TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 5:07 AM

 

Two Young Turks: Part of a group who defected from Charlton to DC in the ’60s, comics writer Denny O’Neil, who had a background in journalism, is best known for expanding the superhero genre to include socially conscious themes that helped attract adult readers in the 1970s. Though he is probably best known for his work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, he also created the characters Ra’s al Ghul and Richard Dragon and edited the Batman books for DC for 15 years. For Marvel, he worked with Frank Miller on Daredevil and wrote for Iron Fist and Iron Man

…two characters that writer Matt Fraction has had a hand in revamping, probably most famously in Invincible Iron Man, a six-issue miniseries that was timed to coincide with the release of the 2008 film. He’s also worked on top-tier Marvel titles such as The Uncanny X-Men. In addition to his mainstream work, Fraction also writes Casanova, a critically acclaimed creator-owned Image title that features a metaphysical take on the spy genre.

— Kristy Valenti

Transcribed by Gavin Lees, Brittany Kusa and Jessica Lona.

 


From Casanova: Luxuria, by and ©2007 Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá.


Matt Fraction:
I have this theory that they’ve put us together on the phone because we’re both from Missouri. I think that was how this came about. I think they had a list of people —

Denny O’Neil:
Where in Missouri are you from?

Fraction:

I am calling from Kansas City.

O’Neil:
Oh, OK. That’s probably about 300 miles east. One of the last major conventions I did while I was still gainfully employed by DC was in KC with Devin Grayson and Greg Rucka.

Fraction:
Oh gosh, I was probably at that show, weirdly enough. So you were born in St. Louis —

O’Neil:
Well, Clayton — it was virtually St. Louis — it was one of those things where you can’t tell where St. Louis ends and Clayton begins.

Fraction:
What was your childhood like? What were your folks like?

O’Neil:
Irish Catholic. Not a terrible childhood — nobody beat me — but the nun did lock me in the convent basement every night in eighth grade. It was not a great environment for someone with my limitations and someone with my proclivities and, dare I use the word, talent. The arts were not encouraged, even less so when I went to a Christian military high school — talk about bad casting!

Fraction:
[Laughs.] I actually had in my notes that you had gone to a military high school and that led to time in the Navy where you were on a ship involved in a blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

O’Neil:
Yeah, that’s my little piece of history.

Fraction:
What was that like?

O’Neil:
It was strange. I was in school — atomic, biological and chemical warfare school — in Rhode Island [Fraction laughs] about to stick a needle in my leg and inject myself with atropine because what we were told was: If you were exposed to nerve gas and can get atropine into your system within 30 seconds, you’ll probably be OK. So, that’s what they teach you — just jam it into your leg and squeeze. But I didn’t have to do that because a Marine came and said, “Everybody report to your ships. Don’t bother to pack; we’ll take care of that. Just go to your duty station immediately.” And we did and an hour or two later, we were heading for the Caribbean and then for about four days, we really didn’t know what was going on. We were on battle alert 24/7. We knew that our pilots were flying round the clock and they were taking thousands of photographs. I saw some of the photographs and they were of Russian ships with their holds. One of them was a photo of a Russian ship with its hold open and a woman in a bikini on the fantail, which was a little treat when you were at sea for a long time. When it was all over, we found out what we had been doing, when the crisis was past and we were heading back to the U.S. I edited a shipboard newspaper and I guess I saw AP stuff and wire-service stuff about then on what we had just gone through. I mean, I have — somewhere in this house — a medal, like all those who participated in that, and it’s an interesting comment on getting medals because we didn’t know what we were doing, and that we were in harm’s way. I mean, what were we going to do, swim home? You had to do whatever combat duties they assigned you, because you really didn’t have a choice.


Spiro Agnew guest-stars as the villain in “…and a Child Shall Destroy Them!” from Green Lantern #83, written by O’Neil with art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano; ©1971 DC Comics.


Fraction:
So, how old were you then?

O’Neil:
21, 22, something like that.

Fraction:
There’s a — I’m guessing here — but there’s a sort of a shift in the way that military culture was viewed at that point with the war resistance, and all that hadn’t started and there wasn’t such a thing as draft dodging or anything like that.

O’Neil:
Well, not much.

Fraction:
And for somebody with an artistic background, I wanted to ask about the Catholic Workers Movement and how these two things were reconciling in your head.

O’Neil:
Well, I had run into some of the Catholic radicals while I was still in college and the Catholic Workers — I guess they’re still publishing — and it cost a penny a copy. I somehow got hold of some copies of that and I was sympathetic, but I thought, “These people are impractical and if we don’t stop the Communists in Southeast Asia, they’ll be camping on my mother’s front lawn,” the whole ridiculous thing that the whole country was buying. I was possibly the worst sailor in the history of the U.S. Navy [Fraction laughs] so that was another bad fit. I’ve worn three different uniforms in my life and none of them really fit. But I got out and fell in with the civil-rights and peace movement in St. Louis and suddenly, I began to have sources of information that weren’t Establishment. By the time I moved to New York, where a lot of my social life was Catholic Worker and I was married to a woman who had been raised on a Catholic Worker farm, I was completely convinced — as I remain — that the guys in the brown suits and the ties who claim to know what they’re doing, don’t. The years of the Bush administration were a great demonstration of that: “We don’t know how to fight a guerrilla war, so we’ll bomb, because that’s what we know how to do. And never mind that we’re bombing the wrong country.”

