Graphic Lit: An interview with Matt Fraction
A truncated version of this interview originally ran in the Patriot-News way back on June 1 of this year. Don't ask me why it's taken so long to post the full thing here. I have no excuses.
One of the rising stars at Marvel Comics these days is writer Matt Fraction, who in such monthly titles as "Punisher War Journal" and "The Immortal Iron Fist" (written with "Captain America" scribe Ed Brubaker), has won over readers with his smart, pulpish, tongue-in-cheek sensibilities.
But Fraction's most personal and best project is easily the ongoing series "Casanova," a heady, absurdist take on the super-spy genre that also manages to reflect upon such themes as family, maturity and responsibility.
The title character is Casanova Quinn, the black sheep from a long line of renowned government operatives. Thanks to the machinations of the evil Newman Xeno, Quinn finds himself transported to an alternative timeline where he is actually the good son and his twin sister is the bad girl.
Forced to become a double agent for Xeno, Quinn must reconcile with his difficult father and figure out his place in this new world while going on some truly odd adventures.
The first six issues of the comic have just been lovingly collected into a hardcover entitled "Luxuria." It seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk to Fraction about the comic and his work in general.
Q: Give me a little bit of background on "Casanova." How did you get the idea to do the book?
A: It’s a story that I’ve always wanted to tell. The genre has always been a favorite of mine. I always knew that I wanted to tell a story in this field in this capacity so I was always kind of heading towards it.
It was kind of a conflagration of a few different events: What I was reading about at the time, what I was thinking about at the time and where I was just in my life. Warren Ellis is a friend of mine and was working on developing "Fell" in the streamline format. We were talking an awful lot and it all congealed as one idea. I had a day job at the time — this is all very unsexy and uninteresting — but I thought, “Well, surely I can write 16 pages a month. Surely that’s no problem, with my full time job I can write 16 pages a month.” Little did I know these were in fact the most difficult 16 pages I would ever write. This book takes me three times as long as anything else I’ve ever written. It routinely beats me up. It’s the most unforgiving, mericless and brutal book I’ve ever worked on. So, ha-ha.
My brain was in the right place in the right time. When I wanted to start writing a monthly book I sat down and this fell out.
Q: When you say it’s so hard to write, can you give me some examples?
A: It’s 16 pages, which is six pages short of your average monthly comic. It’s two bucks so it’s cheaper, but I feel obligated to not make anyone feel ripped off for that two dollars. I’m amazed that I have any kind of audience; that anybody thinks anything I have to say is worth reading, let alone paying money for the privilege. So I want to ensure that they get their money’s worth.
There’s such a move toward decompression and writing for the collection these days in comics that the satisfying monthly is kind of lost.
The second arc takes a different approach to this, but in the first arc any issue could have been five, six, seven issues of any of the top 10 selling comics in the country. It’s just the way those books are paced. I was trying to condense six issues of story into 16 pages.
If you’ve read the back patter, you know it’s always kind of a little more than just what’s going on the surface. I was trying to figure out how to articulate this stuff in the language of Casanova. My life and my experience and my ideas and whatever was fascinating me at the time.
Q: It’s definitely one of the densest comics I’ve read in many years.
A: I don’t know if you’ve ever read "American Flagg," but it was really one of the most formative books I read as a kid and it was a book that I had to read three times. I may as well have picked up "Gravity’s Rainbow." It refused to insult my intelligence.
I wanted to write a book that treated its audience like co-conspirators. I wanted the audience on our side. I wanted to invite people in and engage them. I think subtlety is a lost art. I hate exposition and I hate it when “Suddenly here we are explaining the plot for three pages.” I hate that stuff.
Q: Is that how you came up with the little asides where you or one of the editors pop up to explain things?
A: Yeah, but it’s always completely the opposite of anything that’s of actual value. It never has any use. It never explains what’s going on.
Q: You read a lot of serial comics these days and you’re done in ten minutes. But "Casanova" is something you definitely have to sit down and pay attention to. You can’t do your laundry while you’re reading it.
