The Basement Tapes: Issue #51

Tue, August 30th, 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.

The biggest mainstream, Direct Market launch of the past few years, at least. We're talking ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER here. Big creators, big numbers. And big expectations-- with the definitive BATMAN writer at the helm and the biggest artist in superhero books teaming up, how could there not be? Was it good? Bad? Boring? With just one issue out, is it too soon for this kind of analytical discussion? Maybe, but when has that ever stopped us?

FRACTION: Well, the numbers are in for ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER by Messers Miller and Lee and it looks like the very best numbers the superhero mainstream can support nowadays, even if but for a month, are in the neighborhood of 261,000. It doesn't really look like it's selling out on stands, at least in my town, but that's not what counts. What counts is that... what, the butts-in-seats factor, the eyes-on-the-page thing, and it looks like this one-- a perfect storm of gimmicks iconic characters, variant covers, and top-drawer creators-- broke the bank.

So I guess what I was wondering is, did anyone actually like the book?

To me, it read like a luke-warm, middle of the road, and by-the-numbers bit of posturing for all involved. It's a prefab comfort book for Batman/Miller/Lee fans; I can see those numbers staying high, but certainly not that high down the road. Especially since... well, it's just so weak.

CASEY: Well, hell, what can I tell you...? Frank Miller's a bona fide inspiration to me and Jim's a friend. Besides, I got it for free...

Y'know, I may be misremembering things, but I don't necessarily recall an assload of pre-release hype coming from DC on this thing. I mean, sure, there was the requisite ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY blurb, but we all know EW Is a Time-Warner publication, so whatever. But it was the fans who provided most of the attendant buzz. All DC really had to say were the words, "Frank Miller." "Batman" and "Jim Lee" and the fans took care of the rest. At least, that's what I saw. Any sort of letdown they might be feeling, now that the first issue is actually out, is their own fault, I reckon.

But that doesn't mean that possibly the creators in question shouldn't have known better, right...?

Is ALL-STAR BATS going to be a better Jim Lee Batman book than HUSH? For my money? No. But it doesn't have much to do with content, but intent. The Jim Lee of HUSH was a guy with something to prove. And he proved it like a motherfucker and blew the doors off the joint. And, should I even ask if ALL-STAR BATS is going to be a better Frank Miller Batman book than either DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or BATMAN: YEAR ONE? C'mon...

So why are they doing it? Neither one of them need the money. A bit of fun, maybe? I dunno... it didn't read as all that much fun (at least, the first issue didn't, so maybe it's too soon to call…). And producing a comicbook -- one that's already been placed on a six-week schedule as opposed to the traditional monthly, so infer from that what you will -- is enough work on its own... but factor in that Miller is basically a Hollywood director now and Jim is already plotting a major return to drawing Wildstorm properties... I dunno, I guess you can't help but wonder why...

FRACTION: Yeah, I have no idea. Launch the line at 260+ K, I think, seems to be the answer, really. A bit of that familiar feeling of We're getting the band back together, and following the natural results of HUSH and SUPERMAN/BATMAN successes, really. Add it all up and look at what you can top the DM out at, right? It certainly didn't feel like anything urgent or important (as urgent or important, I mean, as a Batman comic can be), did it? It's the comics equivalent of a sweeps-week Very Special Episode.

Which is an odd way, I guess, to launch a line in the long term, but in the short term... WOO HOO 260+K!

CASEY: Yeah, I can see that... coming up with a project/creator combo that exists solely to find the glass ceiling in the DM. Y'know, like a science experiment, launching a probe into space to see how far it can go. Marvel's tactic on that front is something like NEW AVENGERS, where the question is, "How many variant covers can we get away with?" Well, apparently, a hell of a lot, since every issue has had a variant.

The thing about ALL-STAR BATS for me is whether or not I wanted this comicbook to exist. Hey, I'm just arrogant enough to ask that question, okay? Again, I go back to both creators' previous works. If I want to look at gorgeous Jim Lee Batman art, I've got twelve issues of HUSH to look at and drool over. For me, personally, twelve issues did the trick. It satisfied my own particular itch to see Jim draw Batman and all the ancillary components of his mythology. And the amount of love I have for DKR and YEAR ONE, if Miller had never touched Batman again in his life, I wouldn't necessarily feel a void in my life.

FRACTION: See, here's the thing-- it's not the Miller of DKR and YEAR ONE, it's the Miller of SPAWN/BATMAN, right? Sometimes I think the same thing I love about Miller's work is the same thing that turns me off to it-- it's that he very clearly is a guy making comics for himself first and foremost, right? Which is as it should be with all creators, I mean, but more than almost any other cartoonist or writer out there, when I'm with Miller, I'm with him-- but when I'm not, I'm so totally not. I'm sure he's having a blast writing this stuff-- his insistence on adding "and Robin the Boy Wonder" to the title of the book certainly seems to reflect that. But, still-- here, with ALL STAR... I'm done.

