What If James Bond Dug the Wu-Tang Clan?
Casanova Quinn is smart and self-aware, and he digs the same music you do. Alex Pappademas talks to writer Matt Fraction about his devastatingly geeky—and brilliant—comic-book series
"Most guys who make comics—when they were kids, their heroes always put on capes," writer Matt Fraction says. "Mine always put on suits."
In Fraction's mind-altering comic book series Casanova, which recently returned from hiatus, the man in the suit is Casanova Quinn, a Bond-meets-Jagger rake with chiaroscuro cheekbones and a complicated job description. He's been plucked from his own dimension, where he's nominally a bad guy, and coerced into impersonating the Casanova Quinn of another dimension, who's ostensibly a good guy. It's part of an ongoing clash between rival spy agencies W.A.S.T.E. and E.M.P.I.R.E., and if those acronyms make you think of Thomas Pynchon spec-scripting The Man from U.N.C.L.E., you're starting to get the idea; this is a work of advanced-placement pop-culture geekery. Quinn digs the Beatles and Genius/GZA's Liquid Swords; he observes that a control room inside a giant robot could use "a few Eames chairs"; a femme fatale wears a Paco Rabanne dress "made from the seized platinum cards of indicted CEOs."
But the book is also a compelling, deadpan-funny story about identity—"I am my own evil twin," Quinn muses, mid-fight-scene—and an earnest attempt to shake the espionage genre out of its swingless, Kiefer-Sutherland-with-a-Bluetooth-headset funk. "I want to make the world we were promised from superspy films," Fraction says, "where people can just jump out of airplanes with jet packs, and there are giant flying casinos that only the super-rich know about, and we can have lots of fabulous, near-anonymous sex without consequence, and hedonism and science fiction have combined to create this really fantastic world—not this Jack Bauer bullshit we have to tolerate on a daily basis."
Do you remember what the germ of the idea for Casanova was, the very first thing that kickstarted the book?
I've always liked the superspy genre more than superheroes, whether it's James Bond or any of the million variations on that theme. I've only just now started to write superhero stuff—I didn't start out reading superhero comics, I didn't start out writing superhero comics. I've always wanted to write the comics that I wished were out there, stuff that I wish I could read. And there wasn't a story out there about a guy with a suit and tie and a martini and a gun.
It seems like that would work so well in comics—it's amazing that it hasn't become a more viable genre in that world.
The Cold War obviously had a lot to do with it. There was such a Cold War romance to [the superspy genre.] And ultimately, comics—American comics—are an insular club run by the fans, for the fans. You have guys who were born reading Batman who grow up to make Batman, and the market is engineered to sell Batman. Or Spider-Man. Whoever. American comics are designed to really perpetuate this one genre. There are exceptions to the rule, but they're really just exceptions. There was always a Cold War vibe to some of the early superhero comics—stuff like Captain America and Iron Man had a lot of that, back in the day. But ultimately, the suit always came off to reveal the underpants worn over tights, and the cape, and the beams shooting out of the eyes. It just never really caught on. And in a bigger picture, I just think it's the zeitgeist's rise and fall, y'know? Pop, pulp genres come in and out of fashion. Westerns, especially. So we're in sort of a down cycle. But I think it'll be interesting to see what comes from Casino Royale being as well-received as it was.
And the theme of espionage feels more topical right now than it ever has.
Yeah. And man, I write a comic book, I don't mean to disappear too far up my own ass. But post-9/11, the world of intelligence is much more—what's the word—fucking terrifying. Our secret agents now are Jack Bauer. And it's awesome seeing Bauer say something like "I'm gonna need a hacksaw" after shooting a bad guy. But it's bullshit to go through eight years of a guy stabbing people in the kneecaps with screwdrivers to get the satellite codes. It makes for bad fiction, it makes for bad escapism, it makes for bad pulp. But that's what a spy is now. It's not even Sydney Bristow, for fuck's sake, it's Jack Bauer. And I call bullshit.
Alias seemed to take so much more joy in the conventions of the spy genre.
Yeah. Look, spy shows should have tremendous, tremendous costume and wig budgets. That's the thing that Alias got right. Like, let's put the hot girl in the latex dress. Yes. The answer to that is always yes. On 24, there's no room for Mary-Lynn Rajskub to put on a dominatrix outfit. Also, Alias had the genius move of hiding all the secret hideouts inside of nightclubs. You're never gonna look in a nightclub for the death-laser! Jack Bauer's out stabbing guys in the kneecaps, but he should really be at the S&M nightclub, because that's where the real deal happens. That's where the space laser is. And that's what I want to see.
