The Basement Tapes

Tue, August 23rd, 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.

Is the industry, or at least the superhero mainstream part of the industry, in a position to nurture new careers? Is it possible to learn how to walk before having to soar in this day and age? What does "paying your dues" even mean anymore, and how does a new creator do it in a marketplace this cut-throat? Should the big two really even care? Maybe, maybe not.

CASEY: So, I was doing an interview recently and one portion of the conversation got me thinking about something. The discussion turned to how wide open the industry is at the moment and the amount of opportunity there is for creators between mainstream publishers and indy publishers and self-publishing. This is certainly true, and of course I went off on a bit of a rant about how new creators aren't always afforded the opportunity to grow and develop their craft, mainly because there's often a fairly intense spotlight placed on them and their work from the first moment they poke their head out of the gopher hole. Regardless of the level of their talent, some creators don't survive that kind of scrutiny, which means the rest of us are deprived of creators' work that-- under different conditions-- could be allowed to develop and grow their skills to a point where greatness could be achieved.

I mean, here's what I want to know... are we at that point where new creators have to be great right out of the gate? If so, whatever happened to the idea of developing one's talent over time? Obviously, talent should be developed to the point where it's "publishable," but the learning of one's craft doesn't stop there. But has the pressure on new creators simply become too intense, the expectations on them too high?

FRACTION: I'm not so sure the pressure is on creators, per se, but on any book that naturally is going to land on the charts between the 101st most selling book (20,717) and the 200th (4,103 copies sold). Because that's where you need to land for a meaningful sort of relationship with retailer shelf real-estate to develop... anything below there and you're all too often considered a boutique book; anything above and Wolverine is a guest-star. The onus of success is on creators and publishers to somehow find a way to penetrate a marketplace that's resistant, for any number of reasons, to new stuff-- the quality of that stuff being only one. So I don't necessarily think the creators have anything to do with it, a lot of times-- it's whether or not Wolverine shows up.

CASEY: But, c'mon... surely you can see that mainstream comics have become, in its own way, a star-making environment. There is some pressure involved. Where do you think the idea of Marvel's "Young Guns" artists comes from? Or the creators picked to participate in DC's "All-Star" line? Or the writers and artists that "Wizard" picks-- sometimes out of hat, it seems-- to profile and write about?

I mean, isn't that the lure of working for the bigger publishers? Exposure? Name recognition? It's the carrot on the stick for a lot of young writers.

Forget the marketplace for now. I'm talking about the relationship between a new creator and the publishers who would hire him (or her). I'm talking about the relationship a creator has with their own craft in an ADD environment that wants it big and wants it now.

FRACTION: Well, yeah, of course the superhero mainstream is a star-making system; it has been and will be, too. I guess I keep thinking of exceptions-- which, you know, is easy, since they crossed that threshold-- guys like Daniel Way or Jason Hall, or, shit, like Brubaker, that really paid some serious dues in-- and out-- of the mainstream.

...Then again, you can think of a dozen guys just as easy that went from hot shit to the cutout bin in the same calendar year...

And it's impossible to think about this while putting the marketplace aside, I think what it comes down to these days have very little to do with new talents-- the big two put their biggest guns against one another and try to dominate as much of the list as they can; from there it's about selling the icons, eating good shelf space, and servicing the brands. There'll be a dozen X-CHARACTER or BAT-ASSOCIATE miniseries next year whether Daniel Way or Jason Hall (to use them solely for the sake of the example) write them or not. But if they do, then it's that much closer maybe that they get to sitting at the big kids' table.

(Isn't Way, though, following up Millar's run on "Wolverine?" Seems like them dues done got paid...)

I guess what I'm saying is that... one way or the other, I'm not sure that creators have to be great right out of the gate, so much as they need to pay some dues before getting anywhere near the chance to really grow in the mainstream. It seems like the act of nurturing new talent isn't necessarily dead.

CASEY: Well, look... I guess I just think there's a difference between nurturing new talent and grooming them for "comicbook superstardom." And I guess I don't think it's necessarily the publishers' job to nurture that talent. But I guess I also don't see it as their job to actively create superstars, either. Like you say, it's about servicing the brands.

The "hot shit to cutout bin" might end up becoming more and more the norm, though. And maybe we're saying the same basic thing, but from different angles. I agree, creators should pay dues before they get their shot at the big brands or even their shot at the mainstream in general. I think one way the Big Two are circumventing that idea is to pull writers from other media. By doing that, they're having their cake and eating it, too: creators who are brand spanking new to comicbooks but have probably paid their dues in another field. Doesn't always mean we'll get good comicbooks out of it, but it's something.

