The Adventures of Kiel And Jami

So I got married on Saturday to my longtime lady love Jami. We said our vows at the Michigan State University Alumni Memorial Chapel, only blocks from where we met 14 years ago, and then proceeded to party down at the Student Union to the tune of 7,000 Michael Jackson deep cuts.

I wish all of you could have made it there, but since you couldn’t, I thought I’d share a short comic that Jami and I wrote and was drawn by the incredibly radical Joe Hunter and given to our guests. A billion thanks to Joe for doing an amazing job on this on something of a short deadline.

Alan Moore Is A Very Smart Man

If you haven’t, you should really read as many of his comics as you can right away. And then you should read as much about his career as you can, because even the heartbreaking stuff will make you better. But failing all else, watch him talk about the writing life in this interview for the local college in his beloved home of Northampton.

[Interview] Getting Down With JG Quintel – “Yay-uhhhhhhhh!”

If you guys are as of yet unfamiliar with Cartoon Network’s madcap series “Regular Show” by this point, you really need to start setting your DVRs. It’s one of the few things on TV (or anywhere really) that truly fits that “great for kids and adults” category that almost everything aimed at children that’s contingent on advertising dollars claims to accomplish these days. It’s also probably the most quotable cartoon ever. As proof of its radness, I offer the following exchange from my interview with series creator JG Quintel:

Me: The show has a very specific style where it feels like this could be taking place 15 or 20 years ago. There are a lot of ’80s technology and old video games that work their way in, and it reminds of when I was a kid and would see old “rubber hose” black and white cartoons where a character would turn a crank on the front of their car to start it up, and I’d go, “What is THAT?” Do you feel like you’ve got fourth graders across America going, “What the heck is a cassette tape?”

JG: I have one even better than that! One of the guys that works on our show, his kid is really young, and he saw an episode where a character had a telephone – like a land line telephone – and he didn’t know what it was! [Laughter] That was CRAZY. And it’s really fun to see these things that these little kids are not going to know. Cassette tapes, VHS tapes…none of them probably know what this stuff is. I’d be surprised if most of them even knew what a boombox was.

Me: Is there a specific reason you keep to that aesthetic? Is it just what you like to draw?

JG: I think it’s because I grew up in the ’80s, and I remember all that stuff – old 8-bit video games and cassette tapes and all the different formats. I don’t know why, but I wanted to have that feel on the show. I didn’t want to keep it too contemporary where the characters were all, “We have smart phones!” and all this new stuff. I wanted it to be things that everybody would remember even if they were outdated. We did an episode about those huge ’80s brick cell phones, and we just made it because I thought those were hilarious. [Laughs] “They’re so huge! We’ve got to get this into an episode.”

For more, check out the full interview on Spinoff Online.

Silly Editor, “Hunger Games” Are For Kids

I’ll admit to not being super familiar with the work of Suzanne Collins outside her deserved juggernaut The Hunger Games and its sequels. I’d been meaning to read the novels for a while at the behest of my Middle School teaching cousins when my fianceé one-upped me by tearing through all three novels in the series in a week last Christmas.

Still, it struck me reading up on Collins in the wake of being impressed by Games that unlike so many of the hot “phenom” YA and kidlit writers that have struck a pop culture nerve over the past decade, she was an established kids author (and TV writer) before breaking through to millions of readers. While Stephanie Meyers – to chose the most obvious example – carries a rap for being a fluke whose prose connected with tweens, teens and housewives thanks to its thinly veiled connection to her own sexual interests/politics, Collins success is as much a result of earned craft chops with character, theme and action as it is one of zeitgeist. She can really WRITE is what I’m saying.

With all that in mind, it was really interesting to watch the rollout announcement for Collins’ next project: a picture book called Year Of The Jungle with longtime collaborator artist James Proimos. The news should have been pretty easy to engage with. “Renowned kids book author does different kind of kids book” is an easy news hook, after all. But looking through the mainstream press coverage of the announcement, I saw again and again a tone taken that was practically one of surprise.

“The lady who wrote the violent action movie ‘The Hunger Games’ has now written a CHILDREN’S book!” so many of the stories seemed to say. A lot of this fell at the feet of editors desperate for a more Google-able headline like this one at the Examiner where it seems the writer of the article is more comfortable labeling the project a picture book, but there are also stories that play up the supposed surprise more directly like this story in the Atlantic Wire.

Of course, I don’t think we should be surprised that editors at publications whose front page has a special tab for “Bars & Clubs” aren’t experts on the specifics of kids book publishing and its terminology (NOTE: ALL books published by Scholastic are children’s books. Collins’ novels are YOUNG ADULT. Her new one is a PICTURE BOOK), but that they write their copy based solely on the PR for the new book and do virtually zero research on Collins’ history as a writer is a sobering reminder of how the outside world views our business. As far as many of these journalists are concerned, all hit kids books spring from the skulls of daydreaming housewives like Athena from the skull of Zeus. Why put any more thought – or better yet any thought at all – into the fact that a woman who’s written one kind of anti-war book for kids would then write a different anti-war book for kids? Boggles the mind.

