My Favorite Read-Aloud Books Right Now: October 2015

This month our favorite library finds cover everything from evolution to cuteness, picture books to graphic novels!

Older than the Stars. Image credit: Charlesbridge Publishing
Older than the Stars. Image credit: Charlesbridge Publishing

Older Than the Stars, written by Karen C. Fox and illustrated by Nancy Davis, presents the idea that we are all as old as the universe. With abstract background images, the cumulative story starts with the last line and works its way backward. For example, the first two pages are: “This is the bang when the world began” and “These are the bits that were born in the bang when the world began.” Eventually, we work our way through to how the big bang relates to the sun, our planet, our environment, all the way down to “you.” It’s really fun to read, much in the style of “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” and each page features a little side note with more details. Continue reading My Favorite Read-Aloud Books Right Now: October 2015

Creating ‘Little Robot’: Ben Hatke Interview

Image: First Second

Ben Hatke, of Zita the Spacegirl, and Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, has a new book! Yay! It’s called Little Robot, and I highly recommend it. Ben was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about his new work:

GeekMom: Hi Ben! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for GeekMom about your new book, Little Robot. I really enjoyed it.

Ben Hatke: You are welcome! And I’m glad you enjoyed it.

GM: Did you always plan for this to be a (mostly) visual story? What were the challenges and most fun aspects?

Ben: The original Little Robot webcomics were newspaper comic strip format and they were also largely silent, save for a few robot noises. So, coming into the project, I already had a sort of history just using the robot’s gestures and “acting” to tell a story. I continued that going into the graphic novel and gave the robot a little co-star that operated in a similar way—gesture over dialogue.

It was challenging to decide just how little text I could get away with, but for the most part I find purely visual storytelling a lot of fun. I used one of my daughters as a reference for a couple poses.

GM: The “hand” becoming a friend was a great part in the book. How did you come up with that idea?

Ben: I think that’s one of the things that came from the part of the process where I doodle in my sketchbook. In the early parts of a project like this I tend to be working on the plot in text and the design in a sketchbook at the same time, and each of those elements informs the other.

Of course I’m definitely not the first person to use a “helping hand” type of character. I was watching a clip from The Iron Giant recently, which I hadn’t seen in many years, and was a little dismayed to find that there’s a very similar robot hand scene in that movie! Continue reading Creating ‘Little Robot’: Ben Hatke Interview

Looking For New Young Books?

Image By Rebecca Angel

Well, here are three to check out with dinosaurs! pirates! robots!

First up is Carter Goodrich’s We Forgot Brock! It’s a tale about all kinds of friendship. Brock is the coolest pirate/rocker/hero young Philip could imagine. But when Brock is forgotten at the fair, another child invites him home. Will Brock ever find Phillip again…does he want to? The artwork is key to the book’s charm. The “real” world is colorful, round, and soft. The “imaginary” friends are black and white and flat, but with expression and sincerity. Although I was at first disappointed in the gender-stereotypical depictions of what boys and girls would imagine, it was hard to keep a chip on my shoulder as I read the story aloud to my nieces. We really, really enjoyed it. (And they thought Princess Sparkle Dust was as cool as Brock.) Highly recommend for all ages.

Next is Mark Pett’s Lizard from the Park. If you have ever visited the NYC’s Museum of Natural History, and then walked in Central Park, it’s easy to see where Pett got his inspiration. Those dinosaur bones are so huge! And where would these giants fit in our world? That’s the problem Leonard, a young boy in the city, has when he hatches a lizard egg that may not be just your average lizard. As the mother to a young girl who was obsessed with dinosaurs, this is a sweet book I recommend for all ages.

Finally, Little Robot is Ben Hatke’s new book. This is perfect for youngsters looking for the next level up in storytelling from picture books. Without the need for many words (there is some dialogue) Hatke puts the emotion and layering of story in his artwork. The protagonist is a curly-haired, barefoot girl who finds an abandoned tool set, and box-o-robot in the local junkyard. She activates the robot and they quickly become friends. Yet, they are so very different! Can they stay friends? What is the meaning of true friendship when robot is in danger?

I have an upcoming interview with Ben Hatke about Little Robot, so stayed tuned for that. In the meantime, I recommend this book for ages 6 and up.

‘Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City’ is Filled With Humor and Life Lessons

Big Nate Cover
Big Nate cover. Image: Lincoln Peirce.

My boys, ages 10 and 12, wait with eager anticipation for the release of each new Big Nate book. Then, when they get their hands on it, they usually finish it as quickly as a glass of cold, refreshing iced tea on a hot summer’s day. Fast! And, they are just as satisfied too. Plus, I get to hear all the funny excerpts and reenactments of Nate’s latest adventures. I might even pick up the book to enjoy for myself. Reading Big Nate is definitely a family affair in our home.

Big Nate started as a syndicated comic strip in 1991 and has grown to include a whole series of illustrated novels and activity books. Author Lincoln Peirce is very skilled at telling stories so that you laugh while pondering some of life’s most difficult growing-up experiences.

Big Nate Collection
Big Nate collection. Photo: Maryann Goldman.

Recently, we were given the opportunity to review Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, and Big Nate’s latest adventures are funnier and more meaningful than ever! One of our favorite comic strips from the book was set at Halloween and had us rolling with laughter. Nate’s dad, Marty, decides he should hand out a healthy alternative to the typical Halloween candy, but what seems like a good idea, turns into a disaster. Yuck! My Halloween will never be the same.

Big Nate sample
Big Nate sample. Image: Lincoln Peirce.

About the time we stopped laughing over everyone’s reaction to healthy Halloween treats, Marty decides Nate won’t miss a few pieces of Halloween candy from his huge stash. Wrong! Nate has rigged a motion sensor to detect anyone who dares to mess with his candy. “BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, INTRUDER! INTRUDER!” “All I wanted was a box of Milk Duds,” Marty says.

We own similar Spy Gear at our house, and it’s a real riot when the alarms sound and darts fly. I have to cover my ears, but the boys can take turns for hours setting up traps for mom, each other, and Kitty. You know the cat loves that!

Big Nate candy alarm
Big Nate candy alarm. Image: Lincoln Peirce

My son Joey says he relates to Big Nate because so many of the situations Nate finds himself in have actually happened to him. “A lot of things in this book series makes you want to reflect on yourself,” he says. “We have all protested against things like homework and cooties. Nate is really an ordinary kid just like me.”

While Big Nate books are certainly filled with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and great illustrations, there’s always an important underlying growing-up theme too. In Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City, Nate works to get into Marcus’ Posse, but once in, he realizes that he’d rather hang out with his true friends than be one of the cool kids. Good for Nate! I am sure many of us can relate to the hurt of being left out of the in-crowd or getting in and then realizing it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be.

Additional Details

If you live in the Los Angeles area, Lincoln Peirce is going to be a part of the Drawn Together event on June 20. For more details, check out Randy Slavey’s post over on GeekDad. I wish we weren’t so far away in North Carolina, or we would absolutely be there.

Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City also includes a full-color pull-out poster of the book cover. Your kids are sure to love hanging it in their room.

Also, Big Nate has a fantastic website. You can read about the latest books, play games, share your doodles, sign up for the Big Nate newsletter, and read the latest comic strip over on GoComics. Did you know you can download the GoComics app on your iOS or Android device and read your favorite comics, like Big Nate, each day for free? We’ve installed it on our devices and are really enjoying keeping up with the daily Big Nate comic strip.

Big Nate: Say Good-Bye to Dork City is available on Amazon for $9.18.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Interview for Dragons Beware!

Image First Second

Dragons Beware! is the latest graphic novel of Claudette, a fearless girl who adventures with her younger chef brother, and princess best friend. What? You haven’t read Giants Beware! yet? Go! Go! Go!

I asked the creators of both books, Rafael Rosado and Jorge Aguirre a few questions about the series and the latest adventure, and they were happy to oblige:

Image First Second
Image First Second

GEEKMOM: Claudette is a “leap before you look” type of character. Was there a particular person (or people) in your real lives that inspired her?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We both have lots of leap-before-they-look kind of people in our lives, but there wasn’t a single person who inspired Claudette. Her personality is somewhat inspired by the character Mafalda, an Argentinian comic-strip that both Jorge and I read as kids.

GM: I really enjoy the relationships between Claudette and brother, and best friend. Having a strong female lead in any story is breaking stereotypes, but to have good relationships with her brother (instead of being jealous or competitive with siblings) and enjoy her unashamed girly-girl best friend (instead of putting down “girly” things)—well, that’s just fantastic! Was it purposeful to create the series to be so different?

