The Basement Tapes: Issue #31

Tue, March 15th, 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.

"The End." The two most beautiful words in the English language, second only to maybe "Free Sammiches" and "Dead Clown." What's it mean when you cross that finish line and hit the lights on your way out? Is it a relief or a pain? What's the way your particular world ends? A bang or a whimper?

FRACTION: When I wrapped up JUAREZ, I said my head felt hot and empty-- and it did, and I don't know how to explain it any better than that. Something about shoving that last chunk out of my skull left me wiped out for a couple days. I've always figured getting to the end of a short, or a single, or a graphic novel should be this big, massive reverie. It never is. I'm left sorta stoned by it all and it takes a day or two to get my shit together again. Is this weird? Does it ring a bell? What happens after you type "The End" and start figuring out what's next?

CASEY: Some stories have to be burned out of you, like a fever. It's a draining experience on one level, but I actually think it's a really healthy way of doing things. It's those moments where you really feel like you brought something out of yourself, something from deep inside your own twisted mind. You can own that fuckin' experience...!

I think writing the end of a story is like the end of a huge exhale. What follows is obviously an inhale... where you're taking in the world around you again, gearing up for the next exhale.

What else can I say... at that point, you're a living, breathing writer. And what could be better than that...?

FRACTION: I think "living" might be pushing it, honestly-- I seriously feel brain dead when I'm done. I want, like, applesauce and a puppy and pretty colors. It's still heavy to me, you know? Crossing the finish line is still a thing.

So, I've had deadlines, and I've had lots and lots of deadlines, but JUAREZ was the first time when I had a regular... world?... that I was checking into on a regular basis like that. What's it like crossing the finish line on a regular, indefinite, monthly book?

Because, see, I had a friend who was a mailman, and one time, I asked him what was up with mailmen going crazy and shooting people. And he didn't even hesitate to answer; he just said "Because the job's never done," like, there's always more mail. It doesn't matter how hard you worked today, and it doesn't matter how hard you're gonna work tomorrow, because the day after there's always more mail. A regular modern-day Sisyphus, your friendly mailman. Do you ever get that kind of fatigue?

CASEY: Well, on a monthly book, the idea is that there is no real "finish line" to cross. You've always got to tend to the overall momentum. I've left more series for non-story reasons... switch of artists that I didn't agree with, cancellation, editorial nonsense... so, for me, the job is done when either myself or the readers have had enough. There's more fatigue concerning the state of the marketplace where those factors do influence the ability to organically end a story you start up for the purest of reasons.

But to type those words, "the end" can be a pretty heavy thing for a writer. It's like the thing you're working toward the entire time, and yet if you're enjoying the process, you never really want to get there. I expected to feel some sort of depression when I finished writing EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES, because it was such a personally heavy fanboy project. And I was absolutely right. I did feel a bit of depression, a sense of saying goodbye to old friends.

But what occurs after that sense of emotional decompression... is that you realize you've cleared the deck for some new passion to emerge. Some new story begins to become a priority. When you take a step back from the cycle, it can look a bit exhausting. But, in mainstream comicbooks, that's the job...

FRACTION: You said that sometimes the job is done when you've had enough-- I read Bendis saying that when he wrote what ended up being the last issue of ALIAS, he just knew that he was done with ALIAS-- is it that much of a stop-sign? Like, do you see it coming at all? Or do you just wrap up one day and sit back surprised that you're done?

CASEY: You're asking the wrong writer, brutha. Most of my "the ends" have been determined by length, more than anything. EMH was eight issues long. MILKMAN MURDERS was four. BATMAN: TENSES was two. That's mainly how I see it coming. I'm not a writer that has the luxury of wrapping up all my loose ends in a leisurely fashion, whenever I feel like I'm "ready" to end things.

But it's cool. I'm also a structure guy, so those imposed limitations are actually something of a comfort, rather than a creative straightjacket. Nothing about the ending itself is a surprise... I see it coming before I've written Page One.

FRACTION: Do you find yourself stalling, the closer you come to the end? I have a tendency to meet the bare minimum of requirements to stay a scoonch ahead of a deadline-- part of it is I like having the pressure a deadline inflicts, I like the physical sensation that goes along with it and how it affects what I'm writing-- but a larger part of it is I just don't want to leave. Does that make sense?

CASEY: Sure. As a writer, what you're writing inhabits your mind so fully (in the best circumstances) that it's literally alive for you, the characters live and breathe. They think and feel. Of course, a lot of that is in the writer's mind... but there's that sense of, "If I can just get what's in my head onto the actual page... then the readers will feel the way I do about these characters and their story".

The fact is, that rarely happens. But that's where the stalling tactics come from. That sense of wanting to cram in more, to explore more, to get your readers as close to your appreciation and knowledge of the characters and the events that happen to them.

But I think that's ultimately a trap worth avoiding. Because, in comicbooks especially, the reader is providing their own interpretation, bringing their own experiences to the characters on the page. That's where the magic is, y'know? You're really just giving them a starting point for their own imaginations...

FRACTION: I'm not entirely sure that's what goes on with me, although what you're saying totally makes sense. It's an alarming kind of disconnect, going from one world back into this one, and I like to avoid dealing with the abrupt transition. It's like going into a trance-state; you're sculpting this world in your head and living in it and learning about it and growing it and then... that's it, you're done. Like, when I think back to when I was using drugs, I realize my favorite times weren't being high, but coming down. That soft, lilting sort of fade-in back to Earth, that was what always felt best to me-- like the joke about the guy that hits himself with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.

When you get to the end of the story and it's like yanking the cable out of a modem. The dataflow just STOPS. I think I draw it out sometimes because stopping feels like crap.

Man, that just sounds so stupid and up-my-own-ass I don't even know what to say.

CASEY: Yeah, right... are you sure you're not still on those drugs...?

But it is an incredibly abrupt feeling, to realize once and for all that you really have no more thoughts to put toward a story. When it's done, it's done.

It's a strange relationship the writer has with his or her own works of fiction. I think, even more so than any reader could experience, these things are alive for the writer. And I guess that means the end of a story is somewhat akin to death, in a lot of ways. I know I've mourned a story or two ending...

FRACTION: Yeah. On the flip side, though, when it comes back to you as a completed piece, drawn and inked and colored and lettered and all that, it takes on a whole new sort of life. It's come back to you, and yet it's this entirely new thing you get to interact with all over again.

CASEY: Hopefully, something better. And that's where the cool part of creating these things can really come into play. And that sort of plays into my own motto for collaborating... always work with people who are better than you are, not people who think they're better than you.

But I suppose even parents mourn when their kid moves away or heads off to college or gets married or whatever. They know it's for the best, but there's still a bit of melancholy involved. That's kinda' how I feel when great work experiences come to an end.

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