The Basement Tapes: Issue #17

Tue, November 30th, 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.

Ever get lost?

While all fiction writing might be make-believe, maybe comics are more make-believe than others. How do you stay connected to the material when you've lost your way? And is it possible to actually articulate yourself when it happens?

FRACTION: Halfway through writing JUAREZ-- not sure what issue will be out when this column appears, so I'll tread lightly-- I ran into a scene where two characters had a discussion so alien to my experiences that I ground to a halt. My editor was politely wondering where the pages were; the human dynamo that is Ben Templesmith was drawing a storm up behind me, and I couldn't make the pages go.

Paul Schrader has a great quote about film noir and this predicament made me think of it: "No character can speak authoritatively from a space which is continually being cut into ribbons of light." Schrader's talking about the audience connecting with or believing a character but the same is true about the writers making the characters speak in the first place. The time came to write a serious conversation about a kind of reality so absurd that I couldn't connect with it as a writer; I may have well been writing about kryptonite or cosmic rays. Any underpinning in the real world as I understand it was gone and I was lost. All that was left was a dull and plodding conversation that was all tell and no show, all talk and no rock.

(And, as this is a vampire comic, I understand the attendant absurdity of the above. The crazy vampire stuff, with the blood and the violence and the whatnot, isn't what I'm talking about. I can do make-believe. This was something else.)

Anyway. I just cut the conversation. Instead of writing this ludicrous scene, I got rid of it, and trusted that anyone reading the book will go on the ride and see where they end up. It's a trick, it's sleight of hand, and the argument could be made that I edited around a writing weakness-but now I think the scene works, I think the chapter works, and I think the whole book works, too.

So I realized that if two dudes talking in a car was enough to jack me up, then thank GOD I'm not writing about kryptonite and cosmic rays-- which is something that you've had to do on a regular basis. How do you keep grounded? What do you connect with when you're writing a conversation between Iron Man and Thor?

CASEY: Well, I loved those particular characters as a little kid, which can place a powerful hold on a writer's mind, even well into adulthood.

I guess I have a thing for gravitas. To give some sense of weight or importance to such fantastical characters happens to scratch a particular itch for me, somewhere deep down in my fractured psyche. It's part of why I do this shit for a living.

To explore characters by writing interactions, conversations and dialogue you couldn't imagine ever having in real life is, to me, a real perk of this job. To try and give those moments a sense of reality is really about flexing a muscle, or demonstrating a skill. Not everyone can do it. And even fewer can do it well. I wouldn't presume to rate my own attempts at that kind of writing, but I get a real kick out of trying to raise my own personal bar. I like taking this stuff seriously, taking B-movie genre stuff and writing it like it's Academy Award-winning material. Or at least trying to come up with a somewhat original take...

I mean, c'mon... in what other job do you even get to wrestle with this particular dilemma? You get to write about vampires, man! That's pretty fucking cool, no matter what approach you take...! And as far as I'm concerned, the more "ludicrous" (your word, pal), the better. Why not just straighten your face and dive right in?

FRACTION: Because I'm the one putting my name on it at the end...! I don't mean that I am so high and mighty and so very far above writing about such genre filth as vampires-I love genre filth; the trashier the better-- I jumped at the chance to write JUAREZ. That's not the issue at all.

What tripped me up was finding the shadow between the truth of the story and the truth of the character. What I should have asked was, "How do you convincingly write a conversation about kryptonite?" and not that kryptonite isn't worth writing about. What jacked me up was the flat exposition I crapped out.

It wasn't writing. It was Explaining.

Rucka was on Fanboy Radio a while back for Superman-- to stick with the Kryptonite thing for a bit-- and said (paraphrasing here) that Superman isn't invulnerable, because you can break his heart; that was his way into the character. Or I think back to some of the things I remember Mark Waid saying about The Flash -- as definitive a run on an icon as I can think of in recent history-- about how he was connecting with the story of a guy that could race a beam of light but wasn't quite sure how to make things work with his girlfriend or whatever.

That's what I'm getting at. I lost my way and it was during a scene in which two guys were sitting in a truck having a conversation, and as I wasn't grounded to that fairly unremarkable scenario, what the fuck would I have done if Superman was racing to stop Braniac from firing a bullet made of kryptonite at his head? In space?

