The Basement Tapes: Issue #63

Tue, December 13th, 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.

The time has come to confront a sad secret. A dark secret. A dirty secret. What happens in the moments where a writer looks into the abyss and gazes at his own dark, needy reflection? Somewhere between blatant pandering and dancing for nickels, the practice of reactive creating means some creators-- and you know who you are-- obsessively scour the internet for reaction and review to their work and create accordingly as though it were the plan all along... Only in comicbooks, folks.

CASEY: Okay, here's a writer's dilemma for you that could only exist in the age of the Internet, and probably only within the medium of comicbooks...

... you're writing a serialized story. You've got grand plans. You know how the story's gonna' go. You're ready to rock. But, as is often the case in this business, the initial issues of your serial -- whether it's a mini-series or chapters of the dreaded six-part story arc in an ongoing -- are out on the stands and available for public consumption even as you're still writing the final installments.

It happens a lot, actually... the first issue of my Iron Man mini-series, "The Inevitable," hits the shops this month. And I still have the final two scripts to write. Oddly enough, no one considers me to be officially behind schedule. I mean, it'd be great if we were all further ahead on this thing, but considering the circumstances, no one's panicked about it.

In any case, put yourself back into the hypothetical situation I'm outlining here. Thanks to the instantaneous nature of the Internet, you're able to see reader feedback to your opening chapters of a narrative that you haven't written the ending for yet. Meaning, you haven't yet committed it to paper, hard drive, whatever...

Now, how much of the feedback you see online will influence how you write your ending? If it's overly negative feedback, would you start to second-guess yourself? Rethink things that you still have a chance to polish? How far would you go from your original vision?

Granted, I'm not talking about honestly assessing your own work as you're writing it and adjusting accordingly. I'm talking about seeing comments online and reacting to them by changing your story...

So, as Dennis Hopper would say in a really bad action movie, "What do you do...?"

FRACTION: I've don't really have too much relevant experience here. I've not-- I didn't go looking for any reviews during the writing of "Juarez." I saw one or two but it wasn't... no disrespect to those reviewers or their opinions, but it didn't really influence where I was going or what I was thinking about. Nor would it now: I wouldn't let it influence me at all, if I could help it.

I think that skates near something dangerously disingenuous. You gotta stay strong and focused on your internal compass and get the work done free of that kind of interference. Even if that kind of interference is right-- that sort of... I dunno, like, scripting-by-critical-braille or seems like desperate pandering. Like a soggy old comedian changing his act mid-set trying to appeal to the crowd. Like, how are you saying anything worthwhile if you're just writing for approval?

Why not just write a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and cover all your bases?

CASEY: Hey, man... it might just come to that one day. But in comicbooks' case, it would be Choose-Your-Own-Company-Wide-Crossover-Event.

And I think writing for approval -- the kind of approval you're talking about -- is very much a betrayal of why we write in the first place. And why do we write? Because we have stories to tell. Ideas to express. It's not about planting a mystery... and when readers seem to guess what that mystery is before you have a chance to reveal it in the narrative, you change that mystery into something different with no other criteria besides the fact that this new "mid-stream mystery" might be something that readers haven't guessed it yet. Who cares if readers guess a mystery beforehand? Does that somehow invalidate the first idea you might've had before the public guessing games began? Is it really about proving that you're smarter than you're readers? That you're always thinking ahead of them? Aren't you supposed to be doing that anyway? Isn't that a primary mandate of writing comicbooks… especially superhero comicbooks?

Then again... modern readers are pretty savvy. I think you end up looking like a complete ass more often than not if you start spending your time trying to prove that you're more savvy. I should know, I've made an ass of myself in exactly that manner a few times in my career... so when I see other writers dabbling in ass-like behavior... well, it's tough to watch.

FRACTION: I've heard tale of some folks out there that actively scour message boards and readjust their plots and scripts in process to try and do just that very thing-- which just seems like such a cop-out. What do you have to say, really, when you're so willing to change what you're saying to look like you've got more rabbits than hat? It's still pandering, still as creatively bankrupt as polling your audience at the end of every issue.

And it reads that way. The work is near-incomprehensible, so obsessed with servicing the creators' egos in the guise of pleasing its readers that there's nothing going on. I guess I just don't understand where the creative satisfaction is in crafting a story like that; there doesn't seem to be any craft there at all, really.

CASEY: On my more humanitarian days, I'm willing to give those creators the benefit of the doubt... that they only, as you say, cop out on work that, in their view, might not really "matter." Hell, it's only some big superhero clusterfuck... who cares how comprehensible it is? If it's got enough variant covers, I suppose retailers shouldn't care either, right?

But the thing is... it all matters. Every page of every comicbook, be it indy vision or mainstream crossover orgy... every one of them matters. And there are writers who understand that… even In the face of writing the big crossover orgy. But, to get us back on topic, when writers are willing to dance like a monkey to stay one step ahead of what I think is one of the smarter audiences of a particular medium you'll find anywhere... I dunno, man. It's a strange corner for us to find ourselves in, because readers are still buying. For now, at least.

