The Basement Tapes: Issue #29

Tue, March 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.

This is the kind of shit you can't talk too much about. It's the stuff that takes you back to your childhood, before comicbooks were a business to you. Back when they were a way into your own imagination. Back when a great story meant everything. Back when legends of other great stories had you scouring the back issue bins so you could experience that rush that others had experienced before you… the rush of reading a great story. When was the last time you felt that rush?

CASEY: So, I was thinking some more about what's been looking to me like the end of the so-called, "Writer-Driven era" of mainstream comicbooks. I was thinking of what it's left us. What have we gained from going through that phase (certainly it was the first of its kind in the mostly cyclical nature of our history)? From what I've come up with... not much good, to be honest.

If you started reading comicbooks as a kid -- I mean, a young kid, maybe just learning to read -- superhero comicbooks probably attracted you for a few simple, pure reasons. The first one was undoubtedly the color and the spectacle of these brightly garbed figures in fantastic and surreal settings, doing fantastic and surreal things. Then you start to pick out your favorite characters, probably because of how they looked or what their superpowers were. Most kids then started to pick out their favorite artists (which probably still had to do with their favorite characters and who was drawing their adventures). Then, if you stuck with the medium, the next thing you might've responded to, as you got a little older and maybe a tad more discriminating, were the stories. Some you liked more than others. Eventually, you could actually pick out good stories from... not-so-good stories. Exciting stories over less-than-exciting stories. I think, more than anything, readers look back most fondly on their favorite stories... the Galactus Trilogy, the Flash of Two Worlds, any of the various JLA-JSA team-ups, the Death of the Green Goblin, the Dark Phoenix Saga, the Kree-Skrull War, the Celestial Madonna story, the Great Darkness Saga, the Serpent-Crown Affair, the Judas Contract, the Elektra Saga... the list can go on and on.

Some of these stories were crafted by fan-favorite creators who went on to be legendary in the field. Others were stories created by the guys slugging it out in the trenches, writers and artists destined to remain footnotes in the history of superhero comicbooks (not a bad place to end up, I might add). The point is, when it comes to stories that are memorable, classics in the collective mind of fandom... does it really matter who wrote or drew them? Fundamentally, it's the stories that stay with us. I'd like to think that's what the creators -- legendary or not -- would want most of all.

But look around us. How many modern readers are buying the current crop of superhero comicbooks and proclaiming, "What a great story!"? Not that many. Sure, we're seeing a lot of "that's great writing" and, lately, a lot more of "the art's fantastic." We're seeing a lot of well-crafted comicbooks, but not a lot of classic stories. Hell, is anything out there a "saga" anymore...? Do we even think that way anymore? It doesn't seem like it. Our fellow CBR columnist, Steven Grant, touched on this not long ago, calling it the "most neglected aspect of comics storytelling." And he's absolutely right.

I'm afraid this is the legacy of the latest phase of our creative history. The "Writer-Driven era" has possibly placed too much emphasis on a witty turn of phrase, clever stylistic flourishes or appropriately whacked out ideas, while at the same time, unfortunately de-emphasizing the idea of the classic story, the engaging narrative that fires the imagination of the reader. And isn't that what superhero comicbooks are supposed to do best...?

FRACTION: It's taken me a bit to respond to this because I'm split between the answer I want and the answer I know is actually right.

First, I think it absolutely matters who wrote or drew the great stories-- even if they're just great to you and not, necessarily, in the eyes of conventional wisdom. Not because the creators involved deserve, earned, or even wanted lionization-- that's not for me, or anyone else really, to know-- but because it's a recognition and celebration of their efforts. Like signing a brick that's getting built into a massive wall you helped to build. It's maybe a very human compulsion-- there's a part of me that's revolted by the thought that Richard Nixon's name is on a plaque on the moon-- but this recognition, this credit is, in the final analysis, all these guys have sometimes. The guys slugging it out in the trenches, as you say, can be remembered as more than anonymous hacks or journeymen or whatever-- they're sure not getting a bigger piece of the action for their efforts. It seems the least we can do.

As to the rest, maybe it falls out of the necessity of the icon era, as it were-- comics are trying to compete with Hollywood, or with THE MATRIX or whatever CGI blockbuster that may or may not have captured the imagination on some level; stunt-casting and sweeps-style cries for help and attention aren't as much the exception anymore. So you get watered-down Bruckheimer-style stories short on weight and long on fight scenes and guest shots. Instead of comics excelling at what make comics great, competing with their own past to figure out what made the great stories great and then one-upping it you get comics playing at being movies, and crap movies at that.

CASEY: Don't get me wrong... those guys that were slugging it out, working month-in, month-out, are some of my favorite comicbook creators of all. And I think the reason for that is... they understood exactly what you're talking about. But, obviously, anyone who knows what a story is will understand what you're talking about.

So, lemme ask you... what does/did make great stories great, in your opinion? What is that component that, for some reason, seems to be missing in the modern mainstream landscape? Why aren't IDENTITY CRISIS or SINS PAST going to be remembered as "classic stories"? Or will they be remembered as such (which would suggest that the very definition of a "classic story" has somehow changed with the times)?

