Aw Yeah Everything! Art Baltazar & Franco Discuss Expanding Their All-Ages Comics Empire [Interview]
After spending decades trying to prove that comics "aren't just for kids anymore", the last few years have seen a number of creators and publishers making a concentrated push to bring younger readers back into the industry and create titles that appeal a wide spectrum of audiences. Art Baltazar and Franco are on the forefront of this movement. They're a pair of artists and writers with distinct styles that combine to convey a single, unmistakable, irresistible persona: the "Baltazar/Franco" name is an automatic seal of approval for kids and parents alike.
My first exposure to their work was Patrick The Wolf Boy, a self-published black-and-white title. The minimal, crisp and cartoony art caught my eye. They later shot into the spotlight with Tiny Titans, a title that launched in 2008, and followed gradeschool incarnations of young DC Comics heroes (Robin, Terra, Beast Boy, Batgirl, Supergirl, Blue Beetle, etc.) as they went to grade school, hung out in their treehouse, went on adventures, and generally acted like kids. It had everything kids love about superheroes (adventure, secret identities, a sense of continuity) without any of the violence and conflict that is so often tied to the genre – it was charming, funny, exciting, and it wasn't afraid to poke fun at various elements of DC lore. It pulled off the trick that all the best "all-ages" entertainment does: it worked wonderfully for a young audience, yet contained plenty of in-jokes and sly nods to reward the grown-ups.
Tiny Titans ran for 50 issues (plus a three-issue miniseries that co-starred Little Archie), and in the two-and-a-half years since that title wrapped up, Baltazar and Franco have been insanely prolific, producing the 12-issue follow-up series Superman Family Adventures for DC, the Itty Bitty Hellboy limited series for Dark Horse, the Lil' Battlestar Galactica one-shot for Dynamite, the Captain Action Cat title for Dark Horse and Dynamite, drawn innumerable covers for various publishers, and published more than a half-dozen issues of their own crowdfunded original ongoing series, Aw Yeah Comics. The duo have also founded the Aw Yeah Comics! comic shop in Illinois, and partnered with Mark Waid on a second comic shop in Indiana.
And in the midst of all this hubbub, they took some time out to speak with ComicsAlliance about their brand new Tiny Titans: Return to the Treehouse limited series -- issues #1-2 of which are on sale now -- and talk about their other projects, past, present, and future.
ComicsAlliance: Let's start with your return to Tiny Titans. Was this new series something you proposed to DC, or something they came to you and asked about?
Art Baltazar: They came to us!
Franco: Apparently sales on the collected editions were good and fans have been clamoring for more!
AB: Yeah, they dig it and want more so they can have more love in their lives! So they came to us and asked if we could create the magic again and we said hocus pocus! Nah, that's silly, you can edit that out.
F: We brought the magic Houdini style!
CA: It seems that the Tiny Titans universe has expanded somewhat since the last series. Have you been given more freedom to play with other characters this time around?
AB: Yes! It's all true! The universe has expanded! No pressure, all freedom! They gave us the opportunity and trusted us with the characters and trust what the outcome is going to be!
F: They said they wanted some more stories and we obliged! We put everyone in there! Whatever the story calls for or what works funny wise- we look for a character that would work with that situation.
CA: The original Tiny Titans series ran for 50 issues, and since that wrapped, your profile has skyrocketed. You've produced an incredible amount of comics for a variety of publishers, and while doing all that, you've maintained a constant presence on the convention circuit. How do you guys do it all?
F: I don't drink coffee. I just get no sleep. I'm high on life.
AB: Lots of Coffee.
CA: After the first series of Tiny Titans, you went on to do 12 issues of Superman Family Adventures (set in the same continuity). Was that move just a matter of wanting to try something different, or was it an idea that DC proposed to you?
F: DC wanted do something else. They felt that Tiny Titans had run it's course so we pitched the idea that the all ages line needed a Superman presence and [DC Comics Co-Publisher] Dan [DiDio] agreed with us.
AB: Bombadabombada! (that's the Superman theme – all credit to John Williams).
CA: How about Itty Bitty Hellboy? How did you end up playing in Mike Mignola's sandbox?
F: We get called a lot!
AB: [laughs] Yeah, we do! [Editor-in-Chief] Scott Allie from Dark Horse called us and they were having discussions about us (thanks Elizabeth!) around the same time we launched our Kickstarter.
F: It's been awesome to work with Mike and Scott! Dark Horse is awesome to work with!
