An Interview with Matt Fraction
First appeared in Bookslut, September 2011.
Five years ago, I discovered the first slim issues of a new comic called Casanova. It chronicled the adventures of interdimensional superspy Casanova Quinn, and its giddy combination of whip-crack action, sci-fi identity politics, and Warholian bon mots made it irresistible. And in the back of each issue, writer Matt Fraction wore his heart on his sleeve in confessional essays about his private life and popular culture. I contacted him for an interview — the first comic book interview I’d ever done — that appeared in a webzine, now long gone. Casanova continued through Volume One (“Luxuria”) and Volume Two (“Gula”), with art by brothers Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon respectively, before finishing up in 2008. Since then, Fraction has since gone on to become one of the big players in the Marvel Universe, writing Iron Man, Uncanny X-Men, and their current cast-of-thousands “event” book Fear Itself. Primed by months of newly colored reprints under Marvel’s Icon banner, this week Casanova Quinn returns in the first issue of Volume Three: “Avaritia.” I got Matt on the phone to ask how the last five years had changed him, Casanova, and comic books.
So last time we talked, Matt, you said Casanova took you three times longer to write than anything else. Still true?
It’s gotten worse. It took me a full year. Let me be 100% accurate: I’m opening up my Casanova folder, and sorting everything by “date added”… the first file is December 19th 2009, and the final version is March 28th 2011. It took a long time. It took a long ass time.
Why so long? Was it hard falling back into the rhythm of it?
Sort of. Mostly it just wasn’t good enough. There was no rush, because the boys [artists Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon] were busy anyway. I had time to woolgather and figure it out. But when it was time, and we had our deal locked in, and we knew it was going to be at Icon and the reprints were going to happen, I sat down and reread all of them for the first time since they’d gone off to the printer and found myself… underwhelmed. I felt this incredible pressure to try — and this sounds like the implication is “oh, I don’t try that hard with anything else” and I don’t mean it like that — but I felt like this was the book that’d made my bones and it needed to be the absolute best thing I was capable of creating. I suspect if it wasn’t time to go, I’d still be rewriting. I had to figure out what it was, and what the language was. You should see the script: there were all kinds of effects in there that just didn’t work on the comic page. A high degree of experimentation. I had this big brick of marble and I had to get rid of all the shit that wasn’t Casanova.
If you’re determined to “live up” to something, does it mean more time staring at a blank page, or being more open to that experimentation?
I think I’m a better rewriter than I am writer. I had to take a stab at it and bark up a tree. I ended up throwing away about sixty pages of script — or reworking them so radically they might as well have been thrown out. You have to let yourself suck. Take a look at it. See if there’s anything salvageable. And other books would come out and I’d feel compelled to up my game. I’d feel like: this was good enough two months ago, but now this new thing exists in the world so I need to push harder, find something else. It took so long that I was able to be influenced while I was writing it.
Can you name some of those influences?
Any time there’s a new issue of Love and Rockets, I want to shave my head and change my name — especially the last two volumes. Bulletproof Coffin, by David Hine and Shaky Kane, is really tremendous. I moved to Portland and for the first time in eleven years I live in a town with not just one but multiple great comic book stores. I was exposed to things that I’d heard or read about but never had the chance to see. If ‘n Oof by Brian Chippendale. Powr Mastrs by C.F. Things that I’m forgetting… something Force? I’ve got two kids, and I might as well be stoned all the time as far as my memory goes.
Hey, I loved the last issue of Something Force.
Fuck you! [Laughs] Something Force! By That Guy! That issue where something happened, or not! I’m just going to go ahead and clear off the space on my mantle for that Eisner. But also influences from my Marvel work: spending time with Steve Gerber’s work, or some of the stuff that Don McGregor was doing. Even if it wouldn’t necessarily work today, in the same way that a shot-for-shot remake of Citizen Kane today with modern cameras and modern actors would just be weird. It all percolated, old stuff and new stuff alike. Some of it was very predictable in its influence, some of it was very out there. And honestly, too, just having kids changes you. Life itself influences and changes you. The whole thing is autobiographical. Just living life and trying to process it.
If Casanova is so autobiographical — despite being so fantastical — did going back and rereading it feel like earlier incarnations of Matt Fraction were staring at you out of the page?
Sure. It’s weird because I see the stuff that nobody else sees. I know everything. Stuff that I would never admit in a million years I see laid bare in a naked and awful way. It’s weird going back and reading it and remembering where it all came from and how it got there. If anything, I think Casanova has become an extension of my immune system, my psychic immune system if nothing else. Volume Three remains as nakedly autobiographical as ever — and yet it’s so very disguised that nobody but me could tell.
