Collaboration — words working with images, writers working with artists, fantasy working with reality — is at the heart of comics. And there’s no shortage of big-name comic book creator couples out there, from the legendary Louise and Walt Simonson, and the artist duo of Michael and Laura Allred, to Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini, and Harley Quinn’s Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.
But this spring, there was just one comic book couple on our minds, perhaps because of a certain major blockbuster release: Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction. Between the two of them, DeConnick and Fraction have written some of the most critically acclaimed and wildly creative comics of the past decade. DeConnick revamped Carol Danvers into Captain Marvel, went on to blow the exploitation genre wide with Bitch Planet, and spun the Western into myth with Pretty Deadly; Fraction plumbed the depths of the potential of superhero stories with Hawkeye, meditated on everything sexual and romantic in Sex Criminals, and sent the Odyssey to space with an entirely gender-bent cast in ODY-C.
As Captain Marvel sails past the $900 million worldwide box-office mark, and their new DC Comics series begin to get off the ground, the two writers managed to find time in their busy schedules to sit down with Polygon for an hour and chat about their differences, their similarities, the insights they have on each other’s careers, and how to write corporate comics without becoming another cog in the media machine.
Polygon: You are both creators at the top of your game, and you’re partners, but you’re not predominantly creative partners.
Kelly Sue DeConnick: We wrote one thing together, once. Which was a teleplay, a pilot. And it was very funny, because we were like, Well, let’s see if we stay married.
Matt Fraction: We were, I don’t know, 10, 12 years in at that point, but we hadn’t put us to that particular crucible.
DeConnick: I think what’s interesting is at that point we knew how different we were. We knew we were very different as writers from having lived with the other one and seen how they work. I genuinely didn’t know if we were going to bicker, I didn’t know how it was going to go. And, spoiler: Still married. And actually really enjoyed the process of that pilot, a lot.
Fraction: Yeah, it was a blast. It turned out that she likes writing about the parts that I don’t like and I like writing about the parts she doesn’t like. So it was great.
DeConnick: And also to be able to pass the canvas on when you get stuck. It’s kind of amazing to just be like, I don’t know where this needs to go next and I need a minute to work this out. So, you take it now and you flesh out the part you want to work on and give my brain time. And then something about what you would do would make it easier for me when I came back. It ended up feeling like, Oh, we should do this more.
Fraction: And the compromises never felt like compromises, but like we found an option that was mutually agreeable. It never felt like, Well I’m losing this, and you’re losing that. We’re settling. It never felt like settling. It was always like, All right, you don’t like this thing, let’s find a better version. So, it worked! It worked. It was great. It was awesome. Do you want to know what that show was?
Fraction: It was an episode of General Hospital.
DeConnick: [laughter] That’s not true!
There’s a thing that I think is still a journey that I am on, like — my process tends to be very internal, to the point of it being almost physically painful to attempt to convert thought into language. And Kel is very verbal and demonstrative in her process and there’s a “salt and chocolate” difference. Works really well together, but could not be more different independently.
Can you expand on how your processes differ?
DeConnick: Part of it is, like any two writers, we have different recurring themes that we’re interested in. We have the parts of the story that appeal to us or are most interesting to us are different. And then Matt is incredibly gifted in — I hesitate to say “gifted” because I think that makes it sound like God’s hand reached down and touched your brain.
Fraction: Right! Right here on my forehead.
DeConnick: Yeah. You have worked very, I will say, instead, to interrogate comics as a form and a structure. And you can play with structure in ways that my brain just does not do. And so because of that, and you tell me if this is wrong, but my perception of your process is you spend a lot of time working out the structure before you do dialogue or beats.
Fraction: Hmm. Sometimes. And the problem is I feel like my process is always changing. Yours feels a little more fixed, it feels more refined. It seems from the outside it just gets more polished. It’s a tool you use, you know how to do this better. But me, I only feel like everything is constantly, Well, the way I wrote this is do nothing at all like the way I wrote that. And I don’t think that you’re wrong, but I think sometimes it could be the opposite. Like, Oh, I just wrote a play. Now I have to turn it into a comic. I’ll have a picture in my head, I’ll see something in my head and I’m like, All right, I know what that is. How do I get there?
