The Basement Tapes: Issue #61

Tue, November 15th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

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 TIME, ON THE BASEMENT TAPES: ideas became panels and panels became pages-- what now? The issue, the single, the floppy... ladies and gentlemen, we're talkin' about the comic book. This week it's on to strategies and plans of attack and all the brain-lifting that goes into those 32 page books around which our little world turns...

FRACTION: So I've never actually written a 22-page comic. 8 pages, 11, 12, 16, 32, and OGNs sure-- but never what's kind of considered the standard.

Last time we were talking about loading up plots and characters, and earning readers, both of which speak to the idea of the single issue-- what kind of expectations we can put on ourselves making them, and, as readers, what kind of expectations we have reading them. I think it's safe to say that over the last, oh, five or six years-- longer even-- that writing for the collection has become a predominant style (or lack thereof) in the mainstream.

Every time we've written about lost styles, or old and forgotten styles, we get stupid amounts of mail-- people (at least the people that read the column and write emails about what they thought) miss the way comics used to be. Not necessarily in terms of tone or content (although there are plenty of those folks, too) but rather in comics' declining density. Using the BT Mailbag as a barometer, there are an awful lot of readers that miss the weight old comics used to carry. They're fed up with paying 3 bucks for 1/5 of a story that, when stitched together, has the weight of what a single issue or two used to take for granted.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about that as CASANOVA gets up off the ground.

CASEY: Yeah, I think using the term "weight" is spot-fucking-on. One thing that I think DC is doing well right now -- and Dan Didio has pretty much stated this as his intention -- is that their superhero monthlies seem to be delivering as single issues. At least on some level, they are. Are they complete done-in-one stories? Absolutely not. But they seem to have that "weight" that is keeping readers interested. Even the batch of CRISIS build up mini-series have worked in that manner. And I guess I don't read enough of 'em to get mixed up by the conceptual misfires that do become occasionally confusing ("I have to read which issue of which comic to get this bit of the story...?!"), but it seems like they deliver where it counts.

Image is like that, too. The weight of the single issue is -- it seems to me -- a priority at Image. Probably because every issue has to count. Every issue has that sense of clawing for survival and attention.

Marvel seems to be the last to pick up on this mentality. It almost seems like -- because of the writing-for-the-trade mentality became the norm there -- they've become too slow to adapt to the winds of change. Which is exactly how DC used to be...

The value of the single issue and what it can deliver -- as a writer -- is mostly about the freedom to evolve. To be locked into a six-part thing at this moment in time seems like suicide to me. Even the mini-series I'm writing at the moment -- which, by design are more suited for that trade collection structure -- need to have that "breathless," roller coaster ride feel to them. I'm writing these mini-series as though I were writing them as monthlies, where every issue provides the proper kick in the balls.

FRACTION: I've gotten really obsessed lately with how TV shows break their stories-- or how some shows do, anyway-- to balance both an ongoing seasonal arc with a week-to-week narrative. I mean, that's a difference between episodic narratives and soap operas, you know? For my tastes too many comics have been like soap operas lately-- never-ending narrative escalation with fragmentary moments of payoff. No satisfaction, no meaningful resolutions. So when I think about getting into ongoing comics, that's what I'm wary of-- making a reader feel like he or she have just paid for a trade paperback in monthly installments.

So I've got questions about ways to approach issues-- first, spinning out from an Engine thread-- is there a specific set of tools you allow or forbid yourself to use, project to project? How much of that is a seemingly-random personal challenge, and how much is custom-crafted to the book? I'm thinking of something like GŘDLAND, specifically, where it seems your entire writing approach is engineered around the concept of the book. So-- where does that approach come from, and what does it consist of, and why?

CASEY: First of all... the derogatory nature of the term "soap opera" to describe stories generally means a blatant manipulation, where any semblance of "story" only exists to manipulate and has no other virtues. Episodic narrative obviously has the potential to manipulate, but that's not all there is to it and I think it comes from a purer place, from a genuine engagement of both creator and audience member.

