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Matt Fraction Makes Comics That Get Inside Your Heroes’ Heads

The prolific comic book writer talks about reinventing classic stories, Hawkeye psychology, and ‘Sex Criminals’

Dan Evans illustration

With respect to its persistent relevance in English classes across America, The Odyssey is weird—and not just to the young people forced to analyze it until the bell rings. The Odyssey is at once the foundation of Western hero literature and ostensibly the first road-trip movie. In the form of an epic poem, Homer tells the story of Odysseus’s long, perilous journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. It’s a dry, interminable tale that touches on things like eye-gouging, sex slavery, incest, and people being killed and/or eaten in various distressing ways. When he began working on ODY-C, Matt Fraction—né Matt Fritchman, who’s won nearly every award there is to win for writing comics—wanted to make Wonder Woman for his daughter, but settled on rewriting The Odyssey, in space, for kids.

Fraction was born in Chicago and raised in Kansas City, where he attended the Kansas City Art Institute. He lives in Portland with his two children and his wife, Kelly Sue DeConnick, who also writes comics. (The two are adapting some of their comics for television and working on an original pilot.) Portland also plays host to a bunch of other big names in comics, including Alex Ross, Brian Michael Bendis, and Colleen Coover, and Fraction will say that they have rules about how many of them can get on a plane at the same time. He’ll also say that he likes it there; comics and Portland have a history that stretches back to the 1960s, and the city is more intimate and cheaper than Seattle, where his dear friend Ed Brubaker lives.

Back to ODY-C, though: It isn’t so much for kids, though it is written entirely in limericks. “What better way to make fun of the total nonsense of Greek tragedy than to write it in limericks?” he says over the phone, well past quitting time on a summer Friday. “It was also very, very hard, and I am very, very stupid.”

Matt Fraction is, in fact, very smart—let’s get that out of the way. He talks like someone who writes all the time. Everything he says sounds as if it could be used later for dialogue; every comment is filtered through some adage or metaphor. Moreover, a very, very stupid person couldn’t have swapped the protagonist’s gender in a historically male-centric story in a way that didn’t feel contrived, or like a fussy Grand Sociopolitical Statement. A very, very stupid person couldn’t have gathered up these events and launched them through time and space to far-away planets in the distant future, and made it all work so gorgeously.

ODY-C Issue No. 12
Image Comics

The first issue of ODY-C, created with artist Christian Ward, ran in 2014. Troy is now the war-torn planet Troiia-VII; Odysseus is now Odyssia, who’s still feared and respected for all the things she can do with a sword, and very ready to go home. Like everything else Fraction has his name on, ODY-C offers an offbeat perspective on a story that previous writers simply hadn’t thought of over countless reimaginings. (This includes James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?) Whether it was so close they couldn’t see it or so far out they couldn’t grasp it, everyone else missed the opportunity to radically transform the setting of their source material. So when Fraction says “stupid,” I assume he means “foolish,” referencing the not-inconsiderable amount of labor it took to bring a harebrained idea like this to term while squeezing it into a specific cadence. “It’s kind of dummy hexameter because you can’t really do dactylic hexameter,” he says, as if the difference were something I would notice. ODY-C’s meter presented challenges, but the task of charting monstrous characters’ motivation is itself no small task. “I don’t know how to write a story about somebody who cooks children in soup and feeds it to their father,” he added. “Like, I don’t know how to get in their head, you know? That’s pretty fucking gone.”

It’s tough to think through how Polyphemus (the cyclops in the original version) could smash the heads of two men, eat them, and then fall soundly asleep; that’s just what monsters do, one would guess. But Fraction’s Eisner Award–winning turn on The Invincible Iron Man (2008-12) got well inside Tony Stark’s head, giving him a rich and textured personhood. Fraction’s comic was the second of two running Iron Man titles at the time; it was a movie tie-in that shook itself loose of the first Iron Man film, managing to not read as though Robert Downey Jr. were looming over its shoulder. Rather than revel in the hero’s strength, Fraction’s Iron Man kicked over Stark’s successes and failures to meticulously look askance on the embattled workaholic underneath. How does Stark live his life between raids? Does he, really? Who would he be without his bazillion-dollar mech suit? Speaking of which, you really would think that Mark V would get around on something more elegant and science fiction-y than jet engines in the boots, with all its bells and whistles and uplinks. Fraction’s wheelhouse is the part of the story often left to ellipses.

