch LOTI at the Isotope with Kieron and Larry, and have done a handful of cons. You, though, I kind of imagine are a world-weary tour pro by now-- so let's talk about that kind of one-to-one outreach and your experiences and thoughts and all that good shit from the road.

CASEY: It's actually been awhile since I've done this kind of travel outside of the band shit. San Francisco and the Isotope on Wednesday, then off to Texas on Thursday for three days. Of course, the Isotope is still everything both a pro or fan would want from a store signing. And thanks to a mixture of the effervescent Ken Kneisel and a candid photo that was perhaps the funniest damn thing I've seen this year, my normally ultracool facade was cracked wide open and you end up with moments like this.

There was one year... 1999, to be exact, when I did seven or eight cons. I've said this before, but the fact of the matter was that I didn't have anywhere else to be at that particular time in my life, so I figured if I got an invite (which I seemed to get a few more of back in the day than I do now), then I might as well go. Outside of the actual work, there wasn't much else for me to do. I'm a little pickier now, but with a few books launching that week, I figured Wizard World Texas would be one worth showing up at.

And, aside from the food poisoning, I was so fucking right.

FRACTION: San Diego is just such an orgy of... carnage, I dunno. It feels like a marathon and like summer camp at the same time. It's long, it's grueling, it goes on forever, but when it's over the thought of going back to the 'real' world again kinda sucks.

Before we get to talking about shows, how was the in-store? I mean, I know James runs a kick-ass shop, but how'd the day go there? I know the kind of charge that I would get as a reader going to shows or in-stores, but what do you, as a creator, get out of it? Aside from getting to practice the dying art of the face-to-face conversation?

CASEY: Well, on Nov. 3rd, the Isotope was simply the best prom you'd ever want to attend and we all dressed for the occasion (except for Larry Young, of course). But, beyond the theme of the night, the Isotope represents Comics as Culture. Comics as a genuine Lifestyle all its own. There wasn't a moment when I sat behind a table and mindlessly signed books. It was about interacting and laughing and drinking and just having a good time.

And, of course, James is the heart of it. He's always promoting positivity and even frowns upon my open-air loathing of a store like Comix Experience and the bumblefuck that owns it. He's that classy. I don't know how many ways I can say it, but his store is the future of comicbook retailing.

There was even a hailstorm to commemorate the occasion.

FRACTION: It doesn't surprise me that Larry couldn't find a flannel tuxedo...

Our Pal Warren did a vaguely infamous store-to-store tour a while back; I seem to recall a Vertigo store tour in the early-mid nineties, too. These always seemed like great ideas to me, but they're a fairly rare occurrence, the exception instead of the rule. It doesn't feel like shilling-- which San Diego always kind of does, just because it's so loud and so packed-- it feels like a genuine way to get out and meet the people gambling their cash on your work, to say hi and to thank them, to hang out, to have a good time. We moved 100 copies of LOTI that day, you know?

In short-- it seems a legit sort of outreach and a solid way to build an audience. Why do you think it's such a rare creature?

CASEY: To me, it's a way to hang out with like-minded people. That's been the coolest thing about these trips. Obviously, there's a lot of common ground that exists when comicbook fans get together, and you tend to forget that if the only way you interact with your audience is to post on the Internet. I never see an in-store or a convention visit as a means to "sell" my work. I'm more interested in simply connecting with people that I wouldn't normally have an opportunity to meet.

It's different than touring in a band, for instance. Bringing the rawk is all about performance. It's somewhat one-sided in its communication. Granted, there's sometimes a bit of performance involved at these conventions. I did a "Wizard School" on writing superheroes (insert joke here), where it was basically me up in front of a roomful of mainly proto-writers looking for a little light at the end of the tunnel. In those moments, you're making sure to engage people at least on an entertainment level. I wouldn't want anyone nodding off. But even then, I moved pretty quickly into Q&A, because I wanted dialogue, not monologue.

But, for the most part, with the median age of most current comicbook fans, it really does break down any of those fan-pro barriers (like I had when I was twelve and went to the local cons), leaving everyone just talking like normal human beings. It happened more on this trip than it ever had before for me. And it certainly got me more excited about how to do these things... something I'd definitely struggled with in the past.

