The Basement Tapes: Issue #21

Tue, January 4th, 2005 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.

Sweet fucking Christ, it's 2005. Now that all the "Best Of 2004" lists have stopped cluttering up our collective consciousness, we can get back to the business of bitching and moaning, right? We can get back to true freedom of expression. We can get back to the Basement… and Tape is rolling…

CASEY: New year, new set of gripes. It's the cycle of life, isn't it? Luckily, we've got our own little soapbox to scream from, eh? Makes you proud to be an American.

Which brings me to the subject for this week's scrutiny, one that I suspect might be as American as apple pie and rigged elections. A little thing called Spin Control. For the uninformed (and, really, exactly who would that be these days?), Spin Control is the subtle art of putting a happy face onto something potentially negative or damaging. Politicians excel at this kind of behavior. Our latest heartbreak of a Presidential election (I say, "heartbreak," depending on what color state you live in) was rife with Spin Control on both sides, the most heinous being Bush's post-victory declaration that he is now carrying out "America's mandate." Excuse me while I shudder…

The fact is, Spin Control works. People are willing to believe what they're told by anyone with a platform or a microphone. Whether or not we're too trusting is not the point. Trust is a good thing. Abusing that trust... well, I don't think that rates too high on the "good" meter.

So what the fuck does this have to do with comicbooks? A lot, actually. Today's comicbook culture -- at least in the so-called "mainstream" that currently occupies most of my business day - has become all about Spin Control. When you print to order (or damn near to it) and then crow about "selling out"... well, that's fucking Spin Control. And if that generates artificial heat for a "sold out" issue and influences both retailers and -- by extension -- readers into becoming interested in said series... well, what's the harm in that?

Except we've all heard the story about the boy who cried wolf, haven't we...?

You've seen your fair share of examples of this, haven't you...?

FRACTION: This is such a slippery slope to tread, you know? You can't assault the more farcical aspects of comics "journalism" without nine kinds of hell coming down on you, it seems. Oh well. Not like knowing I was about to do something stupid ever stopped me from actually doing it.

Here's how I feel about it-- these poor bastards gotta talk about something. I guess comics news sites need hits and ad revenue to stay, er, open, so they'll take what they're given and they'll like it through gritted teeth. I mean, what choice do they have? The publishers have the run of the table and get to generate whatever phony little news cycles they want. The publishers are, you know, a business and they're gonna generate PR accordingly.

…Has anyone wondered out loud about the Big Two's relationship with Wizard? That's kinda fascinating-"news" breaking against the Wizard Embargo, I mean…

I'm more fascinated by individual creators playing the spin game. When creators cross that line and become active in their own press is when it all gets embarrassingly interesting.

CASEY: Yeah, that's what I was getting at. Web sites are too hungry for content to call bullshit most of the time, so I give them a pass for that. Because, at the end of the day, I think that individuals take advantage of that endless hunger to put out their version of How Things Are.

I've heard of publishers bringing down the hammer on talent that speaks out of turn, but those instances are so few and far between. And I wouldn't necessarily think that publishers are in the business of censoring their talent. They shouldn't really have to. These are adults we're referring to... right...?

Well, maybe that's the problem in our particular field. We deal in primarily adolescent imperatives. Rarely do folks discover comicbooks as a full-blown adult and then pursue a career creating them. It's the dreams we had as children that drive us to this business. Part of me knows how fucking great that is, but in areas like this, the downside becomes painfully and -- as you put it - "embarrassingly interesting".

Just to get us rolling here, what's the best bit of spin control you've seen in the past year or so? Even in vague terms...

FRACTION: What, are you trying to get me in trouble?

While I can't say it was necessarily the best bit of spin control, I thought the Millar/WANTED/Eminem thing was certainly the purest blast of PR entertainment last year. And I don't even understand exactly what did or didn't happen-- that's how you know it was good spin.

Bill Jemas' lateral transfer out the Marvel door could've turned into one of those ugly Marvel Nights of the Long Knives kind of deals, but I thought his departure was handled with a graceful kind of spin that was lacking during his time at the top of the dog-pile. As controversial a guy as he was, his departure could've exploded into a big mess, you know?

You?

CASEY: Well, I don't want to point fingers either, but the odd mantra, "Read it again knowing what you know about Wanda" springs to mind. I really liked that one. It's like a fucking Jedi Mind Trick.

I think a spin tactic that's more common than most people would realize is when creators try to convince readers that they know exactly what they're doing, in terms of a particular story or even an ending to a particular story. In mainstream comicbooks especially, folks are flying by the seat of their pants so to expect anyone to have things completely thought out is just a recipe for disappointment. There are far too many factors conspiring against you to really present a clear and coherent story within the parameters of a shared universe. If and when it actually happens, I chalk it up to pure luck.