And he's not. He's in the office park, by the Kinko's.
Exactly. Meanwhile, in Sherman Oaks…
You've mentioned that when you were putting Casanova together, there was a "bible" of reference material that you made.
It was digital—a giant 80-page PDF document. My artist, or both artists now, are Brazilian. And their frame of reference was wildly different from mine. So when I would talk about Eames chairs or a Paco Rabanne dress, or David Bailey's photography, I needed to make sure that they knew what I was talking about. Even if they just looked at it once and ignored it from then on. I so tend to speak with a cultural shorthand, so it was really for that. And it was an opportunity for me to just kind of soak in the vibe. When gentlemen wore cravats and ladies wore giant sunglasses and everybody sat in egg chairs.
So it's like old fashion layouts and stuff?
It's fashion, architecture, interiors and exteriors. Some comics stuff. Some of the more interesting and aggressive Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby stuff from that era—the real Pop Art comics stuff. Stills from movies, just for sets and props and framing ideas and color palettes and things like that. It was as much for me to kind of get lost in the experience, and just soak it in and fall in love with it all over again, as it was to put together a nodal point for [artist] Gabriel [Ba] to go to.
How did you end up doing this book that's so steeped in American and British pop-cultural signifiers…
With a Brazilian?
Was that on purpose?
I should say yes, and sound like a genius, but no. I actually had gone after his brother, Fabio Moon, who had done a couple of things that I had seen and liked a lot. Fabio's his twin brother, too—I swear to God, they're identical twins. Fabio has this very warm, sloppy, heavy-inked feel to his pages. He was the one I went after. And the two of them talked amongst themselves, and they decided that Gabriel, whose work I'd never seen before, would be better. And they were absolutely right. For identical twins, their styles couldn't be more different. Fabio's going to be the artist on the second arc, and hopefully we're just going to alternate back and forth between the brothers.
So you're alternating between identical twin-artists on a book where identical twins are a major plot point.
Yet another way in which Casanova the book is mirroring my life.
How do you think that outsider point of view affected the way the book came out?
The superspy genre is a pretty small pond, and what little cream there is is very clearly on top, and it's a long way down. And it's very easy to kind of become a copy of a copy of a copy. The fact that Gabriel and Fabio come to it from an entirely different culture and frame of reference kept them from kind of copying, consciously or unconsciously. They're not redrawing old Iron Man comics. They're not drawing Thunderball set pieces. They don't get the reference, or they're seeing the reference but they're free of the context, so they're encountering it fresh as I send it to them. I think the book would have been wildly different had I worked with an American guy who got everything that I got and could match my Girl from Rio with Department S.
Pop music is also an obvious influence on your work. You've talked about trying to create a book as dense with information as a Phil Spector song, and you've woven references to pop songs into the dialogue. It's something you do well in this book that comics traditionally do really badly—for some reason, when comics try to touch on rock and roll, it ends up being kind of embarrassing.
I think the trick is you can't try to be current, because then you become dated. Have you ever read, like, the early Teen Titans, where the adults are having emergency town-hall meetings because the kids are listening to rock and roll music? And then the Teen Titans have to show up to defuse the youth riot? I'm not even making that up. That's like the third issue of Teen Titans. But yeah—I don't think you can be contemporary, but music and movies and everything else are just such a huge part of my life. It grounds the book in our world a little bit. And it's a short cut for character. If a guy listens to [the Beatles'] Revolver, and then [Genius'] Liquid Swords, that says something about him. And then there's the character who psychotically hates the Beatles. Everybody knows that asshole, and everybody wants to shoot that asshole in the head.
How do you decide what real-world pop-culture stuff exists in the Casanova world? It's not set in a particular era—it looks like the '60s, but the technology is futuristic, and the Beatles and the Wu-Tang Clan are contemporaries.
Initially I had it in my head that the Beatles were still around, but Revolver had only just come out. But somebody later refers to Sgt. Pepper's. I fucked up. I changed a line, for the meter, to "I like Sgt. Pepper's," and I realized I'd fractured my own Beatles chronology. So in the Casanova universe, Sgt. Pepper has just come out. But yeah, also Liquid Swords is there. And he has an iPod. It's my own capricious whimsy. I just go from idea to idea. Whatever's coolest. I want to make the world that we were promised from superspy films, where people can just jump out of airplanes with jetpacks, and there are in fact giant flying casinos that only the super-rich know about, and we can have lots of fabulous near-anonymous sex with anyone we want, without consequence, and hedonism and science fiction have combined to create this really fantastic world, and not this sort of Jack Bauer bullshit we have to tolerate on a regular basis.
