[Photo from Bully's Flickr set]
In this final part of our interview with cartoonists Mo Willems and Kyle Baker, we talk about comics for grownups, taking yourself too serious, and the pitfalls of Captain America.
Ever since around 1985 [sic, 1986]—the year that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen came out—there’s been a lot of talk about how “comics aren’t just for kids, anymore.” The industry has really shifted. It seems to me, at least from my perspective, that things are shifting back a bit.
Kyle Baker: Yeah, well, my thinking was, when they were doing this whole “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” thing, that this was 40-year-old men who were reading Batman and were ashamed to be reading Batman, so they would say, “oh, it’s not as lame as you think! It’s full of a lot of dirty stuff and violence!”
Mo Willems: I also think that a lot of the guys that are doing comic books are starting to have kids, and there is a tough thing when you’ve worked on something and you can’t show it to them. That’s just a weird thing.
KB: And then there’s the whole thing about your fanbase dying. I compare it to pop music, also. When I was in my 20s, I would go to the record store every Tuesday, when the records came out, and I would buy all of the pop records and all of the videos and stuff. And now I have kids, and I spend all of my money on their records and movies, and I don’t have any money for myself. And so, the same thing with comics—you should reach a point when you stop buying them for yourself, and start buying them for your kids. What happened there, for a while, was they started marketing them as collectables and not as entertainment. And that’s where it all went to hell.
It seems like a similar thing started happening around the same time in animation, as well. Has that shaped—especially on networks like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon—what you can and can’t get away with?
MW: It’s not about what you can and can’t get away with. I think a lot of animators are embarrassed that children enjoy their medium. I’ve never really understood that. It’s not that it’s a medium that adults can’t enjoy, and it’s not that you can’t make adult films—Paul Friedlander, for one, is making these great documentaries that are really, really beautiful—it’s that what’s come to pass as ‘adult animation’ is 15-year-old booger jokes. It’s not actually for adults. It’s post-pubescent animation. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just doesn’t interest me. If I was going to do adult animation, I’d like to do something that grownups would actually watch.
But you know, in the same way that picture book authors were running around saying, “it’s art, no really, it’s art! We’re artists!” And now that’s over. We don’t need to prove that we’re artists. We can go back to the work that we’re doing. I think animators are stuck in this mindset of having to prove their aesthetic work. For me, I’m a cartoonist. The second you take it seriously, you lose all of its potential. What made daily strips in the paper so power was: no one ever suspects the cartoonist. So you read Peanuts every day, it will affect the way you look at the world, but it’s very subtle. I even get nervous when people take picture books seriously, because I’m going to have to start sculpting doo-doo. Just something that no one will take seriously.
Was there a similar point of renaissance in children’ books, when people started taking them seriously, as art?
MW: Yeah. I mean, I think we come from a collectable culture. I think anything can be taken seriously. And it’s not that there isn’t actually worth and aesthetics and all of that stuff in the work. The point is, if you notice it, it’s not entertaining. If somebody says, “oh, check out that amazing composition. He’s really doing an amazing page turn,” you’re not actually reading the story. So, for intellectuals to gain enjoyment out of it is fine, but I don’t even want my audience to know that it’s drawn. I just want it to be. So, for me, the seriousness with which all of this is taken makes me nervous. I hate the term ‘graphic novels.’
KB: Well, I hate it because it sounds like a dirty book.
WM: It sounds like Jane Austin, with a chainsaw.
KB: The reason I do the opposite of whatever a critic says I’m doing, is because—for example, I did a Captain America book, and it got just terrible reviews. Everyone just trashed it. And the thing you have to keep in mind, when you read a bad review of your Captain America review, if you ever get one—
And if you want one, they’ll probably give it to you—
KB: You have to remember that this is the opinion of a grown man who has taken it unto himself to write a 400-page analysis of a Captain America comic. Is this someone you really want to be pleasing? I always test my stuff on my four kids. I say, “is this funny or not? Would you watch this show or read this comic book?” That’s how I decided to take the Phineas and Ferb job. I showed them the pilot and asked if they would watch it. If they said, “no,” I wouldn’t have taken the job.
Do you find a similar difficulty with critics, as far as kids books? Do they just not get it, most of the time?
MW: No, no, they get it. I don’t have a problem. They understand the history and all that, and I think there’s definitely a place for that. I don’t have a problem with, per se. I don’t really have a problem with reviews or any of that, mostly because a lot of them have been very nice to me. But still, it’s just the story—you just shouldn’t know it’s there. It should be magical. The big lesson that I learned, when Sheep in the Big City was cancelled—I did go on the Internet and found a 10-year-old who wrote, ‘it looks like he’s trying too hard,’ which really shocked me to my core, because I started to think, ‘in what other industry is this a problem? With plumbers?’
KB: In the Olympics?
MW: Exactly. “He’s swimming away. Look at him, swimming too hard. He’s a plumber, he showed up early, he didn’t take a cigarette break. I don’t trust him.” That ultimately is the core. That is it. They just shouldn’t notice that I was there at all. And when I was writing for Sesame Street, I’d meet a lot of people who’d say, “I don’t watch television. Television’s bad. What do you do?” And I’d say, “I write for television. I write for Sesame Street.” And they’d say, “oh, I love Elmo.” And I’d say, “oh, where’d you see Elmo, on your toaster, or you’re microwave?”
MW: Yeah, probably, now, they’re different times. But they did see it on television. That was the medium. No one thinks that those scripts are written, which is a sign to me that they’re good.
KB: You know, have you ever had the experience of drawing a character for a kid, and they sort of get mad at you, because it destroys the illusion?
KB: I was at a part, a couple of weeks ago for some friends. I said, “do you like Phineas and Ferb?” And they said, “oh yes, we love Phineas and Ferb.” And I said, “oh, well I happen to draw Phineas and Ferb.” And I sat there and drew that for them, and they were so unimpressed, because to them, Phineas and Ferb are real people, and they didn’t know that there’s some guy—an old man—drawing them.
MW: Basically ever public appearance is a setup for disappointment.
KB: That’s why Big Bird never takes his head off.
Really quickly, can you guys talk about what you’re working on now?
MW: I’m working on a pop-up book with this paper engineer, which is very cool. It’s about this character who can’t fit in, literally. So the whole book is this character trying to fit in. I’m doing radio cartoons. It looks like, and this is in the very distant future, that I’ll be working with the Kennedy Center, I’m going to be writing a musical, based on Knuffle Bunny. So I’m very excited about that. I’m also walking my kid to school…
KB: Let’s see. My new book is How to Draw Stupid—which is, how to draw cartoons my way. I was trying to think, what can I offer? There are only 100 other cartooning books.
Is it How to Draw, Stupid?
KB: There’s a whole chapter on how to draw stupid people, for example. Comedy is full of stupid people—cross-eyes, buck teeth, and all of that. Also I have a new book called Nat Turner, which is about the Turner Rebellion. And now I’m working on The Bakers TV show, and I guess I’ll do more Bakers strips.