Interview: Raina Telgemeier Pt. 2 (of 3)

Categories:  Interviews

Raina TelgemeierAsked by editors at the new Scholatic comic imprint, Graphix, what books from her childhood she might want to sequentially adapt, Raina Telgemeir’s answer was simple: The Baby-sitters Club. Currently at work on the fourth installment of the series, Telgmeier’s take on the wildly popular 80s YA series has proved rather successful in its own right, exposing her work on a large scale to a young girls, a demographic traditionally overlooked by the art form.

Sequential art would be hard pressed to come up with a more appropriate ambassador than Telgemeier, who cut her artistic teeth with the mini-comic, Smile, a ‘dental drama,’ that follows the artist through years of orthodontics, beginning at age 11, when she knocked out her two front teeth. Telgemeir’s bittersweet memoir astutely captures the tribulations of growing up, coupled with the artist’s incredibly likable cartooning style.

I spoke with Telgemeier at a diner in our mutual neighborhood of Astoria, Queens. For those keeping track, our food has just arrived, complete with a sideorder of fries, which I didn’t actually ask for. No, I’m not bitter–I’m just saying…

Did you go to SVA with the intention of being a cartoonist?

I did. I took illustration as my major, because when I was applying to school, in my head, being a cartoonist meant working at a syndicate—being a newspaper cartoonist—or working for DC, drawing Batman. I didn’t really want to do either of those things, but I really wasn’t familiar with the mini-comics scene, and hadn’t delved enough into the alternative comics scene at that point to know that this is exactly what I wanted to do.  I just figured, ‘illustration! That’s a viable career. I can do that and take cartooning classes on the side.’ But really, since graduating, I’ve done almost nothing but draw comics.

So there were comics courses being offered when you were going to school there?

Yeah, in fact the school originated as a cartooning school, I think back in the 40s. And now it’s much more focused on graphic design, and fine arts, and photography, and the sort of usual art school careers, but cartooning has sort of taken off in the past couple of years, and since I’ve been there, it’s just gotten bigger and better. When I was taking classes there, it was just me and one or two other girls, and everyone else is guys, and now girls are lovin’ it.

Do you think your gender has afforded you some unique opportunities in the field, being one of, what is still very few females?

It’s a tricky question, because while I think that’s the case, I think I’m still talented [laughs]. I started college at 22—I was a couple of years older than most of my classmates, and I think that some of them were fresh out of art school, and were like, ‘whatever, I go to art school, and mom and dad are paying for it.’ And I was like, ‘this is my one chance, I have to make it and prove to everyone that I’m awesome.’ I had to work to get there, and I had to take advantage of every opportunity I had, so when I was there, I just tried to kick ass the whole time.

Was there a reason why you went late? Were you working all of that time?

Well, I’m from California—San Francisco. SVA isn’t really well-known out there, or at least it wasn’t, when I was in high school. You either went to the Academy of Art College in San Francisco, the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, or you went to somewhere in LA. That’s all we really knew about. So I went to a summer program, down in LA, at Otis College, and it was okay. I had an okay time, but it was around that time that I found out about SVA. I’d read a book and I’d really like it, and would read the author’s bio, and it would say, ‘this author taught a class at The School of Visual Arts.’ So I eventually learned to use the Internet, went online, and found out about it. That’s where I had to be. I knew as soon as I came to visit.

Have you ever gone back and taught or spoken there?

I’m going tomorrow, as a matter of fact [sorry kids, already happened—ed.]. Joey Cavalieri, who is an editor at DC Comics, was one my favorite professors, when I was going to school there, has asked me and Dave to go back to one his classes. And talked to the students. The panel is called, ‘how I made it,’ or ‘how I did it.’ Did I do it? I don’t know [laughs]. I still don’t consider myself to be any special success, but it seems that people are started to look at me differently.

Your approach to it hasn’t been very traditional. One of the articles I came across when researching your background was in Publisher’s Weekly—something along the lines of ‘Cartoonists Looking to Book Publishing Industry.’ Was that something that you were specifically looking toward, having been an editorial assistant?

No. when I was first making comics, I was drawing short, autobiographical stories, and the publishers that came to my mind were Top Shelf, Alternative Comics, Highwater Press, back when they were still around. Really none of the bigger publishers had put together their comics lines, by that point, and it was only when Scholastic was starting up Graphix that they asked me to pitch original material, but I still didn’t really have a graphic novel idea. I had a lot of smaller short story concepts, and had just started Smile at that point. The longest story that I had written at that point was eight pages. They asked me what I was a fan of, as a child, as far as books, and I said I was a Baby-sitters Club books in the 80s, because who wasn’t? They didn’t have the idea in their head at that point, but they said, “hey, your style might make a good match for that series, so would you want to make some sample pages?” I was like, ‘okay, no one else is biting at the moment.’ It was a few weeks after that they asked me to do the series. This was in 2004.

So, two years out of college? That’s pretty good.

Well, actually, it was in 2003 that the conversation started. It was not long after graduating, and nobody knew who I was, and I was unprepared for anything of the sort.

Where did they see your work initially? Nickelodeon Magazine?

No, it was that anthology,  Broad Appeal. When it was published, they had the book release party at MoCCA, when it was still in Union Square, and we put art on the walls and invited a ton of people. We knew someone within the organization—I think she’s a librarian. She had a giant press contact at Scholastic, and she invited a bunch of people. One of the Graphix editors at Scholastic, Jana [Morishima]—she no longer works there she’s actually at Diamond now—came to the party and saw my art, and said, ‘hey, I like this, come work for us!’ I got very, very lucky. The right place at the right time.

It seems to be making something of a come back now, but there still aren’t a lot of comics for kids around, anymore. Do you think making a come back?

I hope they are. I started reading comics when I was nine, and I love them then, so I don’t see why kids now wouldn’t like them now. As far as there not really being any comics for kids up on the market, until recently, I don’t really know how I feel about that, because everything that I read is still available. I was a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes—you can still get that in just about any bookstore.

But as far as new books…

Yeah, but the classics are still easy to come by—I was inspired by animated cartoons. All of the art that I did, growing up, was drawings of The Get-Along Gang.  But I never went into a comic shop until I was in college. It’s nice that the bigger publishers are getting into it, though. Scholastic is doing obviously Bone and the Baby-sitters Club, and they’re also doing the Goosebumps books as comics. They’re doing one story per artist, and a few stories per books, so they’re like anthologies. They’ve gotten some really cool projects coming up. Kazu Kibuishi has one coming out, and everyone is really jazzed about that book. Aaron Renier is also doing something.

So what books were you reading that inspired you to get into the comics game in college?

It was Bone that really made up my mind. People kept telling me that I had to read it, but I was resistant, for some reason. Maybe because it was a long series that I really had to invest myself in it. That’s still really an intimidating thing about comics for a lot of people. If you want to get into Batman, you have to read a thousand issues. But someone had the trade paperback of Bone and gave it to me. It was over, as soon as I read it. Before that, I was into Optic Nerve. Here’s a guy telling these vignettes in black and white—short moments in time that really inspired the comics in Take Out. I felt like I was really ripping off Adrian Tomine, for a while.

[Concluded in Part Three]. 

–Brian Heater

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