The Basement Tapes: Issue #54

Tue, September 20th, 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.

Once upon a time, Warren Ellis had a forum. It was relatively popular.

The other week, Ellis kicked off a new forum called THE ENGINE. Restricting itself from conversations about the comics in the superhero mainstream (if not the market and creative dynamics), Ellis' second go at a forum has people talking-- and while great offense is being taken in some quarters at the controlled nature of the forum, already THE ENGINE is seeing more interesting conversations bloom, from Dave Gibbons' page-to-panel process, to Dirk Deppey, Lea Hernandez, Steve Lieber, and Heidi MacDonald looking at the magna paradigm, to digital comics creators hither and yon introducing themselves to an audience that otherwise wouldn't necessarily know that they existed. And so, our inevitable commentary.

CASEY: When I get the odd free Net moment (when I'm not surfing for porn, obviously), I've dropped in on Warren Ellis' new "comics conversation" site, THE ENGINE. Seems like it's going pretty well so far... aside from the Day One Crash, of course. But, so far, the conversations I've read have been interesting, intriguing, informative, and practically ego-free (except for Warren's, of course... but when has it ever not been?). Hell, when Steve Seagle comes out of the woodwork to post anywhere, it's a cause for pause.

The "creator-only" section of the board definitely interests me. A more interactive version of what you and I have been doing here for the past year, it's writers, artists, creators touching their heads together and conversing about comicbooks. I know Warren's intent is promotion (when is it not?), but just like his the old Delphi WEF, it tends to become something bigger. This site seems on its way to exactly that.

John Fellows over at Ninth Art had kind of a cynical view of the whole thing (great minds, and all that…). But I know you've been posting there. What's your "insider" view of THE ENGINE and how it's been going so far...?

FRACTION: Well, there is a LOT of porn out there, and the smarter the web gets, the easier it gets to find super-specialized porn. That's a real issue people are dealing with EVERY DAY.

Wait, what? Oh, right. The Engine.

I dunno that I've got much more of an insider's view than anyone else, but for my two cents, anywhere you can find Kurt Busiek, Ed Brubaker, Dirk Deppey, and Adi Tantimedh talking manga is worth the birth pains.

It's early, still. People are sorta getting their footing and starting the small talk, like the first hour of a cocktail party, you know? As it gets rolling more, it's not hard to see a day when it becomes a resource and a focal point for conversations between all kinds of creators and readers.

CASEY: Well, the interesting thing will be to see how far creators will put themselves out there to talk about craft and the industry and whatnot. Sometimes it's tough to ask questions without also admitting you have no idea what the answer is... and you don't always get that kind of vulnerability with creators in this business, where being a Know-It-All lends that special air of righteousness we all love to display. But, to be fair, that's mostly in the press or on personal message boards.

What I'm hoping this will be is a true No Bullshit Zone... and not just because Warren has his FAs ready to pounce on the first asshole who pokes his (or her) head out of their gopher hole. In the last few years, I've seen the overall tone of message boards-- with notable exceptions-- being a little more... I dunno, civilized, maybe. You never know, this could be the first MB that starts out that way. An example for the rest, y'know...?

FRACTION: I sure felt like a moron writing up a post about my "process"-- but, at the same time, I want the experiment to work and without dumbasses like me diving in, it won't. So that kind of... vulnerability, inexperience, naivete, call it what you will-- putting that out there is how the conversations are going to get rolling.

Warren and the, err, Enginistas are keeping a tight reign on threads, errant posts, and all that... it's more invisible than it was on WEF, you know? It's a quiet sort of cleaning up and policing.

I'm not wholly convinced-- and I have no inside knowledge on this front, sweartogod-- that Warren wants his hands that firmly on the wheel in three months, six months. I'd guess, or at least I'd like to see, The Engine serve as a hub for a bunch of creators working outside of the superhero mainstream.

I'm not so certain, looking at the way it's structured and the way it's being run, that he's looking to do The Warren Show.

