Matt Fraction interview
An interview with the writer of Image Comics’ Casanova from the sadly-defunct Atomic Threat webzine, 2006.
Every month, Matt Fraction writes a new adventure of Casanova Quinn: a comic-book interdimensional superspy in a world of sex, violence, pop music, and ambiguous Pynchon-inspired acronyms – and when each issue packed-tight at only 16 pages long, they provide a remarkable bang-for-buck ratio, too. Quoting Phil Spector in the back pages of #1, he calls each issue its own “little symphony”.
Did you decide on such a cool, action-movie-hero name like “Matt Fraction” or just stumble into it as a baby? (Because I’m ‘Martyn’, it’s always presumed I added the “y” myself after, say, a long afternoon of listening to The Cure.)
There are two versions of this story. Mine is that a telemarketer mangled my last name and it came out “Fraction”.
“Is this Matt… Frrrraction?”
“…YES. Yes it IS,” was how that went. I used it as a user name on the ‘net and it just sorta stuck.
The other version is that a friend of mine SWEARS he called me that, which I suppose is the version I should tell in that it doesn’t sound like I gave myself a nickname otherwise. But this friend is kind of an inveterate alcoholic and can’t be trusted so– so I don’t know. Manna from telemarketing heaven? Drunken blather? Take your pick.
You end the first issue by discussing Phil Spector and pop music. Like summer pop hits, comic books used to be made to be forgotten – swappable, disposable, used for imprints on Silly Putty – but now everything is remembered and archived. Would Casanova be a completely different beast if it was collected for the ages in solid hardcovers?
Well, you know, Phil Spector hated albums. He thought there was only ever a handful of hits and then a half-dozen tracks of padding. Not that I necessarily agree with him, but it’s kind of interesting to extend the metaphor.
Let me ask – do you mean, would it be a different beast if I wrote it as a long graphic novel instead of a story in 16 page facets, or do you mean would it be different if it was collected after publication?
I was thinking the latter: do the bite-size chunks that give Casanova part of its pop lend itself to a kind of instant gratification? Can you imagine this story being read, end to end, in a decade or so? After all, pop music always seemed to embrace its disposability. We love a song all summer until we’ve worn it thin and then we never listen to it again…
I think the self-containededness of each issue gives it a certain sort of something, but I don’t know if I’m the person that gets to say what that is – I’m the guy that knows how the hot-dog gets made, you know?
And if anyone reads it again in a decade, I’d be far too flattered to think or ask any of these questions of them, honestly.
You say that you’ve just given yourself over to the process and influences at work. It sounds like the pop-version of possession through automatic writing – like those who claim that the ghost of Dickens is moving their hand so he can finish his work. How would you describe your relationship to these influences? Homage? Remix? Theft?
Well, the mystery of the process is the mystery of the process, and to take the ride you close your eyes and leap. Having the influences in your pocket is like doing homework; the process is like the final exam, maybe.
My relation to that stuff, though – I’m not wholly certain it’s my place to define that. I know that my relation to the influences, personally, ranges from one humbled by the works of masters, to a fan’s adoration and adulation, to a neophyte journeyman’s urge to reverse engineer it all and see how it works.
Whether it’s homage, or remix, or theft are, I suspect, verdicts more appropriate for an audience to make; what I can contribute to their deliberations would be to humbly point out it’s all born of that adoration and adulation – the only real authorial intent I’m comfortable discussing is that I hope Casanova celebrates and honors every blip on its long and winding genome.
The letters page of Casanova isn’t as yet for your fans’ letters, but instead, you talking about all the things of which you, yourself, are a fan. Is there something kind of evangelical in pointing your readers to all this other material that you obviously love? Or is it just the flip-side of the usual ‘autobiographical’ author reading, where we filter the fiction through your supposed life story?
There’s a little bit of that, yeah. The backmatter pages I remain entirely uncertain of what to do with, exactly. I think it’s obvious, as the book has gone on, that I’m seeking out how to meaningfully fill those pages. Being able to evangelize and testify is pretty key, but I worry that it becomes a self-reflexive exercise in cultural reach-arounds. I’m worried it’s gonna turn into, like, great, I’ve seen The Stranger and The Gunfighter. My DVD shelf can beat up your DVD shelf.
Ideally, those pages will build community in a meaningful way. I’m just not sure what that way is quite yet.
Tarantino seems to be falling prey to exactly that kind of “cultural reach-around”: making movies that are these weird highlight reels of all his favourite things, but that just don’t add up to much of anything. So how do you know when you’ve crossed the line, do you think? (And if I haven’t seen The Stranger and The Gunfighter, should I?)
