Beowulf, Viking Pigs, and the Hustle of Comics in 2021: An Interview with Alexis Fajardo
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I attended a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana (“Home of Recorded Jazz”, or so it claimed) by the name of Earlham. And it was at this college that I was introduced to its annual tradition of students attempting to outstrip their predecessors with beautiful, brilliant pranks. There were the usual half-hearted attempts at yarn bombing and such, but most of the pranks were elaborate affairs. Chickens filling the Administrative Assistants’ offices. A car, the exact same color as the tables in the dining hall, complete with place settings. And then, one year, there was a prank that beat them all. We came to breakfast only to find everyone who had already arrived looking up, staring at the ceiling.
There, like Michaelangelo’s Adam reaching out to God on the Sistine Chapel, were gigantic characters from the college paper’s comic strip “Plato’s Republic”. It was massive, incredibly high up, and perfectly done. Where the fingers almost touched there was a ceiling light. And the name of the man who accomplished this prank? Alexis Fajardo.
It’s little wonder that the man that finagled that bit of acrobatic artistic prankery would find a home in the world of children’s comics. Fast forward to 2021 and Lex has never stopped making them. “Plato’s Republic” continued for a time, but his true passion became evident over the years. Single-handedly, the man wrote a series about a young Beowulf and his half-brother Grendel. Kid Beowulf it was called. It was self-published, then picked up by Andrews McNeel, then independent once more.
Today, The Tarpeian Rock, the latest in the series, is released. It takes Beowulf and Grendel to the founding of Rome where they meet another pair of twins, Romulus and Remus.
Catching up again, I was curious about Lex’s status as a cartoonist in the 21st century. So we sat down, and to celebrate his latest release, I asked him some prying, prodding questions:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today! Okay, so let’s just start at the start. Though most folks know you best for the Kid Beowulf comic series, I don’t think they’re aware of the journey that series has been on. Can you walk us through how it got published in the first place right up to where it is now?
Lex Fajardo: It’s funny you ask, because I recently did a self-publishing presentation and was sharing this very journey with the class, and as I walked them through it I realized we were looking at a microcosm of the kids comics publishing industry over the last decade. For those who are not familiar with Kid Beowulf, I describe it as middle-grade, “mythological mash-up” graphic novel series. It follows the adventures of twin brothers, Beowulf and Grendel as they travel to distant lands and meet fellow epic heroes therein. It’s intended to introduce kids to these old stories and inspire them to read the originals.
The series began as mini-comic way back in 2000. It was just a lark while I pursued other projects, but before long it took over and morphed from a mini-comic, into a comic book, and eventually into a graphic novel. All of which were self-published, which was just what you did when I was coming up – cartoonists did small print runs of their books, took them to shows, and hand-sold them – it was a means to an end. At that time there weren’t any publishers interested in publishing all-ages comic books, but we had people like Jeff Smith, Jimmy Gownley, and Terry Moore to look up to and emulate.
It was hard work though and I soon realized the key to success was getting distribution and lots more readers than I could hand-selling at shows. So I started to actively pursue publishers. This was in 2005, right around when Scholastic had launched Graphix and Macmillan was starting up First Second, there were a handful of others – I submitted to all of them and got my share of rejection letters. I did find a champion in small press publisher, Bo Johnson of Bowler Hat Comics which had just started up in Portland, Oregon, so I threw my lot in with them. I re-did the first book and published it in 2008 as “The Blood-Bound Oath” and followed it up in 2010 with “The Song of Roland” (these were both 200 page, black-and-white graphic novels). There were more graphic novels on the scene then and little by little shows like ALA would invite cartoonists to exhibit in Artists Alley. Graphic novels were not taking the world by storm yet, but it was growing and it was exciting to see.
Unfortunately, Bowler Hat Comics folded just as I was finishing Book Three. I bought back the rights to the books, all the remaining stock, and went back to self-publishing. By this time Jeff Smith’s Bone was into its second full-color life with Graphix, Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid was everywhere, and Raina Telgemeier was becoming RAINA. Publishers could see something was going on and I was approached by Andrea Colvin who was at Andrews McMeel at the time. She was building their kids line and wanted to relaunch Kid Beowulf. I jumped at the opportunity – Andrea was terrific, she got what I was doing and her enthusiasm for good comics was invigorating. In 2016 we relaunched the series in full color: Book One “The Blood-Bound Oath” (2016), followed by Book Two, “The Song of Roland” (2017), and then Book Three “The Rise of El Cid” (2018). The response to the books has been good and Andrews McMeel’s help getting the books into schools and libraries has been key, but they passed on Book Four, so I’m going back to my roots as independent publisher. Kid Beowulf – The Tarpeian Rock will be out later this summer (8/10/21); Book Four takes Beowulf and Grendel to ancient Italy where they meet another pair of twins, Romulus and Remus which leads to the founding of Rome. Fun stuff!
