Why “Casanova” Matters

SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for “Casanova” #14, on sale this week.

In "Maps and Legends," Michael Chabon's recently published essay collection, Chabon compares both Howard Chaykin and Will Eisner to the "Citizen Kane"-era Orson Welles. "Welles and Chaykin may not have invented or pioneered all the stylistic and technical innovations on display in their masterworks," writes Chabon, "but they were the first to put them all together in a way that changed how their successors thought about what they could, and had to, and wanted to do." Chabon argues that, unlike Welles's influence on cinema, Howard Chaykin's influence on comic books has yet to be fully recognized.

And Eisner? Chabon writes, "to a certain extent Eisner and Welles stand as parallel figures in their respective media. Both of them were prodigiously gifted and managed at a young age to get their hands on a vehicle -- a Hollywood studio, a newspaper syndicate -- that would allow them to put on a dazzling display of those gifts." He goes on to demonstrate how Eisner surpasses Welles in one respect: Eisner was a better businessman.

All of this has nothing to do with "Casanova," the as-of-now 14-issue Image Comics series by writer Matt Fraction and artists Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. Or maybe it has everything to do with "Casanova." "Casanova" is the beautiful and twisted godson of Chaykin, Eisner, and Welles, and if that sounds like hyperbole, then you haven't read "Casanova."

In my CBR review of this week's "Casanova" #14, the conclusion of the second story arc, I say that "I wouldn't be surprised to see 'Casanova' emerge as the defining comic of this decade," and I didn't write those words just because I like the comic. I like a lot of comics -- a wide range of styles and genres. But "Casanova" is a comic that matters. "Casanova" is important -- not in the self-serious way that "important" works sometimes have. Not in the way that makes you feel, "I have to slog through this thing because it's supposed to be important." No. It's important because it's so vibrantly alive at a time when American comics, like other contemporary narrative art forms, have become rigidly ensconced in two distinct schools: the excessive and the minimalistic.

Superhero comics, and there a plenty of good ones, probably more now then ever before, (and into this school, I'm lumping the "mainstream" comics that fall into superhero structures even if there are no costumes and capes to be seen) are surely examples of the excessive school. Nothing is too extreme for this type of story, even when the gaudy costumes are replaced by gaudy sexuality and/or violence. Whether it's giant crossover events spanning a multiverse or a disturbed man with a skull on his chest and a knife to your throat, the excessive school is all about the barrage of imagery -- a relentless assault injected straight into your eyeballs. The characters, such as they are, iconic and exalted, are cogs in the plot machinery.

On the other side of town, the minimalistic school sports a bleaker look, often tending toward the solid black and stark white. Color is rare in this type of story, both literally and metaphorically. Life in the minimalistic school is not the swirling chaos and bombast of the superhero comic; it's quiet, understated, calm on the surface even as the characters melt away on the inside, struggling with forces too overwhelming to express. In the minimalistic school, Rusty Brown suffers, Glenn Ganges ponders, and the "Death Ray" turns to sadness. The characters are the story.

As I said, I like a lot of comics, many from each school, and I adore the work done by Grant Morrison at one extreme and Chris Ware at the other, but one comic in recent years has bestrode both schools like a sleek and sexy colossus: "Casanova." "Casanova" is the excessive, minimalistic masterpiece of the first decade of the 21st century, smashing together tropes from either school into something that transcends both.

The Hyper-Dense "Luxuria"

As if to preemptively snub its nose at any potential comparisons (like the one I started this essay with), or maybe to sample a bit of its powerful mojo, "Casanova" #1 opens with an establishing shot straight from "Citizen Kane." While Welles's film begins with an abandoned Xanadu mansion, fenced in with a "Keep Out" sign holding us at bay for a moment, the first image of "Casanova" invites us into the mansion as lurkers. The first-person narrative captions draw us in, accompanying the protagonist as he creeps through the window. "I love my job. But -- it's a job," says Casanova Quinn in the opening lines, establishing the simultaneous feeling joy and duty that will run throughout the fourteen issues. The first pages open after the battle has ended, the bodyguards lie still around the stairway as Casanova climbs into the room of Ruby Seychelle. Lyrics from "Deja vu," by the Fraction-created Teen Age Music International, diegetically.

Diegetic sound, sound that can be heard by the characters in the frame, is important in "Casanova." For one, it thematically underscores the moment, a literal deja vu moment, that happens when this same opening sequence is repeated in an alternate reality by the same Casanova Quinn. Second, Teen Age Music International, or T.A.M.I., isn't just a pop group -- it's a cover for a super-sexy gang of assassins we meet a few issues later. Their existence as ephemeral voices foreshadows their physical appearance in the narrative. And third, the diegesis of the first page is immediately contrasted with the extradiegesis of the second page as characters, outside of the panels, speak directly to the reader and comment upon the story. "Nobody knows I'm a robot! Sshhh," says Ruby Seychelle, establishing the old-fashioned dramatic irony the postmodern way.