I dunno. I don’t think Tarantino knows he’s crossed the line, or if he does, he doesn’t care. I dunno. Maybe I’ve already crossed the line and I don’t know it. It’s probably not for me to define.
I assume there’s a volume of actual work and effort that would go away? I assume the book would get easier to write?
And no, sadly. The Stranger and The Gunfighter never transcends its own back-of-the-box.
Didn’t Michael Moorcock intend for his own superspy, Jerry Cornelius, to enter the public domain so that others could write his adventures? Is that the distant endpoint of this kind of community? And could you imagine others writing alternate Casanovas from alternate timelines?
Yeah, I guess so, although that seems to not be the case any more. I have one of them, somewhere inside Norman Spinrad’s Last Hurrah of The Golden Horde but I haven’t read it. Hell, I’ve only read two of the Cornelius books. I don’t know so much about the NEW WORLDS wave of SF guys honestly, so I don’t wanna go ascribing motive or suggesting I understand what they were up to… Ballard was always my favorite, anyway.
I’m not sure if that kind of audience/character interaction is necessarily the ENDpoint, but it’s A point, surely, on the road between here and tomorrow. Why rob an audience from the opportunity to interact with the work? It doesn’t change the work.
I can’t imagine others writing alternate Casanovas; hell, a guy at HeroesCon brought me a drawing of Cass, Fabula, and Xeno he did and I almost had a heart attack I was so amazed.
The 16-page format means, as you say, you’ve done away with all that manga-influenced pacing – “7 pages of a sword coming out of a sheath” – and it means there’s so much going on in each issue you really have to pay attention and keep up. Can you feel that limitation when you write? Does it make the writing process more or less painful? Is it fostering an itch to write an enormously self-indulgent 1000 page novel?
“Limitation” is maybe the last word I’d use, but I do think I’m maybe boxing a little out of my weight class with the format.
The format is a wholly different animal than a standard 22-page comic. Especially as we labor to tell a “whole” story in each issue (or at least, the whole story of a Casanova Quinn mission, from briefing to exfiltration.). I’ve tried for the last few days to express this adequately and can’t find the words, exactly, but it’s a weird animal top to bottom, as entirely unlike a 22-page comic as it is a 122-page graphic novel.
The one thing I’ve learned is there are no limitations here. In 16 pages I can write a whole world. I’ll put our book toe-to-toe against any other out there in a bang/buck cock-measuring contest and I’m almost sure we’ll win nine out of ten. I love the format. I love that Casanova takes me three times longer to write than anything else. I love that people complain they don’t understand it, that too much happens. Mission fuckin’ accomplished.
It’s interesting that, on this scale and format, there’s such an immense difference between 16 and 22 pages. You’re now writing titles for Marvel Comics: do those extra 6 pages a month seem like all the extra time in the world? And yet, writing an established character comes with its own limitations…
It’s not a comic that’s six pages shorter; it’s a comic that has to contain a whole world between its covers. A 22-page serial superhero comic, utilizing icons that have decades of history in pop culture, is a different animal entirely.
They’re literally like speaking two different romance languages. Lots of similarities, and the same roots, but the executions are entirely different and the idioms don’t transliterate.
So it’s not that those 6 pages make all the difference; the preceding 16 pages and the Marvel logo make it different.
There’s nothing from Casanova that’s relevantly and practically applicable to the Marvel stuff. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true.
That said: the content and style of the thing has made me want to write something without Fabula Berserkos and Brainspiders and A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.s and all that– namely, a long historical piece about Abraham Lincoln’s re-election campaign in 1864 (no joke).
Maybe that’s a side effect of ‘too much happening’ – does an interesting idea sometimes disappear on you in a throwaway paragraph? Is that an occasionally regretful sacrifice on the altar of pace and format?
Yeah, all the time. There’s a real kill-your-darlings thing going on, too, where a lot of times the shit that ends up on the cutting room floor was what brought me to the scene in the first place. Strange how that works out.
Like comics, pop music is traditionally considered disposable, but it’s also seen as shallow. You even say that some might think that Casanova is all sizzle and no steak. Is this just a potential danger of the process? How do you still insert a beating heart into this kind of pop culture story? (I always thought that pop music was emotional because it might not be deep, but it sure is wide…)
When one’s book features a three-headed robot monk with the brain of a bubblegum sexbot as the hallmark of your supporting cast, one runs the risk of being, shall we say, dismissed as a serious work. That is to say, one whose sizzle is reverently respectful of one’s steak, as the steak reigns above all, verily, on earth as it is in comic book heaven.
