The Basement Tapes: Issue #46

Wed, July 27th, 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.

GDLAND, a book by Joe and Tom Scioli, with colors by Bill Crabtree and lettering from the folks at Comiccraft, hits the stands tomorrow from Image Comics. The book, which could be found in limited quantities in San Diego last week, has been a long time in coming-- and it's worth the wait. Working with a Kirbyist (is that word? Kirbyist?) like Scioli has not only pushed Joe into some weird new place in his head, but he's getting career-best stuff from the artist as well. It's a blast, kids, and since it's out tomorrow it seemed the perfect time to talk to him about it some...

FRACTION: So at the show you gave me a copy of GDLAND #1, by you and Tom Scioli. And I was looking at it and said something like, Hey, Kirby, and you said there was that but "a lot of Kafka is in it, too." I laughed and said "Automatic Kirby" and then you totally nailed me for using that as the lede to this TAPES. Then we had a tickle-fight.

So: GDLAND. Automatic Kirby. Discuss.

CASEY: Well, hey... what can I tell you? I guess I'm just in that kinda' mood these days...

Actually, it's weird that the first issue is now seeing the light of day. Been working on this thing with artist Tom Scioli (and Erik Larsen providing a watchful eyeball) for just over a year now and I'm eight issues deep into this thing. But you pretty much nailed the synthesis I'm trying to go for. Tom's so great at bringing out the Kirby riffs, but if the series was just a pastiche, it wouldn't be worth doing for me. I'm tellin' you... as the book goes on, it gets weirder and wilder in the best possible ways. But I wanted my cake and eat it, too. Grand Kirby Spectacle mixed with the particular bent I happen to get my rocks off writing. And, the best part, we own it.

So, you read it... you tell me. Is the synthesis there...?

FRACTION: I just read a line in Michael Moorcock's THE FINAL PROGRAM: "You can't have your fix and make it, Jerry..."

Having read the thing a few times now, I'm not sure I'd say it's a synthesis with AUTOMATIC KAFKA, per se, unless we just use KAFKA as a synonym for "weird." Not that that's a bad thing at all, honestly.

I can see where there's a little bent of media awareness in GDLAND that certainly reminded me of 'CATS and the self-awareness of KAFKA but... you know, for the most part, GDLAND didn't really remind me of any one thing at all. It felt sort of dreamlike in a lot of places-- it has that kind of dream logic that you'd see in something like Morrison & Case's DOOM PATROL. The strange asides, the moments of characters speaking not so much out of character but rather simply out of fiction itself...

This is a strange little book you got here, Joe.

Now, the last bit of Scioli art I saw was on, I think, FREEDOM FORCE from Image and it really wasn't my thing. I've not minded the Kirby pastiche he does in the past, in fact, I kinda like it and really enjoyed THE MYTH OF 8-OPUS. What's kinda pushed GDLAND beyond the FF book, to my way of thinking is two-fold-- that the story is demanding he go more into the cosmic end of the street where there's more room for him to play, and the quite frankly gorgeous coloring of Bill Crabtree-- the Mars spread, for example, I actually sat back from when I got to it. This book has a great look to it, and Crabtree's work is a big part of that.

CASEY: Well, the whole idea of working with Scioli is not because he's got his Kirby chops down... it's because he'll draw anything. He attacks the pages like a man possessed. His talent gives me the ability to stretch my imagination wherever it needs to go. Frankly, it was probably the middle of dialoguing the second issue, and the introduction of Freidrich Nickelhead, where I realized how far out we could really take this series.

It's two mints in one, y'know. Yes, it's a cosmic superhero epic, but it's also a "no rules" book, in so much as spontaneous inspiration dictates the stories as much as a set plan does. There is an overall plot, for instance... but the way we do the book allows for the exploration of those cool tangents that I love so much.

Here's another little factoid that I might've already mentioned in the press I've done for this book on Newsarama... we're working in the classic "Marvel style". I write a plot (page-by-page, normally... but there have been times when I've written in "page chunks"), Tom draws it, I get the art back and then I dialogue it. I haven't worked like this since my first year at Marvel. It's been good fun though. Seeing the art and having to put words in these characters' mouths... there's been an improvisational feel to the writing that I'm really getting off on.

And yes, KAFKA is now and forever more a synonym for "weird".

FRACTION: I can't, like, as a writer, I can't get my head around the Marvel style-- I mean, I know what it is but... yeah, that's a weird leap to take for me. Call me a control freak I guess, whatever. So have you hit any speedbumps working in the style yet? Have you had to either have Tom rework a page or have you had to refigure your writing strategy accordingly?

And-- and, okay, for those folks coming in wholly late to the show, how would you sum the book up? The first issue gives you just a taste of the thing...

CASEY: Like I said, the improvisational aspect of writing the dialogue has been the greatest, most unexpected thing to come out of this series. Putting words into these characters mouths... well, it really is like that old, tired chestnut that writers sometimes trot out: "the characters write themselves". But, in this case, it's actually fucking true. Relationships between characters -- significant relationships -- were born out of writing the dialogue between two characters for the first time. I don't want to get too heavy-handed about it... but it is pretty goddamn thrilling when it happens.