A: There are lots of laundry books out there. They’re really great, and they sell a billion copies and that’s awesome. I wanted our thing to be different, to give our readers a different experience.
Q: What got you interested in writing for comics in the first place? I don’t know much, I’m ashamed to say, about your work before "Casanova."
A: Well, I’ve always been in the words and pictures business. I started school going after a fine arts degree and then transferred into film ... going after a film degree from a couple of different schools. After I dropped out, some friends and I started a motion graphics design animation company, making films and music videos and commercials for a few years. I’ve always been really interested in telling stories with words and pictures. I’ve always read comics and it just occurred to me one day I was going to do it. I was maybe 18. I wrote hundreds of pages nobody ever, ever saw from the safety of my own house. Just quietly practicing. Trying to learn my craft.
Q: You strike me as someone who really has a good feel for the history of comics. I was thinking of your recent post about Arnold Drake when he passed away and you mentioned Alex Toth. It seems like you’re very aware and appreciative of American comics.
A: Yeah definitely. I worked retail for a long time and it was as much an educational opportunity as it was a chance to get a killer employee discount.
Q: You mentioned day job. What was your recent day job?
A: It was doing the motion graphics stuff. It was a great job, but it was the kind of job that on a moment’s notice would send me to Tokyo for two weeks. Or suddenly I’d have to go to New York and work out of Manhattan for a month.
The first two issues of "Casanova" is a perfect example. I was in New York directing the animation of six HP commercials. I actually finished the first issue of "Casanova" in New York City, working remotely.
Q: Are you an accomplished artist in your own right then?
A: No, I absolutely am not. I am a frustrated artist. There’s muscle atrophy. When I stopped painting and went to film school ... when I closed that toolbox, those muscles atrophied. It’s not like riding a bike. It’s best for everyone that I put down the paintbrush and picked up the camera.
Q: Tell me a bit more specifically about some of the inspiration for "Casanova." I was wondering what influenced you in making something that’s so layered and detailed.
A: Sure. Well, I’ve always loved the super-spy genre. I remember the first James Bond movie I ever saw. Bond movies were always on around the house, in the background. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only and my dad saying “Well, you know there’s a lot of James Bond movies” and I said “really?” There’s three guys that have played James Bond just blew my mind. I’ve always just loved that.
I love it when pens turn into missiles and surfboards turn into hang gliders. It’s all great. I got into this as a sales pitch but their superheroes always put on capes and mine always put on suits. It’s always been a thing for me and I wish there were more comics like "Casanova." That’s really where it came from was writing a comic that I would like to read.
The time-travel stuff. That came from wanting to do a book about identity and wanting to do one of those big, crazy science-fiction tropes but in a cavalier, eh fashion. I didn’t want to just do a super-spy book, I wanted to make a new wave film. I wanted to do Truffaut’s James Bond. Like "Day for Night." I wanted to make a comic book that celebrated comic books and you could play with all of these ridiculous, absurd ideas and just throw them away because it doesn’t matter.
Don’t worry how the casino floats. Don’t worry how a ship that big can fly. It just flies. I’m not a big Jerry Cornelius fan. I knew we would get killed if we didn’t acknowledge that we know of Jerry Cornelius. It’s sort of unconventional. I wanted to do a story about twins and identity and who you are and who you perceive yourself to be and who you present to the world. I can use all these ridiculous science-fiction ideas as a convenient in to that.
Q: You talked about how "Casanova" reflects your own life. Can you talk about the autobiographical aspects of "Casanova?"
A: Ultimately it’s a book about a disaffected young man trying to find his identity and learning as he grows up that his adult ass can’t cash the checks he used. It’s the kind of thing we all go through when we figure out what do we want to be when we grow up? Who are we really? What are we doing here? How beholden are we to our parents — or any kind of authority figure — no one has the right to define who we want to be. It’s about family and friendship and doing what you love versus what you have to do. And those kind of broad thoughts you have growing up.
