The Basement Tapes: Issue #20

Tue, December 21st, 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.

Il est Semaine De l'Europe ici aux Bandes de Sous-Sol! Matt et Joe parlez quels magasins comiques le lool aiment en Europe, et de comment les Franais ont la bonne ide sapristi. Ainsi : que faisons-nous bien, et comment pouvons-nous ce succs tre accrs dans faire un plus grand, meilleur march ? Lu dessus, fils de putain.

CASEY: Last year, DC released a two-issue, prestige format mini-series that I'd written called BATMAN: TENSES. It was moderately successful. Orders were decent, and at that price point, it certainly didn't lose money. In fact, last I heard, it was sold out at DC, so you can't even get it anymore (collector's item!). It came out at the tail end of HUSH so it was barely a blip on the comicbook cultural radar. And I can pretty much guarantee that DC has absolutely no plans to collect the entire thing into one 128-page package. Hey, them's the breaks.

So a few days ago... I was sitting here at the homestead, about to dive into writing the next issue of Take-Your-Pick and there's a knock at the door. A FedEx delivery from DC Comics. I tear open the package and what do I find...? The German edition of BATMAN: TENSES (which, I quickly learned, they translated into BATMAN: IMPERFEKT. Go figure.). Now, DC sends me international editions of my work every so often... but this one had me stumped, for several reasons.

Y'see... I wasn't sent two prestige issues translated into German. I was sent a trade paperback collection! Oh, and did I mention they also sent me a fucking hardcover edition, too, with a dust jacket and everything?! So, I'm thinking to myself, "How is it that in America, Batman's home country (!), they can't make a TPB happen... but in Germany, they can have not only a TPB but a great-looking, high quality hardcover?!"

So, I'm asking you -- as an objective observer -- to explain (or at least muse on) the possibly dubious economics involved here. Surely, American superhero comics aren't more widely sold in Germany (or any other German-speaking region) than they are here in America...! So how is it that Panini (the European publisher that has the DC license) can afford to put out these things? Don't get me wrong... God bless Panini, but what the hell is going on here?!

Feel free to be as sarcastic as I'm being...

FRACTION: I don't even HAVE to be sarcastic-- I can answer it straight.

That's how it's done in Europe. France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain-- comics are supposed to be big, beautiful books. When I was in France, I thought I'd have to dig to find comic shops, B-D shops or whatever, but-- no, they're just kinda all over, stacked like real bookstores with volume after volume of hardcover comics.

My friend Alex is from Holland. When he found out I wrote comics, he got very excited and very confused. Certainly, he thought, a comic writer doesn't need a day-job, right? He didn't understand why I wasn't both rich and famous. And, you know, look at it from his point of view-- Moebius awarded the L'actualite des Prix and feted like a national hero; Herge honored in ways we save for Presidents and actors or both... we bust each other's balls about this comics rock star shit but, man, over there it's a real thing, you know?

What's more, he didn't understand why someone would spend 3 dollars on a flimsy old comic without a cover or a whole story inside-- when, in Holland, for 15 dollars or whatever he could get a whole graphic novel on big, bright pages between solid covers. That's the way business gets done.

So, dude-- you're HUGE in Europe.

CASEY: Gimme a minute... while I wipe away the tears...

I get the Moebius idolatry and Herge's revered status. Makes perfect sense. They're homeboys. But to put the effort into presenting American-bred work with more respect and care than we do over here... well, that fucking blows me away.

So, what does this say about us? What is it about our culture that, in some sense, "anti-promotes" this medium and its presentation to the point where a German hardcover of a piece of my work -- that isn't even available in America anymore -- is just the Way Things Are? First of all, is there some difference in paper price between here and Europe that I'm blissfully unaware of?

FRACTION: Well, the dollar is pretty weak right now but to my recollection the price points are near comparable.

And I have no idea what went wrong over here. Going to Europe was like actually visiting Bizarro World-- Me am crazy legitimate medium for thoughtful expression on human condition! Me am also affordable! In Japan, Tezuka began making work for more than kids way early. I dunno so much about Europe, other than Tintin was never just for kids. Maybe over here, the most adult work we got out of the early days was the EC books and they were choked in the crib. Then the Batman TV show made comics and camp synonymous and a million lazy journalists go out of their way to remind us of it...

...Then again, you know, 90% of everything hasn't exactly been written for adults, you know?