JORGE/RAFAEL: Thanks! We both like to put new twists on familiar archetypes. But we’re also trying to create interesting characters who we care about that. That means fleshing them out three-dimensionally and when you do that, you can avoid stereotypes. As for Claudette and Gaston: we love that their relationship is both that of siblings and friends–maybe it’s a Latino thing; we’re usually pretty close with our siblings.

GM: What were your favorite stories growing up?

RAFAEL: I loved superhero comics, Batman and Fantastic Four were my favorites. Anything by Kirby, especially in the 70s (Kamandi, New Gods, Mister Miracle).

JORGE: I loved Greek myths, superhero comic books, fantasy books, that sort of thing.

GM: Claudette’s father is a tough and capable guy who is also in a wheel chair. Have you gotten any feedback from wheelchair-bound kids and/or adults who have read the series?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We have not heard from any wheel-bound folks, however we both loved the idea of a warrior not impeded by the fact that his mobility is partially restricted. It makes him even more of a tough guy. And by the way, May is National Mobility Awareness Month.

GM:The dress up scene with Claudette in all the different outfits had my family and I cracking up–hilarious! Did you make yourselves laugh with the sketches? Were there outfits that didn’t make the final cut?

JORGE: I love the scene too. And it’s a pretty good example of how we work to entertain each other. The script only specified that Marie wanted to play-dress up and Claudette was not happy about that. And Rafael drew the really funny page of costumes.

RAFAEL: We always try to crack each other up first! If that works, we run it past our kids, and if that works, then we know we’re on the right track. As I go through the script I’m always trying to find ways to make it visually funny, to complement the funny dialogue that Jorge’s come up with.

GM: In this second book, each of the kids are moving forward in their own plot-lines: Claudette trying to get her father to officially train her, Marie and her suitors. But my favorite was Gaston and learning magic spells are like cooking. Was this planned from the first book? Do you already see where each of their personal stories are going next, or is that book to book?

JORGE/RAFAEL: We’re mostly figuring out the specific steps of each character’s journey as we go along. However, we have a pretty good idea where these characters end up. It’s the getting there that always takes time to figure out. How far do you let each character grow in each book—that’s a toughie. We had talked about Gaston using magic spells since that does feel related cooking. And Rafael drew the spellbook with the ingredients in the back of the book and that just felt right for Gaston.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Dragons Beware! is recommended for ages 5+.
GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Princess Decomposia And Count Spatula

Image By First Second Books

Andi Watson has created a creepy-cute romance with the new graphic novel, Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula. The Princess is overwhelmed taking care of the business of the Underworld while her father convalescences in bed and complains about his food. In comes a pastry chef vampire, Count Spatula, who sees the stress the Princess is under, and tries to help.

Andi was kind enough to answer a few questions about this sweet gothic tale.

GEEKMOM: What was your inspiration for the story and characters?

ANDI WATSON: As always with a book, several different elements have to come together to spark things off. Most importantly I wanted to create a full length graphic novel for the first time in my career, a challenge I hadn’t met after many years of making comics. At first I was a bit intimidated, knowing I’d have to write the whole thing ahead of time, but that became an advantage as I could go back and forth over the course of the story, adding and taking away scenes and dialogue. I loved being able to clearly see the overall shape of the story, something it’s quite hard to do when I’m serialising. The other inspirations came from my sketchbooks. Both Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula had been lurking in the pages in separate stories for years, but neither of their stories worked alone. It was only when I put them together that the book fell into place. I love it when that happens.

GM: Did you see romance right away for the Princess and Count?

ANDI: One of things I wanted to achieve with the book was tell a relationship story, a romance that would be fun to write and draw. I’ve told “real world” romance stories before, and enjoyed writing the dialogue and creating characters. The slight downside is that I’ve found them a bit less fun to draw. It’s often two or more people in a room talking. That’s a real challenge to keep visually interesting, so I wanted to combine a relationship story with a strong visual element and I found I enjoyed drawing the spooky stuff. Having more freedom to play visually and allowing my imagination a bit more of a free reign was a real treat. That the Princess has the cute bat-wing hair and the Count is a vampire made it extra fun to draw. Add to that, designing all the other characters and I had a blast.

GM: The relationship between the Princess and King changes over the course of the book. What’s the message about father/daughter dynamics?

ANDI: Yes, I thought it would be interesting to explore the family dynamics of who’s in charge and who is driving things behind the scenes. The child has adult responsibilities without being allowed her own choices, while the King enjoys power with none of the obligations. The adult is the child and vice-versa. The shape of the story follows how that balance changes. I’m not sure I have a message about father/daughter dynamics, although I am interested in them, being dad to a daughter myself. One thing that strikes you as a parent very early on is how much and how little power you have over your kids. On the one hand you’re completely responsible for every aspect of their lives, on the other you can’t make a child eat, you can’t make them sleep, and you can’t make them stop crying. You are utterly helpless, as any parent with a crying toddler on a long haul flight knows!  As children grow up that divide is less stark but you’re still trying to juggle how much responsibility to give a child and also the anxiety that comes from letting them go little by little. Perhaps this whole book is about my daughter becoming a teenager and my wanting to take to my bed and hide!

GM: The Count’s fun desserts like Mud Monster Cake and Lemon Drizzle Cake were charming to see and imagine the taste! Do you bake? What’s your favorite dessert to make or eat?

ANDI: Yes, I began baking with my daughter when she was little. We both enjoyed making a mess and eating the results. I hadn’t baked since school so it was the perfect way to begin again as the emphasis was on fun and play, not on some exquisitely presented end product. As long as it was edible we were happy. I’ve continued baking over the years, which is why it was a joy to invent the Count’s set-piece desserts. My job was to flick through recipe books and doodle ideas in my sketchbook… it was tough, I tell you. Sadly, my own skills fall well short of the Count’s, but I do enjoy making quick and simple recipes like cookies, rock cakes, fairy cakes and the like. I’ll have a go with fondant icing for birthdays. Past projects have included Minions from Despicable Me and a crash landed Tardis. I also made a traditional Yule log over Christmas that turned out all right. The recipe my family likes best is a chocolate cake with Terry’s Chocolate Orange ganache. Super sweet and easy to make.

GM: Finally, what project are you currently working on?

ANDI: I have a couple of books in the bag, including my webcomic Princess Midnight which finishes up at the end of January. I’ve also finished a graphic novel for grown ups that I’m hoping to find a publisher for. As for brand new stuff, I’ve finished writing another spooky graphic novel that I’ll start drawing and aim to have done by the summer.

GM: Thanks, Andi!

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula comes out February 24th by First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Chatting with Jen Wang, In Real Life

Image: Jen Wang, First Second Books

Last week I interviewed Cory Doctorow about the new graphic novel IRL (In Real Life). This week, I’m catching up with his artist co-creator, Jen Wang, to see what she had to say about this project. Please help me welcome her to GeekMom!

GeekMom: So Cory Doctorow said you did all the heavy lifting on this project. Would you say that’s true?

Image: First Second Books

Jen Wang: The way this project worked was I was given free rein to adapt the script however I wanted so as to offer my own vision to the story. After that Cory would go over and offer ideas of his own and help guide the script into something that matched us both. We went back and forth like this for a couple drafts before settling with what we have. So yes, I made most of the changes in the story from the original to the graphic novel version, but it was a melding of both our sensibilities. And of course I did all artwork!

GM: Could you tell us a little about the artwork in IRL? What inspired the images in your mind? Was there something you felt was important to capture in the images?

JW: The most obvious decision in the design was the contrasting color palettes between the real world and the online world of Coarsegold. This is all from Anda’s perspective so it makes sense that her real life is uninteresting and the online world is colorful and exciting. I ended up using a “brown” filter over the real life images to reflect a serious (but not depressing) reality, while I used a multicolored filter to heighten the colors in Coarsegold. Other than that, I was given free rein to illustrate the book however I liked so I just had fun making up a coloring landscape that I felt would be appealing to someone like Anda.

GM: What is the process like, making a graphic novel, and perhaps, working on IRL in particular?

JW: I start with a script, which in IRL’s case involved both Cory and I. My scripts are roughly four pages of comic to one page of script so from there I have a rough idea how long the book is going to be. From there I do really rough thumbnails one chapter at a time. I like the thumbnails to be as rough as possible, enough to give me an idea of where to go, but leaving it open to experiment during the actual drawing process. The next phase is the pencil drawing, and after that the inking, scanning, and coloring.