Q: One of the things I like about the book is how you break the fourth wall. Can you talk for a little bit about why it’s important for you to break that fourth wall?
A: We’ve all read the same things, we all know the tropes. We’re doing a black, white and one color book that’s 16 pages. It’s about a spy who may or may not be having an incestuous relationship with his twin sister who may or may not really be his sister. The characters barely repeat themselves. It’s unforgiving, it takes no chances. It does not care if you follow along with us. If you’re with us, great.
People who love the book, loooove the book. I’ve received the most astonishing responses. And the people who hate the book, hate me. They don’t hate the book, they take it personally. As though I was coming over to their house and calling them morons. It’s a difficult ride if you’re not into it. And anything we can do to acknowledge that and celebrate that? Fuck it, let’s do it. Have the characters talk to the camera and not do it in that way that has contempt for the reader and the medium. let’s reclaim that tool. Let’s use it in a way that celebrates the form and celebrates the medium.
It’s a pretty uncompromising book so anything we can do to lighten the mood I think we should do.
Q: Is there a general complaint from people that hate the book?
A: It’s basically I don’t get it. Which is fine. Great. I appreciate that people try. But that’s fine. A comic writer of some renown once told me that comic readers are like Yankee fans. If you win they’re gonna complain, and if you lose, they’re gonna complain. The comics Internet is like sports radio. There’s always something to bitch about. There are people that love to complain.
Q: I would compare them more to Philadelphia Eagles fans, but ...
A: You can win the super bowl and there’s going to be some prick on Monday going, “you did wrong.”
People don’t get it, that tends to be the complaint. Which is fine. I appreciate that you tried. But people also tend to feel personally insulted that they don’t get it, because they maybe realize that they should. I think people have forgotten how to read intuitively. I think comics have beaten the intuition out of their audience. They’re so used to being spoon-fed and given everything that the minute you introduce subtlety or don’t say everything out loud, the minute you don’t open the box and show us Gwenyth Paltrow’s head inside, you lose people.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the $1.99 format. How important do you think it’s been to "Casanova’s" success?
A: I think it’s been sort of backhandedly successful. I think retailers ordered more because they were cheap or something. Some retailer think I could be selling a $6 book in this slot. It’s not worth the effort to lift the box because my profit margin is so low. I will allow you to evaluate that statement independently. I think it got it on more shelves. Retailers said “It’s only two bucks, we can order twice as many. Let's give it a shot” Every single cold sale, every single person that walked by my table at Heroes, when I say it’s only $2, they buy it. Every single one. And I’ve sold by hand more than 300 copies of the book at those two shows. I sold crazy amounts of those books.
If we were a $3 full-color book, and we made the numbers we made, everyone would be making really comfortable money off of it. I don’t know that we’d be selling in those numbers though. I would hazard to guess that we would be selling 2,500, maybe 3,000 copies if we were a $3.50 book. But we’re a one color book and we’re selling 9,000 copies. It’s not bad, but it’s two bucks.
Q: It seems like the $2 price is a great promotion. We’re talking about collecting for the trade, but it seems like a great way to drum up the press for it. Feel free to disagree, but I guess one of the tests for how successful it is will be how well the trade does.
A: The numbers of the trade were enough that Image thought we should release a hardcover. That’s pretty cool. It’s going to be a great package. It will be worth it to people who have been waiting for the trade. There’s a lot of value out there, for both the people who have been waiting and for the people who have followed.
Q: How did you get Gabriel Ba on the book?
A: I went after his brother Fabio. Fabio and Gabriel talked amongst themselves and Fabio decided Gabriel was the guy to draw it. I was like “OK, do I get a vote?” (laughs) It was their decision and god bless them. Gabriel is amazing. No regrets.
Q: He seems integral to the book. I can’t see another artist laying out the story as well as he does.
You mentioned Warren Ellis. I wondered who some of your other influences were.
