Sitting down with Raina Telgemeier, over a tuna melt (mine) and a smoothie (hers), at a diner in our shared neighborhood of Astoria, Queens, the first thing that struck me about the cartoonist was her teeth. Telgemeier has nice teeth. I don’t want to make myself out to by some R. Crumb-styled obsessive, in fact, I can honestly say that such a thing is rarely, if ever, the first thing I notice about a person.
Such an observation surely stems from knowing a thing our two about the artist’s dental history. You see, Telgemeier didn’t always have such nice teeth—in fact, she didn’t always have teeth. For a long and surely developmentally-critical period of her childhood, the cartoonist had two gaping holes where her incisors once sat. The years of intensive orthodontics that followed formed the basis for her Web/mini-comic, Smile. That on-going story has proved the ideal vehicle for Telgemeier’s wonderfully cartoony style and youthful voice.
It’s these skills that brought Telgemeier to the attention of the folks at Scholastic, who were in the process of launching new graphic novel series, including the full-color reprintings of Jeff Smith’s Bone series (an unquestionable influence on Telgemeier’s style). Asked what book from her childhood she might want to adapt into a graphic novel, the answer was simple: The Babysitters’ Club.
Telgemeier is now hard at work on the fourth book in the series, which has helped reignite the love for the Ann Martin’s books in a new generation of young girls.
So you’re married to a cartoonist.
Yeah, to Dave Roman, who is the creator of…several things. Quicken Forbidden is the first series that he started writing. It’s about a girl who falls through a portal—it’s like an Alice in Wonderland, set in New York City, with dragons, and crazy fantasy characters. He started writing that about ten years ago—his friend, John Green, draws that. He has a Webcomic, Astronaut Elementary, and he’s the writer and partial artist of Agnes Quill, which just came out on Slave Labor Graphics.
You did something for that book, as well, right?
I did some work for that, yeah. I did a nine-page story, and there were two other artists and Dave who did some of the art, as well.
So you collaborated directly with him on that piece?
Yeah. He wrote the story for me to draw. That’s how he works. He picks an artist, and thinks of what would play to their strengths.
Were you a reader of his work, before you met him?
Nope. He was—and still is—an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine. He edits their comics, and he found me, when I was a student at SVA (School for the Visual Arts, in Manhattan). I had put together a mini-comics festival when I was over there. I was just selling short-story mini-comics that I had put together for my classes, and he bought one. He was currently editing an anthology for Friends of Lulu, called Broad Appeal. Friends of Lulu is an organization formed to help out women in the comics industry. They were putting together an anthology of female cartoonists, and Dave, even though he’s not a lady, was the editor of the series, and was looking for female artists—not trying to pick them up, or anything—and he e-mailed me. He liked my work, and asked me to be in the book. That’s how we got to be friends: we were exchanging artwork and chatting by e-mail. He had a lot of contacts to the cartooning world, because when you’re in college, you don’t really go beyond the college world. After I graduated, we got to be friends in real life, then we started dating, and then we got married—it’s an exciting story [laughs]!
I’ve dated writers in the past—is there a weird sense of competition between you, ever?
Luckily the things that we do are quite different. Dave wants to do it all. He wants to write, wants to draw, wants to be an animator—and I just want to draw. We’ve also had pretty equal successes, since we’ve known each other, and they’re different from one another, so every time I have something cool happen to me, he’s really happy for me, and vice-versa. Instead of competition we just encourage each other a lot.
And you have a live-in editor.
Oh yeah, he’s a great editor. And he understands that I have to stay up until three in the morning drawing, and I understand that he has to do the same. It works out for us.
Do you have a day job that you go to, as well?
No. The day job right now is drawing these Babysitters’ Club novels. I used to work in publishing, as an editorial assistant. That was a job that I got while I was in school, and then just kept doing, for five years. At first it was nice, because it was a work-for-hire, pay-by-the-hour thing. When they needed me, I was there. If they didn’t need me, I’d surf the Internet and read comics message boards and try to, I guess, network via the Internet, but I was really bad at it, and I didn’t know how to put my work up on a Web site, and it took me a while before I was able to put my work up online.
That’s one of the reasons I was initially interested in your work, though—you were doing the old black and white photocopied comics, which not too many people are really doing anymore.
Yeah. That’s where I started, and I still think that’s a nice way to break into things. I also should have said that, at night, I was free to go home and make all of the comics that I wanted to, because I didn’t have to take my day job home with me. Publishing is kind of good for helping out cartoonists who want to learning about the book market, and I was able to use the photocoping machine in said office. My boss was cool with it, luckily. I was making mini-comics while I was working in publishing, and telling my boss, “okay, I’m going to take two weeks off now and go to Comic Con.”
Are you doing mini-comics any more?
I haven’t done one in a couple of years. In theory—any time I make a short story comic, when I get enough of those to put into a mini comic, I will make another one.
You’re doing the Web thing pretty regularly, though?
Yep, once a week. Smilecomics.com [laughs].
The Webcomics/mini-comics are autographical. It’s interesting—it seems like a lot of artists tend to focus in on one period of their life.
Yeah, I mean in my case that would childhood. I’ve definitely done some comics about my life in the current day, but people get really weird when you do that. They’re like, “when are you gonna draw a comic about your social life? When are you gonna draw a comic about the guy you’re dating?” people take it so literally, and they think they know you really well. That’s what I’ve found, anyway. I’ve had people that I worked with ask me really personal questions about myself. I decided that it was just better to get away from drawing personal comics about myself now, and focus on ages 6-12. And as far as Smile goes, it was just the main thing that I wanted to tell a story about. When I was in sixth grade, I fell and knocked out my two front teeth. I went through five year of orthodontics and reconstruction, and they had to be pulled out and put back in and pulled out again, and I had to deal with a retainer with fake teeth on it, and it really did really shape my life at that point. I was an awkward kid, who just felt like a total weirdo, to begin with, and it really didn’t help. It seemed like there was a lot of really good territory there, for me to draw comics about, and this is like therapy. It was such a bad time for me, and drawing about it helped me get it off my chest, and now I don’t have to explain the story to people anymore. I can tell people to just go read the comic, and they’ll understand.
Do your parents read it pretty regularly?
They do. It’s funny, sometimes my dad will write me, after an episode, because his memory is slightly different than mine—but rarely. Most of the time they’re happy to see themselves, and they’re happy to be characters in a comic strip.
[Continued in Part Two]