Haphaven (written by Norm Harper)
NB: This is an edited transcript and has not been checked for accuracy. I apologise for any errors.
Karen Beilharz: Welcome to Hiveminded Podcast, an occasional and seasonal podcast about the creative arts and the people who create them. My name is Karen Beilharz and I’m coming to you from Sydney, Australia.
During this mini season of the podcast, we are focusing on comic creators. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down all the conventions and zine fairs where I would normally see my friends in the Australian comic scene, I thought instead it would be fun to catch up with them and interview them about comics, and ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to ask them about their projects and their creative processes.
Louie Joyce is an award-winning comics creator, illustrator and rollerblader who hails from Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. He is known for his work on Haphaven with Norm Harper, which won the 2020 Silver Ledger Award, and which is about a superstitious girl named Alex who steps on a crack and actually does break her mother’s back, so she embarks on a quest to save her; Past the Last Mountain with Paul Allor, which won the 2017 Silver Ledger Award and which is about an unlikely family of a dragon, a troll and a faun who are on the run from the US government, who have rounded up and imprisoned all the fantasy creatures that live among us; the sci-fi one-shot Astral; the black and white silent comic A Life in the City; and his self-published collections of short comics and illustrations, Mishmash and Hodgepodge.
René Pfitzner is a comic artist and writer, and former animator and storyboarder who hails from Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. He is known for his all-ages fantasy adventure story Sneaky Goblins, which is about a goblin named Dank who is forced to go on a quest to try to steal a sacred elf relic for the local mob; the follow-up anthology Sneaky Goblins at College, which collects together three stories about Dank and his friends; and Mythic Creature Trainer, which is about a man named Ulrick who, after losing his job in the royal stables, sets out on an adventure to try to get it back—and save the kingdom in the process.
In this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast, Louie, René and I talk about all-ages comics, what makes a good all-ages comic, some good all-ages comics that we like, and also how being parents has affected the way we create all-ages comics.
This is Part 1 of my conversation with them.
KB: Welcome to the Hiveminded Podcast. My name is Karen Beilharz and I’m coming to you from Sydney in Australia. And I’m here today with two comic creators: Louie Joyce, who is in Wollongong, and René Pfitzner, who is in Melbourne in Victoria. Hi guys! It’s nice to see you.
René Pfitzner: Hey Karen! Good to be with you.
Louie Joyce: Hey Karen! Great to be here.
KB: So today we’re going to talk about two things: we’re going to talk about all-ages comics and then we’re going to talk about colouring, which I know nothing about. Which will be very, very fun.
Comic creator origin stories
KB: But before we get to that, I’d like to know: what is your comic creator origin story? Louie, do you want to start?
LJ: Yeah, my comic creator origin story is, I’m sure, a lot like a lot of other people’s. I’ve been reading comics as long as I can remember. And I’ve just always absolutely loved the medium. It has always been around. It’s always been my favourite way of experiencing or ingesting a story.
My dad collected comics—or collects comics; he still does. Actually, this past weekend, I’ve been helping him move house and packing and organising his comic collection, and it’s been amazing [Laughter] and awesome to look at all these comics that I remember flipping through as a kid. There’s boxes behind me, because I claimed a whole bunch of stuff that I remember flipping through as a kid, and stuff that definitely—I probably shouldn’t have been flipping through. But I can see why I was so taken with the medium, having it all around me. It’s just an exciting thing as a kid to look at: it’s visual, it’s engaging, it’s not all given to you; you are a participant. You are kind of putting the pieces of these boxes on these pages—the puzzle of that—together in your head. I just really loved that as a kid, and have continued to do so.
I definitely waned a little bit in my reading when I was a teenager. But it’s been a pretty consistent hobby of mine. And it definitely influenced me to draw as well, and to try and tell my own stories and create my own worlds and characters, and things like that. So being a comics reader has definitely been a huge part of why I became a comic creator.
KB: Were there particular ones that your father bought that you were into, or—?
LJ: Oh, I remember looking at Lone Wolf and Cub stuff when I was very young, and its intense, graphic, black and white storytelling, just beautifully illustrated—there’s so much motion on these pages. And if I look at myself now and the artist I am now and the type of drawings I try to create, it’s all about creating that sense of motion—this idea that these characters are moving on the page, and if you look away from them, they might just continue moving or whatever—this frozen moment in time. I can see so much of that love of that sense of image and motion was baked into me from looking at this kind of stuff when I was seven, eight years old.
There’s so much—a whole bunch. There’s an X-Men comic, because my dad would get X-Men comics. I would get X-Men comics in the 90s, but my dad has this issue and I always had to ask him to look at it. So this issue in particular became this kind of mythological issue that was different to the X-Men comics that I was reading, and it’s a famous issue drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith, and it is stunningly beautiful—an incredible done-in-one comic storytelling experience. So there was all these amazing things around me and it definitely got me wanting to create and tell stories through that medium. It all stems from there, really! [Laughter]
KB: But what made you then take the leap to start making your own comics?
