The Basement Tapes

Tue, June 7th, 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.

Maturity is its own reward, isn't it? The cool, calm collected masses that make up the professionals, the hard-working creators in our little culture… it makes one proud to be a part of it. Wait a second… that's not our culture. Maturity as its own reward? Not in this business, mister…

CASEY: Things have been getting kinda' nutty lately, haven't they...?

I come home from England, and everyone seems to have lost their fucking minds. The normally-lovable Loeb is sniping about Marvel writers and their snipes against the Distinguished Competition, Alan Moore has gone quite public (for him, at least) about his separation from that very same DC, E3 holds Comic-Con-styled signings, Millar is pretending that he gives a fuck about DC ripping off creators, Geoff is leaving FLASH... what is the world coming to?

I dunno, it seems like everyone's heading into the summer convention season loaded for bear. Ready to fight with whatever weapons they can grab. Marvel's gone variant cover happy while DC gets second- and third-printing happy. Seemingly blind recapitulations of events I read in comicbooks as a kid, twenty years ago. Why does it all come across like white noise to me...?

Are comicbooks just so boring right now that this is the only shit worth talking about...? Or is it really just me...?

FRACTION: Yeah, it's been a really embarrassing couple of weeks, hasn't it? Thank god we've all become intimately familiar with Alan Moore's bank account-- thanks, Internet!

What the HELL is going on? Is this all some kind of petty asshat ramp-up to con-season or something? My god, it looks like an industry lorded over by a bunch of bitter little manchildren. How embarrassing and petty and... just, how SAD. Sadder still it's really not anything new...

I interviewed a guy who's now way up there on your Wizard Top Ten list once, and asked him-- he'd announced a project that immediately was attacked online, before a single page had been seen-- what his take was on that whole phenomenon. His theory was that, in high school and college, when most normal humans are learning their interpersonal skills, comics creators are holed up somewhere, working on their craft and idiom and, as such, miss several important lessons essential to behaving in polite society.

Also? I hate the internet.

CASEY: Oh, I don't. It so quickly exposes our collective assheaded-ness in such an immediate way. Plus, there's the maps...

And I don't know if I'd single us out as a group particularly lacking in interpersonal skills... no more so than any other particular subset of society. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love this business. Obviously, because I'm still here and still climbing the occasional mountain. But I've seen it evolve over the last few years into the most ridiculously extreme navel-gazing environment... something I honestly never would've predicted.

Unfortunately, In the realm of mainstream comicbooks, I think it says more about the quality of the stories than anything else. Look, when PR gets to the low point that it's gotten to lately, it is sad. Imagine working at a bank, and you get promoted to full-time teller. Is there a press release trumpeting the promotion? Or you work at a grocery and you move from the meat department to vegetables. Is that news? It would be in our business. Talking to creators about a gig they just got, or an exclusive contract they just signed, before one page of work on the new gig -- or under the new deal -- is done... I guess I just don't get it.

But that's where we're at, and again, I think it comes down to how backwards the mainstream environment has become. And when that's the environment, the myopic moaning and finger-pointing can thrive like bacteria. I mean, instead of bitching about the publisher you aren't working for (this year), or pretending to be concerned over another pro's personal business circumstances, shouldn't we be talking about what happened in FANTASTIC FOUR # whatever last month? Or how cool the story in SEVEN SOLDIERS is shaping up to be? Or the way Hitch depicted a certain scene in the last ULTIMATES? Or some decision a supporting character made in issue # take-your-pick of CAPTAIN AMERICA? Isn't that what this should all be about? Isn't that where the fun is?

FRACTION: This is true: there are many valuable and helpful maps on the Internet. I take it all back.

And you're certainly right in that there are dicks everywhere; it just normally contains itself to the other side of the counter, you know? This pro sniping makes everyone look bad, plain and simple. And

that's-- I mean, that's what makes this discussion different than the boilerplate "Gee, people are jerks on the cyberweb." It's working professionals taking the shots. The upside to democratizing communication is the same as the downside: is that there's only one step between me and Joe Pro. The internet so easily plugs itself into that lizardbrain rage cortex and coaxes out the worst angels of our nature. And that's shaping the baseline of our discourse.

When a pro takes the shots... it just makes everything that much smaller. It's tacky, embarrassing, titillating, bitter, unprofessional... it's tabloidism, you know? And, honestly, when you can read a page-by-page breakdown of how JMS is taking shots at DC in one book, and how Loeb is shooting right back in another, and how a Lois Lane stand-in is raped to death in another... it appeals to that base instinct to which the internet inherently speaks. Like shouting "FIGHT!" in school when a fight'd break out.

