The Basement Tapes: Issue #58

Tue, October 25th, 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.

Last week, the final issue of THE INTIMATES hit the stands, courtesy of Wildstorm Comics. We talked about the series' inception and development in THE BASEMENT TAPES and we talked about the formal challenges behind the sixth issue. As the dust settles and the book shuffles off to that great spinner rack in the sky, it seems only appropriate to host its post-mortem and valediction here, too. For a lovely wake, though, hit up Jog's Blog, which is really quite a farewell.

We come not to bury THE INTIMATES, but to praise it.

FRACTION: If we close... the door... the night could last forever... let the sun... shine out... and say hello... to never...

I've just finished reading THE INTIMATES #12 and watched as our kids, erm, rode off into the sunset. So we've missed last call; the floors are getting swept, the chairs are getting put up on the tables, and the wheels in the INTIMATES machine have stopped spinning, at least for the time being.

So what have we learned, Charlie Brown? Now that the kids of the Seminary are no longer on your day-to-day radar, how did the process of creating and writing THE INTIMATES change you, your idiom, your views?

Burn out or fade away? U-decide.

CASEY: Definite burn out. But not quite the kind you might imagine. Sometimes it's just way too much effort to be the only leg holding up the table... and, as physics will tell us, tables cannot stand on one leg. THE INTIMATES was a book that, behind the scenes, had just about every leg kicked out from under it.

Frankly, I'm still shocked we got twelve issues out of it. As you read (and anyone else who was still following the series), the series was veering dangerously close to some sort of uber-plot, which was never the intention at all. My original plan was to make the book really feel like adolescence on an issue-to-issue basis... aimless and meandering with characters typically lacking in drive and ambition. I don't think those are necessarily bad qualities, especially at that age. Because that's what it fucking feels like.

But then the prospect of hooking readers into some sort of "story" starts to loom large, you start to feel the pressure of bringing readers back every issue in the way they've always been lured back, through often-forced cliffhangers and hyperbolic "what happens next" expectations... and inevitably you start to slide down the slippery slope. I pitched it as a mini-series and I should've stuck to my original plan because a book like this was never going to survive long term as a monthly. I wanted to write about the circumstances of being a teenager in school and I ended up having to write some kind of conspiracy plot that, in the end, didn't really even interest me. The moment I typed "Continued" at the end of issue #8, I knew I'd personally jumped the shark on writing this series.

So, what have I learned...? A lot.

FRACTION: That it ran a year is indeed a surprise-- it's a hostile market right now to anything not of the Summer Blockbuster ilk. Which, really, was the whole point of the series-- in a lot of ways, THE INTIMATES was the canary in the goldmine.

You've always-- almost always, anyway-- danced close to meta in your work-- your text often comments on the text, and with maybe the exception of the final AUTOMATIC KAFKA, I think this might be the most extreme example of you talking not only to the audience in the telling of the story, but talking about the story itself and the story behind the story.

And you address that on like four different levels in this ish-- from the active storyline itself (the "conspiracy" comes to a head, more or less; the kids need to escape), to the comic-within-a-comic (SUPER ESPIONAGE BOOM gets cancelled-- while, until the coda, Boss Coda is spitting lines from some of the most infamous lines from the Great Comics of the '80s), to the info-scroll commenting on all those levels and commenting on itself and your process and the life of the book all at once... in a way, it felt like here, with nothing left to lose, you took all the conceits you'd been using and pushed them from clever into positively fucking Post Modern.

For example: you mention *in the infoscroll* that you wanted THE INTIMATES to be a mini and let it become an ongoing. That's one thing that struck me here-- for a guy talking about his cancelled book, the tone never goes bitter but rather just honest. Warts and all, THE INTIMATES ends up being a kind of commentary about art-vs-commerce. And the lunchboxes always win.

CASEY: They do always win. That's the reality. No reason to get too worked up about that. I've written a lunchbox or two. I'm writing a few right now, so whatever. And I have absolutely zero bitterness to anyone involved in the series, even the ones who, on a personal level, might've let me down. Hell, it's a comicbook... one that wouldn't have existed if I hadn't thought of it. That's pretty goddamn great in and of itself, don't you think...?

As for the tone of the final issue... I guess I felt like nobody was really watching. Certainly nobody at the company I was writing it for (even one or two of the artists filling in at the end weren't really reading the scripts all that closely, resulting in a lot of post-production fixes and various art patches). But look, when you've got big revamps on the horizon, that's your focus, not the lame duck series that are still limping along. I understand that, but I also understand that it's an opportunity to get some things out under the radar. You can be really subversive and have a bit of fun when no one's looking. Now the thing's out and in print for anyone to see. I like that.