The Invincible Iron Man Issue No. 2
Marvel Comics

Similarly, Hawkeye (2012-15) sought to benefit from the success of the first Avengers movie. But instead of fending off Norse gods or invasion forces from a different dimension, Fraction and artist David Aja’s Clint Barton spent most of his time protecting the other tenants in his five-story walkup, sometimes from Russian mobsters who punctuate every sentence with “bro.” (Because I can’t not mention it: One Harvey Award–winning issue was written from the perspective of Clint’s dog.) Hawkeye tethers heroism to the daily round, and wonders why a guy with a bow and arrow—not even a gun—and no powers gets to hang out with people who can shrug off getting tossed through buildings. Like his Invincible, Fraction’s Hawkeye explores questions you might’ve asked yourself while leaving the multiplex in May 2012. What does Hawkeye do when he’s not out there avenging stuff? Who is Clint Barton when no one’s watching? Does sharing a quinjet with Steve Rogers make you stand more upright? (Fraction seems to think so: “You know how on the highway if there’s a cop in front of you, you drive the speed limit? I like the idea of Captain America’s very virtue changing behavior.”)

Hawkeye Issue No. 1
Marvel Comics

Fraction’s catalog includes so many notable titles that I can’t include them all. (The same could be said of our conversation, which went everywhere and ended with a suggestion that we start a podcast to talk about the same episode of Twin Peaks: The Return every week.) The Immortal Iron Fist introduces you to seven of Iron Fist alter ego Danny Rand’s 65 predecessors. It spends the most time with the predecessor who wasn’t of Asian descent—a grizzled old white dude named Orson Randall—but handles the Eastern mysticism with care and self-awareness, which the Netflix series, you’ll recall, did not. Fraction has written story lines for X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Punisher, and Thor. He enjoyed his work, which is why it was superlative (“I think you can tell when someone’s holding their nose when they type”), but what he really wanted was to work with his friends, somewhere outside the constraints of Marvel’s IP and 28-day storyboarding-to-print cycle. “Thor’s awesome, I fucking loved writing Thor, but I wanted to write something about what happens during your first real relationship,” he says. “Like after that first three weeks of everything being hot and heavy and fun. Like, the first day of Week 4.”

He’s talking about Sex Criminals (Image Comics, 2013-present), which is celebrated for being the rare work to get sex right, and for its willingness to mess around with structure. “I really love comics. I’m a big fan of all the things they’re capable of,” Fraction says. “And I’m very inspired to exploit that.” In a Queen sing-along sequence in the first volume, the word bubbles are covered by Post-it Notes that detail how he and illustrator Chip Zdarsky couldn’t clear the lyrics for “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Because, as Fraction says, “fuck the fourth wall.”

Sex Criminals grapples with no shortage of subjects; grief, mental health, self-medication, consent, rejection, and butt plugs are all handled thoughtfully. It’s hilarious, considered, and sex-positive, but if you’re just into cuddling that’s fine, too. One issue centers on a character who is asexual and bored of talking about why and what that means.

Sex Criminals No. 13
Image Comics

But let’s back up: Sex Criminals is both exactly and nothing like its name suggests. Suzie and Jon, our barely functioning heroes, can stop time when they orgasm. So they use that power to rob banks; tragedy and comedy ensue. Fraction explains it as something he and Zdarsky were joking about and then actually did, which sounds about right. In addition to that asexual character, there’s a giant anime-tentacle-porn monster, I kid you not. “He and I were just sort of threatening each other with terrible ideas,” he says. “We actually ran one of our email chains as the cover once: ‘What if we made a guy that, like, every time he comes time stops?’ And I was like, ‘OK,’ and that was the start of it.”

Focusing on offbeat ideas shared between friends is a recurring theme with these creator-owned projects, which are all he really does these days. In 2006 he began writing Casanova—an Escherian super-spy story with sex robots and more incest—partly because at the time he was writing only superhero comics. But mostly, he wanted to do something with his friends, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. The same went for ODY-C and Christian Ward, and Sex Criminals and Zdarsky, which Fraction counts as a power-of-two thing. “The alchemy of two people is really important. It’s a relationship predicated on ‘yes and’ as well as ‘no because.’”

When I mention that writers who’ve reached his level of success don’t normally retreat to the woods to make strange, autonomous (successful!) projects like these, he brings up that LCD Soundsystem song about writing pop songs, a process than can be either inspired or scientific, but not both. “You know ‘You Wanted a Hit’? That’s me. I don’t really do hits. I do what I do, and if people love it, that’s great. If people like it, that’s great. If people are entirely uninterested, then that’s entirely unsurprising.”

As for the nuts and bolts of his creative process, Fraction complains about it like the rest of us: “Writing is the worst, oh my God.” He describes himself as a needy, emotional, bad boyfriend to Zdarsky until he hears back about a draft. He’ll spend 15 minutes trying to think of the right word, or an hour perfecting a small thing that only he would notice. He tells me about two pages in last week’s Sex Criminals No. 20 that took 30 HOURS TOTAL to write, and at the end he got rid of all the text. The longer he writes comics, the better he is at getting out of his own way and forgiving himself for clumsy first swings. Deadlines, he says, have a way of divorcing you from preciousness.

“Good is the enemy of done, sometimes. The biggest gift I could give myself was the permission to do better next time.”

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