As you’ve probably already heard, Simon Frasier’s (rather awesome) comic scifi series Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines Of Charybdis from webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE is hitting MTV Geek today. To find out more about it, including how he came up with the character, what’s coming up next, and why Lilly’s nudity isn’t the sort you’ll find popping up on celeb sites, read on!
MTV Geek: Okay, talk about the genesis of Lilly Mackenzie – how’d you come up with the idea?
Simon Frasier: It actually started with Cosmo, who's a character I've been drawing since I was at college. He used to be much smaller , about 6", a kind of Jiminy Cricket who gave bad advise to the story's young male lead, who was quite capable of having his own bad ideas.
The story is actually derived from something that happened to me while I was living in Tanzania back in the 90s. Without glorifying my role too much I helped rescue a 12 year old boy , the son of our housekeeper , who had been taken to work in a Tanzanite mine in Mererani. It was one of the most shocking experiences of my life as I've never seen human beings so debased.
There were hundreds of men there, sleeping on the dirt and literally scrabbling for anything they could find with their hands. Most of them were starving and painfully emaciated. The children were being used to go down narrow shafts because of their size. Meanwhile there were gemstone dealers living near the mine and paying the miners very tiny amounts of money for stones that were worth thousands of dollars. At one point I was worried that we'd be attacked, but happily we managed to find and bring the boy home to his mother. The experience was terrifying!
Writing the story down has been a way of processing that experience. I didn't want to do an autobiographical story, as that always ends up fictionalised in some way and I don't want to position myself as some kind of heroic protagonist when I was merely a tourist. Making it a fictional story was a way for me to deal with the subject in a creative way and Science Fiction is the genre I am happiest working in.
Lilly was the last piece of the puzzle. I wanted to write and draw a female protagonist. I like drawing women a lot, so I know I could make her look good, but I wasn't sure if I could write one convincingly. I'm still not. That has been the most challenging part of the process.
Geek: One of the things I like about it is the relatively casual tone – at least at first. It’s scifi, but it feels like that’s the backdrop to tell the story, rather than the focus.
SF: I wanted to world-build with the first Lilly story, create a universe that has certain specific rules. One of those is that space travel is difficult. Getting up into space is a dangerous process and getting down can be too. I find a lot of problems with how conventional mainstream science fiction has removed all the challenges of space-travel, which are what I find interesting. The drama for me is in the characters overcoming these massive physical obstacles using their brains and basic technology, not the magical Star Trek kind. The story is slow paced initially to build up a sense of what is normal as I don't want to fall back on the old laser blaster, teleporter, warp drive cliches that have become synonymous with TV and movie Sci-fi.
I also want to underline that wherever we go as a species we will bring our problems with us. So Charybdis may be a fantastically distant place , but it functions as any penal colony would. People fighting every day just to survive in an unforgiving environment is what life is like for a vast number of people on this planet. I'm sure that those injustices will continue no matter how sophisticated we become. Something I'll be dealing with in the 2nd Lilly story ' Lilly Mackenzie & the Treasure of Paros' is how the affluent, top 5% live. This first story is very much set among the blue-collar and the desperate.
Geek: How much of the universe did you have going in? Or did it start with the characters?
SF: The universe is growing as my story grows. The story demands that space travel be available to the average working guy, but it's a bare bones , workaday affair. Lilly & Cosmo's adventures will have them fighting the laws of physics as much as gangster warlords and corporate security men. So that dictates very much how the universe will be. Having a menial job on a spacecraft will be just as dispiriting as having a menial job in McDonalds. The bottom line is that everything is being run by corporations who will nickle and dime their own staff at any opportunity.
That's true now and it will be true in 200 years. I've chosen to make a universe without aliens because that adds a huge cultural and technological shift to the society that I don't want right now. Everything needs to be recognisable to the readers because one of my longer term goals is so see how cultures shift to deal with sudden change.
Geek: Who is Lilly?
SF: Lilly is someone who survives, she survived her parents, or her mother at least. She chose not to go down the path that was laid out for her and to a certain extent she is a drifter without a clear purpose at the start of this story. She has few requirements, but gets what she wants because a pretty girl can along very nicely without stretching herself very much.
Though at the same time she has certain resources and competencies that make her more confident in dangerous situations than just anyone might be. The larger story of the trilogy will be about her character dealing with her families past and building a future for herself.
Geek: Who is Cosmo?
SF: I'm keeping Cosmo's background rather obscure for the time being. We can see that he is very short and we learn that he is very smart. He has considerable engineering skills and is most comfortable on board a star-ship. Less so in the 'real world' where he is at a disadvantage due to his size. He is amiable , but solitary. Lilly is his best friend, though he is obviously suppressing some, much stronger feelings towards her. Cosmo is our everyman character to some extent, while Lilly is a bit mysterious at the beginning. It's through Cosmo's eyes that we see how events develop and he is the readers proxy.
Geek: If anything, this really seems like the story of Lilly growing up… Is that close to what you were going for?
