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No Longer Just an Independent

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With two new creator owned titles coming out this summer and ushering The Punisher back to the super hero realm, Matt Fraction is on his way to leaving his own stamp on American Comics.  He stopped by to talk about all of his upcoming projects.

For those who don’t know who he is, Matt Fraction introduced himself to the world of comics by writing the ironically titled, The Last of the Independents.  From there he slowly got his name out there with a 30 Days of Night story with Ben Templesmith (featured in Bloodsucker Tales) and a regular column on Comic Book Resources with Joe Casey. And not for nothing, Matt is very grateful to have been able to start out with such well-known and talented creators. “[Ben] is absolutely amazing… He is the most talented, most humble dude you could ever hope to meet… I met Joe very early in my career.  He’s been really great, offering perspective and advice, both technically as a writer and how to navigate your career.  He’s one of my best friends in the business and we just loved talking about comics.”

But seeing that there are still people who don’t know what Matt Fraction thinks of comics, here’s how he enthusiastically breaks it down. “I try to [write] it dense.  I hate; I feel ripped off so much these days buying comics.  I’m tired of 3 panel pages all the time… The Claremont classic era of X-Men was all 17-18 pages.   And they were huge; I remember them being long and dense… As a reader I wanted books that were heavy and dense and you could ‘sink your teeth into’ them.  You could go back and re-read them.  Re-read value is so rare these days. And I’m asking you to give me [your money]; I want to earn every quarter.  I’m going to dance and sing as hard as I can and try not to make anyone feel ripped off.  I don’t take asking people to spend money on my stuff lightly.”

Matt’s first attempt to get you to give him your money will come today, when his original graphic novel Five Fists of Science, illustrated by his old friend Steve Sanders, is published by Image.  Starring some of history’s most famous characters, “It is the true story of Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla and how they just about saved the world.  It takes place in 1899 and it’s 100% true…almost.”  Some may be very curious as to how this could be even close to the truth, but Matt knows his stuff. “Well, Twain and Tesla were friends, they knew each other, and they had a plan to save the world.  I swear to God that’s true [laughs], there is a famous picture of Twain in Tesla’s lab, of Twain holding these 2 wires together with some incandescent light.”

For Fraction, part of the fun was using those specific characters because they weren’t exactly normal people anyway. “Today, we would probably recognize [Tesla] as being highly functional autistic, with an obsessive compulsive disorder…  He had a photographic imagination and he never took notes.  He would put things together in his head; he would imagine the shapes of every part of every device in 3 dimensions being assembled before him. He could imagine how the electricity would flow through and how each part would or would not work and it was as satisfying to him as if he actually build it.  So he would consider it invented and not even write anything down… He was a super freak.  And one of those was something he mentioned to Mark Twain about inventing a weapon that was too powerful and scared world leaders.”  Five Fists of Science plays off of that famous discussion as Twain tries to sell Tesla’s invention to the leaders of the world.

But, as always, these particular heroes are only as good as their villains.  To Matt one was obvious, “Edison had famously screwed Tesla out of a fortune and slandered alternating current (AC, Tesla’s invention) and waged a propaganda war against alternating current and got a lot of people killed because direct current (DC, patented by Edison), which was his invention, was very unsafe… He was a giant bastard.  He would send mobsters to break legs.” 

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J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie joined Edison, because after all, what would a group of villains be without some rich men to provide the funds. “Carnegie sold his interests in a steel conglomerate to Morgan and created U.S. Steel, which was the first mega-corporation in the biggest, richest industry at the time. And Morgan worked with Edison on quite a bit, providing funding and things like that.  They all had these relationships; it made sense that they all should kind of team-up.”  There were some admitted leaps in their characterization though, “Morgan was a protestant.  I’m not sure if you know it or not, but Protestants have very uncool props and comics are a visual medium and we needed cooler props… so we made them black magicians.”