LJ: I think the great thing about being young and reading comics is that once you figure out that the people are doing—these creators are doing it—at a base level, with pencil and paper—you know? That is all it takes to tell stories—is to draw your own little pictures. Most kids love drawing, and I certainly did when I was that age. So it didn’t seem unattainable to me: “Oh, I’ve got a pencil. I’ve got a rubber. I’ve got pieces of paper. I can try and tell my own stories.”
When you’re a kid, it’s not even that you feel you have to make up your own stories. I can draw my own Spider-Man stories. I can draw my own X-Men stories. I can take these characters and create my own adventures with them. I was copying drawings directly from comics. So that was developing my drawing skills as it went. And my mum, she wasn’t a comics reader as much. But she would do these little cartoon strips about when she was travelling, or about family or stuff. So it was around me as a form of expression—as a thing that was a fun kind of activity that you could do. So the idea that it was something that I could do definitely spurred me on to continue drawing.
KB: That’s so cool! My mum used to do something similar as well: she would draw little cartoons and things—little stories about us or other things as well. I’d forgotten about them, actually, until you just mentioned your mum. I didn’t actually go down the drawing route. It’s really lovely, I think, when your parents are also into comics and drawing comics themselves. I can see how they can still have a big influence on you. It’s having a big influence on my daughter as well, just having comics around the house—like, I just sort of leave them—
LJ: Yeah, that’s right! They’re making their own comics, right?
KB: Oh yeah!
LJ: Yeah. That’s awesome.
KB: I’m actually in the process of putting together Volume 3 of Astrid’s monster stories.
KB: And she’s well into doing the comics for Volume 4. It was actually kind of funny: she stopped for a very long time, and it was only recently because I said, “Okay, if we’re going to do Volume 3, you’ve got to start scanning in the art for me”, and then that sort of kicked off her making more, because she hadn’t done it for ages. And now she tells me, “Oh, I just sat around at lunch and recess drawing my comics!” Okay.
LJ: Ah, that is so cool!
KB: She’s so funny. How about you, René? What is your comic creator origin story?
RP: Well, Louie, it’s funny that you mention your dad’s comics. My dad had a little pile of Phantom comics that he’d picked up through the 80s, I guess. And far from being inspired by those, I just looked at them and I thought, “Oh, that is so old-fashioned!” You know—I was not [Laughter]—I didn’t want to do anything like that!
So the comics I got into as a kid were basically Tintin and Asterix comics, because it’s amazing: you go to school libraries and public libraries now, and they’re just full of graphic novels and comics, and there’s a whole section. But back when I was coming up, there were only two comics you could get in the library, and it was those two. I remember the first time I brought home an Asterix comic: it was Asterix in Britain, and I just read that thing over and over; it was so colourful. I couldn’t believe it. It was magical.
So it pretty much grew from there. And the Tintin comics. I got into Spider-Man, the Sal Buscema—I’m not sure how to pronounce his name, but I just loved his style—just really graphic and bold. Not a lot of details in the characters, but, that stuff grabbed me.
So it went on from there in the 90s. I started buying my own and I got a lot of the Image Comics when they started coming out. And, again, the colours in those were just amazing: they jumped off the page and I thought, “If I can do something like this, that would be fantastic!”
I started making my own comics in school and a friend of mine, he would write the stories, and I would draw the characters. So we started with this character called “Horrible Harriet”—typical four-panel little stories—and it was her getting the best of the adults around her.
KB: How old were you when you were doing this?
RP: This was high school. But a couple of years later, we started to get a bit more edgy. There was a local publication called The Bazaar Times. My friend said, “Let’s come up with characters we can put in this thing.” So we submitted a couple of different comics and one of them was called Bob the Yob: he was just this overweight guy who drinks beer all day, and he’s got some very strong opinions. But yeah, we submitted that one [Laughter] I just look back on those drawings and it was almost like I was trying to do Image-style, but the actual material was more of your Bruce Mutard kind of—actually, Bruce was in the same publication for a few years. So that was pretty exciting to be involved with that.
After that, I pretty much stopped making comics. I got into animation after university and was doing that for a few years. And then some Christian friends of mine were putting together a comics anthology, and I said, “I’ll be in that”. And I just went, “Oh, what’s some scenarios I can come up with?” and I retold some of Jesus’ parables using school kids. I put those together, sent them in and put it in a little anthology comic called Pulp Crucifiction, which ran for a couple of issues, and—
KB: I remember that! [Laughter]
RP: That was a while back! And then I stopped again for a few more years. I was at the stage of my life where I was really thinking about creativity and what I was doing with my ability, and I started to get back into landscape oil painting, and going out on a morning and just in plein air doing landscapes in oils. At the same time, I was also listening to a podcast called Paper Wings with a guy from California who had worked at Disney—Chris Oatley. That really captured my imagination: he described making your own comic—and incidentally, he was putting his own comic up on the web. So publishing the comic yourself, just putting up a page every week and creating something of your own that’s ongoing—an ongoing story that you can eventually collect into a book. I started thinking about that. I thought, “That’s a big project.”