CASEY: I agree with you about Warren's intentions. I think they are exactly as you say they are. I look at Warren as a purveyor of Cynical Altruism. Which is cool by me, mainly because of the "altruism" part.

Now, let's talk about that "outside the superhero mainstream" thing that Warren is enforcing. I guess I see where he's coming from with that. I also get a sense he enjoys the inherent antagonism of taking that stance. I know he feeds off it, God bless his little black heart. Maybe I'm just bitter that I can't get on there and talk about new issues of GØDLAND because there's an approach to craft there that might add to the conversation, but the subject matter prohibits it.

But, fuck, I didn't think of THE ENGINE and put the energy into making it happen, so I simply abide...

FRACTION: Well, I tend to agree that there're lots of places to talk about superhero books out there, some better than others, but very few places are designed to support and encourage Everybody Else. And, shit, if Warren wants to lend his, erm, celebrity to pushing the spotlight into some normally-darkened corners, great. It's not a value judgement, you know?

I think there's a subtext that nobody's spoken about, though, with regards to that-- the implication that if these were discussions by and about superhero creators and books, then the discussions wouldn't escape the scope of those books and their histories. By opening it up to Everything But, the tone encourages analysis of craft, of the market, of other experiences beyond Superhero Continuity.

Which tends to choke a lot of those discussions otherwise.

CASEY: Absolutely. And I'm sure as hell not gonna be the one to bust anyone's chops over it. Having said that, I have a feeling that Warren himself will be attempting some occasional experiments in his superhero work-- NEXTWAVE comes to mind-- that might be worth talking about. I'd hate to think that stuff would be off-limits, mainly because I don't think it will be talked about at an ENGINE-level in any other place.

Now, I know a good deal of THE ENGINE's mission is promoting these non-WIZARD, non-superhero works. But, as a creator, there are a lot of times I just don't give a fuck about sales and I just want to talk about craft, no matter what the subject matter might happen to be. Maybe Warren just needs to launch a sister site... THE TRUNK or something...

FRACTION: Oh, I dunno-- there's gotta be a way to talk about craft without getting into, you know, Superman can beat up Green Lantern and all of that. It's the early days over there still, and I'm not sure rules are terribly written in stone. Even if GØDLAND isn't the right tune for the jukebox, certainly FULL MOON FEVER, CRASH BASTARDS, and... Those Other Things You've Told Me About... would be just fine.

I mean, shit, Dave Gibbons just posted a huge thing about the whole of his writing process... there're worse places to beta-test, you know?

CASEY: True enough.

Then, let's look at one last aspect of this thing... the fan/reader aspect. Again, forget the obvious promotion aspect of it... what's the intention for the drive-by readers? What do they get out of watching creators gab about craft and whatnot?

Hell, we could ask the same question about this column, but it's still a valid question. What insights would a non-pro get from perusing THE ENGINE...?

FRACTION: Far be it from me to ascribe motive or reward, but-- I mean, looking back on my time on WEF, before I'd started writing-- it was like a big party. And it was full of some of the funniest and smartest people I've ever met, virtually or otherwise. Hell, I met my wife there, you know?

And, so, WEF was this party that got so huge, so massive, and so crazed that it passed into local legend, right? Every high school or college had one, that one legendary bash that all others were measured up to, right? After a while the good and the bad and the truth of it all gets washed away and watered down and rewritten. Suddenly you've got people that weren't there telling ninth generation stories about The Day Warren Called So-and-So a Cocksucker and Banned 780 People-- shit that never happened, even remotely, passes into truth.

So... WEF was some kind of massive blowout, impossible to replicate, and, even if you could, who on Earth would want to? The Engine seems smaller, more intimate. Even with the 2000 some registered members, it's more focused on the medium itself and... well, if WEF was the house party to end all house parties, right now it seems like The Engine's more of a conversational dinner party. Something more about the talk than the spectacle, more lounge than riot, you know?

I know, for my participation there, that's the kind of experience I'm looking for. Sitting at a table with a dozen different maniacs and visionaries and having a conversation.

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