It's that escapism you talked about earlier.
It's wish fulfillment. I'm writing a comic I want to live in. The greatest thing about the glory years of the superspy thing is that everybody was so rich, and so beautiful, and so well-dressed. Everybody looked great. And you could go to Monte Carlo and then Paris. And now we're in Tokyo! And it's like, "Oh, sure! Look, there's a volcano base! Great!" It all just made sense somehow. And to me, it all seemed so glamorous. When I was a kid, I always loved how Bond always knew what to do in social situations. You're a kid, and you're awkward, and you don't know how to talk to girls, and Bond is like, "I want this kind of wine, and this kind of food, and oh, I see you're wearing this, and you're wearing that, and it's this size, and we're going to play this game." Like, do you know the rules of baccarat? It's ridiculous. Baccarat is the most retarded game in the world. But Bond's like, "I can go to any casino in the world and I can make a million dollars playing baccarat, because I understand it." To me, that's the ultimate wish fulfillment of Bond. It's not about how he bangs Pussy Galore and then saves the world. It's about, like, "Oh, I want to know what kind of wine to order with the fish."
The first seven issues were dense with '60s references—that continuum of '60s cool from James Bond to the Beatles. You've mentioned that you're moving in more of a '70s direction with the storyline you're working on now.
Yeah—it's a little more glam. I'm not pushing too hard or too far, but if the first one was the David Bailey-covering-the-Stones period, this one is much more Hunky Dory. This is the glam era, and androgyny, and huge Afros. It's a subtle shift down the road, but the idea is to give each arc a different kind of timeframe as its genetic makeup.
You posted something on your blog about how you'd been checking out some of the real trippy, psychedelia-influenced '70s Marvel comics, like Jim Starlin's Warlock.
Yeah. That blog entry was called "Finally the nerds had discovered acid." It was interesting to me because [the comics creators of the '70s] were the first wave of mainstream creators who had come up reading mainstream comics, but had also seen Zap! and Mr. Natural, and got high, and were clearly trying to make comics for dudes like them. Comics were still a kids' thing back then, and they knew that they were writing for kids, but they also knew there were 22-year-olds like them, with a fistful of LSD, who were just looking to have a good time and find groovy shit. So you see that Starlin stuff—it's so awkward and it's so proggy, it's so King Crimson, it's so Peter Gabriel Genesis, and it's horrible. It reads terribly. It's like that Stan Lee monologue shit, but it's done, like, "I AM COSMICALLY AWARE," and it's just absurd and stupid. But in the storytelling—you don't draw four panels of an eyelid full of stars, opening slowly over four panels, unless you've taken heroic doses of psychedelics.
It's interesting to me to see the secret messages starting to work their way into children's fiction. Like every now and then there'd be those jokes on The Muppet Show that were clearly for the grownups. And that's what's remarkable about that stuff to me—it's that moment where the mainstream began to produce work that suggested, "Maybe we're more than fodder for the back pockets of nine-year-olds."
And here's where it gets interesting—you talk about comics and music, Starlin and [fellow '70s Marvel Comics writer Steve] Gerber, these cats were from Detroit, right? It was like the Detroit comics mafia that kind of came in. They were like wave 1.5—like Roy Thomas and those guys, the letterhacks becoming writers, was the first wave, and these guys were kind of the first-and-a-half wave. So they're all from Detroit—which means Iggy and the Stooges, it means the MC5, it means race riots and class consciousness. And all the type of crazy stuff that was informing music. You can't tell me that Jim Starlin did not listen to Hunky Dory and the MC5 while making his stuff. Like, you can't live in Detroit, and be there while these things are going on, and clearly be a head, and be into this trippy cosmic shit, and not be into music. So just by the brute nature of proximity, you realize "Well, wait—Starlin had to be listening to Iggy Pop, he had to be listening to David Bowie. And David Bowie's talking about the Homo Superior—so David Bowie's been reading Stan Lee!"
And all the heads are kind of sending their signals in the same direction. Y'know, you might have bass, and I might have treble, and somebody else might be playing drums, but it's all kind of forming this weird symphony, where science fiction is kind of finding a very sly way to infect an area of culture that hadn't been there before. And that's what's fascinating to me—you can't tell me that [Starlin] wasn't paying attention to Fun House, and all of this kind of stuff.
