The Basement Tapes: Issue #55

Tue, September 27th, 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.

Make room for two writers who are about to disappear completely up their own asses. As they stare endlessly at the state of their own shaky careers, they can't help but wonder about the path they've taken. Okay, one of them can't… and he's bringing his hapless discussion partner down with him. So, make room for two supreme navel-gazers. Nobody does it better.

CASEY: So, I'm curious to what you think... or if you even do think about this kind of shit. Having done this as my primary occupation for a few years now, I go back and forth on how I see my own work, how I juxtapose one project with another. I wonder how something like AUTOMATIC KAFKA sits next to something like EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES.

I dunno... I look at other writers' bodies of work and I can see certain threads. I can see how one project leads to another, either conceptually or thematically. Then there are writers whose work is a bit more random, there's no obvious, common thread and I'm forced to appreciate their work on a project-by-project basis.

In your own work, does the idea of "career context" ever come into play? When you look at what's in print, from MANTOOTH to LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS to BLOODSUCKER TALES to, God help us, the Wolverine 12-pager in X-MEN UNLIMITED, and now the upcoming CASANOVA (which, my good friend, we'll be talking more about in due time), not to mention any projects you've got on the front burner that we haven't heard about yet, do you consider how they fit together? Do you ever step outside of yourself and pretend you're the prototypical "Fraction Fan" -- and we know they exist out there -- and try to imagine how a reader who might be tracking you would view your body of work?

FRACTION: I can see what I was looking at, what I was thinking about, what I was reacting to or trying to understand in my life when I look back at my stuff, sure. I can see threads of creative interest that predate almost anything. Last year, after meeting a designer and writer named Marc English, I pushed myself through doing a kind of shamanism on my creative life and found, remembered, or discovered all kinds of links and motifs I didn't know existed. Bathed in the waters of Lake Minatonka, as it were.

I don't think I can fairly examine my meager comics output to date with any degree of accuracy, since there's at least half as much written and never released for whatever reasons that it moots my personal perspective on context. I've worked long and hard on shit that's just never gonna see the light of day, but served a fairly profound purpose in my creative life, you know? Knowing that stuff exists skews how I see what's been printed.

CASEY: I get what you're saying, so then let me ask this question... should we even be thinking about that kind of thing-- career context-- as we approach each new work? I mean, let's assume that any of us have some sort of audience... folks who at least keep an eye out for whatever might have our name on it. Do you think they have some sort of expectation? Not necessarily of quality (one always hopes the quality is there), but an expectation of... I dunno... of spirit, maybe?

I look at it this way... when I read Grant Morrison's stuff, I have an expectation beyond quality, beyond the fact that I know him. It's an expectation that I suppose it's hard to articulate. An expectation of some sort of... feeling in the work. An inexplicable but inescapable vibe. I feel that way about a few comicbook writers. But that's my fan perspective.

The thing is... should writers even take into account that kind of expectation...?

FRACTION: Maybe an expectation of voice? Or a consistency, maybe?

Morrison's a great example, to me, in that he very clearly has a body of work full of various leitmotifs and themes that can transcend subject matter-- I was rereading the SEVEN SOLDIERS stuff to date and almost started to jot down the most Morrisonian lines... I mean-- INVISIBLES and JLA, for a while, were almost telling the same story, told through different filters. That might be more literal than where you're coming from, but I know what you mean. I think that if you tend to follow creators over characters (And, really, Morrison is one of those creators of whom I'll try anything) there's obviously some consistent elements across the board. Some of it might just be stylistic, others more thematic or tonal... but, sure, there's a kind of spirit you're tuning into, there's some kind of vibe that syncs with your own.

As a reader-- yeah, that's what I know I'm looking for. As a writer, I guess I don't really think about that in my own work. Like looking at the tightrope when you're walking across it. Maybe other folks can think about that stuff, but I can't. And don't.

CASEY: Morrison, Chaykin, Ennis, Miller, Baron, Ellis... those are the guys I happen to have that elusive expectation for.

So, what are you saying... that you're aware of it as a reader, but as a writer you can somehow shut down that insight (which obviously exists), and just let it fly...? Work out the context years later...?

