Monday, June 18, 2007

Alexis Frederick-Frost:
CCS/MoCCA Interviews Continue...

Alexis (center) at the CCS table during last year's MoCCA convention

This is the week of MoCCA!

  • Here's the active link for the convention site, for those interested, and to establish the simple fact, MoCCA stands for The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art.

  • This year's festival runs June 23-24 at the Puck Building (293 Lafayette at Houston) in New York City from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm.

    I will not be there, but most of the Center of Cartoon Studies will be -- and so will some of my new work (see Saturday's post for info).

    As the countdown continues, and the majority of the CCS community busts their humps to be ready for the June 23-24th event -- finishing work on in-progress minis, publishing completed work, packaging published work for the con, promotion, prep for setting up the table, etc. -- I'll be doing my part by continuing the interview series here.

    Today, we've got a short chat with CCS pioneer class graduate and Xeric Award winner Alexis Frederick-Frost, who has distinguished himself from Day One at CCS. For most of the wider comics community, it was Alexis's Xeric Award winning graphic novel La Primavera (2006) that provided the first peek at what was coming out of the school. Along with classmate Sam Gaskin, Alexis was also among the first CCSers to land distribution of his work in the 'real world' --
  • in Alexis's case, Bodega Distribution's adding La Primavera to their line was a breakthrough moment --
  • -- though he also quickly learned that having a graphic novel out didn't mean one didn't have to immediately engage with "the next project," whatever that might be.

    Alexis will be at MoCCA with his new creation, Maria of Montmartre, and I urge you to seek Alexis out and pick up your copy ASAP. This is the first installment of a terrific new serialized work; alas, with Alexis interning at Drawn & Quarterly in Montreal this spring and summer, I wasn't able to get my hands on graphics from Alexis's new work, but don't let that keep you from tracking down a copy.

  • Of course, Alexis's first graphic novel La Primavera is available right now, at the site I Know Joe Kimpel along with Stochastic, an anthology of Alexis's earlier works. Pick 'em up.

  • But let's tune in to Alexis via the following conversation, and we'll see you here tomorrow for another interview or two...

    Alexis Frederick-Frost:
    Marie of Montmartre

    SB: What's your background, Alexis, and when did you first get into comics as a reader?

    ALEXIS FREDERICK-FROST: I’m from Atlanta, now a New Hampshire resident. BA at Bates -- Studio art (oil painting), Art History. Maus was my first comic book, then some Image stuff for awhile, then nothing, now lots o'stuff.

    SB: What prompted your creating your own comics, and what was your first comic creations or project?

    ALEXIS: Comics was something I always did. I loved stories and loved drawing as a kid, so they naturally went together. I used it as a way to process experiences and relate to the world around me. My first real comic (i.e., stapled like a book) was The Pandanator, for my sister, made whenever Terminator came out [1984].

    SB: What eventually brought you to CCS, Alexis?

    Page from La Primavera (2006)

    ALEXIS: I was in the area hooked into the Art scene of White River Junction, working for [puppeteer] Gabriel making Italian-style paper mache masks for Mardi Gras. I heard from Matt Bucy about the school; met James [Sturm] in a sketchy office in the Briggs Opera house and applied after that.

    SB: There's been a distinctively European orientation to the comics you've created, based in neither Tintin or the Heavy Metal work most Americans are initially exposed to. When were you first exposed to comics from France, Belgium and Europe?

    ALEXIS: When you say "European orientation" are you referring to style or the fact that my two most recent projects are set in Europe?

    SB: Well, the setting is part of it, but the aesthetics of your work -- the line, the storytelling, the use of tones and/or colors -- seems very European in sensibility.

    ALEXIS: Personally when I look at my own art I see a very strong American influence. The cartoons that I grew up with were not comics but animation: Disney, The Simpsons and the like. So when I would draw I would focus on the dynamic, animated, and graceful outline.

    SB: Ah, I see -- animation was a real catalyst. What about comics, per se?

    And they're off! Page from La Primavera (2006)

    ALEXIS: The graceful outline seems to be a characteristic of many American alternative comics like Seth, James Sturm, Hernandez Bros and also strips like Popeye, Nancy, etc. Preeminence of strong calligraphic outline seems something that is a very American quality. When I think of Europeans in comics, I think of the preeminence of tone: Moebius, Christophe Blain, Sfar, etc.

    I guess there are lots of exceptions to these categories -- Crumb is all about tone and fragmented non-elegant line, and Tin Tin and all-line Clare stuff, but even those don't have very calligraphic lines. I wish I could have a more sketchy, vibrating line but I don't so that is what I have to live with.

    SB: OK, so, what about the Euro-centric subject matter? That's pretty pervasive thus far, and sets you apart from your peers and instructors here at CCS. Your first graphic novel La Primavera and your new project are both set in Europe; La Primavera in Italy, Maria of Montmartre in France --

    One more time: La Primavera (2006)

    ALEXIS: I think I have been drawn to European subject matter for a number of reasons. First, comics and drawing has an element of escapism inherit to it. Superheroes, alien planets, adventure form the base of comic history. My escapist fantasies don't involve shooting huge laser cannons, or chopping the heads off strippers; they involve beautiful European cities, bars filled with hedonistic drunk artists, and riding my bike with out a care for bills and jobs.