And I listened to another podcast, which you were on, Karen, and I can’t remember—we never figured out which podcast it was, but you were talking about doing your comics on depression and I thought, “Wouldn’t that be cool: team up with Karen; she could do story; I could do pictures”. Then of course we did collaborate on the Monsters book, and we also did that one-off on cosplaying (Coarse Play). I think that was the turning point that gave me the confidence to then go, “Right: I can do these longer form stories—100-150 pages.” And then I did. Which pretty much brings us up to today.
KB: That’s so cool. [Laughter] There you go: I didn’t know I was part of your creator origin story. That’s very, very cool.
Haphaven and Sneaky Goblins
KB: So we’re going to talk a bit about all-ages comics and I wanted to talk to both of you, because you’ve both done some. But I thought you could talk about just one particular project and how it came to be. I was suggesting that, perhaps, Louie you could talk about Haphaven, which is a book that you did with Norm Harper, so it’s not completely just your thing, and René, perhaps you could talk about Sneaky Goblins. Louie, do you want to give us the Artist Alley pitch for Haphaven?
LJ: Yes, sure. It’s been a while since I’ve been in an Artist Alley, so I might be a bit rusty. But we’ll see how it goes.
Haphaven is an all-ages story about a young girl who, on the eve of her 13th birthday, steps on a crack and literally breaks her mother’s back. And she then has to go on a journey to find a cure for her mum in the mystical world of Haphaven, which is kind of this world that is connected to our own, and it’s where all the power of superstitious belief comes from.
She’s an incredibly superstitious young girl. She throws salt over her shoulder, she has daily rituals around everything, she’s very, very superstitious. So the entire story is all about her learning to take control of her own life and to take responsibility for her own actions, but through an awesome, mystical magical adventure filled with leprechauns and the Jinx and all these superstitious-based characters and things.
KB: And there’s an element of family histories in there as well, isn’t there.
LJ: Yeah, so the reason behind her reliance on superstition is based around a tragedy that happened when she was young. She’s learning to deal with loss and all of these things as well. So it’s got a lot of elements within it. But one of those great things about all-ages stories is it’s all through this lens of an adventurous, colourful, fun story that everyone can find stuff in.
KB: So what was it that jumped out at you about the project when it was first pitched to you?
LJ: Well, I can remember running down King St, Newtown, with my sister, avoiding cracks, shouting, “Step on a crack and you’ll break your mum’s back!” Just that initial hook of, “Whoa, what if it actually happened? We stepped on a crack and something’s happened!”—that hook, for me, immediately, I was, “Yes! That sounds really cool.” And then as I read more into the story and the adventure of it, it just sounded like a really fun journey and a fun story to illustrate.
Also, the main character, Alex, and her relationship with her parents—her dad, her mum—that formed the backbone of the whole story came at the exact right time for me. Me and my wife had just had a baby—it must have been a year and a half earlier than when I started? Maybe a bit more. He might have been two or something. So we had a young child at the time, and immediately I was thinking about, as a creator, the kind of work that I make and the stories that I want to tell, and the things that I want to be able to read with my kid. So this felt to me like a story that I could illustrate—that I could put a lot of my own experiences as a parent and watching my kid grow—and something that I would hopefully be able to read with them in a few years down the line as well.
Also, Norm the writer, who is the one who contacted me about it, he seemed like a really nice guy. I looked at some of his previous work as well. He did a book called Rikki Tikki Tavi, which was an adaptation of the Rikki legends, and that was really good. So it seemed like a really good project and an exciting project to be a part of.
KB: Had you done an all-ages story before?
LJ: No. I’d done some shorter comics. At this time, I was doing my Mishmashi and Hodgepodge books. Mishmash was full of short comics, so it was a place for me to explore storytelling and different styles of illustrating, and different storytelling methods of making comics. I’d done a few shorter stories that could be considered all-ages, but nothing—my previous comic and the longest thing I’d done before that was Past the Last Mountain, which is not all-ages [Laughter], as much as it looks like it might be sometimes.
Also, growing up, I was a huge Stublio Ghibli fan: those movies, to me, are the epitome of quality all-ages entertainment, because they are of such a high standard of imaginative, engaging storytelling that does hit. If I think of an example of all-ages, that is what I think of. And this felt to me that that was a story in a similar vein that I would be able to bring those kind of inspirations to and have a crack at doing that. And it was a such a blast to illustrate. I had so much fun on that book.
KB: Yeah, I think I could tell, just looking at your art and the style: a playfulness is there. But did you find that you changed your approach because it was an all-ages story, or was it pretty much the same?
LJ: It was pretty much the same. I do tend to change my approach a little bit, artistically, stylistically—from a drawing standpoint—to each project. I think there are a few things I did with this project—little changes in the way I was colouring, little textures I was using different. I tend to change things up a little bit per project. So in terms of storytelling, yes: simpler layouts. Sometimes I can get quite experimental. Some of my shorter comics are web-based and very abstract, and infinite scrolling. Or some of my more zine-based projects are—I’m trying to be as inventive as possible, in terms of how I’m telling the story. But I think for an all-ages book, and for a graphic novel that’s really targetting that all-ages/YA market, you want it to be as clear as possible—as accessible as possible. So I really wanted clear, concise storytelling, and that was probably my biggest focus in doing the book.
