If you’re a music fan then chances are that Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous is sacred and hallowed territory. That film captures perfectly the nostalgia that music is often imbued with and it still stands as a perfect reminder of what it feels like to “truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” Mike Dawson, whose autobiographical graphic novel Freddie & Me (Bloomsbury) details, among other things, his love for Queen and Freddie Mercury, clearly understands this sentiment.
Freddie & Me spans decades and recounts everything from Dawson’s childhood in England to his discovery of Queen to his move to Red Bank, New Jersey as a teenager. The resulting stories are equal parts hilarious, bittersweet and deeply moving, making Freddie & Me the kind of infectious book that, much like a great Queen song, you want to read over again and again.
How did you first get into comics?
I’ve been following comics for a long time. I sort of hint at it in the book that I started being a cartoonist at an early age, in high school drawing super heroes, etc. I got into alternative-type comics when I was in college, just reading them, and began sort of self-publishing them. There’s a whole self-publishing scene in North America. There are conventions and a lot of the same cartoonists attend them and know one another. I don’t have a problem with the larger conventions but I don’t really leave them inspired to write or create.
I was doing self-publishing from the late-90s on. I did mini-comics. Then I saw that graphic novels were the way that things were going. And it’s not like I calculatingly decided to do one but just sort of seeing where the movement was headed… It was a very big change for me. The penciling was much more long-form—I had only done things before that were like 20 pages or so long.
I started working on Freddie & Me in the summer of 2004, and I worked on it for a good two years or so. I completed maybe 200 pages of it before I actually submitted it. I had submitted work to publishers within the comic book world and some had sort of vague interest but nothing definite. To get to Bloomsbury, I did actually get a literary agent who was able to sell the book to a publishing house in England called Jonathan Cape who are publishing the book on June 6th in hardcover. They were really great. Then, after that, Bloomsbury showed interest and we signed a deal with them for the U.S. rights. They’re doing it in paperback.
At the time I actually was working at Scholastic in a completely unrelated field—I was working as a project manager for their Web division, which is what I still do during the day—and I made friends with some of the editors on the other side of the street. They were the people who pointed me in the direction of that particular literary agent. He looked at the stuff and liked it and felt that people would be interested in buying it. But I want to lower expectations, not raise them. I just hope somebody reads it somewhere. That’s all I want. [laughs]
What was it about Queen and Freddie Mercury that attracted you to them?
It’s interesting because now that people actually are reading the book, it is a question that I am sort of realizing that I don’t have the exact answer to. Queen fans, it’s okay with them—they know, they get it: I like Queen, obviously. Everyone should. And I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t? [laughs] When I started the book, I wasn’t 100% sure how the whole thing would play out and I’m glad that I grew it beyond just sort of me remembering every moment that I sat around enjoying a Queen song, cause that could have gotten a little dull.
What I initially liked about Freddie Mercury as a kid was that he was funny. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the video that I reference in the book—“I Want to Break Free”—the one where he dresses up like a woman?
The reason that I think that I don’t go so much into the nuts and bolts of why I like Queen in the book is because I feel like throughout the book I’m trying to sort of say that there is another reason for me to be into Queen. When I’m a little kid it is sort of my little identity, my little attention-getting sort of thing; when I’m in high school it is a way for me to, again, get attention. “Oh, he died. I’m so sad.” The reality is that I’m upset because I don’t have a girlfriend. I’m sixteen and I like my friend’s girlfriend. So it is an excuse for me to be all dramatic and teenager-y. So the book itself isn’t just about how I feel about Queen—it is sort of about what I substitute that identity for.
One thing that I happen to like about Queen though is that they hit upon an emotional resonance. But I also just like the music. That’s what I liked about them at first. And I kind of tried to do that in the book too. It’s supposed to be funny; it is supposed to have poignant moments, but it is also supposed to be a bit over-the-top. It is a 300-page book about how I like a band, which is, I think, kind of an over-the-top thing to write about. Because it sounds like a silly premise. “It’s about how I like Queen A WHOLE LOT.” Who wants to read that?
I really like the way that the story develops in the book—it begins at a tribute concert for the band a couple of years back and then leaps into your childhood. Did you consciously plan that?
