REFLECTIONS: Talking with Frazer Irving

Reflections #202

"I haven't changed the scripts, but I have thrown in some secret little naughty things in there."

Frazer Irving is very busy at the moment.

With deadlines colliding and work overwhelming, the poor Mr. Irving is spending so much time at his computer perfecting art pages for your enjoyment that he actually had to be removed from his chair with a spatula for this interview.

You can imagine my surprise that an interview with me was actually a vacation from work for Frazer. Go me!

I think we all owe Fraz enough because of his devotion and the whole spatula thing to pick up his "Silent War" and "Gutsville" books, don't you?

Robert Taylor: How's life?

Frazer Irving: On the one hand it's really good, and on the other it's not so good.

RT: I think this is the first time a creator has answered with anything other than "Great." Congrats on a "Reflections" first.

FI: On the good side, I've got lots of work. I've got a hot chick and I'm going to go hang out with her in five weeks.

On the not good side, although there is a lot of work, it conflicts with other things, which is why I'm not sleeping much. And also, when I'm hanging out with the hot chick, I'm also going to be working from there.

It's a jagged little pill.

RT: I can see how that would rip your soul out.

FI: The more work I have, the more pressure I am under to produce. The more I refine my abilities and the more I strive to improve, the more time it takes to do.

These intense periods of straight drawing for 15 or 16 hours a day obviously aren't good for me in the long term. Perhaps I'll just die of exhaustion or something.

RT: Do you consider doing shortcuts in your style?

FI: I've done things like that before, but if you start cutting corners, there is less pride in the pages and therefore it's tacky.

That's a bad way to go, because you get into a routine of hacking. And if no one notices you are hacking, then you think you can keep doing it. And then after two or three years there is zero pride in one's own work. Especially the past couple issues, I've made a consistent effort not to rush anything and do the best job I can do without any shortcuts.

And, I have to say, the shortcuts I would have done would have saved me more than five hours and five hours is nothing. In the future, I'm definitely going to work harder to pace my work so that deadlines don't clash as much.

RT: It's rather obvious why you would be in demand. You are one of those rare artists that can do a lot of work in the mainstream but your style is so distinct that you fit right at home in the non-mainstream as well.

FI: People like Richard Corben have always been an interesting curiosity for people like me. When I was growing up, I thought he was clearly an underground, weird artist. Then I saw him on mainstream comics and realized he worked there just as well.

Sometimes I look at my own work and think it's too weird for the mainstream, but too mainstream for the weird, then I think of people like Richard and think that there is a thin corridor between the two where it is a little weird, but a little set, and I naturally fall into that.

Very handy, since that's where I want to be. I'd rather not be in either camp. It is nice to stand in both. I get some very extreme reactions, but you use them as an indicator that the work is provoking.

RT: Let's talk more about that style, from you doing all those extra bells and whistles like coloring your own work and going that extra mile stylistically.

So tell us, what goes into creating a page for you?

FI: Generally, I read a script and decide how many panels are going to be on a page. It's not always said, but sometimes I can change those rules, and then I decide on a panel layout. Which is the biggest and which needs the most text? And then I look at any panel sequences that could work as a storytelling gimmick, like flashbacks I've done have been grouped in four flashbacks in a square to separate them from the rest of the story.

Then, I go straight to the computer, open up a document, draw my panel within, and that's when I do rough layouts and scribble in where the balloons are going to go.

Boop beep heard on the phone

My phone is telling me it's going to run out of juice again. Don't worry, I don't think…

The line goes dead.

An hour and a half of phone charging later…

FI: Where were we?

RT: You were saying "Then, I go straight to the computer, open up a document, draw my panel within, and that's when I do rough layouts and scribble in where the balloons are going to go."

FI: Okay, yeah, I'll get right back into that.

I put the word balloons in roughly and sketch in the action. I try to visualize it in my head and not waste a lot of time scribbling unnecessarily. That's the most tricky part, because if I can't visualize it I can't draw anything. So there is a lot of time sitting staring at the screen.

But I try to get that nailed down quickly and do very quick lines for the whole issue. Then I go back through the pages one by one, not in a certain order, and begin to refine. I erase and draw, erase and draw. I then have a black and white page.

Normally, at that point I should take a break and go to bed or something. But by that point I'm so into it I go into the color straight away. In terms of the lines I use, I try to get away from the standard inking style I used to use, but I keep getting drawn in because it is the artistic language I know best.

This causes problems because if I use one type of lines to draw a person's face, I should use the same type of lines to draw another person's face, but sometimes I ink myself into a corner, as it were, and end up having the same problems I used to have with inking by having unsuitable lines in the wrong places.

