The Basement Tapes: Issue #60

Tue, November 8th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

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.

LAST TIME, ON THE BASEMENT TAPES: The nuts and bolts of how we, your intrepid hosts, actually put the rubber to the road and write a script. Pulling back from last week's focus on pre-game warmups and panels themselves, here it comes around to pages, sequences. Issues, even. So, in the name of whatever public interest may be gained by examining process on a pure level of technique, we continue...

FRACTION: Alright, you've got a list that breaks the story down into 22 (or however many) story beats, we know now how you write an individual panel, so how do you craft a page? How do you stage it, how do you write and block its events? How do you know when you've got a whole page, and when you've got instead a sequence? You mentioned Alan Moore and his panel stylings-- do you follow his page stylings, too, where scene transitions happen on page flips? Eisner says the page is a meta-panel, so let's tear into it...

CASEY: I used to do the Alan Moore, "end the scene at the end of a page"-thing. Used to do it all the time. Now I don't even bother. When I really look at something like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS or really any of Frank Miller's work in the '80s, his sense of editing is pretty bold, and often quite the opposite or Moore's approach. Once I realized that, I went more in that direction and now I think I have a bit more fun with the page as a unit. There's more freedom there. I don't see it as a meta-panel at all, really. If I were a writer/artist, it would be a different thing entirely. But I guess I don't look at the page as a piece of graphic art on its own. The idea of something being "sequential" means that your eye has to move through the page. Readers have to see not only what you're showing them, but they have to see what's under the page, as well. What's inside of It. It's a cumulative experience, y'know...?

FRACTION: I guess I always felt like the page-as-metapanel thing works better for one-man bands, at least in the purest Eisner-ian way of thinking about it.

That said, I try to think about each page as a single unit, some kind of story-stanza or whatever but don't feel terribly compelled to make cuts happen on the page-flip. I'll use some kind of bridge between jumps-- a verbal callback, a bit of visual or conceptual symmetry-- but I'll write transitions anywhere. I tend to rely more on a 4-tiered structure more and more now-- it's a time signature I like to work in, I suppose. The notion of "rhythm" on a page can be really ephemeral and elusive to me sometimes. Using the 4-tier grid helps keep me at least a little bit grounded.

I guess John Ney Reiber used to write his dialogue in Iambic Pentameter and build his panels around that...!

CASEY: Say what? Good Christ... I suppose fortune favors the foolish...

It's strange that I used to be such a goddamn structure freak. Sometimes I still am. But for the most part, I just want to freewheel it as much as I can. Especially on the superhero stuff. Those stories need to barrel along at a breathless pace. Even quieter scenes need to have an emotional urgency that pushes you along. But it's that sense of freewheeling that keeps me from being able to specifically nail down the "how's" and the "why's" of my process.

I think the more you write comicbooks, the more all those tricks and tools and transitional ideas begin to become second nature. It's like learning a language, right...? Speak it long enough and you become fluent. At the same time, it becomes more and more an unconscious act. I think a creator like Frank Miller... comicbook storytelling is now an innate ability. For him, it's like breathing. I think it was that way for Eisner, too. Alan Moore is a bit of an academic writer, in the way that he often conceptualizes stories as structural or formalist exercises, but I think that's mainly because it's so second-nature to him, too, that he sets out to challenge himself.

So, lemme ask you... do you feel the form is coming naturally to you? Or is it still a situation where you can speak the language, but you're still speaking it very slowly and deliberately...?

FRACTION: One of the things I've noticed about the 4-tier, ahh, tempo, is that unless pages get miraculously bigger, it's maybe not best deployed on superhero stuff. As that doesn't tend to be what I write it doesn't really matter, but still-- I guess I throw enough caution to the wind, so some semblance of structure does me a little good. FIVE FISTS was all willy-nilly because it's what that story needed, I suppose-- like you said, some stories need to barrel along.

I find it creeping back in, though-- maybe it's wanting some concrete sense on the design of page, if not the whole story?

I suppose the form does come easier, the more I do it, yeah. It becomes less of a "How the fuck am I gonna do this" and more of a "When the fuck am I gonna get this done" sort of thing-- I guess I'm not gonna be the guy that does Rube Goldberg style plotting. Being able to let that go, to find the beats of the stories I want to tell and the right genre trappings to dress it in, really tends to wipe out a lot of static between me and the cursor's blink, I suppose.

A Japanese friend of mine told me that when she moved to America, she couldn't, wouldn't, and didn't speak English out loud for a very long time-- she didn't want to embarrass herself by not being fluent. It wasn't until she started to dream in English that she realized she could speak it. And then, literally, she started speaking English all the time. I can't imagine what her classmates must've made of her...

Anyway. I guess maybe I'm having dreams in half-Japanese and half-English nowadays.

CASEY: Could make for some interesting conversations with yourself...

Now, maybe what I'm about to ask is part of the process. Maybe it isn't. But where in your K-12 ascent to writing a comic do you start to think about what you want to evoke in your reader? I don't think it's a sin for a creator to admit that part of the gig is emotional manipulation. And when you pick an approach -- the 4-tier tempo, for instance -- does that manipulation factor into your choices on a technique level...?

D'ya see what I'm asking here? When do the tools of storytelling intersect with the pure emotional need to make a reader feel something...?

FRACTION: Am I being naive if I say it doesn't occur to me? Story is all, I suppose. That's the beginning and end of my scope of concern. Maybe I've got some huge blind-spot here or whatever, but any technique I use is solely in aid of getting from beat to beat in a satisfying way to me as a writer.

