Interview: Alexis Frederick-Frost

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In a sense, Alexis Frederick-Frost was a student at the Center For Cartoon Studies before the school even existed. The budding cartoonist was working odd jobs in Lebanon, Vermont, the town next to White River Junction, while James Sturm was pulling together the pieces for his future comic book school.

Frederick-Frost introduced himself to Sturm and, once the school was up-and-running, became 1/20th of its maiden class (the number would dwindle down to 18 by graduation). Frederick-Frost and Sturm would also go on to create Adventures in Cartooning, along with fellow CCS student, Andrew Arnold.

The book, published by First Second, is one part cartooning textbook, one part cartoon adventure. At SPX last week, Frederick-Frost was showing off the Adventures in Cartooning Activity Book, a supplementary volume that encourages kids to try out their new-found skills on its pages.

Did you have the activity book in mind when you created Adventures in Cartooning?

So what we did was create this, and then we did a lot of school visits and things like that. As a part of that, I created a tiny little activity book based on minis, which is where I come from. It was just stapled together. Somebody at First Second saw it and liked it said, “why don’t we turn this into something bigger?”

Some of the criticism with the first book is that there’s a little bit of instruction interwoven, but the kids can’t actually draw on it.

I like the idea of being able to draw on a comics page.

Yeah, yeah.

I don’t think I ever did that as a kid, but I imagine that’s something that a lot of kids do—add their own stuff.

Yeah, yeah. Scribbling onto it or color things in.

We did a lot of library visits, and the kids always wanted to draw stuff.

How old are these kids, generally?

I think this is 7-11. It skews young. I think it’s supposed to be middle school. But it’s more like late-elementary.

Are kids that age excited about the idea of cartooning?

They are, they are. It’s really cool, because at that age they’re not really tha cynical yet. Some middle schoolers are pretty cynical.

Middle school is rough.

Yeah. You come in as a kid and you leave as a man [laughs].

Pretty much everyone I’ve ever spoke to hated their junior high school/middle school experience.

Yeah, yeah.

Is manga still the big thing?

For the little girls. For boys it’s kind of a mix of superheroes and strips like Garfield and things like that. But there is some manga stuff, too.

They’re kind of into creating their own crazy things. Later, when they get into high school they start identifying as “I like manga.” But when they’re younger, it seems like they just like drawing.

I was drawing a lot of Spider-man pictures at that age. That’s got to still be big with the kids, right?

Yeah, but it’s movie superheroes. It’s like Spider-man, obviously, Batman.

We’re at a point where superhero comics just aren’t for kids anymore. It’s tough.

Yeah!

But publishers like First Second are doing a pretty good job filling that niche.

It’s true. You go to New York Comic Con and places like that, and there are sections that you don’t want to have kids anywhere near.

Did you draw comics as a kid?

Yeah. I drew comics a lot as a kid. I wasn’t popular, obviously. The one thing that I could do to relate to other kids was draw little comics, like knights fighting or something like that. I did draw comics quite a lot. it was kind of a way for me to process what was going on around me.

And that’s part of the underlying idea behind these books, to encourage kids to create their own media.

Were you doing minis before going to CCS?

I wasn’t aware of the whole mini scene. I would photocopy and staple together things, but I would give them to my friends or family.

So you were doing minis, just with a different name.

Yeah. But I didn’t know that there were conventions or things like that.

How did you discover that there was a whole school devoted to it?

I lived up in Lebanon, which is right next to White River Junction, and I have a background in fine art and painting—like oil painting. I was up there trying to make a living. I was getting odd jobs with various artists in the area, and there was this old building that was an old biscuit factory that was turned into artists studios.

They were really pushing the whole creative economy, so I think James [Sturm] actually talked to the guy who did that about Vermont. I heard that he was going to start a school, so I went to meet James and got really psyched about it.

You were there from the beginning—or before the beginning, really.

Yeah, I was. It was really strange. Art Spiegelman came up. I got to meet him when he was visiting James.

You were in the first class.

