Today is the last of a series of interviews with creators who make comics for kids and teens, taken when I attended Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. This interview (transcribed and edited for length from the audio recording) features John Gallagher and Rich Faber who work together at Sky Dog Comics on titles such as Buzzboy and Roboy Red.
GCFK: How did you two start working in comics?
Rich: I started when I was a student at SVA—The School of Visual Arts in New York. I went there in the early 1990s and had some really great teachers like Joe Orlando, Carmine Infantino, and Klaus Janson. I started off being interested in sequential art, in pencil art, and wound up realizing that as a penciller, I couldn’t translate my ideas onto the page the way I wanted to. I realized quite by accident that I was a better inker than penciller, when I inked a piece of mine for Joe Orlando’s class. I brought it to Klaus and he said, “This is what you should be doing.” In the second semester of my third year at SVA, I switched over to building an inking portfolio and resolved to land an inking job before my fourth year. I spent that spring and summer working on my portfolio at night, after school and my part time job. Klaus was great because he worked with me after the semester ended to build the best portfolio I could. I didn’t go back for my senior year at SVA because I’d landed a job. I lucked into a meeting with an editor at DC Comics, which a friend of mine set up. The editor, Frank Pittarese (still a close friend to this day), and I immediately hit it off, and he liked my work, so I was hired to ink Steel, a spinoff series from the Death of Superman storyline. That was in the summer of 1993, and I’ve been working in the industry ever since.
John: I drew comics from the time I was five years old and I was creating my own comics, drawing all the way through high school, but there was no internet when I went to college, so I had no idea that School of Visual Arts existed or Savannah College of Art and Design existed. So, really, I just looked at art schools and ended up studying graphic design at Penn State University. They had no illustration classes, no comic book classes. So, I was pretty much all self-taught. But the liberal arts classes, as well as the very intense graphics program prepared me for the real world, and, in some cases, rejection.
I was working as a freelance graphic designer and wanted to do a comic. I knew I was going to self-publish, because I don’t know that I ever thought of myself as being good enough to draw Batman. I was trying to come up with horror comics, like [those from] Vertigo and everyone was like, “Oh, that looks good!” It was my girlfriend—who is now my wife—who said, “I don’t like them.” And I was like, “What do you mean? All my friends tell me how good I am?” She said, “No, you should do a comic that’s more like you. This seems like you’re just sort of going through the motions.” I asked, “Well, what should I do? Who wants to read a comic about a guy who watches too much TV and eats too much junk food?” And then I kind of laughed. But that was the beginning of Buzzboy. Ultimately, I realized that it wasn’t about being good enough to draw Batman, but about being aware enough to do my own characters and stories.
I did the first issue all by myself, where I wrote, drew, inked, got it ready for press and I realized that that’s really, really hard. So eventually I got someone who was an inker to help me out and he taught me the ropes. After the first four issue mini-series, we had a parting of the ways and I met Rich at a show. He was done working for the big companies because of different frustrations and I was done with doing it all by myself, so we started talking. We found out we’ve got a lot of similar interests.
I’ve pretty much made it my focus to do comics that are for all-ages. When I was a kid, I read Batman, but I wouldn’t let my kids read Batman now because it’s not written for that audience. So I see it as one of my goals to do comics that are the gateway to reading comics for life.
Rich: When John and I met, I really was at the end of my rope. I had been working for ten years in the industry. I had been an illustration major [at SVA] and I switched over to cartooning and always thought that was what I wanted to do. After ten years in the industry, I still loved comics themselves, but I was finding it very difficult to be an inker. The industry at the time did not support the people who were not drawing or writing. I was getting to the point where it was frustrating and it was difficult to maintain a decent income. So when I met John, I was at a point where I had told my wife, “I think I’m done with comics. I just can’t do this anymore.” I wanted to go back to illustration and was building a portfolio. When I met John, I realized that I could still do comics and I could still have fun with it as a job. He’s been generous with me and allowed me to take on a more expanded role than just inker. I do finishing work, I do pinups, I do a lot of coloring, and I edit the books. So, between the two of us, we really have everything covered and that’s freeing for me.
John: Right now, we have both separate and joint projects. The thing that Rich and I are working on together is a graphic novel called Roboy Red, about a little boy robot who ran away from the theme park that built him. It started off when I was walking around Disney World with my kids wondering what would have happened after Walt Disney died if Mickey had run away. I threw that idea out at Rich and Rich had something he was developing…
Rich: I had a character called Dara Dare, who was a space pirate. I was going to do something with her. We started talking about the characters and how they interact. John had a lead character who was female and I actually had a robot sidekick for Dara, so when we started talking we realized that the two ideas really worked well together. Jointly we came up with another character, Tuck, who is sort of a boy inventor, a boy genius. He was the apprentice of the theme park creator, so he took over the care and maintenance of Roboy Red.
