Last weekend I moderated a panel in the sweltering heat of the third annual Brooklyn Book Festival. The guests were both well-regarded representatives in their chosen fields, if somewhat polarization in terms of output, but with enough overlap that they both effectively represented the fairly abstract panel title, “Cartooning Today.”
Kyle Baker is best known around these parts for graphic novels like Why I Hate Saturn, Special Forces, and Nat Turner. He also penned an award-winning, Jack Cole-inspired run on DC Comics’ Plastic Man.
Mo Willems, meanwhile, spent years writing for children’s television, penning scripts for shows like Sesame Street and Codename: Kids Next Door. More recently, the artist has arguably found his true calling drawing children’s books like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.
Below is a transcript of the first part of our conversation, wherein we discuss both creators’ entry into the business, why animation is tough, and why writing for Muppets is easy.
Both of you set out to be something different than what you ended up becoming, career-wise. Mo, can you tell us how you initially got into cartooning?
Mo Willems: I drew a lot as a child, is how I got into cartooning. When I was five, I wrote Charles Schulz a letter, asking if I could have his job when he died [laughs]. And when he died, my father told me that he never sent that letter, which is a very sort of Charlie Brown moment, in and of itself. And so I drew cartoons throughout my childhood and college years, and did a little magazine work, and then I became a writer and animator for Sesame Street, which I came into with through the short videos I did in college and out of college. And from there, I did various series on cable television, and now I do books.
Kyle Baker: That was what I wanted to do. We’re probably around the same age, right?
MW: I hope so.
KB: How old are you?
MW: I’m 40.
KB: I’m 42. So, when we were kids, all of the rich cartoonists were in the newspapers. I started in comic books, in ’83, because comic books was where everyone started their career. It was just a terrible business. You didn’t get your art back, and there was no profit sharing. The guy who made up Superman didn’t get any money. I worked at Marvel Comics. I started in what we all called “the bullpen,” which is this big area we’d sit around drawing.
We’d all sit around and talk about how, when we “made it” like Jack Davis or Frank Frazzeta—we had a whole list. The list of comics people who made it were all the people who quit. And that was your goal. “I’m going to work at Marvel Comics for two years, and then I’m going to be like Fran Frazetta and quit!” I wanted to in the funny papers. But the business has changed over the years, where the funny papers is a rotten business and comic books is a good business. I’ve actually quit comic books a couple of times and done a lot of Hollywood stuff. Now everyone in Hollywood is interested in comic books, so I have to be in the comic book business, so the Hollywood people will talk to me [laughs]!
MW: It has to be published first.
KB: It has to be a comic book.
MW: No, it has to be a “graphic novel.”
So you started at Marvel…
KB: So, I started at Marvel as an intern in high school. Senior year of high school, they gave you the choice of either taking more classes or being an intern somewhere, so I took the internship. A friend of mine was quitting his internship to go to college, so I just took his job, and never really thought that I had a future at Marvel, because I wanted to do funny cartoons, and Marvel Comics only did superheroes at the time. And they keep reeling me back in [laughs].
Both of you took fairly circuitous routes in terms of your careers. Is there a more direct route into the world of cartooning that you’d recommend? Is art school the way to go?
MW: I think the route is to go where the people hire you. A lot of the reason why I became a writer is because there was a studio at the time called Broadcast Arts, and I wanted to be an animator. I kept trying to get animation gigs, but they would only hire me as a gag writer. So, at some point, you become a writer, because that’s what you get hired to do.
Kyle, you said that you were very hesitant to get into animation at all.
KB: Yeah, up until recently, I had no interest in getting in, because animation is factory work. It’s done by a huge group of people and requires millions of dollars, and so there’s a lot of meetings and business stuff that has nothing to do with anything, whereas, with the comic book stuff, the nice thing is that I can just sit down and do it. Now I’m doing animation, because the production costs have gone down so low that I can do it myself, alone.
MW: It’s funny, though, it’s where a lot of the animators started. Certainly when I was in film school, there was this idea that it was macho. At that time, there was still cameras and film, and you’d go in a dark room, and you’d crank stuff, and you had to wear corduroy trousers, and you’d clean your cells with that, to get rid of the dust. It was all a very sort of machismo-type thing, and you could make a film, all by yourself. It was a lot more expensive, but that’s why you got into it. And then you would find yourself in room with all these other guys, and you were doing layout. You weren’t even animating.
