Monday, April 20, 2009

Around the World with Simon Fraser

When Simon Fraser was a boy in Scotland, his father periodically went over slides from a 1963 cross-country Greyhound bus tour in America.
“He was at all kinds of very cool places at just the wrong time,” Simon laughs. “He was at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington three months before Martin Luther King made his speech. He was in Haight Asbury just slightly before the Summer of Love kicked off. My dad has the squarest trajectory. He took all of these photographs of ‘60s America, that was still in the ‘50s. The ‘60s wasn’t happening everywhere but in a few select places. Everyone was still in suits and hats. They were living very conventional lives. There were photographs of the World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows in ’63 that are very much what the world of the ‘50s America thought was really going to happen. There was a picture of the car of the future, which is almost exactly like a car my Dad owned fifteen years ago. My Dads slides of the World’s Fair were pictures my whole family would look at every year or so. To finally go there, to the site, with the huge globe in the background, which was such a symbolic thing for me. It felt like an arc I had completed.”

Simon’s expression, standing in the globe of the former fair, is child-like, innocent, and just a little exuberant. After about a decade out of Scotland and around the world, Fraser has finally settled in New York City, bringing a style of cartooning forged in the fires of the U.K.’s famed 2000 A.D.. After years of wondering about the Big Apple and America, he’s finally able to have his fun here.

“The idea, for me, a kid in the Highlands of Scotland, was that New York was like the Valhalla of comics,” Simon Fraser says as he leans back in his chair. “That’s where they come from. So I'm a good deal older now and I've lived in France and Italy, which have very strong comics cultures of their own. I've read a lot of Manga, the comics medium is obviously very much wider and more eclectic than I could have possibly imagined at ten years old. However New York still has the feeling of a spiritual home. So I'm very happy and energized to be here.”
Enter “Simon Fraser” in, and about a dozen entries come up, from British nobility to Canadian explorers to American defensive ends. The Simon Fraser in question, however, was born in the Highlands of Scotland and was fed occasional bits of American comics throughout his childhood.

“We had very, very sparse American reprints,” Simon says. “I don’t know where they came from, but there was never more than one issue of anything. There was Superman, the old Curt Swan stuff that seemed really lame and old fashioned because we wanted the Marvel comics, which were very hard to come by. We’d get an issue of the X-Men maybe and at one point there was a full reprint series of the original Kirby/Lee/Ditko runs on Spider-Man, the FF, Captain America and Thor printed really small sized and in black & white. Great stuff and very cheap! Then there was 2000 A.D. which had great periods and bad periods, but we took it very much for granted. The American Marvel stuff just seemed cooler to a 10 year old.”

Even all the comic-swapping and inheriting other kids’ collections upon their departure to college couldn’t prepare Fraser for the exposure to more four-color influences, ones unlike any he’d seen before.

“I suddenly had access to a proper comics store in Edinburgh, The Science Fiction Bookshop on West Cross Causeway was right around the corner from my apartment,” Simon recalls, his excitement causing him to speak at a faster clip. “It was amazing! Two years before I arrived, they had helped launch Grant Morrison’s career by publishing an anthology comic called Near Myths. Luther Arkwright by Brian Talbot initially came out through Near Myths as well. Also over in Glasgow there was AKA Comics & Books, which was at the center of a booming small press comics scene. A lot of the talent from that boom moved into 2000AD then moved over the Atlantic to work for the New York publishers. Which was the natural order of the world at that time.”

“Arriving in the big city from a very rural upbringing I suddenly met all these people who were into the same stuff I had been secretly obsessing about in isolation for years. It was a revelation. So we grouped together and that's what brought about my first attempts at self-publishing, in 1988. The first thing we did was called The Heaving Cube, which was me and my art college buddies trying to do comics, mostly horror. Then we met a guy called Garry Marshall who had been doing an Indy comic called Atomic Comic for some years, which is the most unoriginal title ever, but we were stuck with it. It had a lot of interesting work and I contributed to five or six issues of that. A story called 'Thievery for Fun & Profit' and another one called 'Partee' which is where my Cosmo character from Lilly Mackenzie makes his first appearance.”