GM: I lived in Flagstaff for a few years, and I noticed the couple frames where you have some background imagery, like the outside of the school, for instance and the landscape behind it, are just spot on. They really capture just the right things about the atmosphere of Flagstaff. Have you ever been there? Or were you able to catch that just from pictures and ideas?

JW: I have been there! I was actually on a trip to the Grand Canyon when I first stayed in Flagstaff. I thought it was the perfect place for Anda to live. It’s so beautiful and peaceful, and you’re next to one of the great natural wonders of the world. And yet I could see how all this would be lost on a teenager. The town is small and there’s not a whole lot to do. Someone like Anda would easily be compelled to spend a lot of time online in a fantasy world.

GM: I loved the expressions on the characters faces throughout the book. I think you’ve captured so much of the dynamic teen personality in this book. How do you think you managed to do that?

JW: Expressions are a thing I love to draw, so it’s fun for me to indulge in. It’s like a form of acting except it comes out through a drawing instead of your body. I don’t like being the center of attention so I feel like having the emotions one step removed and projected onto a character is one way I can conjure these feelings vicariously without having the focus be on me. Who knows, maybe in alternate universe I would be an actor!

GM: This is your second book. Has anything changed for you in the way you approached the work between your first and second books?

JW: I definitely started writing full scripts after my first book Koko Be Good. With Koko, I scripted a chapter and drew it chronologically one at a time. Meaning I didn’t get to the ending until I got to the ending. I used to be more into stream of conscious writing and allowing myself to feel the surprises as they come. Now I much prefer being able to edit and improve on things and look at the piece as a whole.

GM: What was your favorite part about working on IRL?

JW: Finishing it! But no, kidding aside, the writing process for this project was hard but it taught me a lot. I’d never worked with another writer before and I’d never rewritten so much before, but I’m a much more confident writer now than I was at the beginning of it.

GM: We know that Cory Doctorow is a very active… well, activist. Would you classify yourself as such? What things are important to you?

JW: I wouldn’t say I’m as active as Cory, but I definitely feel very strongly about issues particularly with women, queer identity, and race. Sometimes I feel a little unsure how to approach activism because I know there’s an inherent privilege to being able to do that. It’s presumptuous to be in a position of education and outreach and tell people how to think even if I believe it is right. On the other hand, I’m in the unique position of writing literature for young adults and I definitely care a lot about what I represent as a creator and as a person. I hope at the very least as a woman and person of color my voice adds something of value to the young adult and comics readership.

GM: How do you think gaming can affect a teen’s life?

JW: Games are very time consuming and immersive. It can affect a lot! I don’t say that in an alarmist way because a lot of good things can come out of it too like friendships built, identities born, and creativities sparked. Like I think it’s so great kids are playing Minecraft and building their own worlds. On the other hand I wish there was more diversity in games and more variety in the types of games being made. That’s changing every day though as game-making becomes more accessible and I feel very optimistic.

GM: Do you game? If so, what do you play?

JW: Not a whole lot. I have a bunch of games on my phone and once a while I’ll play something off Steam everyone’s been recommending. Games are like comics in that the mainstream hasn’t appealed much to my demographic, but as the making and self-publishing becomes more accessible to creators I’m seeing more and more stuff that appeals to me. Gone Home, Analogue: A Hate Story, and Dear Esther are fantastic story-based indie games. I also like a lot of text-based games likes the ones made for Twine like Howling Dogs and Horse Master.

GM: Do you have any advice for a younger person trying to break into art or gaming?

JW: I can’t speak for gaming, but for art I’d say the best thing to do is just start drawing. Start drawing and have a lot of fun. It can be intimidating comparing yourself to others and what being an artist means for your future, but the best way to be an artist is to really love what you’re doing. Have fun and meet other artists online and at conventions. They will motivate, inspire you, and make you feel less alone as you toil away at your drawing desk.

GM:  Any thoughts for younger people who might be interested in helping others like Anda does?

JW: Get to know all different types of people! Listen to their stories and let their experiences inform you how to help them. Maybe some people don’t want your help, but they appreciate your support. Also, if you don’t see enough outlets for an issue you care about, feel free to make your own. Start a blog or a project that helps raise awareness like the Ice Bucket Challenge. Not only can it be fun, but it might inspire new people to your cause.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Jen Wang! And for the rest of you, please check out IRL, available now wherever books are sold!

jen wang
Image: Jen Wang

Jen Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. She recently illustrated Tom Angleberger’s Fake Mustache. Her graphic novel Koko Be Good was published by First Second. In Real Life is her second book. 

Pirate Day Book Review: Scott Chantler’s Pirates of the Silver Coast

Image courtesy of Scott Chantler.

Abandon yer landlubber ways and set sail with the Cutlass: Read Pirates of the Silver Coast, an all-ages fantasy adventure graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Scott Chantler. It features a feisty, adventurous girl seeking her lost brother in a fantasy medieval setting. In this fifth story in the Three Thieves series, former circus acrobat Dessa is seeking her kidnapped twin brother Jared, along with her two companions, Fisk and Topper.

At the opening of the book, Dessa is waiting for a broken leg to heal and hiding with her two companions. Topper is a small blue being, who is quick-thinking and loves a good risk. Fisk, on the other hand, is a quiet, huge and gentle creature, who has been outcast from his tribe. To proceed with their mission, the three need funds. Raising funds and seeking Dessa’s brother while under pursuit by the evil queen’s guard, using the highly sought-after map to a mysterious island that Dessa acquired in the previous issue, gets this tale off to an in-your-face start.

Image courtesy of Scott Chantler.

Once the trio have purchased safe passage on the Cutlass, they get to mix it up with pirates—several times. Some people are surprisingly piratical, some pirates are surprisingly human, and our friends require bravery, trickery, feats of strength, or leaps of faith to continue the journey without piratical penalties. At the end of the book, I wanted to keep reading to find out the resolution to all of the dangling questions and intriguing situations. I would love to read this book with youngsters in my life.

Since I have not yet read the preceding volumes in the series, I did not have a strong sense of the characters’ history or personalities. Dessa and Topper tell us who they are quickly through their actions, but Fisk is so quiet that his other characteristics are hard to discern. There is a sense in this story of payoff from earlier story investments, as if the series is a big Jenga tower and this episode is the point where we start worrying about each move we make.

Chantler’s art and writing move the story along briskly and convey the plot clearly. I did not have to study panels to figure out what was happening, but sometimes I studied a panel just for the fun of it. The art style is uncluttered and direct with clean lines, a somewhat painterly style, and the pages vary between bright primary colors and more muted, neutral palettes, depending on the atmosphere. My favorite line was, “By the great mermaid’s clamshells!” and my favorite image was of Fisk gliding through the air with his head up and his arms wide. Not because it is particularly artsy or beautiful, but because it looks both fun and serene—and it’s effective, in story terms. Images like this make it easy to hope to see this story as an animated or live-action film.

Image (c) Scott Chantler Image (c) Scott Chantler

Q&A With Scott Chantler

GeekMom: Did you have any particular inspiration or goal in designing your main characters? We love strong female protagonists at GeekMom, but Dessa’s posse is interesting too.

Scott Chantler: Topper and Fisk are characters I’ve been kicking around since university. There’s an old drawing of them in one of my sketchbooks from probably 1993. So those are characters who have been with me a while, just waiting to pop up as sidekicks somewhere.

Dessa herself came much later. My original 2006 concept for Three Thieves had a boy lead. Before actually pitching it, I changed it to a girl. It just felt a little less cliché, and maybe made her seem a little bit more vulnerable out there in that pseudo-Medieval man’s world. You’re seeing a lot more female heroes in comics lately, especially in all-ages books. In fact, a lot of them are using “strong female characters!” as a sort of feminist marketing hook. Which is fine, but Kids Can has never publicized the Three Thieves books that way, which I’m happy about. That Dessa is a girl has never been a big deal (Pirates is the first book in the series to reference to it as a plot point.) Because it shouldn’t be. I certainly wasn’t trying to force some kind of social justice agenda. The themes of the series are more universal than that.

GM: Without serious spoilers, what was your favorite part of creating Pirates of the Silver Coast and/or the Three Thieves series?

SC: The entire series is just a blast to work on. But Book Four (The King’s Dragon) was pretty dark, so I purposefully wanted to make this one light and fun. Of the five books so far, it was the easiest to write. It’s a little shorter than the others, so that helped. But it also ends with a couple of big twists that I’ve been working toward for years now, so I always knew exactly where I was going. Finally arriving at those scenes was really satisfying.

GM: Who did you read as a child and who do you read now?

SC: When I was very young, I was all about superhero comics. When I hit my teens, it was more about fantasy comics and fantasy novels. Conan the Barbarian, DC’s Warlord, Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara, etc., Tolkien of course. A lot of that stuff ended up in forming the Three Thieves books.

