The Basement Tapes: Issue #56

Tue, October 11th, 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.

"Being Bad Gets Good Again"-- that's the line that introduced CASANOVA-- a comic by me (Fraction) and Gabriel Ba from Image Comics in '06-- to the world. Running on the back cover of FELL #1 and the inside-back cover of GØDLAND #3, the response to the ad has been humbling, to say the least. Joe asked me to set the book up for him some-- so I sent him the bible I'd worked up for CASANOVA. A new way of working for a new kind of work, that bible is what kicks this TAPES off...

CASEY: Okay, so I'm sure anyone who bought either the first issue of the Ellis/Templesmith FELL series or my own little series with Tom Scioli, GØDLAND (both monthly from Image Comics... rush to your local retailer) had to notice a way cool house ad in the back of both books... a little something called CASANOVA by the creative team of Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba. Set to hit next spring, this is definitely another Image series I'm looking forward to. And not just because I know you.

Now, being the hip insider that I am (cough! cough!), the minute I heard about this book from Eric Stephenson, I got in touch with you and basically asked, "What the fuck?" Well, you filled me in, alright...

Now, before we get to the meat of the matter, tell me how you even landed at Image. Y'know, I hear it's the place to be these days...

FRACTION: Well, let's see. You and I had been talking about it, shit, around the same time we started talking about doing this column. Warren had gotten them interested in the FELL format, and he was having a good time over there and was having lots of productive conversations with them. I ran into B. Clay Moore at a bookstore the night before I went to NYC for the Common video shoot and we talked for like a half hour... I guess I just kinda looked up one day and all signs were pointing to Image. And they wanted to hear what I was saying and it just seemed to make all the sense in the world.

CASEY: Okay, so the seed is planted in terms of where. At what point did the what start to formulate in your brain? Did the fact that it was Image Comics have any bearing on the kind of project you wanted to put together...?

FRACTION: In that I knew they weren't looking for stories servicing MARVEL GUY or DC LASS, yeah-- does that make sense? Like, I knew Image-- specifically under the nascent regime of the Erik/cs-- were looking for new ideas, or at least different ones in different genres; I knew they were open to playing around with format and structures and all the other things that interest me as much as the content end of things. So I knew, through all those conversations, Image would be open, at least, to listening to my idea. Or ideas.

In terms of when the what went down-- CASANOVA's the book I've wanted to write forever, I think. It's a superspy book, and that whole genre (sub-genre? I dunno.) is my favorite kind of trash in the whole wide world.

CASEY: Okay, so we're zeroing in on the massive missive that operated as your pitch (which will soon be seen as legendary by the likes of me). I assume the next major step -- before you really put formal word to paper -- was locking in Gabriel Ba as your partner in crime. So, you've got this superspy concept knocking around in your head... did hooking up with Gabriel add some sort of inspiration for you in the type of book this would be? Or was it a case of luck that Gabriel could execute what you already had in mind…?

FRACTION: Actually, no-- I went to Image hat-in-hand, hoping they could hook me up with someone. I knew Gabriel by name only-- I knew he was a cartoonist like his brother Fabio, but didn't know the man's work. Eric suggested Fabio, who was about to bust open thanks to SMOKE AND GUNS; Fabio suggested Ba and I love him for it.

And hooking up with Ba was-- it's interesting; he's Brazilian, right? So, all this stuff I refer to, whether it's pop culture stuff, other superspy things, old Cold War comics or fashions or any of that... it's all new to him. His orbit was thoroughly different than my own, so when I mention, say, a Jim Steranko page-- he's never seen it.

The bible was so big because I wanted to try and collect enough visual reference to explain my own context; Ba's genius will shine through as he's thrown it all out and gone along building his own worlds in which we'll play.

CASEY: Okay, so the bible... now I get it. You were able to put together an all-purpose document that not only outlined the ideas for the series, the characters and a certain degree of the pertinent story info, but it also serves to pinpoint inspirations and influences in a very focused way. If Ba hasn't seen Steranko before, here's your opportunity to show him the exact piece of Steranko you want to reference (or allow Ba to be influenced by) and ignore the rest. It's a great, very selective way of presenting specific information.

Now, the pitch document/bible itself is a massive fucking thing. We're talking, like, 70 plus pages of stuff. Not only text, but visual reference out the wazoo. Certain panels from old 60's comics. Stills from movies. Advertising art. For the sake of our eavesdropping readership, what was the process in picking out what to show Ba, and what specific things did you end up showing him...?

FRACTION: That format serves two purposes-- short of a lot of horizontal writing about either a whole OGN or a permanently detailed outline of a series of issues, it gets all my thinking down vertically for a publisher. It's as much homework as I can muster in service of trying to convince these guys to spend money on me. Which-- at the end of the day-- is what they're doing. Second, it gets me out of having to do a lot of horizontal writing about either a whole OGN or a permanently detailed outline of a series of issues. Because it scares people. A lot.

