The Basement Tapes: Issue #19

Tue, December 14th, 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.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… children flocked to their local drug store, dry humped the spinner racks and returned to their bedrooms with comicbooks chock full of good, old fashioned fun. That's right. F. U. N. That elusive element that made us all fall in love with comics way before we really knew how special they were, how influential they could be or the artistic heights they could achieve. That first, innocent taste of adrenaline, that mad rush of something unnamable, but so goddamned appealing… can we ever get that back? Is the current readership demographic even capable of experiencing it like we used to when we were kids? Bring it on…

CASEY: So, I've been reading a pair of recently acquired TPB's... X-MEN VISIONARIES: JIM LEE and X-MEN: MUTANT GENESIS, the two collections that make up the bulk of Jim's work on the X-Men. I'd bought some of these in single issues when they were new, back in '90 and '91, but I didn't really dig 'em. Guess I was in more of an Alan Moore, Peter Bagge-kinda mood at the time.

But, with the passage of time, age and maybe a hint of wisdom (choke!), I get a real kick out of going back and looking at some of this stuff. It's really the last time that superhero comicbooks -- the actual comics themselves -- had a shot at being a mass medium. At least, the perception was there. I guess it was the moment right before everyone realized that it was an artificial boom. Back when people still believed in the stories they were reading.

And Jim's X-MEN work has a real energy to it. It's gloriously fucking chaotic. As stories, they barely make sense, but they make just enough sense to give me that unique kind of four-color jolt. And, most importantly, to my jaded eyes, these comics are almost completely devoid of any self-consciousness.

In my admittedly dopey opinion, it's a big difference from the superhero comicbooks we're buying and reading today. Sure, the new releases we pick up every Wednesday are certainly more coherent reads (aside from the occasional misguided "event" comic... which still leaves me scratching my head when they sell in big numbers), but at the same time, we're as much of a niche market as we've ever been. I'm not saying that we need to be selling in the millions. Regular eavesdroppers of this column know me better than that. But I'm talking about the content here...

I've seen some random discussions pop up on the Net in the past few weeks that seem to be struggling with this issue, looking at old comics and either marveling at their sheer audacity (and I mean that in a good way) and wondering exactly why modern comicbooks are so... different. It's not a question of nostalgia. As I said, it's a question of self-consciousness.

Are modern superhero comicbooks simply too self-conscious to be the kind of fun they should be? Or is it the reading audience (with seems to consist primarily of guys in their late 20's/early 30's) that's become too self-conscious? Is the median age of "mainstream" superhero comicbook readers too old to enjoy the books on a simple, visceral level... and thus creators are giving them books that are designed to be self-conscious, just to connect with any audience at all? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg…?

Okay, lemme take a breath here... you rant now...

FRACTION: Lessee. '90-'91, that was around the time I was checking out of the X-world. 15, 16 years old and- right on time- girls and rawk and all that noise were cooler than comics, unless they were cool comics, which that meant they weren't X books.

Don't fuck with my stone cold teenage logic.

You know that what you're really talking about is the last days of the Art Superstars-- the Image guys were becoming, you know, THE IMAGE GUYS. Art-driven books were all the rage. I remember feeling more and more ripped off as the trend continued, honestly. Everything was getting incoherent and everyone's faces had way too many scrunchy, yelly lines. When I look back, I'm sort of depressed by that whole era of books-- the writing is so tired and the art is so out of control big and… comicbooky... it's all such a fuckin' mess.

I don't think being self-conscious is the issue; I think that, right now, superhero comics are too calculated and forced to actually think about what they're doing. A couple years back there was fun all over-- Morrison's "JLA" begetting Ellis' "Authority," Waid's run on "Flash" wrapping up fantastically and Busiek and Anderson tapping straight into Julie Schwartz's heart and soul... I think all of those books were unashamedly great superhero comics, unapologetic and sincere. Obviously the people making them knew what they were doing, but that nod-and-a-wink wasn't on the page. So I don't think it can't be done, just that the zeitgeist right now is going in another direction.