Other early work of Simon’s includes Lux and Alby Sign on and Save the Universe, as well as a stint drawing Roy of the Rovers, a comic strip about a football player (or, as Americans would say: a soccer player). After being recruited to work on a feature for popular British publication 2000 A.D., Simon eventually co-created his own, the swashbuckling Nikolai Dante, with writer Robbie Morrison. Dante was created between Fraser’s living in Edinburgh and Italy, with his wife. After two years in Rome, the Frasers went to Vienna, Austria for a spell of a few more, Tanzania for a year and a half, and then Kenya, where they stayed for five.

“When I got to Africa, the experience of being in Africa was overwhelming, it had a profound effect on me,” Simon recalls. “I had been doing Nikolai Dante for 2000 A.D. pretty solidly for four or five years at that point, but had a kind of breakdown with comics, and slowly stopped drawing for a couple of years in Kenya. I was doing a lot of things, spending a lot of time with people, learning Swahili and teaching kids to use the Internet, things like that. My output slowly dried up.

“Then in 2003 I was asked to draw 'Family' for the Judge Dredd Megazine, which coincided with me living in France for 9 months. That got me back on the horse. I returned to Kenya when my daughter was born and I took a job for IDW, an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Hellhouse, because I felt it would be a challenge. I needed to get myself back in this, it had a tight deadline, it was black and white and a lot of work, I needed me to be very disciplined. Hellhouse was a very intense piece of character work, very grim and gritty, and I liked that the publisher that would have the balls to go all the way with it…if you read the story, there are some things in there that are...difficult. There’s a naked Jesus crucified on the cross with a giant erection, there’s a lot of pornography either alluded to or actually depicted, the characters are attacked in very intimate and degrading ways.

“The script was a very good adaptation of the book, adapted by Ian Edgington, but I don't have the impression that anyone had actually read it or the book at IDW. So the first time they realised what they had was when they saw the art,” Simon laughs. “It was like ‘Excuse me, I don't think we can do that!’ I ended up calling San Diego and talking to this editor who had just taken the job and was a bit off balance, and is having this conversation about Jesus’ dick to a guy in Kenya.”

Hellhouse follows four people investigating an abandoned and haunted house on the whim of a dying old man, one willing to pay them a small fortune to spend a week in the ruins of this former house of infamy. The Hellhouse itself started as a twisted social club, but soon turned into a den of horror, as the inhabitants reverted to barbarism and other ungodly practices. It’s a character driven piece (like most of Matheson’s work). The real horror of the story is in waiting for awful things to happen to the group, the raw emotion conveyed through Fraser’s mastery of facial expressions while the pacing draws out the anticipated horror.

Then, after a decade of traveling with his wife, and back on Nikolai Dante, the Frasers decided to come to Simon’s long-anticipated home as a cartoonist: America.
“My wife works for the United Nations, which is why we traveled so much,” Simon reveals. “Her job kept up moving, and I was quite happy to go along with that. It's been an amazing journey. New York was a concession for her, she's French and her cultural landscape is a bit different from mine. New York was good for me. Since this is also the headquarters for the UN, it was professionally good for her too. It was a compromise we arrived at without compromising.”

New to the Big Apple, his career rejuvenated, Fraser made a connection that pushed him to his next big project: the creator owned science-fiction strip Lilly MacKenzie for the Act-I-Vate web collective.

“When I moved to New York a friend of mine said that 'You HAVE to meet Dean Haspiel'! When you meet Dean you kind of meet everybody, because he’s the belly-button of the world. After a while he asked me if I would do something for Act-I-Vate. I knew it was a huge commitment, because once you start something like this, doing a page a week on top of a full-time job and a kid, the pressure is immense!’ I didn't even know if I could do it. Which is exactly the reason you should do things, so I gave it a shot. I got thirty pages out, took a break, and then got another thirty odd pages out. Now I’m on page sixty-eight and have to get that last burst out. It’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever drawn, work-wise.
Lilly Mackenzie is a space opera that follows a busty and statuesque exotic redhead and her pink-haired midget sidekick, Cosmo, it’s a strip about everything from family to unrequited love, with the human relationships taking center stage amidst a violent science fiction world.
“Cosmo is a character that I’ve been drawing since I was eighteen, sort of my Jiminy Cricket character for a teenager strip, a story about a seventeen year-old who wanted to just go out and have a good time,” Simon recalls. “He had this little guy on his shoulder giving him bad advice, and that was Cosmo. He’s only six inches high at that point. I did another story with him, and the character stuck in the back of my subconscious. I was thinking of a story I could write…but I wasn’t a writer. So I thought I’d start with something simple that I know I could handle. I resuscitated Cosmo, and realized that in order to give him a real role and have some drama, I’d have to make him bigger, so I made him near three foot tall. My teenage adolescent character wasn’t really applying to me anymore, so I created a tall, statuesque redheaded character that was tied into another project I’d worked on with Martin Miller. He was the writer of Lux & Alby Sign On and Save the Universe, my first paying gig. Martin and I got along really well, and he’s got a great sensibility, and I like how he writes.

