The Immortal Iron Fist is one of the most critically acclaimed comics in the American mainstream. An epic reanimation of one of Marvel’s post-exploitation-flick ’70s heroes, it’s made millionaire martial artist Daniel Rand relevant and exciting to superhero comics fans for the first time in living memory. It’s even been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Eisner Award for Best New Series. It’s the product of an inspired collaboration between crime-pulp godhead Ed Brubaker and comics’ new golden boy, Matt Fraction. Co-writing, while not commonplace, has a long history in comics. In fact, even when working on a title by themselves, writers often talk about picking up the phone and calling a friend to hammer out the tricky narrative problem of who’s going to be punching who in whose face this month. Collaboration over the phone is how a previous generation of writers got tasks like The Immortal Iron Fist done.
While Fraction and Brubaker have been known to get on the ringer, it wasn’t how they broke down narratives like “The Last Iron Fist Story” and “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.” They did it over Xbox Live.
It’s not at all uncommon. There’s a loose social group of Marvel writers who get together to play, gossip and insult each other. To Matt Fraction, a newcomer to mainstream comics living in the Midwest, this was a terribly attractive idea. “I know it was Ed who convinced me to get the Xbox,” explains Fraction. “Maybe it’s because I knew it was something some of the guys did. I know I blame Ed for it. And my own neurotic insecurity of not living in New York, to work for Marvel, feeling as if I needed some social engagement with them.” It became something more than just a way to chat, however. “It really did end up being super beneficial to Ed and my working procedure, as we really did break out a lot of Iron Fist to videogames,” says Fraction.
“Initially Ed and I really behaved, and it was nothing more stressful than [Rockstar] Table Tennis,” says Fraction. “But that quickly went away. It tends to be the shooter du jour. It was Call of Duty 4 for a long time. Call of Duty 2 was popular for a long time, too. We broke the trend for a little while and played Burnout Paradise, which was more of a crashing game than a shooting game. It’s GTA4 now. But very proto-male kind of things, that all our girls and wives are embarrassed to see.”
Matt is even able to tie down specific games to specific stories. For example, the first Iron Fist arc, “The Last Iron Fist Story,” was from when he and Ed were being good boys and playing Rockstar Table Tennis. They started the second arc, “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven,” while playing the Halo 3 beta before the plotting got too intricate and they had to resort to old-school telephone calls. There are interesting links between Halo and the plot, too. It’s set around a tournament of competitive fighters. “A friend of mine said the one thing he wished we’d done was actually kept the tournament chart, and had one character listed as a bot,” says Fraction.
The idea of gameplay as a social environment is perfectly natural for writers – in fact, for most people – of Fraction’s generation. The first game he played was the Atari 2600’s Combat, which the family across the road owned. Going over to the neighbors and getting involved in intense Rhomboid duels was a formative experience for him. “I’ve always been a fairly casual gamer,” says Fraction. “I’ve never been ultra-dedicated. I’m terrible at it, ultimately, is what it comes down to. Rather than practice and become better, I hit an obstacle, become bored and get distracted by something.” The point of gaming for Fraction was an excuse to socialize. “Even back in school, someone would have a Super Nintendo,” says Fraction. “You’d be waiting your go for SF2 or whatever, but … I’m such a terrible gamer. It’s always been about the opportunity to get together and talk shit. My favorite times with games on Xbox is the beautiful first week when a game’s just come out, everyone’s still on the same skill level and I’m about as good as I ever get. If I’m ever going to back up my shit talk, it’s going to be in that first week.”
For most people, games are an excuse to socialize, whether it’s in an MMOG or over a round of golf. With voice chat over internet play, however, play has gone global. “It’s such a solitary job, you sit alone all day in a dark room all day long,” says Fraction. “It’s so crazy. To be able to talk with people, just for a little bit.”
Pondering the idea of a group of Marvel creators facing off, a gamer and comic fan has to wonder: How best to deal with them? How do you take down Ed Brubaker if you found yourself in a horrific online conflict? “Ed is really disorientated spatially,” says Fraction. “He has a degree of motion sensitivity. Before my time, he was driven to vomit by a particularly brutal game of Call of Duty 2. If you’re looking for an advantage on Ed, turn around a lot, make him constantly re-orientate to find you. That’s the way to do it.”
One down. How about the others he plays with? Ms. Marvel writer Brian Reed? “Reed is a videogame writer who got into comics through videogames, and he’s fucking brutal,” says Fraction, noting his previous work with Pandemic. “Bendis jokes he’s like Neo in The Matrix. He really is. It takes Reed four or five days to get good.” In short: Don’t play with Brian Reed. What about Brian Michael Bendis, one of the main writers who’s defined the last 10 years of Marvel comics? “Bendis has the same kind of savant-like dedication to work which he does to games,” says Fraction. “We played Call of Duty 4, and wanted to keep it private matches … but he always wanted us to go public: ‘I need to level up.’ He was obsessed with leveling up. Much like his work, he’s dedicated to working harder than anyone else in the world.” Also in the group is Gerry Duggan, a G4 employee who Fraction describes as “preternaturally gifted. It’s through guys like Gerry that we got to play Gears [of War] one night with the developers, which was excruciatingly humble,” says Fraction. “Completely unfair to people like me. It has to be like a professional football player facing off against a 9-year-old.”
And what about facing Matt Fraction? “It’s dead easy,” he says. “I’ll kill myself. You don’t even need to do anything.” Suspecting Fraction of a somewhat deceitful ruse, I turned to some of his comrades for the truth. “Matt plays most of the games with the aptitude of a 12-year-old boy, so he’s always moving and shooting as if he controls the characters with his mind instead of a controller,” says collaborator Ed Brubaker. “The only way to beat him is to get the game early and play it a bunch before him, and even then, you only get a few days before he catches up. Rick Remender [Fear Agent, Strange Girl] is even worse than Matt like this, too. It makes me feel like an old man.” Brian Reed suggests a more psychological approach. “You have to get inside Fraction’s head,” says Reed. “You have to ask yourself, ‘If I were seven Xanax deep in yet another failed suicide attempt, and I was trying to think more about this videogame in front of me than the 16-year-old I saw sunbathing next door this afternoon, then what would I be doing right now?’ As soon as you answer that question, you know where Matt is and how to take him out of the game.” Useful information.
However, despite Fraction’s stated interest in games mainly for the social environment they provide, that doesn’t mean the medium hasn’t had an odd influence on him. He talks about his love of the “Ballardian” part of games – the simulations of crashes, the simulations of real places to visit, driving around GTA4 and recognizing what he sees. I mention how, as a fellow comics writer – Phonogram, newuniversal: 1959 – playing City of Heroes explained to me what it’d be like to fly, with some details that I’d have never imagined. Which reminds him of the writing process for his Eisner Award-nominated single-issue Spider-Man story, “To Have or To Hold.”
“This may sound ridiculous, but when I got the gig, I went out and got the Spider-Man 2 game,” he says. “And the first thing I did was swing through New York, find the Chrysler Building and climb to the top of it. Which is exactly what Spider-Man does in the story. That came from me trying to get in the mood. Playing Spider-Man 2 to just get a feeling of what it’s like to fly around New York on a web-line. It became part of the story itself.”
In his essays on writing comics, Alan Moore describes a form of writing that closely mirrors method acting, explaining how – when writing DC’s The Demon – he’d stomp around the room, trying to work out what it’d feel like to have that kind of body. One small moment in a great game managed to let Fraction do that – without any embarrassing bedroom-stomping.
That has to be some kind of progress.
Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.