In this week's Mercury, I talked to Matt Fraction—one of the best comics writers working today—about how his brilliant, trippy comic Casanova, which he created with artists/twins Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon, is being reprinted by Icon, Marvel Comics' creator-owned imprint. A short version of that interview can be found here.
But if you want even more Fraction—and if you've already read his other great comics, like The Five Fists of Science, The Invincible Iron Man, Uncanny X-Men, The Order, Mantooth!, and etc.—here's a more-or-less complete transcript of our entire conversation. The phrase "venal, petty mutants" is used, and not in regards to the X-Men.
MERCURY: From the GQ interview, it sounded like you started out doing commercial and video work with the graphics studio MK12. How did that lead into comics?
MATT FRACTION: I always wanted to tell stories with words and pictures, whether that was film or comics or animation and music videos and stuff like that.
Out of art school, about 10 years ago, a bunch of [my] buddies got fired from somewhere. And we were kind of sitting around, trying to figure out what the fuck to do with ourselves, smoking cigarettes. Everyone was clearly trying to gear up for, "Alright, I have to press my khakis and get my resume ready." Clearly, we were all trying to get psyched for that—but then [we] decided, "Well, look. None of us are married, none of us own anything. We're fuckin' in debt to our balls already. Why not try to do this ourselves? Why not try and do it the way we want to do it, and see what happens?" We did, and it became wildly successful. And so me and my buddies from art school founded a multi-million dollar design conglomerate! [Laughs.] My work is in the Guggenheim in Spain; I've traveled around the world showing it and talking to audiences; we've been ripped off by some of the biggest and best names in advertising; we've worked with every agency in the goddamn world. [We were] five guys, we had four grand between us, and like every G3 that we could carry out of the place we were fired. We stole every stick of furniture and every bit of equipment we could... our first office was an apartment, with one phone line, so we'd have to unplug the phone to plug in the fax, stuff like that. It was 10 years ago. People still used fax machines.
So that was it. We were in Kansas City, and it cost nothing to keep our doors open. Post-dotcom boom, post 9/11, when the new technology sector was hemorrhaging cash and suddenly people couldn't afford their $28,000 a month overheads, [we were] a bunch of goons in the middle of nowhere that needed $1100 a month to keep their lights on. We started to get work.
The whole thing was a scam! It's kind of the same pattern that I've taken with Marvel—like, we try to fool adults into paying us to do work for them, and we take that money and put it into our own work. And then we put that work out in the world, and that gets us more work for adults, who pay us more money, we do more work. That was the MK12 pattern. And it worked remarkably.
Why'd you leave?
Comics were always something I was interested in. I was on a fine arts track, and a film track, and had made comics in school, and had done a lot of writing about comics in the sort of '99-2000 window, when the comics internet was very nascent—while not necessarily visited by the world at large, everybody who worked in comics who was looking to waste time read this stuff. So it was very easy to get attention talking about comics, because it was a very small pond.
I did that in a way that drew attention to myself, and eventually decided that it felt repugnant and subtractive just talking about what was wrong with comics when I was entirely capable of going out and trying to make my own. So I thought, I'm going to put my money where my mouth is, and I'm going to try producing comics. And figured it would be a hobby....
It was a night job. I'd have a couple hours, I'd have nothing to do on a weekend, I'd write a few pages, I thought that was gonna be it. I'd write something, get somebody to draw it for no money, and every few years we'd put a book out and see what happened. When I would go to conventions, I'd be sure to give my work to other pros and to editors, and eventually, Axel Alonso—who's now one of the big deals at Marvel—said, "You should pitch my office stuff." And I pitched his office until Axel finally came to me and said, "Y'know, you should write Punisher." And that was the start of working for Marvel.
I'm a big fan of blowing up careers and jumping into something entirely new and hoping for the best.
It seems like you've had good luck with it so far.
It works out okay for me!
What's the difference between working for Marvel and doing work on your own?
Coming from an art school and a film school culture, I work well with deadlines. I'm not a tortured, fist-biting genius—I do well with pressure. So first off, there's a deadline, there's a schedule. [In] indie comics, it's like "Ah, mañana! It's done when it's done, it comes out when it comes out." Whereas Marvel, you get paid every two weeks. And if it's not done, someone else will do it for you. The irony is that there's 100 people who would do it for free, but you get paid. It's a business: The train leaves the station every 28 days, and your name can be on the side or somebody else's name can be on the side.
