Matt Fraction writes comic books they way comic books should be written – without restraint.  He thinks big.  He doesn’t reign in his imagination.  And, most importantly, he has fun with the medium.  In this interview Matt and I talk about all things Fraction and all things comics.

Sean Fahey: So, you’ve got a lot going on right now with The Five Fists of Science graphic novel just hitting, a new monthly series, Casanova, starting this month, and Punisher War Journal in the fall. Exciting times for Matt Fraction.

Matt Fraction: Oh yeah. It’s a busy, busy summer.

Sean: To start as broadly as humanly possible, why comics?

Matt: I love the medium, and I love the form. I think it combines my favorite aspects of art from several mediums – whether that’s the written word or visual imagery. I think it collates them together in a way that’s wholly unique to comics. I love what comics can do and I love telling stories in the medium. I even love the way they smell, you know? I’m a lifer.

Sean: What is it about comic books that lends itself to the kind of stories that you want to tell?  What can comics do that other mediums can’t?

Matt: It’s a medium that rejects the notion of the passive consumer, to sound like a total art school jack-off, which I am. TV or movies are showing images by a separate party that controls the timing and the pace of the image flow at their whim. It’s fixed in space and time. It’s someone telling you that “We’re going to cut here now, we’re going to cut there NOW, we’re going to cut to a shot of Sawyer and Kate on the beach. We’re going to hold for a minute and cut to Hurley on the other side of the island.” With comics, the reader has that control. You can take as much time pouring over a page or a panel as you like, whether it’s a few seconds as you’re waiting in line to pay for it, or an hour at home pouring over every speck of art and every bullet of information. Also, comics have a visual aspect to it that literature proper does not. So you can, in effect, have two different data streams coming at your audience, and there’s a fascinating thing that happens in the space between them.

Sean: How’d you get started in comics?

Matt: I always remember comics being around. I started reading very, very early and remember being attracted to comics from a very early age. I would read Peanuts collections and Doonesbury collections when I was very young. I remember not knowing that they weren’t consecutive, you know. I just thought they had the weirdest rhythm. I remember reading it and trying to understand it and not getting it. But I could see the relationships, you know. You had a cast characters, and everyone knew everyone else. When I got older I got into MAD. But it wasn’t until I went to art school, and wanted to work in the visual fields, that I really became hooked on visuals. I would start buying comics for the art. But whatever that x-factor is about comics, it hit me at a very early age.

In terms of writing them, I guess it kind of started by being a loudmouth on the internet, and catching people’s attention. I caught a couple of lucky breaks, and started writing a little bit here and a little bit there. I was kinda in the right place at the right time.  I started a webzine that spun out of Warren Ellis’ forum called “Savant,” and at the height of the WEF’s popularity, we had massive hits every week. A lot of people would read this crazy shit that we were talking about…or screaming and barking and moaning about I guess would be more appropriate. That attracted the attention of Larry Young, of Ait/Planet Lar, who wanted to write a column. When I quit I’d become very self-conscious, actually about three-quarters of the way through my time there, where I didn’t want to be one of those guys who talked a good game but didn’t want to put rubber to the road as it were. So I developed an exit strategy to quit commenting about comics on the internet so I could write them instead. One thing lead to another from there, and in a very auspicious and boastful beginning to my comic book career, I wrote a comic about a foul-mouthed monkey spy for Larry.

Sean: Rex Mantooth.

Matt: Rex Mantooth. It’s weird because that was original supposed to be in an Image anthology called Double Image that got cancelled. So it ended up at Kirkman’s Funk-o-tron Press, and was published along side Joe Casey and Charles Adlard’s phenomenal Code Flesh. Yeah, Rex was the first.

Sean: Let’s talk about the latest project, The Five Fists of Science. Mark Twain and Nikolai Tesla going toe-to-toe against J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison. The stakes are world peace, and the solicitation reads “100% true. Almost.”

Matt: Alllllllmost.  Almost 100% true, yes. If I were to bet someone twenty dollars that they couldn’t point out all of the true things in the book, I would win that bet every time. Twain and Tesla were in fact very dear friends. Twain was living in Europe under what he called “financial exile” and depression. He just lost his daughter. While he was there, he got wrapped up in the Armistice Movement. Tesla was working in New York, in a building that actually still stands. And he was this sort of dashingly handsome, young and famous bachelor that was a science shrill. He was this brilliant guy that was out to make the world a better place and invented things like the alternating current. They were friends. They were associates. And Twain had this idea called “Peace by Compulsion,” which we would understand as “Détente.” If I have the A-Bomb, and I know you have the A-Bomb, then neither one of us is going to actually use it.

