Comics Vitae: Matt Fraction Part II, Iron Man through Sex Criminals

Books Features Matt Fraction

Matt Fraction went to art school. He emphasized that fact a couple of times during our interview. He wasn’t bragging or playing the artiste, he was simply describing how that experience shaped how he writes comics. It also sums up how readers view Fraction, though — he’s the indie hero who conquered the capes, an American Morrison injecting big ideas and idiosyncrasy into the often moribund world of superhero comics, while always embracing the inherent absurdity of the genre. The author of Hawkeye, Sex Criminals and Casanova writes serious comics without succumbing to the grim and maudlin tone that has seeped so thoroughly into the superhero world over the last few decades. And even when he’s writing superheroes and alternate reality science fiction spies, Fraction never loses his hold on the humanity of his characters.

Paste spoke with Fraction (who was recently announced as the collaborator on Chuck Palahniuk’s comic book sequel to Fight Club) about his career, winding him up and letting him talk about many of the books he’s written over the last decade. Here’s the second part of that interview. For Part 1, Click here.

Invincible Iron Man Five Nightmares.jpg

Invincible Iron Man
Illustrated by Salvador Larroca
Published by Marvel from 2008 to 2012

Paste: Is it easy to write for Tony Stark?
Fraction: It got easier. It became effortless after a while.

Paste: Do you just imagine Robert Downey Jr. saying your lines as you write them or do you ignore the movies when you’re writing the comic?
Fraction: I was five issues in when the movie came out, so I hadn’t seen anything. I had no special knowledge. We came out the Wednesday after the movie came out. I first saw it on that Friday night, and when it was over I thought, “God, I wish I get to write Iron Man — WAITAMINUTE I DO!” and went home and finished issue #5. So Downey was never in my head. It was about being smarter than me. I was able to find myself in Stark very quickly, but it’s much harder to find Stark in myself. It’s hard trying to write brighter than me.

Paste: Did you do a lot of science or tech research?
Paste: That tends to be the stuff I read anyway. It was a very dark book to write. We predicted Mumbai, we predicted Benghazi, we predicted every horrible thing that’s happened in the world. We predicted Sandy Hook. Coke announced they’re going to start using their machines in Africa to sell things like fresh water and cellphones and batteries, and they’re calling it Downtown in a Box. It was the first time we predicted something good. I predicted ways to kill people with cellphones, I predicted drone strikes, I predicted Silk Road, I predicted lots of different stuff in that book, well, quote-predicted-unquote, as it was pretty low-hanging fruit, but we predicted lots of scary things. That was the hardest part of that book. I guarantee you my name is on watch lists. If my name isn’t on NSA watch lists, then the NSA is failing us all, because I have Googled some spooky-ass shit.

Paste: Have you ever gotten any notes from Marvel about toning down the politics?
Fraction: I haven’t. I think I sort of have a pretty good understanding of what they want from me, you know? There’s this great Alan Moore anecdote that I love to tell about when he left Swamp Thing at the height of his powers. Someone asked him why he was leaving when he was at his best and his response was, “I realized I wanted to tell stories about the environment and the big muck monster was getting in the way.” I’m very good at telling the difference between stories about the environment and stories about the muck monster.

Paste: When you’re writing a character like Iron Man, do you feel more pressure, or the need to be more careful, than when you’re writing a less popular character like Iron Fist?
Fraction: To me, it’s all the same weight and magnitude. It’s always somebody’s favorite character somewhere. And you’re going to hear from them. If you blow something, you’re going to hear from them. You have to swing as hard when you’re writing The Order as you do when you’re writing Uncanny X-Men. Otherwise people can tell. It’ll read in your work that you don’t care. It’ll read like you’re picking up a paycheck. I’ve been fortunate in my career that I’ve never written anything I wouldn’t try, that as a reader I’d at least pick up and give a shot. I’m not saying it’s all good or successful, but I’ve never taken a job just to pay a bill.

