Comics, fairytales & gender bias: Interview with Karrie Fransman

Comics, fairytales & gender bias: Interview with Karrie Fransman

June 01, 2021

Karrie Fransman is a graphic novellist, visual storyteller and comic creator. She tells stories in books, newspapers, animations, sculptures, on Ipads and in virtual reality, and her comics strips and graphic stories have been published in The Guardian, The Times, and The Telegraph - to name a few! Her latest illustrated book, ‘Gender Swapped Fairy Tales’ was co-created with her husband Jonathan Plackett, published by Faber & Faber, and uses a simple but extremely effective algorithm to explore and unpick gender bias.

“It’s one thing to know that misogynistic stereotypes exist, another to peer into the machine that creates them . . . The illustrations also back up the aim of the book by disrupting stereotypes . . . an important reminder that the way we tell stories matters.”

- Independent

We couldn't wait to catch up with Karrie and talk more about her life, work and love of comics - and also find out more about her latest book...

Interview: Matilda Barratt in conversation with Karrie Fransman.

Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to be a comic creator, or have you always had the creative itch?

I’d read lots of picture books and comics (which I didn’t acknowledge as comics) when I was younger – The Beano, comics about Greek mythology, etc. I used to draw stories all the time but I thought of them more as static animations. I made the painful decision to not go to art college and instead studied Psychology and Sociology and forgot about my picture stories. Then, after university, I watched Ghost World at the cinema, spotted the book in Waterstones, devoured it with greedy eyes and then called my sister immediately to tell her that I needed to start making these comicy things. I was in love! I started going to comic cons where I met my tribe and the rest is history.

Could you tell us a bit about your process? When creating a comic, where do you typically start?

I've always seen myself as a storyteller rather than an 'artist' or 'writer'. So I usually start with an idea for a story. Something with an emotional truth at its heart and the potential to create some amazing images and words. I typically start wide, seeking inspiration from everywhere outside of the comics world and keeping a sketchbook with drawings, scenes and ideas from all over the story. Then I start the task of packing, editing and neatening the story into the confines of panels and pages. Comics really require the art of organising and art directing information. It's a seemingly invisible skill that sits somewhere in between the words and the pictures. 

What is it that excites you about the medium? Why do you love what you do? 

Comics are one of the most accessible mediums in the world. All you need is a pen and paper to create your own. It is a very old medium- with sequential art visible in cave paintings, but it is also a strikingly new medium with the potential for comics to move from paper to online, virtual reality and beyond. 

The UK's comic scene is also full of lovely folk who hide in their bedrooms escaping real life through drawn panels into other worlds. There are very few egos in the community- everyone is doing it for love rather than money. Which is a small upside to the dire state of the UK's comic industry compared to that of France/Belgium/Japan/Korea etc. I did a TEDx talk about the power of the comics medium that you can see here.

Where do you typically find inspiration?

I think my inspiration mostly comes from real life. Real emotions or challenges people go through. But ones where I can add a twist of magical realism. Though nowadays I do many more client-led projects where I'm presented with historical information or academic research and I go and find the emotive narrative within that. It's fantastic to have the chance to learn from experts whilst still being allowed the creative freedom. I also get a huge amount of inspiration from looking outside the illustration/comic world at documentaries, theatre, gaming, dance, oral storytelling etc. And from following artists and hashtags on Instagram! I could watch people create art in time lapse all day long. It's so relaxing! 

What do you aim to achieve with your work?

Ha ha. I'm not sure I've yet created the perfection I'm always seeking. I like the idea that good work should have the golden equation of head (the intellectual idea), hand (the craft) and heart (emotional engagement- the most important bit!). I think I'd like to move back to creating less commercial work. Maybe epic, emotional picture books for adults that don't sell and are loved by exactly 8 people? For the last few years since I've had my daughter I've been aware of an increased pressure to earn a wage from my art and to justify the time I spend apart from her. But when your work is self driven it's very easy to forget why you're doing it or what direction you should be heading in. Taking commissions from clients is often easier than following passion projects. But it's the passion projects that feed your soul!