 So, Tesla mentions to Twain, “Hey, I have this idea for an absolutely terrifying weapon that if anyone had they would never actually use.” And Twain came up with the this idea of “You build it and I’ll sell it.” Twain had been around the world three times at that point. He knew every ruler, every head of state, every king and queen. So, it was a plan. But the U.S. military didn’t bite, and then Twain and Tesla opened up their idea to the global market.  So this is the story of what happened next.

Sean: How’d the idea come about? Where you doing research on another project?

Matt:  There’s a saying that goes something vaguely like “Lightning’s fine, but it’s thunder that gets the job done.” I wanted to find out where that was from, and it turned out that it was Twain. In the connection with that I discovered that Twain and Tesla were friends, and came across this great photo of Twain in Tesla’s workshop in New York. Them the whole story dropped into my head. Tesla. Twain. They fight crime! They save the world! Of course! The story 100 years in the making!

And the more I started to research, the more the story I had made up became true. You had Twain and Tesla shuckin’ and jivin’, trying to convince everyone that the world was ending – and then, holy shit, we find out the world was ending! It was just one of those strange cases of providence.

Sean: War and world peace are narrative elements of this story, but the book isn’t preachy.  Is there a message you’re trying to get across subtly, or is “the message” just to enjoy the fun romp?

Matt: Yeah. Oh yeah. The message here is “have a good time, folks.” Everything is so dark and heavy in comics lately. It’s all Infinite Crisis and Civil War and…which I’m a part of, so… (laughter) You know, it’s a lot of big, heavy shit. So Five Fists of Science is just me and Sanders wanting to do a fun kind of romp. Just sit back and relax with some popcorn. We wanted to make a “summer blockbuster” that doesn’t suck. It’s the kind of comic we wanted to read, which is something that’s 100% fun.

Sean: Exactly. What I love about this book is that you’re not afraid to throw in the kitchen sink. You’ve got robots, demons, witchcraft, Yeti, bizarre scientific experiments, world peace…

Matt: Oh yeah. And again, some of it is the whole “truth is stranger than fiction” idea. With the robots we included an excerpt from an essay where Tesla talks about his belief that the future of war would be fought by automatons.  The Yeti was first named the Yeti in 1899, around the period when our story takes place. The black magic stuff we did make up.

Sean: The major character conflict here is between Tesla and Edison.  Could you talk about setting up that dichotomy and having these characters play off of each other. Historically, it’s so perfect. You have natural genius versus manufactured genius. You know, “Can it be done?” versus “Can it be patented?”

Matt: That’s really it right there. Here’s the thing about Tesla – Were Tesla alive today, we would recognize him as having obsessive-compulsive disorder, if not outright autism. One of my favorite stories about him is that he did not write things down until the very end of his life. He literally “built” things in his head and that was reward enough.  Sometimes here and there he would realize there was an application for what he dreamed up and he would actually make it, but many times it was all for the joy of thinking. There are things that Tesla did that we still cannot replicate to this day.

Where Edison, as you say, was a patenting bastard who was looking to exploit science and every turn.  One of my favorite stories about him, and I include this in the bios at the front of the book, is the reason that “Hollywood” was started four thousand miles from New York in the middle of a desert was to get the fuck away from Edison! (laughter) He was sending “leg breakers” after people who were using his cameras without paying him royalties!

Tesla was the spirit of invention, and Edison was the spirit of industrialization. And Edison screwed Tesla out of billions of dollars. Billions of dollars. Tesla was supposed to get a royalty on however many watts of alternating current were used, and Tesla got suckered out of it when he worked for Edison. Tesla was smarter than Edison and Edison knew it, and Edison spent an astonishing amount of time and energy trying to discredit alternating current. There’s famous story of Edison electrocuting an elephant and claiming that it was alternating current that did it, when in fact it was direct current.

 So fuck Thomas Edison.

Sean: Let’s talk Casanova.

Matt: Right on.

Sean: I was reading the first issue of Casanova last night and I came to the part of the story where we first meet the villainous Fabula Berzerko, and I said to myself two things: (1) Holy Shit! and (2) This ain’t your daddy’s spy book.  Casanova is to “Our Man Flint” what Godland is to the Silver Surfer.

