Kid Beowulf - An Interview With Writer/Illustrator Alexis E. Fajardo
I just finished reading Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath, a graphic novel re-imagining of the thousand year old epic poem. I felt ill-prepared to review Alexis E. Fajardo's illustrated version since my only exposure to this classic is the recent Angelina Jolie version so I decided to interview him instead so he can tell me all about it.
Comics in the Classroom – Scott Tingley: Before we get into Kid Beowulf tell us about yourself.
Alexis E. Fajardo : I've been drawing cartoons all my life but didn't think you could actually get paid for it until about ten years ago. I studied the Classics in college (Greek and Roman studies), where I did a comic strip for my college paper called “Plato's Republic.” After college I had dreams of syndicating the strip and continued it online daily for 5 years (as I collected rejection letters from syndicates). I eventually moved from the east coast to San Francisco , where I continued cartooning. I taught cartooning for several years around the Bay Area, including the Cartoon Art Museum and the Schulz Museum . I currently live in the Santa Rosa and work for the Charles M. Schulz Studio working for PEANUTS in licensing.
CitC: Kid Beowulf is based on a thousand year old poem. Why would your target audience (ages 9 and up) be at all interested in it? What do you hope is the draw?
AEF : Despite the age of the source material, Kid Beowulf is first and foremost an action-adventure series, similar to BONE, Asterix and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like those stories, Kid Beowulf is all-ages and hopefully will appeal to audiences who like fun, engaging characters, classic cartooning and a long sweeping narrative.
(CitC note: It is this sites opinion that if your child is ready for the first Narnia movie or the first Lord of the Rings movie, Kid Beowulf will be appropriate reading for them – if not, I would wait on this book. For instance, the prologue of the book which briefly retells the poem does show Grendel's freshly dismembered arm)
CitC: Okay – so I've seen the 2007 animated movie full of star voices (Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, etc) and I've read your re-imagining. I have no other knowledge of this story. How close is your comic to the original poem? What are your main deviations and how do you stay true? What do I need to know? Put this into context for me.
To put it another way: I don't know much so tell me about your comic.
AEF : Making the comic series as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible is very important to me. One doesn't have to be a medieval scholar to enjoy Kid Beowulf (although there are those who have!). Still, I think it's important for readers to have some basic understanding of what the original epic was about. That's why I did a prologue in the book which is my own retelling of the BEOWULF poem, so even if you've never read BEOWULF before, you're at least getting the basic beats of the poem and will know what happened in the original. One of my goals with this project is to turn readers onto the source material.
At the same time, Kid Beowulf isn't a retelling of the BEOWULF poem. (There are lots of other comic adaptations that have done a great job at that--Gareth Hinds' “Beowulf” among them). The biggest change I've made in my adaptation is I've turned Beowulf and Grendel, sworn enemies in the original epic, into 12-year-old twin brothers. The first book “Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath” is their origin story, going back several generations, explaining their brotherhood and setting the stage for their adventures to come.
Now that's a pretty big leap from the epic poem, but the idea is that Beowulf and Grendel will grow up through the Kid Beowulf series, and ultimately learn what their true destiny is, which becomes the final book in the series, the epic poem BEOWULF. The Kid Beowulf books are basically a prequel to the epic poem and it's the relationship between the brothers and how they deal with their eventual fate is the heart of the story.
CitC: How did you get started on this project?
AEF : I've always been a bit of nut for mythology and epics in general, ever since I was a kid. Some of the first comics I ever did were parodies of Greek mythology (they weren't very funny though). My first attempt at professional cartooning was trying to get my comic strip “Plato's Republic” syndicated (a daily comic strip similar to Doonesbury and Pogo). During that time I was asked to do a side project for a friend who was putting together a fantasy themed anthology. I happened to be rereading BEOWULF at the time and that's when the idea struck me.
