Matt Fraction is about to embark on the hardest writing assignment of his life. The Marvel writer has written everything from the Invincible Iron Man to the Immortal Iron Fist, but up until now, he has yet to take the reigns on a capital “E” Event. That all changes this April when he launches Fear Itself, a seven part series that pits the Marvel Universe against the living embodiment of fear, and for real this time: everything changes forever.
And while this may, in the long run, be Fraction’s lasting stamp on the Marvel U, the writer is best known for his intelligent, emotional, complex, and sometimes downright weird takes on characters – most notably his Icon published creation Casanova Quinn. He hasn’t been the Event guy before, but he’s jumped into that role with gusto – which is why it’s harder than anything he’s done before, melding his unique takes with action writ large.
In the short breather between working on three major Marvel titles (Fear Itself, plus Iron Man and Thor), as well as raising two kids and, you know, probably occasionally eating and sleeping, we chatted with Fraction about the span of his career so far, ranging from his first gig writing a talking monkey, to why Fear Itself may end up killing him. Or not:
MTV Geek: Let’s kick things off talking about Mantooth… What is it about talking monkeys that resonates so well with comic book readers?
Matt Fraction: I'm actually torn between trying to answer this seriously and just, y'know, rolling. Let's split the difference: it's the one thing comics will always do best. Better than film, better than animation, better than anything. Comic book readers know this and knew this first and foremost.
And once you can make 'em swear and blow up robots you've found perfect comic-fuel.
Geek: This book seemed to “break” you into the comic book industry very quickly… Would you say that’s accurate? Or is every “overnight success” story years in the making?
MF: Wildly inaccurate. I'd been working retail and conventions; I made animated shorts and sharing them with folks in the industry for a few years, which was most vitally my writing samples and proof of visual storytelling ability. Beyond that, I had been writing ABOUT comics in the protopaleolithic era of the comics Internet. I was blogging, and editing a web-zine about comics, all that stuff.
Not everybody on the Internet was reading about comics but a surprising volume of people making comics were dicking around on the internet; that, combined with the rest, helped make me a not-wholly-unknown quality. That led to an OGN that I wrote in 2001 but wasn't published until 2003. During that two years I keep clawing at the walls; more delays followed. A few other books followed; it wasn't until 2006 that writing became a regular gig, and even then, I only had a book and a half at Marvel, and Casanova. So, to me, it felt like a process that took seven or eight years of constant, obsessive, work, on top of a day job that was already pretty constant and obsessive for me.
Geek: Your next book was Last of the Independents, a far more grounded crime thriller… Was this a chance to prove that you could write more realistic scenarios, after crazy monkey adventures? Or was it just a case of you wanting to tell this story?
MF: Oh, god, you credit me with being far more self-aware than I actually am. I'm like a moth, and LOTI was a shining light on the back porch. It was a story I wanted to tell. I get bored easily. It was the next shiny thing. I had a GREAT day job-- being a comics dilettante wannabe was a joy, in its way, as I only had to write what I absolutely was burning to write. You know what I mean?
Geek: I do! And speaking of things that fly, and terrible transitions, let’s chat about vampires. You followed LOTI with a long-ish run on 30 Days of Night: Bloodsucker Tales. What was it like, after creating your own stories, to work in someone else’s playground, to mix a metaphor?
MF: First off, that Steve Niles read LOTI and trusted me-- me!-- to be the first person not-him to touch the 30 Days toybox, to touch HIS toybox, simply because he liked my work... I don't know that I've ever thanked Steve enough, or that I ever could. To be trusted like that? It was amazing.
To play on his playground was a blast; I was a fan, and I love horror, so to get to do my weird spin on it was great. It was a grim thing to write. A lot of awful research. I think that's why Lex, the main character, had that kind of insane monologue going the whole time-- if I didn't have something to laugh at, I'd weep.
The murders in Juarez, by the way, have not abated.
Geek: In 2005, you got your first Marvel story in X-Men Unlimited – which was actually recently reprinted. How’d you end up getting the Marvel job? And what was it like, knowing your first work for the company was a Wolverine story with Sam Keith?
MF: Well, like I said, I knew folks from before I was published, and once I was published, I made sure to give folks in comics whose work I enjoyed copies of my stuff, the same way I used to give them DVDs. One of the guys I made sure to give a copy to was Axel Alonso, who had pretty much edited every comic I loved from DC in the nineties. That was my entryway to Marvel, ultimately-- a slight personal pre-history (the "Okay-you're-not-insane" screening) and a published writing sample.
