The Basement Tapes: Issue #43

Tue, June 28th, 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.

One of the upsides to the trade market finding its footing in the marketplace, in publishing strategies, and on everybody's bookshelves is that a lot of pages and panels from comics' history are seeing the light of day for the first time in a long while for a whole new audience. So now then, Sherman: set the wayback machine for 1970 and let's take a look back at comics' recent past...

FRACTION: All New! All Now! What the hell?

Most of the stuff I've been reading lately is thirty damn years old. I checked out OMEGA THE UNKNOWN for cheap in the wake of the Lethem announcement; Marvel's been filling out their ESSENTIAL catalog with Luke Cage, Defenders, Tomb of Dracula, Monster of Frankenstein. And I picked up two trades reprinting the vaguely infamous O'Neil & Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow run. There's probably been more, but I'm blanking-- but I'm bringing these books up for two reasons. First off, that the mainstream seems to be filling in some of its back-history a little bit. Which is pretty great-- I remember wanting to read these GL/GA stories back when I worked retail and even the reprints were expensive.

Second, and really, what I want to talk about is... these things are just weird. It's... I mean, it's a whole 'nother idiom. Before now, most of my '70s history has been confined to Jack Kirby stuff and some odds and ends-- so, for better or for worse, this is like a whole new world to me.

CASEY: Sounds like you're experiencing what I call the Marvel Cosmic Trinity: Englehart, Starlin and Gerber. Between those three alone, we're talking about DR. STRANGE, AVENGERS, WARLOCK, CAPTAIN MARVEL, HOWARD THE DUCK, DEFENDERS, MAN-THING, OMEGA... truly a bizarre collection of drug-fueled comicbooks (at least, admittedly drug-fueled). And they're all fucking great. In the years when Stan Lee was busy trying to hustle Hollywood, and then-EiC Roy Thomas was still trying to figure out how to be Stan, these guys stormed the field in a big way. Hell, aside from the Lee-Kirby-Ditko explosion that kicked off the Marvel Age (and, to some degree, the one-two punch of Claremont/Byrne X-MEN and Miller's DAREDEVIL), this was the last blast of pure, uncut originality the company every really achieved. Kinda sobering when you think about it.

The best part about the comicbooks you're checking out... they were still for kids. Forget the college crowd that had picked up on the so-called "hip-ness" of Marvel, the kids and young teenagers were still the audience. This was before the Direct Market, so this was the shit you could find on the convenience store spinner racks...! I really love that.

FRACTION: Yeah, it's all new and vaguely relevatory to me. Stuff I'd certainly heard about but never could, or could be bothered to, track down is now just out there, waiting for a slow week and a fresh paycheck.

Now, the Marvel stuff is just outright weird-- and I mean weird-absurd or just weird-weird. Starting with the former: my pal and mine Jeremy Love (of the Love Brothers) pointed me to a story in the Luke Cage book that might just be the greatest comic story ever written.

Dr. Doom has stiffed Luke Cage for a $200 bill. I don't even know what Cage did to earn the $200, but he did something. So, anyway, in a rage over being ripped off, Luke Cage storms into the Baxter Building to forcibly borrow a vehicle that'll get him from New York to Latveria quickly, so he can beat the hell out of Dr. Doom and collect. He scraps with the FF briefly and Reed eventually decides Okay, you can borrow the rocket car. Because Reed's down like that.

So Cage goes to Latvia, where he stumbles on to a robot slave revolution against Dr. Doom. These robots are fighting for their freedom from the oppressive and cruel yet ironic regime of Doom. Cage sorta follows the robots to basically get to Doom's castle, where he goes after Doom directly, ignoring all that robot rigamarole. He fights Doom a bit, who is totally impressed that he came all that way to whip 200 dollars out of his ass, and agrees to pay up if Cage helps to snuff out the revolution. WHICH CAGE THEN DOES, so blinded by his desire for 200 dollars that he's completely unaware of whatever symbolic parallels may abound. And abound they do.

Anyway. So, once defeated, Doom is impressed yet again that Cage is so tough, and so single-minded, and he pays up.

This is all ONE FUCKING ISSUE.

Man, they really don't make 'em like that anymore.

CASEY: Yeah, that story was Steve Englehart kicking ass yet again. That guy was multi-faceted, to say the least.

What hindsight shows to me -- about a story like that in particular -- is that there were statements being made, but just not consciously. The existence of Luke Cage, as realized by Englehart, Goodwin and others, was the statement in and of itself. But, hell, they didn't know that. By comparison, practically everything these days seems to be a self-conscious statement. And as much as I enjoyed the Azzarello/Corben CAGE series a few years ago, it really can't hold a candle to the ESSENTIAL LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN. And I don't say that because I read the originals when they were new. I'm not that old. I just happen to prefer that stuff over the NuMarvel Makeover.

