In the backmatter for issue #1 of Casanova, (Image, June 2006) Matt Fraction compares the story to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production technique—where hundreds of different instruments and sounds are compressed down to a mono signal, perfect for AM radios and 45 rpm singles. While this is an apt description of Fraction’s story as well as Gabriel Ba’s (volumes one and three) and Fabio Moon’s (volume 2) artwork, I think a more accurate musical analogue to Casanova is Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys.
While both Spector and The Dust Brothers, who produced Paul’s Boutique made sure to cram every available space in their respective records with sound, Paul’s Boutique is made up of hundreds of samples and references to not just many kinds of music, but also film and television. Samples of the Ramones, ZZ Top, and the Fatback Band sit comfortably next to lyrical references to the Andy Griffith Show, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and High Pains Drifter (and that’s just part of one song), which is very much like Casanova: a pastiche. Fraction’s use of pastiche carries all the way to the main character Casanova Quinn who is himself a combination of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and Jerry Cornelius analogues like Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright and Grant Morrison’s Gideon Stargrave, along with Diabolik, Thomas Crown, Howard Chaykin’s Reuben Flagg, and Tyrone Slothrop from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
It’s this latter element that really sets Casanova apart as a story, and makes it such a captivating if occasionally bewildering read. However, the Pynchon influence extends much further than just a few character traits or even the explicit reference with the secret criminal organization W.A.S.T.E. (which in Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 is the name of a secret underground mail service).
Pynchon himself has shown over the years to have some affinity for comics. Various references to Jack Cole’s Plastic Man comics pop up in Gravity’s Rainbow along with an anachronistic reference to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four (The Floundering Four). Additionally, When asked how he felt about a new edition of Gravity’s Rainbow being released: “[a]t first Pynchon resisted, says publicist Caroline Farrington. But he came back and said he’d allow it, on one condition: if (Frank) Miller did the design” (Pynchonoid).
Casanova is one of the most Pynchonesque comics ever released (along with Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT, but that’s a whole different article) specifically with regard to the abundance of pastiche, intertextual confluence and plurality of worlds, and the exploration of alterity. While these points separately are not hardly uncommon in comics, taken together as a whole and in such a concentrated form, they transform Casanova into a perfect example of what Larry McCaffery refers to as avant pop.
Summarizing either Casanova or any novel by Pynchon is no easy task and in fact does a disservice to both since the stories are so densely layered. However, for the purposes of this work it is necessary. When it comes to Pynchon, the focus will primarily be on the novels and criticisms of The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow which are two of his best known novels.
The Crying of Lot 49, first published in 1966 is the story of Oedipa Maas, a woman who finds herself the executor of her incredibly wealthy and recently deceased ex-boyfriend’s will and along the way becomes enmeshed in what may or may not be a conspiracy going back hundreds of years. One of the main themes of the book, according to David Seed, is the influence and application of ideas posited in Marshall McLuhan’s influential book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. In it, “McLuhan presents a view of contemporary society as containing a complex field of overlapping media systems which interconnect with the individual at every turn”(Seed 113-14).
Seed goes on to point out that “[c]onnectedness is thus one of McLuhan’s main emphases and also one of the determinants of Oedipa’s predicament since she is constantly bombarded with more information than she can process” (Seed 114). This information comes from television, film, music, a Jacobian revenge play, a perpetual motion machine that may or may not work, and people on LSD. The novel is a study of the disorienting effect of media overload and brings into question the idea of what is real.
Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973, is a sprawling narrative about a loosely organized group of mathematicians, psychologists, and occultists trying to subvert the German V2 rocket program at the end of World War Two. The key, they believe, to undermining the rocket program is a man named Tyrone Slothrop whose erections and sexual conquests seem to precede rocket strikes within London. The metaphor at the heart of Gravity’s Rainbow is the curious but chilling phenomenon of the V2 rocket. Since it traveled faster than the speed of sound, the explosion and destruction preceded the sound of its arrival, the effect coming before the cause.
Pynchon uses this phenomenon as a starting point to explore time and causality. Textually, or rather metatextually, Pynchon’s novel is a maze of fact and fiction, intertwining and interconnected prolepses and analepses and shifting narration, as a way of suggesting that this development is causing a fracture of time and reality. Gravity’s Rainbow has a very large cast of characters, around 400 and its non-linear structure can at times feel overwhelming. The book mostly follows Tyrone Slothrop and his journey around war ravaged areas in Europe in 1945. As time passes, Slothrop becomes more and more paranoid about his circumstances and his physical and mental connection to the V2 rocket, until his mind fragments. Dale Carter sums up Tyrone Slothrop as a character who ultimately is “a partly witting and partly unwitting plaything of power.” (Final Frontier 23) This summary is also a very accurate description of Casanova Quinn.
