The Basement Tapes: Issue #25

Tue, February 1st, 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 nothing like a good, ol' fashioned mouth hug delivered on a monthly basis by your favorite superhero. Some of us never outgrow them. Some of us never want to. An entire industry has been built and maintained on those principles. But just barely. Now it's time for us to return the favor and wrap our lips around the shaft of the superhero and see what comes out…

CASEY: So, for whatever reason, I was reading Grant Morrison's introduction to the FLASH trade paperback collection, BORN TO RUN (primarily a collection of Mark Waid's first storyline, recounting Wally West's origin as Kid Flash). Good comics, definitely. But something in Grant's intro really struck me. The piece is dated December, 1998, just as mainstream comics -- at DC, anyway -- were hip-deep in the Neo-Silver Age that gripped many of the iconic characters at the end of the millennium (ushered in mainly by Grant himself in JLA).

Seems like a lifetime ago, but I remember those days well. I was in the biz for a little over a year and loving every minute of it. There was lots of hope going around (which surfaced in my own work about a year and a half later in the first MR. MAJESTIC series, among other things).

Anyway, back to Grant's intro. This passage really leapt out at me...

"When Mark Waid took over writing THE FLASH, Wally West was one more 'realistic' jerk in a field obsessed, since the mid-80's, by rapists, serial killers and tormented, unshaven 'heroes' doing tormented, unshaven, repetitive things."

Certain words of that sentence just hit me... "one more 'realistic' jerk"... "rapists," "serial killers," "tormented, unshaven 'heroes'"...

...sound at all familiar?

Here we are, post-IDENTITY CRISIS, post-DISASSEMBLED, post SINS PAST, post-Pick Your Poison... and you could argue that we're right back where we were in the mid-'90s, when the superhero concept was as bleak and dark as it had ever been. Most of the '90s were a bad hangover from the artistic advancements of the '80s... and in the mainstream, it seemed like all the wrong lessons had been learned. The vanguard creators of the medium at that time and their forward-thinking approaches had been bastardized into what is now laughingly remembered as "grim and gritty."

So, I'm looking around at the current landscape and I think of Grant's statement, made back in the more optimistic late 90's and I ask myself... are we making the same mistakes all over again? Are we back to the unshaven heroes, the rapists, the so-called "realism" that almost choked superhero comicbooks to death?

FRACTION: It's kind of funny that you're bringing that up-- I was talking to a friend about the ALL STARS initiative the other day and how it looks like DC is trying to have it's cake and eat it, too, in a way-- Morrison and Quitely on Superman is probably as diametrically opposed a creative team as you can get from Frank Miller and Jim Lee. And while I don't think Miller's ever gotten enough credit for how truly funny his work can be, nor do I think people quite jived with his Mondo-Kirby approach to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS AGAIN TO STRIKE or whatever-- you don't put Frank Miller and Jim Lee on Batman if you want to see, like, the open-shirted, hairy-chested, swingin' bat-gadget millionaire playboy with a "sci-fi closet" Batman of eras past, you know? There's going to be a lot of squared jaws and jagged lines and punching in that book. And also? Rain. Probably gonna be some rain.

So it would seem, from an incredibly superficial reading of the creative teams, that maybe they're trying both the bright-and-optimistic track and the dark-and-gritty track simultaneously. Which, if I'm right, is kind of a bummer, because I thought there was some kind of joyous lunacy in what Miller was doing in TDK2K. I'd rather see him trying to fuse his sensibilities with the pop masterworks of the past than tread more familiar territory.

That said, how phenomenally disrespectful and unfaithful is that? It's Frank Miller-- whose DARK KNIGHT was as far removed from BORN AGAIN as YEAR ONE was from RONIN was from SIN CITY was from ELEKTRA ASSASSIN was from GIVE ME LIBERTY was from THAT YELLOW BASTARD.

I digress, but that split is, I think, indicative of the rather schizoid state the superhero mainstream is in. It seems like for every Darwyn Cooke/NEW FRONTIER there's a Loeb/Lee HUSH. Whedon & Cassiday's X-MEN book is as bright and energizing as IDENTITY CRISIS was... neither. Morrison's ramping up his SEVEN SOLDIERS googolplex as DC's getting ready to re-up CRISIS and twist itself through god knows how many awkward contortions before resetting back to one. I don't think there's a cohesive zeitgeist right now.

CASEY: Well, okay, that begs the question... is a cohesive zeitgeist really all that necessary? Because that kind of shared state of mind can be just as damaging as it is galvanizing to those of us sweating it out in the trenches. But the opposite holds true, as well, where lack of such cohesion can offer a degree of opportunity. Of course, it can also lead to dangerous conservatism on the part of the publishers. Look, when something is successful, you can bet that publishers will crank out carbon copies of said success as fast as they possibly can. Hell, we're still suffering through what I can only hope are the last vestiges of "Part 1 of 6"-style writing...

