The Basement Tapes: Issue #57

Tue, October 18th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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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.

It's the kind of thing fans often clamor for with great passion. "Put great creators back on the characters they once had great success on!" "Give (insert creators' names here) another shot on (insert character name here), since they were so great on that series twenty years ago!" Sometimes it actually happens. Sometimes nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Sometimes not. Who better to talk about it than two cynical writers too young to really know what nostalgia is…?

CASEY: So, for reasons I'm not quite ready to divulge, I've been considering the phenomenon of the Reunion Tour. No, I'm not talking about KISS or the fucking Eagles or even the Sex Pistols. I'm talking about the Comicbook Reunion Tour. I've seen a bit more of it lately. Obviously, there's Miller and Varley when they did the "Dark Knight" sequel, but just in the past two years we're had Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire doing "Justice League" stories and Englehart and Rogers on "Batman: Dark Detective." The Comicbook Reunion Tour is specific creators returning to specific character to try and "recreate the magic" of the original comicbooks they collaborated on.

It's an interesting set of circumstances... and you can never tell what the outcome will be. I got a big kick out of the Giff/JM/Maguire stuff. I think the magic was still there. The other reunions...? Maybe not so much. But certainly there's something that has to be said for trying to recreate something that was so distinctive to begin with. And it's one thing to have creators and collaborators continue to work together... but to go that one step further and have them revisit the same characters. Well, I dunno... something abut it does kinda' feel a little strange to me.

Maybe it's just me thinking too much about shit like this. But, like I said, I just happen to be thinking a lot about this particular subject for a variety of reasons...

I'm curious, do these things seem at all forced to you? Or is it totally viable to recapture past glories years after the fact...?

FRACTION: Every fiber of my being-- every single one-- tightens up at the thought of Getting The Band Back Together. Especially if it's one that I had some kind of investment in; especially if it's one that, were they to embarrass themselves, would embarrass me by proxy. Let's ignore that it's a near-certain money-making stunt-- let's say innocent until proven otherwise and assume these aren't exercises in making the mortgage but rather creative endeavors, in which, after a period of retirement or other occupation, a "classic" team of creators realizes, holy shit, we're not done. This one-beloved outfit has more to say, and they'd like us to hear it. "Recreate the magic," as you say.

Here's the thing-- magic isn't replicable. At least that magic. A band doesn't get to sit down and say, OK, now we're going to make our "London Calling," an artist doesn't get to say now it's time for my "Guernica." You can try, sure, but it's not up for the artist to decide-- lasting art exists somewhere between the artist and the audience. Nobody wants to see "Guernica 2," and I tend to resent the fuck out it when work is served up to me on those terms.

There's enough tragedy in the way this industry handles its elders-- and I'm not being specific here at all; anyone reading this can pretend I'm talking about whomever they dislike-- when teams decide to "return" to their 'glory days' and ultimately "fuck it all up," it adds an embarrassing coda to the end of a career.

THAT SAID: the best show I saw last year was the Pixies reunion tour, so what the hell do I know?

CASEY: Well, let's go back to something you said for a minute... there is a difference between coming back to finish work left unfinished and coming back to, as you said, "recreate the magic," isn't there...? I mean, I certainly think there's a difference. Hell, the reason something is considered "magic" in the first place is because it had a sense of completeness to it... which, in this day and age, is such a rare and precious thing that it's presence is certainly enough to label something as being "magical." So many things in comicbooks are so completely devoid of that completeness...

Y'know, I have to stop and wonder... what the hell kind of "unfinished business" would any creator have with Batman? Company-owned characters are, by design, studies in Unfinished Business. When Batman's "business" is "finished," so is the character, right?

Maybe it's all about marketing... only on certain characters can companies justify the hiring of certain creative combos. But that certainly doesn't explain Miller doing a "Dark Knight" sequel.

Or does it...?

FRACTION: Well, yeah-- I mean, that's two different things to me. Coming back to the work is coming back to the work-- getting the band back together is an immediate pandering for nostalgia... "You loved us then! You'd double-love us now!" It's about the, erm, magic, as it were, and not the work?