Next: The Defenders

The Defenders
Illustrated by Terry Dodson, Others
Published by Marvel from 2011 to 2012

Paste: Why didn’t people buy this comic?
Fraction: I have no idea.

Paste: What the hell do people want from their superhero comics?
Fraction: I worked just as hard on that as I do on Hawkeye. People didn’t buy that comic because it was called Defenders. Retailers ordered the same number of the new Defenders as they did the old Defenders and it didn’t matter what the reviews were. At the time there were some of the best reviews of my career. But it didn’t work.

Paste: It’s not just the name “Defenders”, either — Dr. Strange, Namor, Silver Surfer, none of them can ever really keep a book. Are these characters just tainted?
Fraction: Not at all. I think there’s just a history of bad comics, and when a retailer has to choose… we’re down to less than 2000 retail stores. The industry’s healthy, but we’ve contracted profoundly. You have to choose between a Batman book you know will sell or a Defenders book that probably won’t. It’s just economic reality. We got to a point where… there are a lot of bad factors in play, and a lot of mistakes in play, and look, I think we buried the lead. I think there were ways we could’ve been more commercially appealing, but that’s not the book I wanted to write, or the book I’m good at writing. I had faith that people would show up and they didn’t. The flipside is that’s the same approach I took to Hawkeye and people did show up, so what the fuck do I know. It’s boggling to me. It was a lot of fun while it lasted.

Next: Hawkeye


Illustrated by David Aja, Others
Published by Marvel by Marvel from 2012 to Present

Paste: What was the original pitch for Hawkeye?
Fraction: It was going to be much more like James Bond, with international travel and exotic locales and tuxedoes and women in gowns, and stuff like that. I realized that was a story, but wasn’t really a book. I withdrew from the pitch process — I pitched it, got a provisional green light, and started to work on it and realized I was barking up the wrong tree and had to bow out, to everyone’s great frustration. And at some point, for some reason — I don’ remember why I thought of it — but the picture of him with tape over the bridge of his nose popped in my head. And then I had the book. I knew what the book was. I had to reinsert myself into the pitch process and repitch and blah blah blah.

Paste: With a book like this, with the movie coming out, was Marvel actively looking for people to make a Hawkeye, or…
Fraction: Yeah, they do that sort of… several times a year we have these editorial summits and there are always conversations generated or spawned by this list of Marvel media activity, in six to twelve months, and there are characters that are going to be in these films or on TV or cartoons or here and there, and people might be coming into comic shops looking for these guys, so these are characters we can feature.

I’ve never been told “this is going to happen, put these people in your book,” but Hawkeye was on the list because of the Avengers movie, and I didn’t have any more information than anyone else had about the Avengers movie, but I always liked the character as a kid. Then I figured out the book, being about the Avenger with the tape on his nose. I realized I had never read that book before. I realized I could do a book that would honor the stuff I loved when I was a kid, especially the Mark Gruenwald stuff, as silly as it might be now; but I could honor that character work, I could honor who that guy is. Who is the regular man that gets to be with the Avengers? I’d read a book on what he’d do on his day off, this idea that somebody compulsively can’t stop doing good. He’s like Fred from Scooby Doo all grown up. He just can’t stop meddling.

As a character, that’s really interesting to me. What does that say about somebody? He’s like the opposite of Batman. The older you get, the more you live in the world, it’s impossible not to look at Batman through class and race. Batman is a rich white billionaire who beats up poor brown people and the mentally ill. That’s weird, right? Kinda weird. A billionaire, punching poor people. But the idea of a guy who came from nothing and stayed just a couple steps away from it, but can’t not help you move a couch, that’s interesting. I found my way into the book and the character and everything else grew out of that.

