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Interview: Michael Northrop on ‘Dear Justice League’

Michael Northrop and Gustavo Duarte’s Dear Justice League is the latest graphic novel in the DC Zoom (soon to be DC Kids) imprint. Unlike the other DC Zoom books, which are pretty straightforward stories, Dear Justice League is set up as questions from fans to the various superheroes of the JLA, followed by their responses, with a storyline that runs through the whole thing but doesn’t dominate it. You can see a preview here.

Northrop is best known as a writer of middle-grade prose novels, including On Thin Ice and the Tomb Quest series. We talked to him about his personal history with comics and the challenges of writing a graphic novel.

How were you first introduced to these characters? From comics or TV?

I guess both. Comics definitely were not that easy to find. I’m from a small town. We had a spinner rack in the local pharmacy and maybe once or twice a month my brother and I would make the pilgrimage to Torrington, Connecticut, which was the nearest comic book shop, and that was a big deal for us.

With the DC characters especially, I think I encountered them in Super Friends on TV, Saturday morning cartoons, and the Superman movies. It was a mix of the comics and seeing them on big and small screens. 

From a pretty young age I was watching cartoons and seeing movies. I have probably known these characters longer than anyone in my immediate family.

Did that make it easier to get into their heads?

Yeah. Initially it was a little daunting to think I was writing dialogue for Superman, but when I started thinking about what he was thinking, in a sense we all know these characters so well. Maybe less with Flash or Green Lantern or Hawkgirl, but with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, we have known them our whole lives and it definitely felt like something I could do, I could sit back and say “How would Superman respond to this situation?” and I feel like I have known him so long, so it was a lot easier than I initially thought it would be.

Did you ever make your own comics as a kid?

I did not make a comic for myself. I definitely didn’t consider myself much of a reader, and I didn’t consider myself much of a writer until later. I started writing poetry. It’s very short, and you have to read it slowly and carefully, which was the only way I could read. 

What I did do was I designed superhero gadgets. I would sketch out how I thought they might work. I had a very rudimentary utility belt I created from an army surplus belt with ammo pouches, and I would put homemade stink bombs in that. I remember I designed Green Lantern’s power ring. It was just a green ring with a wire that went to my belt where there was a battery. I don’t think I knew how it would work, but I thought, I’ll get a real ring, connect it to a real battery, and see how that would work. I was really fascinated with the powers. That’s something enticing to a kid who doesn’t have much say, who doesn’t have much power, this ability to control the world in such a profound way. I was fascinated by that, so I would sketch out little devices I thought would get me closer to the superhero realm. I also did that thing of tying a towel around my neck and jumping off a chair. 

And that’s something you did in the book as well—Batman designs a utility belt for a reader.

The idea is that those things are really empowering. He wants the kid to go into his new school with confidence. If a silly homemade belt does that, it will give him more control of an environment that is new and uncertain.

How is writing a graphic novel different from writing a prose novel? 

I read slowly and I type slowly. I’m dyslexic but highly functional. When I am writing prose I often will not stop for two hours, trying to get what’s in my head onto the page. With graphic novels it’s the opposite: I stare at the wall for 10 minutes, picturing something, then write a sentence, then stare at the wall, picturing the scene, and write another sentence. It was a very different experience mechanically. 

It was also this feeling of coming full circle to where I started as a reader, to the comic book and also Dungeons and Dragons. They have a similar visualization process. Definitely the first things I read for fun were comic books and rule books for Dungeons and Dragons. I had never written a graphic novel before, but it was a surprisingly familiar feeling, just because I was so familiar with that storytelling, what goes in the frames and between the frames. 

Was the question-and-answer format your idea?

Yes. I sent in a couple of pitches to DC, and the others were more like traditional origin stories with the age dialed back a bit, but for this idea I even had some of the questions in mind already. 

I used to work at Sports Illustrated Kids. Professional athletes get a lot of sports questions, and they sort of are famous for answering them with one-line clichés. One thing we would do is ask questions the kids sent in. The difference between how they answered those questions versus the normal questions stuck with me: They were much more open and honest, much less defensive and cliched about it. They might want to put up some shields and be careful about what they say around reporters, but when it’s a question from a 10 year old kid they would let those defenses down. I remembered how openly and honestly they answered questions from kids, and I wanted to use that same formula, these larger than life figures letting their guard down to answer questions from young fans.

Which came first – the questions or the answers?

The questions came first. The point of this book was superheroes are people too, and larger-than-life figures are only larger than life when you are looking at them from the outside. On the inside, they are just people trying to do the best they can. I was looking for questions that were trying to find a way in, past the mask, the secret identity. In some cases they were just fun, quick questions, but mostly I was trying to find questions that would get in some way to the heart of who the character was. So it was really the question and an idea, the kernel of what the answer might be. That was the goal, to find questions that would let us pull back the curtain a bit on who the hero really was. 

These stories sort of deflate the superheroes – they show them messing up. Why do you think it’s important for superhero stories to have humor?

