Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lost FYC: Casanova

Though on hiatus, Casanova is one of the best series that has been published in recent memory. Exciting storytelling from Matt Fraction, gorgeous art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, with deeper levels to the tale for those willing to dig through the jam-packed narrative. And, I would suggest, if you want the "entire package" you should seek out the original issues with Matt Fraction's essays in the back discussing the story, the art, and anything else tangentially connected to Casanova. Great stuff, and very heartfelt. Check it out if you get the chance, and pick it up when it eventually continues at Image.

For Your Consideration: Casanova By Chris Beckett

Following in the footsteps of its sister publication, Warren Ellis’s and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, Matt Fraction and Brazilian twins Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon have created one of the best books of this new century, Casanova. A mash of everything that’s great about comics and anything that interests its authors, this is a book that revels in being a comic and should be on every fan’s shelf. Click on in and check this out!

The 411:
Written by Matt Fraction
Art by Gabriel Ba & Fabio Moon
Lettered by Sean Konot
Album 1: Casanova: Luxuria
144 pp. 2-color $12.99
Individual issues 24pp. 2-color orig. $1.99
Image comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

In the 1980s, in a fanzine interview, Alan Moore discussed what was good about comics – that one could walk into a comic shop with pocket change and leave with “a real slab of culture.” Of course, prices have risen considerably during the intervening years, but Warren Ellis, one of Moore’s heirs apparent, took this thought and ran with it. The result is Fell, his slimline comic from Image with collaborator Ben Templesmith. With a smaller page count (24pp. vs. 32pp.), it offers readers sixteen pages of story with eight pages of back matter – notes, sketches, story inspirations, letters, etc. – for only $1.99. Each issue is self-contained as Ellis and Templesmith create a densely-packed story with beginning, middle, and end that can be enjoyed on its own. But read together, an over-arching story unfolds.

It was an experiment that had no assurances of success – a thinner book at a lower price point in a medium that can often seem chained to its past to the detriment of its future – and it sold. Well. So, with the success of Fell, one would expect a line of copycats waiting in the wings to be thrust upon the comic-buying public. But the only one, thus far, to have picked up the gauntlet and run with the idea is Casanova, born from the fevered brain of Matt Fraction and beautifully rendered by Brazilian twins Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon.

Casanova Quinn is an agent of E.M.P.I.R.E. – Extra-Military Police, Intelligence, Rescue, and Espionage – the secret organization run by his father, Cornelius Quinn. But Quinn’s arch nemesis, Newman Xeno, leader of W.A.S.T.E. - ????? – has the Casanova Quinn from the book’s primary timeline, 919, killed while he abducts the Casanova of timeline 909 to replace him. Xeno wants nothing short of the total elimination of E.M.P.I.R.E. and by replacing its star agent (Cass 919) with one of moral ambiguity (Cass 909), he hopes to infiltrate the super-spy organization and eat away at it from the inside. During the space/time abduction, Xeno also has Cass’s sister, Zephyr, from another timeline killed, so that her father will believe her dead, as the 919 model continues secretly working to bring down her father in this timeline (she’s the bad sibling and Xeno’s girlfriend). Yeah, it’s #*%!ed up convoluted, but damn, it’s fun.

As Casanova is assigned missions by his father, Xeno gives the double-agent counter-missions, working not only to subvert the machinations of E.M.P.I.R.E. but also to prove the boy’s loyalty. In the course of the first seven issues (collected in the album, Casanova: Luxuria) Casanova Quinn discovers Cold Heart Island – an island cut off from humanity that, despite the arcane fa├žade put forth when encroached upon by the “civilized” world, is actually advanced well beyond anything currently theorized – kidnaps David X an escape artist about to finish his twelve years of meditation and awaken as the supersammasambuddha and then replaces him with a robot double, and infiltrates the pop divas, Teen Age Music International (T.A.M.I.) as a fetish photographer in order to uncover a map hidden on their nude bodies that will lead E.M.P.I.R.E. to the final liquid assets of another rival, Sabine Seychelle. And this is only the tip of the iceberg for Casanova Quinn.

