The Basement Tapes: Issue #64

Tue, December 20th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

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basement tapes 64 o joe casey & matt fraction

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 mossst wonderrrfullll tiiiiiime of the yeaaaaarrrr...

That's right, kids-- It's that most wonderful time of the year, when Stuff Is Ending and people get all into making lists. Bests of, worsts of, whatevers of-- this is that time when we Look Back at stuff that happened and turn that stuff into content. Content on the internet. The internet... that people read. People like you.

Anyway. Here's some of our favorite actually-have-staples comic books from the past calendar year. Some of it you've certainly heard of, some of it maybe not. If we're lucky, maybe we'll convince you to check out a book you'd otherwise ignore. So here it is-- a love letter to 2005.

CASEY: Okay, since it's the last Basement Tapes of 2005 (hello, holidays!), I figured we'd do what most folks are doing and give our own "End of the Year" lists. And I don't know how much of a twist this will be, but how about we stick to each of us naming what we think were the three best single issues that came out over the past twelve months. Which comicbooks gave us the best bang for the buck? What books did we appreciate as fellow writers in this industry? Excluding our own, of course... and excluding Clowes' "Death Ray" issue of EIGHTBALL (which is way too obvious to claim as the Best of the Year)...

So, let's get this pawty stawted...

CASEY'S 1st PICK: An easy one. SEVEN SOLDIERS #0 by Grant Morrison and JH Williams, released April '05 from DC. In 38 pages, these guys packed in so much stuff, from a story that really moved and went all over the place (in a good way), to characters that genuinely engaged you, to the occasional bouts of experimental storytelling, to the meta-commentary on superheroes and superhero teams... this goddamn book had it all. I was so sucked in by the craft and the story and especially the characters, I was pissed when the team got slaughtered at the end. I just wanted them to go on and on. So much so that, while I'm digging the mini-series that have followed, it's still all about the Vigilante, Gimmix, the Whip, Boy Blue, Dyno-Mite Man, and Spyder for me. I'd love to see more adventures with that team, which is what a good comicbook can do for you... it can fire your own imagination and creativity. This one did for me in more ways than one. Which, I guess, was the point of what Grant and JH were doing. And, of course, the way JH adapted his style to reflect the script, especially the LT. BLUEBERRY riff for the Vigilante/desert scenes, was fucking genius. This one comicbook gives me hope for mainstream superhero team books and that there are still areas to be mined...

FRACTION: I loved what Williams was doing with his style in each chapter and genre. And I thought it was fantastic to see the guy coming off of PROMETHEA, still radiating waves of heat from his head and his hand, and hooking up with Morrison. They seem made for one another, don't they? Williams is almost like an architect, the way he builds his pages; for him to hook up with a writer like Morrison who so loves doing that 2D as 3D/3D as 4D thing with his pages is a match made in heaven, as far as I'm concerned. Look at the way the panels turn into puzzles and mazes on the fourth page, the patterns and icons the panel arrays adapt before the Miracle Mesa showdown, the pure chaos of the last double-page spread. I know Morrison and Quitely are the Lennon/McCartney of the superhero mainstream at the moment but, goddamn, I'd love to see these two work together again.

As big of a year as it was for Darwyn Cooke with NEW FRONTIER, the news of his upcoming SPIRIT thingy, his issue of SOLO, etc.-- or Alex Ross, with the MYTHOLOGY book, JUSTICE, the Actual Mainstream Coverage-- this is what I want my superhero comics to look like and to read like. This is the visual fuel I want to burn into my eyes.

I think the reaction to ALL STAR SUPERMAN #1 was wildly fucking over the top-- as extreme in its overreaction as this book was in its neglect. Fuck HOUSE OF M! Fuck INFINITE CRISIS! Why aren't more people reading SEVEN SOLDIERS?

So for my 1st PICK, I say PROMETHEA #32. Aside from the tidy segue Williams' involvement provides, this book actually got me to read it, pry the staples out of the spine, arrange all the pagespreads on my floor, read it all again and, then, flip the fucking thing over and REPEAT. And that-- I dunno, that says something. Several things, actually: about me, about gimmicks, about comics themselves and about magic. There I was on hand and knee, staggered to think that somebody had actually thought this all through...

