The Sober Man Behind Iron Man
The former Invincible Iron Man writer Matt Fraction speaks with The Fix about how recovery and sobriety affected his creativity and characters.
Matt Fritchman, better known to comic fans by his pen name Matt Fraction, is an Eisner award winning comic book writer who currently authors the Hawkeye books for Marvel. Before Hawkeye, Fraction authored other well-known Marvel series such as The Invincible Iron Man and The Uncanny X-Men. In addition to Fraction’s work with Marvel, his own comic series Sex Criminals (Image comics) was named #1 of the “Top 10 Comics and Graphic Novels of 2013” by Time Magazine. Fraction spoke to The Fix about his own process of recovery and how sobriety affected his creativity and even some of his characters.
The Fix: One of your most famous characters, Tony Stark—aka “Iron Man”—is in recovery...
Matt Fraction: On and off. . .
The Fix: Right. What were some of your goals in portraying a character struggling with addiction?
Fraction: I came to the character after a big storyline called “Civil War” where a bunch of over-enthusiastic young superheroes screwed something up and there was an accident and Stamford, Connecticut got blown off the map and in the aftermath the heroes of the world came down on two sides. A group who believed everybody should have to register their powers and be licensed by the government to use them and that was led by Iron Man and the other side that was kind of like ‘hey, butt out’ was led by Captain America. So, the “civil” part of the civil war was good guys fighting each other instead of good guys fighting bad guys. Basically it was Captain America and Iron Man battling it out for supremacy. The other side of “Civil War” was that Tony Stark was beaten up as a character and disliked by a lot of people. As far as a good guy went, he was kind of bad. He was kind of an asshole.
Ultimately, alcoholism is not great fodder for a sort of big summer blockbuster kind of tentpole movie, but as a metaphor it kind of works.
So, there was a movie coming up. The movie was Marvel Studios’ first and Robert Downey Jr. was a bit of a wildcard. Perhaps you’ve heard, he has a history. There were a lot of gambles being taken. As a writer, I saw this as a rehab opportunity. Not like how I normally mean “a rehab” opportunity [laughs], but like a refurbish opportunity. I saw a character that I was able to bring my own history and baggage to—somebody who had gotten clean for about 4 or 5 years before I got sober. I decided that was his deal. Iron Man would be established as a drunk and as a guy who has undergone some degree of recovery in a way that was kind of comic code friendly. The first time he got clean he kind of stared out of a window trembling for a night and he was okay in the morning. I could kind of write him as a dry drunk and that could inform my take of his character and I built everything out from there.
The Fix: Given that Robert Downey Jr. is someone who has publicly struggled with addiction, what do you think he brought to the performance of Tony Stark?
Fraction: In the [first] movie, it’s clear that Tony Stark likes the sauce and I think they went too far with it in the second one. But yeah, it clearly informed his take on the character. He was clearly a guy who liked to have a drink or ten every now and then. Ultimately, [alcoholism] is not great fodder for a sort of big summer blockbuster kind of tentpole movie, but as a metaphor it kind of works. You can feed into it a metaphor of technology as addictive. I enjoyed his performance a lot and I like him with PTSD in the second Iron Man. I don’t write the character anymore, so it made me miss it.
The Fix: Well, there’s also the fact that he’s a guy in an iron suit who's impervious to the outside world, but one of his greatest weaknesses, his alcoholism, is internal...
Fraction: He has a big gaping hole in his chest that he has to keep shoving things into. You don’t need a road map and a flashlight to figure out the symbolism there. [laughs]
The Fix: Were you already an established writer before you quit drinking and drugs?
Fraction: It was really after I put down [the alcohol and drugs] that I made a living at writing. I had a career in advertising, in animation and design, before this. Comics were always kind of a hobby. Comics were kind of a thing I’d write at night. So, when the opportunity to write for Marvel came, I was very take it or leave it because I already had a day job and it was kind of creatively fulfilling and I could say “no” a lot. I stopped drinking about 6 months after I started writing full time.
The Fix: Did you find that there was a correlation between getting clean and becoming a good writer?
Fraction: If I wouldn’t be dead, then I would definitely have holes in me from using. I was never one of those artists or writers that needed to be wasted to work. I needed to be wasted to feel like I was not on fire. I needed to be wasted to be in a room with other people. I liked drugs that made me act with a modicum of productivity but I never produced anything of value. I never bought into that myth that you need to be tore up to get work done. All the work I ever did while wasted was terrible. I would always need to rewrite it in the morning.