The Basement Tapes

Tue, December 7th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

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.

Whatever happened to short stories? It seems any publisher with a gleam in its eye and a few extra bucks in its pocket have learned the hard and harsh lesson that the Direct Market hates anthology books. So much seminal work in the field has been done in the short form that it's actually counterintuitive to think there's no successful anthology series going right now. Why? Is it the form, the format, or maybe just the quality?

FRACTION: I love short stories. In comics, or in the modern marketplace, they seem to be poison. The quarter bins are littered with the corpses of anthologies, from Dark Horse Presents to Oni Double Feature to Negative Burn to any one of a dozen Vertigo books.

There's something about the short story that's innate to comics' identity and there's much to be said for the short form and what you can do with it: the over-committed can usually find the time to crank something out and the under-exposed get the shot to cut their teeth a little and be buttressed by the presence of other creators; readers can get several stories instead of just one; most of all, as much as the Graphic Novel is its own thing, so's the comic short. From the Golden Age to EC until what can safely be called the modern era, the short story and comics have gone hand-in-hand. Except for, like, right now, when the short is about as successful as a narc at a biker rally.

So. Let us now praise the eight-page short. Go.

CASEY: Seeing as though we're both contributing 8-pagers to the FOUR-LETTER WORLDS GN, I can definitely say from my end that there is something satisfying about a complete eight-page story that hits all its marks and delivers as much of an experience as a full comic or even an OGN.

There was a time when the short story was the method of breaking in writers. Back-up stories were training grounds at DC for years. And more than one British writer cut their teeth on the demanding twist-ending FUTURE SHOCKS of 2000AD. After doing those for years, I'm sure coming to America and the full-length, full-color comicbook must've seemed like a luxury.

I think anthologies are tricky, because it's tough to build a brand solely on an umbrella concept. DARK HORSE PRESENTS is a perfect example. There's no real brand identity there, except for the publisher involved. I don't think that's enough in today's market. Hell, Larry and I tried it with DOUBLE IMAGE back in 2001... and even though it launched at a respectable 16,000 copies (numbers that, as the old saying goes, most Image books would kill for now), we still couldn't get over that hump of selling the book on its own merits as an anthology.

FRACTION: I know some folks cooking up a romance antho and it got me thinking on the way into work the other day. One of my favorite, favorite, favorite shorts of all time is a HELLBLAZER short by the Paul Jenkins and Pope in VERTIGO: WINTER'S EDGE, dated 1998 and called Tell Me. It's this haunting and bittersweet love story that's executed so beautifully well that every time I read it-- and I read it every few months, honestly-- I wonder why there's not an audience for work like that-or why there's not a market for work like that.

I think it whenever I read Rucka and Burchett's This Gun for Hire story in WEIRD WESTERN TALES #1. Or Al Columbia's Blood-Clot Boy in ZERO ZERO #16, or the Moore/Veitch Greyshirt story in TOMORROW STORIES #2. Or any of Eddie Campbell's work or Dan Clowes' earlier stuff or Los. Bros. Hernandez who are masters of the hanging curveball short. The most obvious answer is that one in a hundred stories are stories 'like that,' I guess. To carry on the branding issue: it's hard to execute a brand whose umbrella concept is "quality."

Where did it go wrong? Even books like SHOWCASE or MARVEL FANFARE had a certain sense of anthology about them, an ever-rotating cast and creator lineup; they were hallmarks of the lines for a while and now they're dead as doornails. I wonder if ACTION COMICS WEEKLY killed the anthology for the mainstream or something.

CASEY: Heh... ACTION COMICS WEEKLY. I remember that. Pasko's BLACKHAWK. Baron's DEADMAN.

Maybe the reality of ongoing anthologies is that there's not enough creative talent out there to make it a worthwhile, continued purchase for people. You know the score... for every great short in an anthology, there are tons of crappy ones. Keeping the quality level high is a big deal on normal, monthly comics. Keeping it up on an anthology is ten times more difficult. Yeah, I know it's not rocket science... but I suppose I can sympathize with any overworked editor that can barely keep a single creative team on point. The prospect of keeping several creative teams doing great work, month-in, month-out would send some guys out onto the ledge...!

What went wrong is generally what happens when anything goes wrong. Plain and simple apathy.

FRACTION: I think lack of quality certainly begets apathy, sure. I've noticed that some of the better anthologies lately have all been one-shot OGN-style deals, from 4LW to Dark Horse's HAPPY ENDINGS book, or ROSETTA or TOP SHELF ASKS THE BIG QUESTIONS... lately there's been a lot of quality work in big books like that, I've found.

Do you like writing in the short form?

CASEY: I do like it, when I actually have something worth saying. The "Autopilot" story I did with Sean Phillips in Dark Horse's REVEAL and the 4LW story with Mike Huddleston worked really well and were really creatively satisfying. I agree, the anthology's most assured future is the one-stop spot.

Although, I must admit... I've always wanted to do a short for 2000AD, just to say that I did it and that I could pull off the twist ending.

Now, do you consider the JUAREZ serial as writing for the short form at all, at least in the way you're breaking it up every 12 pages...?

FRACTION: Well, they're not quite self-contained stories-- stuff definitely happens but it's not a closed system between pages 1 and 12. As I get to the end, I see the craft of compression and editing more at play than anything else. They're deliberately episodic but not individual.

Does that make sense? I always admired what some of the 2000 AD writers were able to do with ongoing shorts; you got a scene or three that forced things forward but at the same time were satisfying enough as a component of a serial that you never felt ripped off. Impatient, perhaps, but not ripped off.

Between Image doing the gorgeous FLIGHT book this summer and now FOUR LETTER WORLDS, I wonder if, as a publisher, they're going to try and make anthology books like this a going concern again. I'd love to see Image do a quarterly shorts antho as seriously beautiful as FLIGHT.

Which really is just a lead-in to the inevitable wrap-up to this one: are anthologies and, more to the point, the short story, doomed?

CASEY: Nahhh... I think the very existence of the two Image anthologies are proof that these things do have their place in the wider comicbook landscape. Granted, not a huge place... but they don't have to, do they? As long as they exist at all, the format will survive. It's that whole, "where there's a will, there's a way"-mentality that occasionally bubbles up from the collective unconscious of a creator or an editor or a publisher that knows their merit. In other words, some poor soul will always be crazy enough to attempt an anthology.

Was that actually a bit of optimism I just brought forth from my blackened soul? U-decide.

Heh... that joke will never get old...

FRACTION: I-decided I'm gonna hang myself. Ha ha. No.

It's easy, I think, to lose sight of the short story in the shadow of the graphic novel's ascent. Longer is better and bigger and more grown up and accomplished now. If, say, Krigstein's Master Race came out tomorrow in Vertigo's Creepy Subway Tales of Vengeance, would anyone even notice? So much of comics' identity and soul were born in short stories, so much brilliant and idiom-defining work has happened in six, eight, twelve page pops- god help me, I share your optimism. It's too fucking important to die.

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