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In dealing with a visual medium, Fraction feels that he has chosen the perfect collaborator to work with in Steven Sanders. “Steven has a very classical and a very romantic style.  There are some pages in here that are really breathtaking.  He has an incredible eye for detail and scope and power.  I would write comics for him every day of my life for the rest of my life.  I can’t wait for the world to get to meet Steven’s work… He’s got the detail and scope of a Bryan Hitch, but the warmth and sense of humanity of the European artists like Bilal and the Humanoids artists.  It’s sophisticated but it’s not slick, everything feels worn and lived in and just wonderful.” 

In just talking to Matt, you can’t help but feel his energy and enthusiasm towards this subject and how much care he has put into the book.  And upon switching gears, you learn that Matt has the same sense of enthusiasm towards everything he writes.

Click to enlargeCassanova, Matt’s new creator-owned ongoing series, is coming out in June from Image and is a ‘sister book’ of sorts to Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell. Not necessarily related in content, genre, or style, Cassanova will be Image’s next 16-page book, affordably priced at $1.99.  Matt’s ideas of comics (as expressed in the beginning of the article) truly came out full time in this one.  Just the mere mentioning of the title got him excited. “It is a super spy, sci-fi epic that spans time and genre and place and character…  This is the book I was born to write.” 

Cassanova is the story of a young man whose father controls the world.  However, while his sister has embraced her position, he has played the black sheep role to a ‘T’.  But when his sister dies, suddenly Cass finds himself brought into a world he never could have imagined.  Part spy novel, part sci-fi fantasy, Cassanova jumps through dimensions, as well as time, to paint a very imaginative picture.  The character himself came from Fraction’s own desire to bring a new type of protagonist to fiction.  “There isn’t necessarily a great villain character.  [Someone] like Dr. Mabuza in Germany or Robin Hood in England.  Maybe Fu Manchu is the closest in American literature, but there isn’t a great tradition of the villain you root for.  So, it came from a place of wanting to do that sort of thing.  Someone like a glamorous Cary Grant cat burglar who is so bad they’re good.” 

Part of the sheer joy in writing something like that is the newfound freedom it brings.  “Everything that I have wanted to write has come out [with this book].  I can tell any story that I want; this great structure allows me to write whatever I want.  It’s like there are no breaks, you can go anywhere and do anything and the ideas are completely unstoppable.  You don’t have to worry.  It’s a comic book that loves being a comic book, the reason I love comic books, the thing that makes comics great, fun, exciting, and enjoyable.  It has a blatant disregard for the rules of the real world.”  Fraction doesn’t take this newfound freedom lightly either.  In fact, he takes this more as a challenge, because he knows that when there are no walls you had better make sure you don’t go too far and end up in the middle of nowhere.

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The same way he can tell any story he wants with this book, Fraction also went all out in terms of the way he tells his stories.  For instance, between panels of the action, there are talking heads scenes where the characters speak directly to the reader. “I took those from old romance comics of the 50’s and 60’s.  Where you would see Becky and Jimmy getting into a convertible, then there would be a panel of Becky saying ‘He took me out to dinner and it was lovely and then we went to Make-Out Curve…’ and then the next panel they would be at Make-Out Curve.  It was such a cool device.  Comics used to break the fourth wall and the characters addressed the readers directly.”  Such a device allowed Matt to have his characters wink at the readers and allowed him to put more exposition on the page without getting overly wordy.  And it keeps everything from getting too serious, because the way Matt sees it “This is just comics.  That’s all.  It’s like, ‘Hey, there’s a barn. C’mon and we’ll put on a show.’”

