Superheroes Aside: JUDD WINICK Makes Dream Career Switch with HILO

Credit: Random House

Judd Winick has to rearrange his whole studio now.

"I won't be sitting at the computer much anymore," Winick said of his new life as a cartoonist. "I'm going to be sitting at the drafting table more often. So this entire office had to be retrofitted and brought up to date."

Over the next two years, Winick will be creating several hundreds of pages for his new series of all-ages graphic novels, HILO. Thanks to a three-book deal with Random House, Winick is writing and drawing the adventure over the next few years, with the first volume tentatively scheduled for release in 2014.

Although it's early in the process, Winick is hoping to have a new graphic novel released every six months or so. And he's planning to have a total of six graphic novels by the time the story is finished.

HILO (pronounced by Winick as "High-Low") is a full-color comic that tells the story of D.J., whose uninteresting life gets a lot more interesting when a mysterious boy named Hilo falls from the sky. The adventure that follows promises robots, aliens, humor and a quest that takes D.J. and Hilo to the ends of the universe to save the world.

Drawing an all-ages graphic novel is a big change from what Winick was doing a year ago. As a full-time comic book writer, he was aiming toward a very different demographic as he wrote the monthly, sexually-infused comic Catwoman and the African Batman spin-off Batwing. Although he had created the children's animated series The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, which ran on Cartoon Network from 2005 to 2007, most of Winick's work skewed much older — particularly his long run on Batman and his work on the comic-turned-DVD-film Under the Red Hood.

HILO will also be the first time fans have seen Winick's art in over a decade. Although he won critical acclaim for his work as a writer/artist during his early years in comics — on projects like The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius in 1999, and the touching autobiographical Pedro and Me in 2000 — Winick hadn't drawn any published work since.

But that all changed when, in July 2012, Winick announced here on Newsarama that he was leaving Catwoman so he could write/draw and all-ages graphic novel. Less than a year later, the first book is penciled, and a major publisher is ready to put their marketing and publishing money behind it.

So what brought about Winick's change in career? And what inspired him to suddenly walk away from his superhero work despite years of success in the industry? Newsarama talked to Winick to find out, and we found out more about his work on the new TV show The Awesomes for HULU.

Newsarama: Judd, surely you have stories in the back of your head all the time. What brought this one to the forefront and made you want to back away from all your other comic commitments to create this graphic novel?

Judd Winick: Well, the story behind the story — which I'll probably tell many, many times over the upcoming years, but you get it first — all started about a year ago, or a year-and-a-half ago, and my son was just, maybe, seven. And he's more like his mother, so he's an avid reader and started early.

So he asked me one day, "Daddy, can I read some of your comic books?" And I said, "No, I don't have any comic books that you can read." And he was desperately confused. He was like, why? Why can't I read Batman? But I was like, yeah, you can't read these. No, you can't read Barry Ween. And I could give him Frumpy, but he wanted stories. (Frumpy the Clown was my comic strip that I did for a number of years) So I broke out the Frumpy the Clown comic strips, but that was just about the only all-ages stuff that I had for him to read.

I just really didn't have anything. I just really didn't. And it was heartbreaking.

So I started digging around for some all-ages work that he could read, because he just really wanted to read comics. He was getting into it. So I broke out Jeff Smith's Bone. I think I told you about this last year.

Nrama: Yeah, we shared our parent stories, and our love of Bone, which is ideal.

Winick: Yeah, it's perfect! So I gave him Bone, and he just flipped for it. He didn't like it a little bit. He liked it a lot. He really loved it, and we rifled through all nine of the graphic novels really quickly. And then he wanted action figures, which we got him. And there are T-shirts. And he couldn't have been more in love.

But while this is going on, I'm pretty much thinking, "What a chump am I? What an absolute chump! Because I could do this too. I can make stories for him too. I could really do this."

So that's when I started thinking about it.

It wasn't one of those stories that had been rolling around in the back of my head a long time. It was actually pretty original, just with what I felt my son would dig. I just started with the idea that I wanted to do an all-ages book — and I do mean all-ages. It's going to be geared toward middle readers and on up, and on down. I wanted it to be all-ages like a Pixar movie. You know, it's family-friendly and kids can enjoy it, but it's also something that grown-ups would like, especially grown-up comic book fans.