I'd tuned out of PROMETHEA somewhere in its teens, dropping the book and promising myself I'd pick it up in collections. So I can't speak to the larger storyline whatsoever; I don't know if #32 is a satisfying resolution to four years of story or anything else. But I found it a wholly unique reading experience in almost as many ways as it could be read.

CASEY: Ahhh... PROMETHEA. A thing of beauty that makes my fucking head hurt...

And I think I can top it with my 2nd PICK: HIP FLASK: MYSTERY CITY by Richard Starkings and Ladronn, published by Active Images. I lent a hand scripting the first two one-shots starring everyone's favorite pulp sci-fi hard boiled hippo investigator, but this year Starkings flew solo on the writing and, for my money, it makes a world of difference. This was uncut HIP FLASK, the way it was meant to be.

And what can I say about the art...? Ladronn has moved so far beyond the work he was doing when we were both cutting our teeth on mainstream comicbooks on Marvel's CABLE series. The scope and the scale of the world that Ladronn creates with his art... and it should be noted that it took a publisher's commitment outside of the DC and Marvel camps to allow him free reign to fulfill his potential. Anyone who sees things like his OMAC covers and now his HULK covers aren't even seeing one one-hundredth of Ladronn's ability to render a complete environment that, despite the animal characters that populate it, is more believable than just about anything you'll find in modern comicbooks.

Richard's staked his claim this year as a bona fide publisher, between Steve Seagle's SOLSTICE graphic novel and Duncan Rouleau's upcoming NIGHTMARIST... but it's MYSTERY CITY that truly defines Richard's aesthetic. Probably because he created that world, those characters, that mystery... and Ladronn actualizes it perfectly. We're seeing a sci-fi classic being built, one-shot by one-shot. it may seem slow in coming now... but when it's all said and done, this thing's gonna' last forever. It'll be on everyone's bookcase, I guarantee it.

And, because I'm that kinda' guy… the Diamond order code for MYSTERY CITY is #MAY052371. So go bug your local retailer to order a copy if you don't have it already, folks.

FRACTION: I've not read MYSTERY CITY but I thought both NATURAL SELECTION and ELEPHANTMEN were great fun.

And, yeah, man, Ladronn is just from another planet. Like a bit of Juan Gimenez from METABARONS is about the closest analogue I can find but that's unfair to both of them, maybe. The guy just puts stuff down on the page unlike anyone else, anywhere else.

Hey, here's my 2nd PICK for ya, and it's the only book I actually bought twice this year-- Paul Pope's issue of SOLO. Touching on the minotaur myth, those old comics novelty ads, a slice of life from Pope's beloved Lower East Side, a Batman story (a Robin story?) colored by James Jean and, for my money, the centerpiece of the thing, a... remake? remix?... of Jack Kirby's first issue of OMAC. This predated the whole INFINITE HOOTNANNY by a month or two, I think, so it was nice to see the old school treated with a bit of new school respect one last time. Pope doing Kirby but still doing Pope is well worth the price of admission which, as I said, I paid twice. Just the antidote for a day ruined rotten by Kanye West's tantrums and otherwise unrelated and unforgiving deadlines.

The SOLO book has been on an awesome roll (Chaykin! Bernet! Cooke! Allred!). Three cheers for Mark Chiarello for pulling it off like he does.

CASEY: Oh, shit yeah. Paul Pope's SOLO. Fucking great one. Bring on BATMAN: YEAR 1,000...!

Okay, here's one from the trenches. Because, y'know, when a good single issue of a monthly pops out, it deserves our respect...

CASEY'S 3rd PICK: Say hello to CAPTAIN AMERICA #8 by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. The best iconic superhero series I can think of always match the icon with an iconic moment (or several) in every single issue, and Bru and Epting do a great job of it in this particular issue. From Cap rescuing a child from a burning building to his face-to-face confrontation with the so-called "Winter Soldier" (a genuinely engaging ongoing drama in the book since its relaunch last year)... these are images that imprint themselves onto your brain and remind you why Captain America can be cool in the right creative hands.

