Devin Grayson reflects on her noir blockbuster with Brian Stelfreeze, MATADOR
Last month, Image Comics released the complete MATADOR, collecting writer Devin Grayson and artist Brian Stelfreeze’s six-chapter descent into crime, violence, and genre-twisting creativity, originally released in the mid-aughties. The plot revolves around Miami detective Isabel Cardona as she unravels a web of corruption, drugs, and deceit. At the center lies the elusive Matador, a cloaked contract killer with seemingly supernatural abilities. Much like the titular assassin, this story houses complex, unexpected twists and dissects relevant social issues that have only gained import in the bridging years.
Detective Cardona buckles against a department that labels her a diversity hire, while the titular Matador hides a winding history that readers won’t expect. Out in trade paperback in comic shops, available on all major digital platforms, and as a hardcover exclusive at conventions, MATADOR is a sucker punch of fury and depth. Grayson reflects on the trailblazing crime blockbuster in the Q&A below.
Devin, you and Brian ignited this project in 2000. What were the fundamental themes and ideas that you both wanted to explore?
Devin Grayson: The impetus for MATADOR actually all came from Brian. We’d done some work together in DC’s Bat-office and were really clicking creatively. He contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in helping him flesh out some ideas he’d been playing with and, obviously, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to do more work with him. I’ve been incredibly lucky over the course of my career to work with some truly amazing artists, but Brian really is a singular talent as well as an absolutely exemplary human being.
He mentioned that he wanted to create a deeply female protagonist. At that time in comics, many of the female characters were in the tough-as-nails, essentially-men-but-with-gravity-defying-boobs mold, and he wanted a character who used intuition and multitasked and actually had a relationship with her family of origin, and was expending most of her energy on just trying to stay meaningfully engaged in a system that continuously challenged her right to be part of it. Izzy came to life in my head almost before he’d finished describing her, and then her world started to populate. It was one of those conversations where Brian and I were finishing each other’s sentences and inhabiting the story together so completely that I think it was half written during that initial phone call.
The other thing I know he really wanted the story to do was stand the whole achingly-cool-super-assassin trope on its head, but we’ll talk about that more in a minute. 😊
What can readers expect from the recently released collection?
Grayson: In addition to finally having the whole story collected together in one place—initially there were publication delays that I think made it difficult for people to find them all—this edition includes a look at Brian’s layout and character sketching process, a handful of the emails we exchanged as we put the story together, and all-new content in the form of little interstitial chapter-connectors that explore the story from the point of view of one of the textural characters. Jonathan Chan over at 12-Gauge did a fantastic job creating a beautiful book design, and although the project was conceived in the aughts, it still feels very topical and contemporary.
What made Brian Stelfreeze the perfect artist for this book?
Grayson: Well, Brian Stelfreeze is the perfect artist for any book Brian Stelfreeze is interested in being the artist for, but in the case of MATADOR, the question would more properly be, what made him pick me to help with the writing? xD
You and Brian explore the idea of diversity hires and gender roles throughout these six chapters. How much does Isabel Cardona’s journey as a female lieutenant in male-dominated law enforcement mirror your own journey as a writer in comics?
Grayson: It’s interesting, because at the time Brian approached me about collaborating on MATADOR, I was actually still under the influence of a great deal of unexamined internalized misogyny. I rarely worked with female characters, I bristled every time my gender came up in an interview (and still have yet to do one where it doesn’t come up, though these days I’m grateful for the opportunity to talk about it) and I wanted more than anything just to be one of the guys. Brian definitely knew all of that and I suspect he had correctly guessed that that tension would make its way into Isabel. I actually had some initial trepidation when we first started discussing republishing the story, because I was remembering how compromised I was at that point in my life concerning gender issues and worried about how I might have dealt with them while scripting. And indeed, some of that personal ambivalence about gender roles seems to have seeped into Izzy, but I think it ended up making her very real. That kind of discomfort and tension can very much be part of the authentic experience of being female in the 21st century, and reading MATADOR again post-#MeToo, I was gratified to see how well it all tracked. I wish I could take credit for having done that all consciously, but it was just a truth leak. ;-p
How did you and Brian approach creating this crime ecosystem in Miami, consisting of the Cigalini, Armentero, and one hell of a twist that comes later?
Grayson: As I recall, Brian kept suggesting sensible things and I kept insisting that everyone be corrupt. ;-p I don’t like stories where the good guys and bad guys are cut and dry—I like looking at systems; how people influence one another, how people rationalize their actions and alliances, how people use one another and betray patrimonial identities to forge new ones in the interest of moving up constructed social hierarchies. In many ways, MATADOR is a story about people creating organizational pecking orders they can’t actually survive.
Regarding the titular character, the book nicely subverts the trope of the untouchable action-star assassin. What inspired you and Brian to disrupt this character staple?
Grayson: Well, again, that was Brian’s mission. But we were really at a point, culturally, where we had taken blithe worship of that particular archetype about as far as it could go, so it made sense to explore what could happen if you took it in another direction.
Another theme in MATADOR is projection. The story’s protagonists are detectives—people who are usually observant by nature—but it features them using one another as stand-ins for everything from preconceived grievances to sublimated desires. Izzy has things projected onto her, but so, too, does the Matador, by her. For that matter, so do Coley and Armentero, and even Sayer. We have a hard time seeing one other sometimes, and that problem is exacerbated by institutionalized inequity, which is all over the Miami of MATADOR. In any case, to my mind, the Matador is something of a tragic figure because of the way he’s been manipulated and commodified by the very people who should have been protecting him.
How did you and Brian work together to orchestrate the brutal action sequences featuring the Matador?
Grayson: I always write in full script, but that’s less to be bossy than to give as much information as I can about what I’m picturing in my head: how the characters are feeling, what’s motivating them, what they are and are not capable of. I think a lot of that comes from my background in theater—I’m always thinking about what a character wants and how they’ve decided to go about getting it. So I would send pages full of notes on internal conflicts and Brian would work his magic and send back these gorgeous compositions full of violence and tension and terror and also the grace we wanted the Matador always to display.
The tricky part was the humming. Music is a challenging thing to work with in comics and we ask a lot of the reader in terms of providing it. The idea was that the Matador actually hums as he’s fighting, allowing him to break into choreographed sequences of movement—he’s literally dancing, but with a gun; much like how a real matador is ultimately there to kill a bull, but the audience is watching for the spectacle and grace and performative nature of it all. We talked a lot about the best way to get that sound onto the page, and I think Brian does an amazing job of creating visual music.
The backmatter in each issue is a ton of fun, framed by witness Colby Sayer’s blogs and social media banter. How did you approach that content?
Grayson: One of the things we didn’t get a chance to explore in the story that ended up being a really important part of identity in the 21st century was the construction of online personas. We always wanted the Matador to be something of an urban legend, but we never delved into any kind of exploration of his social media status. So when we started talking about creating new content for this edition, I saw a great opportunity to address that omission.
And in a funny way, by building his social ascendency online instead of within the power dynamics of Matador-Miami, Sayer bucks the death-or-assimilation trajectory experienced by most of the other characters; he goes from being no one to being a self-created celebrity of sorts. No one takes him seriously in the beginning of the story, but by the end, he’s appointed himself the ultimate authority on all things Matador to the point where—in his mind, at least—you can’t even say you saw the Matador somewhere without having him verify your claim. I think we all know a guy like that. ;-p
On that note, Sayer’s final contribution mentions a new character, the Matadora. Would you and Brian ever return to this world?
Grayson: Absolutely! We always saw the potential for MATADOR to be a movie or TV series and already have ideas about where the story could go next.