Free Pass is the latest graphic novel from British cartoonist Julian Hanshaw from Top Shelf Productions – IDW Publishing. It follows a couple in their 20s who navigate friendships, politics, and sexual freedom, and how a new arrangement complicates their relationships at work in the days leading up to a major election. It is an obscure concept that touches on many normal aspects of human life.
The Nerdy Basement had the opportunity to interview Julian to discuss these themes and expand on them, while also highlighting how social media and politics have affected the world. It’s a great interview filled with a lot of insight and how Julian views the world, check it out below!
The Nerdy Basement: G’day Julian. Thanks for being open to being interviewed about Free Pass!
Julian Hanshaw: And G’day to you! I grew up for a number of years in Christchurch NZ, so it’s always nice to let a G’day roll off the tongue.
The Nerdy Basement: Ah, from across the ditch! We can discuss pavlova another time. That is almost a perfect segue into my first question. Something I like to ask everyone off the bat is: If you were able to choose, what would your last meal be?
Julian Hanshaw: I always think of a final meal as being a death row thing, and I of course would be innocent and it’s all a shocking miscarriage of justice! So, I’d want to make it hard for them in the aftermath, so probably something like a Mutton Phal. But on the flip side, if it was to be under less stressful circumstances, then there is a little taco stand by a bus stop in Baja Mexico. I would very much like to eat their wares again. With a number of frosty beers, please.
The Nerdy Basement: I’m having tacos tonight so count me in! Free Pass brings up many issues that have kind of just become a part of our lives without realizing it. One that I want to touch on is the almost taboo subject of politics amongst friends. Why do you think this is and what’s the harm in sharing different political beliefs?
Julian Hanshaw: It has unfortunately become a very polarizing subject. A big breaking point here in the U.K. was Brexit. I guess in the U.S. it was Trump. Moments that polarized friends and family. And then throw onto that fire the highly combustible social media and I don’t think you can stand back far enough. There isn’t any harm in sharing political beliefs, but you have to be prepared to listen and maybe reconsider your stance. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘’I didn’t know that’ or ‘You may have a point’.
Reasoned discourse is the goal but it does often resort to, and eye-poppingly quickly, unquantifiable and malicious labels being hurled around. I’m deeply concerned about self-censorship, something Huck experiences. Not being able to express yourself artistically, sexually, or indeed politically is very worrying. In the book, it makes Huck miserable and leads to some unwise decisions… However, sometimes it’s best just to keep your counsel and enjoy the company of your friends.
The Nerdy Basement: Addiction is also a component throughout the middle portion of your story. How do you think Huck and Nadia dealt with giving up the AI cold turkey?
Julian Hanshaw: I think they struggled at first. They had been given the keys to a sexual fairground. Thrills, spills, and all their sticky desires. And they embraced it like most twenty-somethings would! When you are first in a relationship it is a hormonal rush. Your senses are on fire. With the arrival of the AI, experiencing that rush, and then going cold turkey, Huck & Nadia went through that early relationship cycle in a hyper-compressed time.
So, it was always going to be tricky for them to step away and find a natural rhythm, a sustainable and harmonious pace of life between them. Big Tech and technology, in general, has the opportunity to over-stimulate, furnish you with your most base desires, give you that dopamine hit and do it seemingly endlessly, never tiring. Can we wean ourselves away from that? Well, I fear society has passed the point of no return.
The Nerdy Basement: Wow, the connection to current technology is so clear when you put it like that. Almost anything you want is only a few clicks away. Social values are constantly in flux. As a member of the arts community, your work could begin in one stage and be completed in another. How do you ensure your work can stand the test of time?
Julian Hanshaw: I started thinking about Free Pass back in 2015 when I began paying attention to the rift that seemed to be forming and was being exacerbated by social media. Free Pass took from script to delivery about 16 months, which is quick for me. Maybe deep down I felt the need to get it out with speed to reflect what I was seeing. My other graphic novels have been less time-sensitive and could be picked up whenever. In some respects, I needn’t have had worries about missing the window on the subjects I touch upon in Free Pass, as they are still with us and impacting us more and more on a daily basis.
So, will Free Pass reflect a moment of mirroring society as it has become? Not sure, but I don’t see its relevance waning. I don’t however think you can set out to ensure a piece of work will stand the test of time, I don’t think there is a formula for that. If so, no one’s shared it with me! I’d suggest all you can do is: make the art, put it out there, and hope it connects with an audience. And if the story is truthful to yourself, I think it has more chance in flourishing.
The Nerdy Basement: Well said. Art is an extension of ourselves and experiences so it’s hard to foresee what might come. Huck shows moments of social anxiety and low self-esteem, something a lot of people deal with on a day-to-day basis. Do you think social media or something else is causing this increase, or do you think it’s always been there?
Julian Hanshaw: I think there has always been social anxiety and low self-esteem in society. On my return from New Zealand, I was bullied at school, and in my late teens, I was a Goth. I felt those issues greatly and expressed it in my dress, music, and peer group. Honestly, I’m glad social media was not around when I was figuring things out. For me, it was more a case of evolution and not revolution which social media seems to delight in.
