The Basement Tapes: Issue #35

Tue, April 12th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

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.

If it's getting warm, it must be time for your annual massive mega-event crossover. You know the kind: the comic industry's equivalent of a summer blockbuster around which a year of releases and marketing is planned, these strum-und-drangbangs rage and riot and run rip-shod over new comics and New Comics Day. Because you, we're told, demanded it. Nothing gold can stay, Pony-Boy. Nor silver nor bronze, apparently, and as DC gets to market first with the laboriously titled Countdown to Infinite Crisis, we asked ourselves, as much of comics fandom seems to be doing, "What the hell?"

CASEY: In his review of (deep breath) COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS, web critic and Ninth Art contributor, Paul O'Brien, said something that definitely stuck with me for a myriad of reasons. O'Brien does a weekly review thang called the X-Axis, which can sometimes be a highly entertaining read, even when he took me to task on the odd smear on my career that was UNCANNY X-MEN. Although I'll never understand the letter grades he assigns at the end of each review (which don't always seem to quite match up to the content of the reviews), he's definitely a reviewer that delves a little deeper in his analyses that your run-of-the-mill comicbook reviewer. That alone makes him worth reading.

So, back to COUNTDOWN. He basically had many of the same gripes that it seems a lot of the Internet comicbook community had, but beyond that, he had this to say about the overall approach of the book, which climaxes with former Justice Leaguer, Blue Beetle, getting a pill in the temple, execution-style, from a former friend and JLI colleague, Max Lord, resulting in some graphic Phil Jimenez brain splatter...

"Loudly insisting that you're above childish things isn't a sign of maturity. It's a sign of adolescence."

I found that to be a fairly salient point. After all, we are talking about superhero comicbooks here. When you take a step back, there's a disturbing ridiculousness to... the Blue Beetle gets shot in the head. I mean, at the very least, aren't these things supposed to be a bit of a romp? A good dose of fun? You can mine the heights of emotion and engage the readership without resorting to Fox News-style shock tactics. Even if that readership is primarily twentysomething and thirtysomething males, shouldn't there still be some attempt at pure escapism when it comes to these kind of Event Comics?

FRACTION: I ran by a shop the other day and picked the book up because, well, I figured ten jillion people were gonna read it and talk about it and, too, you know, fuck, I'm away from home, I'm working my ass off, and I thought big dumb and fun could be, well, big dumb and fun.

And I guess where I'm coming from is... Is it even about the Event? I mean-- it's BLUE BEETLE. He got his powers from a MAGIC BEETLE. And then? He dressed up like a BLUE BEETLE, and flew around inside of his-- you guessed it-- BLUE BEETLE and had some crimes happen around him. And now he's been drilled in the head. WOOOOoooo. I guess I just like fun, you know? I don't mind dark; I like dark. I write dark. Dark's fine. But... I dunno, appropriate dark. Like IDENTITY CRISIS before it, COUNTDOWN feels like an awkward and forced fit. O'Brien's turn of phrase seems pretty on.

Now, that said, isn't all of this prelude, and isn't the titular Infinite Crisis itself a move towards DC hitting some kind of candy colored reset button to set the wayback machine a little bit? Isn't this whole exercise in bleak and brain matter a journey back to The Way We Were?

CASEY: Well, this Blue Beetle didn't even have superpowers. You're thinking of the original Blue Beetle, who did have superpowers via a magic scarab. Ladies and gentlemen, I just got my geek on…

And maybe you're right. I'm not privy to the inner machinations of DC Editorial, so I honestly have no idea where this is all going. But let's say your assumptions are correct. Then the question becomes (for me, anyway), does the end justify the means? I mean, this is no Joseph Campbell hero's journey... this is a Spider-Man derivative that just got shot in the head.

Let's go one step further... if it is a move to take the DCU back to some shiny, happy continuum, then you have to ask yourself, "why?" Who exactly is the audience that demands such a shiny, happy DCU? Let's say it's an attempt to get the kids back, the readership demo that -- theoretically -- is naturally attracted to superhero comicbooks (as I was when I was six years old). Is a fatal head shot shown on panel in all its bloody glory the appropriate dramatic device to getting those kids back? And if it's getting even more twentysomething and thirtysomething males back into superhero comicbooks... well, I'd have to ask what's the hell is the point of that?

Except, of course, to make money. And, hey, this is America, so there ain't nothing wrong with that. But then you might as well call the thing COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CASH and at least be completely honest about It.

FRACTION: "A Spider-Man derivative that just got shot in the head." Pshh. Some romantic you are.

See, I don't personally feel that COUNTDOWN is the way to get that audience back (because they don't exist anymore) so much as it seems-- based on reading the special and based on whatever speculation passes for conventional wisdom-- that this is a way to take the existing audience back to Shiny and have a narrative bridge to lead the way you know? My pal Pete Siegel was just explaining to me how they've brought Hal Jordan back-- it seems like The Powers That Be are indeed trying to return to the good old days somehow and are just knocking themselves out trying to get there and have it make, well, if not sense, then at least have it all make 'comic sense.' It's sorta sweet, in a way.

I don't think it's going to get anyone 'back' but it might make the place more hospitable to people like me that don't know there's a Blue Beetle with a magic scarab and one without. Might make the place more accommodating, you know?

