(November 2001)

Pixelsurgeon: If memory serves, you were slap bang in the middle of a slew of commissions when we chatted briefly a month ago, and I noticed that a new strip is on the way in 2000AD. How does it feel to be slowly sucked up into that next-best-thing vacuum, and what are you working on right now?

Frazer: Well, I've been a busy bunny lately, with various covers done for 2000AD, strips for a new French magazine and work on an ongoing series for 2000AD due to start at Xmas. Its quite an invigorating time for me as you say, being sucked up into the whole "best newcomer" thing as a great deal more opportunities are open to me all of a sudden. Aside from the obvious career benefits, it's great as it means I can explore some aspects of my work that a more restricted path may deny. For the latest 2000AD series I'm breaking away from the style I'd previously set up for myself, exploring colour as a far more integral part of the strip in terms of mood and design, something which I feel is often overlooked in modern comics.

Can you tell us more about the new 2000AD stuff, or has Tharg sworn you to secrecy on pain of being taken to Mek-Quake? ;D

Oohh... lemme see now, the fear of a Rigellian Hotshot? Sod it. The new series is called Storming Heaven and is basically a story about psychedelic superheroes set in the late Sixties. It's inspired by a passage written by Ken Kesey which suggests that superhero comics are the true literature of the era because they prepares us for our next evolutionary step. Our story picks this up by asking "what if he was right?", cue lots of funky cosmic visuals from me, and plenty of groovy text from Gordon Rennie. As well as this I'm building up to working on a new Judge Death series written by John Wagner. This strip is scheduled to run sometime next year and is all in black and white...kinda like coming home for me, as that (black and white) was where I started.

A Love Like Blood boasted suitably sombre colouring, but was it a challenge to lay off the black shadows for Storming Heaven, or is London still stockpiling Indian Ink exclusively for Mr Irving?

Well, when you get to read the whole story you'll see the black ink has found a new home in the form of Thomas Caliban, the bad guy of the piece. It was a bit of a challenge trying to start the strip, as I work more comfortably in black and white, but once I'd set up the visual 'code' for Dr trips and the 'Psychadeliverse' it was easy. In many ways this strip is allowing me to experiment with many more techniques than one would assume seeing the preview. Right now I'm working on episode 3 which has yet another risky artistic method applied to illustrate a darker sequence; but then that's what comics are all about to me.

What role does the computer play in your creative process?

Ah, my beloved Mac... well, for the past 2 years now I've used the Mac as an essential part of my process. Previously I used to draw full art on regular paper, and then use vast amounts of photocopies to promote myself. Once I got the Mac I ditched that whole way of working and started to invent a method all of my own.

On a basic level nothing really changes; I still draw the layouts at print size on sheets of paper, still do ink lines with a brush, but Photoshop has made it all a lot easier. I prepare the panels initially in Photoshop, which I then print out onto Bristol board. Then I scribble on these to rough out the basic figures, shapes and shadows until I've got a workable layout. This is then scanned back in and sized to be printed out at full art size on my A3 printer.

Using this printout, I lightbox the shapes very simply and then get into the traditional method of inking with a Sable brush. The computer comes in here, as I can scan in panels of various sizes and adjust them in the final image, or redo panels, have multiple floating panels etc. I can refine the shoddy and scruffy linework into a pristine black and white document, a cleaner result is achieved. Much better than using any amount of Tippex!

Once this is done I get into colour. At first I just used the basic tools in PhotoShop to select and fill, but since then I developed a more natural style using custom made brushes, fills from scans, various funky combinations of layer effects as well as venturing into the murky world of Painter for some extra special effects. To apply the colour in my strips and on covers I first set up the linework as a separate layer set to preserve transparency. Under this I arrange a number of layers, one for the background, one for sets of figures, maybe one for isolated panels and so on according to the complexity of the page. On these layers I can then paint the colour on much as one would paint Gouache onto acetate, but this smells less and isn't gooey! Being able to zoom in 400% means I can get some tiny details in there, whilst zooming out I can get an instant impression of the colour scheme as a whole. The ability to set the brushes to opacity and size variations means I can mimic the reality of real brushes and Photoshop is significantly faster than Painter, so I get quick results.

Also, as the colours are on layers, this means I can be sloppy and still be able to trim the areas down or make colour adjustments up to the very last minute; something which was impossible before.

The latest discovery I've made is that now, for the first time, I can include pencil art in the same image as a fully inked page. I used this in 2 panels in Reefer Madness and it worked so well I'm planning on using it in Storming Heaven and Judge Death. The ability to mix extreme styles and textures to create a more effective page is one of the best things about digital art. Being able to undo stuff is another!

My aim is to create an image which looks initially like it has been drawn the traditional way, but then on closer inspection throws up all sorts of questions. When I was at college, one of my mates pointed out that the art he likes best is the art which prompts him to ask the question, "How the fuck did they do that?".