You created a fantastic comic entitled Over Under Sideways Down about a brave teenage refugee, Ebrahim, which was published by the Red Cross for Refugee Week back in 2014. How did you become involved with that project? What were some of the challenges that you faced in bringing Ebrahim’s story to life?

It all began with Rosie Stewart from the British Red Cross, who realised comics might be the perfect medium to engage a larger audience with the stories of refugees. She walked into Gosh comic store in London one day and asked them who they would recommend to do a project on refugees. I'd done some comic journalism and thankfully Posy Simmonds was too busy, so I got the job. It was the first of what turned out to be a rather lot of comics and animations I'd end up working on that told the stories of refugees and migrants. It was also one of the first to use the medium of comics to explore this issue. Today there are a host of fantastic comics looking at refugee experiences from Kate Evan's Threads to Alpha by Bessora and Barroux. The process of creating the comic was difficult. I felt an enormous responsibility in recounting Ebrahim's story- I knew it couldn't be a perfect rendition of his experience so instead I used magical realism to try and illustrate the emotional truths in the story and get the readers to empathise. Thankfully, Ebrahim was happy with the results and the comic still crops up in exhibitions and events 8 years after we created it. Comics really have longevity.

[Image: Red Riding Hood, Illustration from 'Gender Swapped Fairy Tales']

We would love to hear more about your latest book, Gender Swapped Fairy Tales, which explores gender bias and challenges the troubling stereotypes that are embedded within our society. Where did the idea for this book come from?

The genesis of the idea was with my coauthor and husband, Jonathan Plackett. When Theresa May first met Nicola Sturgeon he was annoyed to see so many newspapers focusing on the shoes the two politicians were wearing. He imagined an alternate world where Boris met Biden and the tabloids were full of close-up shots of their shiny brogues. A world where the shoe was literally on the other foot. Jonathan set about creating a computer algorithm that swapped all the gender of any text- turning ‘he’ to ‘she’, ‘Mrs’ to ‘Mr’ and ‘Theresa’ into ‘Theo’. Once he had the algorithm he wasn't sure what to do with it so I suggested we apply it to public domain fairy tales and that I illustrate the new stories. Fairy tales are some of the oldest stories and the first stories we're exposed to as children. Plus they contain so many gendered stereotypes. We ran the fairy tales through the algorithm and were astounded by the stories that emerged: Princesses scaled towers to rescue princes. Kings sat by the window sewing and longing for a child. Men were rewarded for seeing past the flaws of ugly and beastly women and loving them despite all this. While there have been many rewritings of fairy tales we are still often victims of our unconscious biases. Today we see a lot of ‘tomboy’ princesses but men are much less frequently allowed to take on 'feminine' traits. Being kind hearted, self sacrificing and sensitive or wanting a child. Our book now contained the stories of three men who want to be fathers. We see the book as part book, part art object and part activism. We want it to shine a light and disrupt the gender binaries hidden in the language and narratives of the stories we've been telling our children for generations.

It is such a beautiful book! I imagine it was great fun to illustrate?

Thanks so much. Yes- it really was great fun! I began by researching all the thousands of images already drawn from these famous stories. I would copy the poses but swapped the genders and notice patterns emerging- the sexualisation of the female characters and emphasis on their bodies. The way they were forced into narrow categories of 'maiden' 'mother' or 'hag'. When I came to draw my own versions of each story I adored painting women as beasts, goblins, giants and wolves. The endless pretty, passive teenage princes were less fun to draw! I researched the era and country that each story originated in and used the textiles and architecture of those places to influence each image. And each picture had a very bright and contrasting colour pallet. It was a delight to have less images to draw than a comic so I could spend days on each painting rather than racing to finish 200 pages of a graphic novel!

What is particularly interesting about Gender Swapped Fairy Tales is the way in which it forces us all to consider our own gender biases - biases that have been ingrained into our psyches from a young age! I’m interested to know if you found yourself coming face to face with any of your own unconscious biases when working on the book?

