Editor’s note: Genius writer and Entertainment Weekly editor Marc Bernardin returns with his penultimate post today, this time talking to Matt Fraction …
by Marc Bernardin
The first time I met Matt Fraction, he was stalking the alleys of the San Diego Comic Con, proudly displaying his gritty, B-movie-style heist graphic novel, The Last of the Independents. Since then, he’s exploded all over comics like a just-tapped vein of black gold, giving up Marvel gems like Invincible Iron Man, Punisher War Journal and a gem-in-the making, an upcoming run on Uncanny X-Men (with Ed Brubaker). But for as good as those are, the comic that will be talked about as the crown jewel of Fraction’s opening act — because, mark my words, this is just the beginning — is Casanova, his trippy, twisty, terribly awe-inspiring spy-fi meta-thriller. You wanna know what’s on Fraction’s mind? Look no further. It’s all there, both in the text itself, and in the often confessional supplemental material. Which, as he’ll tell you, is a double-edged sword.
The backmatter of Casanova is both insightful from a process perspective, and revelatory from a personal one. How much of yourself is too much? Where do you draw the line?
Hmmm. Any time you show any part of your belly, the case can be made that you’ve shown too much. I know that, personally, I’m done with it and whatever form Casanova V3 takes, whatever form, if any, the backmatter takes, it will be wildly different than it has been. Doors shutting, windows closing, drawbridges being, uh, drawn. Some of the most enriching and wonderful and gratifying responses of my creative life have come from me writing that stuff; the flipside, though, is some of the most virulent, hateful, and vicious stuff has, too, on levels both superficial (how dare I assume anything I’ve written is worth talking about, processually? Who do I think I am?) to the specific and personal (how dare you write about having a baby and boring me? Who cares that your wife had a miscarriage? Your comic made me think gay thoughts, so fuck you, you faggot.)
For all of the wonderful stuff, for the amazing network of people I’ve met, of survivors I’ve encountered, who helped me, and whom I in my way helped—the stuff that rings in my ears is the bad stuff. My back isn’t broad enough yet to sustain those kinds of attacks for very long, and the last thing I want to think about when I’m playing with my baby are those cretins. I’m done exposing myself like that. Fuck it.
Aside from ownership, what do you get out of working on Casanova that you don’t get from your Marvel work?
The thrill of being answerable only to myself. I am the absolute captain of the ship. My loyalties are with my collaborators and co-creators and that’s it. Casanova is the book that gets me all the mainstream work, and in turn, the mainstream work subsidizes Casanova. I can be as aggressively anti-narrative as I want to be—I can break the toys I need to and want to break—on Casanova that, say, Uncanny X-Men might forbid, just by its nature. That’s really the key to my thinking: What is the nature of the book? What is appropriate? You always hear people—in my experience, and I mean no disrespect by this, they’re people on the outside, speculating—suggesting that working on Marvel books is some kind of creatively crippled enterprise, doomed to only please shareholders and fans, but I’ve not encountered that at all. I was told I can’t say “bastard” in a book recently, due to that book’s rating. That’s as “restrictive” as my experience has been—a word replacement. Because I feel confident I understand the nature of the books I write, and have framed my objectives accordingly. I’m not writing Uncanny X-Men because I think I need to make them all gay, kill them, and replace them with sad, fat dogs to “tell my story.” And had I gone into the book looking to do that, and had editorial blowback then, yes, it would be an unfulfilling, restrictive experience. But, look, you don’t put on a helmet and shoulder pads and show up at Wrigley, y’know? Play the game you’ve been hired to play, and play it well, and therein you’ll find satisfaction. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, hold thy tongue.
And I’ve got books like Casanova or my Lincoln graphic novel, to scratch whatever other itches might fall outside of that realm of mixed metaphors.
What do you think you’re best at? Of all the tools in your tool chest, which is the sharpest?
I think I’m pretty punctual.
It seems like you’ve been given the key to the Marvel castle—maybe not the front gate, which Bendis seems to man, but it definitely grants you access. Fair assessment, or have the reports of your ascent been greatly exaggerated?
I’m not sure I agree with the metric, but I can’t deny that I’m definitely on the inside to some degree now. I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to be a part of those editorial retreats, where I’ve been a witness to and a collaborator on the creative direction the, ahh, macro-narrative is taking. I got Iron Man live in that room, riffing and pitching on the fly. My life at Marvel now is markedly different than what it was. I’ve had Jeph Loeb throw a cup of hot coffee in my face at 9:30 in the morning and sit on my chest until I gave him twenty dollars. I’ve seen how the hot dogs get made. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in scalding hot coffee.
Writing is usually a solitary experience, but you’ve done a fair share of working with other writers, like Ed Brubaker. How do you make collaboration work for you?
You have to be really honest. You have to be willing to tell your friend when you think he sucks, and you have to demand that same honesty. And on the flip side, you have to be sincere and complimentary when the other guy nails it.
I’ve also been really lucky, in that I’ve co-written with some of my best friends in the business. It’s honestly a joy BECAUSE, as you say, the gig is usually so solitary. It helps to be egoless—since I’ve only collaborated on the WFH stuff, it’s easy, as in my experience ego is born of control, almost? If me and Rick [Remender] get hit by a bus today, there’ll be a Punisher War Journal next month anyway, y’know? That helps keep the old I-Me-Mine in check.
For me collaborating is all about tricking some sucker into making you look better than you really are. With that in mind, it’s a joy.
Amen, brother. If you could work with one artist, alive or dead, who would it be?
My grandfather. He made these incredibly ornate pieces of stained glass. Lampshades and chandeliers and the like. I wish more than anything I’d have asked him to show me how to do it just once before he died.
But I suppose you’re talking about comics, huh? I’d have sharpened Jack Kirby’s pencils if he asked.
One of the things I’ve noticed about Casanova is that you’re keenly aware of the passage of time, and how that passage affects both the character and the story. But most comics exist out of time. With the rarest of exceptions, comics—especially Big Two comics—are like sitcoms: You leave the characters as you found them, wiggling around in the status quo. How do you reconcile that, as a writer?
Well, Casanova is, ultimately, a finite journey. There’s a beginning, which we’re through now; a middle and, if we’re lucky, an end. Add to that it’s a story about the passage of time, and about our passage through time from youth to adulthood, and it puts that element in the toolbox in a way it’s not present for, say, Iron Man or the X-Men.
For those gigs, it’s one of the tropes of the form, ultimately. Nobody ever really dies, and nothing ever really changes. These are constants, in their way. So what kind of stories can you tell because of, or in spite of, those mandates? It’s a perspective corrective, not to get alliterative there; it frames and contextualizes narrative parameters in a very ethereal yet very very real sort of way. Again, it’s about playing the game you’ve been hired to play.
I’m not convinced that there’s a grand unification theory of comics narrative out there—some of this stuff, when stared at too closely, ruins the illusion. You see the tip of a fake thumb in a magician’s hand and suddenly the whole act is suspect.