One of the best new series I discovered at this years’ New York Comic-Con is Scratch9, an all-ages title from Ape Entertainment. The story focuses on a cat who summon any of his eight other lives whenever he’s in danger — a very hand skill to have if you were a saber-toothed tiger in a previous incarnation!
Scratch9‘s creator, Rob M. Worley, got his start in comics in 2004, when he wrote “Young Ancient One” for Marvel’s short-lived Epic Anthology. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of genres, from supernatural action-thrillers (The Revenant) to Norse mythology (Heimdall). For Scratch9, Worley teamed up with artist Jason Kruse (The World of Quest) to produce a short, snappy adventure story that works as well for older readers as it does for kids. I caught up with Rob after New York Comic-Con, asking him about his experience writing for kids and the inspiration for Scratch9. Here’s what Rob had to say for himself!
Good Comics for Kids: Tell us about your own personal history with comics: when did you begin reading comics? What were some of your favorite titles? And which titles had the most influence on your own writing?
Rob Worley: I started reading comics at a young age. I can’t remember the first comics I read but I know there were a number of Harveys, Archies, and Gold Key comics with TV characters like Tom and Jerry in them. Pretty quickly I discovered Marvel comics and those became the must-read books.
The earliest Marvel comic I remember owning was Amazing Spider-Man #87. I literally read the cover off of it and then drew a new cover on construction paper and stapled it on. I think I still have that comic somewhere.
So I was a pretty devoted Marvel reader into my late teens. Spider-Man and Hulk were my favorite characters.
Spider-Man, and the way Stan Lee and those early writers depicted him, probably influences my writing more than anything. I think it really typifies what was so strong about Stan Lee’s comics and what he created with Marvel: that these outlandish fantasy stories work best when there’s a grounding of very relatable characters at the core. Peter Parker, to me, was really the perfect balance of a guy who seemed very ordinary to the reader, so you get very vested in his personal struggles, as much as the big colorful battles of Spider-Man.
GC4K: Though you’ve written comics for adults, your career includes a number of kid-friendly titles: adaptations of Aesop’s fables, martial arts adventures, and even an adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. What lead you to create comics for kids?
RW: I got my feet wet writing Tiger Fist and Heir to Fire for Actionopolis. I really enjoyed writing those stories.
When I read current mainstream Marvel comics, for example, I detect a sense of self-consciousness in the writing. Everything has to be so intellectual and political and serious. And that’s great, because the readers are adults and if there’s a superhero story that reflects the curtailment of civil rights due to pervasive public fear of attacks, then it’s great that the creators of those comics can use them as a platform to explore social issues. But when everything is so big and epic, I feel like that sense of relatable characters gets lost.
Writing the Actionopolis books was a good opportunity to do more of what I like, which is create characters that feel like ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances. It kind of allowed me to shed all the concerns about reflecting current events and focus more on characters achieving things that resonate a bit more on a personal level. At the same time, the books are loaded with high adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi elements that I love.
So they were a lot of fun. The other factor is: I love animals and pets. I had two cats for most of my adult life and got such immense enjoyment from them. So I had a number of ideas to do something with pets having adventures. When I came up with the idea of a cat who can tap into his nine lives, that one clearly called to me. And it was obviously well-suited for all ages.
GC4K: Your latest project, Scratch9, seems less constrained by genre than some of your earlier projects, with elements of superhero comics, mythology, and science fiction. What was the inspiration for the story? How does it fit into Ape Entertainment’s KiZoic line?
RB: First of all, I’m grateful to be a part of the KiZoic line, and part of this new revolution in kids comics. Ape’s done a great job of lining up kids titles that break out of the superhero mold that so many comics fall into. While there are some great licensed titles coming from there, like Shrek, Penguins, and the just-announced Richie Rich and Strawberry Shortcake books, it’s great that they’re also putting out original material like Mecha-Nation and Scratch9.
Certainly the first issue of Scratch9 presents an origin story that is very much influenced by Marvel comics. The Marvel universe is sort of wonderful in that catastrophic accidents usually result in some kind of enhancement. Scratch’s super-feline ability emerges in the same sort of science-gone-horribly-wrong-but-wonderfully-right circumstances.
