TCJ 300 Conversations: Denny O’Neil & Matt Fraction

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

 

Now Versus Then

O’Neil:
Do you get much editing?

Fraction:
I’ve been very lucky, I have very good editors. I feel like I have guys who I workshop ideas with and who will make them sound better and make me look like a much better writer than I am. I’ve had a very easy time of it, really. My editorial relationships have been really conducive and really terrific and I feel that they’ve made me a better writer just through working with a good editor. I have no problems being edited, I have trouble with the stupid stuff, but the meat of it has been great and I’ve worked with some really great guys who have a terrific instinct for story. As I’ve come from an indy-art-school world where it’s very loosey-goosey and make-it-up-as-you-go, I’ve been lucky to work with guys who have helped me focus and narrow it in a way and I think the writing is better for it. People have horror stories, but I think I’ve been really lucky.

The film and animation stuff I did took me to advertising and I don’t do well with being art-directed by people I disagree with, especially on aesthetic issues. So, I don’t know that I’d respond well to a heavy editorial touch — mentally, emotionally, I don’t think I’d handle it well. I’ve been lucky that people have liked what I’ve wanted to do and have supported me, so I’ve had a pretty easy time of it.

Valenti:
I have two questions about that. One: Are you able to avoid continuity-heavy projects, or how do you work with that? And my second question: You also do creator-owned work, so obviously that has to be fairly lightly edited, or maybe not?


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


Fraction:
Oh yeah, that’s pure punk rock, you know? Garage-rock stuff: If it sounds right, do it. What’s interesting, though, is that I’m discovering that the more mainstream stuff that I do, the more I’m able to clearly articulate what I want to do sooner. I always felt that the way I wrote was like trying to catch butterflies with a stick covered in honey — running through and trying to see what I could get at the end and sometimes there are the right butterflies and sometimes there are the wrong ones. You have to run around like a lunatic to get a stick covered in butterflies and then you’ve got a story. I’m getting smarter about catching them.

Continuity: I think that continuity’s the devil. [O’Neil laughs.] I’m a fan of consistency — I think consistency is the watchword. Continuity? I mean, I’ve been reading comics for 30 years now, my parents have been reading comics as long as I’ve been writing them professionally and any time I’m in sticky territory where I’m not sure my folks are going to be able to follow what’s going on, it’s like a little red flag goes up. So, I try to make things as accessible as humanly possible and as consistent with the history and the continuity. But continuity-heavy stuff — and I write [Uncanny] X-Men, I am in a continuity minefield many days of the week and I try to avoid that exclusionary approach, even when you’re wrapped up in these big crossover events or when the currents of the macro-narrative are flowing in a certain direction, I still think there are ways that you can write and be as accessible as possible to somebody. I was told that Stan Lee always used to say that every comic is somebody’s first comic. While I’m not a fan of characters speaking in logos, spelling out for everyone what their powers are and what they do every third panel, I think there’s a way that you can write these stories to make them accessible to newcomers and make them satisfying to people who have been reading.

O’Neil:
And the lack of accessibility is the single biggest complaint that I hear from intelligent people who like comics. Once, when writing a novel, I needed a main villain’s name — and it was one of the biggest deals there was at the time — and I couldn’t get his name. This was the major antagonist that year. I finally called up another writer and said, “You did some of these scripts. Who is this guy?” So many editorial people assume that the audience has been reading this stuff and remembering it for 30 years. It’s a terrible technique. It’s one of the things that Shooter insisted on that I agree with — if you’re good, you can integrate what they need to know about what’s happening in front of them into the ongoing narrative: but, if it’s a question of — as writers of my generation used to do — stopping on page three to explain, well, that’s better than nothing.

Fraction:
Yeah. Well, it’s true, now that collection and trade-paperback sales are such a nascent sales model, what works in a 22-page magazine every 30 days, might read like garbage if Reed Richards is reminding everyone that it was cosmic rays that gave him these fantastic powers every 22 pages. It’s going to be like Memento or something. There are ways if you’re conscious and cognizant of it — the Iron Man book I write was launched when the movie came out and I didn’t have any more special access to any information about the film than anybody else did. Indeed, I saw the trailer the same weekend that everybody else saw the trailer and that was all I knew apart from what I’d read in Variety about who had been cast. I just tried to make as many intuitive guesses as I could about what the film would be. What I saw as my mission for that first storyline was that I needed to write a book for people who had been reading Iron Man their entire lives and for people who come to a comic store the Saturday after they saw Iron Man Friday night and want to check out what’s going on with the Iron Man comic. So, how do you get people who only know the comic, how do you get people who only know the movie and how do you synthesize a way [to get both]?

O’Neil:
What you described is exactly the right way to approach something like that and, if you don’t, these people will pick up a comic book and they won’t understand it and they’ll say, “This is not for me. I don’t like comic books.” They probably won’t think about it enough to realize, “I might like comic books, but it’s easier to understand the first 10 pages of Finnegans Wake.”

Fraction:
James Ellroy is a favorite of mine and he used to live in the Kansas City area and he would do his book launches at the little indy bookstore. So, I used to say, “Oh, when I have something written, I’ll go and give it to James Ellroy. Won’t that be neat? I’ll be able to tell myself that James Ellroy is reading my little crime comic.” But then I read in an interview that he had said, “I can’t make sense of comic books, my eyes just don’t know where to go.” And he wrote some of these operatically complex novels, but presented with that early- to mid-late-’90s visual gobbledygook, he just didn’t know what to make of comic books. So luckily, I spared myself the embarrassment of my idol sneering and brazenly tossing my stuff into the garbage can next to him. When James Ellroy can’t follow a comic, there’s something fundamentally wrong.