In better news, Year Of The Jungle sounds like a great idea for a picture book. I hadn’t been aware of this history of Collins father in Vietnam before now, but makes perfect sense for her interests as a writer. I reminded me of this great, brief Hunger Games comic by cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks and the accompanying reflection on the series she drew for Tor.com:

(You should really click through and read both)

Regardless of how dumb some adults in the media can be about Collins work, I’m betting its themes will read through just fine to a generation of kids who have grown up in a United States perpetually at war with the Arab world.

And if nothing else, the books will keep inspiring crazy fan tributes from comic artists like this one from Dan Hipp:

(Hat tip to my pals at Robot 6 for the comic links)

All I Really Need To Know I Learned On “The Simpsons”

I can’t remember when I stopped watching new episodes of “The Simpsons” every Sunday night, but it had to be at least 12 years ago. There was a time when I was a true follower of Matt Groening and company’s show, repeating lines to my friends as often as these guys (READ IT). But even after the majority of my young life kneeling at the “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” altar, I fell out of the habit.

Part of that is that I agree with a lot of the common criticisms of where the show is now. It’s less character-focused. The plots have grown more “ADHD” (though it hasn’t slid quite into “Family Guy” levels of non-sequitur gags). They lost their best writer in John Swartzwelder and their best producers in Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. And generally, after 24 seasons and a decent movie, there just isn’t as much life to be drawn out of the series anymore.

Still. Unlike some folks who abandoned the show entirely, I kept half and eye on “The Simpsons” over the years. I watch it while making dinner since it’s always on around 6:00 whatever city you’re in. And after a really fallow period, I started to catch the occasional episode that was actually, genuinely funny from the most recent years.

And then tonight while eating a hamburger, I watched a rerun of the episode “The Book Job” which originally aired almost exactly a year ago.

Hoooooollllllleeeee. That was GREAT.


Of course, I’m biased on this one. The episode featured Neil Gaiman, a writer whose work I greatly enjoy – particularly when I discovered him through comics before he became know across the country as “Award-Winning Children’s Author Neil Gaiman.” And as such, the story involved a ton of winking joke references to his specific work (Sez Moe: “I don’t care if he wrote ‘Sandman Volume One, Preludes and Nocturnes!’”). I expected as much when I missed the episode last year, but I never really picked up on the story of “The Book Job.”

And it was the whole story that really hit home for me. The episode revolves around Lisa’s learning that her favorite tween fantasy series wasn’t penned by the author who’s personal story so touched her. Instead, the series was cranked out by a corporation who write YA novels by committee. The authors on the back covers are all actors, the text written by teams of recent college graduates desperate to pay off their student loans:


I’m sure just by looking at this blog, you can see why this plot hit home for me. And while the rapid-fire jokes ratcheted up wonderfully as Bart and Homer build a team to crank out their own YA series about a pair of lost prince troll brothers who go to a private school located under the Brooklyn Bridge and Lisa committed herself to writing a novel the right way (i.e. procrastinating at every available opportunity and getting nothing done), the total effect of the episode was a satire of writers who stupidly give up their rights to corporate interests.

Because, you guys…THIS IS HAPPENING ALL THE TIME IN OUR BUSINESS NOW.

For years, one of my biggest drums to beat in the children’s/YA lit world is a call to arms on the issue of real ownership vs. work for hire. As a fan involved in and then a freelance journalist for the comics industry, the story of creators being screwed over their rights by publishers is one I’ve heard over and over again. The sale of Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to DC Comics is rightly viewed as comics original sin. And aside from making for lawsuits that are still entrenched and personally painful to read about today, the history associated with that event serves as an object lesson to creative people working in idioms ripe for media adaptation.

Comics was an industry run by greedy, exploitative publishers from day one thanks to its connection to the now dead pulp industries. But now in an age where corporate owned comic characters make billions in movie and licensing, the world of book publishing – and kids books in particular – has picked up on the Work For Hire contract practices pioneered by shifty, untrustworthy comics companies to feed books stands, TV stations and movie theaters with profit-maximizing “Intellectual Properties.” (ugh…that term chills the spine)


The kingpins of this practice are “Alloy Entertainment” – a company formerly known by the more accurate name “Alloy Media + Marketing” (yes, they really used the plus). Best known for “Gossip Girl” and their similar scads of teen novel series turned basic cable dramas, Alloy is probably the most untrustworthy, exploitative publisher in any book market today (no surprise then that they were recently bought out by DC Comics owners Warner Bros!).

