Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wrong Sex and Other Distractions: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

So tonight we’ve got another twist to our review run-down: a long-form piece of the type we said we weren’t going to do. But you know how it is. We started typing, one thing lead to another… And the next thing we knew, our critical clothes were on the floor and we found ourselves four pages deep in some hot dork-on-funnybook action…

Casanova: Gula II & III
by Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon

The second volume of Matt Fraction’s resurrected spy-fi masterpiece rumbles on in these two issues, as Zephyr Quinn fucks and kills her way through XSM’s hit list. Or, rather, Newman Xeno’s hit list. Which raises the question I haven‘t thought to ask on either read-through: why does he want these particular people dead in the first place?

This is Casanova’s best trick, and the trick that far too much genre writing (and fiction writing in general, for that matter) forgets. It distracts and subverts reader questions and expectations by virtue of just being so damned entertaining. The ride’s so good that you forget all about the destination til it rears up and smacks you in the face. So why does Newman Xeno want everyone who knows about the H Element dead? Eh, I dunno. He’s Big Mr. Evilfuck, ain’t he? That’s enough motivation, right? I mean, look at those bandages he’s wrapped in! Rendered so beautifully by Fabio Moon, every strip of cloth delineated as a separate piece, with actual thought given as to how you‘d wrap a man‘s head completely in bandages rather than the usual flat profile with lines drawn across it… What was I saying?

See how that happens? I don’t care about the motivation of the man behind the story’s entire fucking plot because he’s drawn so well! And I also don’t care about it because he’s Zephyr’s completely soul-destroying ex, who she’s doing the bidding of even while trying to distance herself from him. In fact, isn’t that his motivation? No, wait. He didn’t even know she was alive, much less working for XSM, when he hired the Benday family to kill these people. And, oh yeah, there’s that whole SPOILERY thing I’ll be discussing below, which makes this entire character sub-plot irrelevant anyway, so…


And I haven’t even gotten to the simple surface distractions the book employs so well: the sex and the violence and the cooler-than-cool set-pieces. I think it’s safe to say that the action in this book is as sleek and stylish as ever. So when Kubark pops the porcelain guns out the sleeves of his tux and shoots the casino bouncers, I’m wowed. And a few panels later, when Zephyr (after a decadent lesbian tryst) cradles the naked body of casino owner and target Suki Boutique as the front wall of the place blows out over the cliff below… It’s no wonder I’m not worrying about why all this is happening. It’s enough that it is happening, and that I am entertained.

But of course, this being a Fraction book, there actually IS an underlying reason for it all, and the reveal of it presents Zephyr with yet another monumental moral decision to make. A decision made even more complicated in light of that SPOILERY thing I’m not talking about yet. But, hey! This is as good a moment as any to get to that, so enter into the SPOILER-REALM for more gushing praise of Matt Fraction’s genius, and all that wrong sex I promised you in the title…

[SPOILER] Zephyr is, of course, actually her twin brother Casanova. Or rather, the evil-twin-turned-good of her brother from another dimension. Which is, by the way, why Newman Xeno wants everybody who knows about the H Element dead. But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, it’s time to discuss all the hints and double meanings that crop up when you start reading Gula knowing about that twist from the outset. Lots and lots of that stuff in these two issues, some of it so audacious that I can only imagine Fraction cackling his ass off as he wrote it…

My personal favorite comes early in issue two. After Izzy Benday gets done describing the truly despicable machinations of their first target, Gustav Toppogrosso, Zephyr/Cas says, “I want to shoot that guy so bad my dick is hard.” A-heh.

Then later, as Zephyr fucks Kubark in the back row of the screening room where they’d just killed Toppogrosso and all his associates, s/he says (between sex grunts), “This is a first, even for me.” Which… holy shit. I guess so. Well, not exactly, since the film of hir fucking Toppogrosso from earlier in the story is playing on the big screen while s/he and Kubark are doing it, but still. Fraction, you cheeky motherfucker!

And when they go after Suki Boutique, Zephyr/Cas goes all weak in the knees the moment s/he lays eyes on Suki. Since Zephyr had shown no Sapphic tendencies prior to this, you’d think it might have set an alarm bell off. But, no.

(An aside: you may have noticed how much sex there is in Gula. As I said in my review of the first issue, this is an incredibly horny book. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that Cas is behaving in the way he thought Zephyr would (and from what we saw of her in Luxuria, he may not be far off). But there’s also a sense, on the second reading, that this is really Casanova experimenting. He’s walking around in a female body, with female desires, and (as he said during the sex scene with Kubark) this is all new to him. A whole different sexual world opening up. So whether he’s fucking the bad guys, or engaging in double-fantasy lesbian sex with one of his personal wet dream idols, this is all reckless experimentation, with little thought given as to who might be hurt.

