The Basement Tapes: Issue #27

Tue, February 15th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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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.

The Definitive Run: it's one of those all-too-rare events in comics when a creator, or a team of creators, are tapped in and create a batch of issues that stands tall in the minds of almost everyone that reads it as being definitive. And while there are several of these kinds of runs worth talking about, we began wondering if it was even possible for such a thing to exist anymore. This Tapes kicked off with some rambling about Frank Miller, who's been seen around a definitive run or two...

FRACTION: From January of 1981 through February of '82, Frank Miller wrote and drew what's widely considered the definitive run of "Daredevil." In September of '82, he and Chris Claremont kicked out the "Wolverine" miniseries, which is probably as definitive a run as that character has come close to having. Then, in July of '83 through August of '84, "Ronin" came out-- at which point Frank both reinvented himself and caught his breath-- until early 1986, when he and David Mazzucchelli brought out "Born Again" which I'd argue supplanted his earlier run as the definitive Daredevil book.

So, as Daredevil #228 hit the stands, so did the first issue of "The Dark Knight Returns." Two months after that ended, "Elektra: Assassin" began over at Epic, and at some point in there his Daredevil GN "Love & War" also hit, both painted by the always-astonishing Bill Sienkiewicz. Then, as "Elektra" was wrapping up, "Batman: Year One" was starting and if there's been a Batman story more definitive and permanently iconic than "Dark Knight," it was "Year One." Think about it, the phrase "Year One" has become industry shorthand, you know?

So-- depending on how you look at it, that's easily five masterworks in six years, several of which are still held as the best those characters and/or books have been. Even today, this period of Miller's creative life is as inspired as it is inspirational-- whatever deal with whatever devil he made came to fruition and the guy was just on fire.

I was pretty young during all that-- by "Year One," 'Frank Miller' was kind of a license to print money (maybe not Miller's license, but DC's, certainly) and, y'know, killer runs. Even "Rolling Stone" did a story on Miller, mid-"Dark Night," where he was giggling about the Reaganomic nightmare he'd cooked up for the caped crusader, and giggling even harder about how worried Marvel seemed over Daredevil being out of costume for six months...

...My point, longwinded though it may be, is that this era of Miller's work was important and you knew it while it was happening.

Is there anything or anyone comparable today? Not "Who's the new Frank Miller," but rather, can there be a new Frank Miller? I don't feel like creators are allowed to define themselves and their runs quite like they used to be... does that make sense? You know what I'm talking about?

CASEY: Sure, and my gut reaction is to make a music analogy: Will there ever be another Elvis? How about another Beatles? The answer is no, and it has as much to do with the current, fractured state of the music industry and the cultural landscape as it does with talent.

When Miller's "Daredevil" was the hot shit of the moment, the Direct Sales Market was still in its infancy. Hell, it had practically just been born, and as much as I can remember, Miller's DD (along with Claremont and Byrne in "X-Men") was the series that straddled that cultural shift and really caused a commotion in the critical and commercial community. Basically, Miller hit his stride just as the circumstances to enable a creator to really forge a legend had clicked into place.

The other thing about Miller that's hard to translate into any creator currently working... he did a lot of things first. No one had ever really taken a pure 60's Marvel Comic, originated by Stan Lee himself, and refashioned it for a new generation (Claremont and Byrne don't count in this regard, since Stan had nothing to do with the "All-New, All-Different" X-Men characters). No one had ever done a project in size and scope like "Ronin," and especially not for the monolithic DC. No one had ever done a squarebound, comicbook-sized book before (soon and forever after to be known as "prestige format" books). Certainly no one had redefined Batman -- a bona fide cultural icon far beyond his existence in the four-color realm -- as Miller did with the one-two punch of "Dark Knight" and "Year One."

How many times since has Daredevil been rejuvenated, in some form or another? How many times since has Batman been given some kind of jolt of creative electricity? Many times, on both counts. But Miller did it first.

I think that's really where it counts, don't you? Doing it first. Add to that the fact that, for my money, Miller did it best, and it's really Game Over, y'know? Why would any modern creator even try to match that? It's literally impossible, and not just because the cultural circumstances no longer exist. It's also simply that no one, single creator is as good as Miller was in the 80's.

FRACTION: No, there'll never be another Elvis, but there'll be a Jerry Lee Lewis.

There'll never be another Beatles, but there'll be a Zeppelin to come along and stomp on their graves. And a Clash or Pistols to do the same to them...

Like, I don't know who took over "Daredevil" after "Born Again" ended but, like... wow-- that poor bastard. There was a piece on "This American Life" the other week about a comedy team that had their big break on the Ed Sullivan show-- the night of the Beatles' first appearance. They followed the Beatles on Sullivan. Can you imagine a worse slot for a big break anywhere in showbiz history?