A: I don’t even know that I would consider Warren an influence writing for comics. I certainly read many of his books it’s hard to say not, but my influences ... I love Jim Woodring. I can’t imagine there’s another creator out there as different as me, but Jim Woodring’s work never fails to inspire me to want to just go work. The early Stray Bullets stuff from Dave Lapham. Hugo Pratt, Daniel Clowes, the EC guys, David Mazzuchelli, Paul Pope is really huge. A chunk of the Will Eisner. Matsumoto. The Hernandez brothers. Grant Morrison. Now I’m just looking around my room.
Q: That’s a pretty eclectic line-up.
A: it’s not really apparant. You look at "Casanova" and go oh, he likes Gilbert Hernandez.
Q: Actually, I could see that, especially some of his more experimental comics.
Let’s talk about Marvel for a minute. How did you get to work there?
A: Axel Alonzo knew my work and was a fan of a graphic novel I did called Last of the Independents. It was a crime book and that got me into his office. And I started pitching things to him and his assistant Warren Simons. That kind of got me into the Marvel neck of the woods.
I pitched a lot. I think I wrote easily a couple hundred pages of pitches and scripts that nobody ever saw but Warrant or Axel. A wolverine short story was the only thing I had to show for two, two and a half years of pitching.
And I swear to god, he called me a year and a half ago “There’s a big thing, civil war going on, and we’re going to relaunch 'Punisher Civil War Journal' and I think you’re the guy to do it.” And that was it. I wrote the opening scene, with Stilt-Man being shot in the taint, just as like a practice run. I hadn’t written straight superheros and I wanted to find the tone. I knew I wanted to do this black funny thing. I wrote six pages as a sample and a one-sheet and that was how I got in at Marvel.
Q: How does the experience of writing for Marvel compare to something like Casanova?
A: With Casanova I can bend or break the rules. If you’re on Team Casanova, you know what to expect and we can play some games, I can take some chances and lose you and anger you and it’s OK. We’ll all be in good shape.
With Marvel you’re beholden to the property. you’re beholden to the shareholder, you’re beholden to editorial. There’s a degree of responsibility you have. It’s a different experience but I like it. It’s part of the reason I wanted to do it. It’s not just “Whoo hoo Marvel.” I grew up reading Marvel stuff but I’m not that guy. I had a really awesome day job that let me go make music videos for Feint and co-direct a video with Kanye West, so I never freelancer-hungry. I was never that guy, “you have to let me write my sub-mariner series and here’s why!” I was always kind of chill about it. If it didn’t work I would walk away and everyone was cool. I wanted to go after Punisher like I did because I wanted to work with Axel. Axel Alonso is one of those editors. If you look at his CV, it’s really impressive. I wanted to know what it was like not just to work with an editor, but to work with that editor. They let me in the candy store in this major, major crossover that’s actually going to change the status quo in this really profound, really big ways. Yes, do it, now’s the time.
Q: It’s a crossover that got mocked really hard though ...
A: Yeah, and Marvel cried all the way to the fucking bank. It sold like half a million copies. It’s Yankees fans.
Q: I was going to say though that your run on Punisher seemed to be the only instance where people were actually saying favorable things.
A: Is that true?
Q: That’s my impression. I wasn’t following any of the tie-ins, but I’d read the blogosphere reviews and they were all really negative, especially on the mini-series itself, but War Journal seemed to be one of the few that actually had positive reviews.
A: Wow. I actually went into ego quarantine when it came out. I haven’t read, I haven’t been looking, so I didn’t know. That’s awesome, that’s great. I didn’t want to turn into one of those crazy on the Internet guys. But that’s hilarious.
With this new thing that’s started up I wanted to look because ...
Q: Are you talking about this new series you’re starting?
A: The thing with Frank’s costume change. I looked a little bit because I knew that it was coming when they offered me the book. I wanted to be a part of one of those things where they release an image and there’d be 200 people screaming. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted a taste of that. I peeked a little bit and people were going apoplectic over a single , contextless image, and it was hysterical to me.
Q: So on the whole it sounds like you’ve had a pretty positive experience working at Marvel.