The Basement Tapes: Issue #23

Tue, January 18th, 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.

There's always the chance that this will be a brilliant intro to another brilliant column. More brilliant back-and-forth between two of America's favorite sweethearts. But, for whatever reason, nothing is coming to mind. Nothing brilliant is available to save this intro from its inevitable spiral into entropy. Nothing is… exactly… jumping out… here…

Ah, hell…

CASEY: So, let's talk like writers again, shall we? Let's use this column as a force of good, to talk about the things that writers should talk about, but never seem to.

Writing as a career is one of the greatest things on Earth. Every dream I had about this job has been exceeded tenfold over the past eight years of doing it. That's what makes this so occasionally heartbreaking. It's not writer's block (that's a manageable dilemma). What I'm talking about comes on once every so often, usually at the most inopportune times. I'm talking about burnout, baby.

First of all, let's get our term straight. In your experience as a writer, how would or do you define burnout...?

FRACTION: It's... Lack?

Tired, exhausted, angry, sad, whatever-- I can deal with that. Burnout is just... there's nothing there. No juice, no spark, none of That Feeling. I dunno. It's like being an empty house.

A big thing to learn was to let myself have down time. I'd always say I was going to take a day or a night off but would worry constantly about whatever it was I wasn't doing. Or, what's worse, I'd sit down to write and nothing would happen and instead of getting up and doing something-- anything-- else, I'd just stare at the cursor blink, you know? Which just amplified the problem. So I've learned not to force it when at all possible. Otherwise it just builds and builds and builds.

Which I fully acknowledge is made possibly by not having to rely on comics or writing to make my nut.

You?

CASEY: I think the "empty house" description is a pretty good one, actually. The lights are on, but at the moment, no one happens to be home.

I'm a big believer in Inspiration. That doesn't mean I wait for the muse. A motherfucker could go broke waiting on that shit. I'm talking about knowing why you're writing something. To me, my occasional bouts of burnout have been a case of stumbling around in the dark, groping for that why, not finding it, but having to write anyway. It's the moment where all you have to fall back on is, "I'm a professional."

It's a scary thing in comicbooks, because the writer is generally laying the first brick in the building. There's nothing scarier than slogging through a script -- trapped in the depths of said burnout -- knowing that every other piece of the artistic puzzle... pencils, inks, colors, letters, production... are bringing up the rear, dependant upon you to bring your A-game every time.

So, given that set of unique circumstances, how do you get through it without forcing it...?

FRACTION: Well, you've done it a lot more than me, and you do it solely-- lest we forget my dayjob-- so I don't know if my tricks would actually hold up to any all-pro scrutiny or anything like that.

One thing I do is chase after it. Like, there's a stockpile of stuff I keep around, books or music or comics or films that always get me riled up. Just to remember how it feels, you know? Chase the muse or chase the train, whatever it is.

And I deliberately leave big question marks in my work. I never know how all the blanks are gonna get filled in. So there's a level of challenge and the unknown there to keep me panicked and guessing, you know? My, ahh, artistic puzzle is deliberately missing a few pieces.

I dunno. It was a huge step to learn how to admit that I was stuck, or burned out, or tired or whatever, and to just let it lie. What about you?

CASEY: Y'know, I do the same thing. I definitely have my things that I go to for inspiration, things that might light my fuckin' fuse again. Problem is, those things change over time. There's no static set of things that I can always count on. That's where it can get weird for me.

And the "questions marks" you refer to...? I do that sometimes, too. But, goddamn, if those aren't as frustrating as they are challenging. I love having to answer those questions, to find those missing puzzle pieces... and at the same time, I hate that they're there. Of course, that kind of creative or narrative problem solving is definitely one way to combat the burnout. Solving a story problem is like being reborn as a writer.

FRACTION: I'm not to the point where it's a good fit for me, process-wise. It's sort of wildly irresponsible, actually, as I can get balls deep into something and realize that I've forgotten a beat or missed a scene or blew something entirely. I'm getting better, I think, but it's not anything I'm comfortable with 100%.

Which is really the point, I'm discovering. The more off-balance I am, the more I feel that... I dunno, nervous energy or whatever it is you feel before you go onstage, as it were. I suppose I'm learning to aspire towards grace under pressure.

