Note: In my previous article on Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon’s Casanova, I examined the series in its relation to themes present in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. This next series of articles will look at each of the volumes individually and occasionally referencing points I made earlier while also moving beyond the Pynchon comparisons to look at other themes that run throughout the series.
In a review of Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, Warren Ellis says that the book “cycles through genres like a long-running television show entering its decadent phase.” Think leprechauns on Bonanza or even lifeguards exploring paranormal phenomena on Baywatch Nights. The idea of “Why not?” that is the spirit Fraction, Ba, and Moon capture in Casanova; a story told by creators stoned out of their heads on the possibilities that the medium provides. The stories especially volumes one and two read as if they were written by a man exploring past childhood loves with a slight detachment but (thankfully) without irony.
As stated in the previous article, the character of Casanova Quinn is a pastiche of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius and various Jerry Cornelius analogs. Indeed even Ba and Moon’s design of Casanova strongly resembles Jerry Cornelius as portrayed by Jon Finch (along with a hint of Mick Jagger) in the film adaptation of Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel The Final Programme from 1973.
As a creator-owned and therefore more personal story, along with it being an early work on the part of Fraction, Casanova is on the surface an exploration of Fraction’s past loves from films: Apocalypse Now, Danger: Diabolik, King Kong, James Bond and many others are all referenced at various points, as well as comics: Jim Steranko, Jack Kirby, and Grant Morrison. It is Fraction’s love of comics, from characters and creators to the medium itself that naturally comes through the strongest.
The first volume of Casanova which was collected under the name Luxuria is set mostly in a 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) run by his father, Cornelius Quinn. He is brought to Timeline 919 by Newman Xeno who controls the criminal organization W.A.S.T.E. Along the way, Cass suffers a few intense crises of conscience and deals with his severely dysfunctional family, in particular the 919 version of his sister Zephyr, who works for Newman Xeno.
In his book How to read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock takes a unique approach to reading and critiquing superhero fiction. First, he focuses only on comics written from 1985-onward, avoiding the progression of comics from the gold to silver to modern ages, and instead focuses on what defined this latter period. He examines what he calls “the birth of self-consciousness in the superhero narrative…the revisionary superhero narrative”(2). Next, instead of relying on Joseph Campbell-inspired takes on the genre as modern mythology, Klock examines superhero comics using the ideas of critic Harold Bloom, specifically those ideas regarding influence, misreading and misprision, which Klock notes are “acts of interpretation that create new texts“(12).
Although Casanova is not a superhero story, it is informed, especially the first volume, by 1960s and 70s Marvel works by Steranko and Kirby. Along with these stories there is a strong influence from various Grant Morrison stories, in particular Doom Patrol and The Invisibles, which like Casanova are indebted to Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories–a misreading of a misreading. The Morrison influence on Casanova extends further than characters and story beats into an exploration of similar themes. Callahan summarizes the themes that run throughout Morrison’s stories as “the relationship between the mind and the body, the nature of reality, the role of the hero, and the dichotomy between order and chaos”(233). Ultimately Casanova is an interpretation built off of previous interpretations that are both revisionist and reconstructionist.
As originally published, each issue of Casanova contained sixteen pages of story with several pages of backmatter. The exception to this was the first issue which was thirty pages of story. Each issue was more or less a self-contained story with slight cliffhangers at the end to connect to the next issue, the exceptions being the two-part finale that ran through issues six and seven. The main plot of most of the first volume involves Cas being given a mission by his father, the director of E.M.P.I.R.E. and a counter mission by Newman Zeno from W.A.S.T.E. The conflict between E.M.P.I.R.E. and W.A.S.T.E., the struggle between order and chaos, is an essential element in Morrison’s Doom Patrol and The Invisibles as well as Michael Moorcock’s fiction with Casanova (like Jerry Cornelius and so many others) standing in for Moorcock’s Eternal Champion who ensures that neither side gains dominance.
Most of these missions and counter missions tend to be focused on a third party, Sabine Seychelle. Seychelle’s crime empire is centered around his designing and building of, with two notable exceptions, female robots. The first is Fabula Berserko who runs a floating casino in what looks like a S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier. Berserko is said to be the result of three Buddhist monks who meditated so intensely that they fused together into one body. At the end of issue one, Cass captures Fabula who ends up working for E.M.P.I.R.E. once they upload the software of Ruby Seychelle, Sabine’s favorite female robot, into him. Fabula Berserko then becomes Ruby Berserko.
Next is the magician/performance artist/guru David X who has been meditating for twelve years in the hopes that when he awakens he will become a god. E.M.P.I.R.E. sends Cass to capture David X before he can wake up, while W.A.S.T.E. wants him to awaken to destabilize places with high concentrations of Buddhists. Although Cass thinks David X’s twelve year meditation is a hoax, it is interesting to note that David X recognizes immediately that Cass does not belong in this universe. Cass is successful in his mission, however, because W.A.S.T.E. wants David X to wake up, Newman Xeno sends Cass and Zephyr to Sabine Seychelle so that he can make a robot replica to take his place.
Seychelle’s robots, like the Replicants of Blade Runner are if not more human than human, then at least as human. Ruby pretends to love McShane, E.M.P.I.R.E.’s second in command, so that she can get a new body and be free of him and make her own way in the world. The robot version of David X successfully takes his place, and although it’s never stated what happened after he woke up, Fraction goes on to explore the nature of real with regard to Seychelle’s creations further in volume 2, Gula.
