The Basement Tapes: Issue #30

Tue, March 8th, 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.

"Comics are words and pictures; you can do anything with words and pictures," said Harvey Pekar, and if you've ever read an issue of DEVIL DINOSAUR you know he's right. As we've certainly bloviated an awful lot about the words side of the equation, this TAPES finds us looking at the other side of the equation. Reverse engineer that hoary old "where-do-you-get-your-ideas" gag far enough and you find out the answer isn't what you read, but what you see...

FRACTION: Not too long ago, I went back looking at some of the comics I remembered loving as a kid, the books that helped push me out of just reading into the realm of collecting. As kids, I know a lot of people tapped into the power fantasy aspect of comics, but that escaped me-- for a while, anyway. No, the connections I saw in my own early triggers were all escapist in nature-- the bigger, the weirder, the better-- and had this fantastic art that buttressed the ideas along with the story. In some cases I hadn't seen these books in twenty years and I could still get completely transfixed by the art. I found that I remembered some books chapter and verse, even down to printing errors.

That's some heavy shit, you know? Twenty years on and I remembered the page and panel where a hand didn't get colored, or where the zipatone lifted and folded back when the film got shot. And there were these visual consistencies that linked disparate books together, common components throughout, a very clear list of visual elements that hold my attention. To parse them out was kind of cool.

The effect of seeing all this stuff again felt like I'd just thrown a shovel-full of coal onto some internal furnace-- as comics are such a visual medium, all this great old stuff to look at tossed a big bunch of fuel onto the fire. What about you? Do you ever feel compelled to hunt down visual information; does it feed into your work?

CASEY: Yeah, some comics -- or films -- are just there for me to look at endlessly. I just drink them in. They might not provide all that much on a story level or a writing level, but there's a vibe there... just from my eyes taking in the imagery.

I've always said, comicbooks -- no matter how well they're written -- aren't fulfilling their potential if they don't look cool. I push for that in most of my work. Hell, look at THE INTIMATES. I'm desperately trying to imprint even a few stylistic touches -- purely visual cues -- onto whoever's reading that series. As you point out, those kinds of impressions can end up being the most powerful over time.

Don't get me started on the smell of old newsprint comics from the 70's. Talk about a sense memory experience...!

FRACTION: We're still in the process of getting the house set up and for the time being my office is holding all the books-- every now and again I walk into the room and it smells like paper and it's awesome.

So there's an interview with Bendis in the new COMICS JOURNAL and he talks about seeing VISIONS OF LIGHT, the cinematography documentary, and how it was a revelation-- hearing noir cinematography named "noir cinematography," and seeing that other people were doing what he was doing was a big important thing in his development. And I can relate to that- cinematography and set dressing get me riled up all the time. I grab stills from DVDs and keep 'em for reference.

CASEY: Makes you wish you were an artist, huh...?

I do think the purely visual cues in comicbooks are probably the most elusive elements of the art form. At the same time, they're also the most instinctual for the really good artists out there. Some guys are naturalists... Steve Dillon, Sean Phillips, Charlie Adlard, Dave Gibbons. Some guys are cartoonists... Eisner, Darwyn Cooke, Paul Pope, Paul Grist. Some guys are expressionists... Kirby, Jack Cole, Ditko, Gene Colan. Others are realists... Hitch, Cassaday, Steve Epting, Michael Lark. In each of these areas, the "automatic thinking" that seems to go on never ceases to amaze me.

To read a story without reading the words... I dunno, there's something magical about that skill. It's definitely an area of the medium where I'm a guy standing on the outside, looking in (as most pure writers undoubtedly are).

FRACTION: Yeah, definitely. It's a sort of eureka moment when you start figuring out how to distribute the weight of your writing between what's read and what's seen. Knowing who I'm writing for helps, too. I feel like I can maybe tailor what I'm doing towards them, towards not only their strengths but towards whatever it is I love about their work, you know? Purely selfish. And then figure out maybe what I think I need to handle, and what I know they can handle and how to find the right balance. A lot of my learning curve has been about letting go of ego and not feeling compelled to micro-manage the shit out every panel and page. Embracing the collaboration starts when you realize your partner's strengths and how to play to them.