I think in trying to catch up with Hollywood, a lot mainstream comics have sunk into a kind of real-world muck.

CASEY: Well, on the art side of the early 90's -- if you're talking about the Not-Jim's and Not-Todd's of the era -- I totally agree. That shit did get tedious really quick. But, take a step back from the tone of the times and consider... was that art any better or worse than the typical Marvel or DC artist -- the Not-Byrne's and the Not-Perez's -- from the mid- to late-Seventies? Every era of comics has its share of cream, its share of "mid-rangers" and its healthy share of crap.

But, if you're saying that modern superhero comicbooks are "too calculated and forced to actually think about what they're doing," isn't that the very definition of self-consciousness? I think at least two of the examples you site (and probably the best ones of that mid-90's era) -- Morrison's JLA and Waid's FLASH -- were written for an ideal target audience that simply didn't exist at that point: kids. When you're writing for kids, beyond the standards and practices issues, you're generally writing purely to entertain. Never mind whether or not the kids are there to write for (which, for Grant and Mark, they really weren't… even though I enjoyed the hell out of them, too).

When your target audience is thirty years old, I think writers have a different task than to merely entertain. This is an audience that, by age alone, are more prone to be cynical. This is not a condemnation, it's merely a fact. Nostalgia is too easily recognized, so the only other option to engage them with these old superheroes is to surrender to the climate, write self-consciously and hope that the readers are "in on the joke", so to speak.

Look, when Warren Ellis relaunches IRON MAN, he's gotta' be hoping that the majority of the readers of that book will join him in ignoring much of the previous continuity and embrace this semi-new beginning. But we all know that's not possible. Just about everyone reading Warren's IRON MAN are at least familiar with the basic conceits of character, if they haven't read any earlier issues. Certainly they're aware that there is, in fact, forty years of continuity that Warren is basically ignoring. So, if that's not a self-conscious act on the part of both creator and reader, I don't know what is. And, as entertaining as Warren's IRON MAN might be... are we making progress here? That's kinda' what I'm asking, I guess...

FRACTION: See, though, it's a words-and-pictures scene, baby, and you gotta have balance, you gotta have one side of the equation that can step up and equal the other. How many beautifully written but awfully drawn-- or beautifully drawn but awfully written-- books have you seen? Whether it's the Jims and Todds or the Not-Jims and Not-Todds-- the words and the pictures need parity and for my money and they just didn't back then.

I realize that by possibly maligning the David Micheline/Todd McFarlane run of "Amazing Spider-Man" that you may, in fact, demand satisfaction.

I think I define "self-conscious" differently than you. Self-conscious, to me, means a kind of awareness that reads as ironic, manipulative, and superior-- not 'superior' as a qualification, but as a mark of… I dunno, smug contempt. Which to me means something different than being calculated and forced. Some books today repulse me because they're exercises in pandering and target demographics, not self-loathing. Eh. Some of 'em are and some aren't, I guess.

Either way, Morrison's "JLA" and Waid's "Flash" were neither. They were books for their own sakes; they were reveling in what makes the characters, the genre, and the format work. And, when you're talking about superheroes, that kind of thing appeals to a big swathe of people. Having fun with superheroes is one thing; having fun with the audience for liking superheroes is something else.

I agree with you, though, that there aren't the kids around to read 'em, and I don't see the point in writing for committee. And I don't see the virtue in mocking your audience and subject matter. I'd rather see sincerity-- or competence masquerading as sincerity. I think a lot of stuff out there now is kind of, y'know, Above It All.

CASEY: I'd never accuse any modern writer I could name off the top of my head as even considering their work as mocking their readership or the subject matter. Not at all. I think, for the most part, we're writing for ourselves... and there's an inherent danger there when it comes to simply relating to a readership that's not us. In a market as narrow and unstable as ours can be (and I'm talking the Direct Market "mainstream" superhero market here), the only reader you can rely on is almost always your own damn self. I wouldn't think of writing something I didn't think was cool to begin with. That may be a flaw of mine, but at the end of the day, I've got to hang on to what I've got.