FRACTION: A sense of complete-ness was my immediate gut response. And we've been dancing with and around that in the column a lot, it seems. When I think of my favorite comics stories, even if they're part of an ongoing title, there's a pure, defined start and stop. It's a fully formed thought, you know? There's a feeling of permanence to what it's about-- it doesn't feel like a stunt or gag or artificial-- these were stories grounded in something other than the desire to be on top a Wizard list or a Diamond list. And mostly? I don't know that there was a desire by the creators to create a "classic story," you know? Like, I think Roy Thomas and Neal Adams-- I think it was them, right?-- just wanted to do an Avengers story with the Kree and the Skrull. Nothing reads like they were thinking, hoo, boy, this is one for the ages. They weren't self-conscious like that, I guess. I think Walt Simonson sat down to do THOR because he had all these crazy ideas and nobody was going to say boo. I think Howard Chaykin probably figured he was the smartest kid in the room and wanted to prove it with AMERICAN FLAGG!.

Does it ever feel to you sometimes like a lot of books these days are long on quips but short on guts? And I don't mean courage, although you could make that argument, too. I mean, like, substance? Weight? Oomph? I don't even know what the word is.

CASEY: Well, yeah. That's where this whole Great Writing vs. Great Stories comes from. And I've been guilty as hell on this front myself. Although, in my own defense, some of my best stories were happening in series that didn't sell well enough to finish them... but that's a different cross to bear.

I think you're right... the classics didn't set out with the intention to be classic. They just set out to be good stories. I just don't know if that's such a priority anymore, at least as far as superhero comicbooks are concerned. Plenty of writers are coming up with interesting set-ups, occasionally crafting great moments, but that seems to be about it. Pitching a story can certainly be about asking a question -- "What would happen to the Avengers after their worst day ever?" "How would the heroes of the DCU react if the murder of one of their wives made it seem like their secret identities were being compromised?" "What would happen if, back in the day, the Green Goblin fucked Gwen Stacy?" -- but writers need to know the answers to those questions. And the really great stories contain an answer that overwhelms the original set-up in a great and emotionally resonant manner. That's where the "weight," the "oomph" comes from. A lack of self-conscious doesn't have to equate lack of thought. In fact, I'd say that getting out of your own way allows for you to concentrate solely on executing the story...

FRACTION: Wait, what? The Green Goblin fucked Gwen Stacy?

Like, that's continuity now?

CASEY: Yeah, I think so. I think that's what the whole SINS PAST storyline is all about, retconning a sexual encounter between Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy that produced some little babies. I didn't read It, so I can't be sure that's what happened, but that's the gist of the cross-chatter I heard about It. Maybe the comic itself kicked ass, but it's still pretty disturbing to me…

FRACTION: That's awful.

CASEY: Yeah, kinda.

FRACTION: Okay. Uh… yeah, shit. Okay.

Well, I agree with you about getting out of your own way. Maybe we're both saying the same thing-- there seems to be a vocally aggressive obsession with the top of the charts. That stories are being written like Sweeps Week stunts and an eye on being in Wizard first and foremost, and not just being written?

I mean, it's not a universal truth, obviously, but it sure seems like a trend, don't it?

CASEY: I think there's a sense of turning Success into a Conscious Act. Like it's by sheer force of will that you can connect with an audience in the same way your favorite stories connected to you when you were a kid reading comicbooks. But if that's the attitude, there's already a taint to it. Sure, it's a commercial venture and selling books is a priority... but when it starts to become the creators' priority instead of the publishers' priority, the rot sets in.

What makes a good story just ain't the same as, "What makes a good story for WIZARD Magazine".

FRACTION: Yeah-- yeah, exactly. But then again, the market doesn't necessarily reward other kinds of thinking and what makes a good story for WIZARD always seems to muscle its way up the chart. What a brilliant insight, right? It feels like such a petty and jealous kind of thing to complain about, and it's the kind of thing people-- myself included-- have been whining about for years but it speaks to a real problem with publishing strategies. What's good for the publisher isn't always good for the industry. Sweeps stunts are just that, stunts. It proves how many people you can get to pay attention to you when you pull off a stunt. Whereas if there was more energy devoted to pointing out the best work that's being done, and pointing it out not as an exception, not as a "sleeper hit" or any other bullshit qualification, but as undeniably great work, it might help narrow the gap on the mid-list where all kinds of books simply aren't given the chance to thrive that they deserve because, you know, Jim Lee isn't going to draw it.

I mean, there's a reason DC and Marvel haven't been able to launch a new character franchise, you know?

CASEY: Heh... that must be your mantra. You've brought that point up several times in the past...

I guess I'm wondering what it takes to convince publishers, WIZARD, the retail community, etc. that good stories can be the answer to some of our woes, if they're all willing to get behind that concept. DC is the best at it, in terms of making a convincing argument that their philosophy is, in fact, stories over stunts. But that just might be slicker marketing at work...

FRACTION: Wow, I do keep bringing it up. I dunno, I guess it worries me? Or fascinates me, more like-- why hasn't it happened, you know? Would anyone recognize it if it was happening again? Because yeah, like you say, it seems stories over stunts just isn't the way things have been working. And if there's one truism about the marketplace, it's that superheroes are the cornerstone and nobody wants to change that; shouldn't there be a mix of the new and old instead of half-hearted stabs and comfort-level maintenance jobs? And that's it, that's what it boils down to, I guess: good books in a healthy market.

CASEY: And good books contain more than sharp writing, evocative artwork and characters that connect... they contain good stories. It's an equation that only works with all the variables.

It's not rocket science. It's just plain ol' math. But maybe we've lost our calculators, our ability to add and subtract, our long division skills...

Tell you what. If I read a purely great story in the mainstream as we know it -- I'm talking about setting the bar fucking high and seeing if anything comes close to it -- I'll let you know. Hell, I'll be dancing on the rooftops. Thing is, you can always appreciate Great Writing. But Great Stories… those motherfuckers can be inspirational. And, as a writer, what would you rather be doing…?

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