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Interview: Jess Smart Smiley on Upside Down

Upside Down A Vampire TaleTop Shelf Comix has carved a niche in the kids’ comics market by publishing high quality series that are both quirky and sweet like Andy Runton’s Owly, James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo and more. Now, Top Shelf has a new addition to their kids’ comics family: Upside Down: A Vampire Tale by Jess Smart Smiley introduces readers to a young vampire named Harold.Just in time for the spooky season, Jess and I chatted a bit about how Harold got his start and children’s love of monsters and the supernatural.

Scott Robins: Your earlier works were published as shorter pieces and in anthologies. How does it feel to have your first full length work published?

Jess Smart Smiley:
It feels great! I love making gag comics and shorter stories, but it’s hard for me to stop once I have an idea. The idea keeps getting bigger and bigger, until I have a book-length story to tell, and that can be a very intimidating. I started around 10 graphic novels before I finished Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, so finishing was a big sigh of relief for me.

Did find yourself doing any specific preparations to create a story specifically for a younger audience?

I tend to tell the stories that I want to read. The stories that I want to tell. I don’t know that anyone else would have asked me to make this graphic novel for them, so I didn’t want to waste my time thinking about who might read it and what they might like about it. The book started with drawings in my sketchbook of a funny vampire, and I just kept drawing him to find out what would happen if I threw in a witch, or a couple of crazy bats. Things like that. After drawing Harold for a while, I realized that more adult themes and characters weren’t really part of the story, so I didn’t include them.

Early Harold sketchWhat is it about your vampire story that’s different from what’s currently out there or been done before?

Ooh, good question! Well, to begin with: Harold is a friendly vampire. He loves candy, and ends up losing his teeth, so he feels like he isn’t even a real vampire! Harold just wants to fit in, even though it seems like there’s nowhere for him to truly belong.

What do you think is the appeal of the supernatural and monsters to kids?

Who knows, but maybe the supernatural just confirms what children already suspect. Wonder is all around. It is their language. Everything is limitless and filled with wonder, even terrible wonder.

Vermillion the witchAre you a fan of horror movies? Which are your favourites?

I haven’t really seen too many horror movies. Let me think…I love Something Wicked This Way Comes and What Lies Beneath freaked me out. The Burbs is the funniest scary movie I’ve ever seen, and all the Stephen King movies have gotten me thinking, even if they were really corny. Can you recommend any good horror movies?

Upside Down makes many references to the original stories of these various monsters but also recent depictions in popular culture. What was your goal in using these references?

Yeah, basically I point out that the usual vampires and witches we see in books and movies are a little off from the real creatures. Witches can be horrifying, but they also make mistakes and have to learn to read spells at some point. They aren’t just born horrid. Same thing with vampires. They don’t actually suck blood. These are stereotypes, not archetypes.

Harold the vampireUpside Down features monsters but is also very funny. How did you maintain a fine line between the spooky and the silly?

Thanks! It was really fun, trying to keep the story very dark and focused, while also putting in a few gags. I guess I like stories that do that, too. A book that is nothing but serious isn’t always as believable as one with a little humor in it.

There’s a childlike simplicity to your artwork. Was this a conscious choice specifically for this book?

Yeah, the artwork has a very simplistic look to it. I colored everything with only black, white and green, in order to pull the whole book together visually. The story demanded a simpler kind of drawing in order to pull off the humor and emotion. Can you imagine if Garfield had been drawn like a real cat? Boring! Or what about Adventure Time? It would be a very different cartoon, if it had been animated like Fullmetal Alchemist.

Who would you say is the perfect reader for Upside Down?

The reader who buys the most copies, of course! Just kidding. If you love a spooky-fun adventure, and want to see some strange and funny creatures, then Upside Down: A Vampire Tale might be the book for you.

Upside Down character sketchesAt the end of the book, there’s a teaser for book 2. Can you reveal anything about what’s going to happen in it?

Yes! Let’s just say that Harold hasn’t quite solved his witch problem. Pay attention to the characters in book 1, because we’ll be getting to know them a little bit better.

What would Harold go out as for Halloween?

Harold loves Halloween! In fact, (surprise!) it’s his favorite holiday of all. This year, Harold will be dressing up as Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster and joining Johnny Boo in giving away free Halloween comics at your local comic shop! Happy Halloween!

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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