    I have a great interest in history and non-fiction stories too. There are a lot of great American stories, but I'm so familiar with the look of America from the '50's, the 1700's, that I would be constrained by the visual themes of those times. I do really like the look of the 1920's though –- I think it would be fun to do a comic set in that time period. I am more ignorant about Europe and exoticism replaces familiarity in those cases. Also, nostalgia seems to be a major Achilles heal of many things based in history and I guess when it's about international history it can be called exoticism. I prefer the fantasy of the
    exotic to the nostalgia.

    SB: I’m going to press you a bit further on this, as I feel it’s central to your own work. In terms of your own use of line and tone, what’s going on there? That’s what seems -- to me -- so European in nature, in your work, in Seth’s work, and so on, though this may be a generational issue; American comics, for my generation, were lights years away from what your generation has grown up with.

    ALEXIS: What I meant -- it’s sort of rooted in the idea there is a dialectic in art history (painting) between painterly and linear styles. One example is Delecroix and Ingres. I know you can`t break down whole nationalities of cartoonist into these groups, but I guess the European cartoonists I like tend to be more painterly with their line work, while the US cartoonists I like tend to be more calligraphic. Of course I am sitting right now in the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales [in Montreal] using a public computer next to a wall of comics that are all French and span the gamut of styles and quality, so I guess I don`t have much of a point. I feel my comics are much more closely related to the US comics I admire then the European.

    Cover of Alexis's anthology Stochastic (2006)

    SB: OK -- the wording of my questions reflect my own biases, clearly; this is a generational issue, then, which is a great sign of the changes in the medium over the past two decades. So, why the gravitation to historic non-fiction for your narrative wellsprings?

    ALEXIS: I have always found historical non-fiction stories really interesting. The books I read for pleasure are almost always non-fiction. There are so many strange and amazing stories out there that have actually happened. I feel one key aspect of a story worth telling is -- does it somehow explore what it is to be human? Non-fiction stories automatically have that embedded in them. During the work on my [CCS senior] thesis [project Maria of Montmartre], I realized it is really easy to destroy this aspect while retelling a story based on someone’s life. A list of accomplishments and dates is dry and uninteresting. So even though someone’s life might be amazing, if you don`t figure out a way to make the character empathetic and human, then you`ve done the story a disservice.

    I need to work on this aspect of my writing and might turn to non-fiction to explore creating human moments because there isn't a set narrative that I need to wrestle with at the same time.

    SB: Once you’ve settled on your subject, how do you approach the story, as a writer and as a cartoonist?

    The busy-ness of life: La Primavera (2006)

    ALEXIS: Once I find a story I find interesting, I usually want to learn a lot about it, regardless if I want to do a comic about it. Usually if I am really into something, I’ll think about doing a comic just because I use drawing to process what every I’m thinking about at the time. OK, so for Maria of Montmartre I thought she was interesting. I had a basic idea of the place and the spirit of the time she was living in, but I wanted to get a more complete picture of it. So I read a few books on her and a few on Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and looked at a bunch of catalogues. Then my advisor, Jason Lutes, turned me on to a bunch of books on Atget (French photographer of the same time period). All of this was just fleshing out a more complete image in my mind and then I used very little of it in my first chapter. But it’s back there to build upon and make sure whatever narrative choices I make feel right. When I’m trying to access the human part of the stories, I have all the street names and the typical apartment interiors and Toulouse’s orientalism swirling around to draw upon.

    SB: Does this also involve adopting the styles of the period -- in art, architecture, fashion and so on -- as your own?

    ALEXIS: I don`t really concern my self with emulating a style of a time period. I know that my style probably is more appropriate for the spirit of certain time periods or historical event. I think my style probably isn`t well suited towards something about the Spanish Inquisition, the life of President Kennedy, or the repulsiveness of industrial farming practices. The subjects I want to draw often match up with ones that my style might work with, but I think that makes sense because to some extent your drawing style reflects your personality.

    SB: Was La Primavera your first extensive, completed project and/or graphic novel, Alexis?

    ALEXIS: Yes –- but not the last. Check out my new book at MoCCA.

    Pages 1 and 2, roughs, from the earlier (2006, abandoned) version of Maria of Montmartre.

    SB: OK, tell us about Marie of Montmartre --

    ALEXIS: Here’s the text, stolen from my diadactic:

    “It is a sad fact the artist Suzanne Valadon is not recognized by many fans of French impressionism. Born as Marie-Clementine Valadon, and know as Maria to those she modeled for, she became a well respected painter during a time when women painters were oppressed by a strict social and sexual code. Her art is inextricably linked to the streets of Montmartre, where rebel painters found inspiration, entertainment, and companionship. In Maria of Montmartre I explore her shifting artistic identity as she becomes involved with the likes of Puvis de Chavannes, Toulouse–Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and Maurice Utrillo. Each chapter focuses on one of these relationships. For my thesis project I completed a mini-comic of chapter one which focuses on Maria's relationship with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Additional chapters will be released as mini-comic as they are completed.”

    SB: Looking forward to it, Alexis, and good luck at Drawn & Quarterly this summer and at MoCCA this weekend. Thanks for making time for this.

    Two more pages of roughs from the earlier abandoned 2006 draft of Maria of Montmartre


    Have a Great Monday, Folks...

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