And I came up with this story.

Nrama: So what's the basic premise?

Winick: The simple elevator pitch is that this is about a boy named DJ who isn't good at anything, except he used to be good at being friends with his next door neighbor. But he moved away. And now he's not good at anything at all.

And then one day, a boy falls from the sky and lands in his back yard. And that boy's name is Hilo.

Then lots of other things happen.

It's part E.T., it's part Doctor Who, it's part Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, in just the tone and the look of it. And that's something I also wanted to really concentrate on — how it looked and felt.

Nrama: And being a cartoonist again.

Winick: Yeah, I wanted to get back to being a cartoonist again, and this was the best way to do it.

And I really, really wanted to do a book that could appeal to kids on all levels, stemming from this idea that kids don't read cartoons anymore. They really don't. They read cartoons. They don't read comic books anymore. Not really.

When we were kids, we had this thing that came to our house every day called a newspaper.

Nrama: Yeah! And on Sundays it was a big deal. It was like, a whole section of Sunday comics! Yea!

Winick: Exactly! The Sunday funnies, man. In color. It was a big deal.

But every day, the funnies would come. And we — the collective we — used to read them every day. Even the ones we didn't like. We just did it. We just read them. And I really think there was something great about us being able to read comic strips every day. And now kids don't. People don't get newspapers anymore. Kids don't read the funnies anymore. It just doesn't happen.

And I wanted to do something in that style and the vein. And I just mean how it's drawn. I wanted something that felt like that. I think there's a visceral reaction from kids — and all us grown-ups too — to a particular kind of art. That Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Peanuts sort of look.

And luckily for me, that's how I draw.

So I wanted to tell an all-ages, straight-up adventure story, drawn in that style, in my style.

Nrama: You mentioned that you colored it. So is it going to be color?

Winick: Yeah, it'll be in color. But I will not be coloring. I have a colorist in mind, but ideally, I have a certain person in mind.

Nrama: But you're doing the rest of it.

Winick: Yeah, I'm penciling, inking, lettering... old school. Like comic strips! Like people used to do! This is one-stop shopping over here. But you know, I'm doing it myself because I love it. It's way, way fun.

Nrama: How long is it going to end up being?

Winick: About 175 pages, I think, this first one. No, scratch that. It'll probably be 200 pages, because we're doing a rewrite where I add a bunch of stuff. So it'll be about 200 pages.

Nrama: And by "first one," you mean the first volume of a series of graphic novels?

Winick: Yeah, it's a series. It's a three-book deal with Random House, and it's possibly a six-book series.

Nrama: What a fantastic company to work with, to land Random House for your graphic novel.

Winick: Oh, yeah. It was an amazing couple of weeks. I did an actual book instead of just a proposal. It was 170 pages, all in pencils. Some inks, some colors, just so they could get a look at it. And we sent out the whole dang book. And we had multiple offers. There are a couple of phrases that are just music to a writer's ears. One is "runaway best-seller," but the other is "bidding war." And I had that second one. It was shocking for me. But my representation anticipated this, and they were pleased.

Nrama: Why did you choose Random House?

Winick: Well, first I have to say that it was probably the hardest business decision I had to make in my whole life. We had really terrific people who were very, very interested in it.

But Random House, they're phenomenal. They really, really get it. They're really interested into getting further into the business of making comic books for kids.

Nrama: Did you get advice from other people who've had kids graphic novels published? I know you've hung out with Jeff Smith at conventions.

Winick: Oh, sure, I talked to Jeff Smith, and I talked to Vijaya, his wife, who is his business manager. We talked quite a bit. I mean, I wasn't sure, "do I take this out on my own?" and of course they said, "no, go get an agent who’s done this before." And I did. I have a wonderful agent who shepherded it through.

But I actually spoke to just about everybody who has done this, because there's not a lot of them. If you really think about it — and you and I spoke about this before — there really aren't a lot of comic books for kids. I know, because I've looked for books for my son, and now my daughter too. She's four. And she knows how to read, and there's not much for her out there either. You don't want to censor your children, but you do want to find something that's appropriate, and something that appeals to them. Something that meets them where they are as kids. And there aren't many comics like that.