The visual section-- fifty some pages, I think-- was all for Ba. There would've been some element of it anyway, to give whomever it was prepared for a taste, since so much of the book is about a very specific visual era, but the meat of it was, as i said, there for a Brazillian guy that didn't know Steranko's NICK FURY pages, Bava's DANGER: DIABOLIK!, or Bob Peak because-- well, Brazil. Different world, different influences. What I wanted to do, and I said as much in the document, was to collect all that crap in one place for him to look at, study over once, and then throw away. Nobody can accuse us of ripping of Steranko, Bava, or Peak, if the guy drawing the book and doing the conceptual designs isn't versed in them.

CASEY: Yeah, I definitely got that the things you presented were meant to be a jumping off point, the beginning of an artistic conversation. Which makes me all the more psyched for what Gabriel will come up with in response to what you're giving him.

So, then... the question that comes next is what was Gabriel's reaction to this humongous document? And, I'm assuming at least Eric Stephenson at Image saw this, as well. Did he have any significant reaction to it? Because when I saw this thing, I just saw an endless sea of possibilities, I was practically salivating in anticipation as to what would come of Gabriel's exposure to this mini-explosion of art and influence...

FRACTION: I think they both slowly backed away from the keyboard, honestly.

No, I don't know-- they both sounded excited, but I didn't really push. I mean-- it's a lot, you know? I was pretty convinced that it was enough to make Eric not want to talk to me and to send Gabriel off into the hills. I didn't really push or pry for reactions.

What I got, though, was the best reaction in the world-- Gabriel's CASANOVA ad that ran in FELL and GØDLAND. I mean-- that was all the reaction I was looking for. That image, the colors and composition... the tone's set, you know? It's a book about... well, let's just say a freelance contractor in a world of insane-o espionage, and that gasp that hits you when you see that image-- Ba intuited the soul of the book as I saw it and was able to evoke it for readers in that one image.

CASEY: So, where are you at with the project right now? I don't mean the production schedule, either. I mean, your own thinking on it. After all, you created a pitch document that pretty much encapsulated your entire thinking on the book at that point... sort of the pre-collaborative period where it's just you and your ideas to kick things off. Now that we've all seen Gabriel's promo piece, I assume you're well on your way writing the actual series, do you find yourself referring back to your own pitch or has it already evolved past the ideas you laid down there and now you find yourself in uncharted territory...?

FRACTION: I'm at the part where it's teaching me what it needs to be, you know? Best laid plans and all that, but getting into the mechanics of the book has shown that making the leap from theoretical to real isn't always neat and tidy.

For example: the first issue is going to be double-sized. Still at the 1.99 price point, but double-sized all the same-- think of it like a two-hour pilot episode, right? Because it wasn't until I got into the flow of pages and panels that I realized that the ground I needed to cover to create a satisfying first issue experience-- as both a creator and a reader-- couldn't be done well in 16 pages. Others more talented than I would certainly be able to leap such hurdles, but I wasn't pulling it off. So-- more than anything else, the walkin' part of the talkin' talk/walkin' walk equation is teaching me things about the book as I go.

The creative aspect, though-- the bible has really served as a both a thing to ignore (character names, for example, have changed, because they sounded flat on the page... dumb little stuff like that) and a map for the earliest, most tenuous steps I've taken. I use the bible to remind me where I have to go yet.

CASEY: Well, hell, I like the fact that you're already taken Warren's format model (one which I'll be diving into pretty soon, as well) and fucking with it. Twice the size for the same $1.99 price... that's pretty cool.

And I know what you mean about the pitch/bible ending up being more of a general reminder of things than something to stick to so closely. Especially in creator-owned projects, it would be a shame if someone felt so married to their pitch and never let new inspiration and new ideas filter into the process. That's the best part for me.

Do you get the sense now that the building of that massive pitch document was as much for you as it was for your collaborators... and that now you personally feel the freedom to disregard things that, at the time, you put a lot of sweat into communicating to the anonymous pitch reader (and, let's be honest, to yourself)...?

FRACTION: Anything we can do to get folks to check it out, you know? I keep coming back to TV models as a way to try and build an audience-- make those first half-dozen pieces as accessible as possible. As much for me, learning these particular ropes, as for anyone coming in and seeing what the thing's about.

In terms of who the building was for-- of course it was as much for me as for anyone. That kind of world-building is like putting yourself in a trance, it's controlled meditation, you know? It wasn't even about the pitch-- you read it; you saw that the top-sheet can completely detach from the rest and serve as a pretty standard document-- it was about forcing yourself to drown in those waters.

We've talked before about my reticence to actually plot something out before I write it. This is how I get by, I suppose-- the shit I know, I know inside and out, top to bottom. That security gives me the freedom to leap from rooftop to rooftop, I guess.

CASEY: Well, having read the beast we've been talking about... I can honestly say that part of me felt like I knew exactly what kind of series CASANOVA was going to be, while another part of me has no idea what to expect. That's a pretty goddamn great feeling of anticipation... not one I normally have for new comicbooks these days.

Next Spring can't get here soon enough...

FRACTION: I better not fuck it up, right?

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