Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Raina Telgemeier and Her Well-Deserved Smile

    Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner

One of the first things I noticed about Raina Telgemeier, when I met up with her at St. Mark’s Comics in Greenwich Village, is that she has a beautiful smile.

    She’s earned it, as her latest graphic novel, Smile, attests. The coming-of-age Young Adult graphic novel follows Raina’s several dental visits through her teenage years, all to fix the two front teeth smashed up in a childhood accident.

    But right now, Raina’s happy to finally finish up her collection of the Manga Barefoot Gen, which follows survivors of the Hiroshima bombing that ended World War II. It’s ironic: the day before her first fully authored graphic novel hits bookstores, she’s finally able to finish reading one of the comics that started her on the path of a cartoonist. Her three-page short story, 2002’s Beginnings, remembers her reaction to Gen.

    “I guess Barefoot Gen did exactly what it was meant to do,” Raina reflects in Beginnings “No matter how big or small of an effect it had overall, it certainly got me thinking about things. Not least, about the importance and impact of art.”

    But I’m not sitting in a quiet noodle restaurant on St. Mark’s Place with Raina to talk about her nine year-old self, or even her comic book counterpart in Smile, but how she’s become an emerging talent in Young Adult who has created one of the more poignant and heartfelt autobio comics of the past year.

    Raina’s earlier comics work is on display on her website, showing a developing style that starts at her days as a student at the School of Visual Arts, her evolution as a cartoonist taking place through short stories. Her short form approach was challenged by 2004, when she landed an intimidating dream gig that would result in hundreds of pages of art, and launch her career as a YA cartoonist.

“I had one of my short stories published in an anthology, Broad Appeal, which was published by Friends of Lulu, which is an organization dedicated to promoting women in the comics industry,” Raina remembers.

    “So, they published one of my stories and, when the book came out, they threw a release party at the MoCCA Museum and invited people to come. Someone at Friends of Lulu had a contact list that included people at places like Scholastic, so we had an editor from Scholastic come to the party. She saw my work, because we had it displayed on the walls, and said, ‘Hey, we’re starting up a new imprint. Do you want to come meet with us and pitch something?’”

The past decade has seen a wider acceptance for the graphic novel format, and Scholastic is one of several mainstream publishers to hop on the sequential bandwagon. The Broad Appeal story was none other than the aforementioned Beginnings, which Scholastic was interested in a longform version of.

    “It turns out I wasn’t ready to write that story. I might be ready now, but I wasn’t ready five years ago,” Raina admits. “Instead of sending me on my way, they asked ‘What books did you read as a kid?’ I told them I was a Baby-sitters Club fan. Since they published the original Baby-sitters Club novels, they thought, ‘Maybe it’d be interesting if you adapted that into comic form. What would you think about that?’

    “I was just out of college and working as an editorial assistant at a book publisher, and was happy to give that a try. I did a twenty-page treatment and some character designs, and they decided within a few weeks, it all happened really fast. They signed me up for two books and, before I was done with the first book, they signed me up for two more. I recently finished the fourth book of the series, and don’t have a contract for any more beyond that.”

    The Baby-Sitters Club books were a staple for girls in the 1980s and ‘90s. Premiering in 1986 and lasting for fourteen years, The Baby-sitters Club consisted of over one hundred thin paperback books about a group of prepubescent girls and their problems. The book series inspired both a television show and a movie, and are to girls of that time what The Hardy Boys was to boys of the 1970s and ‘80s. Like with anything, Baby-sitters Club has garnered an enormous following, some of whom are grown women who stuck with the series.

“Everyone worries about licensed books before they come out,” Raina admits. “People were very concerned about how I was going to ruin The Baby-sitters Club books: ‘That’s my favorite thing ever, so please don’t destroy the thing I love.’”

One of the main concerns may have been in Raina’s updating of the series on a detail-oriented level, updating the characters’ looks, and swapping out walkmans for MP3 players.

On one hand, adapting The Baby-sitters Club was a great exercise into longform for Raina, as she had the stories to work from; on the other hand, though, she was faced with the challenge of drawing 192 pages per book:

“Up to that point, the longest comic I’d ever written was eight pages,” she admits. “Drawing eight pages was all I’d ever tackled. So, jumping to 192 pages for the books was at first scary. But, because I had the books to guide me, I wasn’t worried so much about the story arcs, and things like that.

“I would do the whole thing first as thumbnails, that’s where I start breaking down the story and figuring out where the beats are. If I want to cut out anything, that’s the stage I cut it at, or if I want to add something, that’s the stage where I add it. I’d give my editors 200 pages of thumbnails, and they would then edit from there. At the beginning it was tough, because they were just looking at my chicken scratch. They were like, ‘Will this look better than this when it’s done?’

