Caught In The Nexus: Si Fraser

Si Fraser is one of the hottest upcoming artists of the moment with his work on IDW’s adaptation of Hell House garnering positive reviews whilst his work on classic 2000AD strips Shimura and Nikolai Dante is reaching a wider audience with DC Comics publishing collections of both series. Recently he agreed to answer a few questions from The Nexus’ resident British Comic Reviewer Will Cooling

The Nexus: Thanks to agreeing to do an interview with us Si

Fraser: Nae bother.

The Nexus: How did you get into the comic industry?

Fraser: Small Press, Art College ( Filmmaking ) then the Dole for as long as it took for me to get work that paid enough to make a living. In the mean time working as an Illustrator and Film Sound Recordist.

The Nexus: Which artists have influenced you?

Fraser: Ghhaa! Far too many to count!

I’ll try this chronologically. Bob Layton ( Iron Man ), Steve Dillon, David Lloyd and Dave Gibbons ( Dr Who Weekly ).George Perez ( Teen Titans ). Steve Ditko and John Romita ( Spiderman ). Jack Kirby ( everything! ).Glenn Fabry, Mike McMahon ( Slaine ). Esteban Maroto (I got this remaindered Larry Niven book with some of his illos in it, it blew my mind! ) Bryan Talbot (Luther Arkwright, Nemesis ). Alan Davis (Miracleman, Captain Britain). Then I discovered the European mainland with Jean Giraud (Moebius), Milo Manara (Girls!), Paul Schuiten (Buildings!), Sergio Toppi (lines!), Jose Munoz (who’s Argentinean but never mind), Jacque De Loustal (my wife’s favourite). I also really dig some of my contemporary 2000ad artists; Frazer Irving, Trevor Hairsine and Henry Flint have all influenced me at some level.

The Nexus: For a brief period you coloured other people’s work including a few Shimura stories. How did you find colouring another artist’s work?

Fraser: I never set out to be a colourist, but the Shimura series I was drawing was split between 3 artists, myself, Rob McCallum and Duke Mighten and we all had fairly divergent styles. So it was Dave Bishops idea to have the same colourist colour all of it, to try and create some kind of chromatic unity at least. Now I really didn’t want anyone else colouring my stuff, so I submitted artwork that had no blacks and almost no difference in lineweight, making it almost impossible for anyone but me to colour well. So I made it really difficult for them not to hire me.

Aspiring artists please note, this trick is extremely high risk and anyone but Dave Bishop would probably have told me I was a cheeky bastard and to take a hike.

The Nexus: You then got your big break in the Megazine when you began drawing Shimura as well colouring it. How did it feel following such artistic heavyweights as Frank Quitely and Colin MacNeil?

Fraser: My break probably came when I got the job drawing ‘Roy of the Rovers’ for Fleetway. I wasn’t a footie fan at the time and it was a tough job for me to get, but that probably opened the door to the Megazine for me. I learned to colour while doing that.

I knew both Colin and Frank at the time so it felt quite cosy. While I loved the work that they had done on Shimura before me, I was young and arrogant and had a burning desire to make an impression.

The Nexus: How did you prepare to draw Shimura? Did you use any reference material for the more Japanese elements of the strip?

Fraser: One of my best mates at the time was Japanese; he pretty much turned me into the Japanophile I am today. I’ve still got a lot of the books he gave me and I picked up a lot of ref when I was in San Francisco just before starting ‘Dragonfire’.

My Shimura stuff was very consciously influenced by Frank Miller and Mike McMahon though, I didn’t want to try some kind of Manga hybrid style.

The Nexus: The vast majority of the 1990s Shimura stories have been reprinted by DC recently. How do you think they read now?

Fraser: I’ve not seen that book yet, but I re-read some of Dragonfire a year or so ago when they told me that this was going to happen. The story will hang together better in long form, it was very fragmented by the publishing schedule and the numerous artists. So I think Robbie will come out well from it. It’s a lot grimmer and grittier than I remembered.

The Nexus: They were your first collaboration with Robbie Morrison, how did you find working with him? How did your relationship change the more work you did?

Fraser: Robbie has always been great to work with and I’m not just saying that ‘cos he’s a mate; most of the artists who have worked with him would say the same thing. He’s technically very strong, his plotting is impeccable and he can make you care about the characters. Which is very important to me and not as common as it should be among writers.

When you work with someone for a protracted period, you do get very accustomed to how they think. Everything flows very smoothly. Though I do recall a bit of bickering as we disagreed on some character points. Though Robbie always won any story arguments (of course), to his credit he did listen and often you would see your idea turn up later in a slightly different form.

The Nexus: In 1996 you moved to 2000AD to draw Robbie Morrison’s next story “Nikolai Dante”. For those who have yet to experience this excellent series, can you describe what its about?

Fraser: It’s a tale of old fashioned daring do, a swashbuckler set in a Russia of the far future starring a cocky, brash and adventurous young thief who ends up becoming a hero and discovering a moral strength he never knew he had. It has lots of swordfights, explosions, and nookie and is generally a huge romp with occasional serious bits.