I knew the general concept. The way that I work is that I write a page, I draw it, I ink it and I move on to the next one. Which is sort of bad when it comes to editing. I even think you may notice drawing styles changing a little as the book progresses, hopefully getting better. [laughs] I know a lot of cartoonists who work that way and I know a lot of cartoonists who will thumbnail the entire book first. For example, Craig Thompson who wrote Blankets, from what I understand he does the entire book first as a thumbnail. He writes the story first and then he goes back and draws all of the actual pages. It just wasn’t the way that I was able to work with that particular story, and I’m glad that I didn’t because one of my favorite parts of the book, I hadn’t thought of at the time. The whole thing of being in high school and liking my friend’s girlfriend—that sort of came to me as I was working on the book.
I did kind of figure out early on that I wanted the book to mirror “Bohemian Rhapsody.” So it is structured the same way. There’s an intro; there’s a ballad—the “Mama” part about me and my parents. Then there’s the guitar solo, which is that little mini-essay. Then there’s the second part of the opera, which is when I’m in high school, which I think is kind of funny because it is operatic teenage drama. And then there’s the last part, which would be the hard-rock segment of the song, and then there’s like an epilogue “outtro.” I tried to do it so each section has a different voice.
If you notice in the beginning, when I’m a kid, there is no narration. Nobody’s explaining anything and it is a kid’s perspective. The second one is written in a different tone, similar to the song where it completely shifts in tone. So in the second one I’m writing like a teenage diary and there is a lot of narration. In the third one I sort of messed it up a little bit. The third part was actually the hardest to write, not because of the emotional aspect of it but because it was more difficult to write about things that had happened more recently; there was less perspective. However, I tried to get a different tone in each one.
Did you play the song a lot?
Yeah, I did.
Now I want to read Freddie & Me again while listening to the song.
You have to read it very quickly. [laughs]
Do you have a favorite Queen album?
It is currently Day at the Races. Which was not my favorite at all for a very long time.
So it has changed over the years?
Oh yeah, it’s changed a lot. My whole feeling about Queen’s music has changed a lot. I now have a very definitive set of albums that I really think are their best, which goes from Queen II to Hot Space. Hot Space—I don’t think that many people consider it good but I actually really like it. Then the stuff after that I don’t like as much anymore and I used to like it a lot more. But over the last four years I’ve listened to a lot of Queen. [laughs] So Day at the Races, which I didn’t use to like, is now by far my favorite. I think “Somebody to Love” is a great song. You know that song “Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)?” I love that song. That one I’ve told my wife that she has to play at my funeral.
Do you like Freddie Mercury’s solo stuff?
I do. I do feel like the stuff that you like as a child, however, you sometimes do lose a little perspective on. I know I like it but I can’t say that I’m a hundred percent sure that I would like it now were I to hear it for the first time.
I have to say, for being in high school, your friends were pretty tolerant of you listening to Queen.
It’s interesting because I was thinking about this recently—somebody had asked me about that: “Was there any effect on you… The fact that Freddie Mercury was gay and you were into Queen?” But I don’t know. It’s weird because I actually thought about it more in later years, and I feel more self-conscious being somebody who is a fan of George Michael now than I ever remember being in high school. In high school I liked Rocky Horror Picture Show; I listened to show tunes and I liked Queen. I think that it may have been that I had fairly large circle of dorky friends that would insulate me. [laughs]
Well, you have a point though. Music at that time was more accepting of effeminate, androgynous front men. It was far more common than now.
Yeah. My friend Rob’s older brother, who is featured in the comic, when I first met him he was the coolest guy and he was into Motley Crew, Striper, Kip Winger and stuff like that. But I was just sort of becoming a teenager and becoming more aware of the context of music. With me I just assumed that that’s just the way that it was. It never actually occurred to me that Freddie Mercury was gay until he died. I didn’t think that the guys in Poison were gay and they all dressed like women, you know?
I’ve talked to some people who were older Queen fans—who actually listened to them in the 70s and stuff like that—and they seemed to be more aware. So maybe in the context of the 70s the glam thing stood out more than the more masculine sort of metal and hard rock.
I became a huge Freddie Mercury fan through George Michael, particularly 1992’s “Concert for Life: A Tribute to Freddie Mercury” that you reference in Freddie & Me. Did you always set out to feature him in the book?
I knew that it was not going to be advertised but it turns out that it is also a lot about George Michael. [laughs] I knew from the beginning that I was going to make the comparison between the way that I felt about Queen and the way my sister felt about George Michael, and our little rivalry about it. But I also started writing the book after my sister and I met George Michael, which, I don’t know if that’s a spoiler or not but, comes together at the end of the book. He is actually kind of a bigger character than Freddie Mercury even is. The two parallel story lines meet up throughout the book. So I knew that I was going to sort of do that. I also actually find him to be more relatable.
