An Interview with Richard Fairgray

After several years of gestation, writer / artist Richard Fairgray and co-writer Terry Jones have recently launched their flagship title, Blastosaurus, through ComiXology.

Blastosaurus is an ongoing monthly comic about a crime-fighting dinosaur, written and drawn by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones with colours by Tara Black. (Blastosaurus #2 is also now available on Comixology.)

Richard is one of the few New Zealand cartoonists that has managed to earn a living from comics while still being based in New Zealand. Richard, with a small team of collaborators, produces several online series through Square Planet Comics and also writes comics for Beyond Reality Media. I asked Richard a few questions about his comics-making process, Hollywood exec Jeff Katz’s American Original imprint that Blastosaurus was originally going to debut with, and what it is like to be a cartoonist that is classified as legally blind.

MATT EMERY: I’ve read that animated shows are an influence on Blastosaurus; which particular shows? I wondered also what your comedy influences are? Some of your online comics, particularly ‘Comic Book Character’, showcase a very strong dry wit.

RICHARD FAIRGRAY: I’m not sure the influence is as direct as it may seem on the surface, I’ve spoken a lot about Ninja Turtles having a real impact on me as a child, but it was more that it gave me something to react against. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the show, I was just really aware that it had huge gaps in its internal logic. I think a lot of kids shows at the time assumed very little of their audience because it fell so neatly in between; letters columns were a thing of the past and message boards weren’t invented yet. In terms of comedy, when I was growing up I was always very uncertain of what I found funny. I seemed to like jokes that other kids either didn’t get or didn’t like, I liked things that were only a little bit amusing. I liked the absurdity of the mundane (although I definitely had no way of expressing this then). The first time I saw an episode of Dr. Katz I think my life really changed. This was a show that underplayed everything, which celebrated awkward silence and people just staring blankly at jokes that didn’t make you laugh until you figured out the three steps of disconnect between the words and the meaning. I remember feeling like it was OK to just be a little bit amusing and it was OK to find that the funniest thing in the world.

EMERY: How did you meet Jeff Katz and get involved with American Original?

FAIRGRAY: I met Jeff in Sydney. A friend of mine was working with him on Wolverine and showed Jeff some of my comics (Falling Leaves and Wilhelm Scream, I think), and Jeff asked for a meeting. We had lunch and I showed him the preview issue of Gunasaurus. He immediately latched onto that. At the point where he asked for it for American Original, the company was still very new and seemed very promising. There were a lot of very talented and influential people involved, so I said yes.

EMERY: What happened to Blastosaurus under American Original? How did having the title optioned affect your release of the title?

FAIRGRAY: Blastosaurus being optioned by American Original sort of came out of the blue. At the time, I’d not been working in comics for about 18 months and was working on a seemingly doomed film project. While it didn’t ever actually result in books on shelves, it did confirm for me that I had a chance to actually have a career in comics, not just something part time to pay my way through university. One of the things I insisted on right from the first lunch was that I’d still be able to release new content at New Zealand conventions. I like conventions a lot. They’re the only time I really get to meet face to face with a lot of people who are enthusiastic about comics in the way that I am, and I think people who go to conventions should be able to get something different, something unavailable in stores or online. So for the next two years, I released two convention specials each year. They were all limited print runs of 500 copies and each one was only available for one weekend. From memory I put out two April Fool’s specials and three Hallowe’en specials, partly because this lined up nicely with local cons but mostly because those are still my two favorite days of the year. Once things ended and I had total control of the character again, I was able to start working on a proper print and (later) digital release of the book.

EMERY: You’re classified as legally blind. Is this congenital? Can you talk a bit about how your vision affects your artwork?

FAIRGRAY: My eyesight is complicated and hard to explain, but basically my left eye is totally blind and the optic nerve in the right is barely attached, giving me about 3% of the vision a functioning eye would have. However, this combines with (and is caused by) a chemical imbalance in my brain that doesn’t allow me to filter out senses. The mind filters information from the eye, giving you a sense of movement from what are essentially still images (like animation or film but much faster), my brain doesn’t filter that so I see and have to interpret every single part of every image. Again, this is a really simplified description of it but basically I see a lot less but take in a lot more (usually needless) information.

EMERY: You’ve worked with co-writer Terry Jones for several years. How did your collaboration come about? What does Terry add to your writing process?