I've never been the biggest Jim Lee fan in the world-- I think he's a superlative superhero artist, certainly, but the Jim Lee I'm more fascinated by turns up in that FLINCH short he did that looked like a Geoff Darrow watercolor and rarely ever anytime else. But hey, give 'em what they came to see, right? Which seems the perfect tagline for ALL STAR BATMAN. It's all so... perfunctory.

CASEY: Yeah, I definitely agree. Jim's got artistic skills that far exceed the superhero work that makes him a "hot" artist. Hell, not to be so self-congratulatory, but his cover for THE INTIMATES #3 is one of my favorite things he's ever done. But that's not what the Direct Market-- or DC Comics-- wants from Jim Lee. Not even close.

Y'know, it's pretty obvious so far that Miller himself isn't trying to make any grand statement with this book, but it's almost naive for him to think that he can get away with not making a grand statement whenever his name is linked to the Batman character. He may be having a laugh-- and more power to him if he is-- but most readers probably aren't in on the joke. They won't let him forget how seriously he took the character back in '85-'86. Is that fair? Probably not. But it is what it is, right...?

FRACTION: Sure. Miller can't ever transcend his own character, or his own legacy-- I don't think fandom will let him. Everything he's done since DKR gets compared to it-- I mean, that's why he did SIN CITY, right? A big flying fuck you to everyone's expectations and off he went.

So, you know, I guess the joke's on us.

You brought up the six-week schedule earlier-- you think there'll be a numbers collapse? If it is only nine issues, who the hell do you get to follow up that team? Is this book one of those unholy juggernauts that's just gonna divide and conquer the charts every other month?

CASEY: To tell you the truth, I have no fucking clue what the future of this book holds or how the orders will hold up, mainly because I'm still not sure what the purpose of the book is. And, I'm mainly talking from a story point of view. Is it simply ROBIN: YEAR ONE? If that's the case, why are we hearing about DCU chicks like Black Canary showing up, which suggests more of an art showcase than an actual story...? The story itself -- whatever it turns out to be -- is designed to end, mainly because we know both creators have other commitments... but exactly when it will end is also up in the air. Is it six issues? Nine? It's hard to predict momentum of any kind when we don't know what we're gearing up for. Finite series demand details on exactly when it's going to end. That allows the reader to cherish it at the time. It allows the reader to enjoy the moment. We knew HUSH was twelve issues... we knew both DKR and YEAR ONE were four issues, so even the delays of the last few issues of DARK KNIGHT were tolerable because we knew from the outset what we were waiting for.

Personally, I just don't want there to be a "joke" on anyone. Not on us, not on the Direct Market, not on the creators themselves, not on DC. That's not what any of us need right now.

FRACTION: Yeah, I have no damn idea where the thing's going-- nobody else seems to, either. I guess I say "joke" since it seems like the whole thing is an attempt at American-style Fan Service-- asses, costumes, cameo appearances, some punching. If it's a joke, it's a shitty one. Credit where credit's due, nobody doubted Marvel was really going for it with the Ultimate initiative. People doubted if the books would survive, sure, but nobody doubted...

...I almost used the word 'sincerity' but that doesn't seem quite appropriate. Nobody doubted Marvel wanted to stick the landing, you know? This, as the intro to what one would assume is an initiative, comes off like a flash in the pan. It's what happens when the undisputed best BATMAN writer and the hottest artist going are put on a book for as long as the marriage can last. No, I guess it's not a joke-- I kinda think it's a scam.

CASEY: Well, no doubt these things will be judged from launch to launch. At least, that's how I'm looking at them. And I'll be first in line to buy ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, I can tell you that right now. But, in that particular case, I just don't care about the ALL-STAR part of that series.

And I'm not sure if our so-called healthy cynicism doesn't make us part of the problem... but, y'know, I don't think it does. When I look at things like this, from the ALL-STAR line, to ULTIMATE whatever, to (fill-in-the) CRISIS, to HOUSE OF M... all I really want out of all of these-- whether I personally enjoy them as a reader or not (of the ones I might happen to read, that Is)-- is clarity of vision. Clarity of intent. And I'm not sure if books that sell at those levels are able to have those things. It just might not be possible with the corporate structure (such as it is) being what it is. There's too much at stake to just let creators tell their stories.

Maybe that's the glass ceiling...

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