KB: Wow, that’s really interesting! How about you, René? Do you want to give us the Artist Alley pitch for Sneaky Goblins?
RP: Sure. So I’ve never actually been in Artist Alley, but I will be at [Laughter] Oz Comic Con Melbourne in December! [Editor’s note: This interview was recorded in November 2021.] So I’m very excited about that: my first-ever Comic-Con.
KB: So this is good practice! [Laughter]
RP: Yeah! Tell me how I go. So Sneaky Goblins is about a goblin. He’s a student at an assassination school, and he graduates and has got no job. And so, he gets forced into taking on this mission from the local crime gang, and he has to steal a sacred elf relic from a land far away, because he’s not very resourceful: he wasn’t a good student. In fact, he was the worst student in his year. So he has to recruit some friends to help him get the relic, and get it back to the crime boss before his whole family is killed. He manages to cause a whole lot of mayhem along the way—the way you’d expect a goblin would. And I like to think that even though he’s a nasty little guy, you kind of end up rooting for him along the way.
The way I first conceived of this story was I’m a big World of Warcraft fan from way back. I’m taking a sabbatical from Warcraft at the moment, because it is very addictive. But there was this character who was always around in the background—a little goblin character who sat on shoulders. He had a shop and you could buy items from him. He sat on top of an ogre and he would just sort of tell the ogre where to go and what to do. And I thought, “Oh, that’s a really cool idea for a relationship between two characters.” And I thought, “Maybe the goblin—he’s in a bad situation and he gets this giant ogre or orc to help him out, and tricks him into it.” I was on holidays, and I quickly wrote this idea down in my journal, and I thought, “Yeah, that would be really cool to do a short cartoon or a comic book.” I eventually put it together and thought, “Yeah, I can expand this idea—make it a whole book out of it”—and sat down, belted out 10,000 words, and that was the story. [Laughter] It just happens like that, you know: inspiration strikes and you’ve got to take it.
KB: That’s fantastic! And it’s really interesting to me that that core relationship between Dank the goblin and Bog the orc was what kicked it all off. That’s really, really cool.
RP: Yeah, definitely. There was an anthology called Oi oi oi! and the creator of that—his name escapes me—
KB: Nat Karmichael.
RP: Nat Karmichael! Of course. [Laughter] Great guy. He said, “Do you want to contribute to this?” And I said, “Yeah. How many pages do you want?” He said, “Well, let’s start with six or eight pages and just serialise it.” I sent in the first eight pages of Sneaky Goblins and I thought, “Well, here’s a manageable schedule. I can just send him eight pages at a time.” I think it only made it into a couple of issues before that closed up. But that’s how I started that practice of ongoing page creation.
KB: And when you started with the project, were you thinking it would be an all-ages story?
RP: Yeah. I basically wanted to create the kind of book that I’d be into. And from that, I was very much referencing Asterix and that madcap cartoon violence kind of thing. But yeah: I wanted my kids to be able to read it as well. So I tried to keep the swearing to a minimum, and nothing too gorey. There is a bit of blood, but I did take out a little bit of swearing and blood for the final printing of the book. But, yeah, I wanted my kids to read it and share it with their friends, and I’ve even given some to the school libraries in our area so more kids can read it.
Recently, I did an author talk for my daughter’s Grade 1 class. They were really excited, because I did a workshop where I made a one-page comic, and I just sourced ideas from all the kids—asked them, “What’s the character going to be? What’s special about them? What’s the big problem that they have, and how are they going to solve that problem?” They just composed this story within one page, and I did a screenshare and made that comic with them.
KB: That’s so cool! [Laughter] I love that.
RP: Yeah, it was pretty awesome. And my daughter was so excited: she loved it.
KB: Yeah, there’s something about having your parents come to the classroom—well, before they get too old and it’s embarrassing. When they’re young enough [Laughter] it’s like, “Oh, this is so cool! My mum is coming—my dad is coming to talk to my class.”
RP: Yeah. I don’t know how excited my 14-year-old would be if I went to his school and did that. Although, I have offered to our local high school where he goes. So who knows? One day, maybe.
KB: Yeah, one day! [Laughter] Excellent.
What makes a good all-ages comic?
KB: So what do you guys think makes a good all-ages comic?
RP: You go, Louie.
LJ: I find that the all-ages stories that I really respond to are ones that are not talking down in any way. They’re not seeing “all ages” as an excuse to simplify the storytelling. They’re using “all ages” an excuse to kind of clarify—or as a reason to clarify, instead of simplify. So they’re not making things simple and easy, and sugar-coating everything or whatever; they’re just telling things in a way that is clear and approachable to a different range of ages, if you know what I mean.
