“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
A kid making their own comics at age seven may seem destined to end up doing it professionally — even moreso when that same kid hadn’t seen any professional comics at the time. And he indeed never wavered off his dream path. From those early beginnings, Richard Fairgray has grown an international career not only in comics, but picture books, as well, a creative jack of all trades crafting stories for different age groups across different genres.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer who also does the drawing.
Your home base: I think of Hollywood as home, but I have a place in Canada, as well, and I jump back and forth between the two.
Any other sites where you can be found: I’m the only Richard Fairgray in the world, so if you find that name, it’s pretty much always me. People always make a Highlander joke when I say I’m the only one, but I haven’t seen it, so I just respond with some deep cuts from Dunston Checks In.
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other art forms?
Richard Fairgray: Now it’s more a matter of comics being my default because I’ve been doing them for so long, but in the beginning I genuinely thought I was doing something that no one else was. When I was a kid, I’d see comics in TV shows, but I’d never seen one in real life, so I kind of assumed they didn’t exist anymore. I figured out that if I was the only person making them then I’d probably make millions of dollars.
If you want to know what I love about them, though, it’s that they are the only medium where you have control over time. Like, a movie will be the length it is; you can pause it or rewind it or whatever, but essentially it’s moving at the same pace for everyone experiencing it. You can’t make a scene take longer to watch by putting more stuff in the background. With a comic I can make a panel feel like an hour even if it’s just showing a micro expression. I can change the size and shape and lighting and level of detail of every single moment and that feels like a thrilling challenge, still.
KS: What part did comics play in your life growing up?
RF: When I was 15 I’d been making comics and publishing for about eight years, just small stuff, selling at school events, but enough to make money for toys and crime, and by then I knew comics actually did exist and I had come to terms with my revolution being only in my head — but I’d still never actually touched or seen a comic that wasn’t my own. Keep in mind, I’m from a country [New Zealand] where there were maybe three comic stores nationwide and none of them were anywhere near me. Also, I still didn’t have the internet. Then, and I can’t really remember why, I decided to go looking for them.
KS: And where did that quest lead you?
RF: I hopped on a bus and went to what passed for a city, and just kind of started wandering the streets in the hope that I’d stumble into a place that had comics. I saw this line of people outside this convention center. And this isn’t like an American convention center that takes up full city blocks, this is a building nestled behind a mall that somehow contains multiple theaters and five floors of exhibition space, but all half underground — and there was a sign that just said, “Pulp Culture Expo.” I didn’t really want to wait in the line, so I wandered to the front and asked a guy with a clipboard what was going on. He looked at me with this really dismissive and judgmental stare and said, “Yeah, this looks like something you’d like. I can get you in if you help me carry some mac and cheese.” When I got inside, armed with a free box of KD [Kraft Dinner] that was meant to be for an eating contest, I was confronted by floors of video games and movie stuff and then this mezzanine of comics that no one was really going near.
So, suddenly I’m seeing comics, and touching and holding comics and I’m completely overwhelmed because I’ve never heard of any of the titles and I don’t know what to get, so I kind of panic and pick up an old issue of Ninja Turtles and start reading it. This girl comes up to me and says, “I feel like you’ll like this more,” and gives me a copy of I Feel Sick.
KS: Do you recall what other titles marked your official first day as a comics collector?
RF: I walked out of there with Watchmen, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Dark Knight Returns, and about 50 non-sequential issues of TMNT from various publishers. The stall I was at was for a store that was probably going to close because the owner had died, and so they were just trying to get stock out of the way. I think I spent like $30 for all of that.
Cut to a year later, the store survived with a new manager [and] I ended up spending two days a week there helping out with their Diamond shipment and drawing comics on their couch. That was the last time I ever went to a convention that I wasn’t working at.
KS: Backing up a little, tell us about the kinds of books you were making before then. When did that work start?
RF: I started self-publishing when I was seven; I was blackmailing my school librarian at the time so I had access to the photocopier and long-arm stapler. I made my first comic for sale, a little eight-page story called Ghost Ghost. It was about a ghost struggling with invisibility and loneliness. I made 100 copies and sold them at a school athletics day that I obviously wasn’t competing in. I think they sold out because parents felt sorry for me, but either way I suddenly had $200 and could buy a bunch of sweet Ninja Turtles toys. After that I just kept doing it. Without going into too much detail of the (probably) terrible books I was making, here are some titles: Ghost Ghost Also, Bald Man, Snot Stories, Haunted House Murder, Drunk Mimes.
