Educating By Entertaining: The Success Of ‘Adventures In Cartooning’ With Co-Creator Andrew Arnold [Interview]
Over the last few years, First Second's Adventures In Cartooning books have become something of a sensation. Created by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost, the at once entertaining, educational and even hilarious series follows the deeds of a magical cartooning elf and a knight as they help a princess to literally draw her way out of an encounter with a dragon and other harrowing scenarios; help Santa Claus inspire kids to trade their video games for books; assist an eccentric director in making a crazy movie; and go camping. Their blend of humor and clarity, welded to straightforward lessons on storytelling techniques, have met with acclaim from librarians and educators, and have inspired a generation of kids to start making their own comics with the drawing lessons and other activities built into the narratives.
We spoke to AIC co-creator Andrew Arnold about how he and his collaborators achieve the series' signature mix of smart, silly, and scholarly.
ComicsAlliance: When you released the first Adventures In Cartooning book, did you ever envision it turning into a series? It's become quite popular, and you've not only released a few sequels, you now have this spin-off series…
Andrew Arnold: I never expected for this to happen, but it's awesome.
CA: How did you hit on that idea of combining the narrative and the instructional book?
AA: I think I want to make learning as fun as possible, right? So, let’s have a little crazy story that goes along with it. I know for me, as a boy when I was learning, I got bored easily. So let's make it fun by having a little adventure story that goes along with the process. Yeah, I never would have expected this. It’s great!
CA: Do you have any insight on how they managed to find this audience? Was it librarians handing them to kids? Was it kids discovering it through word of mouth? I know what when I saw the first one, I bought it to give as a birthday gift, and the next thing I knew, there was a ten-year-old completely obsessed with making her own comics.
AA: Yes! Victory!
CA: So, of course, then her friends come over, and they all start cartooning, then their parents buy the books, and it just spreads.
AA: That’s awesome! And yeah, I think librarians actually did help a lot with the series. But I think word of mouth also. I had a friend of mine, who went away for a weekend and came back and he was talking to someone and saw a copy of Adventures In Cartooning on their coffee table and was like "wait a minute, my friend worked on that book!" And they were like, "oh yeah, we love those books."
When James [Sturm], Alexis [Frederick-Frost], and I began working on these books, all we wanted to do was make a really great book that would teach kids – or anybody actually – how to make comics. And almost more importantly, to show them that they don’t have to have really great skills as a draftsman to tell really great stories. I think that’s actually part of the appeal, and it’s one of the things that we push. Maybe people find it accessible for that reason.
CA: Well, as you said, it’s storytelling. There are books like How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, there are plenty of drawing manuals, but this really focuses on the craft of telling stories. Was there anything that inspired you in that direction that you looked at? Or was it simply meeting a need that’s not being met, "let’s do it from scratch."
AA: This book came out of an assignment. James, one of the co-authors, was one of Alexis and my teachers at the Center for Cartoon Studies. While we were in school, one of our assignments was to make a comic using the characters from Ed Emberly's Make A World. So, actually Adventures in Cartooning was inspired by those Ed Emberly Books. That’s where we drew a lot of our inspiration from.
CA: Once you realized that it was going to be a continuing series, did you sat down at any point and work out a plan or curriculum?
AA: I feel like I should say yes, but that’s not true. [laughs] We just go with the flow and see where it takes us. I guess that’s not entirely true. We’re working on four books now for younger readers, and the newest one is in my hands, Sleepless Knight. They’re picture books told in comics form that are very basic, and sort of the only instructional element is in the endpapers. So there is a game plan with these. We have all the books laid out, now it's just finishing them. But in terms of the graphics novel format, we don’t. Those come about whenever, it’s sort of random! But I think the spontaneity keeps it fun and fresh.
CA: Does the spark tend to come from "here’s a silly story we want to tell?" Is it "here’s a lesson we want to convey?" Or is it a bit of both?
AA: I think it’s a little bit of both, like how can we explain this in the weirdest or funniest way possible? How can far can we stretch the story before it doesn’t work? I think it’s both. If it becomes too much of one of those things, it doesn’t seem to work as well, at least to me. And I think because there’s three of us working on these, it helps keep it fresh. Someone might have an idea that someone might build upon or say "what if we did this a little differently", because there are three of us, we’re always able to work together. It’s made things more interesting, and I think it shows in the end product.
CA: The books definitely don’t have a single "auteur" vibe to them. It’s like a team of people having fun, a product of a really great studio. Almost like the old Jay Ward cartoon, where you can tell that there’s people trying to top each other...
AA: [laughs] It’s very competitive!
CA: And the stories keep building and getting wackier and taking it all to the next level.
AA: Mission accomplished. [laughs]
CA: Are there any particular influences or inspirations you'd cite… Not so much in terms of the lessons, but in the style, the humor, and the approach you take to the material?
AA: I guess the other guys inspire me. I mean, I’m surrounded by children’s books and I’m sure I draw inspiration from them, but I just don’t realize it. I do think James and Alexis, that’s where I get my inspiration. And as far as outside influences... I mean, not really.
CA: Is it difficult to strike the right balance of educational and entertaining? Are there moments where you either pull it back to avoid confusing the younger readers, or decide that you want to give the readers more credit, that kids can like something they don’t necessarily understand right away… So do you lean towards toning things down and make them more comprehensible, or the other way around?
AA: The other way around… We definitely don’t want to talk down to our audience. And we try to show, not tell. It doesn’t need to be so expository. There have been many instances where we’ve felt that maybe we’ve gone too far, and there’s too much exposition, so we’ll pull it back and give our reader more credit.
CA: With these new picture books, what’s the mission for those? Do you simply want to tell entertaining stories, or is there an educational mission hiding below the surface?
AA: Well obviously, we hope the younger audience will pick these up, read them, find them interesting enough to continue to read the other graphic novels when they get older. It’s an entry point. It’s funny, they're like the mini-Muppet version of the characters in the AIC universe. The goal of these is to get kids interested in comics, so the stories are very direct and very clear. It’s a good way for a child to start learning to read in general too. My hope is that it’ll get them interested in reading comics, and then with these endpapers, they’ll want to tell their own stories with these characters that are in these picture books. And then once they get to that certain age where they’re writing to make their own comic – maybe it’s now, maybe it’s after they read a copy of Adventures In Cartooning a few years down the road – they feel confident that they can do that.
CA: How does that team dynamic work? How does that creative process break down with you guys?
AA: Well, we all have thick skin. The final line art that you see is Alexis, but we all take stabs at the story idea, and we constantly edit each other. We’re like a rock band. If someone has a song that they have an idea for, the band wants to play it, and they all work together to play it. Like the Christmas book we did, the Adventures In Cartooning Christmas Special – that was James’ idea, he sat down and hammered it out. I think I laid it out – James maybe had a dummy of it and I took it and laid it out a second time.
Each time we’re sort of refining it. I’ll letter it and color it, we all sort of go back in and poke at the colors, we’ll go in and massage here and there as the book develops.
CA: And do you collaborate on the character designs too?
AA: Well, because Alexis has the final brush stroke, he’s the final say. But we do sort of collaborate, and it really varies. We all respect each other as cartoonists, so I think that really goes a long way and it shows. It’s kinda hard to answer, because it’s so organic… We just get together and have a good time!