CASEY: Y'know, now I that I think about it, we've still got this ridiculous inferiority complex that we compensate for by acting like we're a greater component of the entertainment industry than we actually are. It's the VARIETY/HOLLYWOOD REPORTER culture writ large in an industry that, in my opinion, is too small to contain it. And when I say "small", I mean it in the best possible way, believe me.

You're right... it is tabloidism and we've all walked right into it. Truth be told (and sad to say), I think there are mainstream pros who enjoy it. It's somehow self-validating to talk about the sniping subtext of a particular story rather than the merits or the excitement of the story itself. Look, at the end of the day, Loeb can talk about how he created "the Maximums" and we can all have a good chuckle and more power to him (he is a heck of a guy, after all)... but will their existence make the story good? Or will the inter-industry subtext overwhelm any merits the story might have? I don't read THE PULSE series, so I had no idea about the Lois Lane stand-in... but was the story any good?

FRACTION: There's an obvious snark-shot to be taken in suggesting that if they actually were any good, then we wouldn't be talking about all this dreadfully clever potshotting, you know? So Fuck it. Paying lip-service to all that infantile crap just shines more light on it.

So, what, then? Here: random optimism, in the shape of a half-idea of a topic, form of a total fucking tangent: Marvel's been pumping up... well, if not new, than newer ideas lately. Adam Warren's LIVEWIRES, YOUNG AVENGERS, MACHINE TEEN, X-23, ARANA... the first wave was looking around at kickstarting new activity in familiar neighborhoods, and my fingers are crossed that the upcoming GRAVITY starts to see new characters and new titles thrown in the mix. I'd rather see Marvel try to find success in a conceptual spinoff or remix or wholly new title than in another dozen Spider-Man or X-Men minis.

CASEY: I guess I wish there was just more good stuff to talk about. Yeah, it's definitely cool that Marvel is trying some new shit, I just wish they'd get their sub-branding straight. I think "Marvel Next" will end up being just like "Tsunami", mainly in the retailers' eyes... if it's not an age differentiation, why saddle some great new books with a marketing tag that I think will actually turn them off...? Hell, they'd be better off going with NEW LIVEWIRES, NEW YOUNG AVENGERS, NEW MACHINE TEEN, NEW X-23, and NEW GRAVITY...

And I'm an optimistic guy, but I think it's no coincidence that the real sales successes of this latest group have the words "Avengers" or the letter "X" in their titles. And, look, besides that, at least the marketing on these titles isn't a fucking snark-fest. Why is it that only high-selling creators -- the guys already sitting on top of whatever little mountain our industry offers -- are the ones who engage in the kind of bullshit we've been talking about? You'd think low sellers have more cause to attack...

I dunno. It's a free country. Let everyone do and say whatever the hell they want. And maybe I look like an old head for lamenting the absence of... class in the upper-echelons of our culture. Y'know... superhero comicbooks. Colorful, exciting, inspiring, imagination-sparking entertainment for kids of all ages. Bring on the opposition, but I say there's a real dignity in that endeavor. A real sense of pride in being the bearer of that torch. At least, there can be...

FRACTION: I certainly don't get the imprint idea; it seems like, worst case, they're painting big broad targets on the the covers of all those issues. Ours is a fickle market. Like Tsunami or Focus or blah blah blah. Imprints BAD!

And the un-attacking low sellers probably need to concern themselves with not burning bridges. Shit, I know I do.

You know what keeps me from saying fuck it, they've earned it, go forth and be catty with the best of 'em and enjoy your whole made-up comics rock star thing is... that shit's gotta be earned, I guess; you can't just take it. And I guess I feel a lot of these guys are just taking it. Like, they figure they're up there on the Wizard list or the Top 50 or whatever, why not talk some shit? Eh. As you say, it's a free country.

It's just a long way down.

CASEY: And God help us if it's our own myopic, bitchy attitudes that ultimately brings us down. I'll take a bullet here... we're not exactly light on the snark ourselves. But, fucking hell, at least we're making some stupid stab at saying, "We can be better than this. We should be better than this."

Just because I'm writing the Fantastic Four with Chris Weston drawing and you've got a Wolverine story out drawn by Sam Keith... should we talk some shit?

Naahhh... we're better than that.

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