And that's where it gets cool. When you find out that Joey Ramone read comics his whole life. I remember when I was—oh, God, thirteen, fourteen, whenever the video for "I Wanna Be Sedated" came out. It was all filmed really high-speed, with the Ramones sitting at the table the whole time. And Joey picks up one of the Silvestri and Claremont issues of X-Men and reads it, at the table. And as a kid I was such a comics nerd that—it's subliminal, but he picks it up and I was like, "I know what that fuckin' is!" You know what I mean? And that was the coolest thing in the world to me. And then you had to like the Ramones, because the Ramones were into comics. And that was how I got into the Ramones.
You're describing this sort of magic circle forming between all these people.
I remember—I moved around a lot when I was a kid, and on the first day of school I'd always try to wear a comics shirt. It was a shibboleth. It was—"Somebody seek this out. Someone please know what I'm talking about. I can't stand being lonely." So I had the Graphitti Designs Watchmen T-shirt. It was like a cast drawing from Watchmen, that Dave Gibbons did. And I would wear it to the first day of school whenever I was in a new school, because somebody was gonna get it. Somebody in that school, if they read comics, was going to see that and go, "Hey, that's Watchmen, I know what you're wearing. And that way you don't have to go, "Hey, everybody, I'm Matt, I'm the new kid, I'm kinda fat, a little short, I got bad hair, crooked teeth and I read comic books." I could keep the comic books part to myself and pray for puberty and a growth spurt to make the rest go away.
So you're putting out this message that's going to mean nothing to 98% of the people who see it…
Yeah. It's just noise. It becomes like W.A.S.T.E., in The Crying of Lot 49, with the trumpet—it becomes a secret sign. It becomes the Christian sign of the fish. It's our little secret handshake that you're kind of broadcasting, you're looking for other brains like yours, other heads like yours. And that's ultimately what these stories are about—whether it's David Bowie doing Hunky Dory or Jim Starlin doing Warlock, it's all about, some of us are compelled to start talking when we sit around the fire, y'know? It's just about finding the fire you want to sit around. I'm just fascinated by the intersection of different nodes of culture. It's just something I'm obsessed with. I love watching old movies to see what other movies were playing—like if I'm watching a movie and a character walks by a movie theater, I love to pause it and try to read the marquee.
You were directing commercials before you started doing comics full-time.
Yeah. I was a writer and a director and an editor at a motion-graphics company that me and some friends from school started. I shot commercials and music videos, and animated shorts, and we went around the world making 'em and talking about 'em. It was a really awesome day job. It was really cool when I was getting into comics, because if something didn't work out, I could go console myself by making a music video.
Who were some of the people you did videos for?
We made the last Guided by Voices video, for a song called "Back to the Lake." That actually came out kind of a couple years after Guided by Voices stopped being a going concern, through a kind of remarkable Coke project, of all things. I codirected a video with Kanye West for Common's song "Go." We did a Hot Hot Heat video. We did a video for the Faint. Funkstorung. There's one or two that I'm forgetting, I think. And then if you're up on either baseball or basketball, if you've seen the Budweiser commercials that are going now, where the label kind of spills apart, and George Clooney is narrating, about the importance of beer? That's my old company.
Now that you're working in comics, which is a hybrid verbal/visual medium, does the stuff you learned from commercials and videos come into play? Do you think those jobs shaped your sensibility?
Oh, absolutely. Just learning how to tell stories on paper. Absolutely. And just working editorially and stuff like that. Learning how to work with a client. It was incredibly influential—and like I said, it was really cool to try to break into comics while I had that job, because it made it really easy to walk away from stuff.
Because even your day job was still a creative environment…
Yeah, boo-hoo—I'm going to go cut together six commercials for Hewlett-Packard. It wasn't like I was going back to Starbucks or anything like that. I had a really cool, creative, exciting, glamorous kind of day job. And I think it gave me a little patina of attractiveness with editors, because I never had freelancer hunger. I was never the guy that said "Yes" to every pitch that came down the pike. I wasn't deliberately playing hard-to-get, but I had the freedom to not take a gig just to pay the mortgage, y'know? I didn't pitch on anything just to be working. I didn't need it that much, and honestly I didn't want to pitch weak stuff that I didn't care about. I've been really happy and really lucky, I've loved working on everything that I've worked on so far. There are a lot of guys who can be like, "Yeah, that one kind of sucked. I cranked that out." But I'm not that dude. And I'm sure, y'know, one day, I'll find myself like, "Well, that didn't come out like I wanted," but up until now I've been lucky enough and fortunate enough to have enjoyed everything I've done, no matter how big or small it was.
