The Basement Tapes: Issue #39

Tue, May 10th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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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.

EISNER/MILLER, a massive, rollicking, and seemingly all-encompassing book collecting a series of ongoing conversations between Will Eisner and Frank Miller was published last week. Going where HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT and CONVERSATIONS WITH WILDER had gone prior, the book adopted a fascinating model of back-and-forth conversation between two iconoclast creators from two very different eras... talking shop. Eisner's passion for this kind of thing was evident from his previous SHOP TALK collection, but it's between the covers of a work like EISNER/MILLER that a new kind of bar is raised.

FRACTION: I'm a little hesitant to do a TAPES on the finally-fucking-published EISNER/MILLER book from Dark Horse-- 300 some pages of freewheeling and candid conversations between, uh, comic's Orson Welles and Martin Scorcese in the sprit of HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT and... well, it's a familiar format to say the least and it's being done by these two giants of the industry and the art-form. Well. Between its covers they span everything from the minutiae of zipatone technique to the big, broad, What Does It All Mean issues. I tore through it in a long night and next day plane flight.

So, then, without getting too terribly meta about the whole thing, what'd you think?

CASEY: Well, there's certainly no question of its poignancy, now that Eisner is no longer with us. I read most of it the day it came out and while nothing particularly stuck with me like some pseudo-Oprah lightbulb moment, I definitely got a charge reading their conversations. Especially these two. There certainly wouldn't have been a Frank Miller as we know him without Will Eisner...

I think, in the end, the book is more personality-driven than it is essential reading for the art form. Eisner already gave us one of those with COMICS & SEQUENTIAL ART. This was more a peek behind the curtain... a BASEMENT TAPES on a level we'll certainly never achieve in this industry. Well, you might...

You take away anything profound from the reading experience...?

FRACTION: That there's never a "right" answer? That, I dunno, two guys such as these can bat ideas and topics around like cats wrestling with a ball of yarn and never exactly arrive at a definitive end... there was a kind of joy in being able to just eavesdrop, in a way, and watch them wrestle for the sake of wrestling.

The old school dirt was, of course, a hoot. Miller talking about Neal Adams in the '70s was pretty great, too. And being able to see how these guys look at pages, panels, and images as active creators was fascinating.

I feel like I got a taste of Eisner's character, and Miller's, too, and their interplay was pretty fascinating. Miller being obviously reverential but, at the same time, not taking shit from anybody about anything, and Eisner, doing the wizened thing but clearly loving it when he's proven wrong, or when he learns new things... rather than a how-to guide, I really loved being able to feel like I was sitting there and watching the conversation. So props to Charles Brownstein for conducting, collating, and editing the interviews so effortlessly and invisibly.

From someone that's been around the block a time or two, what'd you take away form it?

And I brought this up before, but Eisner told me he wanted to make this book the first in a series, and carry on interviewing others in the field. I think Miller should do it. Could you imagine how amazing Miller/Adams would be? Or Miller/Moore?

CASEY: Miller/Adams I'd pay money for. Hell, I'd pay for Adams alone...

I really enjoyed how Eisner described his own situation, the fact that he and his work existed completely outside the realm of the so-called mainstream publishers. How he created his books, executed them on his own artistic terms, and then shopped them. That was a real breath of fresh air to read about.

Out of anyone else in the field, I think Miller is the guy who could continue on that path. Y'know, I got the MAKING OF SIN CITY hardcover book that came out with the film. It wasn't published by Dark Horse. Wasn't even co-published by them. It came out through Troublemaker Publishing, which is obviously Robert Rodriguez's own publishing imprint through Dimension Films. It's a great-looking book, high production values, and it got into the Direct Market stores as much as it did the bookstore chains. It was everywhere upon release. So, why on Earth does Frank Miller need a comicbook publisher to get his work out at this point? Well, just like Eisner, he really doesn't.

FRACTION: Boy, wouldn't that be something? Between Eisner and Rodriguez it sure seems like Miller's gotten a double-barrel dose of DIY lately, don't it? Chris Ware just pulled ACME from Fantagraphics and into his own concern... Dan Clowes is publishing his collections through Pantheon...

It's fascinating to me that Eisner wasn't only executing longer and mature works, but was also one of the first to realize that critical thought, study, and-- most important-- publication was also vital. That he understood we need a library, you know? How To guides and examinations of technique and thinking and all that... He really saw what comics could be, and where they needed to go. Reading the book just... I dunno, not to get morbid or overly melodramatic, but that both PROTOCOLS and EISNER/MILLER were released on the same day seems a fitting epitaph for the man and his canon.

CASEY: Yeah, I agree. Now the question becomes, how many creators will take up the challenge he set down for us?

Y'know, another thing about this book -- and as a couple of writers, we can certainly lament this -- was how it made me wish I could fucking draw. Now, I think all comicbook writers probably know their way around a pencil to some extent. Certainly some more than others. But, goddamn, hearing these two talk about the physicality of laying shit out, drawing, inking, etc. really got me going. If any writer/artists out there didn't read this book and immediately want to go make some comics... then there's something seriously wrong with them.

FRACTION: Yeah, totally. And I went to art school. I put the pen down of my own volition...

That was something that really struck me, reading the book-- how they'd both be on some larger point, some bigger statement about the art or the idiom, when suddenly Miller would want to know about the days of three-color printing or whatever. The little wonky moments of craft curiosity that squeaked through were great to read. Just, like, it's nice to know you never stop learning, you know?

Something that I thought interesting was the discussions on format-- that Miller was as virulent and passionate in his distaste with format as he was, whereas Eisner... I mean, I guess he agreed, but the guy came from a newspaper shop and I think that ink and pulp just gets in the blood. But Miller, shit-- I don't know that I realized how explicit he felt. I just-- I mean, I 'm bringing that up to refer back to the "why use a comic publisher at all" tangent a couple grafs back. To hear one of comics' biggest guns talk about how creatively and critically paralyzing he feels the format is was... well, it's fucking tragic, is what it is, because nobody's gonna listen, ultimately. But it was sort of fascinating to me to realize that even Miller and Eisner fight that uphill and losing battle, too.

In the end, the book simply inspired me. To think harder, to work smarter, to do better, to be better-- all that. And, shit, man, that's a small price to pay.

So, okay, wishlist time. Miller/Adams would certainly be amazing. Who else would you want to see do these books?

CASEY: Oh lord... I don't know. There aren't that many creators still alive that I could sit through a bona fide discussion of craft that I felt wasn't laced with something that spoiled the mix, y'know? I think a Moore/Gaiman book might have something to it, mainly because those two are kinda cut from the same cloth. Or, better yet, imagine an Alan Moore/Stan Lee book...! Hell, an Alex Toth/Steve Rude book would be worth the money. Ellis is probably the only modern creator who I could stand to read carrying on about craft and approach, but I can't imagine who he'd have that discussion with.

I mean, Jeezus, aren't we writing a book here...?

FRACTION: Chaykin and Haspiel! Simonson and Geffen! J. Hernandez and G. Hernandez! Eddie Campbell and Jim Woodring! Morrison and Talbot! Anyone that worked for Marvel in the seventies and anyone ELSE who worked for Marvel in the seventies! Man, the list goes on and on, doesn't it? There's a... shit, man, there's an inescapable value to these kinds of conversations, isn't there? Or rather there can be, I guess. There should be. Could be.

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