by Alex Dueben
By day, Alexis Fajardo is a Senior Editor at Charles M. Schulz Associates in California, where he helps oversee the production of all the Peanuts publications form around the world. By night, he’s the cartoonist behind Kid Beowulf. The first book of the series, Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath, was recently released by AMP! Comics. This release comes on the heels of the free mobile game Lookin’ for Lingonberries, which also includes an original comics story.
Fajardo sat down to talk about the influence of classic mythology and classic comics such as Asterix on Kid Beowulf. We discuss how epic poetry is different from superheroes in a fundamental way and the process behind crafting a prequel to one of the most famous and well known stories in human civilization.
Alex Dueben: Alexis, where did Kid Beowulf come from?
Alexis Fajardo: I’ve been cartooning professionally for the last ten or twelve years –which is the length of time that Kid Beowulf has been running around in my head. It started as a zine back in 2000 and I refined it and have self-published black and white versions over the years. Those were the books I would sell at conventions like Comic-con, SPX, and ALA–just pounding the pavement and trying to get the books out into the world. It’s been a long slog but I’ve made a lot of friends on the con circuit and met a lot of editors too. Recently I began coloring book one and posting it online at sites like Tapastic and GoComics, which is the digital syndicate of Andrews McMeel, so I felt comfortable pitching my book to their graphic novel line, AMP! Comics For Kids and they gobbled it up. The new book, Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath is a full color version of the original black and white edition. I’ve since cleaned up the art and added more material for schools and libraries. The book finally looks the way I’ve wanted it to.
Dueben: I think Beowulf is a story people “know of” rather than a story that they’re truly familiar with like The Odyssey and The Iliad.
Fajardo: I would guess people have heard of Beowulf to one degree or another. I was introduced to it in my high school English class and it’s one of the foundational texts in most college English courses–though whether students read it or not is another question). For most people I think there is some vague recollection of who or what Beowulf is. I immediately fell in love with the story when I read it, particularly because it was written as epic poetry–not a novelization. The language is very vivid and lends itself to visual interpretation. Also the story is straightforward–it is essentially about a dude who goes around killing monsters and wins fame and fortune. I know there are many English professors who would hate that description, but Beowulf was first and foremost a story told for entertainment around a campfire. It’s only by sheer luck that someone wrote it down in 700 A.D. and then even more luck the one edition we had survived a fire in the 16th Century. It’s lauded for the right reasons, but at its core it is a good old-fashioned monster-slaying story. I use Beowulf as a gateway to get to more obscure stories like Gilgamesh or The Ramayana and use it to explore all these different world mythologies.
Dueben: Essentially Beowulf is the story of a guy who fights a monster, then fights another monster, and then as an old man he fights a dragon.
Fajardo: And consequently dies from that. That’s the other great thing I love about epic poetry. People can liken them to superheroes of today but unlike superheroes, their choices have consequences–and generally those consequences are martyrdom or death. To read something like Beowulf or The Song of Roland or others, you see the heroes make mistakes and pay for them.
Dueben: That idea of mistakes and consequence is at the heart of your rethinking of the story and humanizing all the characters, including the monsters.
Fajardo: I appreciate that. In a way, King Hrothgar–who I won’t call the hero, but is one of the lead characters–takes an inverted hero’s journey in my book in the sense that he’s guided by his ambition and his xenophobia and those things propel him toward bad decision making. He could have been a good person if he could control those desires and toward the end he does try to redeem himself–but it’s those poor choices that lead to everything else in the book, including Beowulf and Grendel’s birth. I don’t think there are true heroes or villains in this piece, just people being people.
Dueben: A lot of people have read John Gardner’s novel Grendel which is the modern classic of humanizing a rethinking the monster.
Fajardo: I was just re-reading that a couple weeks ago and it’s so impactful. He does such a great job humanizing Grendel and getting into his brain. People are used to these postmodern interpretations and hopefully mine won’t scare them away.
Dueben: Where did the idea for the Kid Beowulf series come from?
Fajardo: I’ve always loved mythology. I grew up reading Greek and Roman myths. I studied Classics in college, but Beowulf was the first epic poem I read and it stuck with me. After college I was rereading it and I was struck by the weird thought of what would Beowulf have been like as a kid? In the poem he’s like Athena–the warrior appears fully formed–so to think of him as a kid was funny notion.
In some ways in the epic poem Grendel and Beowulf are more similar than they are dissimilar. So this other idea, that maybe they’re related, took root. I went back through the genealogy and looked through the poem for connections to try and craft this family saga. It is a big departure from the poem because they are not related in the original Beowulf, but that relationship was compelling to me. I wanted it to be true to the epic in the sense that the endpoint–them fighting–would happen to my characters. This is basically a prequel, and all the adventures Beowulf and Grendel go through from this book to the last lead to their confrontation and back to the original source material. I feel like that is one of my M.O.’s, whether working on Kid Beowulf or at the Schulz Studio, I’m pointing people back to the source material.
Dueben: I will admit that I struggled a little to explain the book because it is this multigenerational story that takes place over years. Reading it, I didn’t have a problem, but it’s hard to sum up.
