Colour outside lines

Richard Fairgray is legally blind, but he's one of our top-selling comic book writers and artists.

"I'm slightly more blind than Stevie Wonder ... "

On the surface, it's not a surprising admission but when you consider how Richard Fairgray earns a crust, it's becomes a little more unexpected. He's New Zealand's highest-selling comic book writer and artist and is now increasingly turning his attention to children's books.

From the Albany home he shares with his wife, fellow artist and writer Tara Black, the couple - along with a handful of writers and artists - have been quietly building Square Planet, a comic book-writing and publishing enterprise, for the past few years.

To date, Fairgray, 31, has about 200 titles to his name and works on a number of projects with collaborators around the world for audiences equally as widespread. He's the illustrator, Black the colourist and retired schoolteacher Terry Jones his most frequent writing partner.

Fairgray is totally blind in his left eye and has only 3 per cent vision in his right.

His vision issues are combined with a chemical imbalance in his brain that doesn't allow him to filter out senses. For most of us, the mind filters information from the eye, providing a sense of movement from what are essentially still images (like animation or film but much faster). But Fairgray's brain doesn't filter that so he sees and must interpret every single part of every image.

In other words, he sees both less and more and draws by getting extremely close to whatever he's working on. His part of the work is his alone.

Fairgray and Jones are best known for the Blastosaurus comic book series, about a crime-solving mutant triceratops whose weapon of choice is a state-of-the-art ray gun and pet peeve is being mistaken for a police mascot.

Their partnership extended into picture books three years ago -- there's a trio of books that follow the fantastical adventures of a boy called Morgan -- and they are now having a busy time on the local publishing front.

Two of their picture books have recently been released in New Zealand. Scholastic Books published Gorillas in Our Midst -- released last year by Sky Pony Press in the United States -- while Penguin Random House has released My Grandpa is a Dinosaur.

They're stories shot through with wry humour and while there are certainly messages in them -- tolerance, trusting your own judgement, being open with others -- they're not obvious or didactic. The droll humour will make the most cynical children smile and, because of it, widens the age range the books appeal to.

Describing the humour as subtle and underplayed, Fairgray say they create stories with kids who are imaginative and curious in mind; Jones says they are aiming at kids who recognise the world is full of contradictions.

"The fact is that there are a lot of kids out there who recognise a lot of adults don't make any sense at all and who regularly come across adults who aren't as smart as they are but they can't say it ... "

Jones talks about going to an English boys' school "obsessed with sport" where not demonstrating the requisite athletic prowess meant "you were nowhere" while Fairgray was always an entrepreneur constantly butting heads with authority figures.

He wrote and illustrated his first comic books and short stories when he was a 7-year-old, selling them to fellow school pupils and using profits to buy art materials. Teachers were not pleased to discover business interests extended to doing -- and charging for the service -- others' homework.

"I was never particularly interested in school," Fairgray admits, "because all I wanted to do was draw and write books. My punishment for the homework business was to sit outside the office during lunchtime, but it was fun given that I didn't actually like many people and I got to sit there and draw and write my books."

By age 15, Fairgray was making a pretty decent part-time living from his enterprises; studies at Elam School of Fine Arts followed, then teaching work, a stint as a stand-up comedian and an attempt at writing a screenplay. He and Jones can't remember exactly how they met, but they've been working together for more than a decade.

Naturally, they share a love of comics, sci-fi and fantasy books, TV series and films; they've got a similar sense of off-beat humour, don't view the world through rose-tinted glasses and, after 13 years in business together, can finish with aplomb each other's sentences.

Jones acknowledges writing can be a solitary and sometimes lonely occupation; he likes that he and Fairgray can be having a conversation and suddenly an idea is borne. Take Gorillas in our Midst.

"The Morgan books were quite specific to New Zealand; we were talking about other stuff and I said I'd always wanted to something about gorillas," he recalls. "I made a joke and within 20 minutes, we had worked out a plot."

Dionne Christian

How does Richard Fairgray draw?

See nzherald.co.nz

- Weekend magazine

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