The Nexus: Dante is famed for the brash and bravado of the lead character, with the character originally conceived as the antithesis of macho, asexual heroes such as Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. How much did you enjoy developing this element of the character?

Fraser: You have to remember that when we started this we were both in our mid 20s, so Dante was the guy we kind of secretly aspired to be, but didn’t have the nerve. I remember Robbie (who was still single back then) saying that after he moved over from writing Shimura to Dante his hit-rate with women suddenly improved.

Dante was very deliberately made to be the absolute opposite of the 2000AD stalwarts of the time as you point out. I mean who would you actually want to be, Dredd or Dante? In a sense Dante is, ironically considering his attitude, one of the very few ‘ grown up’ characters that 2000ad has ever published. Dredd, Johnny Alpha, Rogue Trooper et al are all little boys ideas of what a man is. Dante is a man, with all his flaws, his arrogance and egocentricity, his desire to do the right thing, even when he doesn’t really know what that is. He has to accept more and more responsibility and sometimes he doesn’t measure up. He also thinks with his dick most of the time. Nikolai Dante is a relatively rounded human being, he has soul, people can relate to that. He also has eyes”¦(I’ve never understood what the problem is with 2000ad characters and eyes! I mean what is all that about? What are they afraid of?).

It’s one of the best things about having done the Nikolai Dante website that I know how much fan mail Dante gets. Considering that only about 5% of the 2000ad readership is supposed to be female, almost 50% of the e-mail I get about Dante is from women. It’s in the eyes people!

The Nexus: As the character got more serious during and after The Tsar Wars do you think the character lost this element? Do you think it’s to the detriment of the series?

Fraser: That’s a tough one and it’s a common problem with an ongoing narrative like this. I noticed exactly the same issue arising in Buffy season 6 for example, where the creative team have decided to let the character grow and develop and that has taken them places that the audience weren’t necessarily happy to go. The other option is to fix it, like the Simpsons or Spiderman, where they remain static, forever repeating the same formulae, never growing old, never changing. We thought that would be really dull, almost by definition an epic story has to grow and develop and we wanted to make it an epic. Obviously the cocky young rogue was popular and the slightly heavier and more tortured character that has replaced him is a less easy sell. That’s fine though, he has to go through this as a character and for the later story to make sense. ‘The Adventures of Nikolai Dante’ has a definite end-point, its all been plotted out from the beginning. I’d say it’s at somewhere after the middle period right now. The end is being discussed.

The Nexus: After The Return of the Gentlemen Thief you’ve ceased to be a regular artist on Nikolai Dante. Why did you leave and could you see yourself returning?

Fraser: I’d love to, Dante is very important to me. At the moment I have around 2 years worth of work on other projects lined up in front of me, so it’s not going to happen immediately.

Robbie and I both left Dante at around the same time; Robbie went to work on the Authority and other things in the U.S. I went the other way and spent a lot of time in France trying to set myself up there. Writers have more flexibility, so Robbie can write Dante again while doing other things simultaneously. I have spent a lot of time and energy setting up contacts and projects in France and I can’t discard that now that it’s starting to pay off. I also have a baby daughter, who I want to spend time with, so there just isn’t the time to do it all.

The Nexus: Your successor on Nikolai Dante (and for a period joint main artist) John Burns has recently criticised your drawing style. You’ve understandably noted your disappointment and hurt at his comments. Have you managed to heal the wounds over Burns’ comments?

‘Wounds’ might be overstating the case a little. As Burns is an artist I have always respected, of course his criticism is less easy to brush off. On the other hand I told one of my Journalist friends about this and he laughed and congratulated me. Apparently you’re nobody unless somebody has insulted you in print.

The Nexus: You’ve also done a number of Judge Dredd stories. How did you find these? Which story is your personal favourite?

Fraser: I love doing Dredd, especially on Wagner scripts. I grew up reading this stuff; it’s so familiar and comfortable to me. On the other hand I like doing the odd Dredd, but not all the time. It’s a source of pride to me to be part of such an illustrious group of artists as those that have drawn Dredd. At the same time though I don’t want to become stuck as a ‘Dredd Artist’, he will always be someone else’s baby and you can only really be successful within that very well established framework.

‘Blood Cadets’ was a lot of fun to do, because I actually felt like I was contributing to the mythos a bit. I had a lot of fun with that.

The Nexus: In your last Judge Dredd story “Club Sov” you returned to colouring your own work. How did you find this and were you pleased with the results?

Fraser: Ideally I would never have stopped colouring, but it was hard enough keeping Dante semi-regular without doing the colours too. ‘Axelle’ the project I’m moving on to next will be all drawn and coloured by me. In a sense the ‘Club Sov’ story was a dry run for computer colouring that. Up to that point I’d only really done covers on the computer. I’d only done hand colouring on my strip work up to when I quit colouring Dante.

The Nexus: In 2002 you moved away from futuristic sci-fi adventures to do the relatively naturalistic Family, a crime series concerning the fall of an all powerful mob family that possessed “special powers”. The series met to a mix reaction much to the dismay of its editor Alan Barnes. Looking back, what do you think worked with Family and what didn’t?

