This June, I'll be celebrating 25 years (parenthetical exclamation point) of producing my comic strip "Tom the Dancing Bug," which I'm proud to have premiere online every week on Boing Boing.
Creating this comic strip has been a dream come true for me. After all, I'm a real-life cartoonist whose work is seen by millions of people. That may not be everyone's dream, but it was definitely one of mine.
Yet this week, I'm realizing another, more important dream. The first installment in a series of kids' books I'm writing (and illustrating), ALIEN INVASION IN MY BACKYARD: AN EMU CLUB ADVENTURE!, was just released yesterday.
Now, don't get me wrong. Making adults laugh (I hope) with satirical, character-based, or goofy, absurdist humor is fantastic, and I feel privileged to have that opportunity every week.
But to me, writing for kids is the real honor. Because I know that when a book resonates with a kid, it occupies a place in his/her heart that simply can't be surpassed.
The books and comic books that were on my childhood bookshelf (and read many, many times) captured my imagination and inspired me in profound ways that dwarf the ways that even great literature and art can affect my ossified psyche today.
In celebration of my new book, I was invited by Boing Boing to share the kidlit books and comics that I loved as a kid, and that may have influenced me as an adult as I wrote this book.
1. Carl Barks's "Donald Duck"
I can't say that I specifically recall reading a Carl Barks Donald Duck comic book when I was a kid. His comics weren't signed or credited (he was known simply as the "good" duck artist), and he had stopped drawing by the time I came around; my only exposure would have been through reprints.
I came to fully know and appreciate his work as an adult, through reprints and eventually through the beautiful, definitive set of collections being produced now by Fantagraphics.
But these comics, at their best, are simply ripping yarns, full of adventure, mystery, plot turns, and humor that are perfectly and thrillingly executed.
2. Al Wiseman and Fred Toole's "Dennis the Menace"
I loved these comics as a kid, and as with Donald Duck, there was one artist who greatly surpassed the others (the "good" Dennis artist). I learned only as an adult (and relatively recently) that his name was Al Wiseman, and he teamed with writer Fred Toole to make some of the greatest kid comics ever.
Wiseman had all but stopped drawing the comics by the time I was a kid, but his work was kept in print through many reprint comic books, which I avidly sought out because of their clear superiority over the 1970s output.
Unlike the newspaper comic panel Dennis the Menace, who only seemed to exist to annoy and vex adults, the comic book Dennis the Menace was a real kid with strong motivations (and perhaps some impulse control issues). The newspaper Dennis is seen from the eyes of frustrated adults, while the comic book Dennis is seen from the kids' perspective.
Wiseman's depiction of an idealized 1950s American surburbia is so tidy and perfect – every couch, car and and refrigerator he draws looks like its Platonic Eisenhowerian ideal. Even the chaos Dennis creates is corralled and subsumed into Wiseman's impeccably clean line.
For years, I've implored everyone I know in the comics collection industry to reprint these comics in book form, especially Papercutz's Jim Salicrup (just because I see him fairly often, and could hector him with impunity), and I just saw that Papercutz is in fact launching a book later this year! Not a "complete" collection, but I'm still ecstatic.
3. The "Great Brain" series, by John Dennis Fitzgerald
I didn't much care for Encyclopedia Brown for the same reason the Hardy Boys didn't appeal to me. The protagonists were bloodless: perfect, humorless do-gooders who called adults "Sir" and "Ma'am" and wore button-down shirts.
I remember the kids in the "Great Brain" series as being just as clever, but far more subversive. The books are about a family living in turn-of-the-century Utah (they are Catholics living among a Mormon majority), and the narrator is a kid whose older brother has a genius for tricking, swindling and outthinking other kids and adults.
I loved these books because they depicted kid interactions and concerns as intelligent and crafty. I also remember loving the small-town feel of the setting, and the fact that these kids were active participants in town life.
4. Charles Schulz's "Peanuts"
When my kids were little, I showed them "Ghostbusters," and I was amazed at how differently from me they viewed it. For me, having only experienced the movie as an adult, the movie is a comedy: a romp using ghosts as a backdrop for wisecracks and silliness. My kids liked it, but for them, it was a straight-up, dead-serious GHOST MOVIE.
Similarly, I now love Peanuts as a comic strip about kids metaphorically taking on the psychological dramas of adulthood. But when I loved it as a kid, it was a comic strip about a bunch of children and a dog.
And looking back at my literalist view of the strip, what I liked about Peanuts then was that it was about kids who lived without adults. For Schulz, that stylized absence became a means of creating his idiosyncratic allegory. But for me as a kid, it was an appealing fantasy of a world run by kids. Baseball games, snowman-making and kite-flying were not the kid concerns of the community; they were the only concerns.
And, like Carl Barks's Donald Duck, Charles Schulz's Peanuts is completely and definitively being collected by Fantagraphics.
5. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg
I haven't re-read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and I've only refreshed my memory by reading its Wikipedia entry. But I remember being entranced by it.
It's about a brother and sister who run away from home for no good reason (I don't think that the horrifying implications of this are even dealt with in the book), and live secretly in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art while cleverly solving a mystery they happen upon.
This greatly appealed to me, and I vividly recall the scenes of the two kids sneaking around the museum after hours, bathing in the fountain and sleeping in the historic bedroom reconstructions.
6. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's Fantastic Four
Again, I came of age just too late to enjoy the first-run heyday of these comics. I was a Bronze Age kid who knew instinctively and with absolute certainty that I had just missed the really good stuff (the Silver Age).
So while I missed the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Fantastic Four and the John Romita/Stan Lee Spider-Man, Marvel's reprint comic titles (World's Greatest Comics and Marvel Tales) allowed me to read these great runs.
I loved Romita's Spider-Man, but more relevant to my new book is Kirby's Fantastic Four. These had a B-movie sense of playful adventure and thrilling, wildly imaginative anything-goes plots.
The Fantastic Four were superheroes, and defeated villains, but they weren't mere crime-fighters. They were adventurers and explorers.
These are just a few of the books and comics that I can point to as loving as a kid and helping inspire me to write ALIEN INVASION IN MY BACKYARD. But they're all quite different from my book.
Although I didn't have this explicitly in mind when I wrote the book, I suppose on some level I was trying to create exactly the book I would have loved when I was a kid.
And as these selections have revealed to me in writing this piece, this would have included, as AIIMB does: plenty of science fiction and adventure; plots twists and surprises; and most important, funny, quirky kids who act on their own without adult involvement to become heroes.
I had such a blast writing this book. It's a privilege to write stories for kids, and I can't wait for this book to get out into the world and onto the bookshelves in kids' rooms; for me, there's no greater place of honor.
You can order ALIEN INVASION IN MY BACKYARD here.