I dunno. It's seems like a weird dichotomy, when you take a step back and look at it with some perspective. It's like having the ability to analyze -- or, at least, identify-- something external, but not something internal. I'm not saying I can do it either. I obviously can't. But it seems strange that I can't, y'know...? I almost feel like I should be able to do that. That it would make things easier on everyone if I could do that...

FRACTION: I know what my interests are; I know what iconography I'm drawn to and what my archetypes and imagery and themes are and all that. I guess I just don't try and analyze it. At this point, I just want, like, a couple thousand published pages under my belt. I'm about to start three series concurrently and I can't imagine there's not going to be some thematic and conceptual overlap, even though they're as wildly divergent as can be...

I really think it's like thinking about swimming while you're swimming, or thinking about riding the bike while you're riding it. It's like repeating your own name again and again until it blurs into nonsense, you know? It's totally obvious and automatic until you start looking at it.

I really do feel like one of the best things I ever did for my creative life was to go back and look for the stuff that sparked and then figure out why. When I was done, it was totally obvious but getting there was fascinating-- in that disappearing up your own ass kind of way, I guess.

CASEY: Yeah, the Colon Self-Exploration Trip can bear strange and wonderful fruit on occasion...

Okay, so to come at this from a different direction... if you're not necessarily willing to place your own work in context as you're doing it, are you willing to relinquish that so-called "control" to readers, editors, fellow creators, etc? Because it happens, my friend. Sometimes it can be better to beat them to the punch, so to speak...

FRACTION: I feel like it takes everything I've got to keep my shit together, let alone start wondering how I look while I'm doing it. How does it ultimately matter? I mean, surely there are going to be certain consistencies-- I hope-- in whatever I do, wherever I do it, in spite of the genre. Beyond that, though... god, this sounds retarded, but I just want to write the best comics I can, you know? Still waters run deep and all that.

CASEY: No, you're absolutely right in that thinking. I guess it does go back to a point we often touch upon in these things... self-consciousness. I know it's far better to obliterate self-consciousness when we write, to just let it fly and let the creative chips fall where they may.

On the other hand, the spotlight can be harsh. And it takes a village and all that shit. We can't be oblivious to our own careers, simply because it's not smart business. That could be where some of this comes from with me. Commerce vs. Art. Which one is truly the controlling factor on your creative life? Can we ever know that answer for sure...?

FRACTION: Is it such an either-or prospect? Does one wholly negate the other?

CASEY: Not at all, but I do think that, in this industry, one influences the other in strikingly significant ways. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. I may be selling out the concept of "art", but I guess I do consider the career ramifications of the ideas I come up, whether or not I'm going to follow through with them, who I might pitch them to, etc. It's also a time management issue, deciding which projects are more cost effective for me do put time into.

God help me...

Anyway, I guess there is a self-consciousness involved. One that I can't get out from under, even if I wanted to. I've certainly made decisions based on my own outlook on being an "artist," but I'm wondering what the ratio is for myself... and whether or not I followed the correct internal advice. Were there times when I should've chosen art over career? Or vice versa? Definitely...

FRACTION: I might be naive, or at least just lying (either to you or to myself), when I say that I've not felt that too terribly acutely yet.

I've known when I've pitched things that they were or weren't terribly commercial ideas, but it's not ever stopped me from going for it. I mean, who knows? Maybe that's why my pitch file outnumbers my published file. Maybe this whole day job dilettante thing is a sham I cling to, a public-- and private, honestly-- defense against why I lack the rigors of what it really takes to be a full-time comics writer, you know? Maybe it's easier to pretend that I don't want to dance rather than admit that I just can't.

These aren't fun questions to ask.

So I try to keep moving and, honestly, not think about it. It might be a sham, but it's my sham and I'm sticking to it.

CASEY: I gotcha. Shark-like behavior. Keep moving or drown. More power to ya', my friend.

But, as Bowie once said, put on your red shoes and dance the blues. You're on your way to the promised land. You'll be questioning your self-worth in this odd business soon enough.

Hell, you wrote a WOLVERINE story. Day job or not... you're in the club. And we're damn glad to have you.

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