The Basement Tapes: Issue #42

Tue, June 14th, 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.

The modern comicbook. Twenty-two pages of… what? Excitement? Imagination? Mind-blowing concepts? Deep characterization? Hairpin plot turns? If you're lucky. Damn near three bucks for merely a link in a much larger chain? The question is… does anyone really give a shit about that chain anymore, especially from just from a simple link?

CASEY: For some reason, I've been seeing a bit of discussion flying around the message boards about the price of comicbooks and what readers get for the money they pay and whether or not a single issue of any comicbook gives them the proper bang for their buck. I've seen opinions come down on any and every side. The issues at hand are the same ones that always seem to crop up... writing for the trade, padded stories, the dreaded D-word, etc... arguments both for it and against it. It's funny how these arguments always seem to center around mainstream superhero comicbooks, but I guess that's what most people are reading on a regular basis, so why not add to the cacophony, right…?

I gotta' say, lately I've fallen on the side of those who think superhero comicbooks are, for the most part, not quite delivering on a single issue level. I don't even think too much about price, I think more of the experience of reading a single superhero comicbook. On that basis, I kinda think we are lacking. It's an old gripe, but the casual reader is undoubtedly going to be hopelessly lost by most single superhero comicbooks... and I don't mean "charmingly confused" as most of us were when we first picked up a random comicbook off the drugstore rack. I mean lost. When the covers make a point to say, "Part 3 of Whatever," I don't think we're doing the best job inviting in new readers of any age group.

Believe me, I'm not grumpy about it. For me, I see opportunity here. The fact that the discussion is coming up yet again means there might be some change in the air.

FRACTION: I've been laying down the bones of a new book called THUG that Kieron and I are gonna do at IDW; it'll be his followup there to REMAINS and mine to my part of BLOODSUCKER TALES and... well, if IDW have proven anything, it's that there's definitely a slice of the market willing to pay more for an upscale package. At the same time, though, I'd be lying if I said IDW's default price-point is a problem with a lot of people. And, shit, who can blame them? This economy, this market, this blah blah-- shit ain't cheap all over, and readers are going to spend four bucks on the devil they know. So... BLOODSUCKER, that was Steve's sandbox, but THUG is me and KD and we gotta deliver bang for them bucks.

I... let me see if I can articulate this. You're writing a book, and the medium's matured to the point that monthlies are a vehicle in which you can try to tell a larger story. The publishing paradigm has been moving towards trade for long enough that it's just expected anymore from the business end, and, here's the hitch, readers tend to be in it for long haul, if they're in it at all. So you're writing largely to an audience used to... well, it's not serialization, it's fragmentation, isn't it? THUG is a mini, so there's some wiggle-room, but really it seems, in some ways, like there's no one on either side of the production cycle that's looking for the self-contained hook anymore.

Except the ever-elusive and snipe-like New Reader.

I gotta say, I'm psyched to see how you handle this on your book with Scioli, GDHEAD; I've recently gotten into Joss Whedon's TV stuff, BUFFY and FIREFLY, have been really kind of fascinating to see his execution of episodes and seasonal arcs and whatnot... because, yeah, maybe it's time to start having this discussion.

CASEY: If you're right -- that there's no one on either side looking for "self-containment" (when it comes to superhero comicbooks, that is) -- I think we may be in real trouble. On the creator side alone, you can't depend on the monthlies being collected. There are no final two trades for WILDCATS VERSION 3.0. The publisher is content to have an incomplete library. Hell, THE INTIMATES isn't getting any trade collection. And, conversely, if you can reasonably depend on a trade collection, the writing can become more and more lazy. And, for me, "lazy" and "superhero writing" are not words that should ever go together.

Actually, I think this whole trade paperback thing has blurred focus. The first TPB I ever remember buying was a trade of Alan Moore's first SWAMP THING issues. Now, Moore wasn't "writing for the trade," he was simply writing monthly comicbooks (marginally, it was a superhero book, horror-tinged as it strove to be) for a monthly readership. When the TPB hit, it was nothing more than a collection of several issues of the monthly series. Think of it like a compilation album that just happens to be in numerical sequence. Even WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT were written for their respective formats (12-issue maxi-series and a 4-issue prestige series), but I still think the aesthetic was the same. Hell, I didn't start reading either series with their first issues... but the issues I did pick up first had enough in them to compel me to go back and get the issues I'd missed.

I just don't know how many modern superhero comicbooks are written to give latecomers that same opportunity...

FRACTION: Well, I mean, standard boilerplate applies-- I'm not saying EVERYONE, EVERY BOOK is like that, far from it-- rather it's a situation endemic of a market that's in some weird nowhere place between what it was and what it could be. My favorite book, and it's not even monthly, is QUEEN AND COUNTRY-- god help you if you dive in the middle, you know? I love true serial fiction; it works. But... well, you started off talking about superhero books and that's the flagship genre (like it or not) of the medium.

