The Basement Tapes: Issue #53

Tue, September 13th, 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.

Fear not, frantic one! A thrilling tempo of thought and thesis awaits you! You know all you want to do is devour the demented back-and-forth between two titanic talents, hell-bent on seeking knowledge for the greater good of all charismatic comicbook creators everywhere! Well, then sit back, True Disbeliever… and Marvel at the manner in which two temperamental types take aim at Style, Substance and Simply Satiating the modern reader!

CASEY: Okay, man... I'm gonna' throw something out atcha and see what you come back to me with. It's really more of an opinion than anything, but the fact that you're even one more generation away from it than I am means you'll have a different perspective on it.

I don't know exactly how much of the old '60s Marvel's you've read by now. Certainly, with all the ESSENTIAL volumes flying around, there's ample opportunity to catch up on history. Specifically, Stan Lee's heyday at Marvel Comics. The manner in which he wrote, his own personal style that affected so many fans and pros alike. Certainly a refinement of Stan's narrative style can be seen when you connect the dots from Stan to Roy Thomas to Steve Englehart to David Michelinie to Roger Stern, etc.

What I'm talking about is a narrative which talks directly to the audience. Captions that read in an almost conversational tone, allowing the reader to feel like he's in on the joke, rather than simply being told a joke. It really was ingenious on Stan's part, and certainly something that no other comicbook writer had ever attempted on that scale.

And, goddammit, it worked.

Worked like a motherfucker, actually. Marvel readers were truly a new breed of comicbook reader, and Stan's "voice" really seemed to connect with them. And, y'know, I'm not even talking so much about the hype element of Stan's writing (which was always there, no doubt about it), I'm talking more about his ability to let the readers in, to sit them around the figurative campfire and simply tell them a story.

It's a tradition of narrative that's pretty much been lost. And, to be perfectly honest here, I'm not quite sure why that is. Aside from simply trying to ape Stan, there's obviously something fundamentally appealing about that kind of writing.

I dunno... any thoughts on this? Do you even know what I'm talking about here...?

FRACTION: Yeah, of course-- I've read a ton of that stuff in... well, a lot of different formats. We've played around with some of these ideas before, I think; lost tools of the trade. That personal, third-person narrative really did help to define the early Marvel voice. Early Marvel was all about community building and proto-brand building and that constant presence of Stan in all their books tied the line together and made... well, it made Stan the brand.

I think that's probably why the technique went away, to tell the truth. Like any other artform, certain ideas and techniques get relegated to the passe department in a mad rush for modernity. I noticed that you've injected that sort of caption-presence into GØDLAND, too-- and even the info-scroll in INTIMATES was the digital bastard son of the Huckster's Voice.

I'm using first person captions for various characters in CASANOVA, but still haven't been able to do much more than the throwaway captions in LOTI in the third-person. It's... I can't quite get my head around it in a non-ironic sort of way, I guess.

CASEY: Well, do you think it's possible to even attempt some sort of a permutation of that "insider narrative" in a way that's not just a throwback to the Stan Lee huckster-ism (which, at this point, is really more of parody of what Stan did in most people's minds)? Again, to do it in some fashion that's not ironic or satirical in any way...?

It's the interactive connection to the reader that interests me. I'm not suggesting aping Stan in any way, but in terms of intention, do you think there's some other technique-- a modern one-- that somehow produces the same result, making a someone feel like it's a more personal conversation between creator and reader...?

FRACTION: Yeah, probably so. I keep thinking of Dave Eggers' footnotes from A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS or even some of Susanna Clarke's stuff in JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL, but those are straight-up literary-- I remember reading a David Foster Wallace interview where, when asked why he used footnotes-- and, really, what else could be considered the comics parallel?-- as much as he does; Wallace said something along the lines of using footnotes was a way to break the traditional "novel" form. I wonder if at this point in time of comics' evolution if there effect might be the same, to shatter preconceived expectations of the form.

I'm not sure of any particular "modern" technique that could accomplish the same thing within the actual covers of the book; the only things coming to mind would require active reader participation, like calls to websites or whathaveyou.

CASEY: Well, I guess the difference that I'm talking about... in Stan's stuff (and in the writers who were inspired by him), the idea that you-- as a reader-- were consciously in the hands of a storyteller, someone who was, in some fashion, taking you through the story. Almost like a John Williams soundtrack, telegraphing emotion at the appropriate moments in the story. In more modern comics, I think it strives for the idea that the shit is actually happening, that there's no narrator guiding you through the story, guiding your emotions, your reactions, whatever. Writers these days work to make themselves somewhat invisible, right? They don't want you to think everything is being constructed for you. I suppose it gets back to that sense that a reader is really "reading a silent movie", for lack of a better term.

