The Comics of Eliza Frye: A Gateway to the Sequential Arts
A lady is murdered. She was a Parisian prostitute. We meet some people who knew her. A bloody butcher. A flower merchant. A client. A painter for whom she modeled. A few others. We attend her burial. The murderer is revealed, the story ends. With a minimum of dialogue, the dark, tense eroticism of this graphic narrative is masterfully conveyed through its layout, line work, and color. It was Eliza Frye’s first webcomic, and it earned her an Eisner Award nomination in 2009. Since then, she’s done a variety of mood pieces that also revolve around sex and death. Enough to fill a book.
The book is now out in hardcover. It’s called Regalia. And its visual grace, lyricism, and sophistication is a rarity, even for alt-comics. Frye considers it a collection of love letters.
This is the first part of my two-part interview with Frye. Here she discusses her art, design, and sources of inspiration. Next week, she divulges a few secrets of her success.
Frye at San Diego’s Comic-Con. Photo: M. Dooley.
Who do you see as your audience?
People often tell me, “I like your comics even though I don’t really like comics,” so I would like to think of my work as a sort of gateway to the sequential arts. In that way, I see my audience as anyone who is interested in art, design, literature, and the intersection of the three.
How did you acquire your bold sense of design?
I’ve been working as a web designer since I was in high school, so I matured in art and design at the same time and actually have a lot of trouble distinguishing between the two. To me, art and design live within each other.
But I probably learned the most from my time at CalArts when I was in the Character Animation department. They emphasize a very high level of skill in both drawing and design, and I’m sure I would not be where I am today without that program.
And who were your mentors?
I had two mentors when I was at CalArts, Mike Mitchell and Leo Hobaica, Jr. Mike taught life drawing and helped me to look at the model as something more than just physical anatomy. He would always dress his models in wild costumes, pose them with cool props, like a motorcycle with a deer’s head, project images behind them, and play awesome music. It was the single best class I’ve ever taken and the catalyst for transforming my work from student studies to what I considered to be “real art.”
Leo taught design and gave the best, truly honest critiques. Every time I knew inside me that something was wrong with a piece but thought no one else would notice, he would call me out on it. He taught me that the distinction between amateur and professional artists isn’t just money, it’s that professionals will stick with something until it’s completely finished. Artists are responsible for all aspects of their work, and attention is the most valuable thing you can give to your art. He’s also the reason I primarily work in gouache. He made me use it until my hate for it turned to love.
But the most important mentor in my life has been my father, Doug Frye. He’s an artist too, and shoved paintbrushes into my hands before I even knew what they were. He always gave me free rein with his art supplies and encouraged me to keep drawing and painting, often to an annoying degree. Lately his prolific and sedulous dedication to his painting—despite also working full-time as physician—has been especially inspirational for me. Someday I hope I can derive as much pure joy from painting as he does.
What inspired you to create The Lady’s Murder?
I had been working with a model named Sara Streeter in Mike’s life drawing class at CalArts. We were exploring the theme of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and she was posing as the prostitute Ivy Pearson. I remember that day very clearly because I was sick as a dog and enveloped in some kind of waking fever dream. Sara came in and created this character that was so ghostly and beautiful, sexy in a very melancholic way. Nico was probably playing the background. Every drawing I did that day has been influential to everything I’ve done since then, but the experience was also the beginning of The Lady’s Murder.
Sara Streeter, the character she embodied that day, is Marie Madeline. The rest grew up around her.
How might your degree in Japanese literature from UCLA have aided your storytelling?
I’m not sure I yet have the self-insight to speak about its effect on my storytelling, but my degree in Japanese literature, and more specifically a professor named Michael Marra, is definitely the reason I care about art. I switched to the major via linguistics from computer science because I was terrible at coding but had convinced myself that I needed to get a degree in something “serious.”
In my first semester I took Professor Marra’s class on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, and it completely revolutionized my world. He defined aesthetics as the search to understand the nature of beauty, that feeling you get when a work of art punches you in the guts, rips out your heart, and refuses to ever give it back. For him it was the most serious of concerns, and his enthusiasm was positively infectious. I realized that being able to punch people in the guts with my work, and understand that ability from a philosophical point of view, would indeed be a great achievement.
I’m still working on it.
This is part one of my interview with Frye. Check back next Friday for part two.
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