Monday, January 31, 2011

FYC Replay: with Dan on accompaniment

Back in the summer of 2007 when Dan and I had both started writing our respective columns for the Pulse, we decided to try a "Basement Tapes" mash-up and riff off each other on the then-new "slimline format" from Image (16 page stories with 4-6 pages of backmatter for $1.99), which was an experiment by Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction to try and offer up a "slab of culture" for a good price. Sadly, this format never moved beyond Ellis & Templesmiths' Fell and Fraction & Ba/Moon's Casanova. But those two books are great and I look forward to the return of new Casanova stories through Marvel's ICON imprint and the possibility of Fell someday returning from Image. But, for now, here's a look back into the vault. I hope you all enjoy.


You’ve read their columns (Am I Alone In This? and For Your Consideration), now discover what happens when two of the better comic minds of Central Maine go back and forth on one of the newest comic trends, the slimline format. Find out why they both are praising Fell and Casanova and think you should be, too!

Those of us who have been reading Warren Ellis for some time know that he is a man of many ideas, most of which are worth exploring. His "Old Bastards Manifesto" is legendary, and his Bad Signal is always filled with seeds just awaiting germination.

It was a couple of years ago when he began talking of "floppies" (individual issues) as music singles. Small bursts of pop. He felt something was missing from the industry, and perhaps this was it -- that manic energy of one song, one story.

So he birthed Fell, an ongoing series that has 16 pages of comics, and six to eight pages of "backmatter," his thoughts, ruminations, and inspirations for the stories. And, as anyone who's read it can attest, it's bloody brilliant. Along with Ben Templesmith, Ellis has re-invented the single issue.

And I waited for others to follow, hoping my wallet would be able to purchase any book that went down this most unusual road. To my disappointment, I only have to spend $4 every other month or so. The only souls brave enough to copy Ellis' experiment were Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba.

And lightning struck twice.

Casanova is just as good.

But for all the surrounding hype, they weren’t the first. They are building with blocks that Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan, and countless others have played with and then left lying around.

So this got me thinking, if these creators can pull this off, why aren't people lining up to put out similar formatted books? But instead of me just spouting off for another thousand words, I've brought a special guest into the studio, my partner-in-crime at On The Fly Publications, and fellow PULSE contributor, Chris Beckett. You see, to pay tribute to Matt Fraction (and Joe Casey) we’re going to conduct this column "Basement Tape Style."

DAN: So Chris, I know you've been keeping up with these two books as well. What about them has worked for you? What keeps you coming back for the second issue?

CHRIS: What keeps me coming back? It’s the story, natch. Ellis and Fraction have created compelling characters, dropped them into equally exciting settings, and cranked the volume up to 11. For me, it all starts with the writer.

Of course, with these two books – Fell and Casanova – there’s something more going on as well that isn’t seen in very many other books, mainstream or otherwise. That would be the density of the story, and the whole package really including the back matter. These are 16-page comic stories that read like 32, and judging by some of Ellis’s missives in the Bad Signal it sounds like some issues could have run 32.

When I read an issue of Fell or of Casanova, it takes a lot longer to read than the typical Captain America issue. And I don’t use the example of Cap to denigrate what Ed Brubaker is doing with that book. Bru is one of my favorite writers working right now, but there certainly is a difference.

When I read the “Winter Soldier” storyline in trades, I remember thinking about how decompressed the whole thing was. It was a 12-issue story that could have easily encompassed only six. It was entertaining, and the story logic behind the entire revelation worked incredibly well – a testament to Brubaker’s talent as a writer – but it bothered me how drawn out things seemed to be.

The only other writer, in the mainstream books, that seems to be providing such dense narratives as Fraction and Ellis in their slimline books is Grant Morrison on All Star Superman. It seems as if every page of that book contains one or two ideas that could easily be stretched out into a six or 12-issue miniseries by some other writer, and Morrison just casts them off, hurtling forward to the next spark.

DAN: Man, out of all the mainstream books to pick on, you chose Captain America? Harsh, even though you did mention how good Brubaker is right now.

But I do have to agree with you on your points. Both Fell and Casanova are such dense reads that I often don't realize just how short the books are.

And as much as I enjoy Ellis, this book reminded me of just how good he can be. To be honest, I had soured on much of his output of late. Planetary is brilliant whenever it comes out, newuniversal seems to be dragging, and most of the time I actually forget that he wrote a storyline on Iron Man. I guess I just don't like Ellis as much, when he's playing with other people's toys.

Fell reminds me why I do so love the cranky man.

But for me, what brings me back to the books, like you mentioned, are the ideas themselves. I can't read a page of Casanova without wishing Fraction would write another issue about that one page, or even one panel. It's that dense. Heck, give me a book about Coldheart Island or Fabula Beserko. And while both books do have recent collections, it's obvious these books were not written for the trade.

But to go without mentioning the artists would be a crime. Gabriel Ba is brilliant, and Ben Templesmith is doing the work of his career. Honestly, I was never a fan of his work until this book. It just seems like a good match.

