Mike Dawson on Freddie & Me: A Coming of Age Rhapsody

Freddie and Me by Mike Dawson

If you’ve somehow haven’t noticed Mike Dawson kicking around the indie comics scene over the better part of the last decade – with contributions in anthologies such as SPX 2003, Superior Showcase, Project: Superior or You Ain’t No Dancer, or via his self-published humor comic GABAGOOL! – Dawson will be arriving on the comics culture radar in a much bigger way this June with his first full-length graphic novel, a memoir of his childhood filtered through the prism of his devotion to the rock band Queen.

Freddie & Me: A Coming of Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody is over 300 pages of culture shock, teen angst, and dramatic rock and roll dreaming, tracking Dawson from his early days growing up in England through his family’s resettling in New Jersey, USA, and on to his young adulthood.

We chatted with Mike about his love of comics and music, and how he managed to tie the two together.

Newsarama: Mike, first things first, what is about Queen that clicks for you?

Mike Dawson: First and foremost, Freddie Mercury was a phenomenal singer. One of the things I like the most in pop music is a powerful voice. And, as if it wasn’t enough to have one of rock’s greatest singers fronting your group, Queen had two other excellent singers in the band, Brian May and Roger Taylor – possessor of a truly awesome falsetto. I am not sure if many casual fans know it, but most of the early albums featured songs sung by Brian or Roger. These Brian and Roger songs are every bit as good as the Freddie ones. For example, I know lots of people who’ve enjoyed “’39” or “I’m in love with my car.”

Musically, I am more sheepish about expressing my opinions, as I don’t know a lot about what’s good and what’s not – but I don’t think anyone would disagree that Brian May’s guitar playing is top notch.

But, aside from their sound, one of the things I’ve realized that I love about Queen (and I think I’ve only realized this in recent years) is their whole attitude. They were consistently interested in doing things bigger and better; they sought to write songs that had actual real emotional resonance; but, just as importantly, they weren’t afraid to have a sense of humor about things. I love their ability to combine those two things. I think “Bohemian Rhapsody” is very moving and emotional, but it’s also way over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. This whole attitude has been an influence on me in the way I approach my comics. Well, at least this comic.

NRAMA: When did you start thinking that your connection to Queen’s music had the meat for a graphic novel?

MD: Well, I might have already been working on it for some time before I realized I had enough substance to write a much longer book. I originally had envisioned it as a much shorter and much more straightforward accounting of all of the times that I could remember Queen being in my life from 1984 until present day. It was going to be about 70 – 100 pages max, but it just kept growing and growing and became more complex the more I worked on it.

In terms of a specific moment in time, well, I kind of address that in the comic, towards the end, and I don’t want to spoil things for people who haven’t read it.

NRAMA: Did you have any difficulty putting yourself back into the mindset of being your teenage self?

MD: I’m not sure – to be honest, I had a little help with the middle section of the book (“The Opera”, set in 1991-1992, when I was sixteen years old). I did keep a diary at the time, and was able to use that to read back through all of my entries dealing with Freddie Mercury’s death and what was going on with me then. Ugh, they’re awful and embarrassing but, in the end, invaluable to me when writing from the point-of-view of a self-absorbed teenager, craving attention.

One thing that’s interesting about that is that my 16-year-old “voice” is so unrecognizable to me now when I read it. The way I wrote and thought about things just doesn’t feel like me. I don’t mean this in a way to suggest that I’ve somehow evolved (though I hope I have!), but more that it reveals to me that our sense of who we are as people is actually more liquid and less static than we’d probably like to think. I’ve had similar experiences going back and seeing something I’d written online on some message board or something in the past few years, or reading old e-mails. The jokes don’t seem funny – I don’t remember writing them. I don’t know who this person is who wrote this. It’s strange.

In terms of difficulty, the final section of the book (“Hard Rock”, set in 2002) was the hardest to write, mainly because the events are more recent, and I have less perspective on them. Also – my now wife, Aliza, is featured prominently in the story, and it was a struggle to be honest about our relationship, knowing that she would be reading it. It took a few tries to get it right, and quite a lot of pages were scrapped along the way.

NRAMA: How do you deal with representing music, and more importantly its affect on you, on a silent comics page?

MD: It’s tricky - beyond just writing words that say “I think this is great!” and drawing an expression of happiness. I don’t know – it was tough throughout. Again, I tried to take a cue from Queen throughout the book – trying to make the story as “big” as I could, and to not be afraid to be as honest as possible.

NRAMA: I was intrigued by the culture change of being a Queen fan in Britain versus being a Queen fan in the U.S. It worked nicely to enforce the culture shift of moving across the Atlantic. Was it difficult for you to settle into life in New Jersey?

MD: I came at sort of an awkward time for anyone, which was right before starting Junior High. For me, Junior High was awful. High School wasn’t too bad – I think I’d learned to fit in more, but in Junior High I was a mess. I had an English accent at an age when it didn’t impress anyone, just set me apart. I had sort of odd ideas about what was cool and what wasn’t. In the book I tell a story about wearing a see-through string-vest to school one day, thinking it would be sure to impress.