As an adult, I’ll read pretty much anything. Fiction, non-fiction, genre stuff or “literary” stuff, comics, or prose… I just like to read. Prose-wise, I’m finishing up Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s The Monuments Men. Comics-wise, I’m re-reading the ‘90s Vertigo classic Sandman Mystery Theatre.

GM: Do you prefer writing or art? Do you ever wish you were collaborating on the book creation?

SC: Cartoonists get this question a lot, and it’s always puzzling to us, because in comics the art is the writing. Most of us don’t think of them as two separate things. We’re people who “write” with pictures. That said, the script stage goes faster than the drawing does. But it’s also less satisfying than looking at the giant pile of art boards you’ve got when you’re finished. So it’s a toss-up.

And no, I don’t wish for a collaboration. We can all name some successful writer/artist teams who seem to share a vision, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I think a true synthesis between word and image is best achieved when those two things are married inside a single creator.

GM: What is the hardest part of the process of creating your comics?

SC: The drawing stage takes a long time—longer than I’m sure most people would imagine. Drawing comics is more fun than digging ditches for sure, but sometimes when you’re several months (or years, in some artists’ cases) into the process, it’s hard to remember that. Many of us also work in isolation, which makes it tough, too. There’s no one around to give you a pep talk when you need one.

GM: Any tips for kids or adults interested in pursuing comics?

SC: Drawing skills are important, of course, but I would stress to them that comics aren’t simply heavily-illustrated books, but a unique storytelling language. And mastering that language involves so much more than drawing. You need to think about what to draw, not just how to draw, and that means studying drama, studying film, studying movement, studying iconography, studying anything that helps get ideas across to readers, visually. Creating comics isn’t about picture-making; it’s about communication. The best cartoonists aren’t the ones who draw the coolest-looking stuff. They’re the ones who can translate their ideas most effectively into simple, clear, dramatic imagery.

(GM: Amen, brother!)

Thanks to Scott for that insight into the life of an artist and writer. You can see the trailer for Pirates of the Silver Coast and buy the book at Scott’s website. Pirates of the Silver Coast is 96 pages from Kids Can Press. It sells for $8.06 and is suggested for ages 8-10.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth

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Image by First Second.

“I like how it got all the plot points across, but kept it kid-friendly.”

This was my son’s comment after reading The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo. He recently took a Shakespeare course, and Macbeth was one of the plays studied, so I was curious about his take on this graphic novel. My son gave it a thumbs up.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents Macbeth is a First Second offering for this fall that will appeal to Shakespeare fans of all ages, but especially the younger set just meeting the Bard. This version is full of animals, food, and humor.

The story takes place in a zoo, where the animals put on shows for each other after the human crowds go home. The audience is as much fun as the cast, with silly-to-witty commentary throughout. I particularly liked the little aside from the vultures with their opera glasses:

“Ooh! I love the witches look!”
“They say warts are the new black.”

Macbeth is played by a lion who thinks he loves food more than anything until he meets the witches, and realizes he’s really hungry for power! However, he would have to eat the king to become king himself. He talks to his wife, Lady Macbeth the leopard (out damn spot… hee-hee!), who hands him a cookbook, “100 Ways To Cook A King,” suggesting they saute in lemon-butter sauce.

“But still, Macbeth refused. Eating someone just didn’t seem polite.”

He finally relents and eats the king: “What follows was horrible and gruesome and definitely the best scene in the whole play…” But of course, we don’t see it because the elephant shows up right then to see the play and blocks the whole stage.

And so the silliness continues in this amusing version of classic theater. The artwork bounds through the pages, with the dialogue and narration clear, but with a kid-friendly twist. Like the best animated movies, the jokes are on a couple of levels, so parents reading this to their children will find it just as fun.

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents Macbeth comes out the end of this month, recommended for ages seven and up. Check it out!

GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Gene Luen Yang Talks About The Shadow Hero

Image by First Second.

I hope everyone has picked up a copy of The Shadow Hero for you and your kids’ summer reading. If not, read my review on why you should! Plus, here’s an interview with the writer, Gene Luen Yang:

GeekMom: How was the story and art divided between you and Sonny Liew? What is your creative process?

Gene Luen Yang: I did the writing and Sonny did the art. There was some overlap, of course. Comic books by their very nature demand that the text and the visuals interact, so the writer and the artist have to interact.

I wrote the book as thumbnail sketches—rough sketches of what each page should look like. Sonny reframed the panels that weren’t working. He did all the character designs. He also did extensive visual research on the time period to give the book the proper look and feel.

GM: Who found out about The Green Turtle comic? And how?

GLM: My friend and fellow cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim first pointed it out to me. (If you’re unfamiliar with Derek’s work, I highly recommend it. His latest, Tune, is a wonderful sci-fi rom-com graphic novel series.) Derek had read about the character on Pappy’s Golden Age Blogzine, a blog about obscure Golden Age superheroes.

As soon as I learned the rumors surrounding The Green Turtle’s creation, I became fascinated with him. Was he a Chinese American or wasn’t he? Chu Hing, his creator, never gives his reader a definitive answer. I really wanted that definitive answer, so I teamed up with Sonny Liew to provide one.

GM: I like The Shadow Hero a lot because it has a great blend of action, character, good plot, and humor. The mother is very funny! How did her character come to be?

GLM: Thank you! Hank’s mother was inspired by a few of the ladies at my home church. I grew up in a Chinese American Catholic community. Many of the “aunties” were very much like Hank’s mom. They were well-meaning, but also very… opinionated. Their hearts were always in the right place.

GM: I am currently running an Asian cultural studies camp for teens, and we talked about old stereotypes of Asians in the media (film, tv, comics, etc.). The kids were totally baffled at the caricatures depicted from the turn of the previous century and early decades. What would you like my students to know about Asian stereotypes in today’s media?

GLM: I think that’s great! I’m glad today’s kids are baffled by the caricatures from a century ago. It means things are different now. It means we’re growing in our understanding of culture.

At the same time, stereotypes of Asians and Asian-Americans still pervade today’s media. An Asian or Asian-American character’s ethnicity can sometimes be used as a lazy way of flattening her, of sidestepping her humanness. Pay attention and you’ll see it. The long-term solution—or at least one of the long-term solutions—is to tell better stories about Asian-Americans.

GM: The Shadow Hero certainly sets things up for more adventures. Are you planning on telling more?

GLM: I have vague notions of doing two more Shadow Hero books: One about the relationship between early Chinatown and early Japantown, another about The Green Turtle in post-World-War-II China. Nothing’s set, though. We’ll see how this first book does.

A big thank you to Gene for taking the time to answer my questions! Here’s to more of The Shadow Hero.

Ben Hatke on Zita, Cosplay, and What’s Next

My Favorite Thing Zita

Graphic artist and author Ben Hatke is back with another thrilling installment in his Zita the Spacegirl series, The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (First Second), featuring more derring-do from the beloved intergalactic heroine.

With her shiny black boots and billowing green cape, Zita has bravely waged battles with space monsters and stared down some of the universe’s foulest villains. But with the latest in his graphic novel series for young readers, hitting bookstores this week, Ben has presented Zita’s biggest challenge yet. Zita is held captive in a lonely dungeon on a hidden planet, putting her cleverness to the test as she plots the galaxy’s greatest jailbreak.

© First Second Books

A father of four daughters—one of them named Zita, no less—Ben has created a heroine who is brave and smart, and never forgets to be kind as well. Her kindness is a favorite trait for many readers, this one included. In a GeekMom review, Zita was described as knowing “that friends don’t give up on each other, and everyone should help the helpless.” And Booklist‘s glowing review of Book 3 says Zita “saves the day with the kind of heroic pluck that’s garnered her so many admirers, both in her universe and ours.”

GeekMom caught up with Ben on the eve of the book’s release.

Question: Kirkus Reviews calls Zita “a modern-day Dorothy fighting aliens instead of the Wicked Witch of the West” and goes on to say she’s one of the most “spirited and valiant heroines in comics today.” What do you think makes Zita click so well with readers?

Ben Hatke: Well I’m not one hundred percent sure, but like to think that readers connect with Zita because she’s both iconic and a truly fleshed-out character in her own right. I’ve spent a lot of time with this character through the years. She’s a little hero in an iconic outfit, but I’ve come to know her well. She freaks out about specific things and has her own set of ideas about people and life. I’m comfortable with Zita, and I think (I hope) readers pick up on that.