And for once, anyone who publicly swears off of writing or drawing superhero comicbooks -- for whatever reason -- and then a few years later comes back to working on them in a big way should simply come right out and say the real reason why: money. For Christ's sake, this is America (and, when it comes to outside America, extensions of our capitalist imperialism). You can do something purely for the money, if you so choose. Doesn't mean it's not devoid of artistic merit, it simply acknowledges that you have to pay the bills, too.

But where do you think the compulsion to spin comes from? Are we so desperate to be liked - or so fearful of being disliked -- that we can't show even a trace of weakness, misjudgment or just plain wrong-headedness? Is it a crime against nature when your book doesn't sell huge numbers or when you go back on some ridiculous public statement you made years ago...? What's funny about that to me is that, in normal sociological paradigms, the more "perfect" you are, the more hated you are...

FRACTION: Yeah, but would you want to read Joe Blow's run on PRINT-TO-ORDER MAN'S ADVENTURES IN THE NEW MAINSTREAM if he was interviewed in WIZARD declaring that he was only writing it for the cash? "I fell behind in my mortgage payments, and the first thing I thought of was that I could jam out a handful of PRINT-TO-ORDER MAN stories, cash the checks, and get my credit rating back up by Christmas. You heard it here first, True Believers!"

I mean, I know that the PRINT-TO-ORDER MAN money isn't anything to scoff at, but I sure don't want to know with how much relish Joe Blow cashes the checks every month. I could appreciate the honesty, probably, but I wouldn't want to find out what an emergency mortgage payment reads like.

Honestly, I always thought that half of spin comes from career maintenance, you know? Not wanting to burn any bridges or anything like that. This is a business where dudes know how to hold a grudge.

CASEY: True dat, my friend. True dat.

And of course I'm not advocating complete mercenary disclosure in interviews meant to sell or promote a book. That's just bad form. Like I said, making money and making art don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive endeavors.

But we are in the age where creators have their own personal forums where they try to "be real" with the folks who flock to them. And when they use those forums to commit a preemptive info strike where they brag about how much their new book sold (before order numbers are even final yet) or how there are lines around the block of people waiting to buy the latest issue of PRINT-TO-ORDER MAN or whatever the hell is being pimped that month, it gets difficult to swallow. Because, like I said, for the general masses, it seems that spin control works.

Y'know, I did a big ass interview late last year with Jonathan Ellis over at Popimage where we talked a bit about this (and, looking back on it, I seemed to get pretty cranked up over it). It's the "comics creator as politician" syndrome and it's getting more and more pervasive. And you nailed it... just like a politician, spin control is all about career maintenance. Or worse, perception maintenance.

But the question then becomes... is spin control really more important than good work?

FRACTION: I'm sure there are people who think it is, even if they wouldn't dare say it out loud.

Eh, I dunno about that, actually. People say a lot of dumb stuff these days.

I remember being kind of impressed-- note that I qualified it with 'kind of' so as to not unrepentantly wax your car-- with how you handled the whole WILDCATS thing. Like, you were very clearly disappointed and pissed, but you didn't sound bitter or insane or... comics guys whose emotions get the better of them in mid-spin always sound like candidates for the rifle-and-clocktower club. Looking back at it, I see it's probably because you didn't spin the situation at all-- which, shit, man, was far more tempered and reasonable than I think I would've been.

This, though, is one of those things that make me glad that comics aren't my sole source of money. I can afford to make a fair amount of fuckit decisions because, well, I got a kickass day job. I'll write comics and draw 'em on my own if I have to-- I don't give a shit, I'm in it for me and not for the bank.

But I promise that if I get a crack at writing PRINT-TO-ORDER MAN, in the pre-launch PR, I will totally talk about the awesome page rate.

…In addition to my Longstanding Childhood Love of the Character bits and how This Is A Dream Come True and that The Editor is a Genius as is the Artist and all that stuff...

CASEY: I've said it before and I'll say it again here... it's funny 'cause it's true.

Personally, I just don't want to be one of those guys that's more wrapped up in What People Think as opposed to the quality of my work. That may ultimately end up being my epitaph on the tombstone of my career, but I know what I need to be able to sleep at night. In the greater scheme of things, I still believe that it's more important for work to be genuinely good instead of somehow convincing a large number of people into thinking it's good.

Look, I want to try and put this into some historical context, because there's gotta' be a way out of this…

On the whole, this was not an industry that was built on the dignity of its creators. Far from it. Comics were the sweatshop factories of serialized fiction. It was the place where artists and writers who couldn't get real work ended up to earn what was probably barely a living wage. But dignity is important. And the act of spin control is one of the more undignified activities I can think of right now. Preying on the ignorance or even apathy of the masses is nothing to be proud of. Unfortunately, it occurs in our business more now than ever.

Ahhh… it's good to kick off a new year like this, isn't it…?

FRACTION: Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

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