The Same, But Different: Matt Fraction on the Return of ‘Casanova’ [Interview]
The first Matt Fraction comic I ever read was "Casanova." Most people know Fraction best, of course, as the writer of books like "Uncanny X-Men," "Iron Man" and "Thor," but before his meteoric rise in the mainstream, there was this little indie comic he did at Image Comics with artists -- and twin brothers -- Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon about a dimension-tripping superspy named Casanova Quinn, and it blew my mind so hard that I have never stopped picking up the pieces.
"Casanova" is a hell of a comic. It's about to be rereleased in full color through Marvel's creator-owned Icon imprint next Wednesday, and while the simplest summary is that it's an espionage/sci-fi book, its real identity is as a difficult to pin down as the the true selves of its characters, who switch forms, upload their minds into robots, and confront their own dopplegangers on a semi-regular basis.
It's also a lot of comic, a book you read slowly, one you buy and not borrow and read over and over because it gives you so goddamn much. It contains multitudes: It is the hero who jumps out of a plane in a hail of bullets; it is the man whose mind has cracked open like an egg, quietly going mad in the corner; it is the most beautiful woman in the world. It comes in at the eyes and the heart and the brain all at once, and like any revelation, it takes a while to take in. It's taken me years, and it still shifts and quivers and gleams in ways I never expected every time I hold it up to the light again.
In advance of the release, assistant editor Caleb Goellner and I sat down with Matt Fraction at a sushi bar in Portland, Ore. where small, manicured tuna rolls and bowls of strawberries decorated with anime girls circled endlessly on a conveyor belt in front of us; we talked about what it's been like to transform from an indie creator to helming some of the biggest books at Marvel and being the man who they tapped to write their first day and date release, but most of all about "Casanova," the book he still considers his calling card.Caleb Goellner: For a lot of your early fans, "Casanova" was a sort of hallmark -- the book where people got to know who you were. The four years since then have been pretty transformational for your career, so what's it like looking back now at the first two arcs of the book as you prepare to rerelease it?
Matt Fraction: There's the political answer that I should give, because it's press and promotion and trying to get people excited about it, and then there's the real answer. I'll give you both: It's been great to revisit it and finally get to remaster it and present it in the way we knew it could be. The colors look amazing; the lettering is perfect. It's great to get it where we knew it could be and where it should have been all along.
The book – when I had a chance to write it, I never thought I was going to write another comic book. I thought, well this is it -- they're going to let me do six issues. I'm going to be a guy who maybe every couple years writes a comic or graphic novel. So I wanted to write the book I wanted to read. If you never got a chance to do it again, if you never got a chance to speak through this particular microphone again, what would you say? I wanted to have everything I ever wanted to read in a comic again. I wanted to write the book that was perfect for me, that didn't exist, that had everything I ever wanted to read in a comic again. If it found an audience, great. And if not, it didn't matter because I wasn't sticking around – look at me, who was gonna give me a job?
The thing I was most struck by when I reread it was the mania and the fearlessness of a guy who had at that point written 160 published pages of comics, something like that? Just going insane and not caring that it wasn't going to be turned into a movie. Not just taking a spec screenplay and turning it into a comic. It was so personal and anti-commercial, and it spoke to my interests... The thing I was most struck by was, "wow, you really went for it."
But... it is so incredibly personal, and not just the back matter.. I know that it's t*ts and guys in suits and ray guns and explosions, but it's so incredibly personal that I was embarrassed by how much was out there.
Laura Hudson: You said something similar to me about the back matter a few years ago, while "Casanova" was still coming out. But I thought those personal stories were very powerful, and for the people reading the book at the time I think it's part of what made them connect with you and your work.
MF: I feel that ultimately it's a little too much of the singer and not the song, and I'd much rather it was about the song. I'm so tired of talking about myself. I'm so tired of talking about myself. I sort of didn't understand the rules of the game, and I kind of thought that's what I had to do. And once I started, I thought, you can't change directions. I felt like I had to commit and see if through.
CG: Obviously things have changed for you because of all of the work you've done with Marvel and the spotlight that puts you under; do you ever wish you could still talk that personally to a smaller audience?