And as far as I'm concerned, no tools are off-limits. In fact, I'm constantly on the hunt for even more tools (the info scrolls of THE INTIMATES was the result of this kind of need). If anything, I look at what's trendy at the moment, and I tend to try and do exactly the opposite of that and see what the reaction is. Not always the best decisions for my career, per se...

I think it's more unconscious these days, but I think you're right... different projects and different series tend to demand different approaches. The ideas and the concepts come first. They always do. But then, somehow, the mechanics of "how" to tell the story, issue to issue, begin to take shape. It's something I picked up from Francis Coppola's work... each individual piece of work demands its own individual approach, and that approach usually mirrors/reflects the subject matter in some way. The characters and the themes you write about dictate the tools and the approach you take. And these things can also vary from issue to issue within the same series.

For instance, you may kick off CASANOVA using one set of tools, but a few issues into it, you may feel like a different approach is needed for the particular issue you're writing. At that point, you shouldn't be afraid to abandon your model and venture forth into new territories. If your readers are invested enough in the ideas and the characters you've been cultivating, they'll follow you into these new areas of approach. The retailers might not, but I think your loyal readers will...

FRACTION: Well, to clarify-- beyond the emotional baggage that comes with it, I guess when I think "soap opera" I think of TV shows that consist of episodic narratives that never really resolve, you know? Content aside, I think of it as a kind of style, you know? Like a long train going nowhere. So, I mean-- writing a single issue of a longer story or an ongoing book is all a game of trying to find the right balance, I suppose. And it's all so new to me I'm able only to use my own tastes as a barometer.

So, can you walk me through some of the approaches you've taken-- or are taking-- on some of the books you've written? The hows and the whys and where it worked and didn't?

CASEY: Well, lemme tell ya... I don't know if I'm the best authority on this particular subject, since most of my long forms have either been WFH literary quagmires or they've simply been canceled out from under me. I can tell you generally what hasn't worked for me... rampant uncontrollable self-indulgence. I'll admit, a little bit of it is always fun... but I've learned all things in moderation. You can be self-indulgent until the cows come home (whatever that means), as long as you've satisfied the genre first. Especially in the mainstream. It's hard to survive if you can't satisfy those genre conventions.

On my last year of writing ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, I made a conscious choice to portray Superman as a superhero pacifist. Sounds kinda' high and mighty, but the way I approached it was with a very simple rule for myself... I didn't have Superman throw a punch for twelve entire issues. Okay, he did a bunch of other super-shit, like fly into suns and use super-breath to blow things away and I had him take a piece of white dwarf star to the center of the Earth to create temporary gravity... so, in my mind, I was satisfying the genre. But I was still injecting a specific point of view I had... one that mainly concerned not turning Superman into a professional wrestler.

Now, had I just stayed with that and just let the stories play out, there would've been no problem. But I took it one step too far... I had Superman say he was a pacifist. Out loud. Well, the Super-fans weren't too keen on that one and I can see why. Having the character say it out loud was self-indulgent on my part. We learn by doing.

Back in late 1998, I was going to be the regular scripter over the two core X-MEN titles (plotted at that time by Alan Davis). I decided that I was going to break from the norm (at that time), which was a very Claremont-ian approach to scripting the X-Men books: lots of captions, thought balloons, heavy-handed, internal angst spilt all across the dialogue. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to take a more cinematic approach. No captions, no thought balloons, just let the characters dialogue and their actions tell the story. I thought it might breathe a little new life into the X-Books. I even outlined this intention at the top of my first dialogue script. The X-Editors at that time (led by the noses by then-EiC Bob Harras) wouldn't have it. Hell, one troll of an assistant editor even made fun of me in the office behind my back for even daring to suggest a different way of writing an X-Men comicbook (imagine the dance I did when his ass was fired a few years later). They basically forced me to add captions where I didn't think there needed to be any. The books were being drawn by Adam Kubert and Alan Davis, for chrissakes! The storytelling was spot-on and it didn't need any extra layer of exposition. In any case, they didn't let me do it and two issues later, Alan Davis decided he wanted one of his pals -- a former editor at Marvel -- dialogue his run. So, in 1998, my minimalist approach to writing the X-Men went the way of the dinosaur...