John: The theme of Roboy Red is about being happy with yourself. Roboy Red wants to be a real boy. Each of the characters wants to be something they are not. And the idea at the end they all realize that what’s most important is that they’re a family.
Rich: And unique unto themselves.
John: The idea is that Roboy was a cartoon series that ran from the late 30s through to the 70s. They built a Roboy robot—like the animatronics at Disney—and programmed all the cartoons into him. He still sees the world through cartoon eyes. So to him, if you took a frying pan and hit someone in the face, he would be surprised if it doesn’t make their face pancake out. He’s learning what the real world is like, but at the same time reminding real people that you can approach life in a happier way.
Rich: John uses the word upbeat for Buzzboy, but I think Roboy is even more upbeat in a lot of ways.
GCFK: What do you think about the current state of kids’ comics right now?
Rich: I think it’s on an upswing. We’re good friends with Art [Balthazar] and Franco [Aureliani] who do the Tiny Titans [DC Comics] and Craig Rousseau who’s doing the Marvel line of kids’ stuff and these are just a few people out of a plethora. There are so many people who are doing kids’ stuff now. I think that people realize that we need to have a new generation of comic readers or else we’re not going to have comics. I think that comics need more all-ages or kid appropriate stuff and that’s where some of the industry is trying to head.
GCFK: What advice do you have for young comic creators?
John: The best advice I can give is to draw what you enjoy drawing. What you perceive as bad art might be the perfect style. There are so many styles out there. When you read stuff like The Baby-sitters Club [adapted by Raina Telgemeier, published by Scholastic], Amelia Rules [by Jimmy Gownley, published by Simon & Schuster], Amulet [by Kazu Kibuishi, published by Scholastic], there are all these great, different styles. Right down to the comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes and Cul de Sac. There’s no wrong way to do it. The trick is to just keep doing it and keep trying. Take advice from people, but you have to believe in yourself. I’ve been told a hundred times that I wasn’t good enough to draw comics and the best thing that I could do was just ignore those people and just keep drawing. Work hard.
Rich: What John said is true. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. I have a young son and John has kids and I’ve noticed that what his kids are doing is fodder for whatever John’s doing. He’s creating comics for his kids and a lot of stuff that goes into the comics are things that his kids will say and do. My son is at the point where he’s coming out with the funniest stuff I’ve ever heard. I’m starting to realize that what he says and what he does is my next project. The advice about doing what you know…
[The interview is briefly interrupted by a young child who stops at Rich and John’s table, looks at their books and yells, “Daddy, daddy, I want this!” Everyone laughs.]
Rich: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve got kids around all the time in a family situation and that’s exactly the kind of stuff you can put into comic books and comic strips. My advice would be to think about the things that happen in your own life. Look for the funny stuff; look for the poignant stuff. They always say “write what you know.” Well, write what you know and draw what you know.
GCFK: Do you have any advice for teachers, librarians, parents, people who are working with kids who love comics?
Rich: My first piece of advice is you should read the material first before passing it on to your kids. Even if something looks like it might be for kids, you still really have to check stuff out. Some people don’t necessarily connect [the art style and the age level] when they’re writing comics. There’s nothing wrong with the stuff that’s out there that’s not for kids, but you want to make sure—speaking as a parent—that you know what you’re giving your kids.
As far as introducing stuff [to your kids], there’s so much out there. You can read reviews from Graphic Novel Reporter or School Library Journal and just kind of get a lay of the land for the kids’ comics that are out there. Also, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to go to shows like this one and meet the creators. Most of the creators who are doing kids’ comics are very open to talking about the work they do and when there are kids around [they enjoy] showing kids their work. Most of the kids’ comic creators are not only working for kids, but working with kids, meaning going to schools and doing talks and presentations and demos. Think about bringing the actual creators in [to your school or library]. Most of us teach, we enjoy doing the chalk talks in front of classes. Getting kids involved in the process of creating comics while talking about them is one of the better ways you can get kids interested.
John: There are so many different graphic novels and comics, so look for ones that they’ll enjoy [based on their interests] knowing that there are a lot out there. Ask questions, pick books, rinse and repeat.