KS: How were you putting those stories together, since you wouldn’t encounter “real” comics until you went to that convention years later?
RF: I had seen Bart Simpson and [Ninja Turtle] Michelangelo reading comics, so I kind of understood the format really early, and there was a comic strip from a newspaper on my grandparents’ fridge door. Then, my dad got a Far Side calendar for his office when I was maybe 12 or 13. The thing about comics is that the actual language of them is really easy to interpret, so I was able to just kind of figure it all out. But interestingly, none of the things I had access to had any sound effects in them, so neither did any of mine.
KS: Aside from those projects, do you have a specific memory of when the “I want to do that” thought first came to you regarding an artistic career?
RF: February 14th, 1990. I was in kindergarten and we had to draw pictures of people who were “in love.” Most kids were drawing their parents, but I drew Postman Pat and Reverend Timms kissing. I got in so much trouble; my parents were called, the picture was destroyed, and I had to promise to never draw something like that again. The next day I drew the same picture over and over and over. It was the first time I’d felt like I was in real trouble and it made me feel really powerful.
KS: What would have been an acceptable professional Plan B if not the arts?
RF: My fear of heights stopped me from growing tall enough for basketball, so really I have no backup. I’ve always been fine with discomfort in life, so long as I wasn’t inflicting it on anyone else. So long as I’m not dead I can keep making comics.
KS: Of all those stories you’ve encountered since that first batch of comics, was there one that really had an impact on you as a reader?
RF: The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel. I was 30 when I read that, which isn’t young, but it feels like lifetimes ago.
KS: Why was that story the right one for you at the time?
RF: I was so unhappy through my 20s, and I kept pumping out books so that I could stay busy enough not to think about it — like I could trick myself that being busy was the same as making progress, or that “more” was the same as “better.” I’d been completely and desperately in love with someone who was no longer in my life in any meaningful way — beyond overly emotional emails back and forth — and I was absolutely not ready to accept that maybe he wasn’t my soul mate, but just represented the possibility of an escape from the life I was living. I was drinking a minimum of two bottles of wine a day, putting out at least 20 books a year […] dating a man who could only be described as a cartoonish villain, and generally seeking destruction or numbness. There’s a lot in that book that spoke to me, but also it was just an incredibly well-told story.
KS: Moving to the present, since you both write and illustrate your work, how do you typically find your way into a story? Does it start with an image or an idea, or maybe there’s not a “typically?”
RF: It’s usually just a few words or a question. Sometimes, I’ll be really calculating and try and find something that I see lacking in the market, but that inevitably falls apart.
KS: How about on Black Sand Beach, for example?
RF: A lot of it is from real events, the haunted lighthouse, the ghosts screaming at Dash for turning out the lights, that all happened, but I’d never found a way to turn it into a satisfying story. Then, I was in a meeting with this — at that point unnamed — publisher and they asked if I had a series, so I started brainstorming in front of them, pretending I’d been working on it for months.
KS: As a storyteller, was there any advantage to winging the pitch that way?
RF: Oh, that backfired hard. I told them I saw it as three 64-page graphic novels — a word I never use unless I’m talking to publishers who want to seem fancy. They came back with an offer for two, but when I glanced at it, I saw they met my page rate so I was onboard. It wasn’t until I was a week into the three months I had to draw the first book that I found out from my editor that the offer had actually been for two books that each contained three 64 pages stories, and now I have 84 days to write, draw, and color 192 pages.
I moved into my office full time, had all my food delivered, replaced showers with a bulk order of adult premium body wipes. On the other hand, it did push me to new speeds for work, and I actually made the second book in less time than the first.
KS: You practice your storytelling chops not just in comics, but also in picture books. Because both are illustrated stories, can you compare the creation process of picture books vs. comics? Are there any major differences, maybe other than the amount of drawing involved, that someone looking in from the outside might not be aware of?
RF: Picture books can take enormous leaps and kids will fill in the gaps in their own mind. You don’t need to show what happens to a kid who gets eaten by a lion and comes back out, because the kid sees the beginning and end and innately understands the middle — the change and growth of the character that happened inside the lion’s mouth. Adults would need a damn road map of signposted obstacles and realizations to get why the hero was different once they emerged. I think it’s because for kids any absence can seem like an age, even if someone is only gone for a day they know that a million new things could have happened in that gap, so when they see it in a story they just run with it.
