Continuing my interview series with comic creators who write and draw for kids and teens–all taken when I attended Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC–today’s interview (transcribed from the audio recording) features Dave McDonald, writer and artist for the self-published graphic novel The Secret Adventures of Hamster Sam: Attack of the Boll Weevils!, reviewed at Good Comics For Kids by my colleague Kate Dacey.
GCFK: What is your comic background? How did you first get started working in comics?
Dave: My background is in television, producer and director. I also worked in theme park entertainment, writing scripts for theme parks and designing and fabricating large costumes and puppets for parks. I got a gig touring a puppet production in schools and libraries, which gave me experience going into schools. At one point a client had a costume made of a fire dog for the Charlotte Fire Department. Blaze was his name and once they got the costume done, they said, “Dave, you did the design drawing for this character. How would you like to do an educational comic book?” I jumped all over the chance. And once I did that, the light went off and I thought, “I have to do this.” It’s similar to television, in that you’re kind of directing your own characters, but it’s on the page. So I was bitten by that bug and that’s how I got started.
Dave: I did not study art in school, but I had always used drawing as part of what I did in television. You do a lot of storyboarding, which is sketchy and pencilly at that point, but you’re getting experience drawing. And then in the theme park industry when you’re designing characters you always have to have a sketch. So I was always using drawing as some part of a job I was doing. I’m not classically trained at an art school; I’m self-taught.
GCFK: What were some of your influences? When you decided to start doing comics did you go and look at people whose style you liked and try to do something similar to them or did you just blaze your own trail?
Dave: I kind of had to blaze my own trail because of the way that I draw. I use simple shapes for my characters so that I know how to draw them over and over. My influences were the cartoon characters that I had watched on TV growing up—the Hanna Barbara stable, Rocky and Bullwinkle. Simple comic styles.
GCFK: Do you have people now whose work you are a fan of?
Dave: The people that are in comics now that I am a fan of are Franco Aureliani (Tiny Titans), Andy Runton (Owly) with his very simple style and brushwork, the brushwork of Walt Kelly (Pogo).
GCFK: Why a hamster? How did you come up with the idea for Hamster Sam?
Dave: I wanted to create a critter that young kids would be familiar with and I thought of a classroom setting. A lot of times in a classroom you have something in a cage, something in a bowl. They’ve got a snake, a lizard, a hamster. I wanted something familiar to kids, so it’s a classroom hamster who wants to get out of his cage and go on all kinds of adventures.
GCFK: And why did you decide to do a historical fiction story?
Dave: When I moved to the Carolinas from New York, I saw all these empty cotton mill buildings and I was curious. What went on in these buildings? I discovered the Gaston County Museum. They have a permanent exhibit of the cotton and textile industry. A light went off and I thought, “There’s a way to connect this to the classroom.” I wanted to take this as a subject and wrap a fun story around it and hopefully inspire kids to want to learn more about that industry and their own history.
GCFK: How did you go about publishing Hamster Sam?
Dave: I think if I had known what was involved in self-publishing, I never would have done it! [laughs] It was a fun process, but it’s a learning process. You talk to other people, you go to conferences, you meet people who have done something. It’s about networking. “Who did you use for a printer? How did you go about marketing it? Where do you take the next steps to find distribution?” It’s still a learning process and I’ve been doing it for three years. I’ve enjoyed it!
GCFK: What new projects are you working on?
Dave: Right now I’m working on a new character which is going to tie in with Hamster Sam. His name is Vincent Van Doodle, he’s a boy cartoonist and he is a fifth grader. He is going to become Hamster Sam’s creator; Hamster Sam will come to life out of his sketch book and they will go on adventures. I’m also here at the show promoting my cartooning kits. When I go into schools with my comics workshop programs, the kids always ask, “How can I take something home and learn how to create what you just taught me?” So I created a cartooning kit that I’m testing out here at Heroes Con, just to see what the reaction is.
GCFK: Do you have any tips for teachers, librarians, parents who are working with kids who love comics?
Dave: You should come to shows like this, Heroes Con, local conferences. Step out of your comfort zone a little bit and discover and talk to some of these creators. A lot of them may enjoy speaking to kids and educating kids. Talk to them and see if you can bring them to your school. Kids love meeting people who have created books and comics.
GCFK: What advice do you have for young comic creators?
Dave: I always tell them that anyone can draw and anyone can write. We already have that built into us. Some people think that they can’t write or they can’t draw. Their style may be different than someone else’s, but we can all practice and we can all get better. If you have a story to tell and you have a character in your head, then you can become a cartoonist. There are more opportunities these days, with digital outlets and the internet. There are tons of opportunities that may not have existed ten, twenty years ago with the more limited print outlets that there were. I think that self-publishing will just explode for kids.