DeConnick: Well, that’s another big difference. I don’t see pictures in my head. So that’s a huge thing. Because most people are visual thinkers, statistically, it’s very hard for people to understand not being a visual thinker. That’s really foreign.
Fraction: It’s like asking somebody, Okay, forget green. It’s pretty fundamental.
DeConnick: In fact, I was just at Brian Bendis and David Walker’s class, and that was one of the things Brian wanted me to explain to the students. He was saying that the first time I told him that that he argued with me, because it was so hard for him, as someone who comes to writing as an artist, for him to conceive of [it]. And it was interesting, even the way he articulated it was, he said, “It felt to me like I either thought you were wrong, or I would be jealous because that meant you saw something I didn’t see. And I was like, “No, no, [laughs] even your language is wrong. It’s not like I am incapable of imagining pictures, I can, it’s just not my default state. It’s not how I think.”
Fraction: OK, this is even weirder, then, actually thinking about it. You know what it is that I start with? Edits.
DeConnick: Oh, explain that!
Fraction: I start with cuts. I start with juxtapositioning. Sometimes it might just be one angle; one shot, one image. But more often than not, there will be something connected to that that comes next. Or I’ll have something before, or I’ll have something like, Oh, I knew the dog was going to show up with the arrow in his mouth. So I make a joke about how the boomerang arrow comes back to you in the end. And it’s the arrow the dog has in his mouth 20 issues later. So there’s 20 issues between these cuts, but I knew when I wrote “It comes back to you in the end,” I knew where that was going to pay off.
DeConnick: Yeah, that’s very much — I mean what the starting place of the story is, is always something different for me. Like the idea of Carol as Chuck Yeager, or Aquaman to the tune of Led Zeppelin or, Pretty Deadly; a story about stories.
Fraction: And you have a real playwright’s approach too.
DeConnick: Yeah, the building of the story, I can’t say that it’s always the same, but [my] methodology of working is pretty much the same. And it’s just so much more straightforward than what you do. And what you do is, you’re an innovator. I am not an innovator. I am not an innovator in craft. I may do some innovation socially. I may do some innovation in topic or marketing, but I do not innovate in craft. I am not a master of craft the way that you are.
So the places where my newness, or what is new or unique that I am bringing to the table, if we do have it in the pages it seldom comes from me. And if it does, it may be in a single idea of how something can be portrayed, but it’s never in structure. Like I think we’re doing some stuff in [Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons] that’s a little bit innovative or at least takes advantage of the form in ways that aren’t incredibly straightforward. And some of that is not solely Phil [Jimenez], I’ve pushed on some of that; the effort to make sure that the violence is abstracted —
Fraction: — The thing with the knives —
DeConnick: — Yeah, Athena being made of knives and edges and that kind of thing. But, yeah, that is such a strength of yours. The only two people who come close in my mind to the way you think about comics are — actually, I’m not going to say that for fear of insulting anyone.
Fraction: Yeah, I’ve been real good at keeping my mouth shut and letting you be nice to me, but I was about to lose my mind [laughs].
DeConnick: Yeah, for fear of insulting friends I’m not going to say that. I think there are other writer/artists who experiment with the form but very few writers who experiment with the form in the way that you do.
He is so uncomfortable right now, Susana. He doesn’t like compliments — they, like, jack up his self-image. So this is really fun for me.
Maybe we could give Matt a moment to return the compliment.
Fraction: Well, I mean, she has a discipline and a craft. Like, I can work hard. But I don’t have her commitment to craft and polish. She has higher proficiency with just fundamental shit that I don’t. And it’s real effort for me to try and get there. She writes like a novelist; if you watch her write, she’ll type three words, delete two, write four, delete five. It’s just constant writing.