It occurs to me that I rarely go to comics looking for comics inspiration. Or at least American comics, I guess. I scavenge stuff from all over, be it the kind of pure design I encounter or help produce in my day-job to obtuse magazine photography decades old (the best, best, best source for location photography, as far as I'm concerned), film from all over. Maybe there's some connection between the act of seeing and the act of thinking in visual terms?

CASEY: I think I burned through all of my comics-specific influences in the first few years of my career. At this point, my work has become so intrinsic to my life that I couldn't tell you where I draw inspiration from. From everywhere, I guess. I think the optimum creative loop is that you're simply taking in and absorbing everything all the time and constantly putting it in your work. Everything all the time.

Even when I'm writing comicbooks (which is essentially giving directions and suggestions to the artist), I'm trying to get out of my own way, and let some sort of natural, non-thinking process take over. I think I've even given up on the "writing to the artist's strengths"-tip that I used to try and adhere to 100%. It's become more about asking myself... are there visual cues that I haven't seen before, that no one's attempted before? And I know damn well that, even with the best explanations, the most detailed descriptions, no artist is going to be completely in my head with me... so the fun is seeing how they interpret something that hopefully has no precedents to begin with. In the best instances, it just adds yet another layer of originality. At least, that's the hope...

FRACTION: Sure. And it's a comfort thought: I always figured that if I could recognize what I felt were ways to improve someone else's work then sooner or later I'd be about to recognize ways to improve my own, you know?

And sometimes I find a tremendous benefit to just wandering around and letting whatever you encounter spark the connections in your head. I like going to used bookstores and glancing around at titles and covers, waiting to misread something or catch a glimpse of a phrase out of the corner of my eye. A big event in JUAREZ came from that kind of random trolling for puzzle pieces; a misread book cover became a plot point. Which, I don't know, feels like a technique that's kinda right for comics, in its way. Like trying to apply one medium's techniques to another, you know?

Let me wrap it up with what will eventually be a question to you: it looks like most comics in the mainstream-- most, but certainly not all-- have somehow lost their connection to the primal power that make comics a visual medium. They feel like impressions of other mediums, almost; rare is the comic that embraces being a comic. It's like comics aspire to be storyboards or FX concept sketches instead of comics. What can be done to break that?

CASEY: Well, the lure of Hollywood has changed that most of all. And, of course, the precedent for that was the formation of Image Comics, where the artists took control and, aside from a few notable exceptions, produced some fairly substandard comicbooks that still got optioned for film and TV for sizable chunks of change. That sends a pretty strong message... one that doesn't have much to do with making great comicbooks.

I think it's gotten to the point where some readers won't even accept or won't bother truly embracing comics that aren't easily translatable to other media. It's like saying, "Why should I care about this new book? All it's ever going to be is a comicbook, so why invest myself in it? If I can't go see the movie or watch the cartoon or play the video game, what's the point...?" And that might be the most cynical thing I've ever said in this column, but I fear it's the truth.

Obviously, I agree with you. When I was pimping AUTOMATIC KAFKA, I told press that the series was designed to be a comicbook and only a comicbook... that it was so weird and twisted that I knew it would never be optioned for anything or be anything other than what it was supposed to be: a comicbook. At the time, that was a radical thing for a creator to say. Some people thought I was limiting myself somehow. But I didn't see it like that. Hell, I was looking for some sort of purity of expression. Something that couldn't be co-opted. I guess that makes me the stupid motherfucker, huh...?

FRACTION: Only if you Alan Moore-d a phat, six-figure, check for The $tranger$ Underoo$ or something. That would've been ill-conceived. Otherwise, nah, you're fine.

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.