But that's fine since I'm coloring it and I'm painting it. I can break the rules later on and stick color on things that need to be fixed.

I think that's what gives some of the pages an unnerving feel. Certain things and textures of skin vary quite a bit. In terms of the coloring, I make color choices in a pretty basic way.

I'm going to let slip a secret of mine to be broadcast 'round the world.

RT: *gasp*

FI: I know! Amongst the non-artistic types, it's commonly conceived that color is incredibly complex and you begin with a blank page and add color and make things much darker and all that. I don't do that.

I decide what scenes are going to be what color all over. For instance, a torture scene is going to be a muted, grey/green color. So I have a background with all that color. Then, I paint in monochrome and use standard choices like skin tones painted lightly over the background color, which unifies it. Therefore, in some things, like where there is a green background, the skin might have a purple look to it. I think it's far more realistic in terms of how light and color work in the real world and it goes far in unifying the page in terms of creating a mood. I definitively try to steer away from flat colors.

RT: A lot of artists don't color their work, and you've said often that it wouldn't be your work if you didn't color it. Please explain.

FI: You could call it an artistic political stance.

I think, if an artist can do the color work, they should do the color work. I don't necessarily subscribe to this whole division-of-labor thing. There was a time when that had to happen, but now you don't need that.

I've only had three of my strips colored and I wasn't happy with them. None of them had the same impact of the stuff I colored myself. And this proves my point that, if editors and publishers want something that will make an impact, they should have me color it.

I should do everything. It's like a perfect pizza base. Every flavor is designed to have pepperoni on it, and then you give it to one final person and they put on pineapple. It ruined the pizza and everyone complains that it tastes like rubbish. Of course it does, the final ingredient was unsuited!

Now my method is so entwined with the final process that I think it would be impossible for me to do linework and give it to someone else. It would take the same amount of time to refine the line work enough to hand it off to someone else as it would to do the colors. Doing them is probably the quickest thing for me at this point.

RT: It has become part of how people view your artwork. For example, looking at Simone Bianchi's recent "Wolverine" issues, I have a major problem with the colored version of the book and find myself going and buying the black-and-white variant because it just looks so much better and I'm more accustomed to that style.

FI: Simone's work is awesome, especially when he paints it himself. I have the black-and-whites as well, but I get both to compare the two because I'm curious about the method.

Simone is making the black-and-white art work as black and white, and I have great sympathy for the colorist. It's extremely difficult to apply color to it without wanting to paint over certain aspects. If Simone does a dark sky and if the colorist wants to make it blue, the only thing he can do is colorize the entire sky. It would look false if he did. If Simone would want to do it himself, he'd leave it blank and put the dark blue in himself.

I prefer the black-and-white because it's a purer version of what Simone wanted, but I do have sympathy for the colorist. They may be trying to overcompensate in places or is intimidated by Simone's work. But I just get the feeling that they should just give Simone and extra month to color it.

RT: Have you ever considered painting any of your artwork for a comic old-school style?

FI: Not for comics. That. Would. Be. Insane.

Just because of the amount of time and effort. The reason you do the coloring on the computer is more logical. I'm a professional, not a vanity artist.

I am doing a strip for "2000AD," which is the fourth part in a story called "Button Man," and the original artist did linework and then watercolor over it. They have asked me if I can retain a sense of the look, so my plan is to go back to old-school methods and do it with pens, print it out and then get my girlfriend to do the coloring with real paint.

Unless you give me a canvas where I can spend weeks on it, comic pages are a different manner. I can guide my girlfriend with the coloring choices and what to do.

RT: What are some more experimental things you'd like to try in your artwork?

FI: One of the things I really want to do is an adaptation of a couple of classic novels in black-and-white on the computer. I really like the immediate effect and the cold, clinical nature of black-and-white.

It's always in the back of my mind, but it has to be left until I get more spare time.

I was also doing something with my girlfriend where she did the pencils and I did the inking and coloring. It was neat because doing someone else's artwork was very different because it was another whole approach to atmosphere and lighting and all that.

But the whole notion of someone telling me "Why don't you become a colorist" is almost as bad as someone saying "Why don't you become an inker?" At least with Fiona I can collaborate.

I get ideas for things all the time, but often they are forgotten in a couple of hours. For instance, right now I have two styles in my head: one is for "Silent War" and the other is for "Gutsville." The one is darker and less-soulful than the other, and it is hard enough maintaining those looks without thinking of anything else.

RT: Okay, let's talk about your new Image Comics series "Gutsville." How did this book, with your writing partner Simon Spurrier, come to fruition?