Q: One of the highest forms of praise an author can receive is seeing kids dressed up as his characters. What is that like for you when you see young Zitas at comics conventions?

BH: Words fail me on this one. “Exciting” doesn’t really cover it, does it? I mean, I almost fell out of my chair the first time a Zita cosplayer walked up. Now I keep a file of Zita cosplay pictures that parents and fans send me, and at Halloween time I have a big, yearly Zita Costume Parade on my blog. My file for this year is growing already, so I think this upcoming Zita Parade will be the best yet.

(Also I feel a little bad that our original Zita costume has disappeared and that my own girls don’t—yet—have Zita costumes of their own).

Copyright Ben Hatke

Q: You are the father of four girls. How much does that affect your art and storytelling?

BH: Well, of course I’m partly writing specially for them, but it’s also nice, as a storyteller, to have a sort of first line of critics. I work at home, and you’d better believe that the girls come and check up on me (working at home is a … delicate balance). The girls ask what I’m working on, and sometimes jokes or story ideas fall flat or don’t get a response. And I think, “Huh. Maybe I’ll rethink that idea.”

And the older two girls, Angelica and Zita, are developing a pretty great artistic sense of their own. I have made coloring changes based on their input. I also let each of the girls draw a creature for each book, and I hide their creatures somewhere in the pages.

And also, since my family is relying on my stories to, you know, keep a roof over our heads, I’m more inclined to go the extra mile to make sure every book I’m working on is the best I can make it.

Q: The Return of Zita the Spacegirl is billed as the third and final in the Zita series. But are you really through with Zita? She’s such a big part of your life—didn’t you win your wife’s heart through this story? What will it be like to put Zita aside?

BH: It’s not easy to put Zita aside. I have a lot of projects I want to work on, and I’m making time for them, but I definitely have more Zita stories kicking around in the upstairs. It’s so hard to fit it all in.

Listen, if you have any ideas about how to secretly add five months to every year please, please email me.

Q: Your first picture book, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, comes out in September with your same publisher, First Second. Is this a new frontier for you? What’s ahead?

Julia's House
Copyright First Second Books

BH: I’m so excited for Julia’s House! I’ve found the picture book to be a tricky, beautiful, elusive beast … but I hope to create many more. I enjoyed Julia’s House particularly for the days I spent with my music turned up loud as I splashed away with my watercolors on big sheets of Arches paper.

And as for the future … I have several projects cooking, but currently I’m in the middle of a new graphic novel for young readers. It’s about a girl and a robot and a very particular summer friendship. It’s definitely one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on, and particularly because it sort of “takes place” in the area near where I live. Zita has adventured in far away worlds, stars away, and Julia lives in a magical house like one I grew up in. But the girl in Little Robot lives in a neighborhood that I pass through every week on my way to Role Playing. I’ve been able to sit and sketch the very area where the story takes place.

And that’s been wonderful.

Everyone Should Meet The Shadow Hero

Image By First Second

“Look at this.” I showed page twenty-nine of The Shadow Hero to my daughter, who has been taking a comics and cartooning class. “You see how your eye flows around the page, the action and reaction shots branch out in all direction, yet clear storytelling and speech bubbles properly placed—brilliant comic montage! And check out this completely different take on page 105, artistically reflective of the spinning barrel of a gun as the panels…”

I’m not an artist, but wow, do I appreciate a good one. First Second has put out a superhero graphic novel with ties to the history of comics, racism, and the duality of first generation Americans, in an entertaining format that young YA and up will enjoy.

Gene Luen Yang, creator of award winning American Born Chinese, and Sonny Liew, who recently did a graphic adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, have come together to introduce The Shadow Hero. It is the origin story for a long-forgotten comic superhero from the 1940s: The Green Turtle. As a history geek, I was curious to hear there was an Asian-American comic so long ago, since mainstream comics are amazingly white and male. Yang explains that in 1944, Blazing Comics asked Chu Hing to create an original superhero for them. Hing came up with The Green Turtle, but not everything is clear about this superhero during his brief run.

Yang and Liew have filled in the past with The Shadow Hero. Yang is a powerhouse in the graphic novel world, and does not disappoint. The story takes place in West Coast Chinatown during the early twentieth century. Hank is a young, handsome, nice guy, whose only goal in life is to be just like his father: an honest grocer. But then his mother decides her son should become a superhero, and since his father has an ancient Chinese spirit residing in his shadow, fate leads Hank to become more than he had planned.

Although Hank is our hero, his mother, Hua, is my favorite character. Starting with her resignation of the drabness of American life, to her being flattered that another superhero was checking out her “bosom” (really a hidden pork bun), to her inability to keep her son’s dual identity a secret, this lady made me laugh.

Speaking of women, although there is a kick-ass, sexy romantic interest here, she isn’t the only girl around. Not only is the mother a big role, but there are two other dangerous women introduced. Yay!

The plot is fast-paced, the dialogue true, and the artwork brings a likable personality to the world. Besides page 29, there is creative use of the comic format throughout, especially during the action scenes. I really liked the ending (defeat by the clever use of words!), and hope there is more to come.

The Shadow Hero comes out in July. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

Discussing Earth Day: I’m Not A Plastic Bag

im not a plastic bag archaiaApril 22 is Earth Day, a movement that started 40 years ago and continues to grow and be a vital part of our daily lives. For our children it’s hard to imagine a life where there were no electric cars or reusable shopping bags. While these small steps contribute to a greater good, larger measures have to be taken to sustain our future.

Start talking with your kids about Earth Day at an early age. Archaia’s I’m Not A Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope Allison is a graphic novel with beautiful but haunting pictures of what is actually happening in the world around us. The tale of our own slow destruction of our planet is told through wordless drawings that almost give a Miyazaki-esque quality, scenic yet arrestingly stark at the same time.

plastic bag rainarchaia plastic bag 2archaia plastic bag 3The book also includes information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a real phenomenon where weather patterns and pollution combine to form a massive concentration of floating consumer waste twice the size of Texas, an “archipelago of trash.” There are also easy to understand statistics and resolutions on what we can do together to prevent further ecological damage.

A picture book is a great way to start a discussion with your child about how your family can recycle, save energy and reduce on a daily basis in your home. I’m Not A Plastic Bag is a great jumping off point about how we as individuals can do our part in reducing our carbon footprint and work towards a sustainable future.

I’m Not A Plastic Bag is available from Archaia.

The Return of Zita Wins

Image by First Second
Image by First Second

I read the final book in the Zita trilogy with excitement and a little sadness. Zita the Spacegirl is one of my favorite graphic novels out there: The main character is a girl who is full of courage and kindness, the story brings in such an array of different personalities in both friends and enemies, the plot moves at a great pace, and the artwork and dialogue make my kids and me giggle.

In The Return of Zita the Spacegirl, our young heroine is a prisoner in chains, being charged with “crimes” she did (but for the right reasons…?), persecuted by a corrupt government. Her beloved Mouse is going to be executed. A hooded figure appears, friend or foe? But before anyone can save her, she is stripped of her Strong Strong star, and chucked into a dungeon with only a pile of rags and a skeleton in the corner.

A children’s book? Absolutely! The artwork makes even the nastiest of villains kinda cute, and there is no doubt that Zita will triumph somehow. And that pile of rags and skeleton? Her newest friends! The pile of rags has been in that dungeon so long it evolved into a very nice life form, and the skeleton is more than happy to chat with someone new and offer its fingers and toes as keys to escape. In fact, those two characters develop and change during this story to become a duo my son and I found compelling and sweet.

That’s what this series is all about: You never know what to expect, and Zita doesn’t either. Yet, she knows that friends don’t give up on each other, and everyone should help the helpless, and her conviction changes the universe and every adorable creature she meets.

I’m sad the series is coming to a close, but can’t wait to read what Ben Hatke has in the works next. Plus, my nieces are finally old enough to be introduced to Zita! I get to start from the beginning and share the story of this strong girl facing the silly and unexpected with strength and love.

The Return of Zita will be available in May from First Second. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.

This One Summer: Beauty In Realism

Image By First Second

This One Summer is a new graphic novel by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It is a YA book that transcends the genre into where most adult novelists wish they could go: honest and nuanced characters in that familiar world you forgot to cherish. The details of a summer beach town, and two girls on the brink of teen, may not be your memories, but the yearnings, confusion, and relationships certainly will reveal half-buried reminisces.

Stories can be told in many ways, but this one is a perfect example of the depth of the graphic novel. Unlike a book of text, the artwork speaks on a level beyond even what the characters appreciate. Unlike a movie, you control the pacing, the ability to linger on that moment of perfect dialogue.