CASEY: C'mon, you know a lot of these stories deal in metaphors, right? A kryptonite bullet is never just a kryptonite bullet. In a way, you're never really Explaining. Especially when that kind of exposition might actually be necessary for greater reader comprehension, to find the subtext in those conversations can be really fun as a writer. It's human nature to talk about something... and yet the real meat of the discussion -- what you're really talking about -- is occurring underneath the actual spoken word.

Jesus Christ. I'm being really fucking pretentious right now, aren't I...?

FRACTION: I can actually feel myself disappearing up my own ass right now.

Either we come from two entirely different places on this shit, or we're saying the same thing and I'm too dumb to see it. Subtext, yeah yeah, sure sure. I don't think that's really what I'm failing to actually get at-- it's not just how do you avoid falling into pure exposition when you're totally without a tether to reality? Ahh, Christ. Next week, let's talk about if Thor can beat up Captain Marvel.

Here, then: Hey, Joe, do you ever feel disconnected when you either write about fantastic characters like Superman and Zealot or some of the fantastic situations they find themselves in? Have you ever known that, say, you've got to write a scene in which Superman will cross paths with a great big kryptonite bullet and wondered what the FUCK you had to actually say about something like that?

Because sometimes I do. So I write about why the bullet's being shot or who's shooting it or what happens after the smoke clears and it becomes obvious that someone's shot a bullet. I choose to edit the actual shooting right out of what I'm putting on the page. It's the old thing about writing where we show up five minutes late and leave five minutes early. Sergio Leone's films are full of the kind of writing and cutting, where you're almost always convinced you missed a scene, a line, or a plot point because suddenly everything's upside down.

CASEY: There's definitely something interesting about the approach you're suggesting. A deliberate omission of events can obviously have a certain effect on the reader. At that point, it all comes down to the skill of the writer to pull it off and still tell the story they want to tell.

For me, if I do feel that disconnect you're asking about, then I guess I'm not doing my job as well as I should be. A writer's job is to communicate through whatever medium of choice he (or she) is working in. If I'm somehow disconnected from the material, then there's no way in hell I'm going to be able to communicate anything except my own ignorance. In this case, if I'm writing superheroes, I have to find the universality of the situation, no matter how outlandish it may be. It could be emotional, it could be intellectual, it could be situational... but it's got to be there. And those metaphors aren't all that difficult to find. The Kryptonite bullet is that one, laser-precise insecurity that we all have, the one we pray no one ever discovers, because they could slay us with it. Now, that's only one way to interpret it, but it works.

FRACTION: You do this thing a lot, too, where it's time for a fight-- or it's when the supah-hero formula dictates it's time for a fight-- and you write, like, a talk scene or anything other than four-color fisticuffs. Which never failed to amuse me as a reader or as a writer.

So I was just thinking about that and, whether I connect to the situation or not, a big Superman fight scene might be one of those opportunities to push the visual side of the medium to its far ends, and see what you find. Maybe that's the connect-- digging into the pure craft of it. Then again, if I had to write three or four an issue for three years, I'm certain I'd be crawling up the walls to subvert the paradigm any way I could. You ever get that kind of fatigue?

CASEY: Well, a few years ago I made a conceptual connection that's helped me ever since. In comicbooks, the Fight Scene is basically the Sex Scene in movies. Sometimes you hint at the sex (the proverbial "morning after" scene), sometimes you avoid it entirely (like in a G-rated movie), and sometimes you show everything (like in a porn flick). Same thing with the Fight Scene. The story itself demands either its inclusion or exclusion. To me, that's not falling into formula... that's just staying true to the material, whatever it may be and whatever it happens to demand of you.

I've done entire issues of action and I didn't feel like I was catering to any preconceived notions of what superhero comics "should" do. It felt right at the time, so I just went for it. WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 #19 -- drawn by Pascal Ferry -- is a perfect example. I wanted that relentless feel... where the action doesn't let up. I wouldn't do that every month, but it did remind me that good action scenes provide a visceral gut punch that can often help sell the overall emotion of your story. So, that's another aspect to consider in these situations... what is your desired effect and can an action sequence help you achieve it? Or would it somehow hinder your desired effect? You know as well as I do, writing any kind of fiction generally involves a thousand judgment calls, one after another...

FRACTION: Yes. And I am almost always wrong.

CASEY: Maybe, but you still look good, brutha.

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