guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Matt Fraction and Gabriel Bá, Casanova (Image, 2006- ) $1.99, monthly.

By Geoff Klock

Casanova is written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Gabriel Bá. It is a book in the Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. mode, sci-fi meets James Bond. At the time of this writing, only five issues have been published. Each is done in only three colours: black, white and sage green. Each issue has sixteen pages of story, with no advertisements, followed by five pages of “DVD-extra”-style notes in a loose essay format. Each issue, after the first, uses the inside cover for a helpful “Previously in Casanova” section. The covers are stylish and simple; the back cover gives a preview of next month’s cover. The first four issues were so much fun to read I fell down on my knees and denounced God.

Casanova is the greatest comic book I have ever read. Once all my critical faculties recover from the punch I received from the first issue, I am sure it will find a reasonable place in the best twenty books I have ever read, but for now, that first impression is not to be ignored.

Grant Morrison is my favourite comic book writer, one of the best living writers alongside Aaron Sorkin (West Wing seasons one through four), John Darnelle (of the band The Mountain Goats), and the poet John Ashbery (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror). Matt Fraction out Grant Morrisons Grant Morrison, which I would not have thought possible. This is an important function, since Morrison seems to have used his recent Seven Soldiers project to transition from the most fun kind of unbridled insanity to a more mature and straightforward storytelling. Morrison’s new outlook has generated grand and dazzling perfection in All Star Superman and WE3 but something quite boring (at least so far) in Batman and 52 (which he co-writes). Matt Fraction taps into the Grant Morrison of Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, and Seaguy, and – in a stunning turn of events I am at a loss to account for – manages to emerge with a voice and direction all his own. Here is issue four’s “previously in Casanova” to give you an idea:

Casanova Quinn, a bad egg blackmailed by a badder egg into betraying his own father and the international law enforcement agency E.M.P.I.R.E., has gone great guns into his exciting new career as a superspy. That badder egg is named Newman Xeno, and he runs E.M.P.I.R.E.’s opposite number, a supermafia called W.A.S.T.E. Cass’ taskmaster at W.A.S.T.E. is his own twin sister Zephyr. It’s tricky.

“Badder egg”, “opposite number”, “great guns”, “supermafia.” Who spends this much time crafting the “previously in” box for the inside cover? It’s the “its tricky” that makes it art, at least in part because of the understatement: the summary of the book’s concept fails to mention that the Casanova Quinn that appears in the book was hijacked by Xeno from an alternate dimension. In Xeno’s world Casanova Quinn was a hero (now dead); the hijacked Casanova is a scoundrel. Essentially we meet the evil twin first, and that evil twin – normally a throwaway character in the genre – is installed as our main character.

Four moments to give you an impression of why this book is so strong.

One. The wild imagination of this page – from the direct address talking heads to the elevation of a schoolyard game to major psychic warfare – speaks for itself.

Two. On the first page of the first issue Casanova breaks into a room and a song is playing (the lyrics are in word bubbles). A footnote lets us know that the song is “‘Déjà Vu,’ by Teen Age Music International, ‘I.M.A.T.A.M.I’, Soma Records.” Once Xeno installs this Casanova in Xeno’s parallel universe, he gets to return to this moment, to play out again the adventure that began in this room. Until Casanova diverges from what he did the first time, the art is reprinted almost exactly. The footnote – hilariously about a song called “Déjà Vu” – is also repeated. The depiction of parallel universes is common; parallel faux-editorial scholarship is outstanding, silly and audacious, all at the same time.

Three. The second issue includes a major fight scene between the two male leads; they fight naked, and Bá does not shy away from drawing their penises. (As Fraction puts it, he likes the fight because it “embraces all the homoerotic clichés of scenes like this, be they in superhero comics or spy movies”). The captions push pulp prose into camp commentary: “HOLY SHIT! As Água Pesada burns, it’s psychic combat at dawn for Casanova Quinn and Wilson Heath – Because the Genre Demands It!”

Four. In issue four Casanova is hired by E.M.P.I.R.E. to kidnap a guy named David X – “Like early Bowie times Houdini times Acconci minus the Situationism.” David X has decided, as his next bit of performance art, to achieve double nirvana. His twelve year meditation is almost up and E.M.P.I.R.E. wants to stop it; Casanova is sent, essentially, to kidnap God. Casanova breaks into the facility and is reaching for David X just as David X awakens. Gabriel Bá captures the perfect clarity of meditation by placing the letters H, A, N, and D – without caption boxes – in the bottoms of the panels showing David’s opening eye. A hand is reaching for him. H A N D.  Simplicity itself makes the insanity work.

The concept, the details, the writing, the art, the design, the characters, the imagination: Casanova is un-fucking believable. If you can’t get into this, kill yourself now, because ain’t nothing good comin' your way.