Frank Cammuso first entered the world of sequential art some 20 years ago as an editorial cartoonist. It was the publication of Max Hamm: Fairy Tale Detective for his own Nite Owl Comix , however, that really helped put the artist on the map amongst comics fans.
The book had another surprising result for the artist. Cammuso insists that he never set out to make the story of the diminuitive pink private investigator an all-ages book, per se, but when it proved a hit with younger audiences, the title helped open a new career for the artist as the creator of kids books. Most recently Cammuso has begun the Knights of the Lunch Table series for Scholastic as co-created Otto’s Orange Day for Francoise Mouley’s Toon Books, alongside underground comics legend, Jay Lynch.
We caught up with Cammuso recently to discuss his unexpected new career path.
Do you come out to a lot of conventions?
I used to.
The Scholastic contract happened. Once you have to start doing graphic novels, it kind of keeps you away from everything—seeing your family, seeing your friends. It’s amazing how much time it takes.
How many have you done this year?
I did a few. I did MoCCA, Baltimore, and SPX.
Pretty exclusively comic shows, then?
Yeah, mostly comics. And I did some signings. I did some library stuff, too. But I have to do a new Knights of the Lunch Table right now. It’s due in March, so it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to go out and do stuff.
But the media junket hasn’t really changed since signing with Scholastic?
No, it’s my media junket. They don’t send me out on tour to do any of that stuff. I’ve always loved SPX, it’s the show I ever really went to, about 10 years ago. I really wanted to do this. It’s always had a very special place in my heart.
Do these sorts of shows afford you any opportunity to interact with your young readership?
Well, there are a few kids. At Baltimore there were a ton of kids. There were more kids there than I had seen at any comic show, ever. They just loved it. I had about about four or five sets of parents come up and say, “thank you for doing comics for kids.” It was incredible. People were really jazzed about there being stuff out there for kids.
The medium has really moved away from young readers over the past 20 years.
It has. But people are starting to realize that that market is aging out—it’s getting older and older. You’re not really attracting it that much, anymore. Everybody who buys comics got into them when they were kids, so how do you get those kids into comics. If they’re going to find something else, then they will, especially if there are no comics there. They’ll pick video games If there are comics there, kids run for them. Kids really take to comics. They’ve always loved them.
Kids who are weaned on video games—do you think that comics are too inactive for them?
I don’t think so. I think if they pick up something that they like—a comic or a novel—it’s very engaging. There’s a whole immersion factor. You get into it. it’s nice. It’s very personal. Especially if it’s a subject matter that they like. Video games is a totally different medium.
How do you get them to take that first step?
Well, first of all, there has to be stuff out there for them, and there hasn’t been, up until a couple of years ago. Once they see that there’s stuff for them, they like it. The response has been terrific. Knights has only been out been out since June, and it’s already in its second printing. My Toon book is also in its second printing. People see it and they want more.
Do you think that the Baltimore show with all of those kids present is symptomatic of a larger trend?
I think that, if there’s comics for kids at these shows—if you’re a parent who’s a comic book fan, you’d love to share that with your children. I think any parent would like to do that. The problem is that you just can’t give them a lot of the stuff that’s out there right now. But if there’s stuff for them, all of the sudden this becomes a family event. It’s great, there’s so much energy. Kids come up and tell you a story, they tell you what they like—they’re so into it. you can remember, when you were a kid, when you found something that you were into, it was cool, and to see it in their eyes, it’s amazing. If that doesn’t tell you that you’re onto something, I don’t know what would.
Does interacting with the kids ever impact something you’re working on?
A little bit. I always ask them what they like. Like you said earlier, it is such a solitary thing, especially when you’re doing a graphic novel, it’s such a long process, and when you’re in the middle of it, you have no idea what’s going on. It’s nice to hear what they think. They like this part, or this part. It’s nice to know, because on the next book, you try to hit those notes again.
How long have you been working on books for a younger audience?
I’ve been a political cartoonist for about 20 years. Then I did the Max Hamm books, and they were kind of for kids, but not really. I didn’t really start out thinking they were for kids, and then, all of the sudden, I realized they kind of liked it. and then, after that, Scholastic came by and said, “pitch us some stuff,” and they liked what I pitched, and then Francoise Mouley at Toon Books asked if I wanted to do something with them. It was very much, “oh, I can do that.” It’s been great. It would be nice to do something later on. I have more Max Hamm stories to tell.
Are there specific things that you’d like to say with your work that you feel like you can’t say in a children’s book?
Well, I have to say at a certain age limit. They tell me things like, boys at age eight don’t really like girls. That’s not really relevant. So, any kind of romantic thing doesn’t work—not that it would be romantic, but somebody liking somebody. But other than that, it’s not really tough.
And Toon Books caters to an even younger audience.
Yeah. These are books that are really made for those readers. This is a kid’s first comic book. That’s exciting. They’re a lot of fun to do. I’m supposed to do at least one more. I like the beginning reader stuff. It’s very open and a lot of fun.
We spoke with Art Spiegelman and Jay Lynch recently, both of whom have worked with Toon Books. They both had strict parameters that they set out to work from. Art had a word list that he was working from, and Jay said that the book he was working on had to have a central lesson. What kind of parameters are you setting for yourself?
With Toon Books, I really wanted to open it up. I really wanted to make it a big, fun book. I didn’t want too many panels on a page—I don’t think it ever had more than four on a page. I just really wanted it to be a big, open book. For Knights, I really wanted something where a kid could read it, but if a parent or a librarian was reading it also, that they would get something out of it. you have the whole kids being bullied in school, but the parent reads it and sees the whole Athurian legend. If the kids pick up on it later, that’s great. But those are my favorite things, things that can be seen from both sides.
Do you have time to work on anything else, at this point?
At this point, no. I’m doing everything for the book—writing, drawing, inking, coloring. The only thing I’m not doing is lettering. So it’s a lot. This last one was 144 pages. I’m not sure how many the new one will be, but probably fairly close.
What do you hope to be working on, when this one’s in the can?
Well, I have two more for Scholastic. I’ll have a new book for younger readers called The Misadventures of Salem Hyde, so that’s two books for that, and then I’ll probably do another Toon Book. I think Jay’s writing it now.
And there are some Max Hamms on the horizon?
I’d like to, but as long as there are paying customers…If someone wanted to pick up Max Hamm, I’d be thrilled.
[Concluded in Part Two]