It comes across in the work, that you're actually having a good time putting this stuff on the page.
It's hard not to laugh while you're writing a scene where Punisher shoots the Rhino with a bazooka. [laughs]
Since we're talking about transitioning between mediums—I don't know how you'd go about turning Casanova into a movie, but has there been interest?
Are you thinking about it?
At this point, no. You can't. I think if you start writing stuff to be turned into movies, you're starting from a very creatively compromised point of view. Not that you can't write something thinking, "Oh, this would make a great movie." But the minute you start thinking, "I gotta make a movie, so what comic should I write?"—that's fucked up. There are people that are interested in Cass and are talking about it. It could be really cool if it comes to pass. We'll see. I don't know how much of that I should talk about. But there's interest, that's for sure.
It seems like any comic-book property that's found an audience gets snapped up instantly.
I tend to get a lot of "I don't get it," which is kinda cool. I want to be pretty and I want to be special and I want to be rich and I want to be powerful, but in lieu of that, being told "I don't get it" by people in Hollywood is pretty satisfying way of not getting that. Being too smart for the room is kind of awesome.
Are you talking about people reacting that way to Casanova specifically, or—
I've heard it on a lot of stuff I do. One of my favorite, favorite, favorite pieces of storytelling advice came from Billy Wilder, who said "Don't talk down to your audience. Let them put two and two together, they'll love you forever." And he's absolutely right. I hate hand-holding. I hate when somebody thinks it's a good idea to stop the story and make sure the people in the slow seats got it. It compromises everything, and it insults the intelligence of the people who've followed you, and given you their time and attention. So I always try to make it a mission to make any audience I've been blessed with a co-conspirator. "Come along with me, let's see where this goes. And I believe you're smart enough to figure this out, 'cause I'm smart enough to write it, and surely you're brighter than me."
So that's the thing with Casanova. I've probably heard from 30 or 40 percent of the readership, and of those people, like 95% of them are gracious and excited and thrilled by the book, and love that it doesn't pander, and that it's not, "Okay, kids, now here's what happened," like so many other books. And then you get these incredibly rancid, incredibly vicious hate-mail letters from people basically saying "You make me feel stupid—fuck you!" And every negative review I've read of Casanova has ultimately been like, "I don't get it—fuck them. Fuck this book! If only he would explain what's going on!" Like, well—no. I don't think I'll be doing that.
If you're going to alienate one group of people…
I'm fine alienating the stupid.
Really, the first issue—where you're setting up so much of what follows—is the one that feels the most like you're being thrown in the deep end.
Yeah, if you make it through the first issue, you're with us. If you can make it through those 28 pages, we're gonna be fine.
But I imagine anybody who's sort of casually reading it to see if it would make a good movie—that's a lot to take in.
It defies being read on the toilet. It defies the skim-read at the rack. I dare ask for your time and attention. I figure you paid for it. And it's a two-dollar book, so I want to make sure everybody feels that they're getting their money's worth. So if that means compressing an entire arc into sixteen pages, then so be it.
Can we talk in a general sense about what's going to happen in the next few issues?
Yeah, yeah. We kind of establish a status quo at the end of the first arc. All the players are on the board. And by the time you get to the end of the first story, the people who live have lived, and the people who die have died, and our protagonist has decided, "This is who I am, this is what I'm going to do, this is what I'm going to be." Hooray—endings. And the second volume picks up a little bit later, and he's doing exactly what he said he was going to do. And then something happens. And he's gone. And the arc is about, "Where did he go? What happened?" The question we're going to ask—we're having buttons made up—is When is Casanova Quinn? Our lead vanishes from the space-time continuum, and people are very interested in why that has happened and where he has gone. So I'm taking the main character, the title character, out of the book, for quite a while. And we're exploring the space left in his absence.
That's a ballsy thing to do this early in the life of the book. Was that something where you came up with it and just thought, "Oh, I have to do that?"
Yeah. I don't want to spoil anything too much, but the story is about duality, and everyone kinda having two sides. And it continues a lot of the themes that we'd set up—the first arc was about fathers and sons, and this one's kind of about men and women, and boyfriends and girlfriends, or lovers, or however you want to phrase it. It's about love and friendship and relationships. And then—with Kurt Vonnegut passing away, it's especially appropriate—there's the line, "Be careful who you pretend to be, because we are who we pretend to be." We are who we say we are. Especially when you're in an industry like superspies, where you're supposed to pretend to be other people.