I started pitching and must've written, oh, hundreds of pages that nobody but Axel and his assistant at the time Warren Simons ever read. Which was fine-- I was pitching stuff I wanted to do and learning as I went. Eventually as Warren got X-UL, he asked for thumbnails. I guess I sent, oh, thirty or so.
And it was amazing. Sam Keith? Are you kidding me?
Geek: Moving on to The Five Fists of Science, mixing famous characters from history with science fiction, and making them action stars… Do you ever read S.H.I.E.LD. and clear your throat loudly in Jonathan Hickman’s direction?
MF: God, no. You don't get to be precious with the ownership of ideas once they're released on the world; it's like being pissed off to find you're suddenly involved in a conversation after you say something out loud in a room full of people. EVERYTHING WE DO COMES FROM THAT WHICH CAME BEFORE US.
E! V! E! R! Y! T! H! I! N! G!
When there was only one set of footprints? That's when we were riding piggyback upon our forefathers and watching how the job gets fucking done, son.
Also, Hickman made FIVE FISTS canon! Go back and scrutinize S.H.I.E.L.D. back issues, kids. It was an honor that someone as gifted as Jon read FIVE FISTS.
Geek: Five Fists very much presaged the mainstreaming of Steampunk – is it a genre you’d ever want to return to?
MF: No, because, now, it's just so ubiquitous and I have nothing to say to, of, or about the particular genre... at the time, it was just like... well, if Tesla really MADE this stuff he was talking about, what would it look like? Now there's a... y'know, a canon or whatever.
I definitely have more stories from the 19th century to tell, but I doubt there'd be quite so fantastic a backdrop.
Geek: And then there’s Casanova… It almost seems like the premise of Casanova is a story that’s constantly pulling the rug out from under itself – is that accurate? How much advanced planning goes into Casanova? Or is it improvisatory in nature?
MF: Sure. It's made to be the book that lets me write the book I want to write when I write it, regardless of what came before.
It was my first chance at an 'ongoing' series. I didn't think i would ever get another so... so, yeah, why write another BATMAN ripoff?
It's all very planned. Then the planning is largely thrown out and I improvise. It's hard to explain. I have a grand scheme. I know each arc. I know the end. I have no idea how I'm getting there or what the experience will be like. It took me a year of near-constant fiddling to figure out how to write V3.
It’s also the one “indie” story you’ve continued during your time at Marvel. What keeps you coming back to the adventures of Casanova Quinn?
It's not finished with me yet.
Geek: You started full fledged working for Marvel with simultaneous runs on Punisher: War Journal and Immortal Iron Fist, both of which launched with new number ones with you at the helm. Did it feel like jumping right into the deep end? Or had you been ready for this your whole life?
MF: Oh, no, it felt right into the deep end. That said, I'd just gone storming out of my day job like a petulant child, my wife was pregnant, and we had a mortgage. You learn to swim pretty quick in that particular deep end.
Geek: With Immortal Iron Fist, at least, it feels like even if the title didn’t have a long life, the characters and situations you created with Ed Brubaker have had a second life throughout the Marvel Universe. Why is that? And what lessons did you learn on Iron Fist that you’ve taken to other titles?
MF: I guess people liked it, is the simplest explanation. Iron Fist, like the Surfer, like Fury, like She-Hulk and Dr. Strange and Ant Man and so on... there are characters that are deeply and truly and sincerely beloved by people at Marvel, and by a hard core of Marvel readers that cannot seem to, for the life of them, crack through the Direct Market and find a sales foothold that doesn't lose money by existing. I think Ed and I got lucky, wholly by accident, with the timing of the thing and I think we were successful at showing people what it was about the character we both loved and why.
I think. I don't know. I'm a horrible judge of these things.
Geek: On the other hand, there’s The Order – which I will mention I love, by the way. But that seems to be a title that’s been swept under the rug, I don’t think we’ve seen hide nor hair of those characters since. What didn’t work about The Order?
MF: Oh, god, all of it, I think. New writer. All new characters. We never nailed the costumes. Bad character names. Weird powers. Removed from Marvel Manhattan. Unconventional structure...