FRACTION: So you're gonna do it again, then? And would you plan a tour out on a bigger scale, more cities or shows or whatnot?

You've got me thinking about rock bands, now, and how they'd build audiences back in the day. KISS would tour constantly and put new records out every 9 months, you know? It was the only way to build a real audience back then and to fly in the fact of the way mainstream FM and record companies worked. And, you know, it did the job. KISS built up a hugely loyal fan-base and broke through in a massive way by subverting everything.

Maybe that's a way to build a modern audience. Kick it Gene and Paul Style.

And, hey, here's a practical question: did Wildstorm foot the travel bill or anything? I'd imagine that's what keeps a lot of folks from being able to this kind of thing. Although come to think of it, I think-could be wrong, it may have been Josh Neufeld- I first met Dean Haspiel when he dropped by the shop I was working at in NC and dropped off some Billy Dogma... I seem to recall he was just on a road-trip to hit shops and saying hello.

CASEY: Actually, WIZARD flew me out to Texas. And to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't have thought to go otherwise. It just wouldn't have been on my radar. The trip up to the Isotope, I paid for. Definitely worth the price of a one-way ticket.

I'm not sure if touring in such a relentless manner is the way to go. Even a band couldn't make the KISS model work today, because record companies don't encourage that kind of productivity anymore. Quite the opposite, actually. Big album releases by the bigger bands are milked for as long as possible, generally in two- or three-year cycles. And if your album doesn't sell, you generally don't get the tour support to achieve that grassroots fanbase. Bands tend to get dropped before they can make that happen.

And "kicking it Gene and Paul style"... there's no bigger KISS fan than me, but at this point, even I shudder at that prospect.

Like I said earlier, when I was younger I was relentless in my con-hopping. But I think it's smarter to plan your moves more carefully. Surgical strikes as opposed to carpet bombing, y'know...?

FRACTION: Maybe it's a point-in-our-careers difference? I'm still feeling a big 'anything I can do' vibe. Anywhere anyplace anytime and all that. I dunno.

So, to be honest, I feel like I've kinda asked all I've got to ask of you on this score; from here, I'm going to break the fourth wall, as it were, and start asking questions in full awareness that other people are reading this back and forth. Specifically, maybe a retailer that's never done an in-store.

What do you like seeing at cons and in-stores that make them worthwhile, both for you and for the con-runner or show owner? What kind of environment, atmosphere, all that noise. What makes these events work?

CASEY: Well, as James has demonstrated... these things need to go beyond the comics themselves. Comicbook stores are already a haven for this art form, a dedicated space where like-minded individuals can both gather and get their fix. Simply adding a pro to the mix isn't all that much. It's like anything else in today's world... cut through the apathy and give your customers a reason to be excited. Here in L.A., Meltdown does gallery showings of specific artists and most of the time, they're real happenings. All it takes is a little imagination, folks. Every store is different so I'd say the trick is for a retailer to look at their own store and assess what's unique about it. Whatever that uniqueness happens to be, accentuate it. Maximize it.

Where WIZARD gets it right with their cons is in the target programming. From the panels that deal with specific subject matter (like the INTIMATES panel we did on the Saturday), to the Wizard Schools, which are a great interactive experience for anyone who has an interest in doing their own comics... it feels like a convention that's specifically geared toward the comicbook fan. It was -- surprisingly -- devoid of self-consciousness, which is exactly what these things need to be. Unlike San Diego, which has become one big pose.

Here's the biggest thing that was reaffirmed for me between the Isotope and Texas... we really are our own culture. All the tail chasing we seem to do to be some more significant piece of Pop Culture seems to me to be a waste of time. Who cares if we're in USA TODAY or ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY? We don't need those things to survive. Nor do we need them for affirmation. We're already a pretty great fucking culture all our own. Okay, maybe it's a sub-culture, but what's wrong with that? Our underground status is a virtue, not a hindrance. We should be proud of our niche market status... because what I've found is that once you give yourself over to it and simply exist inside of it, the sense of connection and belonging is pretty goddamned powerful.

Just another reason to love this job, I guess. Like I needed another reason...

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