Fajardo: I always say it’s about twelve-year-old twin brothers Beowulf and Grendel meeting other epic heroes and discovering their destiny–which is to fight each other. Usually by that time people have either walked away or they’re flipping through the book. People who I thought would give me trouble, like old English professors, have been great proponents of it and they enjoyed the twists and turns I’ve taken. I think it’s because they know there is nothing we can do to the original epic that will mar it. It has stood the test of time. It can withstand all these permutations and it only makes it stronger. These old stories invite interpretation and this is mine.
Dueben: This first book really sets up Beowulf and Grendel’s adventures.
Fajardo: True, Beowulf and Grendel only show up toward the end. It’s really the story of their mother and grandparents and building the world for the brothers to play in.
Dueben: At some point reading the book I remember thinking, “you clearly read Asterix when you were younger.”
Fajardo: Yeah, I have a very cartoony style–my big influences are Asterix, Bone, and comic strips. I grew up reading Asterix and just fell in love with Uderzo’s artwork and wished I could draw like that. My book does not have the puns or slapstick of Asterix but I want people to look at my stuff and be reminded of it.
Dueben: We should mention that the two are not alone. They are on this journey with Nagling, a talking sword, and Hama the pig.
Fajardo: Right and sorry comics fans, “Hama” is not in homage to Larry Hama but is named after one of the fourteen thanes who fight alongside Beowulf in the poem.
Drawing Hama the pig is really fun. He’s a little like R2-D2 in the sense that he gets them out of trouble, and Nagling, I guess you could say, is a little like C-3PO in that he’s a bit of a prissy sword – he thinks he deserves better, but he’s stuck with this 12-year- old kid. He’s not an adult guardian, but he does keep an eye on them in the sense that he’s a 1000 year old sword and seen some battles.
Dueben: Could you tell us about your day job at Schulz Associates?
Fajardo: It’s based in Santa Rosa, California, in the same studio where Schulz drew Peanuts for the last thirty odd years of his life. He was always interested in licensing opportunities but he wanted to maintain artistic control and integrity over those products so he created this studio to oversee his work. The creative director is Paige Braddock, who is also a cartoonist. She’s our guiding star. My role there is senior editor so any and all Peanuts publications, foreign or domestic, go through my office. I work with the editors of those publications and we all make sure we’re doing right by Mr. Schulz’s work. You might be familiar with the Boom! Studios comic book series we did which was a great collaboration. Many of the stories were done in-house by the Schulz Studio bullpen. We have a well-rounded staff of people devoted to Peanuts and making sure Schulz’s legacy continues.
It’s a big burden but also an honor and I’ve love being part of the studio it. It’s a great place to work. If you had told me as a kid I would be working for Peanuts I would not have believed you. [laughs]
Dueben: How do you think all that editing has helped shape your work?
Fajardo: I’ve certainly learned a lot from my colleagues in terms of how to actually put a book together. In terms of storytelling, Schulz was a master, so through some sort of osmosis I’ve tried to glean something from him. I wouldn’t cite him as a primary influence in terms of how my book looks, but certainly in terms of how he conveys story. He writes so efficiently. He writes beautiful characters that have depth and dimensionality, which is hard to do. I love his world building and I try to bring some of that to my work even though I have the medieval world and his is a suburban neighborhood, but the totality of his is so fleshed out and beautifully rendered. I try to bring whatever I can bring from the day job into my night job, so to speak.
In terms of editing, when I’m working on my own stuff I try to step back after the creative process and look at it from a reader’s perspective to make sure I’m as clear as possible and telling the story as efficiently as I can. Which may not be the case since my books average over 200 pages. [laughs] I’m working with these really old stories and I want to make them accessible. I want an eight year old kid to be able to pick up my book and not be intimidated, so I’m always trying to make it clear and fun and as concise as possible.
Dueben: You also just launched a mobile game which is related to Kid Beowulf right?
Fajardo: Yes, and I made the unfortunate decision to launch it – unbeknownst to me–when Pokemon Go was launched. It’s a fun puzzle game, akin to Candy Crush, called Lookin’ for Lingonberries. In my universe, lingonberries are Beowulf’s call to adventure–his stomach moves before his brain does. In this game you go through different puzzles searching for berries and as you go you unlock this story called Lookin’ for Lingonberries, which takes place a couple months after the first book and sets up the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel. It’s a free download for Android and Apple and it was a fun experiment. This game developer had been reading my stuff online and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing a puzzle game. I had been eager to do this short story and the game was a great format to put it all together. I think it turned out really nicely.
Dueben: Kid Beowulf: The Blood-Bound Oath is out this month, you have the second book coming out next year. Is the plan to release one book a year?
Fajardo: Right now I’m finishing up edits on Book Two, Kid Beowulf: The Song of Roland which comes out March of next year. Beowulf and Grendel are going from Scandinavia and traveling to France where they will meet Charlemagne and his knights. I wanted to do a big action-adventure story, similar to the great tales that Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini did. Book 3 is a little more romantic–the brothers head to Spain and meet Rodrigo Diaz who becomes El Cid. In each book I delve into a different epic and country. Book 4, is rolling around my brain right now, and I’m eager to start drawing it. I love mashing up comics and the classics and hope my readers dig it too!
Check out more information about Alexis Fajardo and Kid Beowulf at Fajardo’s website!