Casanova, by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon, is the comic book equivalent of a lunar eclipse: it may only hit shelves once in a while, but when it does, it packs a punch. Fraction, Ba, and Moon weave an intricate tale of families you're born with and families you make, alternate realities and the ripples they cast, the beauty and fear of sexual awakenings, the definition of consciousness, and staying true to yourself in the face of malevolence (a malevolence for which you may actually, kind of, sort of, be responsible).
Casanova Quinn is Chaotic Good wrapped in a tuxedo and a handgun. He's incredibly smart, devastatingly devilish, and destructive both in a firefight and at a black tie gala. He does what he wants, charms you into helping him, and then jumps out the window, laughing his head off as he carries away the diamond he was gunning for. The son of Cornelius Quinn, leader of the world policing organization E.M.P.I.R.E., Casanova only wants to have a little fun, with the taste of champagne in his mouth and the ghost of a kiss on his lips. When we first meet him, he's young and devil-may-care, running around stealing information, pilfering sentient sexbots, and infiltrating floating casino fortresses piloted by triple-brained psychic monks. His father has always been reluctant to let Casanova loose on the world, but as long as he didn't do anything too terrible, Cornelius has let Casanova be.
That all changes the night Casanova is called in and told that his twin sister, Zephyr, the jewel of his father's eye and his best agent, has died on a mission. At her funeral, Casanova gets into a grief-fueled brawl with his father, both of them having lost the only good thing in their respective worlds. With nothing left to lose, Casanova gambles it all on the strange device he finds in his pocket after Zephyr's funeral. As he plummets from certain doom, he activates the device and ends up in another timeline. Snatched out of space-time by the evil, white-bandaged, sunglasses- and three-piece suit-wearing mastermind, Newman Xeno, the leader of the terrorist organization W.A.S.T.E., Casanova's existence is held hostage and extorted for Xeno's gain. Xeno's price for saving Quinn's life? Casanova must infiltrate the E.M.P.I.R.E. of this new reality, taking the place of his dead double, and work for Xeno against Casanova's alternate father—because in this new reality, Casanova is the good son, and Zephyr is the malevolent force, an amoral assassin in Xeno's employ.
The free-wheeling and experimental narrative which ensues is, appropriately enough, structured by vice. Each arc has been titled after one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and in the first three volumes of the series, we've already gone through Lust, Gluttony, and Greed. The fourth arc, the first single issues of which have just been published, focuses on Sloth. Before we go any further, however, I should warn you: if what follows seems a little confusing, that's because, well, it is. And in a way, that's the point: Fraction isn't out to write something comfortable and easy to access, and the process of reading this series can be as a twisty-turny as a rollercoaster made of Möbius strips. He doesn't shy away from the easy answers; Casanova reflects life as it is: messy and complicated and painful. Each issue is a little dwarf star of narrative experimentation: dense and bright and rare. Fraction experiments with Shakespearean asides, which take place outside the panels, psychic avatars that invade across the borders of pages, thought bubbles behind thought bubbles that are full of raw, uncontrolled emotion.
Indeed, the series' first volume, Lust (or Luxuria), followed Casanova through a myriad super-spy trappings, as he began to ascertain his path in the new timeline and realized that he didn't want to be anyone's puppet—especially Xeno's. The issues of this arc are a pure homage to the golden days of science fiction and spy narratives: tropical island paradises that run on sexual energy, super-strong escape artist holy men, civilizations of hyper-advanced humans hidden in pocket dimensions, and decommissioned World War II Japanese robots. The title of the arc is redolent of Casanova's lust for life, his willingness to dive into any situation and come out on top. Even when things look bad, there's always a sharp gleam in Casanova's eye: no matter what happens, he's in love with living, and is always looking for his next thrill, regardless of the reality in which he finds himself.