Given all that, and your opinion that there is no cohesive ideal at the moment... where do you think that kind of thing comes from, in the arena of superhero comicbooks? In other words, rather than trying to make predictions, let's look at what's there and create a hypothetical. Out of everything that's going on with superheroes at the moment, all the stuff you listed, how does something rise above the rest and begin to somehow define an era (and, believe me, I'm using the word "era" in its loosest possible interpretation here)...?

FRACTION: It comes from a dozen different places, maybe? The mood, tone, and timbre of the publishers. The balance between the editorial and marketing departments at the time. The place the world itself is in-- like, ULTIMATES I don't think would've hit like it did were it not for the American nationalist zeitgeist post 9/11. The creators and the myriad of shit that goes on in their heads-- isn't that what's most affecting? Beyond their own internal stuff, it's gotta be about their peers, about the wave before them and the wave that's creeping up after them-- like, idiom and context and all that weirdo nebulous art school shit that's hard to talk about seriously.

I'm not sure that kind of lightning can be caught in a bottle, anyway.

CASEY: I suppose you're right. But, certainly, there are creators who constantly try to stay ahead of the game... and thus end up defining it. However, at the moment, I see a lot of guys creating superhero comics in the mainstream like they're on autopilot. Hell, there's nothing wrong with that. Most people on Earth do their jobs as though they were on autopilot.

On the corporate level, the editorial and marketing departments you mentioned... those guys aren't looking to change the face of anything. They just want to keep their jobs and not get fired. Again, more power to 'em. It's a tough world out there and to ask anyone other than myself to stick their head on the chopping block in the name of Art is certainly not something I'm prepared to do.

I think, at the end of the day, superhero-specific work that defines an era depends mainly on Belief. Everyone from the creator all the way up to the publisher has to believe that what they're doing is the shit. I think that's how things like IDENTITY CRISIS go the distance. Everyone at DC believed. That belief, more than anything, fosters the hard work necessary -- and required by all levels of the publishing food chain -- to have a breakout hit.

FRACTION: I'd like to believe that coherence is coming sooner rather than later-- and I think that's going to be the Big Two recommitting themselves to their core brand values. DC is rewriting and reprocessing itself, purging it's worst instincts out and now will get bigger and brighter; guys like Morrison and Johns are going to inject modern-day spectacle into silver-age veins and give us, like, Psychedelic Dad comics. Cool Dad Comics. Like a fifty year old man in a white turtleneck and peace medallion. The Phantom Stranger! DC is turning into the Phantom Stranger.

Marvel's maybe doing the same thing, only in its own way. The glitz and glam of the Quemas revolution is getting purged out bit by bit. The X books will get darker again, the flagship books will get bigger again, and by this time next year the status quo will be a purer Marvel than we've seen. It's like they experimented, but only a little bit-- they didn't go as far or as crazy as they needed to really rewrite their systems, so now they're redistributing their weight to their strongest points, shoring up their base with what hooked people in the first place, purging the quirks and getting back down into the epic adventures of the neurotic outsider.

None of that-- believe it or not-- is a judgment. Just seems to be the way stuff's headed. That's still really only the biggest and broadest of strokes, isn't it?

One of the Big Two are going to need to figure out how to launch a new title and/or a new character soon.

CASEY: Everyone I know is struggling with that particular dilemma. But if the Big Two set out to become, as you say, "purer" versions of what they do best, doesn't that automatically exclude new titles and/or new concepts? There's a reason Marvel threw out a gazillion X-related titles last year...

But DC believes in Grant Morrison. As well they should. They believe in Geoff, and as well they should. Marvel believes in Bendis. As well they should. But, I fear the real situation is... DC believes in Geoff on GREEN LANTERN more than they believe in him on THE POSSESSED. DC believes in Grant more on ALL-STAR SUPERMAN than they believe in him on VIMANARAMA. Marvel believes in Bendis more on NEW AVENGERS and ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN than they believe in him on POWERS or even THE PULSE. But like you say, there's nothing at all wrong with that. And it certainly speaks to the power of the superhero...

I dunno… the tail may indeed wag the dog. And we may very well look back on 2004-2005 as its own unique era in the continuum of mainstream superhero comicbooks. And, you never know, if we are in some sort of funky period where everyone thinks too hard and applies a bit too much logic to the general concept of superheroes… then I guess the bright side is it can only go up from here.

Whatever the case, I'm getting damn curious to see exactly where it does go.

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