My stray thought here is that the kind of comicbook writing that Stan employed was a means to connect on a more intimate level with the reader. Modern comicbook writing, I suppose, works with different techniques to make that connection. Or maybe we're not making it. So the question then becomes, are we making it...? Are we drawing in those readers in the way Stan did? Are we talking with them, or simply at them?

And, hell, we should ask the question... do readers want that level of interaction, that more intimate connection, in the manner that Stan provided back in the day? Or do they just want movies on paper, requiring only passive attention...?

FRACTION: Oh, I'll go further than that-- Stan's thing wasn't just to give the reader the idea that they were in the hands of a storyteller, but to give the reader the feeling that they were in a club, a society, a team. Nowadays, you're right-- it's all about remaining as invisible as possible.

I tend to feel that a lot of the tips and tricks that got retired didn't necessarily deserve to be; at least they don't deserve to be relegated to the dustbin for the end of time. Especially as the superhero mainstream tends towards itself sometimes-- why not pull out these old gags and look for ways to re-engage readers? There are superhero books written for everyone, and there are superhero books written for lifers-- if that's your audience, play with 'em some. Those techniques-- I mean, so many times creators are accused of having disdain for their material, or audience, or any of that-- anything that lets an audience know that you, too, have longbox after longbox taking up space in the spare-room can only help to build that relationship.

So the question is-- are you kicking it Stan-stylee in your upcoming FF book with Weston?

CASEY: Ha... no, Chris and I aren't trying to recreate a Lee-Kirby thing at all. It's not that kind of book. And I wouldn't necessarily say I've consciously done it in parts of GØDLAND or THE INTIMATES. Although the info scrolls certainly contain a bit of personal commentary from time to time... but that's just me venting, not an attempt to connect with anyone (obviously).

But you hit on an important phrase, "building that relationship." More and more, I'm thinking that's really what it's all about... with all comicbooks, mainstream and indy alike. The work is a conduit between creator and reader, and the strength of that conduit, the strength of the work, affects the quality of the relationship. Stan added a layer of personality, a "voice" that reached out to the readers. I mean, when I was a kid just starting to read superhero comicbooks, I was reading guys like Englehart and Michelinie... who certainly adapted Stan's voice into their own, but were still writing with that sense of talking to the reader on occasion. And, thinking back, that absolutely worked on me, drew me in to a more intimate relationship with the work itself. Of course, when Miller and Moore came along, they pretty much obliterated that style of writing and to this day everyone apes them…

Now, does that mean that, because the audience is older, that this type of writing wouldn't work on them like it does -- or did -- on younger readers? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it happened just like that to me. But I guess I'm still struggling with the idea of a new, alternative method of speaking to that readership in a similar manner. There's got to be some technique, some new narrative tool out there that nobody's stumbled onto yet...

FRACTION: Is it a matter of technique, really? Or just tone? Stan's whole schtick reads like a hoary old chestnut of a cliche nowadays, sure, but isn't it because he invented the comics iteration of it? So, now, if you tried doing that whole thing it'd come off as... kitsch, or ironic, or ill-conceived, or just plain bad writing.

Maybe it's about finding a new tone of voice. And not one that's so conscious of doing anything other than telling the story, you know? Nothing's sadder than a dude trying to start a club, so I don't think that aspect of the Stan approach would play. Obviously, it's a hoped-for side effect, but I think it'd read as just plain desperate. A tone disconnected from all that, though-- a third-person omniscient narrator breaking the fourth wall... and doing it with captions, right there on the page... I guess my gut says that could really be something worthwhile.

Or is that totally naive?

CASEY: I don't ever think it's naive to seek out new techniques. It's all part of the journey, y'know? If comicbooks were selling in the millions, a true mass market medium, then conversations like these would be completely academic. But in a niche medium, the search for new avenues, new ways of thinking, new ways of communicating ideas... that's never naive.

Maybe that "breaking the fourth wall" is at least a jumping off point. Stan would do it, sure... but, in my opinion, that's when he was at his height as a huckster. There has to be an alternative way to do it that adds some new level to the narrative-- without distracting from the story being told-- and creating a more direct line to the modern reader...

FRACTION: My gut cynic wants to ask if there's an actual audience for it. I mean, is there anyone besides other comics creators that would appreciate a derivation or evolution of the standard? Eh. That's just raining even before the parade even gets started, the kind of status-quo thinking that's run this mess so far into the ground anyhow... the superhero mainstream doesn't exactly have to worry about a dearth of original ideas and techniques at the moment.

There's nothing to lose and everything to gain.

CASEY: My opinion? There's an audience for it... whatever "it" is. And the beauty of this is... that audience doesn't even know they want it yet. And that's why it'll work. Because it's out there. Somewhere. Waiting for someone to organically discover it and be the first one to do it.

If only we knew what "it" is, huh...?

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