What do you go to for your personal burnout remedy?

CASEY: You mean, aside from drugs...?

Lately, my remedy has been to just... get away from it. There are enough things in my life that aren't comicbooks at the moment that I can do that. I try and forget about the business, the pettiness, the politics, the strangeness of it all. Pretty soon, I feel that inevitable -- but gloriously pure -- pull back to my first love and I'm off to the races again.

I've found there are a lot of distractions in this career that have nothing to do with just sitting down and trying to do good work. It's an effort to block those things out, and what I've learned is that sometimes burnout is a side-effect of that effort.

Have you ever wondered if the notion of burnout is simply a component of the creative process? And I'm talking about a necessary component, here. Something that we have to go through occasionally as par for the course...

FRACTION: I definitely ebb and flow, so... yeah, I dunno. Cocoon time, I guess.

Research time is good, too-- you feel like you're getting work done on some level but you're not actually writing anything necessarily. And it's an excuse to read all day. As Kieron and I are ramping up our Death of the Sixties L.A. Crime Epic I'm getting to do that more and more.

So, here's a question for you, then: what about those guys that never burn out? Those guys-- and you know who they are-- that manage to crank a book or books out every month, without fail... Can you trust someone whose process doesn't allow for downtime?

CASEY: That's a good question. I guess I wouldn't trust a creator who didn't have peaks and valleys in their output. It's a tough thing to consider, since the need to earn a living is a real one, not to be taken lightly. But if we're talking in purely artistic terms, then yeah... it's much more interesting to see creators give it their all and spend themselves to the point of exhaustion, go away and recharge, and then hit us with another round of creativity. Even setting aside the quality of the work in question, it's still a more challenging creative paradigm.

So, yeah... it's necessary to hit the occasional wall. To test your own limits. That's what being an artist is all about, right? It's living the Morrison ideal (Jim, that is... not Grant). Then comes the balancing act... can you have a bona fide career as an artist (and I mean "artist" in the wider sense) if you live by that ideal?

FRACTION: Well, I mean, if you want to get mired in semantics, the answer's no-- commerce and art are mutually exclusive concepts and one nullifies the other.

If you actually, you know, grow up and get out of high school and look at things, I think the answer's yeah, you can. I don't think it's easy-- hell, I know as much.

We wanted autonomy more than anything else when we started MK12-- autonomy as an economic entity, certainly, but most importantly, autonomy from anyone compromising what we wanted to do creatively. People are people and at the end of the day, in my experience, and most arguments between "art" and "commerce" degenerate into swingin' dick contests so that whomever signs the checks ultimately wins. We wanted freedom to make our work truly ours, to make our own decisions and to hang from our own failures, you know?

Which is very sweet and very naive and very high school. Any time you take a job from someone, you've compromised your autonomy. We can say that we're doing it ourselves, that we are our own bosses, but we're not-- we have clients, and the client has the bigger dick. So-- so, any time someone else is a part of the creative equation you have to fight to use your voice.

I would like to think that "career" and "artist" are not mutually exclusive states. I would like to think it's a constant fight of attrition on either side and you can win as much as you're willing to fight.

CASEY: See, you just hit on something there. I've felt the pangs of burnout when I've been right in the middle of that kind of fight. And then, there have been times when those struggles have somehow pushed me to the razor's edge of creativity, and I'm firing on all pistons. Either way, the outcome of said fight almost becomes superfluous, because the circumstance is what's transformative.

But I suppose that's a very American way of doing business. That is, "fighting against the Man" has oftentimes become part of the creative process. That feeling -- whether it's real or not -- of somehow being oppressed in some manner. I suppose I'd be lying if I said that only when we talk about it in purely hypothetical terms would I associate those circumstances with feeling any kind of burnout. It just doesn't happen like that for me. The greater the struggle, the more creative I think I've gotten.

That may be tempting the "peak and valley" paradigm to the point of possible self-destruction, but sometimes there's simply no other way to get the job done. Burnout be damned, I'm livin' for today's good idea...!

The Basement Tapes Home | The Basement Tapes Archives

The Basement Tapes

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.