[And thanks to] the production pipeline, suddenly you don't have to do everything yourself. Your stuff comes back and it's been lettered! The Marvel proofreaders are catching stuff in Casanova I've never caught, and I've read Casanova 100 times. So it's like, "Well, that's why that's your job, and not my job."
Does only having to worry about one thing instead of everything affect your writing style or process?
It's maybe taught me to be less precious. Y'know, kind of realize that water is going occupy the space you give it—if I have a day and a half to do it, I'll do it in a day and a half; if I have a week and half to do it, I'll do it in a week and a half. That's the way I work: "When is it done? Okay, then that's exactly the amount of space it'll take."
Getting into a cycle of producing removes the magic of production. There's gonna be another one next week, another one next week, another one next week. You're just sort of like, "Oh, yeah, right. This is work."
It becomes routine.
Well, it becomes something concrete. Rather than, "One day, this will be a comic book!" it's like, "No, this is gonna be a comic book in three days."
I was kind of paralyzed when I first started, 'cause I'd talked so much shit [online]. And the first thing I did was [Mantooth!], this very goofy, like, spy monkey thing. [It was] comedy, very foul-mouthed... y'know, jokes and stuff. I just remember thinking, "You've talked so much shit, and this is what you're leading with—a monkey that drops the c-word. Awesome."
There's that bit in Ed Wood where the guy's like, "Oh, you directed Glen and Glenda? That's the worst piece of shit I ever saw!" And [Wood] is like, "I'll just do better next time!" That was it: I'll just do better next time. That was it. Alan Moore didn't write From Hell his first time at bat. I'll just do better next time. And that's what, ultimately, Marvel lets you learn very quickly: There's always a next time, and it's right around the corner.
Working for a paper, I have the same thing. When I write something I like, it's a bummer to see it gone in six days—but when I write something I don't like, I see it in the gutter two days later, and it's like "Oh. Alright, then."
Yeah. The world's not gonna end 'cause I wrote a lousy Punisher story.
Does that comfort you?
Yeah. It was a big thing for me to realize that there would be a next time.
To have confidence that they'd give you another chance.
Yeah, exactly. [To] just keep writing. Step one of how to be better at your craft? Just do it. A lot. Every day. That was a big thing: you just have to keep producing. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And then you get to a point where it's like, "Can you write two arcs at a time? Can you write three? Cause we have three different [artists] and they all have to start at the same time, so you have to know your whole year, and you have to write part one, part five, and part nine all at once." And it feels terrifying, but you work up to it. It's the same way that running a marathon sounds terrifying if you've never run. After a while, there's comfort in that [production] cycle. It's like, "It's gonna keep happening, it's gonna keep happening. Just go with the flow and do your best." And if you fuck up, do better next time.
With Casanova, it feels like you're getting a literal chance to do it better a second time. The book's got a pretty elaborate history.
Warren Ellis came up with this crazy format: Sixteen pages with back-matter for $2. He launched a book called Fell, and it did very well. There was a desire at Image to try a bunch of these books. Warren recommended me to Image to do one, Image came to me, and they knew me from a couple of things, and they said, "You should do one!" And I said, "Okay great!" And that was it. So suddenly I was like, alright, I have to write a comic.
You know, you read like the classic X-Men stories—at the time, I was pitching X-men stuff, short stories—all [those] classic X-Men, definitive X-Men [issues] were all done in 16, 17-page stories. It doesn't hold up, but it's like "Oh, look what you can do with density! Look what you can do! I would've never thought in a million years this was 17 pages, but look at it!"
[After having pitched to Marvel for a couple of years,] I thought, "If fire would've struck, it would've struck by now." I thought I'd write some short stories here or there, but it wasn't a career reality. It was still a hobby, I was a hobbyist.
[With Casanova,] I was always very fond of the spy stuff as a kid, and it just kind of became my stage that I could redress infinitely to put on whatever one-act I needed to put on. The first seven [issues] are wildly different than the second seven, and the third seven will be wildly different from those two. But it was, again, my stage.
