Pop!: Frazer Irving: The Future of Comic Book Art

Tue, October 4th, 2011 at 11:58am PDT | Updated: October 4th, 2011 at 12:16pm

Comic Books
Jorge Khoury, Columnist

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The cover of the book that started this ball rolling

My name is Eric Nolen-Weathington, not George Khoury, your usual host for this column. George and I go way back -- we've worked on four books together all told -- and he was gracious enough to allow me to fill in for him this POP!. And, since you're already here, please allow me to tell you a bit about a fantastic comic book artist who I feel doesn't get nearly the praise and attention he deserves: Frazer Irving. Oddly enough, the story begins with George.

Back in 2003, George asked me if I'd be interested in working with him on a book he was putting together titled "True Brit: A Celebration of the Great Comic Book Artists of the UK." As you'd likely guess from the title, the book was a collection of essays on and interviews with a number of top British comics artists. And, as you'd likely guess from reading past POP! columns, George was gung-ho about the subject and meticulous in his research. After several conversations debating who to include and who to leave out -- there just weren't enough pages to do justice to everyone who deserved to be in the book -- George sent me scans of a Judge Death story drawn by a fellow I knew nothing about. The artwork blew me away. It had kind of a woodcut feel in that it felt as though the white areas had been carved out of the black, but it had energy and movement that you just don't see in woodcut illustration, or, frankly, a lot of comic book artwork. While looking over the scans, I kept thinking, "This guy is brilliant! I've got to keep an eye on him."

The artist in question was the hero of our story, Frazer Irving. Unfortunately, George and I both agreed that it didn't make sense to devote a section of the book to him -- though George does mention him in the original preface -- because, as we discovered, he had only been working professionally in comics for three years -- not a very extensive résumé. "Only three years!?! And he's already this good?" Keep an eye on him, indeed.

Cut to Comic-Con International in San Diego the following summer. As I'm helping out at the TwoMorrows booth, a 20-something fellow with closely cropped hair and glasses, wearing a plain, white T-shirt came up to me and said, with a British accent, "Hi -- a mate of mine just told me that I'm on the cover of one of your books, and I'd like to buy a copy." That's not something you hear every day, but given the fact that he sounded British and that TwoMorrows rarely uses photographs on covers, I could only assume he was looking for the just-released "True Brit." I handed him a copy, and a broad grin spread across his face as he looked at the cover. It turns out that the cover artist, Brian Bolland -- who else would you get to draw that cover? -- had integrated three random photos of British comic book artists into the newspaper Judge Dredd is reading, and the largest of the three was none other than the gentleman standing next to me. I asked him, "So you must be an artist then. What's your name?"

Pages from Frazer's Judge Death story, where the woodcut quality of his work really shows through

And that is how I met Frazer Irving. We had a nice, long chat at the booth, and he struck me as a cheerful, energetic guy with a great sense of humor. I definitely needed to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. Nine months went by before I finally saw his name listed in the "Previews" catalog as being one of the artists for Grant Morrison's "Seven Soldiers" project. And he was drawing "Klarion the Witch Boy" -- perfect.

When the first issue was released, I noticed that not only had Frazer penciled and inked the story, but he had colored it as well. And what a striking palette he used! It didn't match reality at all, but it served the story all the better for that. The cyans of Limbo Town and its inhabitants reflect the strict limitations of their society. In the second issue, Klarion climbs through shades of pale yellow and brown on his way to the upper world, only to emerge in a gray city blanketed by a cyan sky.

You see, Irving gets it. He understands how comics work, and by extension how color can be used as a storytelling device. Here's how the artist describes it in his interview with Nathan Wilson for "Modern Masters vol. 26: Frazer Irving."

"My color work is utterly 'wrong,' yet it's also the most emotive and immediate aspect of my art. It's... technically inaccurate or unrealistic. [Jack] Kirby would draw vastly exaggerated perspectives, [Richard] Corben would draw distorted anatomy. I use very unrealistic colors. These things are wrong in the sense that they defy the reality we observe, and thus they become the aspects that stand out and give the art character."