“Then, I would turn in my pencils, which I would do fifty pages of at a time. Then they would get what they were looking at. They weren’t necessarily great at understanding thumbnails at the beginning, but they got better as I got further along in the series. By the time I got to book four, they knew just what they were looking for, and what to expect, and how to ‘read’ my thumbnails.”

In some ways, Baby-sitters Club was Raina (no pun intended) cutting her teeth on handling full-length graphic novel projects. It was not only her proving ground, but her training one, as well, as her art became looser and more alive, with a cleaner and crisper execution. Raina credits the evolution with her second Baby-sitters book:
“Book two of Baby-sitters was the book I had to produce on the fastest schedule. I had six months to turn that book around. I was leaving out a lot of backgrounds, and maxed out at drawing or inking about eight pages a day. I was working so hard and so fast and for so many hours. Maybe something about the speed of it all made me better, and forced an economy of line. By book three of the series, I was flying through it.”

    With four Baby-sitters Club graphic novels under her belt, Raina’s work has sparked a revival of the old series, with Scholastic releasing slightly updated versions of the classic paperbacks.

    “The ones that are coming back later this year are being updated the way the graphic novels were,” Raina says. “I was glad to hear from someone at the company that they looked to what I did as a model: if this worked in the graphic novel adaptations, they could work in the updated prose books, too. Stacy doesn’t have a perm anymore, she just has ‘professionally styled hair’…They were pretty ‘80s-centric. I don’t think today’s kids would go ‘A walkman! I know what that is.’”

    Raina and her husband, cartoonist and editor Dave Roman, took a stab at reinventing an even-more established property: the X-Men, for the Manga-style X-Men: Misfits comic book. With classic X-Men character Kitty Pryde their focal point, Raina and Dave wrote their own twist on the classic franchise and characters, with art by Anzu.

“The people that ‘got it’ got the fact that we were having fun with it,” Raina observes. “Other people hated it, because they were either X-Men purists or Manga purists, and don’t want anything to do with the other. As far as the X-Men purists go, we changed things within the continuity, because our editors said ‘We don’t want to see anything we’ve seen before. We want you to change it up and go crazy.’

“So we did, and X-Men purists went ‘What!? Jean Grey’s a teacher and Cyclops is a student? That doesn’t make any sense!’

    “It sold pretty well the first few weeks, and was even on the New York Times bestseller list for the first four weeks after its release date. I’d never had that happen to me before. Now I can call myself a ‘New York Times Bestselling Author’,” Raina laughs.

    Her and Dave are wrapping up a follow-up to Misfits for later this year.

    When Raina was in sixth grade, she was running in a parking lot with a couple of friends from Girl Scouts, when she tripped and lost a tooth on the cement and the other was pushed back up into her gums. It was a start of a series of dental mishaps and surgeries that hit at the time of her prepubescence and early puberty, helping to shape her personal coming of age.

"I had been kicking around the idea for Smile for a really long time,” Raina recalls. “It was a story I was telling people all the time in person, and especially all of my dentists. After I moved away from home and my familiar family dentist, I found that each time I went into somebody’s office, I had to explain ‘This is what happened to me...And after that, this other thing happened…and you need to understand that before you start working on me.’

“The more I told the story, the more I thought ‘I should just write this down, because every time I meet new people I have to explain it.’ It’s a very complicated story…

“I sort of had this feeling that it would be something I’d write a comic about, eventually, whether it would be a long comic or a short comic.”

A long form graphic novel can be, well, more than a little intimidating. Raina didn’t set out for Smile to span over two hundred pages, at least not when she started authoring it piecemeal.

“I got an invitation to put it up on the web at a website called girlamatic.com.,” Raina says. “Smile isn’t necessarily a comic just for girls, but it’s about a girl, because I’m a girl, so it seemed like it would fit in with the site well. I knew the editor, Lea Hernandez, and she went ‘Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s go for it.’
    “I started putting a page a week up. I had the first twenty pages or so mapped out and, in my head could say ‘Wow, maybe it’ll be a whole hundred pages long. That’s crazy!’ Then it spiraled into a bigger thing than I thought it would be. It got to be more fun to write, because people were chiming in each week, and I realized I was creating something that actually resonated with some people. Readers were finding it because they’d been searching for ‘braces’, ‘dentists’, or ‘orthodontics’. They were responding, too, and were saying things like, ‘I had something similar happen to me, and it’s great to read your story.’ I realized there was actually a market for this.

    “I was working on Smile at the same time as I was working on The Baby-sitters Club, and I didn’t have a contract to publish Smile until after Baby-sitters Club was done. But as soon as I finished Baby-sitters Club, Smile became my full-time project. It was interesting, because I was switching to doing it every day after having only worked on it once a week. As a result, the layouts got more complicated and the ending of the book is a bit more elaborate than the beginning. It morphed from a day-to-day comic strip format into a graphic novel. It flustered me for a little while, as to whether the format of Smile would work as a graphic novel, because there were beats and punchlines on every page. My editors said, ‘No, we’ll publish this as it is. Make a few tweaks here and there.’ I think the only thing they asked me to do was to introduce more characters upfront. So, you now know my sister’s name on page three, instead of page twenty-five.”
    Smile runs rampant with honesty as Raina doesn’t shy away from her more embarrassing teenage moments, as well as her less admirable moments, such as when she stood up a boy in her band class.