SF: Absolutely. Through this initial story she arrives at a sense of agency with her own life. We talk about adulthood as if it's a burden that is thrust upon our shoulders. When in reality it's something we earn when we start taking responsibility for our own lives and the lives of others.
Geek: Let’s focus on the process a bit… You’re writing pages, but it’s released a chunk at a time online – how do you plan for that on the writing end?
SF: I started out with a full script for a 48 page French style Album, which was my initial goal. When the idea of doing it as a webcomic was broached that changed the format considerably and allowed me to extemporise around the initial framework I had built. Writing a story over years in front of an audience is actually tremendous fun and it has grown and changed according to many outside factors as I drew it.
In fact I pretty much abandoned the script after a couple of months, but it gave me a sense of security to know that it was there and that all the major plot issues had been solved. Then I basically drew a page a week according to what I know had to happen and where the characters needed to be, I had the artwork coloured, then I wrote the dialogue at the very end , just before posting the page. So in a sense I was working 'Marvel-style' with my own script. This method gave the whole thing a sense of spontaneity that I think can get lost if you are following a strict plan for years at a time.
Geek: Can you chat about the art on the book a bit?
SF: The art is a by product of my collaboration with Gary Caldwell on the 'Nikolai Dante' stories for 2000AD. We have arrived at a very fluid and productive relationship over the years. As I had to convince Gary to do this work for no money up front I kept the art fairly pared down and the original pages are quite small compared to a Dante page. We average about 5 - 6 panels a page whereas Dante averages 7 panels and is a good deal more complicated. I briefly considered doing the story in black & white , but colour has become such an important part of my storytelling these days that I really wanted to keep that element. Even though it adds substantially to the production and the eventual cost of a book version.
Geek: Now, I don’t want to get totally pervy here, but there’s a fair bit of nudity in the book… As a writer, what kind of decision goes into saying, “Okay, I’m going to make my main character go the full Scarlett Johannsenn?”
SF: This book was originally intended to be a French graphic album, which I discover is a format and a culture with all kinds of unsaid rules. One of which is that if you have an attractive female character, she is going to get naked, have a shower or sleep with someone for a few panels during the story. It happens like clockwork.
Now I'm not naïve here, I chose to have a pretty female character because I want people to be attracted to her, but the more I thought about the character and the more I became invested in her story, those conventions of comics sexuality started to make me uncomfortable. I know that many of the readers want to see her naked and I know that as a pretty woman on a spaceship she has to be constantly dealing with the sexual expectations and assumptions of the, primarily male, crew. The idea struck me that nakedness and sexuality are not the same thing. We fetishize the naked female body in our culture, it's kept concealed but when we do see it it's usually in a sexual context.
So I thought wouldn't it be interesting to remove the sexual context and see how the characters cope with that. We see Lilly naked a few times in the story , but I've made it as non-sexual as possible. I wanted it to serve the story and the character. The major nude scene in the book is hopefully where we realise who Lilly really is as a character, hopefully confounding our expectations. The nudity in this book is also me taking a political position on a cultural prurience that I find baffling, but hopefully in an entertaining way.
The irony is that for the story to go on MTV Geek, I had to censor the nudity. This is somewhat absurd, in that by doing this we reintroduce the idea of decorous concealment and that nakedness is somehow taboo and filthy. The final printed version will be as nature (and artist) intended!
Geek: You’ve already touched on this a bit, but the book is really about the relationship between Lily and Cosmo – what’s your take on the relationship? It’s friendship, but also there seems to be a little bit of unrequited love going on there…
SF: It's complicated. They are good friends and the main through-line of this story for me is the trust they have in each other. Inevitably Cosmo's sexual frustration will complicate his feelings. Like most of us we sometimes confuse intimacy with sexuality, the line can be very blurry, especially if you have been on board a spaceship for months on end. Love is a very complicated emotion and can take many forms. Too often popular culture gives us romantic love as the be all and end all of human relationships. I like the fact that the 2 of them have arrived at a nearly domestic level of intimacy without being lovers. Though who knows, in different circumstances.....it's complicated.
Geek: Without spoiling too much, what can you tell us about Lily’s family?
SF: Well the discovery of that story is very much at the heart of the 3 stories that I want to tell with these characters, Lilly has a twin brother who has gone to the wrong side of the tracks and a mother who is a very difficult and bitter person. She has good reasons for being how she is and Lilly's father is one of them. His story will be the backbone of 'Lilly Mackenzie & the Treasure of Paros' which I am writing and drawing at the moment.
Geek: Lastly, at least what I read leaves the story with plenty more places to go… Do you know what’s next for Lilly and Cosmo?
SF: Well some time will pass before the next story kicks off, some kind of normality will assert itself. Lilly & Cosmo will drift apart to an extent and Lilly will have a love life back on Earth again. Then Lilly's father will return...
Watch a video interview we did with Fraser ealier this year at MoCCA Festival below -- and then check out the first part of Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines Of Charybdis!