Paste: You mention the original pitch was a James Bond, tuxedo deal — that sounds like the Madripoor story.
Fraction: That was my pitch. Two years ago I did a comic for GQ about the killing of Osama bin Laden. I did a ton of research. It was like journalism. Everything was triple-sourced. It was more sourced than Zero Dark Thirty. I was deeply entrenched in that night, that moment, that operation, the information that had been made public by multiple independent sources that could piece together what happened. It’s in my head, just there. Thank God I took a couple years of journalism at school, because I had to rely on all of it for the story I put together. I had all this stuff in my head, and the idea of what if Hawkeye did it, and there was a tape that got out. That was just a cool hook for a story. My initial pitch was ‘Hawkeye killed Osama bin Laden, and the tape gets out.’ That’s a cool cold opening. That’s a great opening. Fuck, I’ll read that. And then he has to track the tape down and go to the auctions… it was a big James Bond adventure. It’s a cool Bond movie: Bond kills a world leader, the tape gets out and he has to track it down.

It was a cool story, and I didn’t want to let it go, so I found a way to retrofit it into the rest of what the book became. But in a way, issues #4 and #5 were the first issues that I wrote. And then issue #2, which Steve [Wacker, Hawkeye’s former editor,] and I both liked, but we agreed it was a second issue and not a first one, so I wrote a new one. Everything about this book is a fucking headache.

Issue #2 started with a picture of Hawkeye running away with a woman over his shoulder, and everybody shooting at them, and he’s jumping over the balcony saying “I know this looks bad.” I wrote that on the back of a receipt in my car. My kids were in the car and they were both at an age where naps were important to the sanity of our home life. My wife had left the car to shop, so I stayed in the car with them to let the kids sleep. While she was shopping, I grabbed a receipt out of the armrest. I sat there and banged out the issue as a really rough outline on the back of this receipt.

Paste: The whole Madripoor story is about an Avenger killing. In the second issue you have Clint and Kate point out that the guys they just shot in the face with arrows were going to live…
Fraction: They weren’t arrows, they were needles. And I’m not done with those guys, those guys are coming back.

Paste: But do you feel constrained by “no killing” rules when you’re writing a character whose only power is a bow and arrow?
Fraction: No, I like it. Comics are too dark. They’re too grim. Dark and grim are fine, but when it’s the standard operating procedure, it bums me out after a while. It’s the challenge of getting back to the Stephen J. Cannell-ness of it all.

There are a couple of super hypnotists in that circus, and they blind them, which is how they stop them. They’re coming back. When your power’s in your eyes and somebody just shot them out with needles… But it was a deliberate, conscious choice. As [editor Steve Wacker and I] were banging it out on a phone call, we said “do we kill people?” And we both wanted to say no. And that was our book. It cemented the Rockford-ness of it. Rockford never killed anybody.

Paste: And that was always a firm part of Hawkeye’s character in the past.
Fraction: Brian Bendis did a really great Clint story during Norman Osborn’s reign where he tried to assassinate him, and it was a really cool Clint story. It was Clint at the end of his rope. It caused a lot of trouble and complications. But I think him not killing is as important to his character as Sabretooth or Wolverine killing people. I remember Wolverine’s first issue; he was literally standing on a pile of corpses. That was its selling point — he kills 300 people in the first issue. I remember an interview with Chris Claremont declaring that.

Paste: Another recurring theme is parallelism: you have multiple versions of characters running around in Casanova, and in Hawkeye you have two Bartons, two Hawkeyes. You also have Kazi, who has a similar background to Clint. Is this a theme you really like playing with, or just a coincidence between the two books?
Fraction: I hadn’t really thought about similarities with Casanova. But it’s definitely a thematic decision in Hawkeye. We have the cast page with Kate and Clint listed as Hawkeye, and when Barney Barton popped up in the cast page, they made him Trickshot, but I fought to have him listed as Hawkeye too, because he pretended to be Hawkeye for a while. To me, he’s Hawkeye. Everyone’s Hawkeye. If you’re in the book, you’re Hawkeye. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it reinforces the everyman nature of the character, I think, and how easy it is to have the life that Clint had and, unlike Clint, come out totally wrong.