It's funny to think back on the time when trades were somewhat exotic and rare things, isn't it? I think about that first Alan Moore SWAMP THING trade, the one that opens with THE ANATOMY LESSON, and even then there's an issue-to-issue satisfaction (and what fucking issues! Who do I have to blow at DC to see an Alan Moore/Swamp Thing script collection?... do such things even exist anymore, I wonder?) and yet he was writing an arc.

I wonder if part if it comes under the guise of 'sophistication'-- narration, expository catch-up dialogue, even the self-conscious referencing to past events... these are all tropes that've fallen out of favor. Hell, even captions these days can be a rarity.

CASEY: Hey, I've gotten to the point where I don't think any narrative device should "fall out of favor." It actually pisses me off when anyone says that thought balloons are pass. I mean, c'mon, to employ flashbacks, captions, thought balloons, dialogue, sound effects and visuals all simultaneously come closer to my definition of "sophistication" than simply trying to mimic cinema on the page. It's delivering information on several levels at once, y'know... and it takes more attention to absorb than simply ingesting a visual and reading dialogue aloud in your head.

I think I like the term you used... "issue-to-issue satisfaction." It's the thing that gets people hooked on comicbooks to begin with.

And while we're throwing around terms, I think it's finally time to put the word "arc" to rest once and for all. An arc is a section of a curve. What we're talking about here is a story. Which makes the term, "story arc" that much more ridiculous.

FRACTION: Heh. Wow.

Well, I don't mind that stuff falls in and out of favor, honestly; I tend to agree that a lot of those devices are hard to pull off well, anyway, and so when they're relegated to just being part of the landscape it gets painful. So if it's out of favor and tough to pull off, someone comes along and favors it, and pulls it off, and holy cow isn't that just brilliant and it falls back in favor again. Creative cycles, I guess. Thought balloons don't bother me, as a device, but narrative captions certainly can, and do. I miss the days of lots of thought-captions, all color coded by character like Miller or Chaykin used to do... I do agree with you, though, in that it's all just different ways to transmit information-- it's just that, well, it's not necessarily easy to do it so it gets abused, or it buttresses weak work. But, shit, stuff goes away, stuff comes back. VO Captions were an essential part of Moore's Swamp Thing run. Metzler's eye-of-god captions made IDENTITY CRISIS hum right along in a way that would've just died on the page, pardon the pun, otherwise. There's probably some variation on "a poor craftsman blames his tools" that's appropriate here.

You might be on your own with the 'arc' thing, man. Good luck with that.

CASEY: I'm sure I am alone on that and a whole lot more. Hey, I've been there before, brother...

And you hit the nail on the head. It's using these devices with skill and panache (and, let's hope, some originality) that makes them worthwhile devices. Seeing them overly abused is what keeps creators away from attempting them. And some of those devices should come with a degree of difficulty. If writing good comicbooks was easy, wouldn't everybody be doing it...?

So, let's put a positive spin on this thing... what's a good mainstream superhero comicbook? What's out on the stands right now that's striving to give us the appropriate bang for our buck? What could a casual reader pick up cold -- any random issue -- and still get into the story, the characters, feel a sense of completeness (even in a continued story)? Now, I'm talking monthlies here. Mini-series can't apply, because for whatever reason that escapes me at the moment, they get a pass for telling one story over multiple issues (although I'm thinking more and more that they shouldn't, but that's another column...).

Hell, I'll even go first... I thought Slott's SHE-HULK was a good example of what we need more of, narratively speaking. Brubaker and Epting's CAPTAIN AMERICA. Geoff's FLASH.

Damn, that's a pretty short list. You got any...?

FRACTION: SHARKNIFE, if that counts. It should count, but, you know, it probably doesn't. I'm running a ways behind on my reading-- YOUNG AVENGERS has been pretty fun, but I've only read the first two. Adam Warren's getting somewhere with LIVEWIRES, but, again, I'm only two in. I've not checked out too much DC stuff lately-- I'd say SLEEPER, but god knows I don't want to get into a genre pissing match with anybody and, fuck it, the book just ended anyway. GOTHAM CENTRAL.

What's really, really been doing it for me lately are the Marvel ESSENTIALS from the Seventies-- TOMB OF DRACULA, LUKE CAGE, etc.-- and, a Lethem pedant to the end, a run of OMEGA THE UNKNOWN I got for cheap, as well as a two-trade set of the infamous O'Neil & Adams GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW run. But that's probably a topic for another day...

CASEY: Like, next week, maybe…

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