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Yet again though, showing his humility, Fraction is ever thankful for his creative partner on the book, pointing out that none of this would look half as good without artist Gabriel Bá. “It was sort of divine prominence that we ended up with Gabriel.  His [twin] brother is Fabio Moon and they are Brazilian artists.  Fabio had done a graphic novel called Smoking Gun and when I was talking to Image about getting Cassanova off the ground [they] suggested Fabio.  So we actually went after Fabio.  Little did we know that he had a twin brother named Gabriel Bá … And apparently they discussed it and decided it was more of Gabriel’s thing.  So, Gabriel came because of Fabio’s recommendation… And he is so talented and I am so lucky to be working with him.”  According to Matt, one of the best things about working with Gabriel is that he brings his own influences and his own sense of how things look because he is Brazilian. “He doesn’t get my references, so he’s not consciously riffing on stuff…  I put together a visual bible where I put costume, set, and architecture references for him to see and he infuses it with his own thing… He has his entirely own frame of reference.  He hasn’t carried [the American Comic] influences with him for 30 years.”

Click to enlargeFraction has so much confidence in the book that he lays down a challenge of sorts: “I will go toe to toe with any book on the market.  I challenge anyone to find me a regular monthly book that is denser.  I think it’s jam packed with ideas and I hope it’s as satisfying to people to read as it was to write.  The journey we have in mind will be very interesting to watch.”

And finally, from talking about the anti-hero of his own creation, Matt Fraction, finally breaking out of his “independent” label, will be bringing back one of comicdom’s most beloved anti-heroes, Marvel’s The Punisher, to the super hero world with this September’s Punisher: War Journal, which Fraction is working on with artist Ariel Olivetti. When asked how he got the position he remained his humble self, “I was asked.  I serve at the pleasure of Axel Alonso. [He] and Warren Simons were really into Last of the Independents and Warren had really busted his butt to get me there.”

When asked if there was any pressure with working on such a character, especially with Garth Ennis’ critically acclaimed Punisher MAX series still running, Fraction took it all in stride. “No pressure there, right?” he laughed.  “It’s not as bad as following Frank Miller on Daredevil; it’s more like starting another Daredevil book while Frank Miller was still there.”  He was quick to point out some differences and carefully explain them. “Our book isn’t going to be ‘all ages’ per se, but Garth’s book is very much strictly for adults.  And ours is about Frank in the Marvel Universe, because Civil War is the perfect time for him to come back above ground and get his head back in the swing of things…This is about Frank being a little fish in the big pond of the Marvel Universe.”  Matt was quick to diffuse any other concerns that people had on Frank Castle’s return.  So anyone worried that Fraction’s book will get stale or run out of super villains to kill, rest assured that he knows what he’s doing. “Frank is ‘Alexander’s sword over the Gordian knot,’ the kick of him as a character is watching how he slices through the knot…  Frank is always about proportionate response, and even his response to Galactus would be ‘I’m going to need a very large gun.’  So it’s sort of the joys of him solving the problem rather than the solution, which is a foregone conclusion. Whether he succeeds or fails, you’re talking about a normal guy fighting super powered people…  I really want people to be surprised by the book.  But Marvel really knew what they were doing in bringing Frank back at this time.”

Asked if it was daunting to try and come on board not only with this character, but at such a pivotal time in the Marvel Universe, Matt’s enthusiasm and joy for being able to be a part of it outweighed any concerns, even if he did use an interesting analogy. “It’s sort of like writing comics like Algebra, where I know the equation and I have to figure out the pieces.” To him, being part of something like this was an honor. “I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars… and the planning of Civil War has just been brilliant… Imagine making comics as a kid, except instead of just you it was all of your friends who loved comics coming together to make one.  That’s what this has been like.  It’s this beautiful enthusiastic chaos.  And I am more than flattered to be included in it.”

In speaking with Matt, I came away with nothing but the highest regards for him.  He is not just a lover of comics and what can be done with them; he is also a student of them.  Instead of simply putting things together and saying it’s a script, Matt works hand in hand with his collaborators.  He knows the history of the industry and is an incredibly gifted writer because of it.  He knows how to properly put a story together in terms of style and genre and knows what works for each story he writes.  As someone who has read both Five Fists of Science and Cassanova (if only Marvel would have allowed me access to his Punisher scripts), I can tell you that they are not to be missed.  Both books showcase Fraction’s love of the art form in completely different ways, yet reading them you get the same feeling you do in talking to him.  This guy loves what he’s doing.

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