MF: No, not at all. I don't even want to talk about the work anymore. I just feel like I'm through that, and the work can speak for itself. And Volume 3 is as different from Volume 2 as Volume 1 is -- it's a completely different piece of work, and because nothing with "Casanova" goes easy, it required learning how to write it again and invent it out of whole cloth. I don't need to be my own advocate anymore. I'd much rather advocate other stuff. It just feels over. It feels like something that I've done.
LH: Do you feel that way about your other early work, or just "Casanova"?
MF: It's very specific to "Casanova."
LH: When you revisit it, does it feel like going back to a personal place than going back to a piece of work?
MF: No, because I know it's stuff that nobody sees but me. So it's not, "oh my God, they're all going to laugh at you." But I don't know how to not write "Casanova" like this. Volume 3 is still incredibly personal, just like everything else. It's still all out there; that hasn't changed. The nature of the work – the nature of trying to parse my life and this how I'm doing it – that aspect of the book hasn't changed.
LH: There was a strong metatextual commentary on the medium of comics itself that ran through the first two volumes of Casanova. Is that going to be in Volume 3 as well?
LH: Is that harder to do now, given your more prominent role in the comics industry?
MF: Yeah, absolutely. Again, I think it's just kind of in the DNA of what the book is. I was making music videos with Kanye West and Guided by Voices and commercials for Coke and Adidas with this group of guys [at MK12]. Then I started writing "Casanova" and the first line of "Casanova" is "I love my job, but it's a job."
LH: Do you see your work at Marvel as more of a "job" than making an indie book like "Casanova"?
MF: No, because ultimately still deadline driven. It's really easy to sit around and think about being a writer. I did it for years. And you'll never f*cking write a word. But I thought about it a lot. I wrote about writing a lot.
LH: Do you think that was productive at all?
MF: No. Absolutely not. Just f*cking write. If I'd spent the time writing that I spent thinking that I wished I was a writer... You know how you become a writer? You write. It's fear. It's how you psyche yourself into it. It's sitting on top of the slide saying, "I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it." The scary slide or whatever. Can you tell I have kids? I'm using scary slide metaphors. If I had a finished script for every piece I wrote about writing... But it's not like you can beat yourself up. I wrote criticism for years, and a big part of how I got my start was when the comics internet was kinda born, I was one of the guys yakking around. I know that not everyone in the world read [the online comics magazine] Savant, but everyone in comics did, because I still hear about it. Between that and [the CBR column] Basement Tapes, I'm still making amends. Everyone was reading it, because when you wanted to dick around at work and you worked in comics, what else was there to read then?
And I still hear about it. I met somebody was drunk as a lord at a party in San Diego, and he came up to me and grabbed me and said through slurred whiskey breath, "Stay angry. Don't let these motherf*ckers grind you down or tell you what to do. You stay angry. Do it. Don't be afraid, man." And that's when I realized that first of all, oh my god, people are reading this who aren't my friends, and second, oh my God that guy's bitter. I knew there were fences that needed mending. At the end of that, I made the decision that I want to contribute to the things that I'm just picking apart. So all of that lead to this. I wouldn't take it back and of course I wouldn't replace it because "Casanova" wouldn't be the book it is without it. Is it different than doing "X-Men" or "Iron Man" or "Thor"? Yes. But "Iron Man" is different from doing "X-Men" or "Casanova," and doing "Thor" is different – it's different muscle groups, a different machine in the weight room. "Casanova" is satisfying in unique ways that those books aren't, but also, there's something satisfying about "Thor" and "Iron Man" and "X-Men" that "Casanova" doesn't have. It all balances out.
LH: Is "Casanova" something that you've feel like you've been missing since it went on hiatus?
MF: Yeah, but I think there's a grotesque misconception about editorial mandate. I don't do well being told how to play in the sandbox. I don't excel in that environment.
LH: And you're not in that environment at Marvel?
MF: Yeah, so it's not like, "it must feel like you've got the handcuffs off!" There's no handcuffs. I mean maybe – if you want to tell a story about the rights and wrongs of late-term abortion, maybe Batman isn't the book to do that, for example... It's not like, "Dammit, Marvel won't let me tell my abortion rights story in X-Men!" It's not the place.
CG: In terms of "Casanova" Volume 3, was there a point when you put "Casanova" away completely and then came back to it, or was it something where you never stopped writing?