Matt: Wow. That ain’t bad. That’s awesome. You know I came to the Flint movies very late in life. In fact, Casanova #2 was almost finished before I saw the Flint movies. But the reference totally fits. It’s…can I just say that I love Fabula Berzerko, by the way?

Sean: You may.

Matt: I love Fabula Berzerko. Yeah, Casanova is not your daddy’s spy book. It’s a super-spy science-fiction epic. That’s the short pitch. On a grander scale, it’s a book that’s been cooking in my head my whole life. Everything has sort of been leading me to this.

It’s designed in what Image calls the “slimline” format that started with Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell. It’s also designed, as a story, to be similar to Buffy and Angel in that we have “season long” stories and arcs, but each issue works self-contained episodically. We try and provide as much bang for your buck – bang for your two bucks, actually – as humanly possible.

Sean: It’s going to be sixteen pages an issue?

Matt: Yes. Sixteen pages of story, and then some backup stuff in each issue. The first issue is longer, but for the same price. It’s kind of our big two-hour season premiere.

Sean: Who is Casanova Quinn, and what drives him?

Matt: He’s an international man of leisure. He’s a thief. He’s a scoundrel, a gambler and a rogue. He’s a seedy Mick Jagger meets Cary Grant kind of guy, and his dad just happens to run an international police force named E.M.P.I.R.E. whose star agent is Casanova’s twin sister Zephyr. He’s very much the black sheep of the family. Cass is the kind of guy who lives hedonistically from one moment to the next. One thing leads to another, and by the time the first issue ends, he’s being blackmailed into joining E.M.P.I.R.E. as a double agent to bring his father down, and that’s the our first arc – Cass having to work against his own father.

Sean: How are you going to keep a character like Casanova sympathetic over the long run? As you say, this is a guy who lives hedonistically from one moment to the next.

Matt: Well, the book is about growing up. When you look at it end-to-end, the book is about growing up and how the sins of youth can’t always be paid for in our adult years. It’s not so much about redemption as it is about definition, and daring to live the life you want to live. From a narrative perspective, by the time you’re done with the first issue it’s very clear that he is not the worst guy in the story. And without giving too much away, as we go on eventually he begins to realize that maybe he wasn’t living the life he thought he was. People have these expectations of him that he’s unwilling to put up with, and it becomes about Casanova daring to live his own life on his terms – which are fabulous.

Sean: Similar to Five Fists of Science, Casanova is another “kitchen sink” book.  You’ve got the Sterenko-esque SHIELD good guys, giant mutant brains, evil organizations, androids, breaches in the time space continuum.  And that’s just the first issue. You’re not afraid to think big. 

Matt: It’s a world designed for me to talk about whatever kind of stories I want to talk about.

Casanova is a very dense book by design.  In many ways it’s a reaction against all these long-winded and languidly-paced comics were nothing happens. Comics are capable of so much more than what we see them doing most times. There are a lot of ideas here, and they do come at you all at once.  But I hope people have as much fun with that as I do. This is my first ongoing series, so I wanted to make sure I was playing in a genre that I love and telling the kind of stories that I want to tell, the kind of stories that comics are so perfectly equipped for telling.

Sean: I want to pick up on that a little, because I know you have a lot of opinions about comic books and the industry, having started as an internet critic and to this day co-authoring a semi-regular column with Joe Casey.  Where do you see things right now, the industry as a whole?

Matt: There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence to help demonstrate that Marvel and DC are cannibalizing the direct market, by putting out more and more product and shoving smaller print books off the top three hundred.  If you look at the sales charts, and compare say April 2006 to April 2002, you’ll see that Marvel and DC are publishing 20 to 25% more books a month.  And this is eating up more rack space and pushing more non-Marvel and DC voices further down the list. Diamond now has a policy that if your book does not sell X amount of copies then they’re simply not going to ship it. It’s just getting harder and harder for people that don’t work for Marvel and DC to be heard.

I refuse to accept the thought that something like Infinite Crisis where – to deliver a story their customers want, I’m not faulting the retailers – need to order twenty different DC books instead of eleven to give their customers the option of having the whole story, that those additional nine books are going to push nine books that aren’t a DC or Marvel book off the rack. 

 So, it’s an amazing time for the comics mainstream. DC and Marvel are more robust that they’ve been in years. But it’s difficult to not be at DC or Marvel. It’s difficult to not be a superhero book at DC or Marvel, and I think DC and Marvel, and some other publishers, are beginning to realize that the direct market is a system that has thoroughly been drained, and they are looking for ways to escape it.  They’re looking for other avenues to grow because the one distributor, one market model is stupid. So, it’s awesome if you’re DC and Marvel right now, and it’s even awesomer if you’re Viz and TokyoPop and you don’t even have to worry about the direct market. From a business standpoint, it’s all very weird and I don’t know where things are going. It’s really good to be Marvel or DC right now, more than it has been in a decade. But at what price?