What's interesting about the epic poem is when we first meet Beowulf, he is a fully formed hero--he appears on the scene ready to kick some monster-tail. The notion of seeing someone so powerful and confident as a scrawny little kid was immediately funny to me. At that time I was still very focused on my comic strip, so Kid B. started life as six-page mini-comic. The more I played with the idea and the characters, the more I realized the story wanted to grow and expand. Before I knew it, I was doing a 200 page graphic novel, with eleven other books in the works!
CitC: This must have been a lengthy project. Did you ever think “Wait a minute! I'm creating a comic about Beowulf! A poem most people are afraid to even attempt to read and here I am making a comic about it.” Or something to that effect?
AEF : There's a great scene in Woody Allen's “Annie Hall,” where his girlfriend, Annie is thinking of taking some adult education courses, Woody Allen tells her that's great, “just don't take a class where they make you read BEOWULF.” If you mention BEOWULF to someone, invariably they'll moan, recalling a battle they lost in school with Old English. The poem gets a lot of flak, which I think is due either to the quality of the teaching or to a bad translation they were forced to read.
Those stereotypes, although funny, are unfortunate and they place a barrier in front of readers who otherwise would enjoy the story. Epic poetry works on a number of different levels, some see them as historical documents, others decipher them etymologically. That's all well and good, but these are first and foremost stories and they're good stories too, otherwise they wouldn't have survived so many hundreds of years. I think it's important to remind people that these epics were intended to entertain and they aren't solely the purview of scholars.
Now, take comics—a medium that has no barriers, an artform that we're introduced to as kids, whether via comics or cartoons, it's immediately accessible. Something about combining these age-old epics, with a modern storytelling method was second nature to me and I think it works. My ultimate goal is to produce a series of adventure stories inspired by legends of old that will be accessible to everyone.
CitC: No matter how good a small press comic is, especially one aimed at younger readers, there is an uphill battle when it comes to actually getting the book into kid's hands. How are you trying to overcome this?
AEF : I think there have been some great strides made in the last few years in regards to this. The work of teachers and librarians who loudly acknowledge the importance of comics turning kids into readers has been huge. And there's been a resurgence in producing high-quality, all-ages books. You're right though, it's a challenge to get these books into the right hands.
I try and go to as many comic conventions as I can to sell Kid Beowulf. I'll be at Wondercon in San Francisco at the end of the month and I also hope to attend Comic-Con in the summer as well as few others. I've done a number of talks at schools, libraries and colleges where I talk about epic poetry and comics and I'd love to do more. I think the biggest challenge is making people aware that Kid Beowulf exists. Once they know there's a good story out there waiting for them, I'm confident they'll seek it out.
CitC: What is next for Kid Beowulf?
AEF : Right now I'm in the middle of book two: “Kid Beowulf and the Song Of Roland.” Inspired by the French epic, the Song of Roland, this is Beowulf and Grendel's first real adventure together. The brothers find themselves in France where they meet Charlemagne and his famous knights and have to save the country from an invading Saracen army. This one is very much a swashbuckler, with big battle scenes and lots of fun characters.
After that, the brothers head into Spain for “Kid Beowulf vs. El Cid” (due in 2010). Basically the brothers will travel through Europe and into Asia, winding their way back home to Denmark . With each book I'll focus on a different epic poem and the twins will get a little older with each one and learn more about their destiny, ultimately capping the series with the original epic, BEOWULF.
CitC: And when can we expect to see the next book?
AEF : “Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland” will be out the fall of 2009. I'm working frantically to get it all done on time! The pages are looking good though and I'm pleased with how it's coming along.
CitC : Finally, is there anything else you would like to add about upcoming work you are doing?
AEF: I'd just add that book one “Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath” is now available in comic shops and can be ordered from any bookstore as well as online via Amazon and other outlets. Also, I do a production blog at www.kidbeowulf.com , where I post pages in process, character designs, and other goodies. I love to hear what feedback from fans so feel free to drop me a line there!
CitC : Thanks for this. Good luck with getting book 1 out there and with completing #2.
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