Yeah, I was.

How large was it?

I think there were 20 to start and 18 made it through. It was an experience. Those first years were…

Did you feel like the teachers were really trying to find their way at that point?

Yeah, yeah. But I think they did a really good job. That first class, everyone was really in it together. We were all excited about the whole thing and interested. It was a good dynamic. We didn’t complain that it should be more polished. And we got to see tons of really great cartoonists who came up to check it out. So, whatever we were missing in the polish level, we made up in the really close interaction with people like Seth.

Did that plant a seed in you to become an educator? Does that extend beyond these books?

Yeah, yeah. I would be interested in teaching. I’m not sure if CCS planted the seed, but I would say so. I like storytelling with comics. I think it’s something that can be helpful for a lot of people.

How did Adventures in Cartooning come about?

We had an assignment that was making a comic only with stuff from Ed Emberley’s Make a World book. I think they do this every year, but in the first year, there was a really big range of people that were writers who were interested in comics and people who were painters. The activity limited us with the what we could use

So, we had to tell a story with the Ed Emberley characters. And people were making great comics with these little tiny characters who had emotional resonance. That was the genesis for it. The idea was that you could make a good comic using simplified forms. That’s sort of where it came from.

Making it easier for kids to actually get a book, rather than spending too much time on a single page or panel.

Yeah, exactly. And to not be intimidated. Decide that they couldn’t draw biceps or something. But that’s not the essence of what a good or interesting comic is.

You did the final pencils for the book?

Yeah, yeah.

Do you have a pretty simple style generally?

I do.

So it was a good fit for you.

Yeah, it was a good fit. Sometimes when I do my own stuff, I’m like, “I’m just a step away from this” [laughs]. Not very far.

[Pointing at the book] Is this your primary style?

No, I use a little more detail. This is all brush. My usual style uses a dip pen.

How did the exercise ultimately evolve into a book?

We did a pitch. I don’t know how many pages it was—like a dozen. And then we sent it around. First Second though it would be cool. They do editor day at the school, and I think they were interested in doing something with the school, and this seemed to fit.

So, from those first pages we made this, which is extraordinarily different than the first pitch. The first pitch was really instructional. “This is how you do a panel.”

More in the Scott McCloud vein.

Exactly. Kind of a younger version, but in this one, it’s really integrated into the actual story. So, you’ve got the elf character, he’s talking about why you use words and tall panels and stuff like that. So, the core concept is the same.

James wants the story to be primary thing.

Kids don’t want a textbook when they’re not at school.

Exactly, exactly. It’s also not interesting for us and him to do that.

I remember picking up those “how to draw” books as a kid—with the Flinstones or some other character in them. You never really sat down and read them. You always traced them.

Yeah, yeah. I also work at a library, and we have ton of those things. It’s like draw, draw, and then, all of the sudden, it’s BOOM, a full-page character. We definitely didn’t want to do that.

Something that we tried to do with the activity book was make it part of the story. The story is supposed to be interesting itself.

Do the kids send you their work?

Oh yeah! They do! I almost brought a whole stack of their drawings. GeekDad on Wired, his kid got a book and drew one. That’s the only one I know that’s online that you can see.

Usually when you put out a book, you’ll get maybe an e-mail. But to actually see someone create something is great. Though you get to visit them in school and see it first-hand.

Yeah, it’s really cool. It brings a tear to my eye [laughs]. It’s really sweet. There was a little girl in Portugal who did stuff. This might sound kind of stupid, but when you see that, that’s the really important thing. Getting in front of a class of middle schoolers is tough…

Are schools teaching the book?

It’s kind of hard to teach the book, which is another reason that the workbook came out. It has more activities for a teacher to do. but there are a lot of schools that are integrating comics into their teaching.

I went to one middle school biology class, and to get them to learn about the parts of the cells, they turned them into characters. They’d have a little mitochondria, and they’d say things like, “I make food” or “I get rid of the enemies.” I was a way to get the kids to relate to something maybe bland.

–Brian Heater