The Basement Tapes: Issue #36

Tue, April 19th, 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.

Could an awful truth be staring us right in the face? Is there a down side to the concept of comicbook celebrity? Is this the kind of stupid shit you constantly see on the E! Channel? Are we exploiting the talent pool? Why waste an entire column about the perils of being rich and famous creators for the big superhero publishers? Well, why not? We've got columns to fill, and it ain't like these are sacred cows…

CASEY: In our list-obsessed society, our own little culture has its own lists that seem to mean something... to somebody, anyway. We've got the Diamond Top 300 (new and improved! Now based on actual sales!) and, of course, the Wizard Top Ten writers/artists. I'd say these two lists have some tangential relationship with each other... in so far as the curious effect they can have on the creators who occupy the upper echelons of both lists.

Now, I'm not gonna name names, because I've heard some people don't like that. So lets just talk about... Creator Q. A fictional creator, but one that fits our discussion purposes. This particular creator is on the Wizard Top Ten, with a gig (or two) on a big franchise book (or two) from one of the Big Two (or two... wait, never mind). Creator Q is riding high on the financial rewards and fan adulation that comes with those particular circumstances. Pretty soon, Creator Q has achieved "big name" status in our industry. And more power to Creator Q, I say.

But let's think about Creator Q for a minute. Let's ponder his (or her) circumstances. For instance, think about the double-edged sword that comes with being a big name talent these days. Forget the money and the adulation. That shit's too easy. What are the career expectations placed upon Creator Q? Having risen up through the ranks, does Creator Q have what we all secretly dream of: Complete freedom to do whatever the hell they want to do? Do they finally have what we've affectionately referred to as Fuck Fame?

Of course not.

Someone once said that maintaining success is much more difficult than achieving it. I don't know if that's 100% true... actually, I wouldn't know (self-deprecation alert!)... but in our so-called mainstream, maintaining success, more often than not, involves putting yourself firmly on the treadmill whether you like it or not. And, at that level, there's really only one treadmill...

Spider-Man to Batman to X-Men to Superman to JLA to All-Star Icon Character to Avengers to the Hulk to Ultimate Whatever to Prestigious Franchise Relaunch to Batman to Wolverine to Company-Wide Crossover to X-Men to Spider-Man and so on and so on and so on...

Any idea where we're going with this...?

FRACTION: Of course! You, like Creator Q, are running straight back to Maggie's Farm because that, apparently, is the only place to find work.

The market is designed to support only product from Maggie's Farm, the consumers are used to only Maggie's Farm brand and make of products, and, what's more, Maggie's Farm enjoys its sparse selection of crops and rather than take the time to learn how to cultivate new crops, or the market to sell those crops at, or the consumers eager to try new crops, Maggie's Farm chooses to roll old school, Maggie's Farm chooses to keep it real and grow what they know.

...Okay. I think that metaphor's ready for retirement, yeah?

Long story short: it's a closed circuit. All roads lead to home.

CASEY: Look, I should be clear that Creator Q ain't me. I mean, I'm not trying to be clever here. Not at all. Admittedly, I might've brushed against Creator Q status a few years ago. Certainly I did a few laps on the treadmill. But I was never really built to be a Creator Q (as much of fandom would rise up to agree with me). So in this instance, I'm a spectator just like most everyone else is.

But I am sympathizing with Creator Q...

... I do think there's some pressure with being a Big Name in the mainstream. I've even heard a professional or two I respect verbalize it. But there's a pressure to stay on that treadmill. To keep feeding the machine. Pressure from fans, from retailers... hell, from the publishers and those in power there. What they want from Creator Q... as opposed to what's the most creatively rewarding to Creator Q.