I just don't think modern creators let themselves write with any lack of self-consciousness anymore. And I have no idea why...

FRACTION: Aside from the self-unconsciousness, which I'll get back to, is something that ties in to a couple recent TAPES-- the first thing that's really struck me is how dense these stories were and the second is how a lot of that density comes from these kind of... expired devices and forgotten tools of the medium.

I'm not wholly convinced that some of these devices-- narrative captions, thought balloons, etc.-- are best left in the past. There's a part of me that feels like comics needed to shed those tropes to reach a certain degree of sophistication, and now that that level's been reached with the right hands and the right minds behind it, these tools could be dusted off and reintroduced into the mainstream. If for no other reason that they're very... comic-y, you know? It's a unique genetic component to the comics form; they kind of help make comics, comics.

Self consciousness: this ties back, in a way, to like the first half of this year of TAPES... these books are anti-bloat, anti-coast, and absolutely don't allow for passive consumption. Skimming will get you the broad strokes (talk fight fight talk talk fight) but the actual guts of the story... well, it's almost more novelistic, isn't it? A lot of these books rely on the written word to drive what's going on over the visuals. These books aren't brisk reads. Part of it, I'm sure, is a more antiquated idiom making for a more awkward reading experience; and part of it is... shit, man, that's a lot of goddamn words on the page! They make today's books look like they were written by Beckett in comparison.

I'm drifting from my point slightly-- you can certainly impose a traditional structure to books of this era but it seems like-- from my albeit brief sampling of the era-- that these guys are just riffing on whatever they can and letting their stories ebb and flow and figuring fuck it, we'll fix it later if we need to. In a way, it's a little like that prime era Kirby to me, like, these books are reflecting the true lessons from that work: just let it all go and see what happens.

Today, I dunno. Maybe it's Movie Fever? Maybe it's that things got so formulaic for so long that comics have lost those chops to just riff?

CASEY: Well, to be fair, some of the narrative devices you cite stemmed from necessity as much as from anything else. Working the Marvel way (plot first, art second, dialogue third) meant that a writer would generally have to make due with whatever the artist decided to draw. Captions and thought balloons helped fill in the gaps that the art didn't provide. Now, in hindsight, this turned out to be a good thing in many cases, because the levels of information being presented became more multi-dimensional. But I'm sure guys like Englehart occasionally tore their hair out when plot points were left out of the art.

But you're right... those things are what make comicbooks... well, comicbooks. As opposed to sequential storyboards or some other psuedo-cinematic wannabe art form.

I think what the mainstream is in danger of losing is exactly what you say... the "guts" of the stories themselves. The density of information that I believe, in these "modern" times, can be laid in with a bit more sophistication than thirty years ago. A lot of times, that's what I'm striving for, at least. What else is a series THE INTIMATES supposed to be, if not that new stab at a kind of density?

FRACTION: Shit, that's true-- I didn't even think about the Marvel method. You see it, too, in GL/GA, which I'll get to here in a second...

Your pal and mine Steven Grant just wrote a bit under the heading "resurrecting dead techniques" (which I love) about the illustrated narrative caption, that oh-so-Toth technique. And it was like... you don't even notice that they're gone. It's like catching a post-Radar episode of M*A*S*H or something-- this weirdly fundamental element just goes away and you can't necessarily put your finger on what it is, or what it is that's missing. It's just gone, and the other stuff fills in the space left behind.

And I guess that's one of the levels I'm enjoying about these books-- there's a certain kitsch factor, no doubt, as these are some overwrought and silly books-- but most of all, it's a showcases for these lost, idiomatic techniques. It's the comics equivalent of massive sideburns and flared pants or something. I'm not sure they can be resurrected, but it'd certainly be neat to see it tried...

It's definitely impossible to separate that line of thought from something like INTIMATES-- I was thinking about this the other day, reading the summer break issue, that infoscroll at the bottom feels like those old Editor Captions on an ADHD rampage.

So, the flipside to this little Merry Marvel Meta society thing is reading the O'Neil/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow books which... I mean, I might be crazy, but I think that particular run has proven to be a boulder dropped in the middle of the comics pond that's got ripples we're still dealing with today. You ever read 'em?

CASEY: Keep in mind, resurrection can take many different forms. As good a movie as it might be, I don't know if I'd want to watch SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER again... but I'll probably watch BOOGIE NIGHTS another hundred times before I die.