In this first arc, Fraction has himself a blast as he tinkers and toys with the images of old school sci-fi, practically lifted from the pages of pulp novels, while injecting them with adrenaline and drugs and a little violence. By the end of the first arc, Casanova has broken ties with Newman Xeno and is happy to help his alternate father wipe W.A.S.T.E. off the alternate map. The following collection, Gluttony (or Gula) was, then, darker, and rightfully so: Casanova is missing in action and for two years, no one can find him in all of space-time: not even the new character of Sasa Lisi, a blue-skinned, multi-phasic alien woman from the future who says she's destined to fall in love with Casanova. In his place, Fraction and Moon (who took over for his brother, Gabriel Ba) followed the exploits of the alternate Zephyr, now a double agent within the terrorist organization X.S.M., secretly helping E.M.P.I.R.E. from within.
This arc is all about excess darkness: there is a wealth of depravity explored, a gorging on violence and sin, and the things people are willing to do to get their way. Fraction pulls no punches as he uses Zephyr to show the darker side of this world: she must combat a cult based around the personal suffering of others, assassinate those she admires, and even viciously fight her own friends and family, all for the sake of the deep-cover mission. There's sometimes so much blood and smoke and betrayal, the reader can choke on it. If the first arc had all the joy and exhilaration and heart-thumping adrenaline of a spy adventure, the second arc is the other half of that coin: there are consequences when you spend your life with a finger on the trigger, and Fraction doesn't look away from the trauma, the blood, or the fear that comes with such a life.
At the end of Gluttony, this reality's Cornelius discovers that his "real" son died in order to bring "our" Casanova to his universe, and, grief-stricken, refuses to let our Casanova—masquerading throughout the book, we learn, as Zephyr, and attempting to rewrite history to prevent his ever having arrived in this universe—off the hook. He ensured that the past remains the same, and fully intended for Casanova to pay for his sins in full by never letting him leave. Greed (or Avaritia) therefore found Casanova at an all-time low. Reeling from the romance he lost while disguised as Zephyr, depressed to know he didn't change the timeline a damn bit, sick from jumping into reality after reality, and hated by the alternate father and family he lied to, he is sent on suicide missions to destroy universes where Newman Xeno has influence. On one of these missions, he finds out Xeno's real name: Luther Desmond Diamond. What started as a blanket bombing, then, turns into an assassination per universe: Casanova has to find all iterations of Luther Diamond Desmond and kill them before they can ever all become Newman Xeno.
With every assassination, however, Casanova gets to know Luther better—and starts to fall in love with him. Of course, the one Luther whom Casanova saves goes on to become the very enemy that kidnapped him in the first place. If the first two volumes were two sides of the same coin, Greed takes place on the edge of that coin, where all the angst, anger, and exhaustion build, where all the emotions a secret agent is supposed to ignore gather. As the title suggests, the cravings that Casanova indulges when betrayed by Luther drags him through an arc which arc ends with Newman Xeno entering an endgame: bringing down the entire house of cards on top of E.M.P.I.R.E., before Casanova can stop him. However, Casanova side-steps fate and escapes the cross-fire to come to a new timeline: our own.
All this brings us up to date: Sloth (or Acedia) has just appeared on the market, and the first two issues are out now. It finds an amnesiac Casanova Quinn following his crash to our world, acting as bodyguard to a little-noticed and previously peripheral character in Los Angeles. Casanova has no clue why he's so good at killing people, or why he can't remember a thing. As the arc begins, he's sent out by his employer, the head of the spy-ring N.E.T.W.O.R.K., Amell Boutique, to find out what he can about himself and his employer. Meanwhile, a crazy monster-mask wearing cult says the world is ending in eight days. Per the title, Casanova has slowed down, both as a narrative and as a character: between the assassination attempts of the mask-wearing cult, and the mission his boss sends him on, Casanova is slowly beginning to wake up to who and what he is. By the end of the second issue, it seems like that slow approach is about to go into overdrive.
As bewildering and powerful as all of this can be, Casanova boasts an incredibly inventive narrative structure. Fraction, Ba, and Moon inject the series with an energy that, even at its darkest, allows the series to remain kinetic and unwavering in the face of its own dramatic weight. Fraction is exploring and deconstructing the window-dressing of spy narratives: increasingly complex and hidden acronyms denote vague government organizations, a group of teenage pop stars are in fact three highly trained soldiers, gadgets of strange origin have even stranger purpose, and the the fantastic mingles with the scientific. This is a series that sits as comfortably alongside James Bond as it does Heart of Darkness, next to Blade Runner as appropriately as Warren Ellis.