It's a pleasing 'side effect' of using the computer to create this stuff. I hope that, providing I don't give away too many secrets, people will be asking that question for years to come.

Beyond creating the art, the computer also makes the distribution and the archiving so much easier. I now have a stack of CDRs, each case containing one or two disks which contain an episode each, which allows me to keep the hard disk relatively clear of junk, but also allows me access to pristine copies of the original art with all it's layers; as well as any funky accidents that any given episode may have thrown up.

If anyone's interested, I use a 400mhz G4 Mac with a gig of RAM (and it's still not enough!), a 40 Gig hard drive, PhotoShop 6, Painter 7, a super-duper smashing Wacom Intuous A5 tablet (though I want to upgrade to the sexy new A4 oversize Intuous 2) and a gorgeous new iBook for working in the kitchen or on the roof or in the park chasing lions.

Hard to believe that in 1996 I didn't even know that computers could 'make' art.

Tell us about the work for that French magazine you mentioned, and didn't you have a big advertising job on the go?

Ah. Sore point. The magazine actually just went under this morning! Just did the 5 page strip with Gordon, mailed in a cover and BAM! They're gone! It was called KOG (Kaleidoscopic Oddity Generator) and I was in issue 2, but it stops there. Damn. The advertising gig? Well, you know about confidentiality clauses in contracts, right? To be honest I prefer comics, but the money in advertising is way better. If I can get the money in comics to match up, then I may never need to stray again!

What floats your boat in the morning? Where do you look for inspiration?

Heh heh. Hmmm. In the morning; coffee, email, etc... Generally, I look all over the place. I often fall prey to the seductive charms of many a great illustrator and then spend weeks trying to ape their style, but I know this is bad so I try to put a cap on that when working on a gig. As a rule I like to leave my influences to chance. I don't go out of my way to find stuff, as I just coast along and assimilate whatever's around me. This is to avoid a clichéd response to stuff. For Dr Trips it was an obvious course to reference psychedelic art of the Sixties, comics of the era; Steve Ditko or Brendan Mcarthy etc, but I was too lazy and just used whatever I had on the subject (Easy Rider, Beatles album covers) and let something new form.

I do have a collection of old British black and white Marvel reprints with some spectacular linework from the likes of Alfredo Alcala (RIP), Rudy Nebres, etc. These were the Phillipino guys who stormed Marvel as budget artists in the Seventies, and I take a huge amount of inspiration from them.

Beyond that I have started self-referencing, by which I mean keeping a sketch book of compositional ideas or possible cover illustrations which are all variations on themes of my own. I like the idea that I can pull iconic images from the ether and then riff off them as if I was another artist ripping me off!

We'd like to bet that despite spending every waking hour behind the wheel, you still have time to soak in what's new on the comics scene. Who is making your jaw hit the floor?

Odd as it may sound I don't spend half as much time working as you guys. I like to keep an even balance between work and play, it's good for the soul, and I'm efficient so I can do it! I don't read that many comics either, like many pros I just can't stand reading bad comics because I know why they suck and I can't fix it. But of the stuff I do read I'm currently very much a fan of Richard Corben's mainstream work. I loved his Hellblazer run (despite hardcore Hellblazer fans loathing it) and I love the current Hulk series, 'Banner'. I'm very much looking forward to his take on Luke Cage: Hero for Hire. I think the whole Blacksploitation thing in comics from the Seventies has left a poor trail of token characters. Corben's promotional image of the urban Luke Cage looks so perfect. As well as that I still like Mike Mignola's Hellboy, although the stories are getting a bit weak. I'm still waiting for the next episode of the excellent Black Hole by Charles Burns; and of course I dig 2000AD.

Any plans to get into the film industry, maybe doing storyboards and the like?

Well, I have some contacts, but I like the glamour of comics. It'd be nice to do some work in that field at some point, but it would have to be the right project. One of my friends does a lot of work in that business, especially for Henson's projects, and I've seen the quality of work they demand. I'm not sure I'm suited as a work-for-hire guy in that respect because I have strengths and weaknesses and I'm not entirely sure that industry would be able to play to those. Having said that I have the book of the Star Wars Episode One designs, and I noted that each illustrator has their own area of expertise doing Sci-fi or horror movies. That would suit me down to a tee; horror flicks, especially the weird ones. And ones with lots of sex in too.

The ubiquitous question: Any advice for people wanting to break into comic work, any dos or don'ts?

Hmm. this is a recurring question. Well, all I can offer is my personal view, and it must be noted that this in no way reflects the views of other pros or is even a particularly accurate analysis of the industry.