So it’s stories that treat everyone with the same—I can’t think of how best to say this, but it’s like they’re—they don’t talk down; they just talk to a wide group of people and let everyone come to their own—it’s like they give you all the information and they let the different people—the different ages who are experiencing it—come to their own conclusions.
I find that I always really respond to that, because I get annoyed when, if I’m watching something with my kid and I know that they’re just trying to make it “kiddy”—when I know that my kid has a deeper understanding and can grasp deeper concepts, and should be experiencing these deep concepts and things now when they can discuss it—when they’re watching a movie, when they’re reading a story with their parent—and they can ask questions and discuss it. If I watch something with my kid and they don’t ask any questions, I’m kind of a bit suss on it. If I watch something with my kid and they are asking questions, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s good. That’s promoting a level of discussion, and that’s a really great thing.” So that, to me, is a sign of a really good all-ages story.
KB: Yeah, I know what you mean: the dumbing down thing can be a big part of children’s—well, not just comics, but children’s literature generally. But you’re right: good all-ages comics don’t do that at all. There’s a sort of respect there for the audience.
LJ: Yeah, “dumbing down”: that’s a good way to put it. And they’re so obvious when it’s happening, and I find it annoying. [Laughter]
KB: Yep. What do you think, René?
RP: Yeah, I completely agree: what makes a good grown-ups show, the same elements make a good kids show. I like to compare comics and TV that I can tell are just cranked out because the studio has a licence and they see this as a way to sell stuff to kids. Contrast that with stuff that’s creator-owned. A lot of Cartoon Network came up from creator-owned stuff—Adventure Time, Clarence and Steven Universe—and you look at the quality of that storytelling versus something like Total Drama Island or Slugterra—they look like they were made to sell toys. Kids might love them, but I’m looking at them, going, “This is the exact same story as last week”— [Laughter]—“and the kids are going to figure that out and they’ll feel ripped off.”
There might be some nostalgic value. I’m sure plenty of parents looked down on He-Man back in the day. But we can look back at that and think, “Oh, isn’t that brilliant—just the whole aesthetic—and these characters who were so archetypical and just fun to watch.”
Good all-ages comics
RP: But, yeah, I’m biased. I have particular comics that I like. See, I don’t read Dog Man. I don’t think Dog Man’s a good comic.
KB: What??? [Laughter]
RP: From the author of Captain Underpants. But my son loves them. A 10-year-old. He still—well, he probably just recently stopped reading them—but he just poured over those books and loved them. So I don’t know. I know what I don’t like. [Laughter] And I know what I like. But yeah, it’s sometimes hard to put a finger on it.
KB: Oh, you got to read Dog Man! Dog Man are very good all-ages comics. I know the style doesn’t agree with everybody, but you got to remember that the conceit is they’re being drawn by George and Harold from Captain Underpants and that’s why they look the way they do. They can be surprisingly sophisticated for what you think are quite simple stories. I haven’t read all of them—
RP: I’m going to have to give them another chance and read the Dog Man stories again.
KB: Yeah and also the Cat Kid Comic Club series that he’s just started, which is the Dog Man spin-off, the first one. Oh my goodness! It’s hilarious? Have you read it, Louie? Cat Kid Comic Club? Oh wow!
So it’s basically L’il Petey decides to do a comic-making club, and he’s doing it Molly, who’s this other character from the Dog Man series. I haven’t read that book so I can’t remember how Molly’s in the picture. But there are all these frogs as well who are in the club, making comics. And it’s a master class, in a way, of teaching kids to make comics, because they are making all these short comics throughout the volume in different styles and talking about it.
For example, there’s this frog named Melvin who’s a bit stiff-upper-lip kind of thing, and he draws this comic called “Dennis the Toothbrush Who Wanted to be a Lawyer for Dinosaurs”. And [Laughter] it’s just done in HB pencil, black and white-ish, and it says, “Dennis the Toothbrush wanted to become a lawyer for dinosaurs. So he did.” And that’s it. [Laughter] And the rest of the frogs are just absolutely outraged at the story and say to him, “Melvin! It’s terrible” and just completely dumping on him. And Petey is being a very good teacher and saying, “Well, Melvin did a good job and he tried, but there are some elements missing from the story.” So it teaches kids about storytelling—how to have the beginning, middle and end—through these different comics and showing what comics can be. Anyways, it’s brilliant. It was nominated for an Eisner, I think, this year. So pick that one up.
LJ: Yeah, wow. That’s really good to know, because I haven’t gotten into the Dog Man stuff yet. I read a little bit of my niece’s copy and I found it—it just wasn’t—I don’t know, I wasn’t that into it. But I can see that it is very quality reading experience and a very creative reading experience, and that then—what you’re saying about that other one—what was it called? Cat Comic Club?
KB: Cat Kid Comic Club. Bit of a tongue twister.
LJ: Yeah, that sounds great. So I’ll check that out, definitely!
KB: Sorry, René. I interrupted you. I thought it was interesting how you come at it, as well, from that perspective of having worked in animation and seeing a lot of kids shows. Was it like that when you were working in animation?
