March 8, 2010

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Casanova Volume 1

Written by Matt Fraction
Illustrated by Gabriel Ba
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Ever wonder what would happen if you wrote a book about S.H.I.E.L.D. where things weren't quite so black and white, the villains were just as smart as Nick Fury and Company, and the world was viewed as a cynical place where no one was innocent?

Well, Matt Fraction apparently did.

Casanova features the Quinn family, a group of individuals that, regardless of the reality they're in, always gravitate to the world of espionage. There are two kids, and while one of them is always good--the other is always bad. Casanova Quinn is the bad one, always ready to tweak his old man's nose. When he's moved to a reality where his sister is also playing against her father (though for greater stakes than he ever did), Casanova is forced into a world that has more twists and turns that a reader can easily follow.

Tasked as a double agent, he sees the evil in both sides. But can Casanova turn the odds in his favor by tinkering a bit here and there? When you're matching wits with the best in the spy game, it's not easy, as Casanova will soon learn.

This book definitely owes a large debt to Stan Lee and Jim Steranko's work on Nick Fury. Quinn's father is a stand in for the Howling Commando, and his right hand man is a perverted version of Dum Dum Dugan. The agency is called E.M.P.I.R.E and has a word to match each initial. They fight against W.A.S.T.E, led by a man in bandages who experiments with the nature of reality and wishes to shape it to his own ends.

Played straight, this would be a solid espionage book that was just a bit confusing to follow. Instead, Fraction skewers the genre at every opportunity (particularly Marvel's version), with fetish robot creators, a female Modok who assists on missions, Wakanda on steroids, and even a man claiming to have the power of God. The things Casanova must do to survive in this world are familiar, yet taken to an extreme. If you like Nick Fury's world, seeing it turned on its head is a grand time, once you cop to the idea that Fraction is doing it.

Threaded through the silly fun, however, is the story of man out of his element who comes to realize that maybe there is a need to make the world a better place, now that he's been in a world where his family understands him a bit better. We see this in pieces, as Casanova's father, mother, and sister all start to shape his role in this new earth. In his old world, Casanova was rebelling for no good reason. Here, his ambitions are raised to a higher standard, or so it seems by the end of the trade. It will be interesting to see how this progresses over time. (From what I understand, Fraction wants this to be a seven volume series.)

I don't want to talk too much about the stories in this volume as it would spoil the fun of reading them. Let's just say that Fraction writes himself into multiple corners only to find his way out again, often in the most outrageous (and yet, strangely plausible) manner. Robot clones, time travel, World War II Japanese technology, and other treats await you in these pages. They all hearken back to 1960s spy stories, but in a modern manner that is a credit to Fraction's love of the genre.

Gabriel Ba's artwork for the series is slippery, shadowy, and for the female characters, as sexy as possible while still being printable by a major publisher. His work here reminds me a lot of Mike Mignola, if Hellboy were set in a world where women frequently went without tops. I like his panel layouts, and he is not afraid to underdraw a figure in order to highlight the mood. There is a lot going on in every page because of Fraction's complex script, but Ba manages to keep the reader's eyes focused on what's important.

There are two things that bothered me just a bit about the story which I think are worth mentioning. The first few chapters, despite some 4th wall breaking, are very hard to follow and the story itself can be a little confusing, because of the desire to keep things veiled in mystery. If I had not found myself engaged in the world, I'd have given up on this one because of it. So just be ready to scratch your head for a bit until things are worked out better over time and know that you might have to go back a few times to re-read what happened.

The second is that Fraction's female characters all end up feeling a bit weak. Casanova's mother is too frail to help herself, while her husband is a manly man. Female robots are only used for pleasure. All of the humanoid girls in the book save the Modok are as sexualized as possible, which I understand is part of the genre-skewering but still is a bit hard to get over. Worst for me, though, is that Casanova's sister is killed in one reality and then rendered moot in another. Once Casanova arrives, his sister falls into his shadow. Frankly, I liked her better, and it bothered me that she appears to get tossed aside as the book goes on.

Neither of those are enough to make me not recommend the book, but they should be noted. If you like a straightforward story or are bothered by a modern writer giving women a secondary role, then this might not be a good title for you.

Casanova shows that Matt Fraction can write a story that is a bit self-aware but still manages to work within the world created for it. I was a bit thrown off at times, but overall I thought it used the ambiguity of the spy story to good effect. I don't think I liked it as much as a lot of others who've read it but I think it's worth a try to see what you think. I liked it enough to continue on into volume two. You may or may not, depending on how much the idea of James Bond with strong shades of gray appeals to you.