I'm not afraid of a series being cancelled. You can't be, otherwise you'd never take any chances in this industry. It's not a black mark on the record to me. Some of my favorite series have ended prematurely. A fucking great one, AZTEK THE ULTIMATE MAN, got cancelled after eleven issues. A cool Marvel series by Alan Davis called CLANDESTINE only lasted a year. Warren Ellis' HELLSTORM got cancelled right out from under him. Garth Ennis and John McCrea on DC's THE DEMON: a really fun comicbook cancelled. An extremely cool Vertigo series called THE MINX by Peter Milligan and Sean Phillips… cancelled after eight issues. Are those series any less important to me because they got their knees cut out from under them? Hell, no. Just like the creators on all those series, I'm in the idea business. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. But I can't let a depressed market affect how I dream, can I...? Talk about letting "them" win...!

FRACTION: It reminded me, in a way, of the last episode of Aaron Sorkin's SPORTS NIGHT when a character, who had just bought the cable conglomerate that the show-within-a-show was home to, said "Anyone that can't make money off of SPORTS NIGHT should get out of the money-making business..."

So, looking back, then, what do you think INTIMATES did right, what do you think INTIMATES did wrong, and what will you take with you onto the next series?

Also, am I wrong, or was there a fuck-ton of foreshadowing going on in those infoscrolls as to what might come next...?

CASEY: Well, I think the style approach I took worked like a motherfucker. The documentary-style editing, the way I presented the characters and the way I simply let behavior dictate reader perception (and possibly attachment... one minute people like Punchy, then they hate him, then they like him again). The info scrolls worked incredibly well, despite being a complete bitch to write. And, as with every series, there is that one issue where I break the form a bit and actually come off as somewhat original. Issue #6 (the origin of Sykes, which we talked about earlier this year) was that issue for me. That one was a keeper. I think, aside from a few sequences in the last few issues, where it was just an uphill battle to keep my own enthusiasm up, I think I got better at my craft. Creating and writing a book that no one's paying much attention to certainly allows you to experiment in a way that writing Batman doesn't. Not these days, anyway. I think I honed some skills that I'll carry over to the next projects. But, that's how it works, isn't it...? No project is an island... if you're working toward a longterm career...

I can guarantee you it'll be the last time I get shafted on the art. Once Cammo bailed, the book was a goddamn free-for-all, artistically. I played the good soldier and pretty much let it slide (aside from some behind-the-scenes moaning to my editor that never does much good). And I think most of the readers were with me on this... thus proving the point I made in AUTOMATIC KAFKA. It's the creators who make new creations work. I don't create characters like Batman or Spider-Man that just anyone can write. I create characters that only myself and my original artistic collaborators can bring to life. Anything or anyone else is a waste of everyone's time. No one but Ash Wood could've drawn KAFKA, and no one but Cammo should've ever drawn THE INTIMATES (although I'm not necessarily convinced that poor Cammo felt that way). And I have nothing but sympathy for anyone who put pencil to paper in service of THE INTIMATES after Cammo took the carrot. I mean, just look at the last four issues and tell me I'm wrong...

Having said that, I can't even begin to praise the work put into the series by Richard Starkings and Comicraft on the lettering side, Randy Mayor on the coloring side (the guy absolutely saved those last four issues from the brink of artistic chaos), and, of course, the great Rian Hughes who built those covers and really knocked them out of the park. It's collaborators like these that kept me involved for all twelve issues. If not for their continued commitment, I might've bailed at issue #9.

As far as the info scrolls foreshadowing anything... I'm honestly not sure what you're referring to. What did you pick up there...?

FRACTION: Oh, I dunno-- I got the vibe you had some pretty concrete plans for some of the characters, both series regulars and the guest stars. Maybe that was wishful thinking on my part...

So did the wind go out of your sails for the book because Cammo left? And how're you going to not get shafted on the art again? I mean-- seriously, I want to know. I've really felt a kind of, I don't know, collective synergy when I've worked with people on stuff, and whether it's someone line Kieron who I rely on to carry me through or Sanders to whom I just started going telepathic-- the more comics I write, the more I come to appreciate those relationships are so utterly crucial. So, OK, sounds like you felt something similar-- how will you protect yourself, then, in the future?

And I agree with you wholeheartedly about Starkings and Comicraft. I think we talked about their role, back in that first TAPES we did about INTIMATES. Having worked with them on a year's worth of INTIMATES, now, what can you tell me about that? You read the first script of CASS-- I'm sorta freaking out a little bit about the role of lettering and tips would be rad.

CASEY: Well, to answer your first question... in a similar situation, I'd just leave the book, too. Hindsight being 20/20 and all that. Hell, I probably should've left the X-MEN: CHILDREN OF THE ATOM mini-series when Marvel fired the Dude. I mean, what the fuck did I stick around for...? I'd certainly learned my lesson way back on Marvel's CABLE, when they fired Ladronn and asked me to stay. No way that was gonna' happen. One of my better decisions. Writing scripts when you know for a fact that your original collaborator is not going to be drawing them is a monumental drag, an experience I don't recommend.