Absolutely I've read the O'Neil/Adams GL/GA. It's like required, textbook reading for superhero comicbook writers. Obviously, I read them long after they were new, and I never really bought the "You helped the blue skins... the orange skins... the purple skins... but you never helped the black skins!" in relation to Green-Fucking-Lantern, but that's just my own cynical hindsight talking. These days, I'm more drawn to the iconography of those stories, like the first cover, where GA is shooting an arrow through GL's battery as he's taking the oath, shouting, "Never again!" Or the Population Explosion cover. Or the classic cover of Speedy shooting up, where Green Arrow exclaims, "My ward, Speedy, is a JUNKIE!" and the hype caption that reads, "DC attacks youths' greatest problem... DRUGS!" Fuck Infinite Crisis... that's the kind of daring I'd like to see again...!

So I give Denny and Neal their due... they took chances that no one else was taking. And, yeah, it was Green-Fucking-Lantern (and, let's not forget, Green-Fucking-Arrow)... but these guys took the gig and turned it into something. The ripples still being felt, my friend, were simply the ripples of reinvention.

Again, compare the "guts" of those stories to the Self-Referentialism that's far too rampant in the modern mainstream...

FRACTION: Yeah, man... I didn't make that "All New! All Now!" shit up..

The covers-- sure, let's start with the covers. They're completely amazing pieces of work, no two ways about it; standing at some weird crossroads between the Infantino glory days and the mid-eighties days of grit, these pieces are... man, they're just so comics, you know?

The guts of the book, though... man. It dates. Badly. I totally understand that part of it comes from having two guys at the top of their games, wanting very badly to inject a degree of social relevance into their book to reflect the times. And their core audience was kids. So between the superhero genre, the youth of the audience, and, honestly, the sheer act of pioneering that kind of thing... it's an awkward fit. I've no doubt their hearts were in the right place, but today they read like overwrought after-school specials.

Beyond that though-- I mean, it's a product of its times, the same way that even Will Eisner's late works still feel like '30s back-lot Warner Brothers melodramas-- is the root of a lot of this shit we've been dancing around lately.

If you want to tell a story about heroin addiction (or race relations, or Native American rights, or a population boom or...), aren't you hobbling yourself from the get-go by saddling the narrative with a children's icon? I put it forward that this run of GL/GA is the direct antecedent to Identity Crisis, and all the rest.

I'm not wholly convinced that to be socially relevant, you should use what are ultimately children's icons to do the job.

CASEY: Well, that all depends on context. Captain America hanging around at Guantanamo Bay was a little cringe-worthy (no matter how good the writing and the art happened to be), but when Englehart had Cap take down the Secret Empire, only to find out that its leader was a corrupt, Nixon-like politician... that was the proper context. It took the mainstream superhero and fashioned a tale that worked on at least two levels... the action/entertainment level, and the socially relevant level.

But, y'know, it's perfectly fine that any comicbook series is ultimately a product of its times. As long as it accurately reflects those times. Which I think the 70's books definitely do. These days? I dunno... I guess I'm not so sure what Sue Dibny's rape or the Scarlet Witch going nuts reflects about this particular time period. So, yeah, maybe books like GL/GA eventually paved the way for something like IDENTITY CRISIS or AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED, but I think we might've taken a weird side street somewhere along the way...

FRACTION: Well, in the same way that all the wrong lessons were taken from DARK KNIGHT & WATCHMEN and whatever the hell else: what was Paul O'Brien's line a while back? "There is nothing clever or adult, let alone anything remotely deep or insightful, in the mere act of writing stories about dark or miserable things." I might be in the minority, but I'm not wholly convinced that WATCHMEN would've worked like it does had the Charlton characters it was originally supposed to be about been permitted to appear. I think by, intentionally or not, removing the story from that context opened the book up in a way that having it bound to these juvenile conceits wouldn't have allowed.

As hokey and stiff as those GL/GA stories are-- they're genuine attempts at complexifying content. I disagree with the vehicle of choice, but, hell, that was what those guys had. If you want to tell a story about heroin addiction, a character created to enthrall 9 year olds isn't... well, I don't want to say it's not the way to go, but there are certainly better roads to travel than that. Superheroes can be adult, sure-- but it doesn't mean they should be.

Even more-so than the idea of tying superhero comics with social relevance, I'd like to think the real lesson of that legacy is just that: they served-- and serve, I hope-- to free comics, to prove the notion that all these social and popular (populist? pop art?) stories certainly deserve to be told and deserve to be told in the comics form.

Just... you know, maybe rape doesn't have to be superrape.

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