But, y'know, readers bought tons of the shittiest comics in the early '90s... in numbers that would look down on today's glass ceiling and fucking laugh. The only difference is that, back then, there was no Internet that writers could use to gauge their own works-in-progress. So, what does that say about this ugly side of so-called "creativity"...?

FRACTION: The bottom line rules, right? You and I both know, I think, at least some of the people we're talking about-- so it's safe to say that, yeah, these books and these creators can be very, very profitable. That's it, at the end of the day; that's all that really matters. I mean, hey, if it's art, great, and it moves a million copies that's greater still, but how often do those particular planets align?

All this does is clearly delineates sides, I guess-- which side is in it to tell stories, to exercise craft and give run to form and ideas, and which side is in it to pick up a check and keep the suckers mooning.

There's a degree of contempt for the medium in the latter, I think. It's only comics. It doesn't really count. That sort of self-hating rap that goes around. I guess I think it reads in the books. You can tell when it happens, whether its with the written word or the way images are put onto page.

CASEY: That's pretty bold, my friend... that's as cynical as we could possibly get, to suggest that there might be a creator -- even one -- out there that looks at comicbooks as simply an opportunity to make a buck and genuinely regard the readers as "suckers." Then again, that type of creator might consider the publishers suckers, too. It's the game of being the girl with the most cake...

I do have a theory about creators in this business. And, believe me, it comes from experience. The most popular creators (of any era, and we know that list fluctuates) are generally the most personally insecure. How do I know? We smell our own. I was never more insecure about myself as a creator than when I was at my highest peak, profile-wise, writing "Uncanny X-Men." I knew I wasn't bringing my A-game, and I knew it was still going to sell truckloads. And it did. It's tough to swallow the yin-yang scenario where some of your worst writing is selling over 100K while some of your best (at that time, "Wildcats Vol. 2" with Sean Phillips) was selling around 28K. But it happens every time. And it can make you… a little defensive.

I can see it in the things other folks are saying in their interviews. It's so painfully transparent, the insecurity that's bleeding through. At this point, pimping the latest Spandex Orgy Event reads to me like some sort of cry for help.

And it's the denial of those insecurities that taint the atmosphere. Like I told Spurgeon last week... we're all insecure. That's just how it goes. It's denying that part of yourself that can get you into trouble... and, for some reason, the greatest denial occurs on the highest profile gigs. And, in that moment, when you're at your most insecure, why wouldn't you start to take cues from Internet reaction... cues that you would never admit to a soul that you did? Ah, the irony...

Doesn't make it right, but still...

FRACTION: Look, I wanna roll around in the big swimming pool full of money and have my books up in the single digits of the ICV2 list as much as the next guy-- I just refuse to accept that you have to crank out pre-decided pap to get there. I'll be the first to admit that my tastes are absolutely not in line with the comics mainstream; there are creators and titles whose successes utterly baffle me and there are guys who nail the landing almost every single time (or die trying) who stand side by side in success. Some guys I get, others I don't. And when you hear certain things about certain folks and you see the numbers they pull in... well, it's not like I'm suggesting the moon landing was staged and the earth is flat.

The insecurity thing puts another kind of spin on it-- writing to be liked and all that? Christ, what a number that has to do on your head. I suppose, ultimately, that's the nature of the beast when market trends and monthly numbers dictate your "success."

How are you supposed to react when Chris Claremont-- of all people, of all iconic comic authors, of all the standard-bearing, idiomatic creators-- polls readers to see what story they want him to tell next? Is it that bad, man? I'd like to assume that if you're picking up a Claremont book, you're picking up the book he's dying to write, not the book mandated by his base constituency.

Look at the resurgence of Peter David in the mainstream over the last year or so, and compare it with the Peter David of a few years back. Regardless of whether the guy was writing what he wanted or writing what they'd only let him, I never had any doubt that he was hammering for the bleachers the best he could. Not to turn this into a referendum on either of those creators, but I think there were lessons to learn from not only the work David cranked out then but also from the public face he put on it while Marvel, for example, seemed to be making sport of him for kicks. Lessons in professionalism, if nothing else, and maintaining some semblance of dignity through it all.

But, OK, what it comes down to If Alan Moore started writing "Uncanny X-Men" tomorrow and his book shaved off 20% of its numbers six months after he started, he'd get the axe. Doesn't matter what he was writing, either-- no comics publisher is in the business of subsidizing art.

CASEY: Y'know, Peter does know how to roll with it quite well.

Of course it's writing to be liked. But by who? That's the question. And each of us has our own specific answer. But God help you if the answer is, "To prove that the Internet hadn't guessed what I was doing." God help your dark soul.

By the way... "pre-decided" will soon enter the industry lexicon. That's how apt a word it is.

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