But there is the backmatter in each issue of Casanova, and what you write there is pretty naked, too. I remember — back reading Volume One — thinking there was a disjunction between the pop art adventures in the front and these earnest statements in the back.
Yeah, you’re not wrong.
It clicked for me reading the new backmatter in the reprints, though. You talk about other writers and artists and filmmakers, but you don’t frame it as a Tarantino look-at-everything-I-know thing. You begin by talking about the death of a friend. It’s all about the things we love, right? There’s nothing more sincere than that.
I’ve used this metaphor before – and I hope it wasn’t in our first interview, because that’d be really embarrassing — but when I was a kid we moved around a lot. I was always the new kid. I remember I bought a Watchmen shirt, and every time I would have new first day at school I would wear that shirt as a kind of signal flare for anyone else who might be into comics. I’d make sure there was a Batman button on my backpack, or Spider-Man, or whatever. It was just sending up flares, looking for other people in my tribe. It’s gotten so much easier now. My comics are all about trying to make friends, because I don’t know how to talk to people. [Laughs] And I think you can see that I hated Casanova‘s backmatter from the get-go. For whatever reason, I didn’t realize that: dummy, it’s your book. You can do whatever the fuck you want. I thought I was locked into this arrangement. There’s now an actual letters column in Volume Three which I really enjoy doing. It’s a conversation. This is what it should always have been, sort of like in the back of Cerebus. A dialogue. I’m much more interested in talking to people in the tribe than just continually trying to convince you I’m a worthwhile human being.
Did you ever get any “shut the fuck up about your emotional angst and make Casanova shoot more people in the face” emails?
I was told that I was just another boring fucking hipster bitching about not being able to have a baby and I should shut the fuck up. This was about my wife’s miscarriage. Or then there’s the whole “nobody hates hipsters more than hipsters,” you know? Or “how dare you believe that anything you do is worthy of being discussed?” That it somehow reeked of me saying — and this is the dumbest thing in the universe — “I’m cool. It’s okay, guys. I’m super cool.” If anything, I think it’s the fucking opposite. But between outing myself as an alcoholic and addict in recovery and writing about the miscarriage, I’ve been in contact with so many wonderful, amazing, wounded yet resilient souls that it makes you feel like we’re going to be okay as a people. For the three pricks that I want to punch in the face there have been a hundred beautiful fucking beings that poured out of the woodwork to show me that they too had that particular Batman button on their backpack, you know what I mean? That’s incredibly meaningful. I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again. To be able to reach out to someone, to someone who had a similar experience or realized they had a problem? It means a lot.
Do you have a particular dislike of the addicted and tortured artist cliché?
I loathe it. It is monstrous. It has killed my friends. I knew people who are dead now because they believed that without being fucked up they couldn’t create, couldn’t express themselves, couldn’t live. This cult of bullshit that surrounds these dead kids — and make no mistake, Kurt Cobain, Jimmy Hendrix, they were children. I think about what I knew at twenty-seven and I didn’t know fucking anything. I’ve gained the wisdom to realize I know nothing about wisdom. We just went through all this stuff again with Amy Winehouse. It’s one of the worst fictions of pop culture. It’s worse than Kangaroo Jack. It’s monstrous bullshit and it kills people.
I also reread all of Casanova recently, and I didn’t come away disappointed like you. I actually found a lot more in it than my first time around — especially how the mood shifts dramatically over the two volumes.
And you’ve read the first of Volume Three?
Yeah. It was far sadder than I was expecting.
Yeah. Shit gets heavy.
Casanova is a kind of teflon star in Volume One — violence moves around him but he seems almost immune to it. Volume Two seems to be about consequences, trying to ensure that things matter even in a comic book world where it can always be so easy to start over. Was that always the idea?
That’s very much part of the micro and macro conception of the book. It’s deliberate. I’m glad that worked for you. In Volume Three, all the chickens come home to roost. I don’t know a better cliché to use. Casanova is a guy who has bills to pay. I love the glitz and the glamour and the sex and the energy, but I wanted to see what happens when the check comes. It’s about growing up. It’s reportage just a moment behind me — as I grow up, it grows up.
Was that built into the book’s DNA from the beginning? To take a sexy interdimensional spy and slowly pick him apart?
Yeah, and then he comes back together again. But I didn’t realize how autobiographical it would become.
I did love the irony — if it’s irony, I can never tell what irony is anymore — that in this story about forcing the past to be the past, unchanged, you couldn’t resist going back and tweaking the very last page of Volume Two in the reprints.
Ultimately it was recognizing that contradiction and saying “fuck it, I’m going to do it!” I don’t believe in asking the boys to rework or redraw, and I could’ve lived with it if it was any other page but the last page. I was worried there was a different read than I’d intended. So with tongue firmly in cheek and sense of irony firmly in check, we George Lucased it a little bit. It was pretty minor, and the ending I intended is much clearer now. Maybe Moon’s original interpretation was just more optimistic than mine. I don’t know. I needed it to be more ambivalent than it was.