Through all the events in Luxuria, the new Casanova Quinn finds himself growing closer to the Casanova that once inhabited timeline 909. Discovering his mother, now unable to relate to the world and hidden away in Big Sur, he rescues her from this reality, asking the inhabitants of Cold Heart Island to watch over her. Cass also manages to end his sister Zephyr’s rampage with diplomacy rather than his fists. And ultimately, Casanova Quinn finds his redemption, double-crossing Newman Xeno in the end while painting a bull’s eye on his back in the process.

With the second album, Gula, it is a couple years later and readers find that Casanova Quinn has gone missing. The mantra for this album: “When is Casanova Quinn?” With Cass off the board, Fraction brings Zephyr Quinn front and center with her newly-christened relationship with Kubark Benday – son of Israel Benday, founder of M.O.T.T., and another enemy of E.M.P.I.R.E. – providing the impetus for the series. Meanwhile, a strange six-armed beauty from the future tries to help Cass’s allies fix the time anomalies that are bending the world around them.

Where the initial album revolved around the violence and brutality that lives around (and within) us all, this second album uses love and lust as the weapons of choice, with a requisite amount of bloodshed. It can be debated which is worse, but when this latest storyline careens to a halt, those taking the brunt of the punishment experience it in their souls. The twists and turns in this album are more riveting and affecting in that they involve characters that the audience has come to know and understand. Fraction blindsides readers with his plot-twists, and yet it all flows naturally from the mayhem he created in the first volume and has continued through this second narrative. (And I use mayhem in the most positive light here. Controlled chaos might be a better description. But I digress.) As involving and mesmeric as the initial album, Casanova: Gula is a great read deserving permanent status on any fan’s shelf.

Matt Fraction is more than ably assisted by the virtuoso duo of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. In the first volume of the series, Ba expertly brings forth the entire Quinn family and the over-the-top world in which they and their nemeses live. His flowing linework and accomplished layouts add so much to the story of Casanova Quinn that it’s hard to conceive of this series working without his contribution. That is, until his twin brother joined with the second volume, as Ba drew The Umbrella Academy with writer/singer Gerard Way for Dark Horse Comics. Fabio Moon manages to bring his own take on the Quinns and the super-spy, multiquintessence worldview that permeates this whirlwind comic while keeping everything grounded within the reality that his brother produced in Luxuria. Ba and Moon are two of the most exciting artists to hit the comic scene in a number of years. Their characters erupt with energy and move gracefully across the page while their fully-realized backgrounds serve to give the story context and allow them to accentuate scenes by dropping those backgrounds off the panel in a way that less accomplished artists might not even consider. I enjoy going through the books and soaking up the art after I’ve read these issues, because it is just that good.

Casanova is a mash of everything that makes comics great – super-spies, parallel timelines, larger-than-life villains, kung fu, giant robots, sexy chicks, and catchy acronyms. And this book does something that many comics shy away from – it revels in being a comic book. This is evident not just in the nod to classic comics such as Steranko’s SHIELD series, but also in its use of former executive director and now Image publisher Eric Stephenson to provide pithy interjections from time to time and catch reader’s up with plot points that might have been forgotten from one issue to the next. This point is brought home when the final battle between Cass and his sister begins in issue seven and three captions boxes are crossed out, giving way to the ideal observation, “I love comic books!” A fitting mantra for such a book.

This book is also a dumping ground for Matt Fractions’ brain. Whatever information/entertainment he’s absorbed through the years seems to have made it into the book – or will eventually. The essays in the back of each issue, not available in the collected albums, delve deeper into the motivations and inspirations for a particular issue and for someone who likes to keep his emotional stuff wound tight, Fraction has certainly laid it all on the line with this book. And that’s why Casanova has been successful and why his audience is able to relate to it so well. I empathize with wanting to keep things bottled up and applaud Fraction for being so candid. Could I do that? I don’t know. But for fans of Casanova, they could not ask for more. This is one of the best books to come along in this new century, and anyone that loves comics needs to get these books now.

An Interview with Matt Fraction:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium?

Fraction: The mixture of words and images. I always wanted to tell stories, and I always wanted to draw. When I was a kid I'd make my own comics and call them movies. I know, I don't know. I was weird. Anyway. Words and pictures and a desire to tell stories. And it's cheaper and less dependent on others than filmmaking, so there's that. I've spent an awful lot of time behind the camera making movies or animated shorts or whatever and I love it but, at the same time, I can't do that in my kitchen with my wife and kid, y'know?