Fraser: I think Rob was very ambitious with ‘Family’, which is good in that you don’t really understand the limits unless you push them. Now that I’m doing 48 page comics I look back and am amazed by just how fast and dense the 2000AD style of comics is. You don’t realise just how codified and compressed stories have to be to fit into the 6-page episode forma. It’s a very tough discipline and really quite demanding for a writer. A story about guys in suits with superpowers where nothing was explained, the reader is thrown right into the narrative with almost no background knowledge and in black and white! It’s going to be really, really tough to make that work in that 6 pages a month format. I think it will hold together well if it ever gets collected into one book. I enjoyed Rob’s script, it had some real sincere emotion in it”¦and big stuff exploded.

The Nexus: Since finishing Family and The Return of the Gentlemen Thief you’ve done next to no work on 2000AD/Judge Dredd Megazine. Do you see yourself returning to either in the near future?

Fraser: Time permitting I’d love to. When you leave 2000AD and go out into the wide world you realise just what a cosy berth it is. Relatively it’s very liberal, the money isn’t bad and the Editors are very hands off and supportive. It’s easy to see why so much good and innovative work gets done there.

The Nexus: Moving away from 2000AD, you’ve been trying to break into the thriving French market. What are you thoughts about the French market? Do you have any forthcoming projects in that market?

Fraser: I’ve had nothing published yet. I like the French comics market because there is just so much of it and it can be so exciting and diverse. There is also a much higher ceiling there than in the UK or the US, B.D writers and artists can sell millions of books and be bona fide cultural figures, nationally and internationally. The Top 10 best-selling books list in France is dominated by Bande Dessiné. At the same time I can see a lot of things that can be done in that market that have not been done before, I can see a few things I can bring in that would be new and a lot of things that I can learn.

I’ve spent a long time trying to understand French comics, both the language and how people think. I had to reject a few scripts because I just didn’t understand them from a storytelling point of view, I just couldn’t get my head around drawing in a very tradition Belgian thriller style for example. In the end I learned to trust my instincts and found a writer that I like (Eric Stoffel) and we’ve come up with ‘Axelle’, which is a very French Sci-Fi story, but at the same time will follow on from my Dante work quite logically. I’ve put some of the early development art up on my site (http://simonfraser.net) and will put some more up soon.

The Nexus: Also a four-part adaptation of Richard Matheson’s Hell House you’ve done with Iain Edginton for IDW has reached the halfway point. How did you find the chance to work in the horror genre?

Fraser: It’s a hoot! Seriously I don’t imagine that I’ll be offered many comics like this to draw, so I jumped at the chance. It lets me do lots of gnarly and gritty black & white linework, which I started doing with ‘Family’ and I enjoy it. I also get to really climb inside my characters heads (as I love to do) and it’s long form (48 pages a issue, almost 200 pages in total), which is something I’ve never done before. I’ve also never worked this fast before, so I have become much more aware of my physical limits! It’s going to be a good looking book when it’s all done. I’ve got about another month of work to do on it, and then I’ll pile all the original pages up and just goggle at the height they reach! It took me about 2 years to draw the amount of Dante that I’ve drawn of Hellhouse in 6 months. I’m not sure I want to do this again, but I’m glad to know that I can.

The Nexus: You once commented that American publishers saw your style as being “too French”. Do you feel vindicated seeing American publishers now acknowledging your style?

Fraser: This is something that arises when you start dealing with large and conservative publishers, even in France. They are much less likely to take any risks at all on material that looks just a bit outside the norm. A smaller company like IDW has to take risks to distinguish itself from the crowd. Likewise my publisher in France, Editions Bamboo, are much more flexible and approachable than a big and entrenched publisher like Dargaud or Marvel would be. The US market is very conservative and I’ve heard so many horror stories from fellow comics pros that have gone to work there and ended up hating what they were doing because working with corporate properties is so limiting. That inflexibility is hurting them now though as sales are dropping off alarmingly throughout the US industry. I’m hoping that this will lead to some diversification in both genre and style, ‘cos it’s obvious that the same old, same old isn’t doing it anymore. We’ll see.

The Nexus: What ambitions do you still have in the field of comics?

Fraser: I’ve probably talked way too much about my desire to write for myself. I’ve got some ideas and a couple of scripts that may see the light of day sometime in the future. I’m actually very happy to draw other people’s scripts as long as I can get good ones. So far so good. Writing myself has always been ‘Plan B’.

In a wider sense I’d like to die a very old man having just finished the best work of my career. Somewhere warm.

The Nexus: Is there anything else you would like to say to your fans?

Fraser: Hi Mum!

The Nexus: Thank you for sharing your time with us Si

Fraser: Nae bother.

Hell House is published by IDW Publishing and is available worldwide via the Direct Market. Shimura and Nikolai Dante Graphic Novels are published by DC Comics and are available at all good Direct Market stores and via internet specialists such as Amazon.

This week, Will sits down with artist extraordinaire, Si Fraser in the newest edition of Caught In The Nexus.

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