CASEY: Sure, sure... but doesn't it feel like there's some subjective decision-making going on with the mainstream publishers? And at DC especially. I love those guys over there, but I'll at least hand it to Marvel in this respect: They'll put just about anything out in trade, whether it's a Direct Market blockbuster or not. The fact that a book like SHE-HULK -- a great title written by Dan Slott that's way smarter than the subject matter would suggest -- just got a trade collection when the monthly isn't selling as well as anyone wants. If the retail booksellers keep up their end of the bargain, that means that a good book (in a collected edition) might break out of the Direct Market ghetto -- an environment where it might be more likely to fail -- and find a wider audience out there in the "real world". In theory, anyway...

Ahhh, shit... maybe I'm just more bitter about the second year of WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 or AUTOMATIC KAFKA never getting traded than I thought I was...

And, c'mon, not to derail the topic too much, but if something is considered "mainstream", doesn't that kinda' suggest that it's work that can work on multiple levels, for kids and adults? It's a philosophy that does seem to work quite well over in Japan...

FRACTION: Marvel's trade program is nuts... I can't believe how fast they're turning stuff around nowadays. DC seems to just move so freakin' slowly on this front. Either they're rushing out BATMAN crossover collections-- unless, apparently, GOTHAM CENTRAL has anything to do with it, Eisner award be damned-- or it's fifteen years later and they've finally traded a new volume of DOOM PATROL. Shit, it took the HELLBLAZER movie to get some of the early John Constantine stories reprinted...!

Ahem.

Theoretically, you're right about the "mainstream," but this is comics we're talking about so up is down and dogs is cats and shit's all sideways and stuff. The mainstream means 30-year old dudes who've been reading these things for as long as they've been reading and, the market trend shows, want the third verse same as the first. The (American) comics mainstream, which I think I love and hate with equal measure sometimes, never fails to disappoint by pandering to its ever-dwindling base of superhero fanatics.

It's Dave Sim's old metaphor about a bookstore with nothing but nurse novels-- which the mainstream apologists always love to hang you by as someone that hates superhero comics-- or whomever's "multiplex-showing-nothing-but-Westerns" metaphor. Here's what the apologists have never understood: even if that multiplex is showing SHANE, THE WILD BUNCH, UNFORGIVEN, RIO BRAVO, THE SEARCHERS, EL DORADO, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, and, uh, WEST SIDE STORY, it's STILL SHOWING NINE WESTERNS AND ONE MUSICAL. Doesn't matter that they're the nine best westerns ever made. It's a 9-to-1 ratio, and that micro-focus retards growth.

In Europe, or Japan, or really anywhere else, it's a different scene entirely. If you're a kid or a grownup and you want to read a comic you can read one in any genre or classification you want. Be that Batman or Bilal, Tezuka or Tintin or the Teen Titans.

CASEY: Yeah, I don't know what came over me...

I suppose it is that confusion of marketing. You bring up GOTHAM CENTRAL. In the Direct Market, I suppose the smart thing to do is market it as a BATMAN spinoff. Get those superhero readers onboard. But, in the rest of the world, market it as a procedural drama not unlike nighttime TV shows like NYPD or CSI: WHEREVER. Get the non-superhero readers -- hell, the non-comicbook readers -- onboard. But never the twain shall meet, and you're cutting your available, promotional muscle in half. And if one market gets a whiff of how it's being sold in the other market, does confusion reign? Is the ability to sell it that much more difficult?

And I like the fact that your Western movie analogy name checks WEST SIDE STORY. After all, the apologists would say, it's got the word "West" in the title...! If that's not indicative of the current comics market, I don't know what is...

FRACTION: Yeah-- isn't that just like comics? "Well, it's not really a western, but it has 'west' in the title so even though it's a musical it's a little like the others, we put it in there hoping to grab some attention and help build an audienceā€¦"

Maybe I should've gone for OKLAHOMA.

You know that Lee Van Cleef was, like, huge in Italy? Over here he was just a craggy-faced character actor with great hats, but over there he was a marquee superstar. I knew a guy that had a HIGH NOON poster from Italy and, were you to go by what it told you, HIGH NOON starred Lee Van Cleef and Grace Kelly, and some guy named Gary Cooper had a supporting roll somewhere in there. Target marketing, baby.

I think only in comics could target marketing cause confusion. It's not like black people see McDonalds commercials and stop going because it's White People Food. Or women stop drinking Dr. Pepper because there was a commercial with all dudes in it.

But the DM is as the DM does, I guess, and if someone doesn't know if they should market GOTHAM CENTRAL as a BATMAN book or a cop book, well, we get what we deserve.

I wonder what it would take to get Barnes & Noble or Borders to stop putting all the comics in one place. I saw a copy of THE BRADLEYS right next to THE COMPLETE BONE the other day. Somebody's mom is gonna shit.

CASEY: Well, that's a whole different discussion, isn't it...? And you thought we might run out of things to talk about...!

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