Anyway. Words and pictures. I am addicted to words and pictures and the magical, wonderful, inexplicable thing that happens in the space between them.

Beckett: From reading the back matter of the individual issues of Casanova, it seems as if you were making it all up as you went along. And yet, there is a continuing narrative with multiple subplots wending its way through this first album. Did you have an over-arching story mapped out, and how did you kept it all straight?

Fraction: I wasn't making it up at all. I knew the big landmarks and, with one exception, they remained as in place in the published series as they did in my initial notes. I absolutely have an over-arching story mapped out. There's lots of room to improvise between those landmarks, and I think I can pull it off only because those landmarks are so fixed.

The one major beat I changed-- and without blowing the ending to Luxuria, I won't say it-- became a kind of moral imperative that I change, and I think it's more or less pretty seamless. Would that I could go back in time there would be a few microscopic changes I'd make to accommodate it some but I think I'm the only person in the world that notices.

You know how Stanislavsky said, about acting, that you do a shitload of research, and preparation, and study and analysis and homework and then you throw 90% of it away and just wing it? It's that. All the crap I ramble about at the end of the issues? None of it matters. None of it. I might as well talk about what I had for lunch, you know? It's all just homework.

Beckett: With Casanova, you walk a fine line between the action/adventure and the humor. How do you maintain that balance – does it require a lot of hard editing and revising – and did you have any worries that it might not be well-received?

Fraction: Instinct. I suspect I'm wrong more than right. Eh, the only way I'll get better is to just keep writing, so I dunno. My life is funny. My friends are funny. I spend a lot of time laughing. I don't understand people that somehow think a sense of humor is in opposition to... I dunno, "serious storytelling" or whatever. On the very worst days of my life, I've still laughed. That's life, you know? Highs, lows, ups, downs. I laugh a lot. My friends laugh a lot. Especially when one of us is hanging from the gallows. Which tends to be often.

I don't worry about how anything I write is received-- of course I hope it's well-received but you can't worry about that stuff. Shit, I dunno, maybe you can but I absolutely can not. If I worried about it I'd go totally crazy and turn into one of those douchebag writers on the internet that argues with readers anytime any one of them doesn't care for their work in any capacity and loses entire days to egosurfing themselves on Google for the slightest mention of their name trying to somehow bully a subjective opinion into submission.

I'm happy and amazed and delighted that anybody gives me their time and attention; I hope they don't resent it and they still have my gratitude even if and inevitably when they do.

Beckett: The slimline format. Warren Ellis has written about Fell scripts running longer than some scripts for his traditional 22-page books. How do you break down an individual issue’s script and do you similarly find it more work than a typical comic script as Ellis does?

Fraction: Oh, Casanova is the hardest thing I've ever written. Every issue, every time, no doubt. All that homework doesn't make it move any faster. It's no different than any other script, in terms of how it's written, but it requires like 10,000 times more thought, somehow. The process isn't necessarily any different, it's just more... ornate. I start with the broad story beats written out in paragraphs, then break that out into what happens on each page, and then refine the pages and write it out. Man, it sounds so simple when I write it like that. That's like a brain surgeon saying first you cut the skull cap, then you work on the brain, then you stitch it back up.

Well, I'm pretty proud with it at the end of the day, so it's worth it. But yeah, Christ! It's a lot of work.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Fraction: I write lots of comics for Marvel, and I love them and I'm very proud of them but it's Marvel and they have a robust ad presence and marketing presence and shelf presence in the direct market, so you'll have no problems finding out about that stuff on your own if it so interests you. I'd much rather talk about projects I have nothing to do with but love. Rick Remender's comics, namely Fear Agent, is fantastic. Jason Aaron's Scalped is maybe the best new book of the last year. Jon Hickman makes comics from Jupiter, I don't even know how to talk about his stuff but it's absolutely otherworldly and insane. My friends Harold Sipe and Hector Casanova have a book called Screamland coming out in a couple months and I wish my first comic was that good.

Yes! Yes. These are books I want to tell readers about. Read them! They are wonderful.

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