Of course, I’m a guy that’s writing a Civil War spin-off…(laughter) So, ah, everybody’s a sell-out but me. Yeah…

Sean: Well, how do improve outreach? And how do you create and foster and environment where other voices can be heard?

Matt: Those are huge questions. There is no magic bullet for anything. As for getting new ideas into the market, new voices, you deliver excellence on time, and frequently.  And you build trust with retailers in the direct marker one month at a time.  Every thirty-whatever days your product shows up, or your product shows up when you say it’s going to show up. You deal one on one with retailers. You deal one on one with readers as best you can.  It’s a war fought by a matter of inches. Look at something like Walking Dead. Given, its schedule isn’t what it was, but for the first eight months of that book it was like clockwork.  That was huge, and it really helped grow its audience.

Sean: Same with Godland.

Matt: Godland up-tics every single fucking month. They’re being cautious and deliberate. They’re soliciting a second trade. They’re taking time off the stands to build up to their second volume. Godland is a perfect example.

Godland works at Image. Godland would not work at Wildstorm, because Wildstorm would not have the patience for a book that sells like Godland. But Image exists on different field and sees the bigger picture and the long term. They’re willing to grow the market one inch at a time, one space on the rack at a time and one reader at a time.

Sean: Casanova and Godland are similar in the sense that you’re not sure what to make of it based on the solicitations, but once you finish that first issue you’re sold.

Matt: Yeah, Godland is just so phenomenal. I’m a friend of Joe’s so I’m predisposed. But it really is an amazing book. I gave Joe the ultimate geek compliment when Godland number three or four came out, which was the same day that All Star Batman and Robin two came out, and I read Godland first.  I told him, “Dude, I read you before All Star Batman & Robin.” And that’s all I had to say. If you’re a nerd you know what that means.

 Sean: What about outreach? How do you bring in new readers?

Matt: New readers need new markets. You need comics in more places than just the direct market. The difference between now and six years ago, with respect to comic availability, is unbelievable. I actually almost took a photograph of the racks at Barnes & Noble the other day because it was just beautiful. It was Marvel stuff, DC stuff, all the First Second launch line and all the most recent Fantagraphics stuff, Top Shelf stuff. How freakin’ diverse! It was like its own ecosystem! You know, as opposed to one planet where everything is a hotdog. (laughter) Which is what comics were for a long time – Planet Hotdog.  So, you need to get comics into more places than the direct market. You need more kinds of media promoting comics. You need a direct market that isn’t embarrassing itself. You need a direct market that isn’t the fucking “Android’s Dungeon” from The Simpsons. There’s a reason why comic guys laugh at that shit, and it’s because it’s fucking true.

So, that’s how you get new readers, by opening up new markets while offering an outstanding variety of things. Then you have a situation where the Superman movie comes out you have someone say, “I wonder what Superman comics are like today?” And they go to a comic book store or a Barnes & Noble looking for Superman comics and they also discover on the shelves Love and Rockets, or Queen & Country or this great Campbell book that is this weird comic, text, essay thing. You need the diversity in place for when the people show up.

Sean: What would you like to see comics become?

Matt: More and everywhere. I want to see comics become like Blockbuster video. I want to see a comic store in every fucking in every strip mall in the country full of every kind of genre imaginable. I believe in Sturgeon’s Law. I believe that ninety percent of anything is crap. I think that’s as true of movies as it is of comics. You’re just as likely to rent a shitty movie as you are to read a shitty comic. But I want to see ubiquity. I want to see it everywhere.

Sean: Are you worried that once the wave of comic movies dry up comic books will dry up?

Matt: As long as comic book movies make $144 million dollars in four days, it’s not going to happen. Good movie or bad, it’s at least kept people talking about comics and thinking about comics. Comics have survived “The Hulk.” (laughter) You know? Comics have survived “The Fantastic Four.” They’re always going to be looking for it – that’s the way Hollywood thinks. And even if there stopped being comic book adaptations, there’s still be places like Pantheon and First Second and Simon & Schuster realizing that thanks to some of the legwork Viz is doing that there are wholly un-served markets out there. For years the conventional wisdom in the direct market was that girl’s don’t read comic books. Fuck you. Those books sell more than anyone imagines.