There’s this hone and sheen that comes with control and confidence that I don’t have. And I’ve tried and I just can’t do it. Done has never been good enough for her, and she has this willingness to just stare at the one small thing that isn’t right and do whatever it takes to fix it and ensure the entire piece is stronger for it. There’s just a skill that I don’t have, a precision and — these all sound like very square words. They all sound very like —
DeConnick: I’ll take it!
Fraction: But, I think about, like, you have the best prose in comics. I don’t care who of my friends I offend.
Fraction: Maybe Warren Ellis when he lets himself be himself. Warren has it, and Gilbert Hernandez. But in terms of just quality of prose, there are lots of people who use lots of words, but you use the right ones.
Fraction: And there’s a melodic poetry to the way you write. And that’s the thing that drove me fucking — that’s why I wanted to do ODY-C. I was like, Oh, I want to write like Kelly Sue. I want to write fucking prose. And I wanted to kill myself.
Fraction: Now that may have been because I was writing the plot of ODY-C the way I write normally, but then putting all the words down with more care and time and precision. To the point of literally counting syllables. Like there was a, was is that called, a meter? Like being a freak about this shit. Yeah, there’s just a — you’re too good for compliments. Makes sense.
Do you feel like there’s a common thread between your work? Perhaps mythology, with your superhero work and ODY-C and Pretty Deadly, etc.?
DeConnick: Somebody ... Who was it? Was it it David Levine? Who said — it’s funny, you have a kind of mirror-blindness. You think you know your own work. And we also have this thing where Matt is a very harsh critic, of himself, and I have enormous ego, I think I’m infinitely ... what’s the word I want? I can do all the different styles?
DeConnick: Versatile! I am infinitely versatile. I will imagine and I will think, Oh, I’m doing a story that’s in this genre and I’m doing another that’s in this genre, and I’m doing another in this genre, and they’re all wildly different. And then I read them and they’re not different at all. I’m exploring the exact same themes in different palettes.
Fraction: Hamlet in Vietnam is still Hamlet.
DeConnick: Yeah. I mean, it’s fascinating.
Fraction: Uh, Hamlet in Vietnam is trademark/copyright me, 2019.
DeConnick: [laughter] So we have this sort of pat way of talking about our work, where we would say we write about things that are very different and the thing that connects us is our sense of humor.
Fraction: Yeah, that was what we got out of the writing of the show was, Oh, we laugh at the same shit. So as long as we get to the punchline, we can figure the rest out. As long as we’re laughing at the same stuff, it’s going to be at least coherent.
DeConnick: And then because we’re so well known for Sex Criminals and Bitch Planet, then the joke became our brands are sex and violence, he’s sex, I’m violence. But then David Levine, who is a television producer in Los Angeles who’s one of the most astute —
Fraction: He’s the guy in Hollywood that’s actually read all the books in his office.
DeConnick: Yeah. He’s one of the most astute producers I’ve ever met. He’s a really smart guy. And he was like, “No, no, no, that’s cute. But the thing that connects both of your work is that there is a” — he said there’s a “sincerity,” I believe. That it’s funny because it’s housed in sex and violence, but really, “Both of you are almost old-fashioned in how sincere you are.” I think it was “sincere,” I think that was the word he used, and I know what he meant.
Oh! No, he said “ethical core”! He said there’s an ethical core. That’s what it was.
And I think that that is actually true. And it dropped my jaw, because I’d never thought of it before, I’d never seen that as a connective tissue. And I think it’s really interesting because I think that is a connective tissue in our marriage as well.
It is really important to us both as human beings that we maintain an ethical core. And, the reason I was able to swap out that word sincerity for it is because I think there is an almost hokeyness to that idea. And then there’s another thing, and I think it was Matt who observed this, as well. I write big and he writes small. I will take the idea and explore it from the most gigantic perspective I can come up with and he will take the big thing and reduce it to the smallest, most personal moment. Was this you? Who said the thing about “I write big and you write small?”