Geek: Well hey, I liked it. Anyway, soon after this, you started writing Iron Man, which has probably been your greatest critical – and sales – success so far. Going into it, what was your personal mission statement for Tony Stark?
MF: I've been reading Iron Man since #198. Given the chance, I wanted to write the Iron Man comic that I wanted to read. That was really it. The idea of having a new Iron Man #1 on the stands for when the film came out. I had no special access to any film materials beyond what ran in VARIETY ever week... and I'd already been meddling with Pepper over in The Order... I saw that Stane was the bad guy in the film so, while doing The Order, I thought, oh, well, I should bring a Stane back so whomever is doing Iron Man can have him to play with... I had sort of set myself up when I got the gig, which was... I dunno, almost like time travel. Like I buried what I needed in my own backyard.
Geek: Marvel seems to have given you incredible latitude to slowly break Tony down, before, also slowly, building him back up again. Clearly the pace has worked, but “taking your time” and “comic book sales” are almost mortal enemies. Why do you think it works here?
MF: That was kind of my pitch. I'd... It was an item on a retreat agenda. And I pitched that first two years in the room... Two and a half, really, I had DISASSEMBLED too, I think. Then, I joked, IRON MAN 2 will come out, and everybody laughed, and away I went...
But I have no idea why or how or if it works. It's just the story I want to tell. I'm... Like I said before, I'm really not that self-aware, nor am I particularly market-aware. If I wanted to be a pandering whore, I'd work on a sitcom. I'm sure keeping Tony out of the suit as long as I did hurt the book but... the second you start chasing after an audience... The second you start to pander... you're not writing any more. No judgment here but it's not what I do, or at least, it's not what I do well.
Geek: You’ve also been taking your time with the Mandarin… Other than a few appearances, and one “future” battle, he and Tony have yet to clash. Are we heading towards an epic confrontation?
MF: God, yes. Or I'm doing it all wrong.
Geek: Ha! Okay, so Uncanny X-Men was another – albeit brief – partnership with Ed Brubaker what’s your collaboration with him like? How do you two work?
MF: We actually have a very dedicated staff. Hi guys! We couldn't do it without you!!! Now go give yourselves half the afternoon off!
Geek: You’re a good boss. Now that you’re passing things along to Kieron Gillen, do you feel like you told the stories you wanted to tell with X-Men? Or do you still have a few more rattling in your brain? What X-Men arc are you most proud of?
MF: God, no. I don't think anybody's ever DONE with that world... Hard to explain, I guess, but it's just... It's such a turbulent system to study. The X-Men are like the weather, like the mail... Never done, never over, never truly predictable, and wholly fascinating. I think I could tell X-Men stories for a good long time; I just happened to be at an acceptable place to rotate off for a while.
And SECOND COMING. To be a part of a team that big and that gifted was a thrill.
Geek: And then there’s Thor… Reportedly, when you went exclusive at Marvel, you said the only thing you never wanted to work on was Thor, and now you’re writing an Event based around his mythology, as well as his main title – what changed (if that story is, in fact, true)?
MF: Exclusive? Fuck that, I said that the first time I got on the phone with Axel Alonso-- I said that when I was just asked to pitch. Ha ha. Ahh, callow youth.
What changed was I saw a Kirby/Giacoia original THOR page at Ande Parks' house and it was a revelation. I was like Paul on the road to Damascus; I fell off my horse and had visions. It was the first of many experiences I'd categorize as "magical" that I've had since coming into Thor's orbit.
Geek: The key word on your Thor stories seems to be “Big.”
MF: Lord knows I'm trying. I even asked the esteemed Mr. John Workman to give the Asgardians larger lettering than everybody else...
Geek: You’re already writing Thor and Iron Man… Are you gunning for Captain America, too, so you can complete the set? Should Ed Brubaker be nervously looking over his shoulder?
MF: No, no, not at all. Pity the poor fool that has to bat clean up for Ed on that run. Ed's run is what Miller's was on DAREDEVIL. In a word, definitive.
Geek: Let’s talk about Fear Itself… At this point, you’ve written a LOT of comic books, as well as video games, and more. But you’ve said that this is your biggest, most nerve-wracking project yet. Why is that?