You were talking about it before, how there’s very little biographical information on Queen? Frankly, it has never really been easy to create an idea of what they were like as people. Freddie Mercury apparently—I never read many interviews anyway when I was younger—notoriously did not do very many interviews. Whereas George Michael, although he also does not do many interviews, his songs are very autobiographical, more than most pop songs and pop singers. I remember back to 1990. I was in 8th grade and “I want your sex” was our class’ number 1 song of the year. Everybody loved that song. He was considered awesome at the time. And then in the mid-90s that completely reversed.
He can write a ballad like no one else.
He has a good voice. And that is the connection between the two. The reason that I like him so much from the “Concert for Life” is that he kind of was the stand out that night in terms of not coming up short. Which happened to most of the people at that show and which always happens to people because Queen songs are not that easy to cover. Whenever you see people on “American Idol” singing Queen, the judges often say that you shouldn’t do it because they’re always going to fall up short.
Freddie & Me is autobiographical. You’ve been working on comics for years now; had you ever drawn yourself before?
I’d done one autobiographical comic before which was about my bachelor party. It was featured in an Anthology called True Porn Vol 2. It’s all like alternative-type cartoonists doing short pornographic true-life stories. Mine, I must warn up front, is actually not racy. It’s funny. It’s about our going to a strip club for my bachelor party. But it’s not as racy as some other people’s. It is more about the act of going to the bachelor party and being like: “Woo!” You know? Strippers who are not into it at all and are talking to each other the whole time? You’re sitting there and they’re having a conversation with each other about what they’re doing later. And you’re like, “Yeah! Bachelor Party!” Plus, my friends are all a colossal pile of nerds so it was more like, “Time for us to go out and be men!” Something like that. [laughs]
This is kind of a stupid question but was it hard to draw naked women?
Not really. I have done some dirty comics that I was not featured in. I did a comic book series called Gabagool! before I started working on Freddie & Me and in the last three issues there was a long story where they go to the hedonism resort in Jamaica. It’s funny—it’s a comedy.
It must be so hard to draw yourself objectively. Do you make a point to exaggerate yourself?
Well, I wanted to find humor in my own portrayal of myself. I do think that the way that I looked as a little kid, with the giant soccer-ball head, and the way that I looked as a teenager, was funny. And also, because it is autobiographical, and it features a lot of people that I know—like my family, friends, stuff like that—I did actually make sure that I looked pretty bad so all the people who complain about how I draw them really can’t complain. ‘Who looks the worst in this book? I look the worst.’
But my wife hated her drawings… She hates the scene where she’s sitting on the deck with my family because she has the sunglasses on. “You make me look like an asshole! Sitting around with my glasses on, hanging out with your family.” My sister hates the way that she’s drawn. My mother doesn’t like the way that she’s drawn. But nobody looks as bad as I do.
You were born in England and lived there until you moved to New Jersey when you were in middle school. How did that affect you? Do you feel like you are torn between two identities—your English identity and your American identity?
I think that I would sort of liken it to superheroes that have dual identities, you know? Sort of like, ‘Secretly, I’m English.’ [laughs] But yeah, it does affect you. I feel very American now but I grew up to have very strong English sensibilities and therefore the book has very strong English sensibilities. The fact that I’m so annoying throughout the book—I personally feel that my character is incredibly annoying throughout the whole book—in like a funny way, in the way that I’m not afraid to make myself look like a jerk, you know? I think that’s kind of an English sensibility.
I’ve told my parents, and I don’t think they’re very happy about it, that I feel completely American at this point. They don’t and I understand why. They moved here when they were almost 40. I feel like if I were to leave America at this point and move to another country, for the rest of my life I would feel like an American living somewhere else.
I came here like a year before junior high—junior high is really not a great time. I don’t actually really cover it in the book but that was like my low point. Being there and having a high-pitched voice—my voice hadn’t broke—I sounded like that kid from that Narnia movie, you know? So I do think that I made an attempt somehow to Americanize myself. I’ve often thought that if I had come here at a later age I wouldn’t have. My brother still sounds very English and I’m jealous of him because it instantly makes people think that he’s smarter and more charming. It’s in his little toolbox. It’s like, “Oh well! You’re English! You must know what you’re talking about!”
To read more about Mike Dawson visit his Website: Mike Dawson Comics.