MF: You never stop taking notes, but it stopped being on the front burner. I've never made a dime off it. I have no money in my bank account that came from "Casanova." And what money did finally come, which didn't start coming until Volume 2, goes to [artists Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba]. I didn't make any money on "Five Fists [of Science]." The only money I made off "Last of the Independents" came out of the [film] option. These are the financial realities. So when people say, "you should just go write your creator-owned stuff!" -- I wish I could be Robert Kirkman and get that kind of attention on my creator-owned stuff, but ultimately the reality is that I don't want to work in advertising anymore. I want to work in comics. So here's how you get paid for writing comics, you know what I mean? Not to put it in grotesquely financial terms.
Everything the [Kieron] Gillen "Phonogram" piece said – I had literally the same experience. And what happens is that we put "Casanova" out, and Marvel says, "You shouldn't be work for spec, you should be writing for us!" Or Dark Horse says to the twins [Ba and Moon], you shouldn't be drawing for spec, you should be drawing for us!" What are you going to do, are you going to draw for nothing, or are you going to keep your lights on? It's a basic thing. So it wasn't a front burner priority anymore, but it's always been noodling around. There's other creator-owned stuff too that I've been working on, but it just hasn't been published. So it's... pretty restless.
LH: I was a little surprised to hear that you were going full-color in the Icon reprints of "Casanova." Didn't you pay full-color prices to begin with for the single color tones – blue and green – of the first two volumes?
MF: Which we didn't know until two days before the book came out.
LH: Would you have gone for full color if you'd known it cost the same?
MF: If had enough time – if we'd known... I don't know. I don't think so. I think it would have been at the twins insistence, because I remember suggesting at one point that we'd move more if we were in color. And I remember getting an email back from Gabriel in caps: "COLOR IS THE DEVIL." So that was my response when anybody said, "If you were in full color" – COLOR IS THE DEVIL. And then Gabriel worked with Dave Stewart, and then COLOR IS THE DEVIL... except for Dave Stewart. And they realized-- I know the three of us knew what it would look like. And we'd explain to people what it would look like, and they-- When my wife saw it she said, "Did you know it was going to look this good?" And I said, yes, I absolutely knew it was going to look this good. But I didn't know how to tell people it was going to look this good. It's brain-melting. Somehow it's even weirder. We've gone full color and it's even weirder. Cris Peter did the colors, hand-picked by the twins, and she does amazing things. Goddamn, it's so beautiful.
LH: There's one point in Volume two where it flips back to a moment of green after an entire arc of blue – will a moment like that retain its significance in the recoloring?
MF: It's weird; it's still very much a green book, but there's pinks and blue and red. It's like the [Zhang Yimou] movie "Hero," where each sequence had a color theme. It has a full range of color, but there's still a central core. And when there are flashbacks, there's a little gag where when Zeph goes back and explained how all this stuff works it goes to all one color – just the black and white and green for two panels as a referential thing.
LH: Following the title theme of the seven deadly sins, will Volume 3 still be Avarice?
MF: "Avaricia." It kind of completes the trilogy. Volume 4 is just a standalone volume, and 5, 6, and 7 are a separate trilogy.
CG: So you still plan on doing all seven volumes?
MF: I hope. I play around with the idea of maybe trying to do Volume 4 as a standalone graphic novel, but I don't know if we could get Fabio paid for that. Volume 3 is kind of the opposite of Volume 1 in a lot of ways. By the end of Volume 2 all the secrets are kind of on the table and all the stuff that's hidden comes out. And Volume 3 is dealing with that. Cass is still working for Cornelius and he hates it.
LH: Cornelius still isn't acknowledging Cass as his son anymore?
MF: Yeah, he's just this sort of criminal that looks like his kid. Volume 3 is about cauterizing the wound of Newman Xeno... What they're doing at first is going around to the timelines that have been f*cked up by Casanova being stolen, and they discover that all the weirdness and confusing paradoxes and double-speak are damage; it's not supposed to make sense. It's what happens when someone is ripped through space-time – it causes this kind of hemorrhage... This is the reality of him paying the price for all the bullsh*t of Volume 1 and all of his swagger. He's depressed and unhappy. To put it in [terms of] "Boogie Nights," this is the part at Alfred Molina's house. This is where all the chickens come home to roost, when Volume 3 starts. But that still eight months from now or ten months from now, so we're a ways away.
