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Interview: Dave Roman on Astronaut Academy

Years ago Dave Roman and I would gripe about mainstream comic book companies’ lack of interest in attracting new young readers by creating books that were both appealing and suitable. I felt a kinship with Dave in his enthusiasm and passion for the potential of creating comics for kids that actually spoke to kids. Dave expressed this passion through his many years as a comics editor for Nickelodeon Magazine and then by creating his own comics like Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden (two volumes published by AiT/PlanetLar), Teen Boat (a webcomic/mini-comic series soon to be a full-length graphic novel from Clarion Books) and Agnes Quill (published by Slave Labor Graphics).

Yet there was something distinctively Roman-esque about a certain photocopied mini-comic that I first saw at the Small Press Expo. Astronaut Elementary (as it was called then) exemplified Dave’s off-the-wall, quirky sense of humor. Existing as both a webcomic and a mini-comic, Dave’s story about a strange middle school in outer space populated by cute but equally strange characters eventually found a home with First Second Books, and will hit bookstores in mid-June. With a subtle name change to Astronaut Academy, young readers will meet Roman’s cast of idiosyncratic characters for the first time.

Dave Roman was happy to answer questions about the development and evolution of Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity.

Scott Robins: What challenges or surprises did you find moving Astronaut Academy from mini-/web comics to a full length book?

Dave Roman: It literally felt like rebuilding the school from the ground up. The original comic just threw readers into the day-to-day life of random students. A lot of details about the school itself were left to the imagination. Re-imaging Astronaut Academy as a graphic novel, I wanted the school layout to be more clearly a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory kind of place, that kids could spend endless hours exploring. I also added graytones and shadows to the art, to better evoke a dramatic atmosphere: a sense that these kids were in deep space, far away from their homes. It all added up to a slightly more serious tone than I originally expected!

SR: Astronaut Academy is like a collection of episodic mini-comics each told through the eyes of both major and minor characters. How did you decide on this narrative structure to tell your story?

DR: I’ve always enjoyed writing in first person, seeing everything through the protagonist’s worldview. Astronaut Academy has such a diverse group of students; I wanted to give all of them a moment in the spotlight. So each kid gets their own monologue, allowing them an opportunity to talk about whatever is important to them. I’m inexplicably drawn to minor characters, especially the quirky ones. I’d love to know what Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood are up to when they aren’t around Harry Potter, and what they really think about the most famous kid at school. With Astronaut Academy, the new kid, Hakata Soy is the center of attention…but it’s the people around him who really tell the story.

SR: Astronaut Academy features a ton of unique characters. How did you come up with the names, design and concepts behind them? Who is your personal favorite and why?

DR: Most of the characters start out as doodles in my sketchbook. I never really know when a random drawing could turn into something more. Many of the characters in Astronaut Academy seemed fully formed the instant I drew them. Even their names seemed to leap off the page. If I tried an alternate name on for size, they never stuck. Tak Offsky had to be named Tak, even if he was embarrassed by it. The name Scab Wellington seems to match her personality: a tough girl who hangs out with the rich kids. Hakata, Thalia, and Marcos Stamatis are named after restaurants I frequent, but others, like Maliik Mehendale, I have no idea about! Similar to the dialogue in the book, I guess the goal was to give the characters names that were fun to say out loud in a silly voice. My favorite character changes all the time. Right now it’s Doug Hiro, because he’s an eccentric loner who likes to wear his space helmet indoors. He’s kind of living in his own world, but will become a bit more involved in the lives of the other kids in book 2.

SR: The first thing an adult reader might notice is that the characters’ dialogue sounds like an English dubbed Japanese cartoon from the 1980’s. Can you expand on that a bit?

DR: At Astronaut Academy, speaking in run-on sentences is an official class, and kids are a bit hyper-charged from having extra hearts!

Part of the inspiration for the off-kilter dialog was translated anime and international cinema. I genuinely love when they over explain things and have characters express emotions that would never be said in natural conversation. Sometimes, especially with translations on imported food packaging, the descriptions transcend their intent, and become a new, colorful way of looking at the world! I imagined a futuristic world where people spoke in these unique kinds of self-aware, bold statements and Baroque sentence structures. I also grew up watching a lot sketch shows and British comedies, where characters would use rather creative wordplay. Even if I didn’t understand the double-meanings, I enjoyed the elaborate ways people could twist and turn a phrase into something quite silly.

SR: Astronaut Academy is packed with references to popular culture – which ones are you hoping your target audience will get and which ones are there for your adult readers?

DR: Some of them are so mashed up, I don’t know if I even get them all!  Like the Gotcha Birds, who are equal parts homage to the Japanese cartoon Gatchaman, and Big Bird’s Birdketeers from Sesame Street. Some people will think The Principal character is based on Cloud from Final Fantasy, and others, Guts from Berserk. Both are correct! I don’t think of these references as being exclusively for kids or adults. If you’ve never seen FullMetal Alchemist or played Metroid, you probably won’t even notice the Easter eggs in the background. But I always find it fun to read a book where you realize the author is referencing something you are also a huge fan of. It’s like a personal connection through space and time! So if someone reads Astronaut Academy and can tell that I was inspired by the Ed Grimley cartoon show, it would certainly make my day, and that’s no lie.

SR: What was the allure of the school story for you? What concepts and ideas did it allow you to explore?

DR: Certainly not the opportunity to draw lots of desks and lockers! Mostly, I was interested in playing with concepts of identity. Middle school is when kids stop just being “kids,” and start separating each other into labeled groups like cool, popular, jock, nerd, etc. But people don’t always see themselves the same way others perceive them. Most of the characters at Astronaut Academy are dealing with contradictions of how they want to position themselves versus what the reader sees to be true. How can someone be the most popular girl in school if no one can remember her name? I wanted to show that a character could start out as a stereotype and evolve into something more complicated. Maribelle Mellonbelly is introduced as the “mean girl”, because that’s how her rival, “good girl” Miyumi San, sees her. But we see that Miyumi herself is flawed, and that she and Maribelle have more in common than either admits.

SR: Who is the ideal reader for Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity?

DR: Ideally, some kid with a slightly quirky sense of humor, who thinks there are no books out there that speak to him/her. Actually, I hope lots of people will find something to relate to! Even though the book is filled with whimsy and strategic randomness, there’s also quite a lot of hearts and sincerity to be found at Astronaut Academy!

SR: Which class in Astronaut Academy would you get an ‘A’ in?

DR: The curriculum of the future is so intense, I’m not sure I’d be able to keep up with Anti-gravity Gymnastics, Fireball, or even Dinosaur Driving! And I know I’d certainly flunk Wearing Cute Hats. I’ve never been able to make hats work with my wardrobe. So I’d probably stick to Locker.

If you’re a fan (new or long-time), be sure to visit Dave Roman’s website for more comics, news, Dave’s livejournal and more.

Click here to see a book trailer for Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity.

Scott Robins About Scott Robins

Scott Robins is a librarian at the Toronto Public Library and the co-author of A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics. He is the children's programming director for the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival. He has also served on the graphic novel selection committee for the Canadian Children's Book Centre's Best Books for Kids and Teens and is a jury member of the Joe Shuster Awards in the "Comics for Kids" category.

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