In practical terms... no one much cares that Jim Lee even attempted a book like DIVINE RIGHT, but they do fucking circus backflips when he does BATMAN. And with all the success he's had on the big franchise characters (not to mention the explosion that'll undoubtedly occur when Frank Miller is writing the scripts), I still say that if Jim did DIVINE RIGHT II or some other left-of-center, creator-owned endeavor... the response would be muted, at best. And, the majority of fans, retailers and even fellow professionals would be asking, "When's Jim going back to Batman?" Hell, DC probably doesn't want Jim mucking around on creator-owned work. Why would they, when they can make bucket loads of money when he draws Superman or Batman?

I don't necessarily think it's a broken system, per se. I'm just pointing out that it exists. Writing the big, franchise characters or spearheading some mega-crossover Event can definitely be good fun, if that's where your headspace as a creator is at that time. But to be somehow -- albeit subtly -- cornered into doing just that because Creator Q has worked his way up the ranks... I dunno. Seems a little... off to me.

FRACTION: No, it's not broken at all, it's a perfect system that exists solely to perpetuate itself.

I'm trying to think now of superstars, of Creator Qs that just fucked off and did their own thing. Miller, of course, only he's not been opposed to coming back now and again. Travis Charest certainly could've written his own ticket for somebody else when he went to work with Humanoids. Maybe that's the thing, like, you hit that Creator Q status and you know you can go away and work for whomever doing whatever you want and have a certain amount of good will waiting for you on the way back.

As long as it starts with the capes and the tights and the whatnots.

I can think of a lot more guys that left and haven't been able to find their way back. Or guys that just sorta faded away...

CASEY: Well, you can't hold Creator Q responsible for whatever he (or she) decides to do. If you wanna work, you work in the system... because being outside of it generally means you're not working. Not for money, anyway.

And I don't know if Creator Q can go away and do whatever the hell they want, secure in the knowledge that the treadmill is waiting for them when they get back. I think it used to be like that, but the culture has gotten more and more myopic as time goes on. Or the collective attention span has just gotten that much shorter. When exclusive contracts are used as weapons or dicks to swing in the wind -- which, I should add, is perfectly acceptable behavior on a purely business level -- then Creator Q is no longer a creator... Creator Q is a commodity.

Now ask any writer or artist if they got into this to become a fucking commodity...

FRACTION: I know, right? But isn't that the way the market's set up? It commodifies talent because it can't learn how to commodify anything else, at least not in the long-term. The ever-elusive microbrand remains the fucking Bigfoot of comics.

Look at what's just happened with Humanoids and 2000 AD over at DC-- two of the most popular and prestigious lines of comics in the world (Humanoids sold literally millions of copies of their books in Europe last year) and the market is engineered in such a way that if a brand can't just sell itself, it dies on the vine.

I think this is what's so frustrating and sad about what the writer's era of 99-00. The pendulum swung over to the writers, but instead of trying to make a thing like Image, they largely went back to the treadmill. There was a chance to create something real and lasting, maybe, in the way that Image is real and lasting-- we'd seen it a few years earlier with something like GORILLA, ook ook, and maybe as such everyone was frightened off. If Messrs. Waid, Busiek, Perez, et al, couldn't pull off a boutique imprint, how could anyone else, right?

Still. It seems like the momentum was there, you know? But everyone wanted to write Superman or whatever.

OK, hypothetical time: let's say Bendis, Whedon, Loeb, Millar, Johns, Morrison, and Ellis decide tomorrow, hey, let's see what happens if we all quit the Big Two and start a company Image-style. Let's all of us work on our own creator-owned, creator-invented comic and see what happens. How do you think the market would respond to such a beast?

CASEY: Honestly, I'm too jaded to entertain a hypothetical that is so beyond reality. Besides, we don't have to go there, do we...? Not to mention the fact -- one that I've stated before -- that the so-called Writer-Driven Era is basically over.

But I do see your intention with such a question. And I think you know the answer... we saw it happen fifteen years ago with the Image art guys.

And, then as now, the treadmill rolls on. Good luck, Creator Q, wherever you are.

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