Yes, Irving went to art school, and he learned a few things there, but what he learned about making comics came from actually sitting down and making comics. Irving experimented with layouts and drawing techniques to find what worked for him. When asked by Nathan Wilson about his first published work and how difficult it was for him as a beginner, Irving responded:

A page from the first issue of "Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch Boy"

"It was easy! I'd been toying with panel layouts for years anyway, doing my own amateur comics at school and home, copying what I read in the proper printed things, but shortly before I began "The Man Who Learnt to Fly" I'd spent a few weeks during summer break at college doing some test sheets of comic panels as examples of the variety of storytelling one could achieve. I did a bunch, ranging from frenetic action sequences to conversational sequences to sex sequences and also a flying dude sequence. I was exploring how the shape of the panel and the arrangement would enhance the imagery within and create a very instant mood/feeling when one just regards the page as a collection of boxes. This really opened the imagination and clarified some of the gimmicks I'd been brewing for ages such as the panels that are split up by gutters."

It was this desire to experiment that led him to become one of the pioneers of digital comic book art. Irving was dabbling with digital art before he landed his first professional gig. Since then, he's constantly pushed the limits of whatever the available software and hardware is capable of, and he's encouraged others to do the same. In the "Modern Masters" interview, Irving said the following:

"All those dudes Jock, [Jamie] McKelvie, the '2000 AD' artists, most of them if not all of them got into the Wacom stuff after me, partially I think down to my evangelizing. I sold a few tablets to some of them when I upgraded each time. It's so weird now seeing that almost everyone uses the computer to draw now, and I remember when I was one of the rare few who were regarded with suspicion for doing so. God bless Wacom and their fuzzy little socks."

With "Klarion," Irving had only penciled and colored digitally. For the inks, he had printed out his pencils onto board and inked traditionally with a sable brush. But starting with the Inhumans miniseries "Silent War" for Marvel, Irving moved to a completely digital process, though you wouldn't necessarily know looking at the artwork. And that's what Irving attempts to achieve with his digital work.

"What I'm aiming for now is something different but the same, sort of like finding new ways to make marks not so distant from brushes and pencils, but that offer a freaky new quality to them. I want the inherent qualities of digital brushes to speak out the same way the bristle marks on old paintings do. I'm not trying to make the viewer believe I used actual paint. I want them to look at it and see that I used the Mac, but in a non-obvious way."

A page from "Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne" in its various stages. First are his digital pencils, which are usually fairly loose. Once the pencils are tidied up and "inked," Frazer adds gray tones, in a similar manner as a watercolor artist might, to add weight and depth to his images. And finally he puts down the color in his own unique fashion

So with great artistic ability -- he continues to pencil, ink and color everything himself -- great storytelling skills and a drive to find new and better ways to make comics, why don't more people talk about him? He's been on high-profile projects: "Klarion," "Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne" and "Batman & Robin" -- all with Grant Morrison. In fact, here's what Grant had to say about working with Frazer in his introduction to the "Modern Masters" book:

"Often (not too often but often enough to sting) in the past as a comic book writer I've seen stories stripped of emotional nuance, effective staging and storytelling clarity as a result of miscommunication with artists. One result of that is a tendency to over-direct the action at the script stage, but with Frazer no embroidery is necessary, and the creation of a comic book adventure becomes an exhilarating high wire act with a trained and competent partner who inspires complete trust. ...Frazer doesn't have to be told to put the first speaker in any comic panel on the left of the picture and the last speaker on the right. Frazer doesn't need to have the precise angle of a grief-stricken spine or the arch of a quizzical eyebrow described to him -- he is already living the story, already inhabiting the characters, and with no instruction necessary he understands exactly what POV to choose for maximum impact, or how to skew a panel shape, heighten a mood or flood a scene with fuming, unknown color combinations and fogs of thickening shadow this mundane waking world is too drab and sensible to know. He is, quite simply, the kind of artist every comic book writer dreams of working with."

And now, Irving's won critical acclaim with his work on "Xombi." Unfortunately, it seems be nearly impossible for an artist to become popular unless they have a long run on a Big Two title, something Irving has yet to do. Until then, do yourself a favor and don't fall into the trap of ignoring an amazing artist. Seek out Irving's work. In this digital age, it's not a difficult task -- you can thank me later.

TAGS:  pop!, frazer irving, batman, batman and robin, bruce wayne, judge dredd, judge death, grant morrison

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