CA: That miniseries has been pretty successful – Dark Horse even produced Itty Bitty style plush toys of Hellboy and Abe Sapien. Do you have any plans for another go-round with those characters?
AB: Maybe possibly!
F: I'm gonna say: It's been awesome to work with Mike and Scott! Dark Horse is awesome to work with!
CA: You also did the ridiculously fun Lil' Battlestar Galactica one-shot for Dynamite. How did you get that gig?
AB: We got a call!
F: They had this idea about the Lil' Dynamites and hit us with it! They went through the list of titles and we said nope, nope, nope, but then they said Battlestar Galactica and I said stop! That's it! I told Art we have to do this! I was a huge fan of the show!
AB: Yeah, it was fun! that's all true! That's what happened!
CA: While juggling all the rest of these projects, you ran a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign last year to fund your own self-published Aw Yeah Comics! series. Did you expect anywhere near the reception that received? And do you plan to continue that series beyond the initially-announced twelve issues?
AB: It was really cool! Who gets funded in eight hours? Crazy!
F: The reaction we got was just tremendous! I didn't expect that! We have the best fans out there!
AB: We plan on going as far as we can! Every time we sell an issue we put the money back in to fund the next issue! We're not planning on stopping anytime soon!
F: AW YEAH all the time!
CA: You also recently produced a special one-shot issue featuring some well-known wrestlers: Christopher Daniels And Kazarian Wrestle Aw Yeah Comics! How did that come to be?
AB: CD and Kaz are awesome!
F: We are mutual fans of each other! We're big wrestling fans and fans of those guys!
AB: We've been friends for years and would see each other at conventions around the country. CD saw our stuff and decided to send us a script and we thought it was awesome. A few months later, BAM! We had the comic!
CA: The Aw Yeah Comics! series has provided a forum for some great up-and-coming creators… And you've even released a spin-off starring Scoot McMahon's Sami, The Samurai Squirrel. Was that part of the plan from the beginning? Will we see more spin-offs down the line?
AB: Yeah! That is the plan!
F: We have a great bunch of guys doing some awesome stuff!
AB: Scoot (Scott) McMahon and Denver Brubaker and Kurt Wood as well as Marc Hammond – the stuff they are doing is awesome! They create stories for AW YEAH COMICS! You can see a lot of this stuff as digital first books on ComiXology, under our AW YEAH COMICS imprint! You'll see a lot of our spin off characters and our old stuff that we did before we did Tiny Titans!
F: We really wanted to create an place where we get some awesome artist and storytellers and be able to give them an empty field to play in. We all have a bunch of characters and comics that we want to do and this is the place where we will be able to do it!
CA: You're also currently working on Captain Action Cat, a three-way crossover between Aw Yeah, Dark Horse, and Dynamite. This series brings your original characters together with figures from Dark Horse's superhero universe and the classic Captain Action heroes and villains. How on earth did you manage to get these companies and licenses to work together on one series?
F: HA! This time we called them!
AB: Yeah, I'm a big fan of Captain Action and we ran into Ed Catto-
F: He's awesome!
AB: Yeah, and we talked about it and then we talked to Nick (from Dynamite) and Scott (from Dark Horse) and everyone said yes!
AB: Crazy awesome!!
CA: On top of your creative work, you've moved into the world of comics retail – initially with the Aw Yeah Comics shop in Skokie, Illinois and now partnering with Mark Waid on Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Indiana. What inspired you to branch out in that direction?
AB: We love the comics business and Mark Waid is evil!
F: We want to be involved in every aspect of this business we love!
AB: Yeah, this was the next step in the plan! We do things that inspire us and we always wanted to own a shop so we did it!
F: Yes! We were told many times that it was a bad idea but from where we sit it wasn't! We knew what we wanted to do. We wanted to run a comic shop unlike any other comic shop and from what customers and other industry professionals that have visited the store tell us all the time is that we don't do things like other shops do!
AB: Yeah! It's awesome! It's a good time! And our parties are awesome!
CA: So, what's next for you guys? Are there other properties you're itching to work on, or other publishers you want to do projects with?
AB: Isn't that enough?!
F: Yeah! Bring on what you got!
AB: I want to write the Hulk and or Daredevil!
F: So basically anything Mark Waid writes!
CA: And are you planning more Tiny Titans beyond this? Additional Aw Yeah spin-off series? Total world domination?
AB: Yes! All of those things!
F: Yes! World domination first, then the rest of those things will probably get done real easy after that!
AB: I need more coffee!