On Friday June 4 and Saturday June 5, I attended Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. While I was there I had the honor of interviewing with several creators who make comics for kids and teens. Today’s interview (transcribed from the audio recording) features Raina Telgemeier, writer and artist of Smile (published by Scholastic), which was named as a 2010 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor title in the Nonfiction category a few days after our interview. I reviewed Smile for GCFK back in December and in March it was our Book Club discussion title. Raina is also the adaptor for The Baby-sitters Club graphic novels, published by Scholastic, and was an author for Del Rey Manga’s X-Men: Misfits along with her husband Dave Roman (who was also exhibiting at Heroes Con).
GCFK: How did you get started in comics?
Raina: I got started in comics after I started reading comics, from about the time I was nine. I started trying to draw my own comic strips when I was in middle school, but failed miserably because I was not very good at telling jokes and setting up punch lines in a four-panel structure. Later on, when I got into alternative comics—like Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve and Jeff Smith’s Bone—I thought, “Okay, the comic book form is probably a little bit better suited to me.” And so I started making mini-comics. I did a mini-comic series called Take-out. Seven issues, 12 pages each. I think I probably printed up about 6000 copies total of the minis. That [comic] actually got into the hands of the editors of Scholastic and they invited me into a meeting to talk about doing stuff for them. And that was how I got The Baby-sitters Club gig. And that led to me continuing to work for them on other things!
Raina: When I was younger, I thought that animation was the way to go. I used to make little flipbooks, but they were always very short flipbooks, like seven pages of flipping. [laughs] And that took a lot of work! It was time-consuming to make a booklet which was over in less than a second. I think pretty quickly I realized that animation is not something you can do on your own; you need a team, you need a studio, you need people to do the voices and record the music. I realized that comics were something you could sit down and make and be done with and you could have a complete product that you’d done all by yourself. That really appealed to me.
GCFK: Smile was originally a webcomic. How did Scholastic find it? Did they find it the same way they picked up your mini-comics or did you bring it to them?
Raina: I actually started Smile at the exact same time I got the Baby-sitters job; they were probably within one month of one another. Lea Hernandez, who was the editor at Girlamatic, was soliciting for new strips for the site. Originally I was just going to start put some of my Take-out comics onto the web, because I figured only a few people had read them as print comics and the web is a better way to get an audience. But a couple of weeks before my launch date I was like “Wait a minute! No! I want to do something new. I’m going to tell the story of my teeth!” I started working on it and decided to call it Smile. I think I did about ten strips before I launched and then just did it week-to-week after that. And that was at the same time I was starting the Baby-sitters books, so they sort of all happened at once.
GCFK: You also did the X-Men: Misfits series for Del Rey Manga. How did you get hooked up with that?
Raina: The editors at Del Rey, specifically Tricia Narwani, liked the Baby-sitters Club adaptations. I guess she read them and thought they were cool. They were looking for somebody to do X-Men for teen girls and thought that my sensibilities might translate well. At first I was a little bit confused because I was the illustrator of the Baby-sitters Club books, and they were looking for somebody to write the X-Men. I had never written scripts before; I had never
written for other artists to draw before. It took bringing my husband Dave Roman in as a co-author for me to be more comfortable with that set-up. Luckily Del Rey was completely cool with that and because Dave is a big otaku and an X-Men fan, it was nice to have him along for the ride.
GCFK: Do you think you’d do something like that again, where you’re doing the writing and someone else is doing the illustration?
Raina: I could see it happening; it would have to be the right project. I don’t necessarily think in just words. I think in words and pictures, so it’s really hard for me to sit down and write without also drawing at the same time. Also, I’m a control freak and I really like to be the one who’s controlling every aspect of a project. So it would be hard for me to let it go and have someone else do it. However, the idea of someone else spending more of their own time on a project… For me, it takes me six months to write a script and then two years to draw a book. So I can see how that would be attractive. Write a script, send it off, and then the book gets made, magically, by someone else! [laughs]
GCFK: Do you think you’d do that sort of retellings of an existing story again?
Raina: I can see myself saying yes, again if it were the right property. If it were something I had never been a part of, like for example, people often bring up Sweet Valley High in context with The Baby-sitters Club, because they were two phenomenons that sort of happened during the same time period, but I was never a Sweet Valley High fan, I never read any of the books. So if someone asked me to work on a Sweet Valley High comic adaptation, I would probably not do it, just because I didn’t have a connection with it. At least with X-Men I had seen the movies, I had a lot of comic book friends, I had read issues of X-Men here and there; I just didn’t know them back to front they way some people do.
GCFK: Had you read The Baby-sitters Club when you were little?
Raina: I think I was in fourth grade when the series was first published. I remember seeing the books in the Scholastic Book Clubs and all my friends were talking about them, and so I wanted them, too. They used to come in a four-book pack where you could buy the first four books and of course got hooked instantly! I was a pretty rabid fan at that age. And that’s also when I became a comic fan.
GCFK: What has been the response from fans of The Baby-sitters Club novels to the graphic novel adaptations?
Raina: Most of the original fans have been really supportive, just because at the time that the graphic novels started getting published, The Baby-sitters Club was an old property. Nothing had been heard from it in a really long time. As of now, the series is actually being repackaged by Scholastic and reissued, but when the graphic novels started coming out it was like, “Oh my gosh, we haven’t had a new Baby-sitters Club thing in ten years! We’re so happy!” There was a little bit of backlash, though, and it’s mostly because the style I draw in is a very cartoony style. It has more in common with comic strip art and cartoons than with the original book covers, which were painted in a very realistic, book cover style that was very popular in the 80s. So people who were really familiar with that aesthetic and saw what I was doing, were like, “This is really different! It’s too different! I hate it!” And I got a couple of negative letters. But I would say it’s about 99% positive and 1% negative.
GCFK: What’s been the reaction to Smile so far?
Raina: I’ve gotten an overwhelming amount of feedback. The book has been out for, I think, four months now. The first print run has already sold out. They had to go back to reprints already. It’s been in Scholastic Book Fairs, which means it’s in schools and kids are able to choose which books they want to read on their own. Something about the cover of Smile attracts them to want to pick it up and then they realize it’s a comic book! And they’re like, “OMG, I’ve already read this book six times and it’s my favorite book and then my friend borrowed it and she loved it too and now my whole class is reading it!” I’m just hearing that kids are insane for it. I didn’t necessarily write it for kids when I was writing it. I was just telling my story, but something about it has been connecting with them, whether it’s the themes of awkwardness and not really fitting in, or having mean friends, I don’t know. Or the orthodontia angle. It’s been pretty great.
GCFK: Do you have any advice for young comic creators?
Raina: Do it because you love it. Cartoonists do have to draw a lot. There are a lot of images to draw in a comic book, so you really have to love to draw and you really have to keep working at it. It’s really the kind of thing where you learn on the job; you learn most of what you’re going to learn just by doing it. And by reading other comics. So I just say, don’t give up. Write and draw as much as you can.
All book images are copyright © Scholastic.