RP: We used to receive the scripts of all of these Disney sequels. This was the big—I want to say Michael Eisner, but you just mentioned “Eisner” and now I’m confused. The CEO of Disney in the 2000s: his whole thing was, “Let’s pump out sequels to our classic movies.” So we were one of the studios worldwide that was involved in the production of those. The story was completely written, storyboarded and voice recorded overseas, and we just used to receive that and bring our own magic to it through [Laughter] the power of animation. And it was hard to sometimes not be a bit cynical about the whole project.
But you find joy wherever you can in any workplace, and I just remember one guy saying, “You know, these are just really smart scripts: they’re appealing to boys, they’re appealing to girls, they’re hitting all these demographic marks. The stories are hitting all these notes all the way through. But you couldn’t help but feel that sometimes it was made by committee.”
So that’s why I really like this idea of a creator-owned show or comic book. The creator has their own vision. They haven’t exhausted their creative bank account. They’re still coming up with fresh ideas, and they’re not just turning it in because it’s a job and they have to put this movie out, because it’s in the schedule, and you have to put out Cinderella III or they won’t be able to sell it supermarkets.
But in terms of all-ages comic books, I really love Chris Thompson’s book, Space Dumplins. That’s one of my favourite ones. It’s about an intergalactic family. The dad is this lumberjack-type character and he travels the universe, harvesting space whale poo or something—it’s been a while since I’ve read it—and so the daughter has to get used to new schools and a new neighbourhood, and follows her mum around on weekends in outer space. So it’s a very relatable situation—the kid having to move home because the parents work. But it’s in this exotic location, and there’s poo, and kids—boys, especially—love that. Like my friend said, it hits all the notes: very smart.
KB: And it’s creator-owned as well. [Laughter]
KB: I’ll have to check that one out for my youngest, who’s also a bit scatological. [Laughter]
RP: Did I say Chris? I meant Craig Thompson.
KB: Ah! Craig Thompson. Yes.
RP: Yeah, the Blankets guy.
KB: What about you, Louie? What are some all-ages comics that you recommend?
LJ: Ah, this is definitely something I love about being a parent at the moment, and the age that—my eldest is six and my middle kid is three. So they’re at good ages for reading comics—comics especially, because they can’t read yet, but they can read the visual storytelling that is there. So I’ve had comics lying around—I made an effort to have comics lying around and piles lying around for them to discover on their own, and for them to start flipping through on their own. My eldest has been doing it for years now, and I love when I catch them looking through stuff.
Also just being able to research and look at the new all-ages stuff or the old all-ages stuff or what’s coming out has been really fun. Fantasy Sports by Sam Bosma is one of my favourite comics that I’ve read that we continue to read. I think there’s three volumes out, and it came out from—I want to say it’s published by Nobrow. It’s about a young kid named Whizz who is a temple-raiding wizard, and they raid temples and look for treasure. There’s always conflict, but none of the conflict is fighting-based; it’s all sports-based. So they have to either beat this opponent in a basketball game or a volleyball game or mini golf. It’s all-around sports. And it’s beautifully illustrated—nice oversized—I think it’s the same size as Hilda, so more in the Asterix and Tintin vein. So bigger pages, beautifully printed, just really nice stories and storytelling. My son really loves that book.
What else have we been reading at the moment? Hilda is fantastic and I think everyone has clued in now on Hilda being this—
KB: Oh yes. Hilda’s wonderful.
LJ: —powerhouse all-ages story. This is Fantasy Sports here—I love it when I have stuff in reach. This is the third volume of Fantasy Sports—although—
KB: Oh wow!
LJ: —not very useful for the podcast element; just for you guys. [Laughter]
KB: It’s one of the ironies of having a podcast about comics stuff, because it’s just audio. [Laughter]
LJ: Well, like I said, I’ve got these boxes of comics that I brought from my dad’s—this is just a side note. But I’m looking through them all and I’m like, “Oh, I should do a podcast of me and my dad just talking about his comic collection, or me and Marcelo just looking through the comic collection, or something.” But then it doesn’t work, because you need to have it visually there as well. Anyway!
Other all-ages: me and my kids have been reading the Shazam! Jeff Smith book that he did 10 years ago now. But that’s really good. Jeff Smith is amazing. Bone is the other thing that I haven’t quite cracked with my kids yet, but we’ve gone into it a couple of times. I just have the omnibus, so it’s a heavy brick to read, and I can’t read it at bedtime, because it will just fall on my face and knock me out. [Laughter] But that’s one of my favourite comics of all time. It is so good.
KB: Yeah, I found with my eldest, with Bone, it took a while: I would leave it around the house. I would suggest to her she read Bone. And I’m not sure, but at some point—it would have been in the last two or three years—she finally picked it up, because I think it was the size that was intimidating. Whereas if it has been those shorter, stand-alone volumes—I think because they reissued them in colour—then maybe she would have done it a bit sooner. But yeah, she loves it now, and she’s been doing this thing over the last school holidays where she was trying to see how fast she could read it. [Laughter] And she kept timing herself.