I am jealous of English people who come over as young adults. The girls think they are dreamy and great. Girls thought I was a round-headed weirdo in unstylish European pants when I came here. When you arrive at age 18 you sound like James Bond or Jude Law or someone. When you come at 11 you sound more like Oliver Twist or one of the kids from the Narnia movie, saying, “Mummy, Mummy! May I have some delicious Turkish Delight?”

NRAMA: Ha. You’ve previously worked on short stories for various anthologies. Was it difficult to maintain the focus required to write and illustrate a 300+ page novel?

MD: Yes and no. I was very determined to finish it. It sure did take a long time though. I started the book in mid-2004, and finished it towards the end of 2007, so about three and a half year’s total. I really like going to comics conventions like SPX or MoCCA, and used to have a great time at them in 2002-2004 when I was self-publishing Gabagool! (a humor comic written with Chris Radtke). These conventions got less and less fun as I kept going to them without new work to show off and sell. It was very frustrating to be at them, knowing I had hundreds of pages of comics at home that nobody had ever read. The anthology work really kept me feeling a part of things, especially Project: Superior and the spin-off, Superior Showcase.

I did release parts of the book in various formats over the years, just to stay sane: I made a mini-comic out of the “Guitar Solo” section, and I posted all of “The Opera” online in 2005. Dave Sim nominated me for his SPACE convention “Day Prize” for the Guitar Solo mini, which was cool.

NRAMA: What’s your approach to working on a story like this? Do you write a script or launch right into layouts and visual storytelling?

MD: I go page by page – fully writing, drawing, and inking as I go. I have a good sense of where the story is going, and what I want to have happen, but a lot of it I work out on the page. I think this approach has its pros and cons. The good thing is that I stay interested as a creator, and that I’m constantly thinking about the story, and coming up with ideas on the fly, some of which are my favorite parts of the book (like the scene in the lunchroom where I sing “Somebody to Love” to the girl I had a crush on).

The obvious downside of this approach is that you run the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture, going off into too many tangents that slow things down. My feeling was that since this was the only way I’m comfortable writing, I have to be equally comfortable going back and cutting material that isn’t working. I axed entire sequences. I wrote and drew two fairly lengthy imaginary scenes with Freddie Mercury and Brian May having passive-aggressive conversations/arguments with each other concerning their creative differences. There was also an additional sequence with Andrew Ridgeley being interviewed a few years after the breakup with George Michael. That’s the one scene that I still wrestle with if it was the right decision to cut it or not. I am definitely not saying that it’s easy to go back and make edits like that.

NRAMA: How did you get involved with Bloomsbury as your publisher?

MD: Around 2006 I met one of the editors at Graphix at a company party (I was working at Scholastic at the time), and she suggested that I contact a literary agent she knew, who was working with some “graphic novelists”. He really liked the book, and thought he could get me published in the UK at Jonathan Cape, which he did (the UK edition of the book comes out in hardcover on June 5). So, that was totally unexpected and awesome. After that, Bloomsbury was interested, and it was a great decision to go with them – I got a lot of really invaluable feedback from my editor there, and she’s been totally supportive of the book. There was also an advance, which was a lifesaver, because I actually had to pay for clearances to use all of those Queen lyrics. That whole aspect sort of sucked, but was thrilling at the same time, because the book had to go to the band for some kind of review before they gave it the OK. I don’t expect that Brian May sat down and actually read it, but I’d think he at least became kind of aware of it, which is kind of cool. That sounds kind of pathetic to say out loud, but, you know, the whole books about how this music affected my life so much – there’s a part of me that’s excited to think that in some small way I’ve been able to send a little some of that back.

NRAMA: Sure, absolutely! After Freddie & Me hits, what’s next for you, Mike?

MD: I have done quite a lot of work on a new graphic novel, which I’m not totally ready to talk about just yet. I’ve been chugging away at it for the past six months, so have managed to complete a respectable number of pages. It’s going to be fiction this time, and I have hopes that it will be as long or longer than Freddie & Me, though it will all take place over the course of one-week instead of 30 years.

I must admit that I am getting a little distracted from working on that now, since F&M is so close to being out, and I’m getting antsy. So, I took a break from it, and have started drawing a manga-inspired comic about a seven year old kid called Jack (who has the powers of telekinesis), who is fighting with his little brother Max (who has the powers to teleport). Max will not get out of Jack’s room and stop bugging him, which is why they are fighting. I am going to call the story “Get out of my room, Max!” It’s a very clever title.

Aside from new comics, I’m planning on appearing at a bunch of conventions this year, like MoCCA, HeroesCon, and SPX in the fall. I will be on a panel at MoCCA with my good friend Alex Robinson, who also has a new graphic novel coming out this summer called Too Cool To Be Forgotten. I’ll also be traveling to London in June to appear on a panel with some other cartoonists, which I’m really excited about.

Freddie & Me rocked into stores on May 27. More information can be found at Mike Dawson’s website.

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