FI: Me and Simon had been toying with the idea of pitching because Simon wanted to get work in America and knew I was the best way to do that since I am already there.

We had a couple of ideas. One was set in the old west, but no one was touching it. Eventually I met some guys from Image, and on a suggestion of an accounting girl, I asked him if he wanted to do a project. Simon gave me two pitches, and "Gutsville" was chosen because it is more of a high-concept pitch. The decisions were made for me and I signed up for it.

And then Simon sent me the scripts. So at the time of pitching I didn't really know what the story was going to be about. But I trusted Simon, he doesn't deliver rubbish. He wouldn't invest himself into anything that was rubbish, unless we were being paid a large amount of money to produce rubbish. [laughs]

As soon as we had the go ahead, we had the tricky process of trying to find time to do it. I had to figure out what it was going to look like, and it was done for me when I got "Silent War." Since I was doing everything in Photoshop there, I realized "Gutsville" had to be done in the same way. I won't be able to change gears fast enough.

As it turns out, it is the perfect choice. Photoshop gave me just the right tools I need to make it slightly unearthy. It looks like a bit of everything.

RT: Tell me about it.

FI: I don't want to give too much away in terms of plot, but the first issue starts off and sets the vibe, which we want people to think will continue. It's almost suffocating. And then the very last page gives you a cliffhanger.

But in issue #2 you get some other aspect of the city that is a complete contrast that makes the suffocating oppression of the first issue seem insignificant or welcoming compared to the new development.

In each issue a new visual element will be introduced so that the end will be nothing like the first issue. I don't like the idea of setting the stage and then going along the same route; that's tedious to me and Simon feels the same way too. Our plan it to screw with people's heads.

RT: How are you going to approach lettering your own work here?

FI: In terms of aiding clarity, I did have ComicCraft make me a font, but I might not use it. The main bulk of the text is going to be standard and readable, but maybe all lowercase to set it apart from superhero comics. But there are lots of opportunities to be experimental.

We can basically think of anything we want, and our tiny group of readers can't understand it, then we can change it. But we won't be subscribing to any standard rules for lettering. I know how things work in principle, but I want to utilize it to its fullest potential.

RT: Give the people a pitch on why they should pick it up.

FI: Years ago, a monster of unimaginable proportions swallowed a boat. 150 years later, in 2007, descendants of that colony are still in that whale. In that whale are monsters, psychopathic priests, underclasses, overclasses, intrigue, political intrigue, sexual intrigue, social intrigue, magic and rat/pig/dogs. It guarantees to change your perception of what you think the story is going to be with every issue.

Also, I'm drawing it. [laughs]

RT: Does that cover about everything you wanted to cover for "Gutsville?"

FI: As long as you mention it comes out on May 30.

RT: You just did.

FI: Awesome. Oh, and it's for mature readers.

RT: Let's talk "Silent War." You and writer David Hine seem to play very well off of one another.

FI: I was in Canada looking forward to the prospect of two months for every issue of "Gutsville." And then I got four emails telling me to contact David Hine or Steve Wacker, and it was urgent. Urgent!

Then they tell me they have this "Silent War" thing and the original artist, for reasons that have yet to be disclosed to me, had to back out at the last minute. They told me they knew I was reliable and past, and I knew David and he wanted to work with me.

I said, "Okay, but I'm kind of busy." He said he'd give me anything I wanted, and so he sent me some pumpkin-flavored coffee from New York and that was it, as far as I was concerned. He bought me, body and soul.

I made the decision based on the first script, which had something to it. There was feeling in it, and points. David was telling a story without preaching from a pulpit, plus there were some crazy ideas about how it would happen.

It's made my life quite hectic since then, but also very rewarding. Everything is clicking. It is very weird, because I never thought David and I would click in this way. Our scripts are easy to read, and every couple pages something happens. I think the most important thing is that David's characters come to life and he is really good with dialogue. When I hear Medusa talking, it's Medusa. That is possibly the most important thing for me. I wanted to draw something with emotion to it, and David provides that.

I haven't changed the scripts, but I have thrown in some secret little naughty things in there. For instance, there is a scene with Medusa in issue #4 where her hair is acting. David didn't overdo the script, so I decided to add my secondary rhythm by having me have the hair do the emotion. And David seems perfectly happy to let me get away with this. He's a good chap.

RT: So then you prefer your scripts looser?

FI: Definitely. Simon's scripts for "Gutsville" are the Fort Knox of comic scripts. If you compared them to Alan Moore's scripts for "Watchmen," there would be little difference. They are both incredibly tight and descriptive. With David's scripts, the description of the panel is very vague.