Casanova is set in an acknowledged multiverse (meaning the characters themselves know of its existence) with most of the action in volumes one and two taking place in the universe designated as Timeline 919. The Casanova Quinn that the story follows was originally from Timeline 909 where he was an amoral thief for hire, and occasionally at odds with the superspy organization E.M.P.I.R.E. (extra-military police, intelligence, rescue, and espionage). He is brought to Timeline 919 by Newman Xeno who controls the criminal organization W.A.S.T.E. (numerous and therefore no exact meaning stated, similar to the Men from N.O.W.H.E.R.E. in Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol) to aid him in various schemes.
Along the way, Casanova meets various strange human and non-human characters like Fabula Berserko, a robot masquerading as a mutated brain formed from three Buddhist monks who fused together and a technologically hyper-advanced race of island natives, a beautiful blue skinned and occasionally multi-armed time traveler. At various points Cas suffers a few intense crises of conscience, deals with his severely dysfunctional family, converts a giant Japanese robot from W.W.II into an apartment, turns friends into enemies and enemies into friends, and traverses the multiverse.
While Pynchon’s novels have appealed to academics for decades, and are often held up as prime examples of postmodernist literature, they also have a strong cult fringe appeal in much the same way as William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. Casanova too has a cult fringe appeal. Part of the appeal of both Casanova and Pynchon lies not just in their use of pastiche as a method of storytelling, but in the wide range of stories from which they draw inspiration as a way to connect with the reader. Gravity’s Rainbow is a pastiche of genres and styles that includes horror science fiction, superhero comics, musicals, spy stories, war stories, and even hardcore pornography. Regarding this, Seed notes that “Pynchon’s narratives present discursive fields where the reader encounters the texts that have gone before. One consequence of this is that textual assembly always becomes an important topic in his work”(112).While Pynchon explores these genre and style combinations over the course of 760 pages, Fraction gives himself considerably less space.
The format of Casanova, at least for the first two volumes was based on the one adopted by Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith for their Image series Fell—sixteen pages of a complete story followed by a few pages of text about the story and whatever else he felt like talking about at that time. The format changed for volume three Avaritia when Casanova moved from image to Marvel’s Icon imprint. Along with the format change came the addition of color with the previous volumes also being republished with color and the seven-issue arcs condensed into four issues as well.
For Casanova, Fraction uses pastiche in ever-increasing amounts over the course of the three published volumes. As noted above, the main character Casanova Quinn is a combination of various anti-heroes taken from comics, novels, and films. A notable example of Fraction’s use of pastiche for Casanova occurs in issue one where it shows Cas entering a casino, something common to most James Bond films, however, the casino is in what looks like a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier to do battle with Fabula Berserko, the mutated brain in a scene reminiscent of Professor Xavier’s psychic battle with Amahl Farouk in Uncanny X-Men #117. The stories continue in this manner over the first two volumes with new elements being added, everything from giant Japanese robots to characters being introduced in the form of 1970s B-movie posters. With volume 3, Fraction increases the amount of pastiche in the story to the point where each issue a sensory overload of story and image and every reality that Casanova enters is practically a different genre, layering combinations of pastiches on top of each other.
Ultimately, Fraction’s layers of pastiche in volume three transcends pastiche becomes an intertextual confluence and plurality of worlds that is also a hallmark of Pynchon’s novels. Intertextual confluence and plurality of worlds refers to the existence within fiction of possible worlds beyond the one presented within the text. This takes on several forms, from multiversal existences and forking-paths types of possible pasts and futures of characters to the intermingling of real-world facts with fiction.
McHale says, regarding Pynchon’s intertextual confluence that “the complex spatialities of Pynchon’s texts – their proliferation of worlds, lateral and alternative, their paradoxes and short-circuits, their doubtful shimmering, on-again off-again realities – imply different, more constructive possibilities of cognitive mapping”(109). These possibilities are also present in abundance throughout Casanova.
As stated earlier, the main story of Avaritia involves Casanova traveling to different “mutant” universes for the purpose of wiping them out of existence. These universes are a disorienting mix of past, present, and future and it’s here where Fraction and Ba’ really experiment with panel layouts and narrative. Along the way, Cas also uncovers the true identity of of the always bandaged and anonymous Newman Xeno. Back in the first issue of volume one, Luxuria it was Newman Zeno who brought Cas out of his original universe to be a double agent for W.A.S.T.E. alongside his sister Zephyr, and it was this act that caused the mutant universes to spring into existence.
In the same volume, Fraction also adds moments of intertextual confluence in with the story in different ways. In issue two, Cas is tasked by E.M.P.I.R.E. with recovering Winston Heath, a deep cover agent (he also happens to be tasked by W.A.S.T.E. To kill Heath). While being briefed on his assignment he learns that Heath published all of his past adventures as an E.M.P.I.R.E. agent as comics. Buck McShane, Casanova’s father’s right hand man believes that the comics are important to understand Winston Heath, saying “read these, OK? Heath had things to say and this is how he said them.” Cas, however ignores McShane and says “the last comic I read, there was lots of rape and crying, Kinda harshed my boner for fun. I’ll stick with MAD Magazine.” Within this exchange, Fraction presents a fictionalized history of a character and also offers a thinly veiled critique of then-current comics, in particular the Identity Crisis story from DC Comics.