Issues two and five, titled “Pretty Little Policemen” and Coldheart” respectively explore the familiar Morrison mind/body territory but in a slightly abstracted way; that of the mental and the physical, and then in the context of colonial narratives, which is also a common theme in several of Pynchon’s novels. Both stories have a similar and very common spy story premise: going alone into a remote location to achieve some objective in a limited amount of time.
In “Pretty Little Policemen,” Cass has to go to a remote town called Agua Pesada (heavy water) to recall Winston Heath who is actually a deep cover E.M.P.I.R.E. agent working for Sabine Seychelle.
Agua Pesada is a place powered by exploitation of the physical. It is rich in Orgone which is a kind of “free floating sex energy” that powers Agua Pesada and Seychelle’s organization. The town is filled with Seychelle’s robots and people come from all over the world to party. Winston Heath then collects and “farcasts” the energy back to Seychelle. The problem is that Heath has been undercover and mainlining Orgone for so long that he is no longer part of either group having descended into madness like Colonel Kurtz. In a fit of rage and with a head full of Orgone, Cass brutally murders (with extreme prejudice) Winston Heath, failing in his mission for E.M.P.I.R.E. but succeeding in his mission for W.A.S.T.E. With Heath dead and his Orgone generator burned out, “Agua Pesada was even more irreparably fucked. After fifteen years on the juice, the whole town went cold turkey all at once.”
In “Coldheart,” Cass has to infiltrate an island that is only accessible once every year and contains “the last tribe of pre-neolithic man on the planet.” Ten years prior to the beginning of the story, Sabine Seychelle placed one of his operatives, Starking Cole, on Coldheart Island so that he could “monitor how the natives reacted to new outbreaks of fantastic technology.” Cole however did not care for his assignment and instead through a combination of technology and strange entheogens decided to evolve (and evolve with) the Coldheart natives until after a decade they were a 26th century society in the disguise of a stone-age tribe.
Coldheart has become a place of strange geometries and exists outside of linear time. Their perceptions are so heightened that they can read a CD at a glance and easily spot Casanova who is wearing a lightbending suit and would normally be invisible. Additionally, because of their heightened senses, the people of Coldheart instantly recognize Cass as not belonging to their universe. It’s because of this that they end up taking Cass into their confidence which involves bathing and partaking in the drugs.
As a result, Cass immediately becomes taken with Coldheart and its inhabitants and helps to defend it against a group of sailors who try to invade the island. Coldheart later returns the favor by offering sanctuary first to Cass’s mother and later to Zephyr after she breaks away from Newman Zeno.
Of the two sides in the conflict between mind and body, Fraction clearly seems to prefer the former, even though the latter provides the visceral thrills comic action. Ultimately the story, at least for volume one, is about Casanova’s growth as a person, accepting responsibilities and taking care of others. Of course he does not give up on violence entirely; indeed his highest body count comes while defending Coldheart. However, it is clear that Cass is on the way toward becoming a better person, or at least less selfish. The high body count comes from defending Coldheart for no reason other than a desire to keep it safe. In his original timeline, 909, the only person that Cass cared about was his twin sister Zephyr because she was nothing like him. However, the Zephyr of Timeline 919 is very much like him, perhaps even crueler, yet Cass ultimately comes to care for her as well, even after she tortured him for shooting her.
With regard to the missions to Agua Pesada and Coldheart, Fraction’s position is clear when it comes to Winston Heath and Starking Cole. Both operatives are variations on Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or more accurately Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Heath’s years of mainlining Orgone drove him completely insane and his death is also (possibly) the end of Agua Pesada. Cole on the other hand had no interest in helping out Sabine Seychelle and instead worked to expand the minds of the Coldheart natives, along with his own, rather than the colonial fantasy of trying to bring them up to his level. They evolved together while Heath lived completely apart from the people (it’s also worth noting that according to Fraction, Coldheart was also a critique of the way Peter Jackson portrayed the “savages” in his King Kong remake).
As a story, Casanova walks a fine line between revisionist and reconstructionist. Though it is heavily influenced by superhero stories, Casanova is not a heroic character, nor can it be said that E.M.P.I.R.E. is a benevolent organization. The one mission they send Cass on that doesn’t involve Sabine Seychelle or W.A.S.T.E. is to keep David X from awakening after his twelve-year meditation.
The best that can be said for E.M.P.I.R.E. is that they maintain status quo in the world, not unlike Morrison’s The Filth. The only way that E.M.P.I.R.E. can be considered good is when compared to W.A.S.T.E., which represents chaos. Even their name is meaningless. In addition, Casanova is a very violent story with brutal murders and implied cannibalism. The incident where Zephyr has an orgasm while torturing Cass adds (quasi) incest to the violence. These elements of realism and violence are offset by Gabriel Ba’s art as well as the rest of the story which is populated by spacetime travelers, giant robots, an evil mastermind dressed as a mummy, and Ruby Berserko. Although filled with violence, Fraction clearly wants to set Casanova apart from what he saw (at that time) as overly serious and dark comics particularly in the mainstream.
In the end, even with all of its allusions to and influences from movies and television, Casanova is first and foremost in love with comics and with being a comic.
Thank you for reading. My next article on Casanova will focus on volume 2, Gula and hopefully will not take as long for me to write.
Callahan, Timothy. Grant Morrison The Early Years. Sequart Research and Literary Organization, 2007.
Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York, Continuum, 2002.