Immortal Studios’ team (from left to right): Benjamin Frandsen, Charlie Stickney, Jen Troy, Rylend Grant, Payhuan Shiao, Hank Kanalz, Gene Ching, and Tomas Jegeus. Photo courtesy of Comic-Con.

One incredibly surreal day in 2003, I was arrested by the FBI, thrown in jail, and informed that I was facing the death penalty. I remember gaping in disbelief as my court-appointed attorney tried to convince me that facing life in prison was “a safer alternative to the death penalty.”

So how does a guy whose government wanted to kill him suddenly find himself standing on the main stage at the 2023 San Diego Comic-Con, being introduced as the newest graphic novelist at Immortal Studios, creator of the world’s first interconnected series of martial arts fantasy comics?

What could possibly have brought me out of despair and defeat and onto such an unlikely platform to share my harrowing tale? The answer is education.

My time in prison began in 2005, after being handed two sentences of life without possibility of parole — times two. Back then, there were almost no self-help programs, and the paltry few that existed were not offered to people who were “never getting out.” What was the point? But I stubbornly refused to let my brain turn to mush by slipping into the status quo lethargy of televised sports, movies, and endless Pinochle games. Lacking access to formal college classes, I realized I desperately needed a project.

I thought back to one of my earliest memories as a creator. I was five years old. My first “movie” was about to begin. My parents beamed as the dinosaur blanket curtain opened. “And . . . action!” I chirped. I knew precisely how many Star Wars action figures it took to defeat the evening’s antagonist, my gargantuan stuffed gorilla. Though my mise-en-scene would have inspired no envy from Peter Jackson, and the applause was more loyalty than admiration, I was hooked. I had witnessed the miracle — my audience had experienced my inspired thought. I had participated in that most sacred of rituals.

I had created a moment.

“I was proud of myself for the first time in nine years”

Concept art by Immortal Studios intern Nicholas Wong.

I remember standing in my tomb of a jail cell, scouring books: Screenplay, The Writer’s Journey, The Screenwriter’s Bible, The Book of the Samurai. As homemade “scene cards” blanketed my rusty metal bunk, I started working on my own scripts.

After a year of scribbling with jailhouse golf pencils, The Canton Experiment — my original screenplay about the only Japanese samurai in China, in 1725 A.D. — was born (logline: “Remember the Titans, with swords”). Thanks to a friend/typist playing Rosetta Stone to my tiny graphite scrawl, I signed an agreement with a producer named Payhuan Shiao, which allowed him to shop our project around to try to get the film made. Three rewrites later, as I was sweating in a desert prison, he asked me to write a treatment and screenplay for what he described as “the Buddhist Avengers.” 

Payhuan would later become the founder and CEO of Immortal Studios. Screenwriter and producer Matt Stuecken, known for 10 Cloverfield Lane and Knights of the Zodiac, became my story analyst. Every night, I typed into the wee hours. I’d complete a draft and FedEx it to Matt, and he’d FedEx back his notes, which were insightful and mercilessly blunt: “What is the point of this scene? Delete it.” I have never learned so much so fast.

But still, I found myself longing to find more than a mentor-by-mail who could refine my act breaks. I needed professors who could help me polish my unrefined, self-taught writing skills. With an educated mind, I could create stories that would inspire people and enrich their lives. I could create more moments.

Much as it had done for the vagabond prince, Aladdin, it was the desert that granted my wish. I was finally admitted into the associate’s program at Palo Verde College in Blythe. Though at first, I was limited to taking distance-learning classes, the one-on-one feedback professors gave me deepened my understanding of the material and increased my thirst for learning. There, I earned three associate’s degrees. As I held them in my hand, I ran my thumb across the gold embossed seal, and for the first time since my arrest nine years earlier, I was proud of myself.

“UCLA has always been a part of my story”

Benjamin Frandsen with his fellow UCLA English majors. Photo courtesy Benjamin Frandsen.

After a transfer to a lower-security prison, I continued my studies via correspondence, earning new degrees in American studies and business. This put me at the top of the list when Merced College finally brought in-person classes inside the prison walls. This was the most significant boost yet to my academic mindset. I was no longer taking whatever classes were offered; I was studying English and working with teachers who were themselves skilled scribes. The critiques and suggestions of my professors had a profound effect on my writing. I gained the confidence to submit my work and watched as it found its way into the pages of publications around the country. In 2021, I graduated from Merced College and became the first incarcerated student to be selected as Outstanding English Student of the Year. I was also in the first cohort of Fresno State University’s in-person college program at Valley State Prison. 

I transferred, almost directly, from prison to UCLA in June 2022, after I paroled from Valley State at the age of 48. UCLA has always been part of my story. In 1974, I was born at UCLA Hospital. Having earned my first college units in prison classrooms surrounded by barbed wire and cinder blocks, it is difficult to overstate how much it meant for me to be admitted into the hallowed halls of this institution, with its Gothic-spired buildings standing proudly in their red-bricked majesty.

My first ever social media post about the experience soon received over 1 million views. The editor of UCLA Magazine called and soon I — the same guy who had ditched high school more times than he had attended and whose most recent photo was a prison mugshot — was staring at his face on the cover of a magazine. In the two years since my release, my show called the Ben Free Podcast has just completed its fifth season and my nonprofit, the Ben Free Project, is already visiting prisons to provide educational programs to improve literacy rates inside. 

Benjamin Frandsen on the cover of UCLA Magazine. Photo courtesy Benjamin Frandsen.

So how did I end up on that stage at Comic-Con? My mentors at Immortal Studios asked me to write their next graphic novel series based loosely on my own criminal justice experience. For Immortal, this would be the story of a wrongfully convicted man who finds his awakening as a hero in a very dark place. Soon I will be paired with an artist, and we will find out if my artistic vision is a match with his or hers. The first issue of my graphic novel will likely be published in mid-2025.

Earlier this month, the man who had begun his academic journey locked behind bars took the proud walk of “Pomp and Circumstance” and became a proud Bruin alumnus. My beloved red-brick buildings and sprawling green lawns at UCLA are already becoming mindscapes of nostalgia instead of landmarks on the way to class.

My freedom was taken away from me. Like the protagonist in my graphic novel, I was relegated to a solitary corner of a dungeon, without direction or purpose or hope. All that changed when I signed up for college and opened my first textbook. In April, I was accepted into San Diego State’s highly selective, 3-year MFA creative writing program focusing on crafting fiction, writing memoir, publishing, and instructing. I also just found out that soon, I’ll be in front of a classroom, teaching first-year students of my own. After all, if my education could become the guide that would lead me from the dark corridors of prison to the red-bricked hallowed halls of UCLA to the stage at Comic-Con, it could do the same for anyone.

Benjamin Frandsen is the formerly incarcerated founder and executive director of the Ben Free Project. He’s an honorably discharged military veteran and a published poet, writer, and memoirist. He recently graduated from UCLA with a BA in English and is currently studying for his MFA in creative writing at San Diego State University. Follow him on Instagram.