KB: Right, and my main thing with Hollywood—and it’s true with books too—nobody knows. Speed Racer bombed. That’s the Matrix guys. Nobody know what’s gonna work and what’s not gonna work. And the thing with books is that they’re just so cheap, that you can draw your own book. I just put this stuff out, and if the book sells, you make more of them, and if it doesn’t, you’re going down the wrong path.
MW: It also produces, I think, a culture of more risk taking, because certainly the stuff early in my book career, like my first book, everybody said it was unusual, and it didn’t make any sense, and nobody would want it, but it wasn’t a very big commitment by the publishing house to publish it, because it didn’t cost anything. I did a TV series that was the same thing, and it costs them a lot of money to invest in, frankly, a bad idea.
Kyle, as comic books, or “graphic novels,” are becoming more and more critically appreciated, do you feel as if there are more people watching more closely what you’re doing?
KB: I’ve always said that the big difference is, when we were working for comic books, back in the 80s, when they distributed at 7-11s, and they were 50 cents apiece, and they were printed on the worst paper possible. The great thing about working in comics at the time was, whatever you did, it only had to be 50 cents worth of good. That’s why I buy the newspaper every day. It’s only a quarter, and you’re going to find something in there that’s worth a quarter. Now a book is $20, so now a book has to be better than the movie they could have gone to, instead of buying my book, or it’s got to be better than the video game they could be buying.
MW: But was it more fun to do the 50 cent stuff?
KB: There was a certain amount of fun in that we didn’t care.
MW: There’s no chance for second drafts.
KB: And there was no profit sharing either, so you’d just try something and see if it stuck.
So the pressure is more monetary now, rather than the big houses and the influence of Hollywood?
KB: Well, I’m always looking at it from the standpoint of the consumer, so I always thing that, when I do a book, let’s say I walk into a store and pay $18 for this book. Is it worth $18? Is this a good book? Did I read it and say, “this needs a couple more pages to be worth $18?”
MW: Or it needs to be re-read a certain number of times. That’s my equation. Am I going to go back to this comics book enough times, because it’s quick reading it, the first time?
Kyle, you did work for DC with Plastic Man—
MW: I did work with DC, they just never published it. At the same time he was doing Plastic Man.
What are the major differences between working on creator-owned work and doing something with a long history, like Sesame Street or Plastic Man?
MW: It’s always fun to be the death of an institution. That always brings me great joy, to see things collapse, thanks to my work. But no, I think anyone’s going to say that they’d rather be doing their own stuff. I think what I loved, particularly about Sesame Street, was that it was a good place to get your chops, because you had to write a lot of material, and even if it wasn’t good, the puppets are so cute, and they perform so well, that you could get away with it. I was at Sesame Street at 24. If someone had said, “write your first book at 24,” I wouldn’t have had a career, because my books would have been so terrible, so I got to write really a lot of crud in relative anonymity, and I think that was the advantage. And also, getting your muscles up, because I wrote an 11 minute story, every Tuesday, and if I didn’t have an 11 minute story, I still wrote an 11 minute story. So, that’s good for your chops. But you’re right, you’re really just throwing stuff at the wall, because that’s the production schedule.
KB: The thing I find is that when I’m working on a Disney show or something, I get paid, whether it’s good or bad, and it’s easier to write something bad.
MW: Really? I find it’s harder to write something bad. I’ve written on shows that are really bad, and those scripts took like eight times as long to write, because you’d get notes that said, “this isn’t bad in the right way. Make it worse.”
KB: Well, and I get in a situation when I’m working on Bugs Bunny for Warner Brothers, and I say, “wow, this gag could be a lot better, if I take another two hours.” But I’m not going to get paid any overtime [laughs]. And there’s no residuals. But when you’re working on a book, there’s royalties.
And your name’s on it.
KB: My name’s on it, and again, you’re getting royalties, so if it sells well, you have an incentive to do a good job. And also, the thing about animation is that you get paid by the hour and the day. I like working freelance, because you get paid by the piece. If I want to make money, I can either make more books or better books, whereas, with Disney, it doesn’t really matter. You’re just gonna get paid the same as the guy who’s doing less work and worse work.
[Continued in Part Two]
[For video of the panel, check out Bully's blog.]