Brian Froud’s visions of mystic creatures have become iconic for generations – whether it’s his many books about faeries, or his work designing the creators for the Jim Henson productions The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Now, he’s got a new book, Brian Froud’s Faeries’ Tales from Abrams Books, where he provides portraits of all manner of fantastic creatures, with his wife Wendy telling their tales. We talked to Froud about his book, his work, and the enduring power of the fantastic.
Newsarama: So, Brian, how did the new book come about?
BrianFroud: I couldn’t help but do it. I started to paint these large pictures of faerie faces, and it seemed like the faeries insisted on being fairly close, rather than distant. And so the idea for the book came from that – wanting to do a book about faeries that had some sense of immediacy and urgency to it.
Nrama: I noted that while flipping through the book – it’s these very, very up-close portraits, and there’s a certain emotional effect to it all.
Froud: When I’m painting them, I’m not aware of what they want or what their message is [laughs]. My duty as an artist is to be accurate and real in their portrayal. But it’s great fun to be working with Wendy, who has a great way of interpreting what I’m doing.
She has the ear, so to speak, a way of listening to what they are saying. Which is great, because it means what we’re doing is alive. I’m very keen in doing things – especially about faeries – that don’t feel made up. I want things to feel real.
And the way we put the book together – it’s an emotional journey. We’re taking people deeper and deeper into faerie tales with this.
Nrama: One thing I note about our culture is that we tend to revise faerie tales, or go back to their original versions. We’re in a world that has much less mystery about it than ever before, but there is still that great craving for the unknown, the fantastic. Why do you think that is?
Froud: I don’t know – faerie tales have always been with us, and there’s always been this erroneous thought that they are for children. Originally they weren’t – they were tales that were told around the campfire, and tales told by adults to adults. But they catch some fundamental truth about people, and their relationship to the world, and their relationship to each other.
Those tales, though, were relegated to the nursery, so there’s been this perception that they were strictly for children, that they were childish. And they’re not – they often capture very deep things, things that are often quite disturbing.
I always felt what I wanted to do was help bring that back – to depict faeries as being strong and mysterious. And I think the world is catching up with that a bit now [laughs] and is beginning to realize how emotional they are, how they encapsulate truth.
Nrama: There is certainly much more of a crossover between adults and the fantastic now – look at how many adults are doing cosplay, sometimes as your characters.
Froud: That’s great – there has been in the past this thought that faerie tales were like Disney [laughs]. But I think now there are more reinterpretations of faerie tales, not necessarily just the adult, dark side, but the European side in the costuming.
There’s a contemporary edge to it. We certainly know if we go to a Europe convention just how people dress – they’re not just referring to films, they’re referring to their culture, their history. They are inhabiting, truly inhabiting their character, rather than just putting on clothes on the outside. They’re turning into that character on the inside as well.
Nrama: I’m curious what fantasy you enjoy in contemporary fantasy, across different media.
Froud: The odd thing is, I don’t read fantasy or even watch fantasy! Wendy does, and she’s a great reader. I just know by chance, my career is focused on faeries. It speaks to me, in how I feel about the world. When I express a landscape or feeling, it comes out in images of faeries. So they’re my influences – it’s reality, looking out the window.
I don’t really look at other people’s works, or at other people’s films. I just don’t [laughs].
Nrama: Well, the influence of your own work has been felt for a while now – was curious if you’d heard from anyone unexpected about how your work has influenced them.
Froud: I don’t know if it’s unexpected – but whenever I’m out signing, I’ll find the original faeries book I did with Alan Lee has been hugely influential. People are very emotional about it; they feel an intimate connection with it. Sometimes family gave it to them, and they’re going to give it to their own children.
Some people say it saved their lives! They were in crisis, and then someone gave it to them. That’s a big thing. With Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, I get the same thing – people talk about how it inspired them to go into the movie industry, or they started to draw, or started to write because of it. That creative response is a gift – to discover I’ve been part of that process, to help bring people to a place of creativity.
Nrama: Well, those movies had a big influence on a lot of people my age – local theaters in my area frequently program them as part of retro-movie screenings, and they sometimes sell out, or have things were people come dressed as the characters. They really resonated with a lot of people – why do you think they’ve had such an enduring influence?
Froud: I can’t really say – I think one of the most intriguing things is the technique, because they were puppets. The film industry is trying to improve things all the time, so they abandoned puppetry and went into CGI because it was “better.”
They left puppetry behind, and they lost something with that, because puppetry can feel more real because it is real. You’re looking at a thing that’s inanimate, but it moves – there’s a performance, a human being creating a character, creating movement. Even though your mind tells you it’s a puppet, you go, “Wait a minute! It’s embodying so much!”
Part of our hearts, and also our intellect, becomes engaged with this strange physical construct that seems to have life. And I think it resonates with us because it is real – it’s a filmed thing, something that’s physical.
And we respond to it the way we would a live actor, while with CGI, we know none of that is real, and you’re going, “Okay guys, convince me! Make me believe it!” You can get swept away by the bells and whistles of extravagant movements, but you’re often not really feeling anything, being engaged by it.
With The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, it was this happy moment where we got to do them that way, and it was magnificent! And maybe it might never happen again, because the technology’s moved on. But maybe it could. Who knows?
Nrama: Well, would you consider designing a film again?
Froud: Yes! I mean, it’s been interesting, our son Toby’s been doing some films that have been winning some awards. I think people are really responding to his work because – bless my boy – he was a fan of my work, so it has my influence on it, and that character in it, and I think people are responding to seeing puppets move again, and telling a story. So we’re all really excited about it, and feeling like maybe the time has come to do another large-scale puppet film again.
Nrama: Well, now it’s out there with this interview!
This being a comic book site, I was curious if you or Wendy or Toby read any contemporary comics, or the books based on The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.
Froud: Unfortunately, I never have time to get out to a comic shop, but any time I open a comic, I’m very impressed – particularly by their ability to tell a story visually, and to tell an emotional story visually.
Nrama: Has anything jumped out at you specifically?
Froud: Not recently – though I loved Sandman with Charlie Vess and Neil Gaiman. I’m really intrigued by the possibilities with comic books, and in the back of my mind, I’ve got the idea that I’m going to do one. I go back and remember as a child – we had a comic called Eagle in England, with Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future by Frank Hampson.
To this day, I still love the way he’d break up the page, so it wasn’t just a series of little boxes, these very dramatic shapes that he slashed across the page. And that really spoke to me about the possibilities for drama and storytelling in drawing.
And that’s what I love about modern comics – you can do that, and you can go to some strange, dark places as well! So I’m very keen about comics, and one day I’ll have a go at them myself.
Brian Froud’s Faeries’ Tales is in bookstores now.