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 still possible to be taken aback in this business. To be shocked. Even by good friends. Every so often, you can open that PREVIEWS catalog, thumb through the usual mind-numbing blitzkrieg of new product, and something just… jumps out at you. Something you never expected to see. Not in a million years, in fact…
CASEY: So, my independently spirited chum… imagine my surprise when I spied the Marvel solicits for June 2006 and I spotted this little entry…
X-MEN UNLIMITED #9
Written by MATT FRACTION & DAMON HURD
Pencils by SAM KIETH & MARK BROOKS
Critically acclaimed indy writer Matt Fraction (Last of the Independents) joins legendary artist Sam Kieth for an action-packed story about Wolverine’s greatest deaths, and just how they’ve affected the nearly-invulnerable mutant over the years. Then, Eisner-award nominee Damon Hurd (My Uncle Jeff) and Mark Brooks tell an extraordinary story about X-Man Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, and just what it means to have been a part of the X-Men from the very start!
Where to begin? Where. To. Begin? There are so many ways we could get into this… from my own dubious experiences within the world of the X to your abortive Epic Comics journey leading you down the primrose path… apparently to this, an X-Men anthology story! I guess, just to get down to the nitty-gritty, let me just start with the most prominent question…
… how the fuck did this happen?!
FRACTION: I know, right? Check it– I’m critically acclaimed. I tried to get them to call it the Indy Sell-Outs issue, but I guess that suggestion got shitcanned somewhere along the line.
Long story short: Axel Alonso liked LOTI; I started talking to Axel and his assistant and nascent editor Warren Simons. And Warren and I have been trying to get something going for a while now, and X-MEN UNLIMITED has been moved into their office, so… so, yeah. He asked if I’d pitch X-Shorts, and I came up with maybe a half-dozen and the one that was strongest was, lucky me, Wolverine.
CASEY: Fuck, yeah. You went right for the Big Gun, didn’t you…?
So, assuming this thing is already written, I gotta’ ask: How’s it feel? You’ve seen so many of us wear this pathway down to the bedrock underneath. Is there any kind of significance in this particular gig for you…? I mean, c’mon, your first bona fide company franchise character for one of the Big Publishers…? There’s gotta’ be something to it for you than just filling the pages and cashing that check with the little Spidey drawing printed on it…
FRACTION: Wow, do the checks really have Spider-Man on them?
Wait, what? Right, how’s it feel.
It feels… good? It feels different, you know? Like, here’s a thing I can do. And as I’ve talked mad shit about stuff like this before, the decision to go after it, the decision to stick with it and see the process through, to take the ride and work through it all was pretty satisfying. And I knew the editor wasn’t going to let me just float by, and I knew I wasn’t– it’s a different kind of exercise, these kinds of stories. I knew it wasn’t going to be a single-draft kind of experience, and I wasn’t really looking for one. Like, there’s a part of me that’s very much thinking ‘know who your enemies are,’ you know? Put up and shut up time.
On the flip-side of that is my inner nine-year old that wants to see stuff exploding and dudes getting kicked, and having the chance to tear shit up Wolverine-stylee was pretty *sweet*. I mean, Devil Dinosaur eats him on page one. IT IS RAD. And, dude, Sam Kieth is drawing it! Fuckin’ A!
CASEY: Yeah, the Sam Kieth aspect of it is pretty fucking cool. Almost as cool as Devil Dinosaur…
So, having had this little taste of the mainstream from a writer’s perspective, what’s your feeling on doing this shit more regularly? I mean, I never considered you the type of writer who’d be vying for the WOLVERINE monthly gig… but has this experience completely scratched an itch, or has it stirred up something where you find yourself feeling like, “Hey, I’d like to do this on a more regular basis”…?
FRACTION: Yeah, I could see doing this more. Certainly not to the exclusion of anything else, I don’t think, but it was fun. It’s a different arena, that’s for sure, and one I’ve been edging towards here and there. New stuff to play with and new rules to play by and, like I said, I’ve talked some mad shit before. So there’s a part that wants to see if I’m as smart as I think I am. And to be able to learn in public, on such a scale and with such visibility oughta be worth a laugh.
And, shit, he’s only their third-best character. For my Marvel itch to be scratched, I’d need a couple other notches on my belt yet.
CASEY: Okay, we’ll get to the first- and second-best Marvel characters in a second (I had no idea you rated them at all). But just out of curiosity, what would you say were those “new rules” you were playing by…?
FRACTION: Not all. Just the best seven. But yes: let’s leave that last dangling shred of my dignity a while longer, shall we?
The new rules internally, I’m not so sure I can express too clearly at the moment. Another day another column, you know?
The exterior ones, though, were all the attendant things that you deal with when you play with someone else’s toys, on someone else’s timeline. I couldn’t totally make stuff up, so I had to do some homework to keep things vaguely grounded in continuity; there’s a certain ebb and tide that’s to be expected in an 11 page superhero short; I really, REALLY had to dial back the ‘cocksucker’ remarks, and mostly I felt like I had to respect the character, you know? I had to find a story I wanted to tell and not just, you know, crap out an 11 page fight scene.
It ain’t, as you say, curing cancer, or WATCHMEN, or anything else– but there’re parameters that come with playing with someone else’s toys other than your own you need to respect.
CASEY: About what I figured. Now, the real question is… did you find those parameters inherently restrictive to doing your job? Or did you take some perverse comfort in those limitations, in knowing them? Sometimes those kinds of restrictions give you a place to start or maybe keep you on a path that allows for a more focused narrative. Basically, they don’t always have to equal a negative…
FRACTION: Well, I certainly didn’t feel like there was anything I wanted to do but couldn’t. More than anything else I felt like an impostor or something. Like at any given moment someone was going to put two and two together and tell me to fuck off.
The rules are the rules, and in the last four years of my life I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at finding some semblance of grace under that kind of pressure. You can do creative work under all kinds of constraints and pressures and weird rules and deadlines; whether it’s for Coke or Adidas or Marvel, it’s the same kind of maneuvering. The problems come when you’re being forced to create by committee, and that certainly wasn’t the case here…
And Marvel’s seven best characters are Nick Fury, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Dr. Strange, The F.F.–all of them, counting as one– the Surfer, and Iron Man & Cap tied there at the end. The Tales of Suspense superteam, as it were.
CASEY: I’m… at a loss for words.
FRACTION: I’m not. Here’s two: Kill. Me.