“Anyway, Martin had this idea for a character called Trash Mackenzie, this kung fu fighting, pole dancing, chess playing semi-superhero who was heavily influenced by his love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I did some character drawings for her, but we never took it further. So I took part of that character and she went into that subconscious place that Cosmo was sleeping in. I was living in Kenya, and she popped up again, I took some of the experiences I'd had there to give it shape.

“Then a couple of years later, my daughter was born, and it sort of flattened everything out. I got this feeling of powerlessness that I know a lot of new Dads get. I felt I had to do something, so I went back home the night after my daughter was born, and started to write this script seriously. I did the first draft in nearly 48 hours. Then I revised it a couple of times in between changing Diapers. It was originally conceived as a 48 page graphic novel for the French market. I thought ‘Statuesque redhead, takes her clothes off, sci-fi and spaceships…that’s the French market.’ Then I sat on it for another year.”

Despite a busy work schedule for 2000 A.D., Simon delved into Lilly, rewriting his original script and watching it develop a life all its own in a venue where others can watch its growth.

“Because of the way Act-I-Vate works, you have an audience that responds,” Simon notes. “You get immediate feedback. As an artist you kind of feed on that, if not actually feeding your stomach. What started out as a forty-eight page graphic novel is now becoming a hundred page web comic. I think I have something that’s much better than what it started out as. I look at the original script, and it's really just a sketch. What started out as a proof-of-concept project turned into a much more personal thing. My own obsessions and worldview came in; traveling, parents, love in it's many forms, trust. All the things I feel strongly about.”
With Nikolai Dante gearing up to finish, chances are that Simon is looking at his career following a more Lilly-centric direction afterwards.

2000 A.D. is very supportive, and has been very good to me, especially the fan community around it who have given me a lot of encouragement over the years. Dante is not work for hire in the way that Spider-Man is work for hire. It’s my character, I drew the first character sketches while driving across France in a Renault 4 just before I got married. I love doing it, and I love the fact that the readers are so invested in the characters and the story. At the same time, it’s always been finite. For the story to be really epic, it had to end. It went on so much longer than we ever thought it would, from five years to twelve (and counting), but one of our stated aims at the beginning was to contribute something substantial to 2000 A.D.’s immense mythos and I think we have done that. I don’t know any other creative team in 2000 A.D. who have been on a story as long as Robbie, John Burns and I have.”
For someone who has done as much globe-trotting as Fraser, he seems pretty settled in Brooklyn, New York. With a studio spot in the Gowanus section (a rather industrial chunk of Brooklyn by the water) that he shares with five other artists, including Dean Haspiel and Mike Cavallaro, he’s established comic book roots in the city that birthed the medium.

“I’ve come here as a forty year-old, with a small child and it's a big city — it’s very tiring. You’re living a dream in a certain sense, because I’m here and around comic artists all of the time. There's an enormous amount of energy here, being in Act-I-Vate, being part of Deep Six studio. Working alongside these guys who I really respect, forces me to try and keep up. You feel you have to produce and keep upping your game. So my life is about drawing, picking my daughter up from school, eating, and sleeping. Really, the time on the subway is the only time I have to myself. That’s my ‘me time’, the time I spend going to and from home and the studio with my headphones on.”

Simon laughs and, later, reflects more heavily on the American presence in Scotland:

“If you grew up in an English-speaking country, New York is the center of the world, because so much American media is New York-Centric. I didn’t appreciate it until I started living in New York. NYC filters everything because it’s this pinch-point in American culture. I’m sure it’s to the detriment of other places in America, because talent gets drawn here from the four corners of the country (and the world) and away from the point of origin. So America speaks to the world with a New York accent. Something you find when you travel around in this country just isn't exactly true.

“This city is an environment that puts you up alongside the best people and forces you to try and keep up, even excel. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, but it’s grim sometimes,” Simon laughs again.

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