Fraction's hyper-dense narrative (perhaps not as dense as Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!," but in the same stylistic league, maybe even the same division) layers meaning upon what is essentially a simple plot in "Luxuria," the first arc in the "Casanova" series: Casanova Quinn, immoral bastard, finds himself dragged from Timeline 909 to Timeline 919 by Newman Xeno, supercriminal mastermind. In this alternate reality, Casanova begins working for his (parallel-universe) father, head of E.M.P.I.R.E., an elite peace-keeping force, while working as a double agent for the evil Newman Xeno. Everything in "Luxuria" builds from that, as Casanova finds himself deeply entangled in a world of subterfuge and lies, incestuous propositions from his twin sister Zephyr, and a decommissioned giant robot operated by a boy kung-fu expert. On the surface, it's pure genre-bending action, and it works as a thrilling and charming (and twisted) story on that level, but it's also fully engaged with itself as a pop culture artifact and work of art -- a work of art that says something about the medium in which it was created.

The series is made up of archetypal characters, or rather, Fractionesque analogues to established pop culture creations. Casanova Quinn is a kind of interdimensional James Bond. Cornelius Quinn is Nick Fury as a dad. Buck McShane is Fury's eternal sidekick Dum Dum Dugan as a sleazeball. Sabine Seychelle is a perverted, adult Jonny Quest. And so on. But unlike something like Adult Swim's "The Venture Brothers," Fraction doesn't use the archetypes for parody or slapstick. He uses them as the ingredients for a heady recipe of metafictional casserole. By playing on the cultural resonance of these characters, or maybe just by invoking them indirectly, Fraction amplifies the scope of his narrative. Alan Moore's "Watchmen" did the same thing. Am I seriously comparing "Casanova" to "Watchmen"? Sort of. As a visual narrative launching off from "Citizen Kane's" Xanadu, "Casanova" could do worse than ape a bit of the "Watchmen" approach. "Casanova" is a comic engaged with its own history -- not just its history over 14 issues, but its history as part of the comic book lineage, as a story told in images, a tradition dating back to the inspirational visuals of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles, through Will Eisner's graphic storytelling and Howard Chaykin's layers of meaning. And it would be foolish to ignore "Watchmen" as a milestone along that road.

But unlike "Watchmen," Fraction and artists Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon don't constrict the story with humorlessness. "Casanova" is funny. There's irony aplenty in the series, and what could be more absurd than Ruby Berserko, a robot with "three mutant brains" and a blonde wig? "Casanova" doesn't wink at the audience, or if it does, it winks as if to say, "isn't this awesome?" not "isn't this silly?" Because no matter how silly the events may seem, Fraction and company play it straight, and the family dynamics -- Casanova vs. sister Zephyr vs. father Cornelius -- ground the comic in an emotional reality, an emotional reality that becomes deeper and more affecting with the second arc, "Gula."

The "Gula" Reversal

"Casanova" #7 ends with the assembled "heroes" (heroic only in the sense that they have rebelled against the system and declared their intention to forge their own path) drinking champagne on the top of a giant robot head. The Casanova from Timeline 909 has decided to make a go of it in this alternate reality of Timeline 919, to be a better version of himself, now that he has another chance. The monochromatic green hue, used for shading throughout "Luxuria" instead of traditional color, spreading into shadow as the sun sets on the Pacific.

"Gula," beginning in "Casanova" #8 opens with eye-slicing blue, as the shift in story arc is visually identified with a shift in color scheme, and a shift in artist as Gabriel Ba is replaced by Fabio Moon. While Ba filled "Luxuria" with his precise pen line and geometrically-positioned blacks, Moon embellishes "Gula" with a heavy brush and a looser style. The artistic shift signifies a change in pace, as we see Casanova, triumphant only an issue earlier, slumped in a waiting room, attired in a hospital gown. The hyper-dense visual style of the first arc -- so reliant on a four-tier structure to maximize the amount of panels per page -- is replaced in "Gula" with a three-tiered structure, more common in American comic books. Less panels per page means a slightly slower pace, and that's exactly the point as this arc is all about the repercussions of "Luxuria." If "Luxuria" is the party, then "Gula" is the next morning, not quite with a hangover, but with the dirty job of cleaning up the mess.

This makes "Gula" sound like a lot less fun than the first arc, and that's not right at all. If anything, the pacing of "Casanova" #8-14 is even more enjoyable, since the kinetic pace of "Luxuria" would become numbing if repeated indefinitely. "Gula" allows us to sit back a bit and enjoy the world Fraction and Moon establish. And it's not just the storytelling tempo Fraction plays with; he also breaks out of the traditional serial-format timeline.

