The Basement Tapes: Issue #28

Tue, February 22nd, 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.

How would someone define our industry at the moment? What the hell are we all doing here? What is the current landscape we inhabit? And does it even matter if we can pinpoint it or not? Well, as usual, we don't give a shit if it matters or not. If it's worth a bit of meaningless discussion, you can bet we'll be there discussing it…

CASEY: Okay, since we've been talking a lot about superheroes the past few weeks, let's just stay on point and file this one under "State of the Mainstream." A dubious fucking topic, no doubt about it. As we sort of intimated last week, even as we get ass-deep into 2005, there's still some scrambling -- on everybody's part -- to get some handle on which way the wind's blowing, and which way it's gonna' blow this year for the big Direct Market publishers.

One thing I think I can say with some certainty... the era of "writer-driven" comics is pretty much over and done with. We had our day, I suppose, just like screenwriters had their day in Hollywood from around '88 until about '95. Looking back on the appreciation readers expressed toward pure writers like Morrison, Ennis, Ellis, Busiek, Waid, Kevin Smith, Bendis, et al has pretty much been supplanted by Fuck Fame characters and franchises, editorially-driven "Event" comics and a select few Hot Artists swinging their dicks.

And, lemme say right now, I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. Not at all. At the end of the day, it might be a healthy sign that we're doing just fine, that the industry cycles continue, the world turns and the pendulum simply swings another way. But I can't help but wonder in retrospect... did we blow it somehow? Did we not take enough advantage of our favored position when we had it?

Whaddya think...?

FRACTION: It doesn't seem like it's been supplanted by anything, honestly. It feels like everything in the world has been thrown at the wall at the moment-- here's a billion new X-Men books! Here's a new CRISIS! Here's grim and gritty! Here's Rob Liefeld! Here's, uh, Spider-Man in the Avengers! Here's the Avengers in USA Today! Here's "USA Today" on how billions of girls are reading strange Japanese comics bought in bookstores!-- and nothing's quite stuck yet.

This last "writer-driven" era, as you say, was a how-to guide to fumbling an opportunity, I think. At the height of it all, figure '00-'01, the big guns went to the big properties instead of striking a blow, Image-style, for growing the medium. So the pendulum swung back to the publishers, and they're going to benefit most when the only stars in the medium are their characters, you know?

CASEY: Goddamn, that's a good point. I'd forgotten all about that. I remember Ellis lamenting that same thing at the time, as well. And look what he's doing at the moment (in the superhero mainstream, anyway)... Ultimate books and "Iron Man."

I guess I figure that -- in the mainstream -- the publishers are always there. They are the perennial Beast that must be outsmarted and somehow thwarted in our endless quest for Lasting Art (even in the area of capes and tights).

I wonder if it's worth asking ourselves... do we need to be "driven" by anything in particular? Are these cycles really necessary for the health and welfare of both the medium and the industry? If, as you say, nothing's quite stuck yet... do we need to find something that does stick? Some specific aesthetic that helps us define ourselves, our industry, or whatever else needs to be defined at a particular time...?

FRACTION: Oh, lord, isn't that like herding cats? I can't imagine a collected group of comics professionals doing anything in unison-- if the boat was sinking there'd be nine different ideas as to where dry land might be, you know?

You'll be able to answer your own question better than me, I think, anyway. What was it like in '00'01? I mean, I talk a lot of shit, but at the end of the day, my understanding of the larger currents of the industry stops just short of my face, right? I'm not certain that cycles are apparent until they're decaying and you can recall a time when stuff was better-- which makes me think you don't need them for anything but context once they've passed.

CASEY: Another good point. I feel like I was still so green at the Millennial Turn that I was mostly just trying to hang on any way I could. Any sense of there being a "new age" on the horizon, marked mostly by the ascension of Jemas and Quesada at Marvel, was probably more wishful thinking on the part of creators in general than anything else.

I think the cycles might actually be self-perpetuating. Only in the sense that, if we go by history as our indicator, then I suppose it's possible to predict what's coming, trend-wise or movement-wise. But, of course, by predicting it and then -- as a creator -- being in a position to act on it, you're helping to assure it.

This is an old chestnut of a theory, I was convinced that what was to follow the Neo-Silver Age stuff of the late 90's would repeat the cycle that happened in the late 60's/early 70's. After the mindfuck psycho-blast of Kirby's Marvel stuff, the only place to go that felt different and that made sense with the times was Relevance, represented best by O'Neil and Adams doing "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" and all those street level stories where GL is berated for helping, "the blue men, the green men, but what about the BLACK man?!" and Speedy was on smack. So, after Morrison's "JLA" pop explosion in the late 90's, I figured what would come next would be, for lack of a better catch phrase, New Relevance. That's where "X-Men: Children of the Atom" came from. I think I might've been a little ahead of the imaginary curve, because when Jemas and Quesada came to power a year after "X-Men: COTA" hit, a strange kind of "realism" became the order of the day at Marvel... which ultimately led us to the misappropriation of decompressed storytelling, so-called "story arcs" that last forever about nothing very interesting, the stripping away of great superhero tropes like the secret identity. It was a different kind of relevance than what I'd expected, but it arrived just the same.

Now I suppose the bigger publishers are playing the Hollywood game, which tends to marginalize talent anyway. The tie-in is king.

So, I dunno, is that even a cycle? Or are we finally settling in to some new paradigm...?

FRACTION: I'm having a lot of trouble discerning just what exactly is going on, to tell you the truth. If anything at all, honestly: if there's a trend I don't see it and I certainly don't feel it. Is it about Superstar Creators? Maybe here and there, but it feels closer to the end than the beginning. Is it about Superstar Characters? Sort of, but it's just gonna get marginalized down to two or three books per company, per line. Tie-In? Not if "Elektra" is the harbinger of things to come. Realism? Grim and Gritty? Re-reloaded?

Everything feels schizophrenic, unsure of itself. Nothing's happening. I would like to believe the psychic weight of passing through the year 2001 shattered the old cycles like a brick thrown through a stained glass window. Maybe right now there are just bits and pieces of everything falling away.

CASEY: But if things are falling away, I do think nature abhors a vacuum. The general culture -- readers, creators and retailers alike -- will start to crave some general aesthetic to hold on to. It's just the way these things tend to go. No one can sit still with this kind of discombobulation for too long. They need that definition of an era. Why, I have no idea. I guess, at the end of the day, no one is too comfortable with chaos for very long.

I don't see why, though. It can be a lot of fun, when all the bits and pieces are still tumbling through the air, and where they land is anybody's guess. Some good, interesting work can slip through the cracks in those rare moments.

Of course, when that happens, and everybody grabs onto it, they just want more of it and, lo and behold, the Next Big Thing has arrived.

And the cycles continue...

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