Sean: Just walk into any Barnes & Noble. People are camped out in the aisle devouring the stuff.

Matt: Exactly. And that’s the flip side of what I was talking about earlier where you had the Marvel rack and the DC rack, and the everything else rack, which is progress from what it used to be six years ago where you had the six comics next to the D&D books. If you walked around to the other side of those racks, you’d see an entire aisle of Manga. It’s an unbelievable audience.

 Sean: I know it’s still early, but can you talk about The Punisher?

Matt: As much as I’m allowed, certainly.

Sean: Ok, so…why? Why another Punisher book if Garth Ennis’ book is still going strong?

Matt: It serves a different audience. First and foremost, I love Garth’s book. As a reader, and as a creator, I think it’s the strongest, blackest coffee ever. It’s an amazing piece of work. But it is also extraordinarily adult. It is for grownups with a capital G and a capital U. It’s an adult urban crime story. Everyone understands and appreciates that book for what it is, and everyone loves it.

But the question came up, “Why can’t we have a Frank interacting with the Marvel Universe.” And that’s what we’re doing with War Journal. It’s Rykers with a “Y” Marvel Universe stuff, whereas Garth’s is Rikers with an “I” and a ‘Fuck You.’ His book is ostensibly in the “real world.” War Journal is for a wider audience, or for an audience that wants to see both. There’s a certain charm to seeing the Punisher fight the fucking Rhino, and that’s our sort of sleazy, slutty, low-class neck of the woods.

Sean: So, what’s the tone of book? If Garth is “the strongest, blackest coffee,” what’s Matt Fraction’s War Journal?

Matt: Six Red Bulls followed by six more Red Bulls. (laughter) It’s very much a Marvel book. It’s a crazy, energetic story about Frank adrift in the Marvel Universe. About him being a very, very small fish in that very, very big pond.

Sean: Where does Frank Castle sit in the Marvel Universe?

Matt: That’s really what the book is about, you know. War Journal spins out of Civil War. It’s a time in the Marvel Universe where the heroes are divided amongst themselves. The villains are playing at their games. And the events of Civil War are big enough and horrifying enough to make Frank take notice and pop his head back up above ground. He realizes as a result of everything going that he needs to find a place in the Marvel Universe because it’s…well, god help you if Frank Castle thinks you might need him.

Sean: What do you think of Castle as character? What’s your take? Is he a psychopath or is he a monk with an arsenal fighting the never-ending battle, because it’s the fight that matters?

Matt: I think he’s the sanest person he knows. I think Frank Castle does what he needs to do. You know, murder is his art. It’s what he does. It’s his thing. It’s the same with Batman. I don’t think Batman is crazy. I think he’s completely sane. But to stay sane he needs to beat the shit out of people. While that might not be “good,” I think Frank is the same way. He’s not crazy. He thinks fucking Spider-man’s crazy for not having put a bullet through Green Goblin’s head before he killed his childhood sweetheart!

I’m writing him as though he believes completely in what he does, and he’s completely dedicated to his task. Frank exists to make sure there are no more Franks. It’s not about avenging his own loss any more. He’s done that. Frank Castle’s job is to prevent the tragedies that created Frank Castle from occurring. He’s also incredibly funny, and that’s sort of where I’m going.

Sean: Are you worried about working for someone else, really for the first time? It’s not your character. You have an editor. There are expectations and history.

Matt: I knew the job was dangerous when I signed up. I took it as a creative challenge, as a writer and a professional to see what it was like to work here and do this kind of gig. That it was tied into a big crossover event was even more fascinating. The entire process, academically, is very interesting to me. It’s a very weird, algebraic way of creating a comic book, and that’s kind of what I signed up for. I wanted to live through it and see what it was like.

It’s not my character. I’m just carrying the baton in a very long relay race, and Marvel and Axel thought I was the right guy to carry the baton this little way. That’s incredibly flattering, and I’m going to run the race in as much of my own fashion as I can while still adhering to the rules of the game.

I’m still going to be doing my thing. Casanova is still going to exist. But there are a lot of people that are going to be looking at War Journal, and if I’m worried about anything, I worried about sucking in front of a lot of people. But I’m having a ball, and I get to work with Axel Alonso and Warren Simons.  They’re fantastic to work with. And again, academically, I wanted to work with editors. I wanted to work with Axel. I just don’t want to let anyone down.

I’m writing a book that I’d enjoy reading, and I hope that comes through.