It's great because on one hand, there is a script that I really have to work with and find out exactly what is important and what I can leave out. And then I move on to a script that basically tells me there is a fight scene.

So they keep me in check. If I had scripts that were always loose, I'd get lazy, but if I had scripts that were always tight, I'd be in a mental hospital.

RT: Were Grant Morrison's scripts more open or tight?

FI: Actually quite open. The first issue of "Klarion" was actually too open. He described animals, and I didn't have enough background material for what kind of animals. And he sent me an email with a brainstorm of ideas, and all I needed to know was whether these animals had been interbred with other species for two or three hundred years.

His scripts were great, though. A good writer can carry a page just with dialogue.

RT: How'd you like "Seven Soldiers" #1? Did J.H. Williams email you about the style or anything before he did his impression of you?

FI: No, I've never spoken to him. I'll confess the issue didn't make any sense to me. I've read a lot of Grant's work, and some of it made sense and some of it didn't. But I kind of know where it is coming from. I don't think that final issue is particularly well made, but everyone else loved it. Seeing exactly what J.H. was doing with the different styles - I just wasn't convinced. I'm sure he's a lovely chap, and he's done great work, but that issue…it would have been better if you got seven artists to draw it.

When he was doing the Klarion thing it didn't bother me, but I did notice the swirls upon Klarion's armor were done with a pen and looked like they were done with brush marks. Why not just ignore that entirely and draw it in black? You don't have to copy my style like that unless you use a brush.

The whole story confused me. Maybe one day someone will explain it to me, but I don't care. But Grant said you can read any of the series individually and it wouldn't make much difference, and for me, I read Klarion and saw him sitting on that stone at the end, and that's all I needed.

I didn't need to know the greater metatext of it all. My brain is too puny. I know he is thinking on levels I couldn't dream of, like I'm sure his mind couldn't get many of the things in mine and that's okay.

RT: Well, I would explain it to you, but I also had no idea what was going on.

FI: I'm glad to see a lot of people did like it, though. I would have been mortified if people had just dumped on it. Because, as you know, the critical community of the Internet would be very vindictive about it.

RT: Have you ever thought about writing your own stuff?

FI: Yeah. The only problem I have is that I am a pretty good fix-it man. If you give me a novel, I can break it down and play with it so that it's not a straightforward adaptation but it's not one of those "I've decided to reimagine it" rubbish things. It would be a faithful, honest take.

Coming up with ideas…I have so many of them. Which one do I do? The dustbin that is alive! But is it going to be comedy or tragedy? Tragically, after five hours of this I realize I should be drawing, and I have to walk away.

RT: And then you are trying to do your other comic and your mind keeps going back to the dustbin…

FI: I have learned that it is best to write what you know and not copy off of other people's styles. When I see a lot of beginners try to write and pitch a story about a guy with a wand that has a magical power, and the selling point is that there is a twist: the wand is made of glass! The basic premise is that they are doing Green Lantern. My ideas have nothing to do with anything on the stands right now, and may have some trouble in the marketplace, because who would buy a story about a dustbin who talks?

The commercial risk I'd be taking means I'd have to wait until Gutsville is done to see how the independent crowd reacts to us, because they may call us infidels in their territory. Or they may love it and call it a breath of fresh air. Then maybe, I might pitch something to Image with my own name attached, but I'm very nervous about it.

RT: Alright, ready for the lightning round?

FI: Sure.

RT: What was your first comic book?

FI: The Mighty World of Marvel that had Godzilla in it.

RT: What is your favorite comic book of all time?

FI: "Weapon X." Barry Windor Smith is a goddamn genius and it looks awesome.

RT: Biggest strength as a artist?

FI: My unwillingness to conform to trends.

RT: Biggest weakness as an artist?

FI: My inability to do reference and preparation before starting on a project.

RT: If you could only write/draw one book for the rest of your career, what would it be?

FI: Oh man. I haven't started it yet and can't tell you about it.

RT: Would you be the writer?

FI: Yes.

RT: What's the best comic book movie ever made?

FI: "Mystery Men."

RT: What's the worst comic book movie ever made?

FI: "V For Vendetta."

RT: What is your weirdest convention experience?

FI: Crashing a DC party and being told by Chris Weston that Grant Morrison would like to meet me because he is a fan.

RT: If you were remembered for only one thing in your career, what would you want it to be?

FI: Being reliable.

Correction: Last week, about halfway through the interview, I accidentally misquoted Charlie Huston because of a crack in my tape. When asked about doing novel work for Marvel, Charlie's reaction was "Fuck yes!" The original, mistaken version, was changed a day after publication.

Next Week: Marc Guggenheim!

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