CASEY: But the "good old days"... whose days are they? I guess that's what I'm trying to wrap my head around. Producing Shiny new superhero comicbooks... why would anyone need a "narrative bridge" to get there? Just fucking Shine On and get on with it, y'know? I'm getting sick of the idea that grown men (again, that's the basic readership demo we're talking about here) need to have their fucking hands held and slowly led to the promised land. If that's how we see our readership... that they need or require that kind of gradual manipulation... then we're in worse trouble than I thought.

Not to throw a bunch of your terms back at you, but I think a DC Universe -- one that consists of basically magical characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern and the Flash -- that is more "hospitable" in any sense of the word is a DC Universe that, by that definition, shouldn't really appeal to the current readership at all. That hospitality should be extended to the next generation of readers... the kids who haven't seen it all a million times before, that aren't jaded by lame marketing events, that don't have the bias that age automatically brings.

I'm actually trying to find the romance in all of this. I really am. I want it. Hell, there's a piece of me that's desperate for it. But it's getting tougher and tougher...

FRACTION: Yeah, no, I mean... I like the stories where Flash gets turned into stuff, you know? Like wood, or a shark. Those are sweeeeet. And I very much think that DC is going to meticulously walk readers every step of the way to wherever it is they'd like to go. Lest we forget, my friend, this is, in fact, merely the COUNTDOWN to the Infinite Crisis and not the Infinite Crisis itself. Which is, as the title suggests, Infinite. This? This is but the paradoxical counting down. To infinity. And then? Then to crisis.

I guess it's like the talking bits in porno movies. The fast-forward-y bits. They get written, cast, blocked, framed, lit, filmed, and recorded, then transferred and edited even though everyone at every step along the way fully expects those bits to be wholly ignored. Only, here, instead of fucking, people get shot in the head. People want the fucking Joe. Why don't you give them the fucking?

I would like to believe that DC are trying to go home again in a way that's both narratively satisfying and rewarding to long-time readers that don't want a giant reset button spontaneously struck and, at the same time, I would like to believe DC is wanting to find their way out of the stubble and rape and head-shots. Of course, that's a lot of supposition. Maybe it's all about a giant cosmic thing that's going to shoot some rays and diddle the continuity so that the Spectre or whomever comes back.

The question I have, though, is... is there a tie between this and the ALL STAR books? Are, perhaps, the ALL STAR books in fact new flagship titles and not Ultimate-style separate-but-equal deals?

CASEY: If they're as successful as I think they're going to be... then probably yes, they'll be the new DC flagship books. At the very least, that'll end up being the general perception. But I haven't heard that there's any editorial tie between the two. Just more branding within the brand...

I really think that, in mainstream monthly superhero comicbooks, the journey is more important than the destination, y'know? I mean, that's what people end up remembering. So, in the end, will more people remember the Infinite Ending and the arrival of Shiny DC (if, in fact, that's what's going to ultimately occur) or will they remember the fact that Blue Beetle took one in the noggin?

Comparing it to pornography... there's something so right on about that.

FRACTION: Right but- I mean, it makes a kind of sense, doesn't it? With the big guns on the flagship titles of the Shinyverse, the rest fills out the flanks for the hard core. But instead of weird pocket universes or whatever, it's all one thing. It wouldn't be the worst idea, I guess, but then again I don't have the marketing research and development staff that DC has.

History remembers the winners-- if DC usurps Marvel for the top numbers, if the whole of the mainstream embraces what comes next-- then Blue Beetle'll be an unfortunate speedbump on the road to the conquering heroes of Frank Miller's BATMAN and Grant Morrison's SUPERMAN. People will remember and read a winner. Today's Blue Beetle today is yesterday's George Perez's drawing of Dead Supergirl. We will never forget.

CASEY: Has it come to that? I thought, when it comes to works of fiction art, history remembers the quality. The idea that we're dealing in "winners" and "losers" when it comes to art is pretty fucking sad.

I hate when I sound naive. But, goddammit, sometimes that's the only headspace you can go to that feels genuine. I just get to that place where I do a gut check or something equally pathetic and just break down and ask myself, "Would John Broome have done something like this? Would he have agreed to do it? Would he have even entertained it as an idea?"

I dunno... maybe he would have. But, in my whole little fantasy world where I actually put my artistic heroes up on pedestals, he wouldn't have gone near this.

FRACTION: Yeah, no, I mean-- there's a reason he fucked off to teach English in Japan, you know?

I mean, all the rumbling about HOUSE OF M seems to suggest Marvel's looking to make some changes, too, and to do it all in a way that makes some sort of narrative sense. There's no way around this kind of thing. This is the way it is.

CASEY: I think the real dramatic confrontations won't occur in the pages of any mainstream comicbook. It's the battles fought on the retailer front lines... HOUSE OF M vs. INFINITE CRISIS. Event vs. Event. And it's a bloodthirsty battle for the Reader That's Seen It All, my friend... one that comes with a high body count.

If I were, I dunno, Geo-Force or Moon Knight or some other C-list character... I'd watch my back. Or, at the very least, armor my fucking head...

FRACTION: Moon Knight was rad. I sure hope he's not been out a'rapin'.

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.