The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

Ecstatic Joy Part One: Casanova 14

In quite a lot of ways, the most memorable pieces of art are the ones that can’t quite fully be explained. Intellectual rigor certainly has its place in the process, as would be an expectation of someone who reviews films like myself, but there is a line that is crossed once in a blue moon where critical analysis doesn’t really matter anymore. Sure, it can be done, and remains valid in its own way, but there is no distance, no possibility of a Kantian disinterested third party, the supposed impartial judge to rule on the efficacy of a piece of art as art. Art as art doesn’t matter to emotion. It short circuits the whole enterprise and arcs directly to the center of the heart like electrical current through water. It demands nothing of you not because it is not demanding, but because it doesn’t need to. It simply needs to exist, to have been formed in the crucible of imagination of some gifted man or woman or group of men and women. They do all the heavy lifting, and you get the pure and simple benefit of enjoyment. It may challenge you, challenge your beliefs or your perceptions, or it may not. But it will stick with you, wedge its way into your memories for an eternity.

I would say that I came to the concept of ecstatic joy in art a bit late in my life. There were of course plenty of movies, books and songs that I loved, but nothing had truly transported me to something and somewhere I could not describe. This is not to say that I was unfulfilled, but simply ignorant. You don’t know how good it gets until it gets that good. It got that good in May of 2008 when the fourteenth issue of Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba/Fabio Moon’s comic book Casanova was released.

I hadn’t really dipped into reading comic books until the mid 2000’s. The cost and the time commitment was daunting, but when you’re a recent college graduate living rent free at your dad’s house with a decent paying job, the concerns of time commitments and expendable income get a little less serious. The card game VS System brought me into the mainstream, mostly reading top shelf Marvel books and wading my way into their wild and wacky cosmic storylines (now a major motion picture thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy, which remains ceaselessly bizarre that that is a thing that exists), but it didn’t take too long to branch out into the bigger indies. The real hook, though, was hearing an interview with Matt Fraction on the podcast Comic Geek Speak. I usually wade deep into new hobbies to fully immerse myself into the culture and ravenously vacuum up information, and finding a good podcast or two is one of the better ways of doing that. Shortly after I discovered Comic Geek Speak (this is maybe three months into reading comics as an ongoing concern), they released an interview with Fraction, and I was immediately hooked by his personality and his jokes, and the ideas behind a lot of his indie work (he was just in the process of being brought in to co-write The Immortal Iron Fist for Marvel at the time). Shortly after that interview I picked up the oversized hardcover of the first seven issues of Casanova, his wild sci-fi spy epic he had been working on for Image Comics. It was, to be sure, unlike anything my neophyte comic brain had seen, with its monochrome coloring and its wild storylines. I was hooked instantaneously, even if I didn’t fully understand what I was reading. I made sure to catch up to the single issues, and was following along as they were published by the middle of the next arc. At the time, I was receiving my books biweekly in the mail, and knew that this particular shipment in May of 2008 would include Casanova 14, the conclusion to the second arc.

I remember picking up the brown box from the corner of the little patio/stoop of my dad’s townhouse in suburban Pennsylvania, quiet and isolated and alone. I remember pulling open the box, throwing those weird little gray packing pieces that look like couches for mice and rifling through the pile of books until I found it. That Gabriel Ba cover, with the stylized Zephyr Quinn and the quizzical crow and the technicolor stars. Opening it up to breathe in the Fabio Moon art and see the title, “Hallo Spaceboy,” from David Bowie’s 1995n industrial record Outside that’s basically a Nine Inch Nails record through the Bowie lens. The central mystery of the second arc surrounded the disappearance of its main character (the story was called “When is Casanova Quinn?”, deftly combining the central mystery with the Casanova universe’s penchant for time travel and alternate dimensions). It was a strange read for six issues, with Cass’ psychotic bombshell of a twin sister Zephyr having taken center stage. The namesake of the story was nowhere to be found. What followed was a wild ride, with the requisite series of double and triple crosses, and a time traveling multi-armed blue space girl to taste. Its climax in issue 14 is even wilder, a huge confrontation on a remote island with the very space time continuum at stake. Then, there was a moment about two-thirds of the way through the book that made my brain explode.

Twists are a tricky thing. I’ve written about them before, and how they can create undue expectations or provide cheap thrills. A good twist though, one that both redefines the story that came before it and grows out of the plot organically, can be an all-timer. It’s certainly not required of the greats, but it is a tool like any other that can be used to strong or weak effect. The twist of Casanova 14 (which I will under no circumstances reveal, as that would be simply cruel to anyone who has not read it) is one of the best. It perfectly encapsulates the logic of Casanova, in that it doesn’t really make sense in any literal sort of way, but Fraction is so thoroughly committed to the bit that it has its own sort of internal understanding that it is exactly what the story and the characters need. The last handful of pages are crushing and elegiac and sad, deeply troubled and deeply felt. It is an emotional rollercoaster like no other. One panel in particular just cut straight to the bone. Tears welled up, the whole nine yards. I finished it, read the back matter (Fraction’s couple of usually heavily biographical pages he puts at the back of each issue), and promptly read it again. I put together the mix tape Fraction put in as chapter headings and read it again while listening to its impromptu soundtrack. Maybe just to confirm that what I had read actually happened. I think it read it two or three times straight through, marveling at the insanity and the audacity of it all.

I remember coming back to that patio/stoop where I found that fateful brown box with this comic inside it. I remember smoking a lot of cigarettes, just trying to come to grips with it all. I remember John Siuntres released an episode of the Word Balloon podcast with Fraction talking about the issue, diving deep into their discussion about the book, smoking even more cigarettes. Even listening to Matt talk about it didn’t make it feel real. No one, no words, no speech, nothing could compare to what was going through my head in the hour after I read Casanova 14. That, to me, is a difference maker. It is certainly possible to be scholarly about Casanova 14. There is quite a bit that can be said about character, story structure and its place within the comic medium, and that without doubt has its place, has worth and purpose. It is a piece of text that should be studied. I can’t do it; I’m too close to it. My reaction is all guts. There could be some warts in Casanova 14, imperfections that a disinterested third party would needle and point to. But I don’t see any of that. I just see blind, ecstatic joy. The joy of creation so audacious that your mind cannot grip the possibility that another mind, any mind could create it from whole cloth. It may or may not be the best comic I’ve ever read. I claimed as such when I wrote about the issue shortly after its release for a site called read/RANT that grew out of the VS System community and appears to wonderfully still be going strong. But honestly, it doesn’t matter whether it is or isn’t. It transcends that. Not because it is better than or above comics as an art form, but because it is indescribable and indelible.

It’s the feel that persists, the memory of that afternoon Matt Fraction blew up my brain.