The emotion that Steve Epting conveys in that simple moment ("Who the hell is Bucky?" Hell, yeah!!!) involves a subtlety that so many artists just don't seem to grasp. Epting is an absolute natural at those subtleties, but he also brings the bombast like no one else working in monthly comicbooks. Epting is an underrated master at what I've dubbed "heroic realism".

Slowly but surely -- and apparently under a lot of retailers' rader (or the book would be selling much better than it is) -- these guys are building a story issue-by-issue that will undoubtedly be looked at in retrospect as one of Captain America's great sagas. And we're not getting very many bona fide "sagas" in the mainstream these days. It's all about Events, I guess... but I'll take a saga over an Event any day of the week.

Alright, man... roll out your final pick.

FRACTION: It was hotly contested over here at Fraction HQ. We've polled and re-polled and re-re-polled the judges and navigated some tricky political waters-- so here're the results and the whys and wherefores:

FELL #1, by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith. As predisposed the work of the creative team as I am, everything about FELL clicked hard from the get-go. As a new title launch, a new concept, and a new format, everything about FELL made me jump up and down. Ellis is throwing down some of the formal fireworks and skills his superhero mainstream work rarely allows for, and Templesmith is more than game to keep up and is obviously bringing his A-game. That the market's rewarded FELL by plowing through two printings and now starting on a third feels like vindication on several levels. It couldn't be happening to a better book.

We decided that since both Ellis and Templesmith are friends-- and hell, Ben and I have worked together before-- that we'd recuse ourselves from considering it.

Next came GDLAND #2, by yourself and Mr. Tom Scioli. Now, I liked the first issue an awful lot but it was #2 that pushed me into the realm of GDLAND S8perfan. I think it was the crater that shattered the Great Wall of China that did it-- if there's a declaration of intent for that book, to me, it was that image. Page 7, panel 1, GDLAND won my heart. That Basil Cronus would later get high by soaking his skull in that giant spacedog's blood or whatever was icing on the weird cake. I think I told you that, the next time I picked up GDLAND was at the same time I picked up ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN #2 and, when I got home, it was GDLAND I read first. Which, I mean-- come one. Dude, I read your book before the Frank Miller BATMAN book!

Again, we disqualified the book due to our personal relationship.

What was left? ROCKETO made a strong stand-- how great was it to come out of San Diego and realize you'd missed the big buzz book? And how gorgeous is it? DESOLATION JONES was there, but we threw it out of competition because, the Ellis thing and well, JH Williams is pretty well represented thusfar. Still: the next PREACHER is here, folks. Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly's LOCAL made a strong go at it, but since I've only got the first issue to date it seemed premature, somehow? Hey, nobody said the rules have to make sense, folks. INFINITE CRISIS, just for the buzz it was able to generate? No. What about Christopher Mills and Rick Burchett's GRAVEDIGGER: THE SCAVENGERS? Even though I only got it in January, I think it actually came out last year.

Really, though, there was never any contest. My first and last pick has always been BLACK HOLE #12, Charles Burns' wrap-up to his decade-long epic horror masterpiece. There's no way you can really sum up the series in a couple lines but... well, I promise you this-- it's the one book I bought this year I know I'll be reading again and again the rest of my life. I bought this in the shop right after new year's and thought it was all going to be a downhill year from there, and in a lot of ways I was right.

CASEY: Oh yeah, the collected BLACK HOLE hardcover is the perfect Valentine's Day gift for '06, don't you think? Burns is an indy master who, unlike guys like Los Bros Hernandez, Harvey Pekar and Peter Bagge, you don't hear a lot of talk about in the comicbook mainstream arena. That's our loss...

So, six single issues that pretty much cover the range of what comicbooks do best, wouldn't you say? Crosovers and Events notwithstanding, I'd hold those six picks up to any year's "Best Of..." with pride and enthusiasm.

There's life in the old girl yet. Comicbooks, that is...

FRACTION: Your mouth to God's ears. Onwards and upwards...

CASEY: 2006. Fucking hell…!

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