Paste: Of those two main Hawkeyes, which one do you like writing better, Clint or Kate?
Fraction: They are a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup to me. They are chocolate and peanut butter. Either is great, but together they’re unbeatable. And that was the pitch, that was the hook. I wanted the Steed and Peel of them at the heart of the book. I love writing them together. I love that at no point have they had to have a dick measuring contest about who gets to be Hawkeye. I love that it’s a non-sexual male-female relationship, that it’s a mentor-mentee relationship. Who is the mentor and who is the mentee on any given day changes. Between the two of them, they’re a whole person. Between the two of them, they’re alright.

And based on the stuff in Young Avengers, she had to leave New York. Kate was at a point where she really could get set up and take off, and the idea that I could do stories of her on her own — trying to find her own two feet and her own identity — on the other coast made sense to me.

So we’ve split the book where we’re alternating artists and Hawkeyes, a Clint issue and then a Kate issue for a few months. Monthly and Hawkeye are words that need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they’ll alternate for a while. And in the end, we’ll have a separate Kate collection, the annual and four issues telling a story of Kate having a summer of discovery in California, away from the Young Avengers and away from Clint, just trying to stand on her own two feet and seeing what she’s made of.

Paste: I reread up through the first thirteen issues before we talked, and I noticed that the first six issues or so there’s no clear timeframe, whereas the last six seem to happen in a day or two.
Fraction: I did an issue last December, a holiday issue, like an advent calendar, but all shuffled up. And then I wanted to see if I could do an arc like that. So basically, the six days after that. From issue #8 you see six days across six issues, all scrambled up. I wanted to show how that death (there’s a death) impacts everybody, how it just completely shatters everything. It’s so devastating to this book that’s about small, quiet character moments. There’s a big, violent comic book moment that shatters everything, even our sense of time and space. It’s the same kind of trick we’ve been doing in the book all along, when we told a story over what should have been six months, but ended up being about a year. Everything gets all blown up and broken and mixed around and scrambled, and slowly comes back together.

Paste: So about the death: the Hurricane Sandy issue came in the middle of the post-advent calendar period, and that death would not be as powerful as it was without that issue. Were you planning on working that backstory in there already, or was it this moment where real life let you flesh this character out before killing him?
Fraction: Yeah, the Sandy episode came out in January of 2013. Issue 6 was done, it was in bed. That was how I spent my Thanksgiving in 2012, writing the Sandy issue. So we were scrambling around getting the art, getting Steve [Lieber] and Jesse [Hamm] on board, and figuring out the logistics, and seeing if we could squeeze a comic out in three weeks. So I knew what was happening, I knew what was coming with Grills, and I took the opportunity to make it hurt more. It was cruel and manipulative.

Next: Fantastic Four & FF

FF / Fantastic Four
Illustrated by Mark Bagley, Mike Allred, Others
Published by Marvel from 2012 to 2014

Paste: I didn’t know you were leaving these books until last night, when I was researching this.
Fraction: Neither did I.

Paste: How hard is it to decide to leave books like that?
Fraction: It sucks! It sucked. Karl Kesel is doing Fantastic Four, and Lee Allred, Mike Allred’s brother, is doing FF. And I gave them all my notes about where I was heading and how I was going to do it and have made myself available to help out if they need any.

Paste: Will it be hard to read those comics if they go in drastically different directions than you were headed in?
Fraction: No! I get to come back and read them as a fan again. I get my comics back. Who am I to tell them how to do their thing? I’m going to let Karl Kesel entertain me. I’m not going to get in the way. And Lee and Mike have made FF even more of an Allred book than when I was there. That first issue was like already more Allred than before. It’s great.