When "Born Again" started, did you know it was going to set the high water mark for Daredevil just as "Year One" would the next year? Yeah, Miller did it first, but someone-- say, Ann Nocenti & John Romita Jr.-- come along and don't necessarily 'beat' "Born Again," but they make just powerful and single-minded run on a book that defines it for a new era in much the same way as Miller & Mazzucchelli did. Or Bendis and Maleev now, maybe? This is really kind of what I'm getting at-- do you really know you're reading a definitive run when you're reading it?

CASEY: I think that every time you begin reading the first issue of a run by a new creative team -- that you know has some talent -- you hope you're on the ground floor of a definitive run. But how many promising starts have been pissed away over the years?

This goes back to our discussions about Endings. Comics are so bad at them now... that's what can kill a run and prevent it from being considered a "classic." I remember Nocenti and JRJR on "Daredevil" and I know I got a kick out of it at the time... but how did it end? I couldn't tell you that if my life depended on it, even though I probably bought every issue.

Y'know, now that I think about it… before Miller and Moore, you could have a definitive run on something that didn't exactly wrap up in a blaze of glory. Certainly, Lee & Kirby's last issue of "Fantastic Four" wasn't some spectacular finale to their run. Englehart's Marvel work in the '70s tended to get cut off prematurely or fall victim to some editorial bullshit, but his collective work on "Captain America," "Dr. Strange" and "Avengers" are all considered classics.

But Miller and Moore changed all that. Those guys, and others who were of their mindset, wanted the satisfaction of an ending to their stories. But these days... I don't see that kind of passion for providing endings. Maybe because, collectively as an industry, we're so bad at it that we've just given up on it as a skill worth possessing...? Maybe publishers don't want those kinds of endings for fear of killing interest in the franchise. If that's the case, God help us all, because I don't think anything ever did more good for the Batman franchise than "Dark Knight" and "Year One"…

FRACTION: I've never understood, honestly, the compulsion to keep trotting a character out if nobody is really saying anything with it. I mean, it devalues the brand more to dilute it with crap than to rotate it in and out of circulation-- look at the "Batman" franchise of movies, I mean, or "Star Trek" or James Bond, you know? Like, imagine if there was a new James Bond movie every month, you know? Who would want to go see it? Or "Star Trek," which has just been put out to pasture. Again.

It makes more sense to me that Marvel, after something like "Born Again" happened, put Daredevil away for a little while. Let people sit with "Born Again" and be satisfied and give it a year or two and start to build anticipation and bring him back when the title, character, franchise, and brand-- all four separate things, in my mind-- are rested and ready. It's not as though the comics world will forget Daredevil if Marvel retires the title and character for a year or two when Bendis is done with him, you know? Comics are a culture in which people remember how many circles were on the front of Thor's chest in "Avengers" #17 vs." Avengers" #63.

Which is all a long way of saying that the perpetual cycle of publishing makes the definitive run and a meaningful and coherent ending irrelevant.

CASEY: Maintaining brand integrity is probably the most difficult aspect of Big Business. And there's no way that a publisher is going to suspend the publication of a successful series for creative reasons. Hell, I think DC sometimes wishes they could've kept "Sandman" going, with or without Gaiman. Certainly the multitude of "Sandman" spinoffs we've seen since bear out that theory. But, as it stands, I'd say "Sandman" is a pretty definitive run of a comicbook.

A monthly Batman comic is, at its most basic level, a reassurance more than anything else. Comfort food. People just like to know it's there, whether it's a shitty comicbook or not.

Besides, you never want to risk squashing the potential for a new "definitive run" on something. The only way to keep stringing the readers along that another one's coming is to just put your head down and keep putting out the comic until another one does come along.

FRACTION: Right, but when Neil comes back and does "Endless Nights" with seven of the most amazing international artists doing comics today, it does crazy sales and gets in the NY Times Review of Books, you know? And yet, all other evidence would seem to point to the Drive It Into The Ground theory of economic scalability is the preferred way. Potential be damned-- you gotta know or you don't, right? Like, nobody thought that "Born Again" was gonna be just another Daredevil run. Maybe it really is just stringing readers along, because-- well, maybe "The End" are simply too poisonous.

For the sake of historical accuracy, from the Comic Book Database, the creator line-up for Daredevil #234, the first post-Miller & Mazzucchelli issue, was called "Madcasting," and was written by Mark Gruenwald, with covers and inks by Klaus Janson, and, get this, it was pencilled by Steve Ditko.

And, uh, Madcap was in it.

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