I was convinced I'd get two issues, three at the most, and I'd be done. But it would be my three issues, and by god, I'd be fuckin' proud of 'em. Nothing would be more embarrassing than to make a million dollars for somebody else, y'know what I mean? You hear about all these guys, angry that they didn't get royalties or that the movies have made a ton of money and they didn't get recompense, and it's like yeah, that would be horrible. I can't imagine that hell.
Y'know, I had a cool day job. So my pitching at Marvel, I would throw stuff that I wanted to do. And if I got notes back that I didn't like, or if they came back to me with something that I didn't feel like I wanted to do, I could say, "No thanks." I was never gonna be the guy to be like, "Hey, you gotta Jubilee series for me?! What'cha got?!" I was never that dude. Those dudes are there. I know those dudes, those dudes are everywhere. I was hungry, but I was never desperate, and there's a difference. I was very much a dilettante, y'know? "What's this? Can I do this? Alright, no? You don't want me there? Fine, I'm going away." And I'd console myself by making a video with Kanye West or whatever.
So Casanova was what it was, and it was what I wanted it to be. If there was gonna be a regular comic with my name on it, then by god, it was gonna be the kind of comic that I would want to read, success be damned. So that was the inception of the idea, and then as I started to do it more and more I realized it was perfect for whatever kind of story I wanted to tell.
And we did [series] one, and somebody saw Gabriel and said, "You should not be working for spec!" And we did two, and somebody saw Fabio and said, "You should not be working for spec!" And then it just became a matter of, "Well, we'll wait until we can afford to do it again, until we all have time in our schedule and we can afford to work for free again." But we didn't have to, ultimately, because [Marvel's creator-owned imprint] Icon expressed interest, so we moved over to Marvel, and it has never looked better.
It's now in color, obviously, but some of the word balloons and captions have been moved around, too. How much of that tweaking was fixing things that'd bugged you guys from the original version?
In a you-are-the-auteur, top-to-bottom sense, I hate computer lettering. Can't stand it. It comes from years of pixel fucking—I can tell, the letters all look alike to me. It just looks like typing to me. It might as well be in Times New Roman. It's a font, it's no different. And Dustin [Harbin], the letterer [on the remastered Casanova], was a friend of mine from when we were kids, we worked in a comic shop together. We were very close, and he's a stellar cartoonist in his own right, so when it was time to letter, I [knew I] should talk to Dustin, Dustin would be great. And he wanted to do it, so we now have gorgeous, amazing hand lettering. It's exquisite.
We always knew what the color would be too, but we could never explain it in a way that made sense to anybody but ourselves. The twins are very particular—we have a kind of Casanova speak, where the three of us know what we're saying and it makes no sense to anyone else. And they went out and they found her—Cris Peter is her name, the colorist—and you get the pages, and it's like she's just reached into your head and pulled 'em out. It's exactly what we wanted.
How are you approaching volume three compared to how you approached the first two volumes?
It's more experimental. The cutting's entirely different, the imagery is different, the text itself is different. There's a lot of... I don't know what the words are, but there's no worse comic in the world than a caption that says, "I was walking down the street," and the panel is an image of a guy walking down the street. So whatever the opposite of that is.
The thing that I love about comics is you can take the written word and you can take an image and you can overlap them, and in that overlap you create this kind of third channel of data that the user, the reader, interprets. It refuses passive consumption; it needs you to put these two together and determine what the real story is. You take the image and you take the written and you see where the truth actually lies.
After taking a break from it, are you stoked to be revisiting Casanova?
I went back and reread it, and I was like, "Oh, I thought this was stronger." [Laughs] I don't read my own stuff once it's done, y'know?
What's the last stage that you look at it?
Whatever the last proofreading round is. I'll flip through it to check. There's a colorist I work with named Matt Hollingsworth—we worked together on Iron Fist, we're gonna work together on Thor—and he has an incredibly subtle range of tools, and my monitor isn't calibrated the way his monitor is calibrated, and it also isn't as big as his is, so there are things that he does that I don't see until it sees print. So Hollingsworth's stuff I always check out in print. But I haven't read Casanova #1 since it came out, since whenever I signed off on the proof. So when I started volume three, I went back and reread all 14 issues again, and I was like, "Huh, I thought that was stronger." I don't know that I can talk about it without sounding self-aggrandizing, but it is what it is—it exists, and I hope people like it, and I have my things about it, and hopefully you will too.
