The Basement Tapes: Issue #44

Wed, July 6th, 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.

Remember Queen's theme song to that cheesy FLASH GORDON movie? How it punctuated the word "Flash!" at the beginning of every verse? Now, just think of that song… but replace the word, "Flash!" with the word, "Hype!" Now sing the whole song. Okay, I think we've made our point… oh, waitaminute. Here's the actual column about it…

CASEY: So, now that convention season is in full swing, I guess it's time for all of us to brace ourselves for whatever announcements and so-called "news" that might come out of these situations. Lord knows what the big publishers will come up with to hit us over the head with this year, but if there's one thing we can count on, it's that whatever projects, exclusive signings or otherwise relevant news is unveiled at these things... they'll surely be presented with the attendant amount of hype.

Ah, yes... Hype. Once upon a time, in our cute little business, hype was actually "promotion." It served as promotion, providing information that would serve to inform potential readers of what was coming. If genuine fan excitement came along with it -- what was once referred to as "buzz" -- then so much the better.

These days, simply providing information just doesn't cut it. If you can't get people excited, get message boards buzzing, get misinformation running rampant, force that buzz to somehow exist... then you're obviously doing something wrong. That's what Hype is all about, isn't it? Generating a histrionic reaction to -- at that point -- nothing. In other words, it's gotten to the point where publishers can hype a series before one page is written or drawn. Now, the layman may ask, "How is that possible... to promote something to the moon that doesn't even exist yet...?" The answer: Well... this is Hype we're talking about, not promotion.

Hype. Where the public is told what it will like before it has a chance to actually see the product.

Kind of like a magic trick, wouldn't you say...?

FRACTION: Definitely a trick, I'll give it that much. Am I nuts, or are we very quickly approaching some sort of Bullshit Singularity? All love of hyperbole and the cleverly placed PR bombs aside, things are starting to feel like just... yelling. And not even articulate yelling: it's like two white noise makers cranked all the way up and pointed at one another from across the convention floor.

I mean, I by no means claim to have my ear to the ground of the heart of the market or anything, but even I can tell that when, like, Newsarama is running stories about how much it actually costs to follow either of the Big! Summer! EVENTS! that... shit, man, people are going to burn out on this fast.

So then you'll have readers rejecting books before they've even read them, critiquing not the books but the hype. Which, while it certainly seems natural, doesn't seem any more right.

CASEY: Y'know, the sick thing is that I can actually appreciate a good... well... Hype Job. And God bless Brady for running what I call the Lick Of Sense. One counter balances the other, which is ultimately a good thing. But the well-done Hype Job is, I suppose, an art form in itself.

But it has nothing to do with comicbooks, does it?

You're absolutely right. Judgment passed on a Hype Job should not be mistaken for judgment on the product itself. But how many folks really think to make that distinction? Well, the superior Hype Job doesn't allow for you to make that distinction. The superior Hype Job eats away at your ability to think rationally. All that's left is the thought, "I have to have this!"

Hype forces everyone to pass the buck. Publishers need to sell their product, and so the Hype Job begins. Retailers and reader alike are subsequently exposed to said Hype. If one doesn't buy into it, the other will. So, whose fault is it when a new Hype Job works? No one's. And everyone's.

FRACTION: Color me nutty, but I have the gut feeling that we're entering the end of whatever, uh, minicycle we're in. If it's fair to assume that hype is the first salvo to smash into the battlefield, then it's fairer still to assume we've entered the shock-and-awe age of hype. When DC announces books have sold out before even hitting the stands and, therefore, the hands of readers-- they're not talking to the end-customer at all anymore, they're talking only to retailers in a brightly-cadenced warning. The reader interest is solely a collateral bonus-- the publishers are fighting for shelf-space inch for bloody inch and that's the end of their concern. It's a short sight better than Marvel's no-reprint policy in that it's saying the glass is half-full; in the end, though, it's saying the same goddamn thing.

(And, just to hopefully staunch the flow of reader comments, I'm speaking of DC and Marvel as publishing concerns. Not addressing the creative content here at all.)

Hype will eat itself. It's impossible for a book to actually manage to live up to it all. I mean, unless HOUSE OF M #5 or whatever issue it is that shall-- as it has been written-- tear the internet in half actually contains Joe Quesada's resignation letter or a Batman cameo... it's like, remember how people tried to convince themselves that PHANTOM MENACE was really, in fact, a victim of it's own absence and anticipation?

Readers are getting burned out. You can feel it everywhere, people are just rolling their eyes. FANBOY RAMPAGE doesn't even need to snark anything anymore, it just needs to cut-and-paste; the parody is self-presenting.

CASEY: Well, believe it or not, since we started this particular discussion, I've actually had a minor epiphany on this subject: where Hype used to equal Promotion, Hype now equals Ego. Pure and simple.

Hey, I said it was a minor epiphany, okay...?

Publishers have ego, just like human beings do. And it's a bit stickier when publishers have ego, because it's a complete "pass the buck" situation. You can't point the finger at any one person for being a blowhard huckster, because a Publisher is a corporation. And, as my loyal WILDCATS VERSION 3.0 readers know, a corporation can exhibit the same characteristics of any one human being. Greed, envy, outrage... ego. This is simply the way things are. Movie studios do it. Fast food chains do it. Why not publishers? I get it. And I think most other people get it, too. At this point, DC crows about a sellout that was probably print-to-order (or damn close to it) to begin with. That's cool. But nobody's really being fooled anymore. Publisher Hype is right on the cusp of becoming the kind of white noise that we've learned to block out in the past, countless times. So whatever...