Here is an interview with the creators of This One Summer.

What was the inspiration behind the story and characters of This One Summer? Was there a specific place (or places) that inspired the illustrations?

MT: Originally, my inspiration was my own cottage setting, in Northern Ontario, near a town called Penetanguishene. That was the location of the original corner store, although just about every cottage has something like that, I think, a local place with little to no merchandise that smells like suntan lotion.

For research, though, we were very lucky that Jillian had a friend with a gorgeous cottage up in a similar area, Muskoka. We did what you would call a little research tour up into that area the summer after the script was done and it was very inspiring, and relaxing.

The characters are mostly a mix of people I’ve met in my adult life, not so much the people I knew when I was little and at my own cottage. I’m definitely paying more attention to teens and pre-teens as an adult than I was as a kid. As a kid they were mostly a blur.

Although the main characters are pre-teen girls, dealing with their own friendship and parents, the reader also encounters issues of teen pregnancy and infertility. I see this book for a large age range. When creating the book, did you have a specific age of reader in mind?

MT: I try and keep a story in mind more than a reader. I would hope this is a book that could be read by a wide range of people, and I would guess that they would all probably hone in on different parts of the story.

JT: I think it can trip one up to try to create specifically for certain age groups. Mariko and both naturally gravitate to stories and treatments that appeal to both teen and adult audiences and have been lucky to have publishers that don’t push us into publishing categories. I think kids like stuff with a bit of edge to them anyway.

What do you hope the reader takes at the end of the story?

MT: At the best of times my favorite books are both familiar and a kind of discovery. I hope it evokes for some people some memories of summer times, which are such amazing, if sometimes complex, memories. I hope it’s also a chance to think about all the different kinds of stories and connections that can exist in a small space. Plus I hope some people get lost in it a bit. I love when books do that.

JT: I hope to convey the emotion and sensory feelings of summer, which is both very sweet and melancholy because it’s fleeting. Also the idea of adolescence and seeing things with new eyes. Situations. Relationships. Your family. You develop a sense of nostalgia.

The often harsh dialogue is paced perfectly with the timing of expressions, or a focus on something else in the scene creating beauty in ordinary reality. Was every moment planned out in a script, or did it evolve with the art?

MT: Nothing visual is really planned out in the script.  Sometimes there’s a little setting or some objects that feel part of the story, but all that timing and those moments where text meets illustration is all Jillian.

What writers and artists inspire you?

MT: Writer wise? Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Lynn Coady, and John Green for writing. I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire, Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Hellen Jo for comics and illustration.

JT: For this book: Alice Munro, Ghibli/Miyazaki… I dunno, that question always befuddles me. How do you isolate what influences a work that takes place over the course of 3 years? Real life. Memory. Our visit to Northern Ontario were all more influential.

I recommend This One Summer for ages 12 and up. The book comes out in May from First Second.

Why I Binge Read Ava’s Demon

The cover of Ava's Demon (hard-bound Kickstarter reward) by Michelle Czajkowski. Image: Cathe Post

Ava’s Demon, by Michelle Czajkowski, showed up on my doorstep earlier this week. This incredibly heavy-for-its-size box was addressed to my husband. I didn’t recognize the return address let alone know how to pronounce the name attached to it. Then I remembered Tim had mentioned something about a Kickstarter reward coming sometime this week…

The book in the box was even gift wrapped. I found myself torn between leaving the pretty wrapping for my husband and just ripping it off to see what was so dang heavy! The wrapping paper lost, and I found myself looking at this incredibly simple, yet beautiful, hard-bound book cover.

To say that Ava’s Demon is beautiful is an understatement. The book measures almost two inches thick. Most of what those many pages contain is an illustrated story which is occasionally moved forward by character dialogue. It is a quick read if you don’t stop to look at the images…but why would you rush through such amazing art?

The art is so stylistically appealing and  the color is so warm that all of the artistic aspects lend to telling the story as much as the dialogue itself.

This looks like it could be a picture book/graphic novel kids would enjoy—but looks can be deceiving. Be warned that there are f-bombs and quite a bit of conversation about suicide. Also, the story is called Ava’s Demon for a reason: Ava has a demon who is haunting her. The behavior of that demon is less like a house ghost from Harry Potter and more like a trapped soul from Constantine. My advice would be to read it before handing it over to school-aged children.

If you received the Kickstarter book, you might have seen pages that looked like pictures of playable videos. The videos themselves can also be found on the Ava’s Demon website (normally at the end of a chapter as part of the archive). The addition and quality of the videos to the web-comic series is unsurprising since Michelle Czajkowski interned at Pixar and worked at Dreamworks.

I wasn’t aware of Ava’s Demon until it showed up on my doorstep. It captured my attention so quickly and fully that I knew I had to share it with you. If you are interested in checking it out, Ava’s Demon is a web comic which is updated on Mondays and Thursdays (the hardcover Kickstarter reward book contains the first six chapters). If you fall in love with the art as much as I did, you can also buy the artwork in print or wearable forms.

The Cute Girl Network: Interview!

By First Second

Imagine a community where you could get the low-down on every guy in town—what they are really like to date?

That’s The Cute Girl Network in the fictional town of Brookport in a new graphic novel published by First Second. The two writers MK Reed and G. Means, and artist Joe Flood, collaborated on the project. The story revolves around a newcomer to Brookport: a skater-chick named Jane, who falls for sweet, but hapless Jack. She is pulled into The Cute Girl Network, with horrible stories of Jack. Will she trust her instincts? Or her new girlfriends? The graphic novel comes out November 12th.

I had the opportunity to interview the creators, and I love their answers! Check it out:

GeekMom: Three collaborators on a graphic novel. How did that come about? How did the process work throughout the project?

MK: We did it through the magic of the internet. Greg and I wrote the script over Google Docs, which allowed us to both contribute parts & do rewrites of each other’s sections and have it all up-to-date in one file while working from opposite sides of the country. Joe came along after First Second had picked it up, and thumbnailed the book, sent it to us for feedback, and then turned in the finished art a year later.

Greg: MK and Joe have been good friends for years. They take road trips together and he sleeps on her couch sometimes. I was always hoping to team them up on a project, luckily the stars aligned for this one.

Joe:  I was nervous about having two writers at first, I assumed that would translate into twice as many notes, two pairs of eyes scrutinizing every line I draw. But it turns out Greg and MK complement each other, they have a wonderful Yin and Yang thing going. I guess that would make me the poorly drawn dragon wrapped around it when it’s tattooed on the back of some dude’s neck.

GeekMom: I have to admit, as soon as the “Vampyr Moon” conversation began, I rolled my eyes thinking it would be yet another bash-fest about Twilight. But the conversation in the book was more real than I expected—with fair viewpoints. Although I’m not a fan of the Twilight series myself, I find the extreme negativity associated with it very distasteful. So thank you for that. Thoughts on it? The excerpt at the end was hilarious. Who decided to put that in? How fun was that to write?

MK: The Twihards take a lot of BS for their love, but it’s certainly not significantly more ridiculous than the rest of comic, sci-fi, & fantasy fandoms. That said, I completely disagree with its messages (as I understand them without having read the books*), but that’s what made it so fun to parody.
*Our book designer Colleen first told me about this ridiculous vampire romance series in maybe 2006 or 2007, and I listened to the first twenty minutes of the audiobook before I found Bella to be UNBEARABLE.

Greg: The “Vampyr Boyfriend” excerpt at the end was MK’s idea. She’s great at that stuff. Check out her fake fantasy novel in her previous book AMERICUS for proof. We’ve got to get her do a full prose novel one of these days.

GeekMom: I see Joe lives in Brooklyn. Was that the template for the fantastic wide shots of the city in the book? I love the details.

Joe: I’m glad you enjoyed them. Hopefully I got most of the details right because I was drawing from memory. Shortly after being signed onto the book I moved to Atlanta, because my wife was going to grad school there. I was very homesick for 13 months I was working on the art, desperately trying to remember the home I had recently left. The city of Brookport is an amalgamation of Brooklyn and Portland, MK and Greg’s homes respectively. Having visited Portland, OR once briefly, I based most of the city scapes on Brooklyn. I had lived there for most of my adult life. (Grew up in NJ, lived a few years in Manhattan before settling in Brooklyn.) I’m happy to report that I’m back in the NY area, living in the suburbs. The prospect of ever moving back to Brooklyn, remains to be seen.

GeekMom: “Look, those network girls all seemed perfectly nice…but if we were in first grade together, I’d be shoving them in the mud and they’d be calling me a poop face.” This is one of my favorite quotes from the book. Jane is helping out with a project about little girls on the playground, but she doesn’t like them. She also doesn’t have a lot in common with most of the women her age, either, yet she is able to live with them. What are you trying to say about how girls interact vs how women interact?