Not only does "Casanova" #8 begin some indefinite amount of time after issue #7 (although the context seems to indicate that it's up to a year or two after the events of "Luxuria,"), but on page 11, Fraction and Moon give us six nearly identical panels which demonstrate another forward leap in narrative time. It's a nearly silent page, as we see five panels of a forest trail, each panel showing the changing season until, presumably, a year has passed. Then, in panel six, we get a jump-suited figure running away from us, swearing and shouting "Mayday!" We assume the figure is Casanova Quinn, the hero, the title character, the reason for this comic to exist. But it's not. It turns out to be Kaito Best, former kung-fu kicking boy inhabitant of the decommissioned giant robot, now adult member of Cornelius Quinn's E.M.P.I.R.E. Not only is Casanova missing from his own comic, but he remains missing until the final issue of the "Gula" arc. And something is wrong with the time stream, as what looks at first like storytelling gaffes (how did Kaito age so quickly? How long have Kaito and Ruby Seychelle been in love?) turn out to be clues that something is rotten in the state of Timeline 919.

Fraction turns "Casanova" into a kind of metaphysical mystery, as "When is Casanova Quinn?" becomes the refrain. And the focus shifts away from Casanova, who, not being present, would be impossible to write. The new focus is Zephyr Quinn, unrepentant assassin in this timeline. In Casanova Quinn's "real" Timeline 909, Zephyr had died, an example of everything Casanova never could be: honest and moral. In Timeline 919, this Zephyr is the opposite, and "Gula" becomes about her new mission, working with the manga-haired Kubark Benday to offer her services to the highest bidder.

Admittedly, the pacing of "Gula" is more conventional than the density of "Luxuria," and Fraction might have been better served (sales-wise) if he had started with something audiences could have more easily digested. But the brilliance of "Casanova" is partly because Fraction didn't start with the easy stuff. He challenged the reader, asking his audience to pay attention right from the start, and if they did, they would be rewarded. And he couldn't have started with "Gula" first because this arc is based on the repercussions of "Luxuria." "Gula" is not only the fallout from "Luxuria" it's the twisted doppelganger of it, as the amoral Zephyr replaces the formerly amoral Casanova.

Except, as with anything worth reading, things aren't what they seem. Zephyr Quinn, amoral assassin, turns out to be secretly working for her dad. Her apparent killing spree at the E.M.P.I.R.E. base was a coded message to her father, and in the end, she only killed robot simulacrums, not real people. Seeing Cornelius Quinn alive one issue after his head was apparently lopped off is shocking, but Fraction saves the biggest surprise for "Casanova" #14, the final issue of the "Gula" arc, where we learn that Zephyr has been Casanova in disguise since issue #9. Zephyr, who flaunted and used her feminine sexuality throughout the arc, was actually the male lead character. The title character was there all along, and we didn't even realize it.

The genius of such a shocking gender reversal is twofold: (1) it undermines and mocks the typical super-spy convention of aggressive male sexuality. When Casanova, returned (through science!) to his original male appearance, confronts his former lover Kubark Benday, there's a real sense of loss and longing there. Their (as it turned out) homosexual experience was not without meaning, and Casanova's halting apology isn't enough to fill the uneasy space between the two characters. (2) the "bad" Casanova from Timeline 909 (a.k.a. our hero) replaces the "bad" Zephyr from Timeline 919 to do what's right. He not only redeems himself, but he redeems his sister by adopting her physical form. Or, if it's not complete redemption, at least it's an acceptance of responsibility.

Joy and duty, the juxtaposed themes Fraction mashed together on the first page of "Casanova" #1 become reversed as Casanova learns the price of that duty, and the joylessness that has resulted. Through it all, Fraction questions the nature of identity, and while everyone in the comic was asking "When is Casanova Quinn?" the implied question, at least to Casanova himself (herself?) was "Who is Casanova Quinn?" or "Which Casanova Quinn should I be?" Such questions are only emphasized in the final two issues as Kaito mourns his beloved Ruby Seychelle, the robot female we first met in issue #1. Her memory is completely backed up. She could be rebooted into a new, duplicate body, but Kaito refuses to let that happen.

I'm leaving out a hundred other important moments here, but Matt Fraction's agile blending of hyper-dense plot and substantial characters, concepts of sexuality and identity, robots and metaphysics makes "Casanova" that rare comic that can use genre conventions in new and exciting ways. It crosses genre boundaries and rises above any perceived limitations. In "Casanova" style is not substance, substance is the new style, and what a beautiful style it is: human, thrilling, transcendent.

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