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Inside Good Comics For Kids

Interview with Don Wood

Back in December, I read Don Wood’s Into the Volcano and was captivated.  I didn’t expect it. To be honest, the cover didn’t appeal to me. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down.  But since this was previously reviewed on Good Comics, I thought I would satiate some of my own curiosities about this book by interviewing Don Wood.

EK: Congratulations on the new release. Reviews have been very positive.
Elizabeth Bird, From SLJ’s Fuse #8 starts out her review of your book Into the Volcano by writing, “Look, I hate to burst your bubble but not every picture book illustrator born is necessarily cut out to write his or her own graphic novel. It’s an entirely different set of muscles, after all.” (Don’t worry, the review was all positive!) But after working as a picture book illustrator for so many years, how was this process different?

DW: The process was much the same, but longer, as in l-o-n-g-e-r. Both a picture book and a graphic novel are like plays, or movies. In both mediums there are characterizations, establishing shots, scenes devoted to action, and close ups. Designing the turning of the pages in a picture book, or the movement from panel to panel in a graphic novel is very similar to film editing.

EK: What was it like working alone this time around instead of collaborating with your wife?

DW: I begged Audrey to co-write INTO THE VOLCANO with me, but she shoved me out of the nest. After a few drafts it became obvious that, despite differing cultures, ages, and educational levels, all of my characters spoke identically. Even I noticed this and (I am told) authors are often the last to know. Audrey, who is a master of dialogue, helped me establish the individual voices of my cast. She didn’t want co-writing credit, so I dedicated the book to her.

EK: What were your expectations and biggest fears when delving into this new format?

DW: I have wanted to create a graphic novel all of my life. The genre is the most under-exploited in all of literature and entertainment, and one of the most evocative, rivaling, in my opinion, both literature and film. Astounding amounts of information can be communicated very quickly. I expected the endeavor to be rewarding, but it turned out to be even more fun than I anticipated. Actually, “fun” is not a strong enough word. It was transformative. My characters came to life everyday that I worked with them. They ran around inside my head, rewrote their parts, and surprised me with their shenanigans.
I was fearless.

EK: I read that it took you five years to complete this project. How did you feel when you finally finished?

DW: Remember my answer to the previous question concerning my “fearlessness.” Well, five years is what happens when you are “fearless”
– 1,362 drawings. I must have been out of my mind. I thought the book would take two years, two-and-a-half at the most.
Unfortunately, with a book of this length and complexity, you never finish. While I was completing the last 10 pages, my excellent editor, Bonnie Verburg, was editing the previous 165. The day I “finished,” a FedEx package arrived with a manuscript with so many editorial “Post Its” stuck to it that it looked like New Year’s confetti.
After that came “continuity.” An associate editor, who is actually an accomplished sailor, had a million questions. She wanted to know why the deck cleats migrated around the boat as the story progressed, and why the respirator vents had circular holes in the first half of the book, then no holes, etc. etc. I explained to her that three years had passed between the time I drew the holy respirators and the non-holy respirators. She didn’t care.
Then followed copy editing. Every word in my graphic novel, including the sound effects, was typed into a manuscript that resembled a play, and my pigeon-speaking slangsters were subjected to the same stringent punctuation requirements as characters in a novel.
Then color corrections, then maps, then art that shows how I made the book for our website ( . . . frankly I don’t remember finishing. Actually, I’m still not finished.
The first three years were the best art years I’ve ever experienced. The fourth year was still exciting, but a little less so. By the fifth year I was tired. It is not natural to work seven days per week in the tropics. The mind and body rebel.

EK: Were there ever times you considered putting the project on the shelf?

DW: No.

EK: Aunt Lulu (or rather Auntie) is a rather colorful and memorable character. Every time I saw her on the page, I kept wondering where I’d seen her before. So who was your inspiration for this character?

DW: If you have seen Auntie, then you must have run into Audrey’s fun loving grandmother, Audrey’s grannie did not have the gout, but gout happens in the tropics.
I actually heard a sufferer complaining loudly and bitterly about the breeze blowing painfully across his afflicted foot.

EK: The brothers, Sumo and Duffy have a very authentic brotherly relationship; annoyed with each other one moment, but a genuine love for each other. Who was their inspiration?

DW: The identities of the brothers who inspired Sumo and Duffy are a secret. They are very different fraternal twins and I lifted every attribute of my two protagonists directly from them.
The brother who inspired my character, Duffy, is smaller, athletic, socially adept, concerned about appearances and the opinions of others, and adventurous.
The model for the character of Sumo is larger, more introverted, but very outspoken when crossed. He is a home-body with a love for food, and he is neither adventurous nor athletic. Despite his lack of athleticism, he has an affinity for water and is, paradoxically, a much better swimmer than Duffy.
The brothers are inseparable.

EK: Why did you choose this particular setting for your story?

DW: We live off-grid in the outback of “Kocalaha.” It is the most exciting, adventuresome place I have ever resided. We spent two-and-a-half years in a 16 foot Winnebago and by the time we moved into our house, our Winnebago looked about like Auntie’s in the Valley of Ghosts (page 16). This island has almost every conceivable environment, from deserts to snow-covered fourteen thousand foot peaks, to orchid-choked rain forests, and an unpredictable live volcano. When I saw hot lava flowing by me while whales spouted offshore under a full moon, when I explored the longest lava tube on earth, when I learned that all volcanoes do not erupt like in the movies, that you can actually be inside one while it is erupting, I knew that this was the place for an adventure.

EK: Were there any moments you created in the book that you were partial to? A particular panel or event that unfolded?

DW: What a wonderful question. You have generously given me the opportunity to brag about my work. I was especially pleased to conceive of the underwater scene on page 157, when boulders, dislodged by an earthquake, drop into the water all around our submerged hero and sink into the infinite blue leaving contrails of bubbles behind.

EK: So what’s next on the horizon for Don Wood? Will we be seeing more graphic novels from you?

DW: At the moment I am acting as “technical assistant” on a book that Audrey has written and illustrated. This is giving me time to consider what to do next. It is very exciting to make these big decisions, and it is a luxury to have the time to mull it over. I love picture books, and I love graphic novels – hummmmmm . . .

To learn more about Don Wood you can visit his website
Incidentally, are you wondering what kids are saying about this title? I asked the first person who checked Into the Volcano out of my collection to tell me what he thought. AE is in 7th grade and loves graphic novels. He absolutely loved this book!  He was captivated by the adventure story and loved the brothers.  He thought Sumo was the more interesting of the brothers, because he changed during the story.  He became brave and interesting and thought Duffy sort of stayed the same.  AE also thought that Come-And-Go was very funny. So, if you can’t take the word for the constant praise offered to this title, consider what the kids are saying.

Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

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