I don't know-- am I just being too cynical? I don't mean to say that, you know, once a creator or a creative team leaves a particular idea that they shouldn't be allowed to come back to it... I guess I just feel it's dubious strategy to presuppose catching lightning in a bottle at will is possible. Which, let's be honest-- that's sort of what happens. It's the marketing equivalent of stunt casting.

CASEY: Right. And, don't misunderstand me, I'm as much a sucker for nostalgia as the average fan. I may feel a little... dirty afterwards, but that's the chance you take when you revisit the past. Sometimes the past just isn't as clean as you thought or remembered it was.

And the bizarre thing on the publishers' part is the presupposition that those creators are the same creators that created the work in question, all those years ago. Creators evolve, skills morph and grow over time. For publishers to even expect that there will be a similar impact to Those Specific Creators on That Specific Character... I dunno. That one doesn't sit too well.

And you can't really catch lightning in a bottle can you...? That's why that phrase exists... because it's so completely improbable that it's basically impossible.

FRACTION: Look, I don't want to come off like I think it's always a guaranteed creative disaster-- too many creators of all shades of genius are put out to pasture and ignored in this industry-- but when it's done purely for the nostalgia (and nostalgia's attendant sales) by guys past their prime and not at their fighting weight, it's all just so tawdry and sad.

I'd rather read work that-- as you point out-- reflect the creators' skills and evolution as it is now than watch Adam West squeeze into the Batsuit one last time.

Is this an industry that allows for that, though? Comics churn through its starlets with as much voraciousness as porn.

CASEY: It does indeed. And work is work. If someone is getting offered a few bucks to saddle up again on a character or a project that they themselves might not have chosen to work on (if even given the choice), who's gonna' blame them for cashing a paycheck and putting food on the table? Certainly not us. It can be a use-or-be-used environment. In the best of scenarios, it's at least a mutual using.

And, as far as I'm concerned, a creator is never past their prime. They can look like it when they're not allowed to operate at capacity. When they're forced to try and, as you say, catch lightning in a bottle because that's the opportunity that's presented to them. An opportunity for a publisher to cash in on nostalgia. An opportunity that may or may not have much to do with the creators' current skill set.

I dunno, man... we're getting into some dark territory here, aren't we...?

FRACTION: Ahh, shit-- I hadn't really thought about it from that angle... naive of me. But it's a fine point all the same-- if the only work Mel Gibson and Danny Glover can get are from doing "Lethal Weapon" movies, who am I to judge?

I think I gotta disagree with you about getting past one's prime, though-- not just in comics, but in any medium. I can respect the urge to work, but don't you think it's possible to pass a point of diminishing returns? I'm not saying that a bad work, or even just an unsuccessful one, can negate a successful one or a good one but a body of work can certainly suffer in total by not knowing when to get off the stage.

I subscribe to that theory, I guess-- getting off the stage before people start asking you to. And that takes us into the dark place-- the brutal truth inside art vs. commerce.

CASEY: Here's my personal litmus test for creators that might otherwise be considered "past their prime": Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko... these are creators who had been in the comicbook industry for decades, writing and drawing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of comicbooks of every conceivable genre. Kirby in particular certainly had more than a few glory days during the War years. But these three men were in their 40's when they created the Marvel Universe, arguably the foundation of the modern comicbook industry as we know it. Should they have gotten off the stage in the 1950s when all they could manage was to churn out bad monster comics and sales were in the crapper?

On the other hand, they were being allowed to create, weren't they...? They weren't being asked to recreate any sort of "magic"...

I think creators can certainly make themselves less than essential, both creatively and in the marketplace. But I think it's as much their own doing as it is the publishers'.

Money makes the world go 'round. That means these Reunion Tours will continue to occur, sometimes with interesting, worthwhile results. Sometimes with less than interesting, worthwhile results. Those creators who do reunite strictly for the money... well, more power to 'em. Those who reunite because they still have something to say creatively -- whether or not it involves a company-owned character they once experienced some success with -- well, I think I can get onboard with that, too.

Maybe I'll even go one step further...

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