This inventiveness is part of and parcel with one of Casanova's greatest achievements: Fraction's unwavering exploration of sex and sexuality. Almost as a precursor to his work on the current comic series, Sex Criminals, Fraction used and uses Casanova as a vehicle to explore facets of sexuality of which we need to see much more in the medium. When Casanova is masquerading as Zephyr, he falls in love with the son of a terrorist, Kubark Benday, and that love is a real, true thing, whether Casanova is biologically a woman or a man. When he transitions back to male, Casanova tries to explore those feelings with Kubark—but Kubark doesn't want to acknowledge what happened. Beyond this subtle and affecting look at transgender or transitional relationships, there are also instances of polyamory, bisexuality, and love with other sentiences; Fraction normalizes these relationships (as they should be) and uses them to explore the true humanity that lies at the heart of love.
So ambitious a series lives or dies on the artwork, and thank the illustration gods for Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. Two talented brothers with similar styles and aesthetics, they both take turns breathing life into Casanova, switching on and off between arcs. So far, Ba has illustrated the first and third volumes, and Moon has illustrated the second while currently working on the fourth. I can only imagine this will continue until the last volume, when Ba and Moon will fuse together, creating a combined super-illustrated comic book that will bring sight to the blind and cure all ills.
Though they share a sense of style, the two brothers each bring their own unique spin to the world of Casanova. In the case of Ba, his characters and environments all have a slight edge to them; every chin is a little more sharp, every angle a little more jagged and pointed. Each page is filled with kinetic action, the flow of the comic zinging and bouncing off those sharp edges, driving the narrative forward into the unknown. His color palette tends to exist in the warmer spectrum: reds and golds and burnt oranges and lavenders and kelly greens fill in the spaces of this world. Even his cooler colors seem bright, his blues and purples popping off the page. His Casanova seems a cross between Mick Jagger and Bowie, elegant and long-limbed and a little alien, eyes full of mystery.
Even though Moon keeps the characters' designs similar, the world he creates for Casanova is a little softer and rounder, a bit dreamier at the edges, causing the whole thing to take a breath and slow down from the frenetic pace of the previous arcs. If Ba is the deep breath and the plunge into the deep water, Moon is the quiet, floating exploration of the world beneath. His characters and panels and action are smooth and rounded and languid. And where Ba has a bright and warm color to his work, Moon's exists on the cooler end of the spectrum. He loves his blues and purples and greys, his deep greens and crimsons and shimmering golds, all brought to life by Cris Peter. There are more shadows, more moonlight, and even when the blood and bullets appear, they too, are swallowed by a slightly quieter shade of sunlight.
There is so much about this comic that I just haven't been able to get to, but which make it even more worthy a work: Fabula Beserko, the three-brained, floating former sexbot who transcends her programming; Kaito, Casanova's protégé turned enemy who refuses to let death become meaningless; Ruby Seychelle, the chaotic-neutral amalgamation of Bill Gates and Tim Gunn, whose thirst for sex is only matched by his lust for power; poor Cornelius Quinn, who keeps losing his children to a universe bigger than him, but never gives up on them. The high concepts that Fraction plays with are fun to read, but it's the wealth of true and tragic characters that make Casanova worth reading over and over.
Casanova, then, is a comic book that continues to push the limits in everything it does: amazing illustration, writing that cuts to the quick and humanizes even as it hurts, and narrative storytelling that throws every rulebook out a window and laughs to see them bounce. It's not an easy read by a long shot, but it's a worthy read, rewarding readers who work for the story. Fraction, Ba, and Moon have created a series that not only celebrates the old super-spy narratives and golden age science fiction novels, but is quickly transcending them. To repeat: the first three volumes are out as graphic novels, and the fourth arc just started. There's no excuse not to jump into its timeline and make a start on a great—and gripping—saga.
Martin Cahill works publicity by day, bartends by night, and writes in between. When he’s not slinging words at Strange Horizons, he’s contributing to Book Riot, and blogging at his own website, usually about books and/or beer. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, he can be found on Twitter @McflyCahill90.
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