But, man, I love trash. I love genre trash. I’ve been lambasted before because I’ve called comics– or at least the comics I love– trashy. People assume it’s a pejorative, but it’s not. Give me disposable, tooth-rotting, morals-decaying, titillating and sleazy pulp wonders or give me Boredom. B.O.R.E.D.O.M.
Which goes to say: I like the sizzle. I like the steak, too, but I really, really like the sizzle. I came for the sizzle. I stayed for the steak. And a little more sizzle. Comics could use some of both these days.
And maybe that’s been the challenge of Casanova for me, as a writer. Putting both into such a weird little format in a way that’s satisfying to me as a reader, and to me as a writer. Now maybe we’re back looking at the mystery of the process, because I don’t know how it happens. I’ve fallen in love to pop music; I’ve been moved to tears by movies. I’ve had my head cleaved open by comics. The shallowest, sleaziest of genre trash art can be as transcendent as a Cornell box, a Van Gogh, a Giacometti, an O’Keefe.
There’s no shame in falling in love while standing in a gutter.
I recently saw a political commentator saying that Americans love Jack Bauer on 24, and that’s the best mandate for torture you could hope for. Casting a broad eye over the pop-culture landscape… what mandate do you think it is actually bestowing?
Well, okay, first, that’s Laura Ingraham you’re talking about, and calling her a political commentator is like calling Shamu a performance artist. This is a woman so virulently homophobic in her college days that, because she made it a matter of her personal policy to out closeted students, she was terrified of eating in restaurants, because she was convinced that gay waiters would give her spoon AIDS and then she would get AIDS and die because the gay waiters all have AIDS and all conspired to kill her. And with a beginning that auspicious, everything else is suspect, yeah?
First of all: let’s not say anything about Shamu we can’t take back, okay? And second: gay waiters and spoon AIDS?
Swear to god. Google the cunt, you’ll see I’m not making it up.
I mean – follow her logic. We gave Silence Of The Lambs like five Oscars – was that a mandate for cannibalism? The top-grossing movie week-before-last was Jackass Number Two – was that a mandate for horse-semen consumption and eyeball leeches? Also: Fox News political commentator refers to Fox Entertainment program? Collusion? Nooooo.
Something that always gets me is this idea that popular culture doesn’t have to be looked at closely, because… you know… it’s just TV / comic books / whatever. Even in 24, last season had the hero mistakenly torturing an innocent man, and the President happily organising murders to perpetuate a war for political power. And yet I always hear the show is a “right-wing fantasy” which ignores all of the above. Is this kind of reading just an inescapable side-effect of the cultural standing of these products, do you think?
I don’t think people look at 24, and look at Jack Bauer, and think, FINALLY! A Man and a Hero for Our Times that Reflect and Honor These Troubled Times of Ours. I think people think – dude, he NEEDS A HACKSAW!! AWESOME!!
At least I know I do.
I think the mandate 24 bestows is that the pop mainstream audience can really get into trashy, pseudo-complex serial storytelling, which flies in the face of conventional and received wisdom.
Also: people love Kiefer Sutherland.
You’re right – 24 has developed this aura of respectable drama around it, when actually it’s at its best as a late-night, trashy adventure, full of cliffhangers and shouting and hyperbole… like most comic books. You say that comics could use both a little more sizzle and a little more steak – does that play into the comic industry’s struggle for some kind of mainstream credibility?
Nah. Comics HAS mainstream credibility – it’s the direct market that’s convinced if it tucks its batter-stained Weird Al t-shirt into its green elastic waistband and straightens its hair, then the mainstream culture will give it a second glance. It won’t, but it’s funnysad to watch it try.
I think the mainstream direct market stuff is a little watered down and sad in a lot of cases. I think there’s a lack of art to its trash, a lack of skill, a lack of imagination. It’s shepherded by the giftless and the visionless. It’s boring and bland, rigid and uptight – cardinal sins for an escapist medium.
A lot of the pulp authors were hacks writing to deadline, yes. But some of them dared to make art anyway.
So my question is this: if we follow the logic of ratings = mandate, and if the popularity of Casanova Quinn could justify any behaviour… what would it be? And would the world be better for it?
Don’t suffer fools gladly.
And the world would be a much better place were the stupid and banal ignored and unpandered.
Matt Fraction’s Casanova – with art by Gabriel Bá – is published monthly by Image Comics.