Do you always feel that critical?
All you see is the mistakes! All you see is the mistakes. The worst day in comics is Wednesday, the day the comics come out, 'cause the mistakes are made permanent.
I got the proof on Casanova—we had approved it, and I went through one last time and I found the typo. In Casanova #1 there's one typo. And it got through. And that's all I saw. Suddenly, that was it, that was all I could think about: "There's one fuckin' typo."
I met Harlan Ellison once, and I got him to sign a book for my mom, and as we were chitchatting, he went though the book and corrected typos, by hand, with his pen. A book he's clearly proud of, 'cause he wanted it typo free, and he knew where the four typos were. And I get that. I absolutely get that. They're forever. It's fixed and permanent.... You see everything that you fucked up. You see every mistake that you made, you see how you should do better.
What's the difference between doing something like Casanova 3, where you can do whatever you want, and doing something like X-Men or Iron Man? Do you approach them the same way?
Innately, I approach them the same way. We have a lot of freedom [at Marvel], but I also understand innately what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Alan Moore has this great line about why he left Swamp Thing: He said that he realized that if he wanted to tell stories about the environment, that maybe the giant muck monster was getting in the way. X-Men isn't the place to do your story about abortion rights. Iron Man isn't the place to do your story about whatever thing morally outrages you. It's a poor fit. Can it be done in comics? Yes. I just don't know that the guy who puts on the robot suit, or the guy with the shiny claws and the yellow and blue costume, is the dude who needs to be out there fighting the front line of the abortion argument. Your mileage may vary.
So yeah, the freedom is there, but I've never been so misguided as to think, "Ah, finally, the X-Men fight the abortion issue!" There are layers and levels of editorial, and you have to present your ideas and be cogent about it, and look at what everyone else is doing, and all the other ducks that're floating in the water. With Casanova, it's like well, we're the only ones who can fuck it up.
Do you get more excited about writing one over the other?
No, it's entirely different. It's a lot like circuit training—I need to keep each one going to stay in shape. There are plusses and minuses to each.
With Icon, it seems like you're in a pretty ideal spot to do both.
It's great. If this Icon thing can lead to more Icon things, that'd be terrific. It is the ideal publishing situation for me right now. We'll see.
Do you feel like you're in a spot professionally where you have more pull at a place like Icon than you used to?
I would think so. The direct market is a fucking... what's the box called in Hellraiser? You open it up, and sometimes it's good, and sometimes it puts hooks into your eyes or whatever? Theoretically, you would think that having an Eisner and being on a top 10 book like X-Men again, and making Iron Man whatever it is again, you would think—and Gabriel and Fabio, between them, have like 12 Eisners—you would think if nothing else, people are more familiar with who we are.
I know our first-issue sales are better than we ever did at Image. We're doing better at Marvel-slash-Icon than we ever did at Image. Part of that, too, is people order Marvel books more than Image. So we, in theory, should do better... but in theory, you should also be able to sell something that isn't fucking Batman, and you can't.
Do you read comics digitally at all?
It's not my preferred medium, 'cause I just don't wanna wait—and Portland has a lot of great comics shops. I would rather just go down to the comic shop. But [digital comics coming out] day and date would absolutely be a game-changer for me. Price comparable and day and date? Why not. Less shit in my house.
There'll still be comics that I'll always want as a physical copy—I enjoy the artistry and the craft of it, and the physicality of the object itself. But give me the digital experience of browsing a rack at a comics shop? Absolutely. And we are headed that way—inevitably, invariably, we are headed that way....
Look, how many [iPads] did they sell? Like 1.2 million? Great. It's 1.2 million direct retail outlets. As far as I'm concerned, there are 1.2 million people who can get my work better, sooner, faster.