KS: Talk a little about writing for the Middle Grade or All Ages audience. Is your writing approach at all different for those two groups?
RF: I don’t usually think about who a story is for until it’s fully formed in my mind. When I write for a younger audience, I just try to make it something I would have wanted to read at that age. What I’ve learned is that kids read differently from adults – they don’t skip anything, they don’t miss details, and they can follow stories that are far more complex than adults – so I try to write up to that. It also means constantly having to explain things to editors that I know no kid reading it would be confused by.
KS: Where do you get most of your creative work done these days?
RF: I have my main drawing space, with three desks, one for drawing, one for coloring and one for my iMac. I’m always working on multiple projects, so I need to be able to jump between different things without having to stop to change set ups. I have the same set up in both offices — Canada and Los Angeles. I also have a writing office, which is kept dim and comfortable with enough space for pacing. I cram that one with all the unusual objects I pick up on my adventures, so there’s lots of human teeth and creepy toys and pieces of things that I can’t explain. I like to switch positions when I’m thinking so I have various chair and couches with different coverings and blankets depending what mindset I want to be in.
KS: Thumbs up or thumbs down: listening to music or background noise while you work?
RF: When I draw I have to have noise: music, podcasts, TV shows that aren’t good enough to require my actual attention or things I’ve seen hundreds of times already. When I write I can have very familiar music, but it has to be kept low so I don’t get distracted by the rhythm of the lyrics.
KS: Looking back on your journey thus far, from that kid making Ghost Ghost to who you are now, is there particular moment of pride or joy that stands out?
RF: My first panel at WonderCon to launch Blastosaurus in the US. We got moved to this giant room and when the lights went down there were maybe 100 people in there. At the end of the hour, we played the Blasto theme song and showed the animation I’d put together — a sort of fake opening title sequence for it if it were a show — and there was this huge applause. Like, impossibly huge. The lights came up and the room had maybe 450 people in it, because they’d just been filtering in throughout without me knowing. That was pretty neat.
KS: What’s a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art or comics? Something you read, study, collect, practice…
RF: I love slides. Like, I will walk for miles to play on a good slide, even if I only get to use it once or twice before I get kicked out. There’s a park near my office that’s always crowded. I don’t ever want to be the weird guy on a playground with a bunch of kids, so I had to break in at night to slide. Long story short, the slide was narrower than I expected and I got jammed. The next morning I had to get this woman and her two daughters to pull me out.
KS: So as not to leave readers hanging, about how long was your odyssey?
RF: I know I was stuck from before 2:30 a.m., because that’s when the cops always sweep the homeless off of Hollywood [Blvd] and they all head south, so Sunset gets really “screamy” for a while. And if my light is on, people will quite often try to get into my office. I was inside the slide during the screaming that night, so it was probably about five hours.
KS: Give us comic or graphic novel by someone else that you look at with admiration.
RF: I know it’s obvious, but I really love The Spirit. What Eisner did with layouts was so interesting and even when it didn’t work — which was rare — it was still beautiful.
KS: Finally, talk about the various projects you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for coming up.
RF: In terms of middle grade, I have a new series called Cardboardia [now available]. It’s co written by Lucy Campagnolo and [me] and follows four kids who can travel back and forth between our world and a place made entirely of a strange organic cardboard.
The third volume of Black Sand Beach is out in May 2022 and that one really ramps up the horror. I love that series because I get to explore a lot of really big topics like trauma and repressed memories in childhood while still keeping it as a big, ridiculous adventure story about kids and monsters.
I’m deep into the process of getting my comic memoir Octopus published right now, which is terrifying and revealing and one of my favorite books I’ve ever finished.
I’m nine issues into a new ongoing series called Haunted Hill, which is about a 35-year-old woman moving back to Hollywood after 20 years away. It’s the mix of really petty character drama, but also ghosts and aliens and the exhaustion of trying to just live in a place like that. My approach with that one is that the story can go anywhere so long as the reactions from characters are still human, which is a very fun challenge.
I’ve just finished the third chapter of a book called Shed — another one Lucy and I are co-writing — about a woman who moves to a small town hoping to find a happy ending to her life, despite only being 28, but she steps into this sea of complicated friend group politics of women in their 70s and a giant lobster. That one’s with Blue Fox Comics in Scotland and will be coming out sometime in 2022.
I’m scripting a graphic novel that I don’t think I can announce yet, but it’s a love story about two very different teenage boys who are brought together through comics. That one will be out in 2023.