As for a description? Jeezus, man... I only write the damn thing. Now you want me to describe it?

How 'bout this... what was the taste you got from the first issue? You know me, you know my work, so where do you see this thing going. If you're right, you get a prize...

FRACTION: It's hard for me to separate the artist from the art, as it were, but to me it feels like you're... it's like anti-INTIMATES, like you're running as far and as fast away from teen angst as possible. If the kick of INTIMATES is its existing in the closed-system soap operatics of Teen Angst Comics, maybe the kick of GDLAND is... I dunno, based on the first one it's like, if Scioli is using Kirby as a springboard into the modern comics world, maybe you are, too?

I'm doing a lousy job of articulating it.

I'll give you this much: it's pretty balls-out fun. And it packs quite the punch for a single issue, which I know you've been focused on for a while, too.

CASEY: Well, THE INTIMATES was always meant to be almost a shoujo-style teenage drama (admittedly with a lot of bells and whistles... the superhero aspect being just one). Which is obviously why it's done so spectacularly in the Direct Market. GDLAND is meant to be much more operatic in its scope, in its characterizations, its ideas, etc.

To me, the Kirby art riffs are a storytelling tool in the same way that captions and thought balloons are storytelling tools. Tom and I are doing GDLAND because this is the series where our skills can intersect the best, where the tools we both bring to the party are used to maximum effect (I hope). It's a very specific thing.

And I hope it's fun. It's supposed to be. And when you can write about the origin of the universe (as I'm doing in issue #8), actually show it, and still make it fun... well, I think we might be onto something pretty cool here...

FRACTION: Yeah, exactly. Only, you know, pretend I said it first.

It's interesting that you're kind of slamming two character techniques-- the quipping, AUTHORITY-style, funny-line-as-'characterization' thing against the captions and extensive thought balloons. And that your lead is very clearly a classic kind of comics leading man, surrounded by postmodern character forms and types.

And that the opening narration is so clearly... well, you.

I dunno, agree or disagree as you will, but it seems to me you're very clearly in-between a couple worlds here and to fun effect. Which brings me along to single-issue and story content. Bang for buck, yadda yadda. Everything from the cover where (in addition to the numbering allowing for four (!) places, which is boldly confident in a way the DM needs nowadays) this issue is declared BOOK ONE. We've talked about it a lot here before, but you're really putting your money where your mouth is with GDLAND. Discuss.

CASEY: That whole idea of every issue being its own "book" came from two places... the first was simply the design of the series, and how the covers are supposed to look. I had this idea to evoke old pulp sci-fi novels, where the text is huge with what basically amounts to a spot illustration. It's just something I hadn't seen done in comicbooks... at least not for awhile (it wasn't until after the fact that I realized I was subconsciously emulating the design of DC's line of album-sized, sci-fi OGNs of the 1980's. Oh well...).

The second place it comes from is, as you say, the bang-for-your-buck vibe that I just happen to be in right now. A book in every comic, so to speak. It can be done without being some sort of Silver Age pastiche. We're gonna' prove it every issue.

As far as Adam Archer, the lead character, is concerned... have no fear. We'll get to subverting his cosmic ass soon enough. If it's more postmodernism at work, then fine. When it comes to characters I've created (or co-created, as the case may be), it's tough to write them any other way. It's a more knowing conversation with the reader, I guess. I'm asking them to try out a concept that's not fifty years old, and in return, I try to give them an added level of narrative that's a bit more inclusive, a bit more self-aware than the icon-at-an-arm's-length approach I might take with any of the Big Two superheroes.

FRACTION: Well, the book certainly has an Anything Goes kind of vibe-- there's that crazy kind of energy going on that makes you want to flip back through it when you're done. Which... I mean, that's saying something, you know?

My biggest problem with the pastiche stuff to date is that it tends to be so stuffy and precious-- as though handling this vibe, this world, this style, with anything but the most ginger of touches would result in the underlying icons and iconography crumbling like so much dust. GDLAND doesn't feel like a rehash or homage or any of that, though-- if you've got one foot in the past you very definitive have another one in future.

So the book rolled out at SDCC, right? What has the early response been like?

CASEY: Much better than I expected, to be totally honest. Just about everyone who saw it went sorta apeshit over it. From the packaging, to the art, to the coloring... all of which I had very little to do with. You can thank Richard Starkings and Comicraft as well as Bill Crabtree for that. And, of course, Tom... who's doing the best work of his career so far on this series.

And, of course, it's out in stores tomorrow, so my hope is that the people who know my work and have liked the divergent paths I've taken in the past will realize that this is a series that fits right into that mold... from DEATHLOK to AUTOMATIC KAFKA to THE MILKMAN MURDERS, this book is the next step in that evolution of my career. It's subversive in the most mainstream way I could think of.

What else can I say? It's a comicbook, y'know? That should say it all...

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