My tastes in sequential art were formed during that whole Comics Aren't Just For Kids Anymore boom of the mid-eighties: regrettably, they've stayed more or less static ever since. Virtually every comic book I've bought in the last twenty years has been from the same small pool of creators from the glory days of DC's mature readers imprint, Vertigo - your Moores, Morrisons, Ennises, Ellises and Gaimans. (Gaimen?) There are new comics writers and artists out there, of course, but I've just never got around to following them with the same degree of interest, as the comics archive on this very site proves.
The last time I complained about this (nearly two years ago), I was at least able to say that I'd picked up on the work of some new comics creators. Specifically, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Britpop grimoire Phonogram, which I discovered though the patronage of Warren Ellis (yeah, him again). The same applies to a comics series that's just completed its second book-length volume - Casanova, written by Matt Fraction and drawn by twin brother artists Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon. It's going to be a challenge writing about Casanova without describing it as being like something-or-other 'on acid'. But I'll try.
I knew of Matt Fraction as one of Warren Ellis' blogpals before I was aware of his work as a comics writer. And one of the things that first attracted me to Casanova was its attempt to build on an idea that Ellis had introduced with his detective comics series Fell, which was this: in a time of global economic embuggerment, could you lure more readers to a comic by keeping its price under two Yankee dollars, while still delivering a satisfying reading experience? In collaboration with artist Ben Templesmith, he proved that the answer was yes: Fell gives you sixteen pages of tightly-packed story, plus a four page text 'backmatter' section that acts as both a letters page for the readers and a soapbox for the creators, all for $1.99. Casanova sticks to the same format and pricetag, but is a very different read for your money: whereas each issue of Fell features a standalone story like your typical TV cop show, Casanova is an ongoing saga with the dynamics of a blockbuster movie.
"It's not every day you leap to your death while shooting bullets at a UFO," says lead character Casanova Quinn at a key point in the double-sized first issue (which Image Comics will obligingly let you read for free). Casanova is a freelance adventurer and thief, and the black sheep of his family: his dad Cornelius is boss of the organisation they call EMPIRE (Extra-Military Police, Intelligence, Rescue and Espionage), while his sister Zephyr is their star operative. That leap from a UFO doesn't lead to Casanova's death, of course. Newman Xeno, boss of terrorist group WASTE (don't ask), captures our hero in mid-fall and transplants him into a parallel universe, one where Casanova Quinn is an all-round good guy and an ace EMPIRE agent. Xeno's plan is quite simple, really: kill Good Guy Cass in that universe, replace him with Dodgy Cass from this universe, and use him as a double agent to bring down EMPIRE from within. Okay, maybe it's not that simple a plan.
"The last comic I read, there was a lot of rape and crying. Kinda harshed my boner for fun," says Casanova at one point. No danger of that here. The phrase 'comic book' is frequently used as a perjorative adjective, but Casanova is a perfect illustration of all the ways in which that's a good thing. It's fast-moving (each individual scene in the first issue could probably sustain the full length of a normal comic), with sharp intercutting (the page-by-page switching between three narratives in issue #3 is brilliantly sustained), in-character narration performed directly towards the reader, and all the drive of a 1960s spy movie with the brake cables cut. Gabriel Bá's art for the first seven-issue arc (collected in one volume as Luxuria) is a delightful combination of cartoony linework with washes of eye-buggering green, which makes Fraction's story pop off the page. Casanova never feels as aggressively compressed within its sixteen-page structure as Fell does - it's simply effortless storytelling.
For the second volume (issues 8-14, soon to be collected under the title Gula, and the more biblically inclined among you may be spotting a trend here...), Bá passed on the interior art duties to his twin brother Fábio Moon, while still hanging around to draw the covers. Moon is just as accomplished an artist as his brother: at this point, The Belated Birthday Girl would probably want me to mention his earlier work on Sugarshock, a three-part webcomic thingy written by that John Sweden guy. Moon uses a slightly heaver line, and an even more eye-buggering blue for the colour scheme, but his art meshes with the earlier book beautifully and never feels out of place. By the start of this story, Casanova is now firmly established in his new universe: but the space-time continuum friggage that got him there is having serious repercussions elsewhere, currently being investigated by Sasa Lisi, The Girl From MOTT. Meanwhile, Zephyr has been coerced by Newman Xeno into performing a series of hitjobs for WASTE. These assignments become the main focus of the comic, as its title character has mysteriously vanished. To quote the best tagline in the history of comics, and possibly even the history of literature: When Is Casanova Quinn?
Seven issues back it would have seemed almost impossible, but it's true: Gula is even wilder than Luxuria. The sex and violence levels have been ramped up without ever feeling
gratuitous, and there are a whole series of audacious flourishes in the
storytelling: huge swathes of plot skipped over in large-print
captions, breaks in the narrative for recipes, and a couple of
spectacular plot twists. If there's a minor quibble to be made, it's that Fraction is sometimes a little too on-the-nose in stating his influences and subtexts in the backmatter sections of the comics: but the backmatter isn't included in the graphic novel collections, so you can ignore those and just enjoy the ride for yourself. These are comics made by people who are willing to try anything to keep you excited, and it's just a shame that Matt Fraction is saying it'll be at least a year before we see the next part of the story. Bring it, bitch.