The Basement Tapes: Issue #49

Tue, August 16th, 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.

You know how in STAR WARS, the first one, where Luke is all flying in the trench, and Darth Vader's all "I HAVE HIM NOW" and then Luke is all like, oh fuck, stay on target, stay on target, and then Vader's all "WHA--?!?" and you hear the YEEHOO that Han Solo makes when he totally fucking shoots Darth Vader out of the trench and then Luke blows up the Death Star in the nick of time? So, like, how much would it have sucked if Han-- instead of shooting Vader-- just went ahead and took care of the Death Star thing himself, out of nowhere, and then just, like, totally left? It would've TOTALLY SUCKED. Nobody likes stories that end like that, right? Right?

CASEY: Hey, let's throw all those HOUSE OF M and INFINITE CRISIS TIE-IN readers a bone and talk about writing superheroes. I do think there's an art to it, I think there is a method to communicating with the readership using superhero characters. It's like mythology handed down through the generations... the names may change, but the lessons remain the same. I think it's the same with writing superheroes.

So, of course... there have been more than a few stories -- some acclaimed, some not so acclaimed (but still big sellers) -- where we've been subjected to what I call, "passive superheroes". Stories where the climax involves the superhero basically just standing idly by as the main action occurs, essentially leaving what is supposed to be the protagonist of the story a mere spectator.

Imagine you're a twelve year old kid (while we're at it, let's imagine that 12-yr olds still read comicbooks)... you pick up the latest issue of GENERIC SUPERHERO or, even worse, GENERIC SUPERHERO TEAM and the critical moment of the story, the moment where your young mind should be galvanized because the hero (or heroes) in question finally take that decisive action that either solves the problem, defeats the enemy or saves the day... but instead you read as that same hero (or heroes) stand by as the resolution of the story just seems to happen.

I dunno... I'm a firm believer in rule-breaking whenever possible, but maintaining the Idea that superheroes aren't passive characters seems to be one worth preserving. Shouldn't superheroes be active participants in their stories, not either pawns or spectators?

Maybe I'm just in a shit mood, but every time I see this now, I get a little peeved.

FRACTION: I think that's just bad writing. Deus Ex Whoopdeedoo, here comes a Bigger, Powerful Thing to magically resolve our conflicts and tie up those loose ends. That shit's endemic, it seems. It's like J-Horror. Amazingly bent set-ups and utterly limp resolutions. It's kind of a great big rip off, isn't it?

So you fall back on stunts to add, y'know, the requisite gravitas to a scene or a story and make it feel like you've just read something really important when, really, you've just read the oldest bait-and-switch in the book. It's just weak storytelling; the big Event stunts that hang off of it are so much tinsel.

CASEY: Here's where I really piss people off... but I think the modern mother of this type of story can actually be found in one of the greatest runs of mainstream comicbooks of the past thirty years: Alan Moore's SWAMP THING. Remember issue #50, the climactic chapter of the sprawling "American Gothic" storyline (which, to be fair, Moore himself has admitted to having problems with)...? The moment where the big, evil fingernail is tearing as through limboworld as all the mystical DC heroes stand around, mouths agape? Finally, the Swamp Thing simply strolls into the big black fingernail and has a philosophical back-and-forth with Who-Knows-What before he sits back and watches the big, evil give a high-five to the great, glowing Hand of Good. A blink later and everything's over.

Now, technically Swamp Thing could be considered a superhero, but when a writer of Moore's caliber legitimizes a story like that... it gives other writers the notion that it might be okay for the hero to simply observe a story's outcome, as opposed to directly influencing it through his (or her or their) actions...

... well, it ain't okay with me. I want my superheroes kicking ass and taking names, wrestling with morality and tearing the bad guys' nuts off.

FRACTION: Two-Fisted Tales of Swamp Thing! Swampie SMASH!

On a total tangent-- whenever the, er, inner-DCU creeps into a book like that on the outer-DCU (the red fucking skies! Or into something like SANDMAN, with that Justice League cameo early on in its run), I'm just kicked right out of the story. Like, a walking wall of swamp muck? No problem. Totally with you. Booster Gold shows up to help? I'm out. Can't help it.

Uh, what were we talking about?

You know, I've not written all that much superhero stuff-- so, I don't know, maybe it's just endemic to the genre itself? Maybe it's like scandalous cross-class love affairs in comedies of manners. Just one of those things that's gonna happen sooner or later.

