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.
The Fix: That seems to be a pervasive myth concerning writers and other creative people, that when you get sober, the work isn’t as good. That seems to be very contrary to your experience.
Fraction: Yeah, drugs were getting me away from the creative process. I make this joke a lot with friends who are, if not sober, then maybe thinking about it, but the best thing about being sober are the hours—literally hours I don’t have to waste waiting for ‘the guy with the shit.' That lost time is gone to me now, I get it all back. I save a lot of time not waiting around some fucking parking lot. I never needed alcohol or drugs to make me creative or imaginative. I was never like ‘Gosh, if only I was ripped to the tits, then I could sit down and put down a couple pages.' That was never the issue. It was that I don’t know how to live. It felt like my skin had been whittled off and if maybe I could drink enough it could come back on.
The Fix: It sounds like maybe you write to keep yourself from, as you put it, “feeling like you’re on fire.”
Fraction: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s all processing. It’s kind of like dream R.E.M. cycle stuff. There’s always a very shallow wall between what I’m experiencing and living and how it comes out in the comics. It might not be obvious to anyone but me,
The Fix: It sounds like you were a very high-functioning addict. You were able to hold a good job and made a good living.
Fraction: It was kind of that Don Draper thing. You can go a long time in the ad game fucked up. I could always get stuff done and I was getting away with it, but with the more sobriety I get, the more I can spot when people are fucked up. So, maybe I wasn’t getting away with it. Maybe people just didn’t know how to help. Or looked at me like I was a fucking car crash. Think about how many times you’ve seen someone and thought “Oh my God, he is so fucked up. I need to get away from this guy.” I was that guy. I wasn’t clever. I was embarrassing.
The Fix: What made you decide to get sober?
Fraction: I just kind of saw the end of the road. I had a night, it was my last night at [a job]. It was the last time I worked for somebody else. It was a going away party. The bosses showed up, so I knew they were paying. So I drank like I would normally drink. And I was fine. I was mean to these people. I was unpleasant to be around. I was a prick to these people drunk or sober.These were people that I could not hide my distaste for. So, I drank them out of hundreds of dollars on my way out the door cause fuck them. Every single one of them called to see if I was alive the next day. Every single one of them called to see if I was okay. That was like a big realization. Like, oh, I’m not well. I couldn’t force these people out of my life because when they saw me drink, everyone expressed grave concern.
The Fix: You’ve mentioned spending a spell as a “dry drunk.” What initially kept you from getting into AA?
Fraction: I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God. And I don’t go to meetings, they’re in church basements. And churches are above church basements and that means God. So, quite simply, I let fear of religion keep me away. That was why I was a dry drunk rather than someone who was in the program. Then I was kind of a tourist for a while where I would kind of drop into meetings and get used to the idea. I was listening to things and picking things up, but I didn’t make a serious go at it. Then I had a friend who wanted to go and she asked me to stay with her to basically make sure that she didn’t leave the room. Something in that meeting made me realize that it was a journey that she and I are now on together. That was day 1 of my 90 [meetings] in 90 [days].
The Fix: How long did you spend as a dry drunk before getting into program?
Fraction: The last time I drank drank was the night that Eyes Wide Shut came out. I think it was 1999. Then I got into program in 2006. The last time I had alcohol ever was September 10th, 2001. It’s pretty easy to understand why I would remember that date. So, it was about 5 years of being a tourist to the rooms before it really took.
The Fix: Where were you living at this time?
Fraction: At that point, I was in Kansas City, MO, deep in the heart of God Country. Now I’m in Oregon, so it’s a little bit different. All kinds of meetings all over the place. In the middle of 90 in 90, I had to drive from L.A. to Kansas, and that meant having to find meetings via the Internet and that was kind of awesome.
The Fix: So, how have you been able to reconcile your issues with religion with the program?
Fraction: My higher power is a James Brown tape. It’s true, but it works. It kept me going.
The Fix: You did an interview with Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing frontman and solo singer-songwriter) in the back of one of the issues of your Casanova comic. Was that the first time you came out publicly as someone in recovery?
Fraction: Yeah. Before then, I think I had sort of been oblique about it. The first time I did Casanova, the letter column was very confessional and after awhile it felt like doing your own DVD commentary when no one had really asked. So after a while, I wanted to talk about the process. So, Mike is my sponsor. You know how they say find somebody who has what you want and ask them to be your sponsor? And Mike was a guy who had been creative while being fucked up, got clean and sober, continued to make his work. His work got better and he made a living from his work. And that was what I wanted. I wanted nothing more than to make a living from working creatively.
So yeah, Mike was the guy I asked to speak to me. I’m not sure if Mike was working on his memoir Book of Drugs yet, but it was clearly in his head. As a result, people reach out to me all the time, which feels like some sort of service work, I don’t know. I meet people at every show I do. And literally, at every single signing and every single show I do someone always takes me aside and mentions their recovery.
The Fix: Do you think it’s possible that if people didn’t know you were public about recovery, they might have sussed it from your writing? Like, from that issue of Iron Man where Tony Stark is in an AA meeting.
Fraction: Maybe. But at the same time there are a lot of people who are convinced that anyone who writes as weirdly as I write must be fucked up and I get offered a lot of drugs. I try to be polite and try to defer the offer but it inevitably comes out that I’m sober and the person inevitably feels terribly.
Maggie Serota is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about being too drunk to rock.