MK: Adults are a bit better at trying to find some common ground, and can disagree without being enemies for life. Sometimes.

GeekMom: The “cute girl network” is painted as just a gossipy bunch of bitter women. Do you think there could be a positive form of the “network”?

MK: There’s totally a different book to be written where Harriet is a bad-ass who saves unsuspecting women from jerks left and right, and if we did a sequel that’s probably what we’d aim to write.

GeekMom: In Jane and Jack’s relationship, she is the motivated one for career plans, and Jack is in the supportive role. Do you think this is becoming more common in real life?

MK: It’s definitely become more socially acceptable.

Greg: I think Jack would make a great stay-at-home dad someday.

Joe: I aspire to be a stay-at-home dad.

GeekMom: Jack’s two roommates are great characters. How did you come up with them and their house dynamic?

Greg: Gil and Rose are based on two friends from my old day job. When we worked together, there was always lots of joking and bickering but when I needed their help, they’d swoop in and save the day. In real life, they liked to give me dating advice too. Some good, some not so good.

GeekMom: I would put this book in the 16+ category, mostly for the casual sex. Greg, as a librarian, how would you file your own book?

Greg: Yeah, 16+ sounds good. At my library, we have juvenile, YA, and adult graphic novel sections. I’d put The Cute Girl Network in adult. Though, I think as a teenager, I would have loved this book. I was always curious about how people in their 20s lived once they were free of school and parents. I probably would have romanticized Jack’s minimum wage job and windowless apartment.

Thanks so much for giving us some insight into The Cute Girl Network!

By First Second
By First Second
By First Second



Delilah Dirk: Swashbuckling Heroine

Image By First Second Books

There is a new swashbuckling adventurer on the literary scene, and her name is Delilah Dirk. In her first adventure, Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, the author and illustrator, Tony Cliff, introduces our heroine through the eyes of Selim, a tea-loving lieutenant of early 19th century Constantinople. By simply doing his job in a civilized way, he impresses an imprisoned Delilah, and gets himself on the executioner’s block. He is saved by this resourceful and dangerous woman, and they set off on a journey to avenge her uncle from the pirate captain Zakul (the terrible!).

Daring escapes, witty banter, fine tea, and the start of a good friendship fill the colorful pages of Cliff’s first graphic novel. Both of my teens really enjoyed the book, and I did as well. Tony Cliff was kind enough to answer some questions I had about Delilah Dirk:

GeekMom: I am a bit obsessed with tea, so immediately bonded with Selim in the very first pages. Are you a tea drinker yourself? (I won’t hold it against you if you’re not…)

Image By Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff: I am! Definitely. It’s comforting. I’m pretty casual about it, though. A half-decent off-the-shelf Earl Grey will do me fine, though I DO take it with milk and sugar (don’t hold THAT against me).

There’s a nice story behind the “tea recipe” that Selim recites in the prologue. Chapter One of The Turkish Lieutenant had actually been self-published in 2007 as its own little self-contained comic, and in it Delilah has a line about only drinking “the blood of her enemies.” An enterprising reader took it upon herself to craft a “Blood of My Enemies” tea blend, which she documented online. Since the prologue for The Turkish Lieutenant was completed more recently, I asked her if I could use her recipe in that sequence. The ingredients are listed in order of representative quantity, so it’s conceivable that the recipe could be replicated. I have never tried it myself, though I understand it’s a bit spicy and the colour lives up to the tea’s name.

GM: Delilah’s character jumps off the page with her energy and personality. How did she arrive in your imagination? 

TC: Honestly, I have to admit that there wasn’t a lot of thought that went into her character. Some of her comes as a reaction to everything I’d taken in at that point—a lot of Hornblower and Sharpe books, a lot of mid-90s Image comics, Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Disney Saturday-morning cartoons. The male heroes were relatively serious, stern, square-jawed men. The women were similarly humourless, fun-hating Amazons. I like James Bond as much as (probably more than) the next dude, but he’s not exactly a bundle of laughs. There’s a place for that, of course, and I understand that it’s a time-tested trope to surround a more serious-minded protagonist with other characters that provide comedy relief and so on and so forth.

I don’t know where I started with Delilah Dirk, but it felt natural to respond to those familiar action-adventure characters and tropes with a quirky, energetic, slightly sarcastic woman. It just seemed like a fun thing to do. There’s a bit of a gender-politics angle to it insofar as I DID feel motivated to put a female character out into the world that I could feel proud of; one that I wouldn’t feel ashamed to show my female friends, or my girlfriend, or a potential daughter, or my mom. So far, so good—my 92-year-old maternal grandmother likes Delilah, I’ve been told.

GM: Although Delilah pulls us along in this adventure, Selim is the main character. Why did you choose him to tell this story? How did his character come about?

TC: Because if I were to tell the story from Delilah’s point of view, all her feats would be presented in a hum-drum, matter-of-fact sort of fashion. This is daily life for her. She’s familiar with the sorts of things she’s willing and able to do.

For Selim, this is all new and astonishing, not least because Delilah is a woman in a time and place where exceptional feats are not generally expected from women. Quite the opposite (if you’ll allow me to generalize). From his point of view, Delilah and her exploits are surprising and unheard-of, which just seems like a more natural, more exciting point from which to approach Delilah. The reader is introduced to Delilah as Selim is introduced to Delilah. You’ve got a friend along for the ride as you meet this wholly exceptional character. Someone to reassure you, “Yes, this is as crazy as it seems.” It all just helps reveal the context in which Delilah’s operating, specifically, she is an unpredictable sword-swinging foreign woman in a land where such a thing is even MORE absurd than you might have assumed, had you not been presented solely with Delilah’s point of view.

In fact, Selim’s character might have come out just as a vehicle for illuminating Delilah’s adventurous exploits. I think it’s only through the process of writing the story and having them play off each other that they ended up having the exchanges that they do. It’s tough to remember exactly where these things came from.

GM: Tell me about your research for the time and place of this book.

TC: It is constant! One thing I have discovered during the course of making this project is that if you stop to wait until you feel as if your research is “complete,” you will never make anything. Some days you just have to push forward with whatever information you have.

It’s also surprising the way research works. It feels as though 98-percent of the research that I’ve done has not explicitly informed the content of the book. This is a tough concept to explain, but I’ll try. It feels like most of the research goes into building a foundational understanding of the place and the time. You will never call explicit attention to it on any one page of the book, but it will be there in the background, informing every panel and every line of dialogue. There are a lot of things you and I understand about the world in which we live and we take those things for rote. You cannot assume those things will be the same in another culture, two hundred years ago. It is really surprising to discover that you have no idea about the specifics of how someone would have travelled from one town to another. Little things like that keep popping up—little intangibles of no major historical significance will pop up and remind you that you are in way over your head.

Fortunately, the main focus of the book is on the characters and their stories. Little historical details are important, and they add a subtle texture to the work that you can feel, even if you aren’t consciously aware of it, but they’re not the reason most people are engaged with your work. They’re there for the story, to see the play between characters unfold. When I get hung up on a little detail, I just try to remind myself that it’s the characters’ stories that are most important.

GM: What were the biggest challenges of this five year project?

TC: Just between you and me? Getting people to read it. Fortunately, it seems like a lot of the people who read it end up enjoying it, but man, it is tough to get over that first hurdle. I get it, too. The book has a setting that isn’t very familiar, there aren’t any easy hooks. The illustration style is something that perhaps most people would associate with a Disney cartoon (and thus associate with children’s entertainment) while the subject matter is better suited for a slightly older reader.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried to deliver some engaging characters, a good shot of humour, and a story that’s both honest and exciting.  I can tell it must read differently than people expect, as more than one reader has seemed surprised at how much they’ve enjoyed it. I like that reaction, though, and if I can keep surprising people, that makes me happy. I would much rather have people be pleasantly surprised than be disappointed at something that got hyped-up beyond warrant.

GM:  I assume (hope) there will be more adventures?

TC: That is my intention! Further adventures are, indeed, planned. These “travel posters” may provide a clue as to where things might be heading, maybe. I’m well through the writing process for a second graphic-novel-length story, and I’m intending to start thumbnails and roughs this Fall. If anyone wants to keep tabs on it and/or harass me to work faster, they can do so via Tumblr, or on either my Delilah-focused @delilahdirk Twitter account, or my more-frequently-updated kitchen-sink @tangocharlie account.