It's weird, with something like INFINITE CRISIS, where the whole run up to the main event are these traps springing shut-- it's 9 months of characters reacting, you know?

CASEY: Well, I still think Geoff still has his eye on the ball to the point that, at the very least, we might get an engaging story within the pages of IC. The ripple effect and the other books in the line "reacting", as you say, I could give a shit about.

And, by the way, if you don't think Rex Mantooth wasn't a superhero (in the best possible way)... well, you're sadly mistaken, chum.

In any case, you tell me... is there any form of heroic fiction (or even just plain fiction) where a lead character simply standing off to the side as the climax of a story happens somewhere near them is considered an engaging and worthwhile form of storytelling...? Even cheap-ass romance novels require their lead characters to do something...!

FRACTION: Yeah, I mean, bad fiction. It's just bad writing-- at least when you're talking about a pulp entertainment genre. "Bad" meaning 'ill-conceived,' not, you know, someone using "there" instead of 'their' or whatever. Poor plotting for this particular mode of storytelling-- it's like trying to make a bird swim. Just don't make the most sense, even if you can pull it off.

Not to get too Lit 101 about it or to rock the Joseph Campbell tip too hard, but aren't these, on some genetic level, transformative hero myths? The most satisfying of those means a hero transformed by circumstance and one that also transforms the circumstance... of course, dealing with serial fiction in the superhero mainstream means it's all gotta return to default anyway.

CASEY: I think that's it exactly. Look, Hollywood doesn't raid the icon closet and then do a two-hour movie of Spider-Man just standing there. That's not what people want out of their fantastical mythology.

And I'm not saying that, in comicbooks, you can't engage in a little rule-breaking. But know your audience, understand their expectations, and deliver the goods on the levels that have allowed these popular superhero characters to endure for decades. If you want to write a series about a superhero standing around, watching the world go by while he does nothing but scratch himself, fine. But, for me, that's not superhero comicbooks (in the sense that your Average Reader comes to superheroes for). They'd rather go see an indy film for that shit. You can use the tropes of superhero fiction as trappings, the bling for the story you want to tell, but be honest about what it is. Anyone who thinks the THE INTIMATES is really about superheroes is unfortunately missing the point. And if you took the cast of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and put them in superhero outfits, that doesn't mean DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES has suddenly become superhero fiction.

There are plenty of great "non-transformative" comicbooks out there. Too many to name here. But none of them are superhero comicbooks.

FRACTION: Right, of course-- I mean, we're talking about pulp entertainment, trash pop and action and fun shit like that. Not THE STRANGER or anything. And since we're talking about superhero comics, it's not even like you can try and buttress the argument by saying the work is experimental or any of that... no, if PUNCHING MAN stands around while MORE POWERFUL GIRL comes in and resolves your story, then that's an experiment in crap. Or in audience tolerance. Or both.

CASEY: Well, especially if the series in question is called PUNCHING MAN...

FRACTION: I hate formula as much as the next guy, but at the same time, it's not entirely rocket science.

CASEY: It's not, and I don't think that -- in their heart of hearts -- anyone would expect it to be. No one approaches a superhero comicbook hoping it'll cure cancer or save their marriage or whatever. And who's to say that it won't? But I just don't think readers come to them ever expecting the Secret Of The Universe.

And I love the whole "it's not rocket science" saying. And its applicability to this conversation is quite apt. Rockets certainly have to be built a specific way, otherwise they may look purty, but they'll end up exploding on the launch pad or not have the power to get into orbit. Same with superhero comicbooks, right? There are components that need to be there for it to, I dunno, qualify as being what it's labeling itself...

FRACTION: Maybe superhero comics are in their Prog Rock phase. Long, interminable, "mature," and Really Very Important If Only You Could Understand.

Prog Comics! How perfectly fucking boring.

CASEY: Hey, I'll admit it... I've probably written a few of those in my time...

But, y'know... there are enough examples of the opposite of that happening to keep me hopeful. SEVEN SOLDIERS, INVINCIBLE, CAPTAIN AMERICA and others. I just think there might finally be another "us" and "them" when it comes to writing superheroes.

And, at the end of the day, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. I guess it makes life interesting.

Me? I'm off to write the next issue of GDLAND...

The Basement Tapes Home | The Basement Tapes Archives

 
The Basement Tapes

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.