Basically there are, as in any creative industry, more people who can't do the do than people who can. The trick is to find out which one you are. Comic artists come from all disciplines, be it portraiture, graphic design, graffiti, fine art etc, but they all have one thing in common, and that's a mad secret desire to draw comics! I often suggest to aspiring comic artists that they explore "real" art or media before deciding to commit to comics because in today's eclectic global culture one needs to be a tad more versatile or enriched to make any sort of attempt at surviving. For instance, the wannabes I know of base their style on an existing comic artist; which is effectively basing a style on a style which is based on a style which is watered down from yet another style, etc. There comes a point when what you have is just thin and weedy crap.

Also, when exploring art properly, one often finds out where certain strengths lie. When I was a kid I always wanted to be a penciller, as defined by American comics. I never thought that I could do the inking thing and never the colour. But learning how to draw properly at college I discovered a natural flair for the brush, and once I'd explored various forms of illustration I also figured I had an odd yet effective take on the colour thing too. But one has to explore to find these things out.

I see a lot of samples from aspiring artists and generally the main flaws are the basic drawing skills: figure drawing, shadows, textures and composition. These must be learnt before one starts doing comic strips because to tell a story the artist has to be able to render each possible element of the story, which means being able to draw people, cars, trees, night time, sunset, etc.

At the past few conventions I've been to I've sat in on the portfolio reviews and one of the startling things I saw was that very few (I'm talking about 5%) of the people there actually presented their work properly. I saw loose tatty A4 sheets with doodles, large A1 canvas board pinups, a selection of oddly shaped double-sided drawings unrelated to comics, but very few actual comic pages, in sequence and clean enough to read. This tells me more about the artist than any drawing.

I'd suggest to anyone who sends art in via post or shows art at a convention should carefully consider how they present their work. Always have a business card or postcard to hand out or to be included with the sample; keep the pages clean; target the recipient correctly so that superhero editors see superhero pages, horror guys see horror pages, and 2000AD see some Dredd. This makes a world of difference.

The other point which is rarely mentioned is that even if your art is superb, you are unlikely to score a gig with the first submission, purely because editors like to see consistency: an artist can do five incredible pages, but in comics they need to do it regularly. Any editor will like to see more than one sample, or if they like the work they'll often supply a sample script to see how you work on it. I see many frustrated and angry young artists who are simply unaware of this and take it personally. I sent in many samples over a period of a year before the 2000AD editor decided I could do the do, and I'd already had a few strips and a graphic novel published in the small press. Some people do one drawing then get all angry when they get told to come back in six months. Trust me, if you get told to come back in six months, this is a good sign! "Piss off" is a bad sign!

As a side note here; I still have the letters I received from 2000AD when I was submitted via mail. The first is "be patient", the next was "Nice illustration, not sure if it's suitable. Here's a Dredd sample to see how you get on", the next samples got no response, then the next letter was "Sorry, it's nice but the chances of you ever working for 2000AD are virtually nil", and then I got a "Wow! this is more like it!" and finally "We have a script if you're interested.", which came around the same time that I met the editorial guys at the Comics99 Festival in Bristol. And this was over an 18 month period. Go figure.

Finally, before I start repeating myself or other well known points, I should say that independent publishing or small press is a great way to hone ones skills and possibly gain attention. All artists improve as they work, and the pros tend to improve at a quicker pace not because they are paid, but because they spend all day working. When I was at college, my drawing improved once I decided that I would draw everyday, even setting up my own figure drawing sessions with my friends over at the Magic Torch. The same happened when I was on the dole and I committed to working on various small press projects in an effort to get publicity. Doing a set amount of work over a sustained period one sees the change at periods along the way. There are days when something just clicks, and you know you've made a leap forwards, but it's consistent practice that does this, and if you aren't being paid to do it as a living, then committing much of your spare time to small press projects is the next best thing. It's this that usually separates the wannabes from the gonnabes!

Oh, and another point; never try to suck up to a pro writer or artist. The good ones will resent it and the bad ones will milk you for all you are worth and then ditch you.

Anything you want to say? Any last words you need to get off your chest?

Hmm: Buy my work; chill out world; I know I'm sexy, but honestly, your flesh will not ignite into a blazing crescendo of pink and purple flames if we touch, so come on luv gizza kiss! Actually let's not bother with that one...

Basically, I rant a lot, but most of it centres around the validity and artistry of comics. Comics are the last great unexplored medium of the 20th century. Due to the Commie-hating barstewards of the Mcarthy era, comics were forced into a spiral of self-censorship and were relegated to the kiddie shelves, when in other parts of the world they flourished. But unlike movies which escaped this far earlier on, comics stagnated creatively to the point where only a few countries take them seriously.
Now that the great American landmass has embraced this new spirit of "We'll print what we bloody well like", it seems as if all the comic creating superpowers can start to mix and share ideas and grow, like it should have done previously. But the creators need to be there, and for that we need to reject the ridiculous stigma that the art world places on comics and encourage those who show interest to develop this interest and to do some real funky shit!

But, uh, they better stay off my patch, right? I bite. I warn you...

Interview: Richard May © 2001 Pixelsurgeon