Alexis Fajardo and Kid BeowulfA comics interview article by: Jose San Mateo
Alexsis “Lex” Fajardo is a product of his influences. His career as an artist is best described as a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but it ultimately comes together quite nicely.
The son of a college professor, Fajardo was born in Concord, New Hampshire, and then went to high school in upstate New York when his father started teaching at a state university. He certainly fit the part of a scholar, showing a keen interest in the epic poem Beowulf growing up. He moved from the east coast to San Francisco seven years ago and worked any number of odd jobs to keep up his true profession: cartooning.
It was an anonymous job listing that led him to the Charles M. Schulz museum in Santa Rosa California, but working at the Schulz studio was the perfect job for Fajardo who grew up reading syndicated comic strips, living and breathing the works of Walt Kelly, Gary Trudeau, and, of course, Schulz.
"That love of comics strips sort of lead into my evolution as a graphic novelist,” Fajardo said. “So if you were to look at my work you would see a lot of those early influences from Schulz and Walt Kelly and comic strip artists."
Fajardo is best known for a series of graphic novels called Kid Beowulf. It is an homage to mythic heroes from around the world starring Beowulf, one of the oldest heroes this side of Gilgamesh. He said that his graphic novel is inspired by the old epic poem, but despite this, it is meant for all ages.
"The twist of it is in the original Beowulf, he’s a big Viking warrior, he goes around killing monsters, the most famous of which is Grendel," Fajardo said. "In my version the big Viking is twelve and the monster Grendel is his twelve year old twin brother. So it’s a bit of a twist and it’s kind of a prequel of sorts to the events of Beowulf"
The series is a mix of different comic books and graphic novels. Fajardo said Kid Beowulf is heavily influenced by series like Asterix, Bone, and syndicated comic strips from his youth.”The narrative is very straightforward, it’s all about making these stories accessible to any number of readers, whether you read comics or you don’t,” he said. “ The storytelling has a traditional panel- to-panel flow and I think a lot of that comes from comic strips."
As a kid Fajardo read comic books about superheroes, too, but in high school he got into old school superheroes like Heracles, Perseus, and Odysseus. That love for western mythology carried him through college where he studied Greek, Roman, and Norse myths.
His first exposure to the Beowulf myth was during an AP English class. "There was something about Beowulf and the simplicity of the story. The language was also very vibrant," Fajardo said. "When I decided to do my own series it was just natural to go back to the stories that influenced me as a kid and kind of do my own version.”
Fajardo admitted that the Odyssey was his favorite epic even though his work revolves around Beowulf. While Kid Beowulf is set in the universe of one epic, he wants to use his series as a vehicle for introducing different kinds of myths to people.
"I chose Beowulf specifically because, at least in this country, most people have heard of it. Either they studied it in school, or they’ve seen an adaptation of it in movies," Fajardo said. "They have some kind of connection to Beowulf and I can use that as a hook to introduce them to more obscure epics like a French one called 'The Song of Roland', or a Spanish one called 'El Cid', or 'Gilgamesh', or The Odyssey. So it’s a good gateway to get me to all these more obscure epics."
Fajardo said that at its root these are stories people told around the campfire so he wanted Kid Beowulf to be more about entertainment. The prologue is told in more of a storybook style and lays the groundwork for anybody who hasn't read Beowulf before. The later books branch out into epics from other countries.
"The first book is all about family and origins and sort of picking up on that theme in epic poetry where so and so begat so and so," Fajardo said. "It goes back into those origin stories.
Fajardo has created a mythopoeia of sorts as different epic heroes make an appearance in one universe. Book two, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland explores the epic heroes of France as Beowulf meets the likes of King Charlemagne and others. The third book, Kid Beowulf and the Rise of El Cid, is set in Spain where he meets the hero El Cid.
"I think there are so many connections between all these epic stories, whether it’s Beowulf, or it’s the Song of Roland, or it’s El Cid, or any number of other epics,” Fajardo said. “There’s that heroes journey, that Joseph Campbell talks about that most heroes take and that is essentially what my story is."
Kid Beowulf explores the epics of other countries through the eyes of Beowulf and Grendel. They have already travelled to Sweden, France and then Spain. Fajardo plans to use their travels across the world to explore many of the more obscure myths.
"if you follow the map then they’ll go into Greece and then they’ll go into Mesopotamia and then they’ll go into India and then they’ll cross the sea over into Japan and then over to China," Fajardo said. "So I do have those more obscure western mythologies on my radar and I’m really looking forward to diving into those because there are some that I’m also not that familiar with. It’s going to be fun to dig into that and see which stories are going to link up with Beowulf.”
The fun of doing Kid Beowulf was making all of the pieces fit together. Fajardo did his fair share of research by reading all of the epics that show up in his graphic novels. It's a process he thoroughly enjoys.
"For me, it’s just loving these original stories like Beowulf, The Song of Roland and The Odyssey. I’ve read those stories a dozen different times and they never get old for me. I’m always finding something new about them," he said. "So I think I’m fortunate that all my source material has been around for centuries and it’s stood the test of time. It is very invigorating for me to dive into."
The path to publishing Kid Beowulf was a decade long process; it started off as a series of sketches in 2000, with the first publication coming out three years later as a self published graphic novel. Fajardo said that he felt those initial drawings and the self published novel were things he had to do.
"All those drawings, as bad as they were, were a great stepping stone to me figuring out what I wanted the series to be. Looking at the market and seeing other books like Bone or Amulet or other popular graphic novels and seeing what worked for them and then how could I apply that to my own series also helped," Fajardo said. "When I look back at that original self-published book, it hurts; it’s like, I wince, but at the same time it’s what got me to where I am now.
There was a five year span after that initial graphic novel that Fajardo didn't work on Kid Beowulf. During that time, he worked a traditional four-panel comic strip called Plato's Republic, which he syndicated online for about five years while Kid Beowulf was on the back burner.
Fajardo got back to his passion once Plato’s Republic ran its course, however. "So it was when I realized that syndicated and newspaper comics were really on the way out, I decided to switch gears and move into graphic novels, which thankfully are on the way in and have become a really huge market."
The path to publishing Kid Beowulf was an interesting one. He put out the first two books through Portland based publisher Bowler Hat Comics in 2008 and in 2010. Book three was a bit less conventional, as Bowler Hat Comics shut down, and Fajardo ended up buying the rights to the first two volumes while running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the third book.
In many ways Kid Beowulf is a product of Fajardo’s varied interest. It’s part syndicated comic strip and epic myth, yet it all culminates into a graphic novel that works because it is easily accessible to all.
Fajardo left me with a piece of advice that seems to have guided his creative process: “If you’re passionate enough in whatever it is you’re doing and you’re open enough to making it the best it can be, I think opportunities will present themselves and doors will open.”