Alexis Fajardo is an Eisner Award-winning editor, writer and artist who is the editorial director at the Schulz Studio. He is also the cartoonist behind the Kid Beowulf series of graphic novels. The middle grade series focuses on Beowulf and Grendel, from the epic poem Beowulf, who in this version are twin brothers, exiled from home and wandering the world, encountering other characters from fiction and mythology.
Fajardo has just launched a Kickstarter for the fourth graphic novel in the series, Kid Beowulf: The Tarpeian Rock, which takes the brothers to Rome where they meet another set of famous brothers as the series takes a turn. He was kind enough to talk about the book, mythology and the influence of Star Wars.
For people who haven’t read Kid Beowulf, what is the series?
It’s a middle grade graphic novel series inspired by the epic poem Beowulf. In my universe, Beowulf, the viking, and Grendel, the monster, are 12-year-old twin brothers. They travel across the world, meet other epic heroes, and along the way they discover their true destiny – the actual events of Beowulf. It’s a mashup of classic comics that I grew up reading like Asterix and Bone, and my love of mythology, all thrown into this big melting pot of action-adventure comics.
Describing it is odd. It’s epic fantasy and it’s a middle grade adventure tale, and their destiny is to fight each other to the death. There are lot of elements that don’t seem to come together, but reading it, you make it work.
I appreciate that. Each book is unique. The first book is the origin story and lays out who they are and how they could be twins. The subsequent books are all based on a different country’s epic poem. For example, in book two they go to France and it’s inspired by the French epic The Song of Roland. In book three they go to Spain and that’s inspired by El Cid. I use the Beowulf legend as a bridge into these older stories that folks are not familiar with. The fourth book is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while because it takes them to ancient Italy, where they meet another pair of twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. It plays with those foundational stories of Rome. It’s also the first in the next set of books where I really dive into the struggle that Beowulf and Grendel deal with as they start to mature and their destiny is revealed to them.
Beowulf is a story that people know far more about than they’ve read. And similarly, as far as Romulus and Remus, people might know the image of them being raised by a she wolf, that they founded Rome, and that’s about it.
Classicists know when you try to figure out the story of Rome, it’s really muddled. You do have those elements like you just mentioned. The twins were suckled by a she wolf and they were raised by a shepherd. But then there’s this whole middle part where they get embroiled with a family affair with the uncle that exiled them when they were little and they try to retake the throne for their grandfather. The other part people might be familiar with is the part when Romulus kills Remus at the founding of Rome. But there’s this long middle gap. For me the interesting parts were the brothers, the she- wolf, and what led to that fratricide. The other foundational story that I’m playing with is the abduction of the Sabine women, which happens later in the original story. Romulus needed to populate Rome so he went to a nearby village and kidnapped all their young women, which led to a war. There are elements of that story here including a young woman named Tarpeia.
I’m taking all these disparate elements about the foundation of Rome and spinning it in my own Kid Beowulf fashion. For me that’s looking at the relationship between Romulus and Remus and how that mirrors Beowulf and Grendel. And then throwing in sword and sandals elements as a nod to those great movies like Spartacus and Gladiator. If you’re going to go to Rome, people want to see some of those elements – or at least, I wanted to play around with those tropes.
You enjoy finding a way to tell a story based on these epic tales in part by finding what’s unsaid in them.
I’m trying to tell a good, straight-up adventure story with plausible character development and all of those big things that writers try to tackle. It’s middle grade, but I really think about the same audience who would read Bone or Lord of the Rings or one of those epic tales. I know in the book world they don’t like to say “all ages” but that’s the tradition I’m writing in.
You’re playing with the timeline.
It’s completely anachronistic! [laughs] I know this because sometimes I’ll pitch this to medievalists and classicists who will have an arched eyebrow when I tell them what I’m doing. Once I show them what I’m doing and how it’s all coming from the point of view of me loving this stuff and wanting to introduce it to people who are not as familiar with it, they’re okay with it. I’m always pointing back to the source material in a fun way that hopefully gets those readers engaged and interested and digging into those original stories. We’ve developed teachers guides and classroom sets for these books. It’s a fun tale, but there are resources that teachers find very appealing.
Song of Roland and El Cid take place in kind of, sort of the same period.
Give or take a couple hundred years. [laughs]
[laughs] Yes, but this book jumps back another couple thousand years.
This is where I’m leading the next set of stories. The brothers will get deeper into the mythological settings of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. The further that they go back into these stories, the grittier it becomes in terms of the mythological themes of fate and destiny. These are the stories that I was focused on in my college days. The ideas for those have been percolating for years so it’s exciting to open up the storyline here.
Which makes sense given where it’s going and what their fates are.
Speaking of that, that was one of the things that was challenging for this book because – spoiler alert – Romulus kills Remus. I wanted to answer, “Why would these two brothers fight?” Hopefully I handled it well for the audience and hopefully that story resonates in an emotional way. I think it works, but I’m biased. [laughs]
You open this book with a Rudyard Kipling poem, which I’m not sure I ever read before. But it really underscores the idea that people keep re-reading and rewriting these stories in different ways.
Isn’t that a great poem? In the beginning of each book I have a prologue in a more illustrative fashion where I retell the original tale. So if a kid has never read these stories, I’m giving it to them, and then I go into my own cartoon-y realm. It’s like a CliffNotes version, and then we’re off on our adventure.
In between the books you also make shorter Kid Beowulf comics.
I’m going to presume you’re a Star Wars fan. Or at least you’ve heard of it?
It’s a movie, right?
[laughs] What’s great about that first trilogy are the in-between gaps. It’s really exciting because there are all these stories that have not been told that live in these spaces. In the gaps between the graphic novels are stories that wouldn’t quite fit as a full graphic novel, or there are characters I wanted to spend more time with. I developed this series of short stories that play around with some of those gaps and some of those characters. They add some texture and build out the universe. For example, between books three and four, I left a gap so when we first come across Beowulf and Grendel, they’re in Italy in these fighting pits. If you read book three, you don’t know why that happened and I have a short story that will explain that.
There’s an arc to the book, but they are very episodic. Although there is a rough geographic structure to their travels.
I follow a meandering pathway through Europe. They made their way from Spain into Italy and from Italy will go deeper into the Mediterranean. I love maps. I think maps are really important. If you’re into fantasy, the map is part of how it works.
How is your day job going? You’re editorial director now, right?
Yes, I’m editorial director at the Schulz Studio in Santa Rosa. We are working from home, which was a smooth transition for our office. A lot of the work that we do is through an online portal, and we have Zoom meetings. It’s hard not to see your co-workers when you have this very creative space where you can bounce ideas off each other, but we’re all doing okay and hanging in there. This is the 70th anniversary of Peanuts and we’ve been working towards that. 70 years, 20 since Charles Schulz’s death and it’s just incredible that legacy continues. It’s great to be a small part of that.
From the beginning, you seemed to have this very clear idea of how the story would work and all the stories you wanted to play with. Has that changed much?
It’s always still there. All the stories I would like to get to are in the back of my head. It’s just a matter of time and energy and focus. Time in the enemy, my friend. I want to keep going as far as I can. The epic scope is still there, it’s just a matter of balancing that with being human.