“I was mean to him back in sixth grade, and I hope by making this book I can make my amends,” Raina admits. “Now I can stop worrying about it.”

    Raina’s clean style with its crisp inkline makes Smile the fun read a darn pretty one, as well. Her storytelling is clear and concise, and her cartooning includes the humanistic gestures of a natural cartoonist. Smile ends with her gaining that winning smile at the end, and with a current portrait of her smiling back at the reader.

“I think by the time I was sixteen and had things cosmetically put back together, I felt comfortable,” Raina later says. “I based the story around that feeling, because when I was happy and smiling, I could end the story.”

As soon as I got my teeth fixed I was like,” Raina then flashes a broad and cheesy grin. “Come on, take my picture!’ It’s nice that the book is coming out at a time when I feel like I look okay. It’s a big, happy ending to my story, instead of ‘Don’t look! It’s horrible!’”

    “As far as putting an author picture in the back of the book went, for some reason I didn’t have that many pictures of me smiling! Most of the pictures I had were of me covering my teeth. Having a picture of me smiling was extremely important, because if I didn’t, the rest of my life people would be asking ‘What do your teeth look like now?’”
    Smile will be put under the noses and in the hands of schoolkids this year, thanks to publisher Scholastic’s legendary school book fairs and catalogs.

“Every school in America gets a catalog every month, and my book’s going to be in that catalog,” Raina says. “That’s a whole other market that other publishers would love to be able to get into. Even if you’re publishing with Simon and Shuster or Random House, who have some similar benefits – an advance, really good editorial feedback, bookstore and library distribution – they can’t always get into book fairs.

“Since Scholastic’s kid specific, they don’t publish anything for audiences older than young adult, so they are seen by libraries and parents as being ‘safe’ and kid-friendly. Nobody has to wonder whether or not this will be appropriate. That takes a lot of the work out of it, since libraries don’t have to question whether they should order something from Scholastic, and don’t have to worry if it belongs in the kid’s section or the adult section.”

    With Smile completed and Baby-Sitters Club wrapped up, Raina is focusing on two projects right now, one of which is still in the writing stages. She has decided that the comfort zone of YA is a very smart one to be in:

“I like writing for a younger audience. I don’t really think in graphic violence or adult situations when I’m writing. It’s easier to be a successful writer if you stick with an audience, because that audience will always stay with you. Ten years from now, a ten-year old girl might say ‘I just read this book Smile, and hey, there are six other books from the same person for me to read.’”

“My husband, Dave Roman, is writing a fantasy story for me to illustrate, with dragons and multiple civilizations and alternate dimensions, and other things I’d never think of for myself,” she adds. “We’re really excited to do that together. I hope that we’ll be able to work on that pretty soon—he’s currently drawing a book for First Second, and that’s keeping him occupied right now. “

     She’s also in a rest period, taking a needed break from constant drawing to plan her next big projects.

    “In a given year, I draw really hard for nine months, and then I take about three months to recuperate,” Raina observes. “I usually write and develop projects during that time. I’m at a point now where I’m not doing as much drawing, but I am doing Hourly Comics Day today, so you may end up in it! You draw a short comic for every hour of the day you’re awake. I’m just keeping them in my sketchbook, doing them in pencil, knocking them out on the train, whenever I have a chance. I’ll post them tonight when I’m finished!”

    Sure enough, online is her Hourly Comic, with one sequence taking place in the noodle restaurant, where I grapple with the concept of raw egg on my noodle dish, not realizing that it would cook along the sides of the hot bowl.

Raina’s tooth trauma doesn’t entirely end in high school, but has a post script in her adulthood.

“I was pretty comfortable in high school and felt good until the teeth that I had in place (which were bondings, which are never supposed to be a long term solution) deteriorated, and turned a funny color and got misshapen,” Raina notes. “I got really self-conscious again and didn’t want to smile with my teeth and talk to people. I thought people could tell, but no one paid as much attention as I did.”

    “So, when I got engaged, instead of getting an engagement ring, Dave helped me pay for new teeth,” she laughs at her now-husband’s gesture. “They’re crowns. People made jokes like ‘If it’s an engagement present, shouldn’t there be diamonds in them? A little bling going on?’

    “I could smile in my wedding pictures, which was nice. I don’t know how permanent these are, but they should last me ten to twenty years. If I break one, I’ll just get it replaced.”

    Raina laughs again, something she does as often as she now smiles.

Learn more about Raina Telgemeier at her website.