By the way, have you picked either of the collected editions?

CHRIS: No, I didn’t pick up either of the collections. As nice as those hardcovers would look on my bookshelf, I didn’t want them. Sounds odd, but that’s the way these books were conceived. All the extra stuff that I look forward to in the collected editions – introductions by Steranko or Chaykin, sketches, scripts, etc – they are nowhere to be found in these collections. It’s all in the originals, the floppies. And I love that.

In recent years, I have started buying more collections whether they were series I missed the first time around – Preacher, Transmetropolitan – or ones I’ve decided to collect in trades rather than singles – 100 Bullets, DMZ – it’s just become more common for me, and for the industry as a whole. But these two series, Fell, and Casanova were created to make the single issue viable once again. All the stuff in the back, essays on storytelling and inspiration for the issues or sketches, are great and add so much to the books for me.

Having aspirations of having my own fiction published someday, by somebody other than us, I really enjoy the look behind the curtain that Ellis and Fraction give us with the back matter in their books.

And these aren’t the only books in recent years that have focused on the single issue. Brian Wood’s DEMO with Becky Cloonan, and the recent Oni Press series Wasteland by Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten, have also made the single issues the focus with the collections including only the comic story and none of the extras.

I think it’s great. For any fans picking these books up, it gives them a reason to head back into the comic shops on a regular basis.

But I wonder, could Marvel or DC do this? Or, maybe a better question would be, would they?

DAN: That's interesting that you didn't want the hardcovers at all. Me, I'm such a junkie that I'll by both the single issues and the hardcover. I guess that would make me the target customer for both series.

And I'm glad you brought up the Big Two, and it's interesting to see them a bit behind the curve on this one. One would think that with their stranglehold on the market, they'd be free to experiment with styles and format, but often for them the idea of change involves making a new character the Question.

I think they are missing out. I always read interviews with creators, and it excites me to no end to hear them talk about what they hope to accomplish with their respected runs. Case in point, Bendis with Daredevil. Every article that had him talking about his influences had me clicking on my mouse before I finished the opening tagline. And I really wish that information would have been in the single issues. Not only would it provide them with a wealth of bonus materials for the trades, but it would add to my total reading time for each issue.

I hate to keep going back to the Bendis well, but the closest Marvel comes to doing this is with Powers, which technically isn't Marvel "proper." No matter how long it takes me to read the actual story content, I know I've got at least five more minutes thanks to the back matter. And I was very pleased to see Criminal by Brubaker and Sean Philips following along those same lines.

Long answer short, I think Marvel should do this with all of their books. It'd change it up. It's not like they'd have to do it long term, but how cool would it be to bring back Assistant Editor Month, and have those guys determine that all books that month will be in slimline format. Brubaker could talk about what spy movies he likes. Peter David could annotate all the tidbits he drops into X-Factor. There's no limit to what these guys could do month after month, and I honestly believe that it could bring in new readers. Once I told our buddy Matt that Brubaker was a film noir fan, he couldn't wait to read Criminal, something he most likely would have passed over.

Any Big Two books or creators you'd like to see attempt this?

CHRIS: “Big Two” creators? Where do I start?

Grant Morrison, Brian Bendis, Brian Vaughn, Brubaker, Garth Ennis, Kurt Busiek, Peter Milligan, Matt Wagner. Should I go on? (with apologies to the many talented creators not named here). Any good writer doing a slimline book is getting my money. But would DC or Marvel consider such a format? I don’t know. I hesitate to say yes because they are slow to change, or to try anything different. It seems, at times, that the really experimental, edgy work from them finds its audience in spite of them. At this point, I must mention that I am speaking about the “mainstream” arm of their respective businesses. Vertigo is an obvious exception and Marvel’s new Icon line, though only including a very few books now, has some great work being produced under its banner.

But there’s nothing like the two slimline books from Image – or their predecessor from Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, demo – and that’s mainly because Marvel and DC are preaching to the choir. They have cultivated and nurtured their audience so well that to break from the “norm” at all seems hardly even considered from my vantage point as an outside looking in. The big thing in recent memory for “popular” comic storytelling has been the advance of decompression in service to writing “for the trade.” Four to six issue arcs teasing out single narratives that might have fit into the eight-page format so popular fifty years ago are what fans are force-fed today, and they keep coming back for more. So, in that sense, why should the “Big Two” deviate?

And please, don’t get me wrong, some of these decompressed arcs are good, and some are entertaining, but a lot of it feels like filler to me and it leaves me unsatisfied once I’m done. The short, dense bursts provided by Fell and Casanova leave me feeling full, so to speak, and with the $1.99 price tag, readers get far more bang for their buck.

Maybe this is the beginning of another new trend in comics – we can hope. Wood and Cloonan started it with demo, Ellis/Templesmith and Fraction/Ba picked up the ball and are running with it. Now, the question is: who will push it on from this point forward? Here’s hoping there are a number of talented writers and artists waiting in the wings to do just that.

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