Another great aspect of all the sex is the reversal it represents of the James Bond ideal. Bond goes off fucking anything with a vagina, often to further his mission, but always playing to the most basic male sexual fantasies. Casanova’s only doing the very same thing, but because he’s in a woman’s body, it flips all those sex fantasies on their heads even while appealing to them visually. And with Fabio Moon’s lush, fleshy renderings of the female form, that visual appeal is pretty great. The mix of “Say, now!” with “Holy crap that’s a dude!” is hysterical to me, even as I’m experiencing it. So bravo to the Casanova team for pulling that one off, as well.)

But back to the hints and such. It’s rather significant that, in hir assault on the EMPIRE moonbase, Zephyr/Cas only seriously assaults face characters who are Seychelle robots, who can be fixed even if they‘re dead, as opposed to actual human beings, who can‘t. So s/he plucks out Ruby Berzerko’s eye and shoots Ruby Seychelle in the freaking head, but only gives Kaito a punch in the face. Which probably would have set off more alarm bells than it did if s/he hadn’t followed all that up by chopping Cornelius Quinn’s head off with a freaking axe. I mean, sure, we find out in the next chapter that he’d been replaced with a Seychelle duplicate, because “Zephyr” has been working for him all along, but still. I wasn’t about to wonder why Kaito got off so light with that shit going down.

A much, MUCH bigger clue falls when Cornelius debriefs Our Heroes in the aftermath. He tells them that, shortly after being sent on the mission, Zephyr vanished from spacetime. Which is what Sasa Lisi (super-hot blue-skinned future-girl time agent) has been telling us is what happened to Casanova from the moment she came on-camera. And yet… I still didn’t figure it out!

This whole fake-out with Cornelius claiming that he was working with Zephyr, not Zephyr/Cas, takes on a much more somber tone on the second read. As it’s being explained, we’re shown various (still-clueless) supporting cast flashbacks to Casanova, telling the very robots he’s now maiming and killing that they‘re individuals just as important as any “real“ human being. This casting of the “missing” Cas in such a glowing light makes his actions as Zephyr that much more painful and messed up. How did he go from such a loving and together guy to someone who’d be willing to wade back into all the ugly shit he got up to in his old life? Was it all a lie? This is the sticky moral wicket that I’m hoping the upcoming third volume digs into in more depth, alongside all the inevitable whacky action hijinks. [/SPOILER]

But as this story heads into its penultimate chapter in issue 3, the whacky action hijinks aspect falls away pretty much completely. We see characters we like and care about being hurt, which casts Zephyr and Kubark in the villainous light we should have been seeing them in all along. Kaito’s pain, in particular, brings the events of the entire series into sharp perspective. We’ve been enjoying all the shooting and explosions, yes, but those things have very ugly consequences. It’s hard to maintain the glib action movie façade when you show the funerals that follow.

That’s a kind of entertaining distraction in and of itself, of course, pain being the very heart of drama. But it still breaks Fraction’s spell a little. The scales start to fall from our eyes a bit, and so we’re able to consider, finally, the (supposed) real plot: why is it that Newman Xeno wanted everyone with knowledge of the H Element dead? The answer? He didn’t. The killings were just a distraction from his real plan: to steal Sasa Lisi’s timeship from the EMPIRE moonbase so he could shoot it into space and make his initial abduction of the other-dimensional Casanova possible.

Which is a great time-loop thing, I think. It’s the damage that Cas’ passing did to the fabric of spacetime that brings Sasa Lisi back in time to investigate, but it’s her ship that makes his passing possible in the first place. And then Xeno’s decision to let Zephyr decide whether or not to make the launch puts the capper on it as a hum-dinger of a cliffhanger. And, yes, yet another magnificent piece of misdirection for the real plot twist, which will be coming in the next issue.

I can’t stress enough how much I admire that talent for distraction. All fiction is somewhat formulaic. Stories have certain structures that they have to follow to be satisfying to us as stories, and after awhile it becomes all too easy to see the ending coming. The best storytellers, though, engage and entertain us with the details, distracting us from seeing the shape of the story too soon, and that’s what Matt Fraction pulls off with Casanova to fine effect. There’s only one more issue of Gula, and it features what I still think may be the single best twist ending I’ve ever seen anywhere.

And, you know, even though I’ve read it before… Hot damn, I can’t wait!

Grade: A


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