Of course, in my mind, paying dues and developing skills kinda go hand in hand. One tends to come with the other, y'know? If you're "paying dues" as a creator, and I mean real dues (and I'm cool with using a writer like Brubaker as an example... hey if you can't trade in on your friends' names...), then the skills naturally develop during that process. Bru not only toiled away in the mainstream for years, he was an indy comix cartoonist for years before that. That is paying some fucking dues.

And that's very different from, say, "Wizard" Magazine calling up a relatively new creator on the mainstream scene -- one who's just done their X-CHARACTER fill-in or BAT-ASSOCIATE mini-series and telling them, "We're going to make you the next big thing." Which has happened more than once, lemme tell ya.

FRACTION: Yeah-- I guess I'm saying I don't think the mainstream behaves as though it has any other obligation than to itself, you know? They didn't stop publishing "Amazing Spider-Man" when McFarlane left, yeah?

It's an interesting point about bringing in outside-media talent to comics; I always figured it was trying to leverage "real" media credibility. More of that self-hating mentality thing, you know? Maybe the truth lies somewhere in-between. I live in blissful unawareness of "Wizard" anymore and assumed their king-making powers were at least in sync with the desire of the publishers. Still-- I guess I can see both sides of the argument. And for every example I'm sure there're a dozen guys that never got that phone call, or got that 11-page "X-Men Unlimited" story once and that was that.

Still-- I suppose I'd like to believe that the folks that get even a tiny corner of protection from that big umbrella have earned it.

Of course, now all I can think of is dudes that haven't and just, like, showed up out of nowhere...

CASEY: Don't get me wrong, I'd like to believe that everyone's earned whatever they've gotten, at whatever level. And I guess it's a cold, hard fact that perhaps no one is qualified to judge exactly where anyone's level of craft and skill is at the particular time that they are... I guess, awarded an opportunity.

But, to take it back several decades... the old way of developing talent at both Marvel and DC was to find new writers and give them back-up stories, fill-ins on fringe titles, etc. and let them develop their skills as a writer. Forget the fact that the so-called "ladder of success" led to a monthly gig writing "Spider-Man" or "Batman" or whatever... skills were being developed, and that's the important thing. Same with a lot of the 80's British writers with the 8-pagers of "2000AD."

Those kind of skills-- cultivated and developed in that specific manner-- tend to sustain longer. A lot of those guys ended up spending twenty plus years making a living writing comicbooks. I just look around at the Big Two and I don't see the same type of circumstances. As you say, one story in "X-Men Unlimited" and either the writer lands a fairly high-profile mini-series (relative to their experience in the business, at any rate) or simply fades away into obscurity. There's less of a middle ground to inhabit for these guys.

Again, I'm not saying that either DC or Marvel are wholly responsible for providing that middle ground (or, more specifically, that training ground). They don't owe that to any creator, really. But with the marketplace like it is, even indy comix or self-publishing has to strive to make a splash and a buzz just to get 2500 in pre-orders. And, on the Net, the noise you have to make just to get that much tends to have a backlash effect on a creator. They're not afforded the time to develop their craft over years if Diamond won't carry their book... or if the orders are so low, they can't afford to print it.

I'm going off the rails here. I can feel it...

FRACTION: Dan Curtis Johnson and I are going to start a comic book gang called the Day Job Dilettantes. We'll have satin jackets and everything. It's gonna be for creators that pop up and do something fun, something for themselves, something career or anti-career but almost purely without strategy because they dig their day jobs enough to just not give a fuck-- write what you want when you want and who cares about the sales? Show up at conventions without cards and without pitches. Don't take meetings and don't spitball; find the right idea and find the right publisher that believes in the work like you do. When you don't need to make a living writing comics, you can write the comics you actually want to write...

...not to say, like, BAT ASSOCIATE Author X, or Dan or I, doesn't, by default, want to be writing BAT ASSOCIATE. You know what I'm saying. It's not like you gotta go BAT SHORT to BAT ASSOCIATE to BOOK OF THE BAT or it's back to flippin' burgers, necessarily. There's a, y'know, third option out there. BAT SHORT to WEIRD-ASS OGN to HISTORICAL DRAMA SERIES to X-WHATEVER as the situations or ideas present themselves.

The godallmightydollah-- or the godallmighty shareholders-- are who Marvel and DC are ultimately responsible to anymore. And the best of intentions-- the "This is Good for All of Comics" sort of intentions-- don't always mesh with what's best for the shareholders. The big two are, first and foremost, there to shore up their base and deliver reliable excitement that translates into reliable numbers every month. It's a fine system if that's where you feel you need to work, and a lot of fun work can happen there, and a lot of jacked up work can happen there too, sure-- but it's The System, it's the reality of the comics mainstream and you can't fight city hall and all that.

Really, though, more guys oughta just not give a fuck.

CASEY: Fine. Whatever. Go on and have yer little club... (grumble... mumble...)

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