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The Train Leaves In Thirty Days: A Matt Fraction Comics Survey

James Hepplewhite

A note from Rebecca: Making good on my promise to publish posts from talented authors about the things they really love, I would like to introduce my very good friend James Hepplewhite, a much more elegant writer than myself, no matter the topic, to introduce you to the comics of Matt Fraction. If you want to write about something that drives you wild, please feel free to submit it to me. Without further ado, James.

Let me introduce you to the comics of Matt Fraction. Which is a misnomer, because comics, unless you're a one man band, is an intensely collaborative medium. They're not really "Matt Fraction comics," they're Matt "Fraction and Collaborators comics." With that in mind, I'll go through four of the comics that Fraction has his name on.

Two will sound vaguely familiar, two won't.

The four comics:

  • Satellite Sam
  • Casanova
  • Hawkeye
  • Sex Criminals 

Satellite Samis a comic about television in the 50s, and also the period's prejudices. Gay characters abound, but only behind closed doors, mixed race parentage is a shocker and the story kicks off when a son discovers his father (a television space hero) had a predilection for bad women in garters, one of whom is almost certainly his father's killer.

Penciller Howard Chaykin overshadows Fraction here. In Chaykin's illustrious career, he is known for three things:

1) A legendary comics artist who invented many storytelling tricks used today.

2) Drawing women in garters.

3) A vulgar, lively wit. My favorite one so far, and one of the most tame. Also: Googling "Howard Chaykin interview" will provide at least 30 minutes of entertainment.

Fraction, being a long time fan of Chaykin, gives the man what he's known for. Satellite Sam is denser than uranium, openly salacious and devastating in its critiques. It is the only comic I can think of that made its own Tijuana Bible. Both are printed in a carnal, id-electrifying black and white.

If Mad Men was more brazen, it'd approach Satellite Sam.

Next, my adored Casanova.

Describing Casanova's plot is like solving a Rubik's cube on hallucinogens. Summarized barbarously: Timeline hopping bisexual super spy Casanova Quinn gets into real trouble. He disappoints his many fathers, chases the many instances of the Big Bad throughout the multiverse, and well, there's more surprises. 

Casanova is berserk with ideas, and spits them at the reader at a clip almost too fast to handle. Some of that is due to the early limitations of the series (16 page issues) but most is Fraction's fear that it would be the only comic he'd ever get to write.

The people pencilling Casanova are as integral to the comic as Fraction, Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon. Gabriel's work is pricklier and more lively, whereas Fabio Moon draws everyone gorgeous. Case in point: Sasa Lisi (an 8 1/2 reference, naturally) looks like the bewitching alien girlfriend of a million lesser sci-fi stories, but articulated as a full character by both writer and penciller.

And now, the hits. Hawkeye.

It's a story fundamentally about Clint Barton's (Hawkeye) stubbornness. He sees injustice, moves to correct it and then discovers he's in over his own head. His response is to dig further. In doing so, he discovers new allies and challenges, between fellow Hawkeye Kate Bishop and Mr. Barton's disreputable older brother. 

It's Clint Barton as Jim Rockford, which plays to Mr. Barton's history, a felon who declared he deserved to be on the Avengers as Tim O'Neil put it, "based on nothing more than his facility with a bow and arrow and an absolutely enormous pair of brass balls." Clint Barton takes on malicious Eastern European landlords the same way.

There are other reasons, of course. The main one is that Matt Fraction and main penciller David Aja were born to work together. Whatever page Fraction turns in, Aja makes better. Whatever emotional beat Fraction puts down, Aja makes frictionless, even while slowing it down.

The other reason? Kate Bishop. The capable heroine is explicitly Mr. Barton's equal and never far from a felicitous quip.  Combine with an early emphasis on single issue stories and Hawkeye is easy to understand and difficult to resist.

Sex Criminals is great for reasons so obvious, it's  easy mode. Mainstream comics hasn't had a really good romantic comedy in a very long time. There are exceptions, but Sex Criminals is merely a well-executed romantic comedy. For a comic called Sex Criminals, it's a light, earnest R. It is hard to imagine anyone but the most clueless being concerned about a comic that includes an image called "the Dutch microwave."

Sex Criminals is about people who's ejaculation stops time. They put it to use to rob a bank, so they can raise money to keep a library open. (Awwwwwwww.) The first issue introduces Suzie and goes through her sexual awakening in painfully funny detail.

Zdarsky puts an indefensible amount of detail into the backgrounds. (See above.) There's never a page without a Sexual Gary poster, or a book title somewhere designed to get a laugh. Fraction feeds him with embarrassing moments from his own life, hurriedly veiled by a different character and lets the collaboration go. It is humane and kind.

Come back next time, true believers! (Is there going to be a next time? I legitimately don't know.) Maybe I'll write about ODY-C, a gender-swapped, psychedelic retelling of the Odyssey. Or perhaps Fraction's grueling Iron Man run that shipped two issues in a month for a year straight. Maybe I'll talk about his early work? The designs of the universe are unknown to me.