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September 04, 2012

‘Regalia’: Eliza Frye paints stories of love and murder

Posted in: Comics

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Frye's first comic was "The Lady's Murder." The story won her an Eisner nomination. (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "The Lady's Murder" in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "The Lady's Murder" in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "Horse & Rider," a story in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "Lucky House," a story in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "Lucky House," a story in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

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A page from "Lucky House," a story in Eliza Frye's book "Regalia." (Eliza Frye)

Eliza Frye’s debut graphic novel “Regalia” is the result of a rash decision to quit her design job at an advertising agency and start making comics. After the initial planning and writing of the story, Frye started drawing her first comic, “The Lady’s Murder,” one page every day until it was finished a month later. “The Lady’s Murder” was nominated for an Eisner Award, and her first book, “Regalia,” includes that story along with seven others that explore themes of love, death, power and family. Hero Complex caught up with Frye, who studied character animation at CalArts and holds a degree in Japanese Literature from UCLA, to talk about her art.

HC: You mention in your book that your entry into comics was almost on impulse. You just quit your job and started drawing? What gave you that kind of courage?

EF: My mom! She has always been overwhelmingly supportive of my art. She recognized that my job, however well-paying and ostensibly positive, was actually having a negative effect on my character. She reminded me that I could always get another one if I needed to, and that the life experiences I stood to gain from taking a risk on my passion were worth more than a few missed paychecks. So one day I woke up and wrote in my sketchbook, “Today I’m going to quit my job for art,” and then went to work and did it. Literally, when I got home I started working on “The Lady’s Murder,” the story that got me started in comics. And even though I’ve had several jobs since then, I approach working a totally different way. I’m no longer afraid of the unknown, or unemployment.

HC: What inspired “The Lady’s Murder”? Did you know how the mystery was going to end when you began it? And then to have received an Eisner nomination for your first comic — what was that like?

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A page from “The Lady’s Murder” in Eliza Frye’s book,  “Regalia.” (Eliza Frye)

EF: My family was actually involved in a homicide trial at the time, so I was spending a lot of time thinking about murder, and what it could mean. You see, murder isn’t just about the killer and the victim — it touches everyone close to them as well. My grandmother was killed in 1973, and her death is still haunting our entire family. In a way, I’m sorry I ended “The Lady’s Murder” at all, because I’ve come to understand that murder isn’t actually the kind of thing that gets resolved. The killer may be found and the body properly buried, but the weight of the death is never lifted. So, “The Lady’s Murder” is my attempt at understanding this issue. On the much lighter side of things, of course the Eisner nomination was very exciting! I don’t give much weight to awards, but I took it as a positive sign that working in comics was the right path for me. It’s the medium I now find most expressive and natural, and something that I think will always be a part of my life. I can’t wait to see what sorts of comics I’ll be making when I’m 90.

HC: How would you describe your artistic style? What inspires you?

EF: I try to make the art a function of the story, and I love experimenting with new mediums and techniques, so I usually start with a rough script and then decide what kind of visuals are best suited to tell that particular story. I’m pretty structural, so I will often tightly define color schemes and visual motifs before I even start sketching. I didn’t for most of the stories in “Regalia,” but now I always make a full thumbnail script as well. After that, it really depends on story. For “The Lady’s Murder,” I literally just drew one page every day for about a month, working from the initial pencil sketch to the fully painted page in around two hours. Most of my creative time is spent ruminating over the story. If the story is right, the art will come naturally but if the writing is wrong, the whole thing will fall apart no matter how many hours I spend laboring over the drawing. I have a couple of failed comics like that. … I think I can best describe my style as “graphic” in every sense of the word. Visually, I’m most inspired by symbolist painters, poster art of all kinds and ’80s cartoons. I have an impressively/embarrassingly large collection of prints, gig posters and animation cels that I seasonally rotate throughout my house. But I think my most powerful inspiration actually comes from music. Right now I’m obsessed with French and Japanese covers of 1960s pop songs. I’m not sure where that’s heading but I bet it will involve a lot of pink!