But my main inspiration was just my love of my own cats. My fascination with them lead to an interest in cats in general. It’s amazing to me how they’re reflected and intertwined with so many different world cultures and mythologies. They were hugely important in ancient Egypt. They were (and still are) welcomed on the premises of temples in Tibet. They’re famously the familiars of witches or the bringers of good or bad luck in different cultures.
So the thing I love about Scratch9 is that it has several genres built into it. Each cat persona sort of carries in a new genre: we have a few mystical cats, a few science fiction-themed cats from the future, a few that are simply rooted in world history or natural history. So I’m very much looking forward to exploring all nine worlds that the nine lives hail from.
GC4K: What are some of the biggest challenges in writing for younger audiences?
RW: I think there’s a temptation to short-change young readers and try to “get away with it.”
For example, there was at least one moment in the story were I considered incorporating a very convenient plot devices in the form of a “self destruct” button. I even wrote a version of that script (I won’t say which issue) that used the “self destruct” button even though it would make no logical sense for there to even be such a button on this device. I thought I could get away with it by having the characters make fun of the complete lack of logic.
At the end of the day, I just knew kids were too smart to accept that. Maybe there would be some generous suspension of disbelief and they’d let me get away with it. But we’d all know I cheated. So I had to rewrite the entire action of the issue to allow things to come to a head in a proper, organic manner.
Another way kids get short-changed is by having everything softened. Violence, death and other unpleasant subjects have to be carefully considered for these stories. If you eliminate them entirely, then I think it’s a disservice to the reader.
Think about a story like Finding Nemo, and the opening to that film: a father is helpless to stop a home invasion that leaves his wife and children dead. I can’t imagine a more grim and heart-wrenching thing to open a kids movie with, but it’s totally appropriate to the story. And what’s important is how Marlon and Nemo react to that circumstance. That’s the inspiration and heroism that grows from the tragedy.
So even though Scratch9 has tons of goofy fun in it, I tried not to shun the notion that sometimes it’s a cruel world for cats and dogs (and chickens and squirrels). And what Scratch learns and Penelope [his owner] demonstrates throughout is that those dark things in the world can be combated by caring for one another.
GC4K: You mentioned that there’s been a renaissance in kids’ comics. What do you think is driving this change? Whose work do you think best exemplifies this trend?
RW: It seems like the conversation about age drift among comics readers has been going on for many years. So folks in the comics industry have recognized the need to bring young readers into comics. But for a while it seemed like Marvel and DC were only making half-hearted efforts, with good quality all-ages books coming from only a few lone guns like Mike Kunkel, Jeff Smith and Michael Brennan.
And then people started realizing that teens and kids ARE reading comics, except the comics are called manga. I suspect that helped motivate American publishers to get with the program.
I think a lot of credit goes to BOOM! Studios. They really invested a lot of consideration and resources into building a compelling line of comics for young readers and I’m glad they’ve been met with such success.
Marvel has caught up a bit and DC has really been strong with their multi-tiered line for kids.
But the reason I brought Scratch9 to Ape is because they had already shown a commitment to kids’ books, well ahead of the current wave, with titles like Go-Go Gorilla. So they were instrumental in starting the bandwagon rolling as well. It was only after I signed that I found out about KiZoic and all the cool licensed titles they were planning. I’m definitely proud to have Scratch9 as part of KiZoic.
GC4K: Will there be a sequel to Scratch9? What other projects, kid-friendly or otherwise, do you have in the pipeline right now?
RW: There will definitely be more Scratch9 comics in the future. I love the little guy and want to play with him as much as I can!
Aside from more Scratch9 comics, I’m working on a number of chapter book style things in the vein of Frankie Pickle. They’re all in the pitch stages, but there’s one called Adventure-O-Matic that’s fairly far along. Hopefully I’ll have some good news on that before the holidays.
I’m also working on a comic book that’s more teen oriented. It’s a humor/horror hybrid centering on a Halloween ritual. It’s something I co-created with Shannon Eric Denton and Armand Villavert, Jr.
GC4K: Thank you for speaking with Good Comics for Kids! Issues one and two of Scratch9 are available now in comic stores and at iVerse Media (formatted for the iPad and iPhone). The third and fourth issues will ship in November and December, respectively.