 

Voice

Valenti:
You both write very clear, but very dense stories. One thing I want to talk to you both about is voice, because I remember you, Denny, saying in your ’78-’80 interview in the Journal

Fraction:
I was 3: I remember speaking about crayons a lot. [Laughter.]

O’Neil:
Well, part of it is, insofar as this is possible, subtract the ego from the process. Any time the work becomes about you and not about the story you’re telling or about the problems you’re solving, you’re probably going to screw up. So, it’s a lonely gig we have. You can get help before, you can get help after, but during: It’s you and that keyboard in that room. And that’s good! It should never be about me. I’ve probably used every significant experience that I’ve had in my life over the last almost-50 years of doing this, but I’ve tried not to ever put myself on stage, except maybe as a background figure in a crowd scene or something like that. It just gets in the way of doing the job, Alfie Bester said, “Among professionals, the job is boss.” If it becomes about my life, is that true any more? Unless the conditions of the assignment are to write about your life — that hasn’t happened yet… Matt?

Fraction:
Yeah, I’ve been nodding the entire time. At the end of the day, the job is the boss, man. Of course, personality and belief and perspective, all that stuff will come through in the work. To hear your involvement with the Catholic Worker movement and the Civil Rights movement, knowing your work, is absolutely not a surprise. Obviously your self will come through like that, but I just want to say what you said again, only first [laughs] — it’s amazing how inarticulate I’m becoming while talking about my process — it’s you sitting alone in a room and sweating these things out.

O’Neil:
Yeah, it’s one of the downsides of conventions and things like that.


From The Question: Welcome to Oz, written by O’Neil and drawn byRick Magyar ©2004 DC Comics.


Fraction:
I find that actually going to conventions or any kind of professional event, there’s a warming-up process: I have to remember how to be social and how to talk to people and how to get a game face and get out of the office for a little bit. I have a 2-year old now and it’s one of the great joys in my life to come downstairs and hear him shout for me and, immediately, I can take the job off, leave the work jacket up in the office and go and just be dad for a while and play and get away from it. It’s such a solitary thing, but I enjoy that. I like to work, I like feeling driven, I like feeling like a professional, I like feeling like a grown-up and I like being competent and dependable and reliable and all those things.

O’Neil:
And you meet your deadline, you can feel so smug! [Laughter.]

Fraction:
Exactly! I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Mann movies lately — as berserk as the man might be in real life, he makes these movies about very dire professionals who tend to work very dangerous jobs with lots of guns and great suits. I think I get that — being someone whose job it is to push buttons on a keyboard and to make these words up in your head, I understand the appeal of wanting the “drama of the professional.”

O’Neil:
Yeah, I wonder if that isn’t why some writers — Hemingway, of that ilk — made such a big deal of being macho. Because what we do, as Larry Block says, is basically the same job as a stenographer, only at least a stenographer has somebody else in the room.

Fraction:
We’re poking at the fire with a stick and making stuff up, you know?

O’Neil:
People who think that writing is a tough job ought to try driving a cab or working on an assembly line.

Fraction:
Yeah, dig a ditch for a week.

O’Neil:
Even something like selling subway tokens — you’re breathing in terrible air and you’re bored for 40 hours. This is really pretty good!

Fraction:
This absolutely beats working for a living.

O’Neil:
Yeah! You go downstairs — in my case, I work an hour a day because I’m working on something without a deadline — but even when I’ve been working tough deadlines, it’s an air-conditioned room in a swell little house.


From Invincible Iron Man #1, ©2008 Marvel Characters, Inc.


Fraction:
I don’t have tuberculosis: it’s pretty good for me. I’ve been boasting that I’ve never had a job where I’ve had to put on a nametag. I’ve never had a job where I’ve needed to wear a paper hat. I’ve only almost burned my face off with a deep fryer once. I always suspect, too, that that’s why there’s such romance and drama around the blacklist because that’s a time where writers really were in a time of danger and there was like, “Woah, these are big stakes. There’s a real importance happening there,” and I think there’s a drama and a romance because, for the most part, we sit in a room and make stuff up all day. So, for the one time, when Congress wanted to interview writers — oh my God, that’s so dramatic!

O’Neil:
And some of them put their asses on the line and paid their dues on principle.

Fraction:
And made real moral choices.

O’Neil:
Dashiell Hammett was dumped from everything: He had a radio show and suddenly he didn’t have a career. I remember I used to listen to Sam Spade: Private Eye on the radio and then one week, with no warning, it became Charlie Wild: Private Eye. Obviously, they had a script by Hammett and they went and crossed out the proper nouns. He was one of them, and then he enlisted in the Army at age 42 when he was safe and he was one of them that really got screwed over by that whole, insane, vicious McCarthyism.

Fraction:
And more recently, think about Salman Rushdie.

O’Neil:
Sure, sure, sure.

Fraction:
Or even, hell, the Bush-Cheney administration, when you had Ari Fleischer smacking Bill Maher down from the White House press briefing room. I think it goes back to what you said, earlier, that these are 22-page stories, and they’re fun and they’re light, and they come and they go. Taken on its own merits, it’s a small thing, and we’re telling the same stories that have been told since the beginning of history. This is not grand drama.

O’Neil:
And there really are only seven plots.

Fraction:
I actually just called the title of this X-Men story, “Somebody Comes to Town, Somebody Leaves Town.”

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