And there's even fewer that are all-ages — something that isn't just, you know, only for children. But they do exist. And I sought them out, and I asked lots of questions.

Nrama: Yeah, I remember that when you initially dedicated your time to drawing the whole book, and not working on any other projects, you had no idea if it would sell.

Winick: No, I had no idea what was going to happen. I really didn't. I was doing it just to do it. It was going to happen. I think you and I had talked about this, what, over a year ago?

Nrama: I remember you were even considering self-publishing.

Winick: Yeah! I was ready to do that.

But you know, I enjoyed the fact that this was coming from the right place. I didn't care how it was going to get out there. I was going to make sure it was going to get out there, even if I had to self-publish. Even if I had to take money out of my own pocket and just publish it.

And I guess with that, what happened, wonderfully, was that I don't have to. I had other people who agreed that this was something that needed to be published.

Nrama: So in the midst of all this excitement, you're also working on a new TV show for hulu

Credit: hulu/Seth Myers

, right?

Winick: Yeah, I'm the head writer on The Awesomes, which is an animated program created by Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker. Seth Meyers is the head writer and anchor on Weekend Update for Saturday Night Live, and Mike Shoemaker wrote for Saturday Night Live for something like 17 years. And now he's showrunner on The Jimmy Fallon Show.

So Seth and Mike created a show; it's been a labor of love. They are both long-time comic book fans. And the show's called The Awesomes.

It's a comedy about a superhero team. It's not a superhero comedy where you make fun of genre. We don't mock superheroes. It's about the superheroes as a comedy.

Nrama: Is it more geared toward adults?

Winick: It's in the realm of The Simpsons, so it's more of a grown-up show. It's not dirty or anything, but it's not a Saturday morning cartoon... not that they have those anymore either.

Nrama: Just like our dear departed newspaper comics.

Winick: It's very cool. It's been a very fun year. I was working on HILO, and then I was also working on this show. But most of the writing on The Awesomes is pretty much done; now it's being animated. So I'm now able to really dedicate my time to HILO.

Nrama: So HILO is your job now?

Winick: Yep, this is it. I'm going to be doing this full time for awhile. And I love it. I really do.

As I'm talking to you here, I'm reorganizing my entire studio, because it's been a number of years since I've been drawing as much as I will be, which is several hundreds of pages for the next several years. There are three books that are going to be coming out of this room in the next two years and change. So I won't be sitting at the computer much anymore. I'm going to be sitting at the drafting table more often. So this entire office had to be retrofitted and brought up to date.

It's fun being a cartoonist again. It's a huge thrill.

Nrama: Look what the inspiration of your son has done.

Winick: I know. I'm merely absorbing the shock of it all.

Brad Meltzer gave me a wonderful congratulation speech, and my wife gave me a similar speech. They both said the same thing, and I am just realizing they're right. Anytime I've actually set out to do something that was really from my heart, that I absolutely wanted to do, with no sense of any kind of commercialism or monetary gain involved, but I just really wanted to do it, and do it as well as I could, it was a really rewarding experience.

And you can pretty much point to those things, including Pedro & Me, Barry Ween, and now this. I mean, I love my superhero comics, but those were never going to be mine. And honestly, now that I'm working on this project, I realize that I feel best about the stuff that I write and draw myself. These are things that are inherently me. I take care and pride in it.

Garrison Keillor told this great story about his mom, that she would grow tomatoes every year. And every spring, they would harvest these tomatoes, and she would can them. She'd can, like, a hundred cans of stewed tomatoes. And they'd work all day on these, and then they'd put the cans down in the basement.

And Garrison said he just knew, late at night, she'd go down there and just run her hands over the cans, out of pride.

And I totally understood that, when he told that story. I said, "I do the same thing!" When I've had a day when I've written something and drawn it, I sometimes come back at night and just look at it. It has to be drawn. I don't go back and look at my laptop to read something I wrote. Only when I've drawn something. I go back to my studio when the day's over and just look it over. I'm just running my hands over the tomato cans.

Nrama: And there's a market for what you really enjoy doing — a market for your tomato cans!!

Winick: Yeah! It's cool that I went and did it, and there are other people who want to come down to the basement and run their hands over it too. It's a cool feeling!

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