... until two years later, when just about all Marvel comicbooks were being written in that style. All it took was a few series written by Warren Eliis to usher in a new approach to writing in the mainstream.

But this is how it goes. You try things. You make trouble. You look at what's been done and you forge a new path. Or you admire a technique in some other medium and adapt it to comicbooks. The greatest thing about this art form is that the possibilities are endless. It's about engaging your own creative urges, to find the tools that seem fresh to you.

FRACTION: Wow, I think you've just insured that every blog in the universe is gonna link to us this week.

So-- do you ever feel trapped by your approach? Like, say, it begins appropriately for you (or for the book) and down the road you need to do a major rethink-- are you stuck? Can you change up tone and style as the book grows, or do you feel somewhat obligated to follow your initial instinct? What happens if you started a comic about an apple but it turns out to be about an orange?

CASEY: The only way you're going to feel trapped -- and, mind you, we're talking mainly about creator-owned material now -- is if you perceive the audience to somehow expect an apple when your instincts are telling you, the writer, "orange." That can be a dangerous decision to have to make...

For me, I tend not to move forward on a project unless the core of it is pretty solid. Whatever flights of fancy I might feel like taking from issue to issue... at the very least, that basic core always exists. I mean, first issues are enough of a gauntlet to try and hook a few readers without realizing a few issues later that your "first impression" on those same readers was -- for you -- a creative misstep.

Ideally, if you're involved in a project where it does evolve and grow, you'd be able to go back and possibly rework the earlier issues to fall more in line with the true nature of the beast that's finally bubbled up to the surface... all before the first issue of said venture ever saw print. I think there might be better comicbooks that way. Not always, but I know a few creators who'd enjoy that opportunity...to have so much pre-publication lead time that, once they'd found the series, they could go back and make sure it's there from the beginning...

... or maybe not.

FRACTION: So, on the surface, I know that's because on a WFH title, especially on a title that already exists, it needs to hit its publication date every 30 days or else. No time to backtrack or correct, no luxury of rewrites as issues land in the can, etc. etc. etc.. But do you find that, creatively, a publisher-- be it Marvel, DC, or whomever else you're working for-- doesn't care about that sort of thing, either?

We've touched on this before, the feeling that so many editors out there have such a volume of work on their plates that they've been reduced to little more than air traffic controllers. In the world of non-negotiable monthly deadlines, is there room for that kind of creative or artistic noodling? Is it welcome or is there resistance? Do the realities of an insurmountable deadline trump quality? Is "good" ignored in favor of 'good enough'?

CASEY: Well, there is that sense in WFH that you're simply "feeding the beast." I wouldn't place any sort of blame on publishers for their production practices and what they "care" about... I would more likely place more of the onus on the creators to be on their game from the get-go. You've got to care about it.

Editors are overworked as hell, no doubt about it. I'm certainly not the first person to say this, but a creator's job can be very much about making their lives easier. There are exceptions to the rule -- Tom Brevoort at Marvel, for instance -- where the internal barometer for quality is always there and can really aid you when you need it. But for the most part, I'm okay with the current state of editorial because it does place more responsibility on the creatives involved to be on the ball. And, in a writer's case, there's opportunity to contribute much more to the overall project than simply writing the script. So, to answer your question... there absolutely is room to move in different directions. But it's got to be the right editor and the right project.

Shit… three columns' worth of writing-centric discussion. You'd think we actually knew what we're talking about. But, of course, that's the beauty of this art form… nobody does.

Which means the field is wide open.

Now go write something.

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