KB: It was very funny. Anyway, I interrupted. Any other recommendations?
LJ: Trying to look around and see: what else have we been reading? Like, Hicotea—Nobrow does such incredible—Hicotea? I never know how to—
KB: I think it’s “Hicotea”.
LJ: Hicotea. By—I’m blanking on the author’s name now.
KB: Lorena Alvarez.
LJ: Lorena Alvarez! That’s right. Nobrow put out so much quality, quality work. The other one that I really love from them is The Gamayun Tales, which is these folklore tales that are done in these beautiful pencil illustrations. And again, the colouring and the presentation is just so nice, and the storytelling is so—and I often find my kids just flipping through those books and reading them themselves, which is great.
But, yeah, I’m not too—I leave some stuff around, which may be skews a bit older as well. But I’m happy for them to self-regulate a little bit. If something is not—if it’s going over their heads a bit, they’ll often just put it away and grab something else.
KB: Yeah. I think we’re lucky to live during a time where there’s just been this explosion of middle grade comics, which are often quite all-ages in nature, even though they are—they deal with middle grade concerns. Just thinking of Raina Telegmeier’s books. But some of them are quite universal as well.
A couple of series that we love is Zita the Spacegirl and Mighty Jack series by Ben Hatke. We really, really love them, and they’re adventure—kids learning that they can’t rely on their parents; they have to actually take responsibility—take action—that kind of thing.
The other series I really love is Cleopatra in Space—
LJ: Oh yeah. The name sounds familiar.
KB: —by Mike Maihack. I think he only finished it last year, and that one—it has such great humour in it. But as well, it’s got elements of a space epic adventure story in it: Cleopatra—the Cleopatra—is taken. She touches an object and for some reason, it transports her in time thousands of years into the future, and there’s been a prophecy that she will save the world of these people who—it kind of looks a bit Egyptian—from a terrible fate. It’s very, very fun.
I’m just trying to remember—there’s been a couple of stand-alone stuff that I’ve really, really enjoyed recently. There was a book called Allergic that I found in the Scholastic Book Club catalogue, and it’s just this really beautiful, gentle story about this girl who loves, loves, loves animals, and when she turns ten, her parents promise her that she can go to the local animal rescue and choose a pet. But the minute she does that, she discovers that she’s allergic to all animals. And it’s just devastating in the way that only a ten-year-old heart can break. It’s so devastating. I really, really enjoyed that.
There was another one that I read recently called El Deafo by Cece Bell: it’s an autobiographical comic, and it talks about her growing up with—she’s not completely deaf, but enough that she needs hearing aids. And it’s really really clever, because there will be bits where the lettering is greyed out or smudged, or there’s only bits of it coming through, and you get a sense of what it’s like to be her and not being able to hear what’s going on around her. She eventually gets this—I forget what it’s called. It’s like an FM thing that helps her to hear. And then hearing becomes her superpower, because she’s able to hear stuff that other people can’t hear.
LJ: Yeah, that sounds great.
KB: Anyway, we could go on and on and on.
LJ: Yeah! Can I just shout out one more?
KB: Yeah sure!
LJ: Action Tank by Mike Barry—I want to give a shoutout, because my son absolutely loved that. It is a really great example of inventive, interesting storytelling that’s so accessible to a kid. It’s really interestingly told and laid out, and a bit experimental in that way. But really, really clear and concise. I think it’s a really good comic to give to someone who doesn’t read comics, who’s young, who’s going to get hooked on comics, I reckon.
KB: Good pick. Thanks for mentioning that!
LJ: No worries.
Making comics for kids versus making comics for adults
KB: That leads us into the next topic: so you talked a little bit, Louie, about how in creating stuff for kids, you try to make things a bit clearer and a bit less experimental, but it’s not that kids can’t handle experimental, as you’ve said. Are there any other things that you do that are different from when you’re making comics purely for adults?
LJ: I don’t think so. I’m going to say no. Like I said, I don’t want to dumb things down. I don’t want to think that I need to make things simple for a kid to grasp. Most of my approach is the same: I think it was just ensuring, for Haphaven, that we had very clear storytelling, so people wouldn’t—so there’s no way for anyone to get lost. And so it was as accessible as possible for new reader—new people new to comics who’ve never read a comic before—yet still engaging for people who love comics and have read heaps of comics. I think that’s a good approach with kids’ stuff, because if it’s a first comic—if it’s any kid’s first comic—I want them to be able to just be absorbed into the story and the world so that they get hooked and so that they can discover all the other awesome, amazing comics there are. So that’s the main thing I keep in mind—just making sure that my storytelling is clear and fun and accessible.
But when it comes to drawing style—the way I’m constructing characters or the way I’m using my colours, or the techniques of drawing and stuff, I don’t think I change my approach for an all-ages story. I think that just is something I might do on a project-by-project basis just to keep things interesting. But I think kids should read stories that are drawn in all different ways and see all the different ways of approaching and creating art, and all of these things.