CASEY: I don't think that's naive at all. Speaking as someone who's been doing this for a living for the past eight years, I can honestly say that, in my first few years, I wasn't thinking much at all about the reader. I was out to please myself, to get my own rocks off with this stuff, to challenge myself, to push my career forward. It's probably only in the last three years that I've been more conscious of that connection to the reader.

So, yeah, I see exactly where you're at with that. And it's not a bad place to be at all. I guess I was just curious if I was the only one who had taken that path. But maybe we all do...

FRACTION: Well, too, you've written a lot more than me and written at a lot more of a higher profile-- that anyone could do time in the X-World and not consider their audience seems ill-conceived, to say nothing of impossible.

So, if an OGN is its own self-contained world, then story is the story and that's that-- but when you're writing a serial publication, how do you define the larger story? Where, in the grand scheme of things, do issues end, do you try and consider the self contained aspect to an issue of a comic against a larger story-arc it might contain, and all that. How do your singles fit into a bigger picture?

CASEY: Okay, well... that's where I do fall back on structure. At least, at this point, I suppose I could call it "intuitive structure." When you're writing a serial, part of knowing the right shape for an individual issue is knowing what will be on Page 22 and somehow understanding that it's an important page, whether it's a cliffhanger to lead to the next issue, or some sort of emotional endpoint that leaves a marker that points to the next issue...

There are certainly writers who I see that seem to be addicted to the Last Page Cliffhanger, so much so that it starts to look forced, that the story is almost artificially structured to provide that "Page 22 shocker!" I think some writers wildly fluctuate in the quality of their Page 22's, in terms of the effectiveness on a reader. Some writers are so subtle in their serial breaks that I wouldn't even know it was the last page if not for a "Continued" caption at the end.

In terms of the self-contained aspect of any given issue within a larger story movement, absolutely I think each issue should pack all the Sturm and Drang that you can possibly squeeze into 22 pages. Each issue should have both a cock and a very huge pair of balls swingin'. Not enough of them do. NuMarvel and those who would still prescribe to those tenets really screwed the pooch when it comes to that. The whole "writing for the trade" mentality for monthly superhero comicbooks is perhaps the most boneheaded thing we've ever been subjected to. And this is speaking from some degree of experience there...

The "bigger picture" when it comes to story movements within a larger monthly arena is all about providing an experience. You can't worry about actually finishing stories in the same manner you would an OGN or a finite mini-series. What you should worry about is whether or not, at the end of that series of issues (however many it might be), that the reader has had a bona fide experience. That what they've read has somehow been transformative for them. Again, even if you're not using each issue as a chapter -- Part 1 of Whatever -- there is a bigger picture involved. That being the overall experience of a reader being dedicated enough to a particular comicbook that he or she buys it each and every month, will take the ride and hope for the best.

The overall experience is the larger story. Or is that a bit too New Age-y to say...?

FRACTION: No, I think it makes sense. You lost me at cock-and-balls but you got me back...

To date, the only serial I wrote (that was published) was JUAREZ and that was pretty deliberately a serial reading experience, like a soap opera-style model-- each piece was a part of a longer ongoing piece, and it wasn't until the end that I tried to tie it all together again. But that was a choice that came from the story having to be told in 12 page chapters.

CASANOVA, on the other hand, is making me look at ongoing serial TV like BUFFY or ALIAS where each ep. tends to have an A-Line that gets resolved, and a B-Line sometimes, too, but with bits and pieces of a C and D story that gets told in parcels and parts across the sweep of a season. That's the *goal* anyway, and the one thing that most worries me.

That particular attack is a deliberate reaction to the aggressive serialization that came about in the late nineties and early-aughts, I suppose, as much as it's just what's right for the book. Not out of any particular dislike or distaste for that style (although, as you point out, writing-for-trade gets abused), but rather a fear that the book wouldn't be able to find traction or to be satisfying to anyone-- let alone me-- were it to be told that way.

It's all intuitive for me, at this point. I've no experience to fall back on here.

CASEY: Don't worry. Experience breeds a deeper intuition that can end up being much more satisfying.

As much as it pains me to say so, I think episodic TV is a decent model of comparison to serial comicbook writing. The ratio of Crap-To-Quality in both mediums is pretty close, I'd say.

I was talking to Eric Stephenson about this, in regards to GDLAND. When I write an ongoing, serialized work, I tend to spend most of the initial issues setting things up. Characters, conflicts, relationships, the world, etc. Once I feel like I've set up the proper amount of elements to play with (and, as GDLAND shows, the more, the merrier), that's when the serialized nature of the thing starts to get fun. You begin to dig in and fuck with all the things you set up early on. You play different characters off one another, you turn conflicts on their heads, you screw around with the world you've built. The C and D subplots you refer to move and weave through the larger narrative, until suddenly they become A and B plots, and new C and D plots are set up underneath. It's a constantly evolving thing, which is the beauty of writing serialized comicbooks.

And, like you say, it allows you to really fire on all thrusters each and every issue. In a market that is suffering from severe ADD, just keeping your readers attention every month is a feat in and of itself...

FRACTION: I think it's absolutely critical to earn every reader you can get-- but as we're creeping up towards the 2,500-word mark, let's put that little TO BE CONTINUED caption-box in the lower right and keep it going next week...

TO BE CONTINUED...

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