I came from a town where one of the retailers put a Casanova poster in his window and carried no copies on his rack. Diamond sent out Casanova posters, this guy put one up. I was walking with a buddy of mine, and he said, "Is that out?" I said, "Yes, it's out." I hadn't gotten my copies yet, and he's like, "I'm gonna go get one." [We] walked into my local store and he was told, "No, we don't actually carry that for the rack."
That's the direct market you have to fight against. It's not the great shops, like Cosmic Monkey or Floating World or Excalibur or Things From Another World. You guys have it good here. You guys have it so good here! I lived in a town with five comics shops and none of 'em were worth a good goddamn. I watched a guy—an owner of a shop—go through Previews orders and cross things out: "You don't need that, you don't want that." You could not get what you wanted. I've been ordering my physical comics from Midtown Comics in New York because Kansas City was so terrible, and I didn't want to give those assholes a dime. I could not stand the idea of keeping those people open, of bankrolling ineptitude.
When I feel bad about buying digital comics, I feel bad about not going to Portland's comics shops, 'cause they're so great. But yeah—as someone in any other city, how can a digital marketplace not be just as, if not more, attractive than a store?
And look at even something like rentals. What if we had a digital file, and you own it for 24 hours after you open it first the first time? Like renting a movie from iTunes? And that's 99 cents. What're you losing? That's not 99 cents a retailer would ever make. Let's say somebody doesn't want to pay $4 for a Superman. Well, here's 99 cents, you open it, you get it for 24 hours, you read it as many times as you want in that 24 hours, and after that 24 hours, it goes away.
And if you like it, you'll seek out the trade or the hardcover.
You rent a movie and you like it, you go and you buy it. This is the way the home video market worked for years.
You seem to have fun when you're writing. It's dense stuff, it's jumping around. As a reader, I'm trying to play catch-up, rereading panels—
It speaks, I think, profoundly to my sense of value and self-worth that when [Casanova] was a two-dollar comic, I was like, "Well, it's gonna take you twice as long to read than a four dollar comic! I'm gonna work twice as hard 'cause you're paying half as much!" [Laughs] I need therapy.
When you're working twice as hard, are you still having fun?
Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I work in comics 'cause I can't have a day job. I don't do well with nametags and banker hours. It's a blast, it's all a blast.
I have a [comics professional] friend who complains, and it's like, "Do you see how good you have it? Do you understand? This is princess and the pea shit. Come on, man. This beats working any day of the week."
The minute it's not fun, I know it's time to go. You see those haunted, hollow, empty shells of humanity that haunt conventions....
[Conventions allow you] to get nose-to-nose with the giants upon whose shoulders you stand, the legends, these guys who are class acts and brilliant storytellers and good guys—a chance to see these greats that you grew up idolizing and loving. And you're lucky enough now to stand on that stage? It's amazing. It's an object lesson in grace. And the flip side of that is you see the guys who never let go, the guys who never understood why they're out of fashion, these hollow shells. It's like spending time with the Ghost of Christmas Future. There's a lot of, "Don't be like that guy." There are amazing dudes out there, and it's great when people whose work you love are the caliber of human being you want them to be. It's an entirely different thing than [when] somebody whose work you love reveals themselves to be a venal, petty mutant.
It seems like you're still having as much fun as you ever have.
Oh yeah, this is ridiculous. This is a ridiculous way for a grown man to make a living.
How weird is it go from being a hobbyist to being on Marvel's brain trust, collaborating on Iron Man 2 and whatnot?
Oh, it's completely insane. I wish I could go back and tell 10-year-old me, "It's okay! It all works out okay!"
I've been reading this stuff my entire life—my first issue of Iron Man was #198, and my first issue of X-Men was #206. And I wrote X-Men #500.
I mean, I was the fat kid. I was the only long-haired acid freak in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Since 1973, I got called faggot and beaten up every day of my fuckin' life when I was as there, you know? And [comics] were the tether I held onto. This is the stuff I held onto for dear life. And you just knew, innately, "I'm gonna get out of here, I'm gonna escape." I really wish I could go back and tell that kid with the split lip crying in the parking lot, like, "It's okay! It all works out okay. They never leave, and you get to do this stuff for a living." It's retarded. It's great. It's stupid how silly it is. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward nerds.