Watching documentaries like The Social Dilemma or listening to The Coddling of The American Mind by Jonathan Haidt & Greg Lukianoff, they both put forward some very interesting reasons and statistics that spending too much time engaged in social media really does have detrimental effects on your mental health. Social Media is such a new shiny toy, and we are seeing its cultural, social, and political impact in real-time. It sometimes feels like we are in a real live Skinner Box.
The Nerdy Basement: Building on that, Huck eventually takes the step towards believing in himself and making the right choices for his life. What’s your advice for people who feel stuck in a rut?
Julian Hanshaw: When working on an idea, Free Pass, for example, I will inevitably go into a rut. A very, very mild form of depression. I doubt everything. I overthink things. I question what in God’s name am I doing drawing comics. I’m in that rut for a month or so. I know subconsciously I will come out the other side. I’ve done it before and I need to let the creative process happen. I need to trust that artistic memory muscle. So, what little advice I can offer is to have faith, be true to yourself, don’t chase things that you know in your core to be detrimental, and try and maintain a sense that things will shake down. Try and meet the universe halfway.
The Nerdy Basement: A sentiment that is true for most things in life! Birds are a constant point of reference throughout. How did you see their lifecycle, which is a lot quicker than ours, as an allegory for Huck’s relationship or journey?
Julian Hanshaw: It is. The pigeons are observing throughout Free Pass. Sharing the same space and time as Huck, but are focused and going about their day. I wanted to give a sense that nature is more powerful and durable than us fickle humans. As a Smiths lyric said so well ‘’Nature will still find a way…’’ And to underline this, in the end, one of the birds symbolically eats a dragonfly — an image of which adorns the wall of the big tech company he works for (along with other nature images, as a kind of ‘feel good’ distraction).
The Nerdy Basement: Ok, now I have to go and spot that foreshadowing! Have you dealt with any of the aforementioned issues in your life directly or indirectly (addiction, mental health, relationship issues)? I ask because I feel it is touched upon so easily in Free Pass.
Julian Hanshaw: I have in the past suffered from depression that I sought help for. It was utterly debilitating. But seeking professional help was a wonderful release and without being flippant, perhaps a lifesaver. Probably most of us have found ourselves in a dark cave over the last few years, alone with our technology, and I hope Free Pass can be an encouragement to seek out real connections and help each other as best we can.
The Nerdy Basement: Thanks for being so open. Maybe I can pry a bit more… The “Free Pass” comes up a lot in the media, most notably in the sitcom Friends. On the off chance, they’re reading this, who would be on your list?
Julian Hanshaw: Ah…the third rail question. Kudos! I think I’d prefer to keep such thoughts between my wife and myself. I know it’s a fence-sitting answer… but I would hate the person I mention to read this interview and ruin their day!
The Nerdy Basement: A very diplomatic and sensible answer! Moving to artistry. The artwork is unique in the way it seems contemporary but also emulates the cartoonish design of Huck’s own drawings.
Julian Hanshaw: I guess my old animation days might have leaked through. I was trained traditionally in hand-drawn 2D animation. Two seconds a week if you’re lucky! When I started drawing comics, I was absolutely influenced by people like Daniel Clowes, but I was also influenced by animators such as Priit Pärn. Huck’s doodles at his computer are based on my own history.
As I sat rendering animation scenes in the studio, I was pondering…’’I think I want to draw comics.’’ At Art School, I was introduced to comics like The Fabulous Fury Freak Brothers and Plastic Forks, and then animation took over my life. It wasn’t until I was becoming disillusioned with animation, mainly because of the studio system, that I remembered comic books and rediscovered them.
The Nerdy Basement: My dream job as a kid was animation but perhaps the stress of RSI and eye strain wouldn’t have enabled me to last very long. Technology within Free Pass is slightly more advanced than our current in the world of robots but we’re moving that way swiftly. What do you think is the next big leap for humankind’s technological revolution?
Julian Hanshaw: I think it will be VR. With covid and the huge uptake in people staying at home streaming entertainment, a captive audience is there. And cheaper, faster VR will be where we will all be spending more time. Well, they would like you to be spending more time there if you saw that very weird and terrifying Meta promo. But hey, I remember saying when I had an early mobile phone in the 90s, that I would never text message. Couldn’t see the point. Wasn’t for me. Just phone them up and speak to whoever. Yeah, that didn’t last long!
The Nerdy Basement: Haha! My first mobile was the first Nokia with a color screen. The awe it created in the playground when I snapped a photo! What’s next on the cards for Julian Hanshaw? Another story sidelining society or something more out of this world?
Julian Hanshaw: Funny you mention out of this world! My next story is based on a mining colony out in deep space. Featuring two teens and a lot of space junk and a cosmic chicken. I think I have all bases covered there!
The Nerdy Basement: A cosmic chicken has a lot going for it. I’ll keep my eye out. Thanks again, Julian!!
Julian Hanshaw: You are very welcome. Much appreciated.
Julian Hanshaw’s ‘FREE PASS’ is available now
Want to discuss things further? Hit us up on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. And for more film, gaming, anime, TV news, trailers, and updates keep it locked here at The Nerdy Basement. While you’re here, please consider supporting us on Patreon! It’s an easy way of supporting us so we can keep providing you with your Nerdy News!