If you haven’t already, you should read New York Magazine’s exposé on Alloy’s partnership with cretinous author/known literary fraud/Oprah buffoon James Frey. It’s a real horror story. And even deals at Alloy that aren’t necessarily built on predatory practices like the Gossip Girl franchise (whose TV show I’ll cop to watching for many years) created by former Alloy Editor Cecily von Ziegesar have a tendency to screw over the writer in one way or another.


But more often than not, signing with a firm like Alloy just means that they’ll screw you as hard as they can when the opportunity to do both that and make a ton of money for themselves comes along. Take the case of writer L.J. Smith who created the best-selling Vampire Diaries franchise for Alloy ahead of the current vampire craze and THEN came back to give them more volumes so they could capitalize on the mass of Twilight fans who cropped up in the past five years.

As Smith explained in a recent interview:

When they sent the contract, it said it was a work for hire. What it meant was I was giving up basically all the rights I’d have as a normal writer, including the right to continue writing my books. And Alloy Entertainment decided they wanted shorter books that were promoting the television series, and they simply informed me, even though I had already written a book called Phantom for them and given them all the information for that book and the next book, Moonsong, that my services were no longer required.

Shocker, right? I try not to mock writers who work for this company because, like the Devil did with Daniel Webster, I’m sure the people they first met from Alloy were all smiles when they were signing the contracts. But stories like this – stories of disenfranchisement and summary dismissals and an unwarranted loss of creative control after making them millions with your talent – should be told again and again in our industry until Alloy is shamed into collapsing.

No, that may not happen any time soon if ever, but as a writer, it’s up to you to know your rights and avoid people who would exploit you unfairly. Even if you make the big bucks at first from an ABC Family TV series, the pain of having your work ripped from your hands will be much worse than a modest paycheck up front. And in real life, you don’t get to team up with Neil Gaiman in an “Ocean’s Eleven” style scheme to ensure the book your company publishes meets your original vision. You’re simply shown the door.

Meanwhile, people who safeguard their rights and do wonderful, even commercial work for their own edification are doing just fine in the bank. People like Matt Groening who’s controlled merchandising for “The Simpsons” since its inception as well as full creative control over the franchise. It doesn’t just empower him to make the money. It enables him to speak the truth.

Beginnings Are The Hardest Part

I’d have friends argue that sticking the landing on a story, especially a long form one, is the toughest part of the job. But as I’m currently staring down maybe my 17th version (no lie) of my mystery’s first chapter, I’ve got to call it for beginnings.

That’s one of the reasons I dug this crazy fun interactive gallery of the “100 Best Opening Lines From Children’s Book” up over at something called The Stylist in the UK. The best first sentences of books encapsulate the whole of the story’s meaning and movement, so they say (you know who they are). I’m not sure that holds true for every one of these, but one thing I was struck by reading over the various lines was how many kids narratives start with some kind of travel or location. Stories for kids are always about moving from one place to another, after all.

Take the opening to E. Nesbit’s Five Children And It – a Brit kids book I’ve been meaning to read for a while because of supremely weird covers like the ones above, though it’s harder to find over here:

“The house was three miles from the station, but before the dusty hired fly had rattled along for five minutes the children began to put their heads out of the carriage window and to say, ‘Aren’t we nearly there?’”

A different riff on this theme shows up in a book I devoured as a kid, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Here, we start with the location being traveled too – and with a particularly repugnant adult – because there’s no way we can meet a character line Anne through her own eyes. She needs to be experienced.

“Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place.”

Of course starting with travel proves nothing of a story actually being about anything, as is the case with one of the top five worst kids books I’ve read in the past ten years: The Secret of The Old Clock by “Carolyn Keene”:

“Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible.”

Ugh. THE WORST.

But simplicity can certainly get the job done too. Take Laura Ingalls Wilder with Little House On The Prairie:

“Once upon a time, a little girl named Laura traveled in a covered wagon across the giant prairie.”

Bing Bang Boom.

Just for the sake of a wider ranger, here’s one last one. The opening to one of my favorite books of all time, Roald Dahl’s Matilda:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

As a boy, it was Dahl’s storytelling voice that made me love him more than any other writer, and here he doesn’t start with his own character but with the idea that defines that character’s world: that some children and some adults even can be horrifically repugnant people. That’s a thing any kid who’s ever lived on planet earth knows from experience, and the way Dahl lets them know that he gets it without spelling it out is indicative of his enviable chops.

Anyway, check the whole list out. It’s fun. It’s also funny if for no other reason than that they included Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. Really, The Stylist? Year One?!?! Hell, I read that when I was 11, and I still wouldn’t call it that.