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Scrambling Our Brains with Pop Culture: A Sometimes Silly Conversation with Cartoonist and Author Dave Roman

Maybe it was all those years working as an editor at Nickelodeon magazine, which is where I first met him, or, more likely, it started much earlier than that for Dave Roman—his superpower, I mean, the one where he’s able to absorb the entire spectrum of pop culture and beam it back to readers with increased radiation.

In fact, this could explain why he’s been in demand as a writer for interesting graphic adaptations/extensions, co-authoring The Last Airbender: Zuko’s Story and X-Men: Misfits (which creatively re-imagined  the superheroes as manga-fied teens). And although with Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, one of my favorite kid-oriented graphic novels of 2011, Roman acted as artist, too, with his latest, Teen Boat!, he returns to scripting-only duties. Actually, Teen Boat! is hardly a completely new creation, but rather a fun, brightly-colored collection of the comics he’s been collaborating on with John Green for a while now. Available today, the book is likely to provoke smiles and giggles from a wide range of readers. —oh, pardon me, I’m starting to giggle again just thinking about… all right, sorry about that. I better start the interview now.

Connect the Pop: True or false—fictional works about teens, especially if they have the word “teen” in the title, usually appeal only to pre-teens and to adults. Real teens are actually too cool to be lured in simply by calling out their age bracket.

Dave Roman: I’m not sure how often the research on “teens not reading books with teen in the title” is put to the test, but perhaps there are exceptions when it comes to comedy? Once a teenager realizes the main character’s name is literally “Teen Boat” they should realize it’s intentional, tongue-in-cheek silliness rather than “MARKETING FAIL.” I’ve been told that people come to Teen Boat! for the satire and stick around for the surprising sincerity sprinkled within. Maybe Teen Boat! will spark a renaissance of books for teens who don’t care about looking cool? I’ve done many author visits where high school age kids don’t want to admit they like cartoons and silly stuff in front of the group. But afterwards they’ll come up to me individually and confess their secret love for things they just pretended to be apathetic about.

I love the stylized logo (“TeenBoat!”) that shows up inappropriately in the middle of word balloons—also the trademark symbol that accompanies the Totally Pirates!™ characters whenever they appear. Will young readers get this dig at overly commercialized comics and pop culture characters? I think they might, but what are your feelings or, better yet, what were your intentions?

DR: Both Teen Boat! and Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity come from watching and re-watching movies like Airplane!, Johnny Dangerously, Monty Python, and everything Mel Brooks as early as fourth grade, with all my friends. There were references to Jewish culture, British politics, dead celebrities, religion, racism, outdated songs, and archaic things completely out of a child’s realm of experience… and yet we all still knew these movies were the most hilarious ones ever made! Films and books of that style are like buffet counters for jokes. Something for everyone’s tastes, but a single person isn’t expected to eat everything in front of them!

Well, that’s perfect, because I was about to say I really like the collage of references in your work, including Teen Boat! Sometimes these are more or less explicit—it’s very neat when Tezuka’s Black Jack crops up as a doctor—and sometimes not. Is there a fine line between celebrating pop culture, as a fan or creator, and having one’s brain scrambled by all the text connections that can be made? Or is the brain-scrambling part of the fun?

DR: I hope the brain-scrambling is part of the fun for people who read my work! I certainly have a lot of fun mashing these tropes and archetypes up. I think my style of writing is akin to putting all my influences into a blender and making a smoothie to enjoy with like-minded individuals. I love making connections with people who have a shared love of similar comics, movies and pop culture. I also like books that give readers Easter eggs to look for when they read them again!

In the same vein, there are references in Teen Boat’s adventures to everything from racy Cinemax content to the poster for the two-Corey’s vehicle License to Drive. So let me ask you: are comics in some sense, the “ultimate” medium? Can they eat TV and movies in a way that TV and movies can never devour them?

DR: I don’t know if comics are the “ultimate” medium, but I am fairly biased towards them, since I’ve been trying to make my own comic books since I was old enough to know what a photocopier was. Comics, when done right, certainly have unique qualities that make them more than misperceived storyboards, or movies on paper. Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics) has pointed out that books and comics are more interactive than film or TV because the reader controls the speed and input of information. You can pour over a comic page, taking it all in at once, and then focus on individual moments and pull back out again at your own leisure. The words and pictures alternate and overlap in ways that blur time and space to create a form of magic… just like Corey Haim and Corey Feldman did in the ’80s.

I think educators will really appreciate the step-by-step guide to creating a graphic novel that’s included in the back of the book. But how are you hoping that they, or kid readers, use that section in a practical way?

DR: I think a lot of us are accustomed to watching “making of” documentaries and DVD special features that demystify movie making. Comics (and certainly graphic novels) are still new to a lot of people, who seem to be curious about what goes into their creation. John Green (artist and  co-creator) and I have been collaborating on Teen Boat! for a few years, so we thought it might be cool to show the various stages from ideas and first layouts to the final art in the book.

The behind-the-scenes section isn’t meant as a “how-to,” so much as a way of making people more aware that comics don’t just happen fully-formed. And that they are not ALL done with computers!

Finally, in an ideal world, with whom would Teen Boat do a crossover? SpongeBob? The Sub-Mariner?

DR: SpongeBob would really be the ultimate crossover for me, since I worked at Nickelodeon for ten years and write the occasional short story for the SpongeBob comic book series! There’s also a mini-comic by Jason Viola called Herman the Manatee that would make for a natural team-up.

Thanks for all your time. What’s next for you, though?

DR: I’m a few days away from finishing inks on Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry, which is planned for a Spring 2013 release. I think it might be the most heart I’ve ever put into a single book. Once I’m done with the graytones and production, I’ll dive into writing a follow-up to Teen Boat!, and also finish up the next Agnes Quill short story collection for Slave Labor Graphics! For the kid who always wanted to make comics all the time, I feel like I’m living the dream.

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Hmmm, I’m wondering if there’s an Easter egg in this very interview, perhaps in the previous sentence: “I love making connections with people who have a shared love of similar comics, movies and pop culture.” I mean, he must realize that this blog is called “Connect the Pop,” right?


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