Two highly regarded writers of very different mediums met early Saturday afternoon at WonderCon in San Francisco. Matt Fraction (“Immortal Iron Fist,” “Uncanny X-Men,” “Casanova”) and Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” “Wonder Boys”), friends and admirers of each other’s work, spoke extensively to an audience about genre in literary fiction. “I’m Matt Fraction and I write ‘Uncanny X-Men,’ ‘Immortal Iron Fist’ and a book called ‘Casanova,'” Fraction said, introducing himself to the crowd. “And I’m Michael Chabon and I read ‘Immortal Iron Fist’ and ‘Casanova’,” Chabon said, drawing laughter.
As honored as Fraction was to have the opportunity to talk with Chabon, Chabon made it clear he was equally honored to talk with one of his favorite comics writers, listing Fraction’s other credits, including “Five Fists of Science” and “Last of the Independents”.
“This is the Pulitzer prize winning author, just in case anyone is unfamiliar with his credits,” Fraction said.
Fraction began by telling a small story about his experience with Chabon’s work. He was reading “Wonder Boys” and slowly began to notice references within Chabon’s text. “He described mashed potatoes as looking like ‘a swamp-thing’,” Fraction said. “I put the book down and said: ‘I think he’s one of us.'”
Chabon admitted that “Wonder Boys” was a turning point for him. During his time in graduate school, he was writing a lot of science fiction and getting chilly responses from peers. At the time, he decided to move his work toward realism in order to get the most out of his education. “I was paying a lot of money for grad school,” Chabon explained.
Around the time of “Wonder Boys,” Chabon made the conscious decision to out himself as a fan. There was even, as Fraction pointed out, a Lovecraft-analogue horror writer in “Wonder Boys” named August Van Zorn. Chabon later even published a horror story as the author.
Chabon admitted that at first he tried to publish the Van Zorn story without his name on it at all. “It was going to be just a Van Zorn story, but nobody wanted to publish it.” Eventually, Playboy agreed to publish the story, but only if the author put his name back on it. In Chabon’s mind, this was the moment he took the plunge into admitting his true frame of reference within his work.
Both writers acknowledged the move “legitimate” fiction has made in the last few decades toward the realm of the austere. “Especially in short fiction,” Chabon said, “every story has to be about a miscarriage or the dissolution of a marriage”. Both Fraction and Chabon wanted writers to know that they could be bold and use their personal viewpoint in their work.
“If you grew up reading Deathlok, you’re allowed to write serious, literary fiction about homicidal cyborgs,” Chabon told the crowd.
Still, the “serious literature” bias plagued Chabon well into his work on “Kavalier and Clay”. Chabon would tell colleagues he was working on a novel about comics creators in the thirties and would garner chilly responses, like those he got in graduate school.
“Even writing about genre [has a bias],” Fraction commented. “Not even writing genre but about genre.”
“It was a conversation stopper,” Chabon admitted.
Fraction then asked what kind of research Chabon did before writing “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”. Chabon admitted he’d interviewed a few creators, such as Will Eisner and Stan Lee. Chabon spoke about his interview with Eisner, specifically. “I think he was surprised that the question I wanted to know were things like: ‘Did you smoke cigarettes?’ What kind of cigarettes did you smoke?’ ‘What kind of shoes did you wear?’ ‘What kind of music did you listen to while working?'”
Fraction commented that this was why he loved conventions – to get the chance to ask those kind of question. “Not those Chris Farley show questions,” Fraction said. “Like – ‘remember when you created Fantastic Four? That was great.’ But ‘what kind of cigarettes did you smoke?'”
Chabon revealed the novel came as much out of his love for the time period as his love for comics. “I wanted to deal with the time period but needed to find a different way into it,” he explained.
Chabon then told the story of his pitch for the “Fantastic Four” film. “This was long before the new ones, it was during the mid-90s development hell,” he said. He explained that he was so excited to pitch the property, he brought his copy of an early “Fantastic Four” issue. When he arrived, the producers stared derisively at his FF pin. “The executives told me they couldn’t understand the passion people had for it. They told me, ‘Can you believe it? There’s people who come in to pitch us… and they bring their comics,” he said.
As Chabon tells it, he then slowly zipped up his bag to hide the comic inside.
To Chabon and Fraction, this was the problem. “There is this critical movement where people don’t want to call Cormack McCarthy stories westerns,” Chabon explained. “Or that it can’t be science fiction because Margaret Atwood did it.”
The two agreed that part of the problem was in the way books were packaged and sold. More accepted genre fiction like Kurt Vonnegut usually sport very austere, serious covers, while less accepted genre fiction feels required to advertise all the fantastical elements of the story.
“WARNING,” Fraction joked. “Do not approach this novel without the full awareness that it may contain genre elements. ”
“They do the same thing for Philip Pullman so that grown-ups don’t get embarrassed on airplanes,” Chabon replied.
“It’s okay!” Fraction said. “Even though the bear talks, it’s really about something else!”
At this point, Chabon had a question for Fraction. “You’re writing the X-Men now,” he said. “Here’s a topic for you: how do you feel about taking on a sacred charge?”
Chabon explained that, like Fraction, he had written stories about famous characters, specifically, in his novel “The Final Solution”. The novel is about Sherlock Holmes, though in the prose Chabon only refers to him as “The Old Man”.
“I wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel, but I didn’t name it ‘Sherlock Holmes,'” Chabon explained. “As soon as I tried to use the name Sherlock Holmes, I found it impossible. It was like a brand-name, almost, that sealed off the character.”
Fraction agreed, saying there has to be a block in his head when he’s writing established characters that keeps him from thinking about the implications. “It feels to me like Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff and he’s fine until he looks down,” he said.
Chabon then dropped a bit of a bombshell question. “Do you think it’s fan fiction in a sense?” Except for the fact that you’re getting paid for it?” He asked.
“I think it’s fiction by a fan,” Fraction said, thinking aloud. “I think fan fiction exists either to find… radical newness. Inappropriate, furry, very inappropriate newness… I don’t know – that seems to be stasis to me.”
Fraction acknowledged that while he tries to bring change to the characters, there’s certain elements fans will always expect from an X-Men or Sherlock Holmes story. “The machine is still the machine,” he said. “It’s never not going to be a car. We can take it new places, but it’s still a car.”
To illustrate his point about stasis, Fraction told a story about a friend of his. The friend was always talking about all the great toys he had, still in mint condition in the original packaging. Fraction didn’t quite believe the friend until they were over his house and saw all the toys, still unopened, that his friend had collected as a kid.
“We always joked about what Christmas morning would have been like at his house,” Fraction said. “If I could just transform out of this box, Megatron, you’d be in trouble!”
Fraction then told the crowd that some creator’s runs on books feel the same way: that the creators are afraid to take the characters out of the box and play with them.
At this point, the floor was opened to questions. One fan asked the two creators what happens when their literary insurgency becomes mainstream. “What’s the end game?” the fan said, summing up a lengthy question.
“The President of the United States is a Conan the Barbarian fan. That’s the end game,” Chabon joked. “The distinction between art – high art, pop art, low art – is a very recent idea.” Dickens and Balzac, Chabon pointed out, were genre writers after all.
Fraction had a more simple answer. “Let’s set a modest goal,” he said. “I think no longer having the science fiction novels and the role-playing books on the same shelf at Barnes and Noble would be pretty great.”