BB: Self-publishing is this gargantuan behemoth that encompasses so many different aspects of publishing. I can’t really say that it’s a single entity anymore. Could you tell us a bit about your own relationship to publishing your own stuff over the years? How has it changed from when you first began? How do you leverage it? And can you make a career out of it?
LF: Gargantuan is definitely a good word to describe it…at least it seems so. There are so many facets to it beyond just doing the book; whether it is the design and publication or the marketing and publicity…it can all be overwhelming. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to be fluid with the trends and be open to publishing your work in a variety of ways. You don’t want to give someone a reason not to read your work.
I try to make my books available in as many platforms as possible, for as many readers as possible. So I’ll publish it online as a webcomic on my Patreon; put it out a six-issue mini-series on Comixology; publish it as a graphic novel; carve it up and post it on Webtoon. Each version is a different reading experience too. For me (and my ideal, 9 year-old-reader) the platonic ideal of the story is the finished graphic novel, so carving up all the panels to run as a vertical scroll on a platform like Webtoon is not what I had in mind when I drew the pages, but it is interesting to present the story that way and I can see the appeal for that readership. The fact is, there are far more people in the world who have never heard of my work than there are those who have, so I need to go to them and introduce them to it.
As to whether one can make a career out of it…? I guess it depends on your definition. For many years I ended up publishing my own work as a means to get a “real publisher,” but along the way I realized I actually like it. It can be almost as much work as creating the stories, but I do like having a hand in the final product. For me, a successful career is having the freedom to create a body of work, tell the stories I want to tell, and grow an enthusiastic readership to help support that. Frankly, comics take too damned long to work on something you’re not fully invested in or enthusiastic about.
BB: Specifically, and to your mind, what’s the relationship between comics and self-publishing these days? And why do you make comics?
LJ: Comics are inherently DIY, so I think many creators end up learning about publishing out of necessity. And as daunting as all that can be, printing and distribution systems have gotten better over the years. Whether you are doing thousand book print runs with traditional printers or print-on-demand: the technology keeps improving as do the methods of getting your work into readers hands. So the days of hand-selling at shows are not the only way to go.
Crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter are a big player too – it’s a great way to test market a product, build discoverability, and find new readers. Amazingly, Kickstarter has become one of the largest comics publishers out there. Even a self-publishing comics pioneer like Jeff Smith turned to it to launch his next project, Tuki. For smaller creators like me crowdfunding it just another tool in the kit and way to get my work directly into the hands of my readers. I did one recently for Book Four and it went great.
As for why I make comics? Short answer: because I absolutely love it 🙂 It is not easy and there are far more practical, less time-consuming ways to tell stories, but I’ve always loved the combination of words and pictures and all the cool things comics can do. It’s a wonderfully intimate art-form and the transmission of ideas from a creator at his or her desk drawing, to the reader sitting in his or her chair reading that same work is pretty direct. With each book I get a little better at storytelling and that’s exciting too. I just want to keep on making these stories and hope my readers enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy creating them.
BB: You have what you described to me as a “Kid Beowulf storybook” coming out this fall based on one of the characters. It’s appropriate for younger readers. What advantages do you see to introducing the comic format to young developing readers?
LF: I’ve wanted to do a children’s book for awhile, particularly because when I’m at shows there are always 5 and 6 year olds who are drawn to the graphic novels, but aren’t quite ready to read them. So I wanted to create a story specifically for them featuring my little pig character, Hama. It’s called “Hama the Pig’s Big Adventure” and features Hama yearning to escape his pigpen and live a life full of Viking adventure on the open sea. Ultimately, he gets his wish and whole lot more. It’s a story that tells kids not to be intimidated by the big world around them and instead embrace the adventure of it. I wrote it for my little nephew and I am happy to report he liked it very much. It is a traditional children’s book with some elements of panel-to-panel comic storytelling as a way to introduce young readers to my universe of characters so they will be ready for the big books when those come along.
BB: Finally, what do you have coming up next?
LF: I continue to pound the pavement and get the word out on the new book Kid Beowulf – The Tarpeian Rock which comes out August 10th and I’m excited to dip a toe into the world of children’s books with Hama the Pig’s Big Adventure which will be out in October. I have a new Kid Beowulf story on the drawing board that’s taking shape for 2022 and I have several other projects in the works. Never a dull moment!
Big thanks to Lex, not simply for joining us today, but for that fascinating rundown of the rise of the children’s graphic novel. You can find The Tarpeian Rock and other books in the Kid Beowulf series available on Lex’s website. Happy hunting!
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