I don’t need to tell you that societal norms and social mores are constantly changing, especially in areas of sex and sexuality. But in Julian Hanshaw’s new graphic novel Free Pass (paperback, Kindle), he not only explores the titular sexual practice, but, as he explains in the following email interview, he does so by injecting it with some science fiction.
For people unfamiliar with the term, what does “free pass” mean?
It’s when there’s an agreement in a relationship that one or both of you can have sexual relations with another named person. Often only discussed as couples, but some put into practice. Maybe you can actually buy a laminated card to present? Might be a marketing angle there. I also liked the title as in the sense of you can travel anywhere, without limits. To explore. Let the mind wander and ask questions. So, it encompasses the sexual and the political element of the story.
And then what is your graphic novel Free Pass about?
Huck and Nadia are in their twenties and working in Big Tech. And also developing an adventurous sex life. As they discuss their fantasies, including the possibility of swapping partners and drafting a “free pass” list, they take pride in their honest and transparent relationship.
But when it comes to politics, Huck is leading a double life. As a national election looms, he grows more and more uncomfortable with his company’s unelected authority over internet discourse.
Then they acquire a cutting-edge humanoid sex AI that can morph into anyone with an internet presence — their worlds of fantasy, trust, and consent are blissfully thrown into chaos. All against a backdrop of a society growing more divided each day, Huck struggles with the pressure to uphold the boundaries of a binary world at work while everything is collapsing at home.
And when and where does it take place?
I guess it can be anywhere where there are tech savvy, sexually charged twenty somethings. There are no real reference points to geographically pin it down. It’s geographically ambiguous but definitely set in the now. Something I deliberately aimed for. And I certainly didn’t want to use real politician’s names to associate real political parties to the narrative as I think that would muddy the waters. You don’t know if a democrat / Labour candidate is in power or a Republican / Conservative is. I didn’t want to play that game.
Speaking of which, it sounds like Free Pass was somewhat inspired by what’s been going on in the world, socially and politically, though it also clearly has elements of sci-fi as well. Did you set out to write a socially- and politically-relevant sci-fi story or did you start to write the story and realize it would work better if it had some socio-political elements?
I sensed things were escalating around 2015 / 2016. A cursory glance at social media or YouTube would underline that. Things were beginning to fracture. You had Trump and we had, in the UK, Brexit. It was an accelerant. And I just threw forward a few years. Played it out in my mind, thinking this situation is only going to get worse before the pendulum swings back to a more middle ground. As someone older than the protagonists in Free Pass, I’ve seen change as I’ve acquired my years. But over those few years, it was a like rolling down a hill pumping the brakes and there is nothing. Just a growing terminal velocity. There was a toxic mix of technology and politics combining in this period, dividing people, friends, and families. It turned into an attritional artillery barrage of entrenched opinions and rage. All the elements to the story were merely presenting themselves, I didn’t have to look far.
So then where did you get the idea for Free Pass, and why did you think this story would be a good way to express the socio-political ideas you wanted to express?
Often a story will start as a scribble in one of my aesthetically unappealing notebooks. I don’t keep wonderful illustrated books. Mine are scribbles like someone has written it in the dark on a plane in high turbulence. Or perhaps the idea came to me in a daydream. I often can’t remember, and that applies to Free Pass.
I guess the kernel started with a story I did for an anthology I edited and contributed to called I Feel Machine. It revolved around a projector. And I didn’t feel I was finished with the projector as an object. The projector is such an old technology from the Chinese Mirror Projector to the Magic Lantern with its images painted on glass plates, to what we use now. And as with a lot of technology, pornography is often a driver, it never takes long before images of hills and rivers are replaced with erotic prints and photographs being projected in backrooms. And the thought of two tech savvy people projecting porn, as people had done centuries before them, was a fun launching point to the future of AI sex robots. The politics was almost impossible to leave out, as politics is intertwined with everything: what you watch, read or drink. And the world Huck and Nadia are part of, the tech industry, the third rail subject of censorship is never far away, as we are seeing with what is playing out with Twitter and Elon Musk at the moment.
Free Pass obviously has a sexual element to it. But how sexy does it get? Like, do you consider it erotica? Sexually charged? Hornier than a teenager on prom night…?
Sexy? Sure. It certainly will trigger a little impish thought in your brain as to ”who would I Google!” It will cut straight to your base urges flitting around your amygdala. Those lustful, suppressed fantasies. And if that is the case. Then my work is done and I shall be on my way.
And you do realize that, at least for the next couple years, some people will be winking at you creepily when they see you in public, right?
Ah, that’s all good. I’ve been to art school. I’m unshockable.
Unless I’m mistaken, Free Pass is your ninth graphic novel….