I wasn’t trying to deflate or lessen them so much as to humanize them, to set them in the same world the readers are in. The flaws are pretty general: They might be a little overconfident in Superman’s case, a little vain or self-conscious. They are gentle flaws that kids would recognize in themselves or their friends. The idea was to have them living in the same world the rest of us live in to have them be a little more human. To me this story is like a comic book that takes place between the panels of a normal comic. A regular comic goes from big battle to meeting the next day to the next clue, but there’s a whole story going on between those panels. That’s what I focused on in Hawkgirl’s case. It comes after she comes back from fighting the insectoids. It’s the same world, but I wanted to show what happens between the scenes.

Going back, comic books were much more for young readers, and part of that was a goofier humor and an earnestness. Comic books can be pretty dark, and they have gotten darker in the years I have been reading them. There is nothing dark about this book. It’s a big-hearted, earnest love letter to these characters. From the artist too—we grew up with these characters, and we want to share this love with readers who may not have known them this long.

Was there a superhero that you would like to have included that wasn’t in the Justice League?

I had sort of an upper limit here. The core of the Justice League was non-negotiable: If I had turned in a Justice League without Superman, that would have been the end of that situation. I had some room at the margins. I put Hawkgirl in there. She is fun, she has teen energy, and she is the heart of the book—she ties things together, her actions or inaction drive the throughline. Also, I had to decide which Green Lantern to choose. I would have liked to have Martian Manhunter in there. It would have been a fantastic character for Gustavo to draw. Gustavo’s artwork is very dynamic and elastic and obviously that fits with a shape-shifting character like Martian Manhunter, but I felt on balance, especially when the goal is to humanize the characters, it’s a little more complicated when one of them is Martian—and emotionally complicated. It was easier to have fun teen energy with Hawkgirl.

You have talked about your dyslexia. How did it tie in with this book? 

I talk about being dyslexic openly now, but I didn’t for years. I repeated second grade, and I spent some time in special education. I was older than my classmates, and I was embarrassed about that. That’s why I didn’t have birthday parties, because people would know I was a year older. Now it’s something I talk about. It affects how I put together all my books. I definitely write with reluctant readers in mind. The fact that this book is broken into sections, there’s the fact that it is the heroes answering specific questions, but it also gives the reader more entry points. If you are a very reluctant reader, if an entire graphic novel seems like a lot, you can pick it up and just read the Wonder Woman section, and if you enjoy that, read the Superman section. You can find the book that way, and it gives ways for reluctant readers to get into the story.

I was a very reluctant reader. Repeating second grade helped. I was diagnosed early, and that was helpful, but it also gave me the impression early on that reading wasn’t meant for me. I wasn’t good at it. I did as little as possible. I could read comic books for fun, and I could read as fast as my classmates and my friends could, so when the new issues came out, we could all be on the bus the next day talking about what happened and I could literally be on the same page as my friends. That was the first step toward me becoming an avid reader

The thing about comics and graphic novels is the story is just as full, it’s just as rich, you are just encountering it in a different way. It’s a bit more visual, more intuitive,  and that opens it up to a wider range of readers. That was definitely important to me personally, with my specific background, but it’s just generally a great opportunity, another way that kids can get into reading and into stories. I write everything with reluctant readers in mind, but this  one specific book is broken into short sections and that’s because it gives reluctant readers small bites, different ways into the story.

There’s a throughline of a plot in this book, about the insectoids. Why did you decide to include that as well as the letters to the superheroes?

This is a story going on between the scenes of the comic book, but I wanted to situate it in that world. You have to have them using their powers, fighting the bad guys. The background stuff that might not be shown at all in these comics I wanted to put in the foreground, but I still knew I wanted to have action scenes. Superheroes are superheroes, and they have to use their powers at some point for something other than crashing into buildings. And the big reveal moment—I couldn’t do a book without that moment when Superman pulls back the shirt and reveals the S. I wanted to have superheroes and action but make the focus of this book them as people and then just have this almost as dessert at the end, the big battle scene, them doing what they do best. 

I see that the sequel has already been announced – Dear Super Villains?

Gustavo and I are doing another one.

Early on, I was writing very detailed scripts—”Superman had his right leg raised and left leg behind him”—and as it went on and I saw the pages Gustavo was turning in and how similar our conception of these heroes and these scenes were, the panel would be “Superman” and I would see what Gustavo would do with it. He’s great with expressions. I think he’s a genius, and what he does best is characters’ expressions. It’s a really good device for letting readers in to see what he’s thinking, so I incorporated more close ups of expressions as the book went on. 

Now we get to do a whole new book, Dear Super Villains,a walk on the very safely, mildly wild side. It’s going to be so much fun. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does with these mischievous characters. The expressions now are going to be a whole different layer of personality, maybe a little greed in their eyes, a little hint of malice in the smile, that sort of thing. Communicating who these super villains are is going to be really fascinating. It feels like a logical next step, but we are going to do something pretty different with this. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and a lot of that is my familiarity with what Gustavo can do and his incredible range with these characters.

He grew up in Brazil, I grew up in northwest Connecticut, but we both grew up watching Super Friends,with the same sort of experiences and conceptions of these characters, and we still really see eye to eye with these characters. It’s been a lot of fun.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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