Last time we talked I didn’t mention Casanova‘s artist at all — which I felt terrible about afterwards. My defense would be that, to me, Casanova somehow feels like the work of a single entity even with you writing and two regular artists. Is that a compliment?
Absolutely! Oh my god. I literally just sat up in my chair as though you were offering me a cookie. That’s tremendous. And I think it speaks to the level of communication the three of us have, a sort of Brother-from-Another-Mother thing. Like when my wife saw the color pages [of the reprinted issues] for the first time, she said: “Did you know it was going to look this good?” And I said: “Yeah, I just didn’t know how to tell you.” But the three of us knew. We knew what it’d look like. And we had to find Cris [Peter, the colorist], god bless her, who understood what we meant. Now we’re a family, the five of us, with Cris and Dustin [Harbin, the letterer]. Alejandro [Arbona], our editor, is kind of the Reuben Kincaid to our Partridge Family, keeping the bus on the road. Our weird little band of Lost Boys is growing, and it feels great. Now I can write in the script to Cris and Dustin, and they’re as active collaborators as anyone. Team Casanova is a ladder with no top and no bottom. It’s unlike any other book I’ve worked on.
Do you tailor your writing for what brother is drawing which chunk of Casanova?
Sure. I do that for all my writing. For Marvel, I just wrote a script when I didn’t know who was going to draw it, and it was really weird. Really awkward. My scripts are all like letters anyway so it always helps to know who you’re writing for. And you get better with it over time.
Volume One had more of a clean, pop art style; Volume Two felt dirtier. Much, much dirtier.
Well, Gabriel uses a pen and Fabio uses a brush. So there’s just that understanding on a root level, the tactile reality of how the art was going to change things.
Last time, I asked you about the difference between Casanova 16-page issues and your Marvel work — if the full 22 pages in your superhero stuff felt like all the extra time in the world. And now I’m going to do something horrible and quote your answer back to you.
This is fascinating.
“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.”
I still agree with that! What’s interesting is that we’re in a time where the economy has changed and the comic format has changed too. They’re 20 pages now. I’m coming to the end of my first cycle as a professional working in comics, and it feels like when you go to a party and there are conversations in progress that you sort of join. You go with the flow for a while, and then when you’ve been there for long enough you get to bring up your own topic. I feel like I’m there. Fear Itself, especially, is kind of the end of the cycle for me. It’s done in the style that the party was in when I arrived. Over the last year I’ve had to push away from that. The beast is changing now and — this is scary — I think mainstream comics are getting a little more like Casanova.
Say you decided to write straight prose from now on. What lessons would you take with you from comics?
There’s an inherited, and inherent, act structure that comics have. The illusory third act is really a second act that never ends. They constantly vacillate between the first and second acts. I suspect structure would be my biggest thing. Allowing myself to write with a novelist’s structure, and not just with Beginning / Middle / Fake End. It’s why there’s that bullshit saw of [wildly sarcastic voice] “Oh, everything’s going to change forever, huh?” Well, that’s what comics are supposed to do! That’s the illusion, that’s the gag. Are things going to change? Well, they’d better, because they come out every thirty days. If nothing’s changing, you’re just reprinting the same story again and again.
With Casanova, you can do whatever the hell you want. But no matter how much you mutate iconic superheroes, at some point they’ll probably reset…
Exactly! Fear Itself is kind of all I have to say about the illusion of death in comics. It’s my Houdini theory: that nobody went to see Houdini because they wanted to see Houdini die. People went to see Houdini because they wanted to see Houdini almost die. But they wanted to see him get out of it; they wanted to see the escape. Comics are escape fiction — not escapist fiction, but escape fiction. We want to see how our ideal selves get out of messes that we find ourselves in, literally or metaphorically. It’s never about the death. The death is never real in comics. It’s always about the return, the escape. That’s why we read them. And that it’s been turned into a marketing ploy is a gag! Houdini always has the key under his tongue. That’s the joke.
Would you say the same about Casanova? When the last story was about beating consequences into these characters’ lives?
I think that’s a conversation we can have after Volume Three. I don’t want to give anything away.
Do you want to drop some key words for what people can expect from new Casanova?
You’ve read the first issue. What would you say?
Yeah. “Weight.” “Heavy.” The series was designed as a trilogy, and then Volume Four sort of stands alone, and then there’s a second trilogy. This is the third act. The end of the beginning.
Is there hope?
There’s always hope. The good news is you will experience true bliss. The bad news is you will only experience it for a moment.