Gorillas, Elephants and Monsters

Over the past decade, Kiwi illustrator Richard Fairgray has moved from self-publishing comic books, to picture books, to being picked up internationally. He is published in New Zealand by Puffin and Scholastic NZ.

Richard Fairgray is a comic book artist who has ventured into the world of children’s literature. In 2016, Fairgray published two children’s titles, and his book Gorillas in our Midst made the Storylines Notable Books List 2017. Fairgray’s talent in drawing and storytelling are impressive, but even more so given he is blind. ‘I have no vision in one eye,’ he says, ‘and I can see very little with the other. I just hold the paper really close to my eye and do my best.’

Fairgray explains that he can’t perceive depth, seeing the world instead as two-dimensional. ‘Drawing was one way to turn an ordinarily 3D world into 2D. To me, seeing the world is like seeing it through pictures.’

It’s one reason he was drawn to comic books, as they reflected how he sees the world anyway. His most famous series is Blastosaurus, a collaboration with Terry Jones. ‘I met Terry about eighteen years ago. He was a teacher at my high school, and a published author.’ Fairgray and Jones collaborated on a few small things here and there, and eventually Jones became his co-writer. ‘We ended up working together for about eight years.’

test alt text

I ask him about what it’s like to write and illustrate for a younger audience. ‘With children, I can do far more interesting and exciting things,’ says Fairgray. ‘Kids are up against it, you know; up against adults. I think kids are way cooler and smarter than we are.’ He says that sometimes authors can write for what they think children are, when in reality they’re as diverse as adults. ‘They’re angry, or funny, or smart, you know? I used to pick my nose and put the snot in my pocket just to gross other kids out.’

‘Kids are up against it, you know; up against adults. I think kids are way cooler and smarter than we are.’

We can see this respect for children in his recent release, If I Had An Elephant. It starts with a boy, hanging from the bunk in his bedroom, wishing he had an elephant. The boy tells us what he would do if he had one: steal the cookies from the top shelf, win every water fight, get the best seats at the circus because, y’know, connections.

And then the fun really begins. ‘If I had an elephant,’ the boy says, ‘we’d build a time machine together.’ They’d go back in time, sure, but they’d also go out to a planet far away, fight alien monsters and come back to Earth in a hot air balloon.

test alt text

Another recent book is That’s Not The Monster We Ordered, a story about mail-order monsters and the one that disappoints. It’s reminiscent of bringing a dog home who welcomes burglars, pees on the couch, and gets tired after walking 100 metres down the road. It’s a story Fairgray had been working on for years. ‘I sent it to Terry who thought, no, it won’t work. So I went back to it after a year. The answer was my dog, who was terrible at everything dogs are meant to be good at.’

What strikes about these, and his other titles, is the complete acceptance of strangeness by the characters in each book. It’s something consistent with his Blastosaurus series.

test alt text

Fairgray explains that most writers, writing for the reader, feel the need to explain every single part of the book’s wondrous world, to make it comfortable for a new reader. ‘People in the story are already ahead of us. They know what’s going on. Why would they be surprised?’

Fair call. And Fairgray’s imagination doesn’t stop there. He’s working with some new collaborators, including something titled ‘Open In Case Of Emergency’. He’s working on a musical with Alexander Burke inspired by music of the nineties, about a little girl who is so sweet that she gets eaten by a lion. He’s also got some ideas about Narnia being made of cardboard, the place wishes come from, and a supernatural re-imagining of Courtney Love’s life.

Zee Southcombe

Zee is a children’s author, illustrator and fine artist who approaches all her work with vigour and imagination. She works to promote other artists, especially young creatives, through collaboration, encouragement, and publishing opportunities. When not making stuff, Zee can be found with a cup of tea and a good book, planning her next creative adventure, or out for a walk in the beautiful forests of Aotearoa. Her most recent book is I am an Artist.