HC: The characters in “Regalia” are at once universal and very specific. The aging beauty. The father and daughter. The drowning girl. They’re magical, but at the same time relatable. Was that your intention?

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Characters Filly and Beau in “Horse & Rider,” a story in Eliza Frye’s book “Regalia.” (Eliza Frye)

EF: Yes, I’m very inspired by fairy tale structures, and most of the stories function within those tropes. Beau and Filly, for example, represent the classic prince and princess of Western literary fantasy, but they’re also amalgamations of specific friends and lovers (and, of course, pieces of myself). I think that characters — and settings — come alive through details so I tried to achieve a balance between that kind of realism and a sense of symbolist fantasy.

HC: What kind of characters and stories are you drawn to tell? Would you say there’s a theme that ties them all together?

EF: All of my stories are deeply personal, often arising out of some cathartic urge to work through a particular problem or relationship in my life. The details are all mixed up, but the essence of each one is quite real. Apart from that, many of them are based around things I simply like to draw. “Horse & Rider,” for example, actually started because I was rereading some of my childhood journals and came across an entry that said, “When I grow up I want to draw ponies all day!” So I would say that if there is an overall theme it’s basically my life story, just pushed to a highly fantastical and dramatic edge.

HC: Your book was funded through Kickstarter? How would you describe your self-publishing experience?

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Artist and author Eliza Frye. (Joe Rubinstein)

EF: It’s been absolutely fantastic! I’m still completely overwhelmed by the response to my work, and the amount of support I’ve received from the independent comics community. I may have written and drawn “Regalia,” but the book was definitely produced by the graces of the Internet. Every single tweet, comment, like and pledge counts for so much, and I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to share my work with so many wonderful and talented people. It’s truly collaborative. For example, during the Kickstarter campaign, I got an email from one of my backers, Joe Rubinstein, who is a phenomenal photographer in L.A. He suggested we make something sometime and I needed a bio photo for the book, so we got together and everything just clicked right away. I think because he was into my art, he was able to immediately understand my creative perspective. Despite my newbie clumsiness, the shoot went perfectly and came out so much better than I expected. Definitely the best part about self-publishing for me has been all of the amazing friends and creative partners I’ve met throughout the process. It becomes more personal for everyone, I think, since my audience has a stake in my work just as I do.

HC: Can you talk a little about “Death?” How did it come about? How has it evolved? What’s the plan for it?

EF: “Death” is the webcomic I’m currently working on with my best friend Omar ZahZah. It’s a collection of 12 interrelated short stories about Death and the nature of his “existence.” Omar and I regularly workshop each other’s writing, and the project came about because he started sending me these phenomenal stories, almost poems really, that expressed a point of view about death that I’d never considered before. They really blew my mind, so I asked him if he would allow me to adapt them into comics. He said yes and then I spent six months thinking. I decided that it was imperative to the integrity of the character to never depict Death directly. Whatever you imagine Death to be will always be 10 times stronger than anything I can show you, so most of the art is actually drawn from his point of view. I’m also creating each story in a different medium as a way to express both the universality and the absurdity present in Omar’s writing. “Death” is without a doubt the most ambitious project I’ve worked on to date, and I’m hoping it will be something truly magical when it’s completed. Omar and I are planning to release it in print through Kickstarter next year, and if all goes well we’ll have the book and a performance piece ready for San Diego Comic-Con. Boney fingers crossed!

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A page from “Death,” a webcomic by Eliza Frye and Omar ZahZah. (deathcomic.com)

HC: What else do you have coming up?

EF: I’m also working on another collaborative comic about Death (as a woman this time!) I can’t say much more than that at the moment, unfortunately, except that it will be my first full-length graphic novel and that I’m completely in love with her horses.

— Noelene Clark


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