LH: Why is there so much penance for Casanova? Why is he always paying for stuff?
MF: That is Volume 4: Why are you always paying for stuff? When do you get to go collect? That's ultimately where it's going.
CG: Do you find that starting a family and having kids has improved or tweaked your emotional intelligence as you relate to your characters in the book?
MF: I certainly understand the two sides of the argument a little bit better.
LH: What argument?
MF: Any argument between a parent and a child.
LH: It seems like there's been a strong theme of dads throughout--
MF: I don't know if it's so much dads, per se. It's much more about role models. It's very easy to articulate through fathers, but it's much more about heroes than dads. When you're a kid your dad is your first hero. So I suspect so, but I don't know if I'd be able to articulate in any real way. But my empathy and sympathy for my own parents has gone through the roof. Now I get it.
CG: Having a young daughter now as well as a son, did that like hit you in the gut and change anything that was going on?
MF: Not in "Casanova," much more in the Marvel stuff... Although Fabio was convinced that all the sex was happening in Volume 2 because [my wife] Kelly Sue was pregnant with Henry. I don't know that there was any correlation between the two, but he was like, "There was so much sex! I think it was because you had sex on the brain because there was a baby coming or that you were just thinking about getting laid all the time." That's Fabio's theory about Volume 2. But it wasn't meant to be like that.
CG: When Volume 2 wrapped up, you had a lot of other things starting to happen in other parts of your career. Are you glad that things turned out the way they did after the end of the second storyline -- and now with the relaunch?
MF: Umm, you know, being the guy that writes "Iron Man," "X-Men" and "Thor" is pretty sweet. In terms of promotional value, I went from being a complete unknown in the direct market to having at least some presence in the direct market and being a known quantity, which is nice. And the twins are a known quantity in the direct market, with like a dozen Eisners between us now. It's like the night that Michael Jordan scored 90 million and Scottie Pippen scored 1 and said 'I'm always going to remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I scored 100 points.' We've already seen the numbers; the numbers are better now than they've ever been and, yes, that's because it's at Marvel, but we wouldn't have gotten it at Marvel if I wasn't who I was. It's been infuriating for us creatively, but logistically this is what it has to be.
CG: Speaking of Marvel, in Volume 1, I noticed that the timeline 919 is 616 upside down.
MF: That's just pure coincidence. That's more about "One After 909"... It was a Beatles thing. Although "Casanova" started off as a son of Dominic Fortune pitch. At that point I'd put out a couple of books and Marvel said, you should pitch us stuff. So I said, "I know! The son of a character who's appeared in three and half comics!" ... Part of the pitch was a guy playing baccarat against M.O.D.O.K. in a flying casino. So why throw away good work? The E.M.P.I.R.E. and W.A.S.T.E. stuff isn't so much about Marvel as it as about the legacy of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and everything else.
...I feel like this is the closest to "Grendel" or "Transmet" or "Preacher" that I'm going to come, and I can talk about whatever my peculiar fanatic obsessions of that moment were. When I discovered that's what the idea was, that became the rule, the law of the land. Snippets of song lyrics. Each arc is so wildly different. I know plot-wise what happened but I never quite know how I'm going to get there or how it's going to come out of my mouth. That's decided moment to moment.
CG: As far as digital comics go; what kind of potential do you think there is, not only for your comics, but for the kind of stories you want to tell?
MF: As you say that, I look and I see three iPhones here at our table, and that means that the three of us all have comic shops in our hands. I think comics are going everywhere. Comics are going EVERYWHERE. Even if your parents had an iPhone and they could get a hold of it. I showed my Mom the stuff that they put up online on the Marvel store and she f*cking cried. It's great. I mean, how many iPhones are out there in the world? That's how many Marvel comics stores there are right now. I can say to friends of mine around the world, who have iPads, but don't have access to a comic shop. "Hey, my buddy in Taiwan teaching English. Pull out your iPad and you can buy my new book today.' And they do. There's a victory right there. It's amazing. That's where we're going. With the ["Iron Man" annual] -- when the iTunes store launched, albums were more expensive than singles. It's a step, and we're going to get there. But, it's coming eventually. Day to day and matching price will come.