Fraction: I dunno. Sounds like me. That totally sounds like me. Yeah, that’s me. Fuck it, I’m taking it, that’s me. Also, “She writes big I write small,” copyright me, 2019.
But yeah, that’s totally true. You want to do the JFK assassination and I want to write about the grave digger.
DeConnick: So anyway, I had never considered the idea that — I mean, I guess to me, myth just means story.
Fraction: Yeah, I think there was a shared enjoyment of it, just in our youth, but as the foundational pieces of, at least Eurocentric, literature. There’s that sort of — things originating from Campbell, like I’m interested in the ideas of monomyth and all that stuff. And I think it finds ways into both of our stories as a way to talk about really intimate things using very broad and exciting strokes. That’s what myth is, it’s a matter of scale. It was funny when she started to write Historia, we already had an awful lot of books.
DeConnick: Yeah. [laughter]
Fraction: A couple of them got double-bought. Like, Oh wait, I have this one, I coulda —
DeConnick: Yeah, that was funny. I mean, I didn’t even notice that that came from the exact same impulse. And you were kind of like, Uh, yeah, dude, I just did that. And, I was like, Oh, sorry.
Fraction: No, no, but it’s like you get the Ray Harryhausen, right? You get the — you get Clash of the Titans in your head. Zeus is Laurence Olivier sitting on a cloud, shooting lightning bolts at Burgess Meredith or whatever. The actual picking it apart and looking at it and digging into not just How does the monomyth idea work?, but Why does it work? Oh yeah, that’s real fertile ground. There’s a lot of shit there.
And I have recognized that in some ways I’m going to be writing about Odysseus the rest of my life. In some ways i’m gonna be writing Moby Dick the rest of my life. There’s some hooks, thematically that are like, Ah, I understand this. I feel this in my fucking teeth, and thematically, there’s going to be this presence in my work for a real long time.
Being married and having your careers available to observe by the other person must have given you a very honest look at the behind the scenes of each other’s career. I’m curious if you have experiences where you’ve been able to intimately observe how gender affects what projects you get offered — or even how you would approach the project — or whether you get offered this character, that character. Or just things in general.
DeConnick: Well, a lot of progress has been made. I mean, there some really ugly gendered stuff early on. I mean — let me first say very clearly, I don’t mean to suggest that All these problems have been solved and we can all sit down now!
Fraction: It was experienced early on, and now it’s ... just background.
DeConnick: I have finally achieved a level in my career where I’m no longer accused of having slept my way into jobs. Mostly.
Fraction: Or being, like, my sock puppet.
DeConnick: Yeah, or that you actually write my work. Or that somehow I got my work unfairly, is another one.
Fraction: She was a published, paid author, living as a freelance writer, long before me. But, That can’t really be it, right? What’s that book called?
DeConnick: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ. That stuff has changed quite a bit. The coverage is still ... I still get asked about work-life balance. Have you ever been asked about work-life balance?
DeConnick: Yeah? OK, that’s progress.
Fraction: I mean, I think part of it is just because I put ...
DeConnick: They ask you how you manage to be a father and write?
Fraction: ...No. No, not like that. I get asked, but it’s based in an awareness of you being there. It’s — yeah, but not like you. I think it’s more born out of the fact that I’ve spoken openly about stuff; that people know our kids. It’s like, How the kids doin’? I’ll get things like that or, Is it tough? It’s never through the, You can have it all, baby! lens.
DeConnick: But progress has been made culturally, and then progress has been made just in my individual career, that I’ve achieved a level where it’s a little harder to dismiss.
Fraction: Yeah, eavesdropping on all the Captain Marvel press you’ve been doing, I have been refreshed by how I am not asked about. No one from the entertainment press has asked you “So did you meet Kevin Feige through your husband, or? and “How is Matt doing?” never comes up. That’s the best. In the same way, people in Hollywood find it charming that we’re married, whereas people in comics ... have had some problems.
DeConnick: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, at the same time I get asked a lot about “What’s it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?” Well, all industries are male-dominated.
Fraction: [As the song from Disney’s Moana] You’re welcome!