Fraction:
Right, right. And any civilians that might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

O’Neil:
And making people like Dick Cheney rich, is how stock tripled in the course of the war. I mean, I’m astonished that the American people can be so obtuse. It was so obvious that he was unqualified and then, after the first term, that they were pursuing what was really a radical agenda. In this country, we tend to think of radical as left-wing, but it swings the other way just as far.

Fraction:
Sure. I remember being particularly worked up and stunned at least with some people in my group in 2000 — the apathy — there’s always election apathy, but really in 2000 not voting really registered, somehow, as a valid decision. Not that I’ve ever been one to say, “I told you so,” but, man. When your vice president was the head of your committee to discover who should become your vice president and decided he was the guy… [laughter] from Jump Street, something was fishy.

O’Neil:
And it just got fishier and fishier.

Fraction:
And then to be re-elected — I mean, granted, Kerry wasn’t necessarily a stellar candidate — it’s amazing to see what’s happening in Iran right now.

O’Neil:
Yeah, I was surprised that so many people of your generation didn’t realize that it was their asses that were gonna get shot off. Some of the war resisters for the Vietnam War didn’t want to get shot and they were pretty open about that.

Fraction:
Yeah, I think that had there been a draft, it would have been different. I think, like you said, that we’re so good at bombing things — it’s videogame warfare. I mean the guys in the troops — I mean, God bless ‘em and keep ‘em safe — I think there was the clear and present danger of a draft being removed from anyone’s living memory amongst my generation. It was abstract, in a lot of ways.


From Invincible Iron Man #1, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Salvador Larroca; ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


O’Neil:
Yeah, you’re absolutely right, Matt, you guys really didn’t need to worry about it. We had the lottery and we knew, barring wangling a deferment or some kind of physical problem, you were gonna go in and serve some kind of time somewhere.

Fraction:
Yeah, my dad volunteered, just because he knew — sooner rather than later — and it was, I think, ’66, ’67 that he went and it hadn’t gotten necessarily as bad as it was going to get by the end of things. It was just what you did, you know? His number was gonna come up and he knew it and he figured he might as well get it over with.

O’Neil:
Well, I joined the Navy just because I thought that I would maybe travel more [Fraction laughs] and maybe get that out of it. I liked boats! [Laughter.] Was your father a military man?

Fraction:
Retail — close! A very similar kind of orthodoxy in that we moved every couple of years.

 

The Direct Market

Kristy Valenti:
Between the two of you, you have spanned the rise and, arguably, the fall of the Direct Market. So, I was wondering, Matt, if you had some comment on that, or if you’d like to refute me?

Fraction:
I think the Direct Market — I don’t understand the virtue of a sales program… platform… design? The sales mandate that thinks selling in fewer locations is wiser than selling in more locations. I moved around a lot as a kid and I moved to towns that didn’t have a Direct Market outlet, and it was infuriating. So, it was very rare that I lived in a place big enough to have a Direct Market store. So, I had to fight to keep up and I think that kept me in — I got stubborn and got into the fact that reading comic books meant you had to hunt for the ones you really wanted. Of course, nowadays, the Internet has made that entirely irrelevant, but in that mid- to late-’80s timeframe, it made it quite difficult. Even today, it’s one of those things where my family has trouble finding my work — they have to live somewhere that has a comic-book shop. I don’t know if I’m actually answering the question.

Valenti:
It’s just fascinating to me how people come to comics and how they obtain comics because I do not have that Direct Market collector mentality either. I don’t feel as connected to the Direct Market as I could be and I feel like you, out of the three of us here, are the one who is.

Fraction:
But I never was because I was never a diligent bag-and-boarder. The best thing I can say about the collector mentality is that it put a friend of mine through his first semester in college. He was able to gain a speculation bubble over a two-week period and bring in enough money to put himself through school when he couldn’t afford financial aid. For that — great — God bless the collectors because they kept my buddy in school. I was too busy hunting the damn things to want to put them away. It was never about finding a thing that was going to be worth money; I was very much driven by the narrative. I grew up in a culture where variant covers existed, but it was a little after my time that all that ridiculous stuff really came. I was into girls and drugs by the time the real collector mania stuff started.

In terms of the Direct Market growing and the newsstand market dying, I still remember comics on Monday at 7-Eleven — that was new-comics day.


From Detective Comics #457, written by O’Neil and drawn by Dick Giordano; ©1976 DC Comics.


O’Neil:
There are people who argue that comics as — I use this word advisedly — a mass-publication venue, would not have existed without ol’ Phil Seuling and his nutty Direct Market idea. That was at a time when magazines — very like the one we’re going through — were really dying. Things like the Saturday Evening Post that you thought were the Rock of Gibraltar, they would always exist, and suddenly they weren’t there any more. The normal newsstands were not on the corner any more.

I’m not comfortable with that collector mentality at all. You’ll be at a convention and somebody will say, “I have every Detective Comics published for the last 20 years!”

I’ll say, “That’s nice.”

“Well, what are the stories about these days?”

“I thought you said you had —”

“Oh, I don’t read them.”

I did not become a writer to write for Mylar bags.

Fraction:
Exactly. One of my favorite editors is fond of saying that monthly comics is a train that leaves the station every 28 days. If you’re not on it, then somebody else will be. Just in terms of deadlines, it’s gotta go — the book’s gotta go out.

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