And when it comes to these multi-generational superheroes, all I can do is play it completely straight and hope that readers respond to that. In my case, I try not to question why they respond (on the occasions that they do, in fact, respond). Again, I don't necessarily think I'm pushing the medium forward in those instances. "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" is not even in the same building as the deconstructionist superhero works I read as a teenager. And it doesn't aspire to be. In that way, I'm purposefully trying to push self-consciousness to the side. It's not that easy these days, since I'm old enough now that "awareness and irony" is simply a part of my psyche (for better or worse). Eight years ago, when I wrote "Cable," I took that shit so seriously. Being "clever" was the furthest thing from my mind. I was too busy just trying to be competent.

So you might have already answered this... but I'll pose it to you again: Are any superhero comics fun anymore? And I mean fun in a truly -- to use your word -- sincere way? In an unqualified way? Or has the worm turned too far, and neither the creators nor the readers are capable of either a) creating it or b) recognizing and supporting it? Is the innocence finally gone?

FRACTION: Lately, I dunno. There's a lot I'm not reading, so I might be missing something. I thought "New Frontier" was great, except that it was so Not Fun that it kinda strangled the point of those characters. Beautiful to look at, though, and when it worked it was great but... ooph, yeah, too serious. I appear to be in the minority there, however. Morrison coming back to "JLA" and the DCU holds some kind of promise, but I'm afraid that he'll just be read by the same people that read his "JLA" run back in the day. Fingers crossed, I guess.

"Ultimate Spider-Man" for a good long while had that kind of manic whimsy that was truer to the character than any other run in recent memory. Aside from the whole, uh, meganerdic origins of the Ultimate line, Bendis really understands why people love the character.

I liked Warren's "Iron Man" and Ed's "Captain America," but neither of those were what I'd call innocent fun.

Um.

I'm kinda striking out here, aren't I?

Maybe it's a fallow period. Maybe people were asking themselves the same question in 1989?

CASEY: Y'know, that's a good fucking point right there. Of course, I was still a teenager in 1989 and I thought "Arkham Asylum" was fun.

We may not even be the best judges of this anyway. I read "JLA: Classified" #1 and got a big kick out of it. It was fun... but was it genuine fun or was it just fun for me to try and see the strings of Grant's story construction? And I don't read much "Spider-Man" of any kind because I just don't expect it to ever be more fun than the Lee-Ditko-Romita stuff (which I only read in reprints as a kid, anyway).

So, then the flipside of this whole issue is... can we, as creators, provide some kind of fun for the readership that does exist even if we're not experiencing it ourselves as readers...? Can we be genuine and sincere in our work… even if it's not a demand being made of us by that readership?

FRACTION: Heh. I remember the look of vague concern and horror on my dad's face when I tried to explain to him why it was cool that Batman was sticking a piece of glass into his hand...

Weird times, I guess. Bad times, scary times, whatever. I don't doubt that the pendulum will swing back. Me, personally, I don't know that I was ever going to be Mr. Big Time Fun Guy, you know? Besides, I still feel like I don't quite know what I'm doing, where's I'm going, or how I'm going to get there. So, personally, I have no idea.

Me-as-extension-of-the-royal-we? Sure.

You absolutely can create something infused with the... spirit?... that's not happening anywhere else but you can't fake it. I tend to think the best stuff happens in response to the worst stuff happening. It's a continuous game of call and response. Fifteen years ago, what were the two biggest ripples in the pond? Todd McFarlane and Dave McKean. I mean, think about that for a second.

It occurs to me that-- and agree or disagree with me as you will-- maybe people aren't writing down to their audience after all. Maybe it's the best they can do.

What a horrible thought that is.

CASEY: I think I'm more in line with your implication that we are, in fact, about to experience some new pendulum shift... that we're about to enter some new phase of how we perceive the mainstream comicbook idiom. That the response to whatever antipathy or bad vibes -- the wife rapings, the event killings, the New Coke mentalities -- that might exist right now will be strong enough to shake the foundations to such a degree that gives us all some newfound hope about what we do. It's certainly been awhile since we've had one of those, huh...?

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