DeConnick: [laughter] Even industries where there are more women numerically than there are men, the highest paid earners in those industries are all men. There are more women teachers, there are more women hairdressers, but the highest paid teachers in the highest paid hairdressers are men. So I believe there are two exceptions to this and I think it’s like porn stars and — maybe three, because I think it’s porn stars, models, and women’s gymnastics.
Fraction: I was just gonna say, so that’s where our value for you is.
DeConnick: Yeah. But other than that, all industries are male-dominated. So do what you love, because fuck it. You’re not going to escape this.
Fraction: When we started talking to DC [Comics] about going there, on the wishlist of things, of what our business relationship would look like was I want pay parity. You pay her what you pay me, and this is what you pay me, so this is what you pay her, and there’s no questions and no fucking around. That was a big — like it would be ridiculous to pretend otherwise.
[Ed. note: Fraction’s upcoming Jimmy Olsen series, with artist Steve Lieber, was announced in February.]
DeConnick: Yeah, I think it’s OK to talk about that because no offers were made that were disparate. Matt came out of the gate saying one of the things that would be a condition of our moving over there would be we would be paid the same rate, and they did not flinch. That was not a problem at all.
Fraction: And what’s more, when it even looked like I wasn’t going to be working there after all, they did not come back to renegotiate. It would it have felt so gross to pretend like anything else was acceptable.
DeConnick: And that’s — I mean, you’re my husband — but that’s allyship, right?
Fraction: Well ... [reluctantly] yeah.
DeConnick: Well, you don’t want to say that because you don’t want to —
Fraction: No, I mean, I am pretty great.
DeConnick: Yeah, no, I get that you don’t want to be centered in this, but there are ways to look this that are also like, OK, how can I do this? How can I extend this as a white woman?
[Matt and I have] seen rate disparities before, across media. And I don’t want anybody guessing, I don’t want to indict anyone, and there were reasons and it’s fine. But at the point where we were coming to DC, where we were being invited to DC, we were coming with both of us having significant portfolios, and experiences and so Matt opened the conversation with We should have pay parity and then they were like, Yes, absolutely.
Fraction: It’s that thing of — yeah, I don’t want to center myself on this.
DeConnick: I get it, though.
Fraction: You know what I mean? I want to walk it like I fucking talk it. We got the opportunity and we had the privilege and the power to do that. It was really important.
You have done creator-owned work and you’ve done the Big Two superhero work. How do you choose your creative cycle?
DeConnick: So we have a rule that you never take a job for the paycheck. Which is, again, a pretty privileged place to be in. But that was the rule even early on, I will work in a bank before I will write something I don’t have a point of view on.
Fraction: I said no to Marvel five times as often as I said yes. And it meant working a day job longer.
DeConnick: And maybe that meant, too, that sometimes you had to figure out what you were going to be passionate about, or what you were going to come to with a point of view. But we would never pitch on anything we had contempt for. We would never pitch on anything where we just didn’t feel like we have something to say.
Fraction: It’s like, Have a thing to say, Want it, or Have fun. You don’t have to have all three. You can sacrifice. [Having] “I have something to say, and I want to say it and I don’t hate myself for having to do it,” like, that’s a big deal. You don’t have to necessarily have fun, you can have a difficult job. Two of those three things have really gotta be there.
DeConnick: And that comes from the fact that we feel, as readers, that you can tell. We feel like you can tell when somebody doesn’t have a point of view, when they don’t have anything to say, when they’re just jobbing it to job it. You can tell.
Fraction: And that’s different from being tired. There’s also, over long runs, you can find places where energy, and momentum sags and then it comes back. But this is a specific kind of, Oh, this was not ... there was a find and replace function run here.
DeConnick: Right, exactly.