KB: Yeah, sure, definitely. How about you, René? Are there things or different approaches that you take?
RP: Yeah, so I can’t actually speak from experience in terms of writing, because the only fiction writing I’ve done is aimed at kids. But I would imagine a lot of it’s to do with vocab and themes and whatnot.
I can speak from art style, because one of the projects that you and I collaborated on, Karen—and hopefully with another one that we’ve got coming up—the themes are a bit more grown up. And so, for those, I just took slightly more realistic proportions. For my kids’ stuff, most of the characters are really squishy and cartoony, and their bodies can do all sorts of things, and it doesn’t really matter. But I feel like for the more grown-up themes, you want to communicate a little bit more seriousness to reflect that.
Having said that, I do also have different proportions within my kids stuff. The different characters have different body types. So some will be massive and totally unrealistic, and others will be more normal person-sized—that seven-head-height drawing style. But having mainly done stuff for kids, I can’t do a lot of comparison of it.
RP: How about you, Karen?
KB: As you said, I think is more to do with the different themes and subject matter. I’ve only done the Monsters anthology for kids, and I did write a picture book, which hasn’t gone anywhere. But anyway. Just having those concerns and trying to think about what are the things that would be concerns for them. So with some of the Monsters stories, there’s one about food, because with my kids, food is a massive issue [Laughter]—less so for the older one, but definitely still for the younger one, and there are things that she will not eat. She does not want to even touch them. So I wrote a story about that.
Being a parent and being a comic creator
KB: So how does being a parent affect the way that you tackle such projects, if it does? And does it affect your artistic process at all? René, do you want to go first?
RP: Well, like I said before, just keeping it relativity clean and trauma-free is a good start. That’s the essentials. I think themes—in terms of fitting in and your place in the world—I think they really strike a chord.
Actually, I was going to mention before another great all-ages comic that I love: In Real Life by—
KB: Cory Doctorow?
RP: Cory Doctorow. Was he a writer for Wired?
KB: I think so …?
RP: Or something like that—a technology magazine or something. The artwork by Jen Wang really drew me to it. But the story is so profound. Again, it’s about a girl who moves to a new neighbourhood, goes to a school, joins the gaming club and learns that there are internet farmers who go into these live Massively Multiplayer Games and have to earn their living from farming gold in these games. So she begins a bit of an awareness campaign and draws attention to that, and becomes friends with a gold farmer overseas. So just those themes of fitting in, finding your place in the world and discovering that there are other people out there like yourself—those, I think, are big ones.
I don’t know if I’ve done that in my comics, but I’ll let you decide.
KB: Yeah. I can see it a little bit, I think, in the Sneaky Goblins stuff. But it’s interesting with Mythic Creature Trainer, the impetus behind that is more of an economic one, which probably doesn’t hit home as well with children.
RP: That might have been reflecting more my fears than my kids’. [Laughter]
KB: Yep, sure. What about you, Louie? How does being a parent affect the way you tackle all-ages projects, if it does?
LJ: Yeah, it definitely does. I will show my kids stuff that I’m doing to get their opinion on it. I’d be like, “Hey, what do you think of this? Does this look cool?” And kids are honest. Kids are brutally honest. So they’re a good sounding board to be ask things like, “Would you read a story about this character? What if this was happening? Does this sound like fun? Exciting? No? Okay, fine. I’ll go back to the drawing board.” [Laughter] But definitely becoming a parent just immediately drove me towards wanting to make more all-ages stories—to make stories that I could read with my kids.
Creatively, it’s been reading kids books. I think in my comics reading, prior to having kids, I was reading a very specific kind of style of illustration and story and comics. That all got expanded when I started reading comics and childrens books with my kids. And that really affected my perspective on drawing and creating illustrations and telling stories. So I’m really thankful for that aspect of being a parent. It does open up your inspirations—both just because they are inspiring little people, but also you’re exposed to so much more experiences and situations and people and books and illustrations and all that kind of stuff. So I try to absorb as much of that as I can, and hopefully it can come out in the work I create. I love the inspiration that being a parent can provide.
It makes it hard to create actual work [Laughter] because there’s hardly any time [Laughter] to do anything, and the time you do have is very short and often interrupted. But I that’s just means you—hopefully you get better at time management and problem solving, and all of these things. [Laughter]
KB: Yeah, yeah. I love that too—that they might bring stuff home that interests them that they found at the library—in the school library or something—or something someone’s lent them that just expands your world and exposes you to other stuff. And following their interests: I find, with my eldest, she is now discovering stuff on her own—reading webcomics as well. She was hugely into this fan PowerPuff Girls comic, which was drawn manga-style [Laughter]. I found it quite over-the-top, because the writing was very melodramatic and some of the situations were very melodramatic. But she loved it. She just ate it up.
It also changed her drawing style as well: I found that after that, I could see that she was mimicking some of the stuff she’d been reading. So that was really cool.
KB: Well, that concludes Part 1 of my conversation with Louie Joyce and René Pfitzner about all-ages comics.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast! For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com.
Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all of this possible.