FAIRGRAY: Terry and I have been friends for years and we always worked together in some way, whether it be in editing each other’s work or discussing ideas, sometimes even filling in for each other (which no-one ever seemed to notice happening). We wrote our first comic together in 2003. It wasn’t very good, but it has led to some very good things. I think Terry and I are often drawing from similar cultural perspectives, but with a 37-year age gap we bring a lot of different things to the table. People have often said that Blastosaurus is like a modern comic book with a Silver Age sensibility, and I think that’s why.

EMERY: Another collaborator on Blastosaurus and your other projects is your wife, Tara Black. When did you first start collaborating? Are there any difficulties in working professionally with your spouse?

FAIRGRAY: Tara and I have been making comics together ever since we became friends. We used to spend long days working on comic strips in her bedroom while her boyfriend (at the time) got annoyed that we were being boring. Years passed, things haven’t really changed (except now we’re married and she doesn’t have a boyfriend). Tara now draws I Fight Crime (daily comic strip), colors Blastosaurus, formats all our other titles, manages the website, and makes sure I don’t forget to have meals. Working with someone so close to you is always going to result in some tension, especially when you work from an office in your house so neither of you can really go anywhere else. I think we work very hard to ensure boundaries between the times when I’m essentially being a critical editor and the times when I’m the husband she’s complaining to about her critical editor. For the record, this Richard feller sounds like something of a controlling task master.

EMERY: What is the New Zealand Comics scene like? How does a comics creator make a living in New Zealand?

FAIRGRAY: The New Zealand comic scene is exactly like anywhere else (I assume). There are a lot of very enthusiastic people who say they want to make comics. There are a handful of people who actually do it, and within that there are some really outstanding people. People like Tim GibsonLauren MarriottLi ChenTheo Macdonald, people who are doing new and interesting works, works that show effort and care and an understanding of story and art. Making a living from comics is hard anywhere. I appear at a lot of conventions and I sell a lot of books. I engage with customers and I always have new work to showcase. I also do picture books, commissions, script editing, script writing, all kinds of things. Comics are always my main focus, and conventions are my bread and butter, but I accepted years ago that comics would consume every part of my life for at least the foreseeable future.

EMERY: Have you come up against any obstacles with releasing or promoting Blastosaurus?

FAIRGRAY: I guess the biggest obstacle has come from the perception of the title. Parody is an important part of Blastosaurus, it’s not the whole picture but it is an exploration of a specific type of story. It’s so hard to create an accurate parody of something without it simply seeming from the outside to be the genuine article. The concept of a crime-fighting dinosaur just seems to fit into the “‘90s cartoon” mold a little bit too well, especially when it’s called Blastosaurus (which is for a very good reason that will become apparent in around Issue 6). So even though the book is a subversion of the genre, a serious story, all of that, to a lot of people who know nothing of it simply think it’s an earnest attempt to mimic a genre that is inherently clumsy and limited. I think this is also why people sometimes see it as exploitative of its audience or something, as if I’ve just sat down and thought “What are all the most profitable things, and how can I combine them?” If that were the case, I’d probably be doing a comic called Fart Zombies with Cats. I think the worst example of this came when I was first putting together the website. There was no comic out, no content had been seen by anyone aside from Terry and I. There was just a placeholder image, a silhouette of Blastosaurus and the word “Blastosaurus” above him. The image hadn’t even been promoted or shared or anything like that, and someone (I’m not going to name names here) released a review of the first issue. Now at this point, the first issue was two months away from even being drawn. I think part of the malice came because it was being released by an “actual” company (as in not just self-published as it is now), this somehow fueled their idea of what the comic would be, something that was evidently in direct opposition to their comic book ethos. Ironically the people who seem to really engage with the book, who really get it, are people who are looking for a deep and interpersonal exploration of a man shaped like a dinosaur, someone who really never will get to use his big silly ray gun.

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Matt Emery is a cartoonist and comics historian specialising in New Zealand and Australian comics. In recent years, he has maintained an Australasian cartooning blog at Matt also manages Pikitia Press in its capacity as a micro-publisher. Current and forthcoming artists published by Pikitia Press include Peter Foster, James Davidson, Toby Morris, Sarah Laing, MVH, Bob McMahon, Barry Linton and Tim Bollinger, as well as distribution of works by Steve Ditko, Maude Farrugia and Brent Willis.

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