With that said, Matt has kind of identified it as a Soderbergh model, where it’s like Two for them, one for me, two for me, one for them. As artists in an industry that is structured such that we actually have to have a charity to pay the medical bills of titans in our industry who created billion-dollar franchises, it is important that we gird ourselves against that with the knowledge that even though there may be incredibly wonderful people at these companies that do care about us and are fun to work with and do care about the messages that they’re putting out, the company itself is not a human being. It can’t love you and it won’t take care of you.
And so when you enter in to this work for hire in these corporate comics with these long-standing characters, it is a tremendous honor, but you will walk away owning nothing. And you also have to balance your portfolio so that you do some work that adds to that tapestry and builds your audience and you do some work that you own. And you do some work that adds to the tapestry and builds the audience and you do some work that you own. And the generations that came before us didn’t see it coming. They lived in a world where people got gold watches and companies had retirement plans.
Fraction: And guys still used phrases like We’re going to make you whole.
DeConnick: Yeah. You can’t judge them for that. That wasn’t foolishness on their part. If we proceed, however, without that understanding, that is foolishness.
Fraction: When Disney and Warner Bros. own you, you can’t get to run, like, a mom-and-pop shop where you say things like, Don’t worry, we’re going to make you whole. There are shareholders. It’s a different world.
And look, it’s a pop idiom. There’s something about being a cover band, right? Hey, here’s a fun song to play. All right, it’s not my song, but it’s a blast to play it and people have fun hearing it. Great, celebrate that. It’s a joy to do, it’s a moment of communion between you and the people like you that are reading. Hey, this is the stuff we came here for, right? I love bands doing covers for that reason: You can hear what drives them, and what inspires them. Sometimes it’s nice to just remember there’s all kinds of different comics out there. There’s all kinds of different ways to handle them and treat them. Not everything has to be written in dactylic examiner, maybe you have a fun day.
DeConnick: The Marvel Universe is the longest continuous narrative in human history, and that is incredibly powerful! And the idea that you played a part in that, that there was some element of that narrative that you expanded on, there was a place where you — I like to use the quilt metaphor. To have stitched on that particular quilt is really important to me. But it is also important to me that I make work that I own.
And this is a conversation I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as we talk about comics and film or comics and television and comics had become such a well that these other mediums go to. And it’s the thing that concerns me about that is that comics have always been innovators. We’ve always been innovators because we’re cheap and fast, so there’s very little at risk. And that’s why they come to us, right?
But as these comics publishers are becoming smaller arms of larger brand management corporations, the math is changing, and it is becoming about, like, brand integration and Protecting IP. And even though we remain comparatively cheap and fast, I think our ability to innovate is becoming imperiled by our proximity to wealth. And that is a thing that I find very concerning.
I also think that as creators’ lives are being changed by film or a television development of comic book properties, people are starting to reverse engineer their comics. Creators are also starting to think of their comics as source material. And I fear for how that affects the creation of comics themselves. Because comics that are created as proof of concept, or comics that are created as storyboards, do not take proper advantage of the form. And I fear that it is going to have negative repercussions on our development and our ability to continue to be innovators.
Fraction: This the reality, too of — I’ve worked straight to graphic novel before and I’m doing it again end enjoy it. But there’s a part of our portfolio that exists as serial chapters of an ongoing narrative. I’ve had a quiet couple of years on that front, it’s good to reintroduce yourself to that market. There’s a high turnover of readership, anyway. And so there’s a ... Oh, it’d be nice to have a bunch of new, creator-owned stuff in the wings about to come out. It would be nice to reintroduce myself to this part of this market. And then it’s usually something just intensely personal for us both.
That’s that our friend [comics writer Brian Michael Bendis] almost died last Christmas, and the few things we talked about in the hospital was family and work. And both of our DC projects at the moment started with talking to him literally in the ICU, just trying to entertain him. Just trying to keep spirits up, because he wanted to see his kids and he wanted to get back to work. Because it was late in the process; he was wrapping all of the Marvel stuff and about to start all of the DC stuff and had all this energy and all this excitement and just talking about the new potential and new work and these new flavors none of us had really tasted before. But it was super important. So it came about by trying to make my buddy laugh when he was having a real rough time.