Sorry to be pedantic, but it’s just the eight. Although that does seem a lot, doesn’t it? Ok, now for the math’s bit.
Out of those eight, five are written and drawn by me [The Art Of Pho, I’m Never Coming Back, Tim Ginger, and Cloud Hotel], two are anthologies I co-edited and contributed to [I Feel Machine and I Feel Love], and one is an anthology I contributed to [Hoax: Psychosis Blues].
Ah, sorry. Anyway, are there any writers, or stories, that had a particularly big influence on Free Pass but not on anything else you’ve written?
Hard to say that any writers had a direct influence on Free Pass. As I remember sitting down and writing it very quickly. Lightning in a jar.
Having said that, I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Huizenga and how he writes his graphic novels. His last, Ganges, is a great example of deft and realistic dialogue. It like his panels move with a believable and gentle force.
And how about non-literary influences; was Free Pass influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Free Pass was certainly influenced by content creators on YouTube. Watching a lot before I sat down to write the piece, trying to get a handle on what was happening and equally trying to be even handed in my characters world views. I was also influenced by talking to other creators both in TV and comics and how they felt unable to share their opinions. Their thoughts might be hetrodoxcial in nature, they might just be questioning while forming an opinion, but they felt it best to keep their council. Not approach subjects or approach them in a certain way. Which in the arts is very dangerous thing. The idea of self-censorship is a very scary thing to me. Expression is fundamental to a robust society. Whether artistic, political or sexual. And the thought that people can’t be who they want to be. Can’t express their world view. Can’t hold two different opinions is merely a constrained explosion.
Then, in terms of the art, was Free Pass influenced by anything — movies, paintings, other comics — that didn’t have an influence on any of your previous graphic novels?
For the previous 7 books I used a desktop painting tool that suddenly fizzled and popped and I could no longer use it. I use these programs very frugally. Treat it as paper but with the bonus of having the CTRL-Z undo option. Something I automatically do with my non pen hand when drawing on paper. I don’t add layers of effects, halftone, lens flares etc. It’s used as a basic tool. I draw. I color. I add text. Then I hatch. I had pitched the opening pages to Chris Staros at Top Shelf having used the old program. He agreed to the project and in that time my safety blanket of a program had gone. I was convinced I was doomed. I have a tendency to overreact. But with the new program I applied new rules that I had picked up by having bought Daniel Clowes book The Art Of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist. Adopting a more minimal approach to the backgrounds. I went back to one of the creators that got me into comics all those years ago. My previous Top Shelf graphic novel Cloud Hotel had a very dense panel structure with Free Pass, through design and necessity I reigned in the backgrounds and I genuinely believe the pages look better for it.
As you know, Hollywood loves turning graphic novels into movies and TV shows. Do you think Free Pass could work as movie or show?
I think it would make a great one off. But then you see series on streaming services that were originated from a 30 page comic. So, anything is possible.
And if either of those happened, who would you want them to cast as Huck, Nadia, and the other main characters, and would you want it to be live action or animated?
For casting, I’m hopeless at this kind of thing…how about Charlie Tahan as Huck? I’ve just been watching Ozark and he is wonderful as Wyatt. As for Nadia, let’s go Amy Lou Wood from Sex Education. Another stellar performance. And the idea of Free Pass animated would be great.
You were an animator for the cartoons The Secret Show, Charlie And Lola, and Yoko! Jakamoko! Toto! If the Free Pass movie or show was going to be animated, would you want work on it?
Being an ex-animator…it never leaves you I think the AI scenes would really benefit from the ability to do anything in animation. It’s a medium that still captivates me, but I wouldn’t want it overly computerized. I feel a lot of contemporary animation has lost its charm. It’s often too realistic. The movement is too realistic. Often, it’s motion captured and it doesn’t sit well on my eye. It’s like rotoscoping old 2D animation. It just looks wrong, the uncanny valley effect. Recently watching Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1/2 was confusing. It’s neither live action or animation. I loved the color and shadows and the warmth that oozed out of its scenes, but it felt like an extended exercise in a camera filter. Animation should delight in its on world. Its own laws of physics. And not try and be hyper real. The charm of contemporary animation has mostly vanished. But then again, I’m not the demographic they are aiming for.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Free Pass?
I think I have produced a book that is, dare I say it? Zeitgeisty!?
Finally, if someone enjoys Free Pass, which of your other graphic novels would you suggest they check out next and why that one?
I would say I’m Never Coming Back, which is a seemingly collection of individual short stories but as you read, they reference or impact on the other stories in very subtle ways. Or Tim Ginger, which follows the story of a retired test pilot who not only has trouble dealing with the death of his wife and potential new partner but a very big secret hidden in a small place.