Totally. One of the fascinating things with this book is that once we passed the text through the algorithm we could read the new stories for the first time ourselves. Despite being a card carrying feminist I found myself tripping over sentences such as 'there once lived a poor woodcutter with her husband'. Or with switched titles that allowed women to come first such as 'Gretel and Hansel'. Reading these stories to children becomes an intellectual exercise as you swap back and forth and question your assumptions and reponses. We had a lovely review in The Guardian by Zoe Williams where she just wrote about how the book exposed her own unconscious biases. Although there have been countless amazing rewrites of fairy tales from the likes of Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson or Phillip Pullman, the different thing about our book is the very fact that it has not been rewritten. The computer has done the swap and the analysis of the results is firmly in the hands of the readers. No one is being preached to by the author. We think this might be why it's appealed to such a wide cross section of people. We even got a good review in the Daily Mail! [You can find out more about the book, get free learning resources and buy prints here.]

[Image: Handsome and the Beast Eric, Illustration from 'Gender Swapped Fairy Tales']

Whilst I imagine it is impossible to narrow down, are there any projects or comics that have really stuck with you, or that you could point to as having been your ‘favourite’ to work on so far?

Ooh. That's a tough one! I always go through a process of falling madly in love with a project at the start, through to loathing it in the middle and then settling on a more balanced view of it at the end. I would say the projects that have allowed me to learn the most have been my favourite to work on. The process of creating my second graphic novel 'Death of the Artist (Jonathan Cape, 2015) was really exhilarating. It looks like a comic anthology full of different styles but it is actually a story about a hedonistic group of friends and artists who reunite on a retreat in an isolated cottage. The story is told by each of them in turn. To draw it I embodied each artist, imagining how they would see the world and even how they would move and draw. I was lucky enough to receive Arts Council funding for it so I hired a bunch of actors and a section of the book is done in photography comics. Doing the shoot felt like watching my characters step out of my imagination and into the real world. The book was pretty experimental and a lot of people thought the characters were real people who'd written the book, but it really pushed me and I learnt so much from creating it.

What are your favourite and least favourite things to draw?

Easy. Horses, cars, crowds and city scenes are the worst. And I love drawing people. I could happily draw people and nothing else for the rest of my days.

And what do you do when you’re not drawing and creating?

Look after my 3 year old- which in itself I suppose is an act of continuous (and very often botched) creation. And I watch too much TV and scroll too much through my phone. And yes- I'm going to use the pandemic as an excuse for that bad behaviour!

What advice would you give to aspiring and emerging comic artists? What sort of challenges and opportunities await the industry’s future generation of creatives?

Comic creators tend to be an introverted bunch. But I'd advise artists to get out and meet people. Go to comic festivals or get a table there. Thought Bubble, The Lakes Comics Art festival or ELCAF are all great. You can also attend Laydeez Do Comics for free online. It's a monthly meet up on Zoom where comic artists from all over the world present their work. So inspiring! Comics and graphic novels are one of the most exciting mediums around today. There’s still so much unexplored territory and so much infectious enthusiasm coming from creators all over the world. Comic artists are often some of the least pretentious, loveliest folk you’ll meet so it's easy to get involved in the community. Plus, the literature and media world has begun to acknowledge comics with exhibitions, articles and awards (Myriad Editions, Laydeez Do Comics, Broke Frontier, The Cape/Observer Prize). 

Finally - what’s next for you?

Well, I have a bunch of exciting projects booked in for this year. We've just signed with Faber & Faber to do another Gender Swapped book so keep your eyes out for more announcements! I'm also involved with a super interesting project with Canterbury Cathedral where comics are used to tell the stories behind the 'miracle' stained glass windows. And I'm collaborating again on another project about the impacts of covid on migration with one of my favourite organisations, Positive Negatives. They use comics, animations and storytelling to explore humanitarian and global issues and to allow academic research to reach a wider audience. I feel very lucky to be involved with so many fascinating projects and to have the chance to learn from each of them!

Thank you, Karrie!

If you were inspired by this interview with Karrie Fransman and would like to find out more about her and her work, head to her website here. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2021: Make the Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.