LH: And Marvel's pushing it pretty hard, which is nice to see.
MF: I'm loving it. When they told me ["Invincible Iron Man" Annual #1] was going to happen, I kinda didn't believe it. I was like, "Really?" That story is so berserk, too.
LH: Did you know that they were going to use it to debut day and date releases as you were writing it?
MF: I found out during the writing of it. It took forever to write. When we were done -- the two pieces I've read the most in my career were the "[Sensational] Spider-Man" annual and this. Because clarity was key there, and it was a very complex kind of story. And this Mandarin thing is even more complicated. We knew we really had to buckle down; it had to be super get-able for everybody. The nature of the story is a story about stories: the truth and the lie, the old stories that have been told and the contradicting stories and the movies they made about the Mandarin -- all these different overlapping truths at once. We had to make sure everybody knew moment to moment where they were, and what was real, and what wasn't. There's a difference between a general comic reader and a civilian, so let's make this as accessible to civilians.
LH: If things do move towards day and date, isn't that an approach that people are going to have to starting taking more generally?
MF: You'd think. There are comics I can't read because they require a Ph.D in micro-continuity.
LH: I often think that if all I do is read comics and I still cannot read someone's comic, they're doing something wrong.
MF: I suspect one of the reasons I did as well as I did at Marvel as quickly as I did was because I was always trying to think about what my folks are going to get. How do you write the X-Men for a 60-year-old man or a 39-year-old woman. How do you write Iron Man for someone who thinks Iron Man might be a robot? ... That's where the X-Men captions come from with name, codename, superpower. I call them the Dad Caps. How does my dad know who these eighty people are? I suspect that helped me a lot.
CG: When you meet people and they talk about your body of work do you find that it's easier to fans if they bring up "Casanova"? Like maybe they understand you or your work better?
MF: No, not necessarily. I'm always amazed that anybody reads me, whether it's "Iron Man," "X-men" or "Casanova." I'm always amazed. My subtext moment to moment tends to be, are you f*cking with me? I mean, you really you read this?
LH: It always blows my mind when I run into, for example, a Bendis fan who hasn't read "Powers."
MF: Every show Brian does, he says someone comes up to him and says, "I'm your biggest fan!" And he says, "Oh, great! There's a new issue of 'Powers' coming out." And they go, "What's 'Powers'?" That is the nature of the direct market... It's always amazing to me that anybody reads any of my books.
LH: Do you mean "Casanova" or do you mean stuff like "Iron Man"?
MF: All of it. It's unbelievable. It's great, but it amazes me.
LH: One of the most powerful moments in the book for me is the end of Volume 2 where Casanova confronts Kubark, and there's that homoerotic tension between them because of what had changed, which I think was such an interesting way of playing with sexuality and identity. Did you get any blowback from that, or was that something that people mostly accepted?
MF: I didn't really get any blowback per se, but I didn't really go looking. I don't know. But again, we were selling so small at that time. It was such a boutique book. The people who were reading it really wanted to read it. You're not going to offend your family. I have such a weird relationship with the book. I'm happy that it's coming out, and I'm glad that people at Marvel as as proud about it as they are and as excited about it as they are, and they're letting us publish this ridiculous thing. And going forward the [artists] are going to get paid, and the letterer and colorist are getting paid. The book will be allowed to exist, and it'll reach more people than it did before. It still remains the kind of book that I wish existed, that I wish there were more of.
Here's a story: I resisted meeting Gilbert Hernandez for most of my adult life. I was convinced I would turn into a teenage girl at the Ed Sullivan theater when the Beatles played. I ended up meeting Jaime eventually, and they did a signing together at Excalibur [Comics in Portland]. And I finally said, I should do it, I should go down. And "Casanova" was the book that I gave them. When I dared say to the Hernandez brothers, "you know, I make comics too," they were weirded out that the guy who writes "X-Men" knew them. "Casanova" was what I gave them. That's how I feel about it. It's escaped one death, and hopefully we'll be able to tell the story the way we want to. And if all else fails there's always "Iron Man" and "X-Men."