Anyone who knows me is at least mildly aware that I love comic books. In real life, I try to spare people my deviations onto random comic-related topics and, mostly, I fail. Here on the blog, though, I can and will write about whatever I want. In this case, however, I’m not really writing about comics.
Bear with me.
I recently started picking up a comic series called Casanova, by writer Matt Fraction and artist Gabriel Ba. The series is being reprinted under Marvel Comics’ Icon line and, since I already own most of the original printings of the issues (published by Image) and the hardcover collection of the first storyline, this marks my third purchase of almost exactly the same product. You might think I’m out of my mind (and you’d be right) but what really makes each issue of Casanova so different and so worthy of being purchased is that each copy comes with a special section at the back where the author gets to share his thoughts. The original issues had only 16 pages of story and then Matt Fraction could spend the rest of the book talking about his inspirations, life and whatever may have influenced the story you just read. The new issues reprint two of the original comics at a time, doubling up on story but with wholly original back matter. Issue 3 is the first of the new printings I’ve managed to pick up (I’ve ordered the others) and it features a fascinating interview that Fraction does with musician Mike Doughty.
Fraction is one of my personal heroes. Not because of his life (which I know very little about considering all that backmatter, his blog and the blogs for his wife and son), but because of the quality of his work. As a writer, I spend a ton of my time just admiring the works of other writers. This is especially true of guys (and girls) who are able to take a fairly stringent format (22 page monthly comic books) and do something new and interesting with it. Fraction is one of those guys. He first came to my attention with a book he did for Marvel called “The Order”. This was back before he’d ascended the ranks of their writing staff and taken his place working with the popular pantheon of characters (he now writes X-Men, Iron Man and Thor). The book, so far as I can tell, sprouted from the mind of another writer, Mark Millar, who introduced a group of reality TV star-type superheroes, The Champions, drafted from Joe Q Public to become super-celebrities. Millar was somewhat obsessed with the idea of the celebrity hero at the time (and he still is to some degree), but the concept had been played out in a couple of other books and was growing tiresome.
So when “Champions” was announced as a new ongoing series, I didn’t sit up. Not till I’d read what it was going to be about. Instead of the reality show angle, the then-indie guy Fraction had come up with the concept of a program that carefully selected humanity’s best and brightest, real heroes if you will, then gave them super powers for 365 days. A few months and some legal wrangling over the book’s title later, and Marvel released this title as “The Order”, with art by the awesome Barry Kitson. The book used the storytelling device of having characters interviewed or caught in a conversation that would contextualize the events surrounding the team’s big public unfolding and work to defeat a new enemy come to California. The characters arrived fully fleshed out from Fraction’s mind, but still with interesting hidden depths that could be mined for future stories. The Order’s leader, Henry Hellrung (Anthem), was an actor who played Tony “Iron Man” Stark on TV and was, like Stark himself, an alcoholic. The two became each others’ sponsors, each of them ditching the bottle and pursuing the sober lifestyle, and now both were given the chance to be great heroes.
For the most part, Henry didn’t disappoint.
There was a hint there, in Fraction’s very first issue, that maybe he was drawing on some personal experience. All the good writers do. But like I said, I don’t know much about the man’s personal life and I don’t usually focus on those details so much as the creative output, so I looked at the issue as a minor masterpiece that would draw me into Fraction’s world. I tracked his career backwards from there, reading Casanova, The Five Fists of Science and The Annotated Rex Mantooth while The Order went on to cancellation and Fraction stepped into the big leagues, writing Invincible Iron Man hot on the heels of the Iron Man movie release.
The book was pure science fiction gold. And Fraction had taken an interesting angle with Tony Stark, returning to him some of the characteristics that other recent writers had abandoned in favour of making him a rather generic hero in armor. In ‘Invincible’, Stark’s lifelong alcoholism was transformed from a straight-up writer’s crutch into a sort of source for his personal drive. The pitfalls of a life of obsession revealed to readers that, as the heart of it all, Tony Stark wasn’t just an addict when it came to things behind the bar, but in every aspect of his life. Fraction opened my eyes, and the eyes of many readers, to Tony’s obsession with control and to his “five nightmares”; the five things Tony Stark feared the most and the things that informed his way of thinking and his approach to everything he did.
Suddenly he became a fully realized character where I’d seen a drunken caricature before.
But still the nail didn’t hit the head.
Back (or forward, really) to Casanova #3 (the latest printing), that Mike Doughty interview, and it all made sense. In this issue, Matt Fraction admits to fans – and for the first time, as far as I was concerned, that he’s an alcoholic. Sober. Recovering. I’m not sure what the correct term is. Either way, it was a big revelation for me, because I’ve spent so much time looking up to the guy and admiring his work from about as far away as anyone could get. Suddenly his approach, and the amount of himself he’s drawn on to produce some of the work that I consider his best (so far) took on a new dimension that demands respect, admiration and a closer reading.
The interview is, like I said somewhere near the top of these thousand or so words, fascinating. It takes a look at addiction and its relationship (or non-relationship) with the creative process, addressing something I’ve often thought about. How much do the drugs and the drinks and the “lifestyle” contribute to the creative process? Were guys like Hunter S Thompson just all drug-fueled creative geniuses that would’ve been, I dunno, high school janitors if they hadn’t been high? I used to joke that I bet Jimi Hendrix couldn’t play without a tab of acid on his tongue. It made me laugh, but I guess it’s a pretty sick joke in the face of a (recovering) addict. It’s sort of addressed in the interview, when Doughty says “Bill Hicks said, “Drugs are bad, but they sure didn’t hurt my record collection.” Well, sure, I’d reply, “Yeah, especially all those great recordings Jimi Hendrix made in the late 70s.”” It was a sobering slap across the face for me. One I’m afraid might not last, because I know myself all too well, but it happened and I can try to keep it in mind.
Look, I’ve drifted way off topic here from where I meant to go. Like I said, when I get to talking comics, things can get a tad out of hand. The bottom line is that I learned something about a personal hero that I hadn’t even considered to be the case, and that it began to lead me down a path of questioning my own behaviour and perspective (a funny word to use when you’re only 22, but hey, Jimi was only 28). More on this soon.