But I think the death knell you're predicting may, in fact, happen simply because now we've got individual creators who think they can adopt this Hype-As-Ego posture and not look like a complete fucking asshole. Remember, it was a creator who said this "cracking the Internet in half" bullshit that everyone's making so much fun of now (and rightly so). The parody you're talking about is so much more obvious when it's the creators themselves that are spouting it. I've dipped a toe (okay maybe a foot... or even a leg) into the Hype-As-Ego waters and -- guess what? -- I sounded like a complete fucking asshole. So, lesson learned... I hope.

What's next is that every creator learns the lesson. But I'm not sure if it's going to happen anytime soon. Look, when creators have their own websites, with their own message boards that they pay for, then they can say whatever the hell they want about themselves and their work. They can Hype until the goddamn cows come home because the Net is even freer than America in that respect. But, beware, because the rest of the world (or, at the very least, Graeme or Heidi or countless other "conscience bloggers" that I love to read) is right there to point out that you sound like -- say it with me, kids -- a complete fucking asshole.

FRACTION: I was a complete fucking asshole on the internet before I'd even had page one published.

I keep wishing there was some way to quantify internet readership-- I mean, you and I spend a lot of time online haunting around but I wonder how much that translates into, er, "real world" numbers, you know? I've never been sold on anyone's theory of how one relates to the other. So... I mean, the vitriol this summer's onslaught has received online, if you were just reading internet commentary and had no idea about how books were moving in the real world... you'd think HOUSE OF M or COUNTDOWN BLAHBLAH were follies on par with, like, ISHTAR and COP ROCK.

When do you think readers-- or, really, retailers, I suppose-- are going to start reacting with their wallets? For all the shit being talked, these books are moving big numbers to the retailers. No idea if they're selling through once they're actually on the shelves, mind you, but...

I mean, otherwise it's just a lot of grousing.

CASEY: Yeah, the thing is... we don't really know if there are tons of HOUSE OF M issues still sitting on the shelves of stores across America. I suppose it really doesn't matter at this point, because if retailers bought into the Hype, then the Publisher's job is over. The problem lies in the fact that there are creators who think they have to Hype to the retailers, as well, as opposed to simply communicating with their readers. Then it becomes a con job.

And comicbooks are still relatively inexpensive. Y'know, I think X-Men comics were pretty unappealing for almost twenty years before Grant was able to come in and write them with no editorial interference, but they're so cheap that most people could afford to buy them, issue in, issue out, even if they did suck balls. I think that still holds true today. As much as people bitch about price, I think a lot of readers will buy HOUSE OF M simply to be informed on what they're bitching about. I know I wouldn't complain about something unless I'd paid money to see it, hear it, read it, whatever. The act of purchase gives me that right.

It's just not human nature -- at least not modern human nature -- to simply ignore the things that look unappealing to us. So, this is where modern Hype really does a number... Hype that comes across as, YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO MISS THIS! THIS WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE! YOU WILL LOVE THIS UNCONDITIONALLY! YOU WILL HATE YOURSELF IF YOU DON'T BUY THIS! THIS IS BETTER THAN SEX! And it works, because even the most rational people will say, "This sounds like complete bullshit, but all this noise... well, hell, I gotta' see what all the noise is about!"

Like I said, Hype = Ego. Hype is, "Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!"

FRACTION: I know I bought the COUNTDOWN special because, one, it was a dollar, and two, I figured I needed to be up on the inevitable shittalkin' for the next month...

Ignoring the unappealing is one thing; buying it is something entirely different. What, do comic stores not allow for flip-throughs at the rack anymore? That's what always gets me, that compulsion to keep reading or keep following the work of someone you hate. But I digress.

So what I'm pretty sure of is that we're creeping up to some kind of critical mass with all this noise. There's simply SO much sizzle that no steak can match up to it. So, doom-saying hat on, what if there's some kind of correction in the offing, say the numbers shrink down some and we leave whatever the hell mini-cycle we're in-- what's left? What else is out there?

Has anything been really nurtured beyond the tent-pole events? Or does it matter?

CASEY: These mega-events will hit a bust point, no doubt. And with attention spans the way they are, it'll happen sooner rather than later. I'm sure there are a few well-perspectived (look, a new word!) folks at both big companies that already know it's coming.

But this is the beauty of the Internet. When the Noise of Hype -- from publishers, from muddle-minded creators -- gets to be so loud, so overbearing, so annoying that fandom rises up with a collective, "ENOUGH OF THIS BULLSHIT!" rallying cry, then we'll see some kind of shift in the culture as we know it. And there have already been a few tiny rays of hope, even at the big Publishers... the grassroots support of books like SLEEPER, SHE-HULK, the first RUNAWAYS series, Kirkman's Image books... these are all examples of bona fide word of mouth supplanting -- in most of these cases -- the complete absence of Hype. And these are not books by committee, like the HOUSE OF COUNTDOWN or whatever they decide to come up with next year... these are creator-driven books that actually connect with readers on the level that we all want our books to connect on.

So, y'know, I'm an optimist. The change is coming. It's inevitable. I just hope I'm around to see it. Those kinds of shifts are always the most exciting times.

Can't come soon enough for me.

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