Pynchon, from the very beginning has made use of textual confluence, especially in The Crying of Lot 49 which is built around the concept being confronted with, and trying to make sense of layered and occasionally contradictory information. The main character, Oedipa Maas is trying to solve a mystery, yet she constantly finds herself overwhelmed by the amount of information about the mystery from just about every medium possible at that time, the mid-1960s. The hints and answers she uncovers along the way lead often to more questions or contradictions. The best example of this is The Courier’s Tragedy, a Jacobian revenge play that supposedly explains the history and conflict between the fictional Trystero family and the real Thurn und Taxis courier service and the foundation of what would eventually become the underground mail service W.A.S.T.E.
Pynchon’s conflation of fact and fiction in his novels, and especially in The Courier’s Tragedy is also an example of world-layering and the commingling of fact and fiction that Fraction employs in Casanova. In the backmatter pages, Fraction often mentions how certain storylines were inspired by memories, dreams, and interesting news items he’d read. In issue #4 of Luxuria, Casanova’s assignment from E.M.P.I.R.E. is to capture the performance artist-turned-guru David X who has been meditating for the past twelve years. E.M.P.I.R.E. believes that if he wakes up he will be seen as a god and then it will destabilize places like Tibet. Consequently, W.A.S.T.E. wants David X to awaken for exactly that reason. Fraction writes in the backmatter for issue #4 about how he was inspired by the story of Ram Bahadur Banjan, a young Nepalese man who had acquired a large following because of his years-long meditation.
Throughout the entire series, Cas’ main struggle has been with his own identity, coming to terms with who he is first in relation to other versions of himself from other realities and through the organizations that seek to control him. This is a conflict of alterity, which basically means “otherness” and which Deborah Madsen describes as “a double process of placement and perception”(146) and it is the heart of Casanova.
As stated earlier, the Casanova that the story follows is just one of possibly an infinite number of others. This Casanova was taken from timeline 909 into timeline 919 to act as a double agent on behalf of Newman Xeno and W.A.S.T.E. against Cas’ father Cornelius Quinn (fitting that Casanova is the son of (Jerry) Cornelius) and E.M.P.I.R.E. The 909 Cas is a somewhat amoral thief and often at odds with his father while the 919 Casanova was a respected agent of E.M.P.I.R.E. before his death. On the other hand, Cas’ sister Zephyr was an E.M.P.I.R.E. Agent in timeline 909 before her death at the hands of her 919 counterpart who works for Newman Xeno.
The conflict between E.M.P.I.R.E. and W.A.S.T.E., in which Casanova trapped, is one of control. E.M.P.I.R.E. wants to maintain world order while W.A.S.T.E. “rapes and debases out lady of space-time—turning her into but a painted harlot.” This conflict is reminiscent of both Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles in the conflict between The Invisibles and The Outer Church and Warren Ellis’ concept of Heaven and Hell which appeared first in Stormwatch and later in Planetary, that they are both siege engines pointed at each other fueled by souls. Regarding Pynchon’s examination of alterity, Madsen notes that it appears in several forms: “psychologically through paranoia, schizophrenia, and narcissism; politically through systems of control that attempt to destroy otherness…scientifically through determinism and theories of entropy; aesthetically through film and photography, storytelling and the ‘routinization’ of language”(146). While this is easily seen in the fragmentation of Slothrop’s personality and in the secret warfare between clandestine organizations in Gravity’s Rainbow, it is also an essential part of Casanova, both the story and the character.
Throughout volume 2, Gula the question that Sasa Lisi, the blue skinned time traveler asks is “When is Casanova Quinn?” The Cas that she’s looking for was killed and replaced and has since completely disappeared. However, at the end of the volume it’s revealed that Cas was masquerading as his sister Zephyr in order to infiltrate and destroy both W.A.S.T.E. and another organization X.S.M. Cas’ identity comes apart and he only wants to be erased from the current timeline so that the original timeline 919 Casanova could return all of the things he did, like killing Ruby Seychelle would be undone. However, he is unable to reverse what happened and he ends up a broken man, but still under the control of E.M.P.I.R.E. and still with a job to do.
With the announcement at the recent Image Expo of the forthcoming Casanova volume four titled Acedia with art by Fabio Moon and backup stories by Michael Chabon and Gabriel Ba’, now is a good time to go back and revisit the previous volumes. This column is intended to be just the first in a series of four. The next three will look at each of the volumes in-depth to examine the themes presented in this article along with some others.
Carter, Dale. The Final Frontier: The Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State Verso Books 1988
Fraction, Matt. Casanova. Illus. Gabriel Ba’ and Fabio Moon. Three vols.
Madsen, Deborah L. “Alterity” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon
McHale, Brian. “Pynchon’s Postmodernism” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49
—. Gravity’s Rainbow
Seed, David. “Pynchon’s Intertexts.” The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon
Smith, Zak. Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow. http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/zak_smith/title.htm