MF: It's hugongous. Ginormous. Titossal. And a whole bunch of other new words that mean big. And it has enormous repercussions. FEAR ITSELF sets the tempo for the World To Come for the next few years and that's a scale I've never worked on before. There are tremendous repercussions that come out of it. There are deaths. There are changes. It's an epic EVENT done to the best of my abilities. So... So, yeah, it's a bit nerve-wracking. Or it was. Now I’m so deep in it I'm on to the next one... But about a year ago, on through the fall, I was a human car-crash.
Geek: You’ve also been very open about this being a back-to-basics “Event” with a capital E, brought about by the need to tie together Thor and Captain America with movies about. This all reads as very Secret Wars to me, but the concept also sounds a bit Civil War-y. Yes, these are both adjectives. Anyway, what end of the spectrum do you feel Fear Itself falls on? And why?
MF: Both, I hope! Those two are my sweet spots-- giant Marvel action against a relevant and turbulent backdrop that resonates. It's full of action and pathos and broken hearts and great human character moments-- I hope-- set against a world we all recognize, a story that speaks to who we are right now... I mean, it's where I hope the book falls. Those two are what I was aiming for; they are, I feel, remarkable.
And if Marvel ever publishes a SECRET INVASION omnibus, where you can read SI, and the two AVENGERS books, in their proper sequence with one another, I think the world will be amazed at what a blockbuster watch work Brian Bendis created there. It's so far beyond "event" as we know it.
I wish DC had done FINAL CRISIS right, too, in its collected form. That thing is a masterwork. Totally insane, but a masterwork all the same.
Geek: Did you have a favorite Marvel Event growing up?
MF: SECRET WARS-- I was stunned to see I still remembered much of it page and panel verbatim in my head when I reread it in prep to start FI-- and the MUTANT MASSACRE, if that counts. My first X-Xover, anyway...
Geek: I think nearly every event from every comic book company has been plagued by delays, artist changes, and more for the past few years. I know that’s not entirely on you, but how far ahead are you guys on Fear Itself? What will make this one different?
MF: I'm on five; Stuart's on three. We weren't given the green light because we were known for our diva-like trickle of productivity. We're here to work, man. No one can make any promises but... but it's not in our characters, y'know?
Geek: I do! In terms of plot, it seems like we’ll be seeing both psychological fear, courtesy of The Serpent, and physical fear, courtesy of The Worthy and their big honking hammers – is this on track? And which is more fun to write?
MF: Oh, both. It's the Marvel Hero writ large-- the soft human bits in the hearts of these gods and legends and icons-- the bits that make us love these characters-- are all being attacked. I'm writing my favorite heroes in their darkest hour, and they're all shining their brightest. It's great. It's a great reminder for me why I grew up a Marvel kid.
Geek: If you had to boil this down to, “It’s the story of ____,” whose story would it be? Sin’s? Thor’s? Or is it too much of an ensemble cast?
MF: It's the story of heroes. What makes them and why. What makes them real. What makes them break. What makes them fall.
FEAR ITSELF is the story of heroes.
And Captain America and Thor. But mostly heroes.
Geek: Are we going to see a long-term lasting effect to the Marvel Universe? Or is this more of a focused, done-in-one Event?
MF: This has shockwaves that we're going to ride for... Literally, years, I think. EVERY ISSUE is an event and the ending is, like CIVIL WAR, both an ending and a beginning.
It had been a few years for us, creatively, since we thought this big so once we realized this Cap/Thor story was, in fact, an event, was OUR event, was our Welcome Back To Events, You Wanted The Best You Got The Best Buckle Your Seatbelts It's Gonna Be A Bumpy Ride EEEEVENT... Well, we started to go big. We hear from you guys time and time again that you want the stories that matter, that you want your events to matter.
Well here we go.
Geek: Okay, before we let you go, let’s make this real personal: your wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick, is a comics writer as well. Do you think you would ever collaborate on something together?
MF: I hope so. We had a TV idea but over this last pilot season a near-identical idea was made, so it was back to the drawing board.
Geek: I bet it was NCIS: Los Angeles. Am I right? I am, I know it. Anyway, with both parents as comic book writers, do you think your kids will end up hating comics, and running away to become accountants?
MF: "Run away and join the office," as their Uncle Mike says.
Not so far, I don't think, anyway; Henry can't get enough of them and he can't even read yet...
Geek: Just to wrap things up what's been your favorite or most rewarding book to work on?
MF: CASANOVA. Nothing trumps pride of ownership.