Making comics is a slow process, though, especially when you insist on doing all the work yourself, so it will still be a while before the second book arrives. That said, I’ve learned a lot from the process of making The Turkish Lieutenant—really worked all the kinks out—so how long could it possibly take? A month? Maybe two? Definitely two months, tops.

GM: Thanks, Tony! Looking forward to more global adventures with these two entertaining characters. Here is a page from the book of where Delilah and Selim first. The entire story is out now to purchase, so enjoy!

Image By First Second Books

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

First Second Books
First Second Books

I have to admit, when I was sent a review copy of Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, a YA graphic novel by Prudence Shen and illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, I wasn’t as excited as I could be.

I’m a huge fan of Faith Erin Hicks. Her book Friends with Boysis one of my favorites. My daughter and I used it as our selection for our mother/daughter book club. In Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, Hicks was only doing the art.

The premise sounded like a cliche high school drama, pitting nerds against jocks. Eh. But I should have trusted that Hicks wouldn’t collaborate on something unless it was worth her mad skills. I, and my two teens, very much enjoyed it. Amusing dialogue, great art (duh), and characters that have fun with their stereotypes, tossing or flaunting them at a whim. Continue reading Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes

Matt Kindt. First Second Books.
Matt Kindt. First Second Books.

There are some books I read more than once.  Mystery novels are usually not part of that group. I already know who “did” it, so what more to glean from the story? With Matt Kindt’s detective graphic novel Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes, there is much to re-examine, clues to understand, characters to figure out by reading again and again.

In general, I read graphic novels several times because I tend to literally “read” them- the words- first, just glancing at the pictures, and then read it a second time slowly, savoring the pictures, looking for nuances in the art to add depth to the story. Red Handed is dense in illustrated details, puzzle-pieces plot, and ethical conversations that bear reflecting. Continue reading Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes

Art, Sex and Beautiful Men

Relying on seductive art to draw in your audience is akin to a comedian swearing. It doesn’t take skill to get a reaction.

There have been several recent posts GeekMom and elsewhere about the sexualization of women in comics. Although that’s nothing new, female geeks are finally getting fed up- realizing that being loyal and vocal fans does not grant any respect in the industry.

The discussions on the internet got me thinking about a conversation I had last summer with an artist friend of mine. We were on our way back from ConnectiCon where he had worked with his art and enjoyed chatting with other artists. He excitedly told me about a woman next to him who showed him her “boobie pictures.” Her out-front display was cartoon cats, but she showed him her Adults Only folder with mostly women in sexy poses with big breasts. She encouraged him to display his own “boobie pictures” because they’re fun to draw and sell really well. She said both women and men like pictures of sexy, naked women.

He then waxed poetically about the female figure in fine art, explaining to me how the female form is universally recognized as most beautiful. He talked about slope, curve, and roundness, about masters in the art world, and famous paintings and sculptures. He has a degree in Fine Art and I had no reason to doubt him.

The following day I departed to teach at a teen music camp up in the Adirondacks. The conversation with my friend would not leave me, and I realized I disagreed. However, I’m a musician, what do I know about art? But as the week progressed, I couldn’t let it go.

At a break time by the beach, I informed a fellow counselor about the whole thing. I explained that I don’t find the female form to be any more beautiful than the male form, in fact, I think men are MORE beautiful than women. Why? Because I’m freakin’ attracted to them- duh! And if the masters of the art world, and the majority of art teachers are straight men, then they are going to believe that women are more beautiful because they are attracted to them. Isn’t that obvious? Why should art have all these depictions of naked women? I shouted loudly, “I want more naked men!”

My counselor friend chuckled softly, and slightly uncomfortably. Perhaps this was because we were currently next to cavorting teens of both sexes in swimwear. Did I mention this was a Catholic music camp?

Anyway, comics are just the latest incarnation of the oldest way to show a story (music is the oldest way to tell a story.) I appreciate art with an uneducated eye. This does not devalue my opinion in any way. I know this because the value of an uneducated musician’s opinion is very worthy to me when I write my own music. If someone doesn’t like it, I don’t care how many degrees they have.

Comics are obviously marketed towards men. The covers are to attract the twelve year-old, straight boy’s eye. Do men purchase because of hyper-sexed women and powerful men bursting out of the pages? I know I purchase despite the covers, hoping there’s a good story inside, and wondering why a woman fighter would ever have that much skin exposed. Is it eye-catching? Of course. So is this:

Another Back By Akseru

Would I purchase a novel solely on this cover? My stereotypes tell me this would be called Fields of Passion. And unless the hot guy on the cover is going to come out of the book and snuggle with me while I’m reading, I wouldn’t buy it. I like plot (call me wacky) and many books geared towards women, the ones with hot men on the cover, are sorely lacking in it. That is why I pick up stories with a scantily dressed woman on the cover calling down lightning.

If I told a heterosexual man that Fields of Passion was a gripping tale he really would enjoy, would he try it out? Would he hide the book from friends? Do women hide the “boobie pictures” spilled on our favorite comics? It is taught in library school that girls will read a book with a boy or girl on the cover. Boys are rarely drawn to books with a girl on the cover.

So men only care about stories involving women if they are seducing them?

And women just want a good story?

The picture above is a sexy picture I found while perusing deviantart (some people watch YouTube videos, I browse artwork.) The Greeks believed the male form was the most perfect (and this is not because Greeks were fine with being gay; homosexual practices depended on the city-state) and women were rarely depicted in the nude until late in the age. Why don’t we acknowledge that any human body can be made beautiful by a skilled artist?

But you know, I don’t need a skin shot to catch my eye. All you need is a talented artist who can capture a moment, and I want to know more.

Unison IV By Lukas Sowada

Do I really want more naked men in graphic novels? If the scene requires it- I’m more than happy to drink in the sight. For that matter, I don’t mind looking at a beautifully drawn naked woman. Sex is part of life, a part of stories- a very exciting part! But if it doesn’t follow the plot, then no thank you.

Are the top graphic artists so talentless that they can’t create eye-catching, beautiful art without sex attached- women and sex to be specific?

I am not an artist, but I love art. I love beauty. I love stories.

Don’t give me swear words.

Geek Tragedy in Middle America

My twelve-year-old son finished Americus and said, “This is a good book.”

I’m always annoyed to read the list of “banned” books in American schools and libraries. It’s one thing for a parent to decide what to put in their own child’s head, but a town board? Harry Potter was banned in many places because ignorant people believed that by reading these books, children would learn about satanic practices. Morons. When I heard about this I wrote a song called, “Fool’s Blues.” I’m guessing MK Reed and Jonathan Hill felt similarly angry to churn out the graphic novel, Americus.

In their book, which I checked out from my library, a young geek named Neil has to save his beloved fantasy book series from being banned. He already knows, through junior high hell, that being a geek sucks in a small town, but he also learns that you can find your tribe and stick together to protect what matters.

“You kids better stop thinking on your own and start listening to what I tell you!” pretty much sums up much of the adult mind-set in the town of Americus, Oklahoma. The main plot is about a mother (see quote above) trying to convince the town board to ban The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde from the public library on the grounds that it is akin to pornography in its moral degradation of youth. This same mother sent her son (Neil’s best friend) to military school for declaring he was gay. However, the graphic novel is really showing what life is like for outsiders in real towns like Americus, where the enemies are, “liberals, atheists, and gays.”

This is a place where Neil’s mother gets flack from other women for letting her son wear black shirts. Apparently, only troubled youth that will eventually burn down the school wear black. Neil reads for fun (big mark against him) and the library is one of the few havens for geeks in Americus. Charlotte, the librarian, is a friend.

Mr. Howard, Neil’s neighbor, tells of his experience in high school, “Each day brought another indignity…now I sell them steaks, and they pretend like all that never happened.” Later, Mr. Howard defends the fantasy series at the town meeting, saying everyone needs an escape from reality.

Neil’s POV in high school is a highlight of this book. The first day of class speeches by the teachers are spot on. I reread them out loud to my husband to our mutual amusement. The biology teacher: “Now we all know that God created the earth 6,000 years ago for man to live on, but science tells it another way…” is hilarious. Though my favorite is:

“Realistically, most of you will quit or graduate high school and become cashiers and waitresses, and those of you with lofty goals might be a real estate agent or car salesman. Regardless, you’ll never use algebra again. But some of you might go to college and to prove that you’re more intelligent than a field of corn, you’ll need to take the SATs, half of which is math…”

Neil is pessimistic, frustrated, and misses his best friend. Yet, the young boy finds music and books that make him happy. He speaks up for what he cares about and makes friends along the way. I recommend this book for junior high and up.