Centered around the adventures of a group of adolescent semi-hipsterish animals, 2005’s Spiral-Bound happily found its way into the Top Shelf catalog. If Aaron Renier, the book’s first-time author had had his way, the book—cleverly designed to resemble a well-used wide-ruled notebook—would have also found its way into the hands of a few more youngsters.
Now working with Scholastic’s comics imprint, Graphix, alongside kid-friendly contemporaries like Jeff Smith and Raina Telgemeir, Renier’s lovingly-crafted work will almost certainly reach a wider–and younger–audience.
On the most beautiful Sunday in recent memory, we took Renier away from an afternoon spent walking the dog for long enough to discuss kids’ books, metaphorical submarines, and why talking animals are way more interesting than people.
Why aren’t you at APE, this weekend?
I don’t have a new book out, and I don’t like going to conventions with nothing new. I can easily have a mini-, but it sounds kind of sounds crazy when people ask you what you’re working on, and you say, ‘absolutely nothing.’ I like going to conventions, but they’re not really worth my time and money, when I could be working. But I did go to APE last year.
So you’re not really working on anything right now?
No—I’m actually working on a new book. I’ve haven’t really talked about it yet, but it’s called—I’m doing it with Scholastic, and I’m having some trouble getting the title exactly how I want it. It’s a series that’s going to be at least two books long. The series title is going to be, The Unsinkable Walker Bean—which they’re not a fan of, and the first book is going to be called, Pirates of the Crystal Skull.
Why aren’t they a fan of the title?
I guess the word ‘unsinkable’ doesn’t sit well with them. I’m telling them that the Titanic was described as unsinkable—it’s a nautical term. It’s kind of like The Amazing Spider-man, but they’re nautical-themed comics. I come from a comics background, and I wanted it to have sound like a comic. Harry Potter is Harry Potter, and something coming from comics would be—The Amazing whatever. I wanted it to have kind of a clunky name.
Is it stylized like one of those old comics, or is the title the only thing it shares with those old books?
The title is the only thing. It’s set in the 17- or 1800s–I don’t ever really say. I was just paying homage to those old books.
It’s an ‘adventures on the high seas’ book?
Yeah, it’s basically an adventure. It’s the story of two boys. It’s probably not going to be as piratey as people think. It’s following the two boys—it’s close to Spiral-Bound. It’s about the payoff of creativity and imagination and things like that. There are definitely pirates and fighting in it, but they also talk about food, and instruments. It’s definitely the book that ought to come after Spiral-Bound.
This next one is on Scholastic, so it obviously has a fairly young audience in mind. Spiral-Bound was definitely kid-friendly, too. Was that the idea when you were putting the book together?
Yeah, definitely. I wanted to do something for someone like me, around the time that I was getting into comics. The intended audience was eight to 12, but it was through Top Shelf, which is good, but because it came out with them, it wasn’t really sold to a younger audience. Even the book that I’m working on for Scholastic, though, which has the same tone, I’d like to make it an all-ages thing, where people can brave the children’s section, and pick up my book. Now, if you go to a book store, however, Spiral-Bound will be with the graphic novels. I don’t know how Walker Bean will be shelved. I’m definitely not dumbing it down, though. If anything, this one will be a lot more complicated than Spiral-Bound.
One of the things that I appreciated about Spiral-Bound was the fact that, though it was kid-friendly, it wasn’t dumbed down. It had characters in indie rock bands—it might have been for kids, but it was for cool kids.
At some point, Scholastic was thinking about re-distributing Spiral-Bound for one of their book clubs, but when it came back, they said that it was “too cool,” but what does that even mean? I don’t know, but Walker Bean is going to be pretty cool.
It’s cool, despite the fact that it’s in the 18th century?
Yeah! I mean, they’re not talking about CDs and bands. I guess they’re not hipsters.
Is there some kind of an innate coolness that really transcends the decades or centuries?
Yeah. It definitely has a fantastical element to it. One of the main characters is from a place called Winowski Bay.
Kind of like Green Bay?
Yeah, I’m from Green Bay, and I definitely kind of wanted it to be like that, though in the drawings, kind of look like old New York. The friend that he meets on the pirate ship is named ‘Shiv,’ and Shiv is very much into building instruments and he has this grand plan to start a pit orchestra. So they talk about music, but they don’t quite talk about it in the way that they do in Spiral-Bound.
Do you play music?
No. I wish I did.
I’m in the same boat—I can’t really play, so my passion for music has to manifest itself in other ways.
Yeah, definitely. If I was only really into comics, and all of my characters only talked about comics, it would be really boring. In Spiral-Bound, a lot of my characters are based on my friends, and a lot of my friends are definitely cartoonists. In one of my rough drafts, before it even became animals, they were all cartoonists, and I thought, ‘well, I don’t really want to draw people all the time. Drawing people drawing comics is really boring. Maybe I can have them do sculpture,’ and a whole new world opened up. It’s far more interesting to draw a three-dimensional object than pages.
At what point in the process did they become animals?
When I decided that it would be far more fun to draw something for a younger audience. I’m friends with Craig Thompson, and I’d stopped and started with comics so many times, and I could never see it past page 16, and he would say, “the hardest part of being a cartoonist is the ability to follow through.” That was what I needed to hear. And I realized that if I was going to have the follow through, I would need subject matter that would interest me for 170 pages. So it was like, ‘if I could draw a monster, that would be fun.’ I started to reinterpret things, and it started to become a really fun project. It started with me having a crush on some girl—it definitely has some of that element in it. First it was drawing a picture of a girl, and then it was making that girl’s face out of a sandwich.
[Continued in Part Two]