And I've been working with Starkings and his crew on just about every notable project that I've been involved in for most of my career. They certainly surpass whatever I ask from them (and I've asked a lot from them over the years). Jeezus, look what they're doing on GŘDLAND... Starkings' art design is a huge part of that series.

It's weird that you got that vibe from the info scrolls. Honestly, I started out with no concrete plans for the characters, at least on a plot level. It was all about behavioral. Y'know how there's something of a procedural trend in comicbooks right now? For me, I went with behavioral. As I said, it's only when I felt like I had to start coming up with some concrete plans that the series started to lose its way for me.

FRACTION: Well, like I said-- maybe I was projecting. That we skated anywhere near WILDCATS 3.0 set my dork heart a'flutter...

It's kind of interesting that the scroll was a bellwether for your mental space on the book-- it kind of revealed the interior life of the book and your own as well. There very clearly did come a point in the series where the scroll started to read a little differently to me, off-hand remarks here and there and little tonal shifts made me think, as a reader, that maybe things weren't going so well.

Y'know, it occurs to me that we started talking about THE INTIMATES about the same time we started to work on the column; the book was a little older, but I don't think by too terribly much. But, I mean, we've been talking throughout the book's life-cycle-- we did a piece on the first issue, and on the most formally challenging (and rewarding, in some ways) issue, and now we're sweeping the spotlight off the stage. Can you look back on it as a whole event with any perspective yet? Something I've noticed-- there are elements in my own work that, when I reread it, takes me back part and parcel to the time and place it was written. The whole span of time, from creation to completion comes back to me as an aggregate event. The way a song can sum up a summer, the way a perfume can sum up a relationship. Do you have that perspective on THE INTIMATES? And if you had to summarize it, how would you?

CASEY: I think the fact that it became something it was never supposed to be-- a monthly-- affects how I look back on it. By the time I wrote this last issue, I was glad to be done. And, if I'm allowed to repeat myself once again, because it was always meant to be a study in character, rather than a study in plot, I don't necessarily equate it to anything in the way you're describing. Honestly, now that we're talking about it, I think there's still a bit of creative heartbreak involved. When you bring something into the world that, at the time, is fairly pure... and then watch it fade away, well... it's a bummer.

And again, I don't worry about sales figures. That's someone else's job. Someone uncreative. The "fade away" I'm referring to is the fact that THE INTIMATES-- the creative team, at least-- started out as kind of a gang. We debuted at Wizard World Texas one year ago, and it was me, Jim Lee, Cammo, Rian Hughes, even editor Alex Sinclair. There was a brief moment when we were all united for the cause. Maybe I was the only one there because it was creatively satisfying. Maybe the others thought we were at the beginning of some sales bonanza, a certifiable hit. I knew it never would be. And when it wasn't a blockbuster, practically every one of those guys that sat with me in Texas eventually jumped ship (for all sorts of reasons, it should be noted). First Jim, then Cammo, then even Sinclair. There were a lot of promises broken over the course of that ship jumping. And of that crew, only the great Rian Hughes (who I'd worked with on VERSION 3.0) hung in with me until the end. Makes me kinda wish he'd drawn the whole series from beginning to end. But, like I said, that's probably my heartbreak talking.

Because one thing publishers have to understand, especially a little-fish-in-a-big-pond like Wildstorm, is that quality counts. It'll never be about big sales for them. That time is over. The only thing they have control over... is quality of product. Putting out good material. Keeping artists on their books and not letting them get stolen or lured away by the chance to draw fucking Batman. For chrissakes, Batman will always be there and it will always need more bodies to throw on that monthly fire. But for an artist to do just twelve issues of something, top to bottom... well, the fact that it's so rare these days is fucking sad. On the other hand, I guess that just makes the ones that do that much more special.

The few significant creative successes they've had have been when the creatives involved stuck it out for an entire run. Warren and Hitch on the first twelve AUTHORITY's. Warren and Cassaday on PLANETARY. Sean Phillips and I on WILDCATS VOL. 2. Sean and Ed Brubaker on SLEEPER. Ash and I on KAFKA. Now it's happening with BKV and Tony Harris on EX MACHINA. Next on that list will probably be Ellis and JH Williams on DESOLATION JONES (although the fact that Ellis' Image book, FELL outsells JONES should be sending a big fucking message to WS right now, shouldn't it?). These are the series readers will remember over time, not the editorial events that are supposed to "fix" things... because whenever WS has treated their books like assembly line products ("Oh, we'll just stick Artist X in on a couple of fill-ins... no one'll care.") it's always ended up a clusterfuck, both creatively and saleswise. Always. There's nowhere to really assign blame, but one would hope that learning from past mistakes would be a top priority. I know it's a priority for me.

I don't know if any of that qualifies as perspective or not... but that's what I've got right now.

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