In this second part of our interview with the Teen Boat author, we talk age appropriateness, absurdity, and self-censorship.
Looking back at the early Teen Boat work, did you get the feeling that the you of ten years ago and who you are now would have had completely different approaches to the story?
The biggest difference is density. We used to try and cram a lot of content into each page. When they were eight-page minicomics, we wanted to get as many jokes into them as possible. As we continued along and began thinking of Teen Boat as a book, it allowed us to open up more and do bigger images, splash panels, and spreads without every page being as precious—it wasn’t going to be the last page that anyone ever saw.
You’ll see while reading the book, the first couple of chapters are still a bit dense, and then panels start getting larger and more cinematic as they go. But as far as John Green’s line art itself, I think Teen Boat looked really good to begin with.
I was reluctant to color it at first, because I really like John’s clean black and white art, and I like the idea that you’re sort of imagining the color for it. But once we started getting the pages back from Wes Dzioba, who colored it for us, I totally changed my opinion. Teen Boat becomes even more surreal and absurd when you see it in color. You take it even more seriously. There’s a big scene that takes place in Venice, and it’s just gorgeous, with the canals and the sunsets and the beautiful Italian architecture. The color makes it so rich and vivid, so having a teenage boy transform into a boat there is just that much crazier.
So the absurdity operates better if it’s more real?
I think so. The contrast of the whimsy with the beautiful settings and atmosphere makes it even funnier.
Is the target reader’s age the same as Astronaut Academy?
I think it’s older.
It’s called Teen Boat, and it’s definitely more of a teen series. I consider Astronaut Academy more “middle grade”—that’s a term I learned while working on it. Kids in like 5th grade, and middle school. Thus the publisher’s change from “Elementary” to “Academy.” Whereas Teen Boat is set in high school. It’s more like a John Hughes movie—there are teens drinking alcohol and getting involved in sexy shenanigans.
Those are the best kind of shenanigans.
Yeah. In Astronaut Academy, there’s none of that. If a character kisses another character, it’s a big deal, whereas in Teen Boat, there are characters making out and things implied that are much more explicit (even if they happen off camera).
Aren’t younger readers generally drawn toward reading about characters who are slightly older?
Yeah. That’s sort of the problem with all my books [laughs].
The “ideal publisher demographic” is off target. John and I made a book about teens, and it’s actually for teens [laughs]. Rather than looking up at them, it’s looking right at them. But maybe it’s a little nostalgic, too, like The Wonder Years. You could look back whimsically.
At your years as a Teen Boat.
Beyond a certain amount of self-censorship, are you really thinking about what age group you’re writing for?
No [laughs]. I mean, I am, in that there are a lot of tropes that each genre comes with, and since we were parodying Dawson’s Creek and the John Hughes movies, I think we’re playing toward the same touch points. That’s more on my mind than specifically how teenagers will react to the content, or whether or not something is a little edgy for younger kids.
That said, now that we’re working with major publishers, there’s a lot more focus with regards to where these books are getting shelved and who the people buying them are specifically, and being cautious about not wanting to do anything that’s going to push the envelope too much.
Are they reviewing the scripts and pushing you in certain directions?
Yeah, but not in a way that feels even remotely oppressive. Our editor at Clarion is really great. He positioned it as: if we keep things exactly as they are, it makes this book available only to a certain audience. But if we are comfortable changing strategic things, it opens the content up to that many more people. Then it becomes a decision for John and I to decide how invested we are in a certain joke, or if there is something that would satisfy us creatively, but not offend as many people.
dExactly. I think that’s why I got into the idea of doing all-ages comics in the first place. Starting out, I’d go to a comic convention, and want to be able to sell my books to everybody who was interested. I didn’t want there to be all these conditions. If a parent asks, “is this okay for my eight-year-old kid?” I want to be able to say yes. I don’t to say, “yeah, sure,” and then have them come back and say, “so, this gang bang scene, my eight-year-old loved it.” That’s where self-censoring is already happening before we even get to the editorial process.