Paste: When you wrote those books, and plotted them out, did you do that in tandem with one another?
Fraction: I planned the beginnings and ends in tandem. The Richards family was going to be back by the end of issue 16 of both books. Whether or not I went on to 17, we would play by ear, but the beginnings and endings were tied together, and moments where they bounced back and forth. It’s been marketed terribly, because people don’t realize that the first trade contains half of the FF, you know? The trade paperback system is a mess, even though I made a chart, I made a whole thing; somehow it got lost. It’s a mess in the collection, but in my head it opened together and it closes together, and if you’re reading them both in concurrence you’ll see lots of little ping-pongy moments back and forth.

Next: Inhumanity

Inhumanity / Inhuman
Illustrated by Olivier Coipel , Nick Bradshaw, Others
Published by Marvel in 2013 and 2014
A few weeks after this interview was recorded, Marvel announced that Fraction would not be writing Inhuman, but would continue to write its prelude, Inhumanity.

Fraction: It spins out of the events of Infinity. There’s a big plot point that happens to the Inhumans. It’s a radical status quo shake-up for the Inhumans as a species, and it ends up affecting more than just them. It affects the Marvel Universe at large, or at least Earth. The Inhumans lose the safety and security of their hidden, secret superhero kingdom in the clouds, and everyone will have to deal with who and what they are in a very real way that hasn’t ever happened before. It’s a big story, a sprawling story; but it’s still very much a Marvel story, about regular people, real people with real problems in a very unreal situation.

Infinity is a crossover, and Inhumanity is like Dark Reign after Secret Invasion — it’s more like a mood. There are a lot of different people taking part in it, but it isn’t quite like a crossover. There’s a lot of eyes on it, a lot of pressure, a lot of people asking questions, and having come in to Civil War when all the red meat was spoken for, I try to take a different approach where I try to leave as much meat on the bone for other people. There are a lot of questions I don’t answer because I want to see what Warren Ellis and Kelly Sue (DeConnick) do with Inhumanity. I want to see what Mark Waid does with Inhumanity. I can’t get more specific without blowing the story, but you’ll get to see a lot of people. We all get to define the story together, which is a cool way to collaborate with people.

Next: Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals
Illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
Published by Image from 2013 to Present

Paste: You’re back with Image. It’s not with Icon. What’s the advantage to working with Image?
Fraction: I don’t think Icon would want anything to do with a book called Sex Criminals. It’s a better deal, and I can go to Eric Stephenson and tell him what the book is about, and his response is, “oh my god, that sounds amazing!” So they’re incredibly supportive, super into it and it’s great.

Paste: So it’s about sex without being sensational about it.
Fraction: Yeah, it’s about sex, but it’s not sexy.

Paste: That first issue is realistic and matter-of-fact about sexuality, which is rare not just in comics, but in most media. Why do you think it’s rare to find something that deals with sex in a mature way?
Fraction: Because tits sell. Because mass media is predicated upon exploiting women’s looks and bodies to make money, even while tut-tutting and acting scandalized. We get the Miley Cyrus we deserve. To be brutally frank about it, sexy sells, but sex doesn’t. But sex is funnier.

Paste: So you’re not dealing with superheroes here, but there’s a paranormal aspect, and it’s also kind of a crime story. Do comics need a genre hook to be successful?
Fraction: I didn’t want it to be a genre hook. I wanted to give it a visual hook, and that kind of lent itself into the genre part of it, I suppose. I hate comics that are clearly screenplays that didn’t sell. So I wanted something that didn’t look like a movie that we just drew because we couldn’t make it into a movie. I wanted something that took advantage of comics as comics, that played with what comic books can do with time and space and color in a way that film can’t, or TV can’t. I really just wanted to make a comic that couldn’t exist in another medium that well. At least, if there’s ever a Sex Criminals movie, it’ll look completely different than the comic. It’ll move and act differently. I just wanted to make a comic that celebrated being a comic, and I suppose the genre stuff came secondarily to that desire.

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