The Basement Tapes: Issue #52

Tue, September 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.

Writing for the mainstream. Maintaining a career. Holding onto your integrity. Paying the rent. Satisfying your artistic ambitions. Having a laugh. Enter the dragon as one of our own steps forward and adds a calm but commanding voice to the conversation. She's dropped some serious wisdom on all of our heads. And we're all better off because of it…

CASEY: Okay, we've obviously not the only saps who've been commenting on this, but I just can't help myself. I'm talking about the first part of writer Devin Grayson's interview at ComicFoundry.com where she talks as honestly about writing for one of the Big Two as anyone in recent memory. No spin, no fluff, just the straight shit. Now, Devin's a classy gal, but I give much respect for her basically breaking down the process-- and the pitfalls-- so plainly that anyone could understand what mainstream writers (those of us that might not be living in the WIZARD Top Ten) deal with in their jobs.

Not only that, she really nailed the environment itself to the fucking wall. It was so dead on... well, it was scary. Even down to the latest machinations within DC that, again, are right on the money (from what I've heard, anyway). And what's more, I didn't really feel that much cynicism from her, even when discussing things that she probably wishes were different.

So, you read this thing... what'd you think? I mean, welcome to our world, pal...

FRACTION: Yeah, first off-- that entire interview managed to be both blisteringly honest yet almost clinically detached in how clear and concise she made her outline of the process. So, I mean, hat's off, for both being so upfront and for being able to express all that without sounding like some crank-job whacko certain that the entirety of comics past and present as both an artform and an industry revolves around her. Which, I mean, I struggle with every single goddamn day.

I've had only the teeeeeensiest, tiiiiiiiiiiniest taste of that world and... I mean, it was kinda like capers, you know? Those little garnish things? A couple here, a couple there... small doses go a long way, yeah? But these crazed motherfuckers are eating capers by the fistful...!

Y'know, I believe it was Devin Grayson that came up with my favorite metaphor for breaking into comics-- that it's like a heavily-fortified wall, and if you can sneak in, you're in, but after that they put extra guards on the lookout for people trying to sneak in the same way.

CASEY: I guess I just like the fact that she seems to have the proper amount of perspective. And I mean, just the right amount. You've always gotta' have a little bile there, and Devin certainly has just enough so you know she's a human being. But she just wears it well. Classy lady, I'm tellin' ya...

Another aspect of what she said that really struck me was how it laid out some of the inherent obstacles of writing mainstream superheroes without asking for even a subatomic particle of pity. There was no whiny "woe is me" moaning to what she's saying... it was more of an "every job has its potential headaches and these are some of ours." Which is exactly the kind of discussions we need to be having. Hell, even you and I end up trapped up our own asses at times...

Now, the question becomes... will anything she said end up moving the needle at all? Will it draw out other mainstream writers to identify things in our work life that could be better if we just applied a little effort to it...? Or will Devin be that lone voice in the crowd, ultimately drowned out by the high volume of apathy that surrounds her...?

FRACTION: I was explaining to someone the other day the WFH/Creator Owned differences, and what Marvel's contract was/is like-- and for all my blathering on, she says it best in the second part of the interview-- "Being an independent contractor means using your skill to deliver your client something made to his or her specifications." And, yeah, that's that.

From what I can tell, there's a fair amount of "You can't fight city hall" in the mainstream; maybe in some industries the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but in comics, the squeaky wheels tend to get labeled "nutjob" and are treated like such. I hope, though, that her interview is read and learned from, instead of being viewed as some kind of airing of dirty laundry, you know? I doubt very much that the needle gets moved inside the corporate offices-- it's just the nature of the beast, maybe-- but can it move the, er, needle of awareness amongst other freelancers, and in people just starting out? I sure hope so.

CASEY: I don't know so much about the "can't fight city hall"-mentality. To me, it seems to end up being more of an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em"-vibe, which is exactly how one should approach mainstream gigs. And plenty of nutjobs sell enough comics that they'll get all the work they need. Devin, God bless her, is not a WIZARD Top Ten writer at the moment. She didn't have to say what she said, or anything at all for that matter. But the fact that she did says as much about her character as it does the odd environment of mainstream freelancing.

The great thing her interview did for me personally was that it kinda' knocked me back into a proper headspace when it comes to writing that kind of material. I go back and forth on how far I want to push things in WFH situations, both creatively and on the business side of things. It's tough enough just to get out of my own way sometimes and just have fun with it. Hopefully, anyone who aspires to write professionally for Marvel or DC can read her interview and maybe, In some small way, our weekly rants and know going into it both what it's like to work under those circumstances... and that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

FRACTION: Well, I mean, again, I've got a very limited taste of that world; reading this interview showed that it's a very very big-- and strange-- world indeed.

I guess I've got two questions for you, a vet of both the X and Supes offices (which, I'd assume, traffic highly in the sorts of scenarios Devin was speaking of, to say nothing of your work at the big two in general)-- first, do you think that she'll catch any flack from The Powers That Be over the interview, and second, you say it knocked you back into the proper headspace for this kind of work-- what is that headspace? I mean... what's it like writing Superman comics, where does your head need to be?

CASEY: Listen, if anyone who has the power to give Devin work holds anything she said against her, then in my book they're the epitome of asshole. I didn't glean any whistle-blowing ax-grindage from anything she was saying, and anyone who does is probably just a little too sensitive. Personally, I've probably said much worse and no one's used it against me when it came to doing my job writing comic books. At least, not that I know of... and certainly not to my face.

As far as the headspace involved... it's really a mental balancing act. How to have fun, how to try and write something artistically fulfilling, how to please your employers, how to connect with your readers... all those questions come into play when you write the big superhero franchises. Hell, I'm doing it right now on a bunch of things at Marvel so I'm always walking that tightrope. Though lately, I've been having more fun than I used to, so maybe I'm just mellowing on a lot of the issues that Devin brings up in her interview.

Besides, I have so many other projects, most of them creator-owned, that it really takes a lot of the pressure off these superhero gigs. I don't feel like I have to make any definitive statements when I'm writing a Fantastic Four mini-series, y'know? Back in the day, I would aspire to write WATCHMEN every time out. That's where things like CHILDREN OF THE ATOM came from. These days, I can allow myself to have fun... maybe because I'm not the slightest bit naive when it comes to freelancing for Marvel or DC. So many hard truths are simply a part of my everyday thinking, I just accept them and move on. I don't get the sense that Devin dwells on these things, either. Obviously, she knows the score as well as any of us. It just so happens, she was asked.

And thank God she was... since it gives us something else to talk about, right...?

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