Don Wood: Taking Us Into the Volcano

Don Wood: Taking Us Into the Volcano

Into the Volcano

Ever wonder what it would be like to venture inside a volcano? Don Wood has done more than just wonder. He’s done it many times…and created an all-ages graphic novel about it.

Into the Volcano, released through Scholastic, is the story of Duffy and Sumo, two young brothers who are mysteriously sent on a trip to their relatives’ in Kocalaha, Hawaii. Once there, they learn about the native culture while becoming involved in an increasingly dangerous adventure.

The book marks the first foray into graphic novels for Wood, a Caldecott Honor illustrator of many children’s books. And for him, getting into graphic novels represents the fulfillment of a life-long dream. We called Wood up at his home in Hawaii – under some pretty exotic circumstances, as you’ll later find out – to chat about his love of comics…and volcanoes.

Newsarama: Don, why did you decide to go with the graphic novel format for Into the Volcano?

Don Wood: This was a life-long obsession. I was 22 years old in 1969 and receiving an MA from the California College of Art, and my master’s thesis was not about graphic novels, it was a graphic novel. It’s lost in the sands of time now, I don’t know where it is. (laughs)

That obsession, graphic novels and comics, led me into children’s picture books, because a children’s picture book basically is a 32-page graphic novella for children. Especially ours, which are essentially a lot of two-page spreads with a single caption that have everything except a speech balloon.

So it is something I’ve wanted to do all my life; why I’ve procrastinated so long is a good question that someone else would have to answer. But I had a great time doing this book, and I loved every moment of it. Well, except for the last six months, which were sort of intense, and I was tired. (laughs)

NRAMA: What was your thesis about?

DW: It was a self-indulgent autobiography about what was going on in my life at the time, as I recall. Plus incredibly deep insights into how the world worked, and the human mind, all of which is probably best left behind. (laughs) I don’t have a copy, and I don’t know anyone who has a copy. To call it a thesis, perhaps, is a bit grandiose; it was more of a graduate project.

NRAMA: So how did you go into children’s books from that, and what led you back to the graphic novel format?

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DW: Well, this is something that will probably be productive for your readers to hear: I rode the coattails of someone extremely talented. I was knocking around doing freelance illustrations for six or seven different magazines, barely scraping together enough to pay the rent, and feed myself and my wife, Audrey.

Then my wife, who is a very talented writer, sold a picture book, and then she sold another. And they sent us the potential illustrator’s work, and we both did not like it. We both said, “I could do better than that!” So I wound up illustrating my first picture book, and by pure good fortune, those picture book illustrations ended up in a small, in-the-hallway, one-man exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which happened to be featuring a series on children’s picture books.

And I used that to make contacts with other publishers, and so did Audrey, and her career blossomed, and mine blossomed, and I was riding her coattails right behind. It worked out very well; I became very comfortable with it, and I love the medium and share the enthusiasm of children. It was a very good fit for me. It features most of the same skills that you need to produce a graphic novel – the timing, the pagination, the characterization – it’s all there, just in miniature.

So while it was a natural to move into children’s picture books, where I spent 25 years, all the time I had various ideas for graphic novels fermenting in the back of my mind. And finally, I slowed down with the picture books, and decided it would make my move and do a graphic novel. I assumed this would take two, two and a half years. It wound up taking five.

NRAMA: What was the most time-consuming part of producing the book?

DW: Plotting was extremely difficult. I wanted to co-plot it with my wife, like we’ve done with many books, but she wanted me to leave the nest and spread my wings. So it took a long time; I produced rough drawings and scribbled text over and over again in these notebooks – I’ve got six to eight of them – for something unique that interested me.

Then there were about 1,350 drawings – I counted them up the other day, trying to figure out where all the years went – and there were about three versions of everything. There was the rough, then the more completed rough, and then the final art. The first two years, I’ll have to admit, were only part-time – we’d just moved to Hawaii, and were living in a trailer…

Into the Volcano storyboards 3

NRAMA: Just like Auntie in the book!

DW: Exactly like Auntie’s place! (laughs) Auntie’s place in the book is almost an exact duplicate of our Winnebago. Look closely and you’ll see the catchment system and the solar panels. We’re still a mile off-grid, but we’re civilized now. I’m sitting here with my feet up on a desk and talking to you on a cell phone – though it’s old-school, because they don’t make cell phones with the external ports any more. It has a wire that runs through a hole in the wall up to the roof, which has a giant aerial, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate at all!

Incidentally, this is a solar-powered book – produced digitally and with solar power. And like I said, we have a rain-catchment system, and no utilities. So it’s an interesting life out here. Very impressive, and very, very quiet.

NRAMA: I have to say, I’ve never done an interview under circumstances like this.

DW: (laughs) Yeah, it’s very adventurous. I don’t know what inspired us to do this. We lived a very settled life for 25 years in Santa Barbara, California, and we suddenly got very antsy, sort of a delayed middle-aged crisis, I suppose. The two and a half years in a trailer were really rough, but the house is finished now. Let me tell you, you don’t know how great it is to have running water and a really hot shower – these things haven’t worn off! I’m still desensitized. (laughs) It’s so wonderful living here. I can’t describe it.

NRAMA: How did you first get the idea for the story for Into the Volcano?

DW: It was the volcano. We moved here, and I just became a lavaholic. I might have followed that flow 50 times – in those days, you had open access. You could just go right on up and traipse through the lava flows, watch it roll into the sea from 30 feet away…though that’s not recommended.

There was open access, like I said, and it was so exciting. You get close enough to where it burns the hair off your arms, and you know you’re too close. When you can’t reach down and touch the ground with your hand and keep it there, you know you’ve gotten too close. We were led by experts at first, and eventually we became experienced enough to lead ourselves.

We trekked close to the lava, and I saw truly remarkable things that captivated me. It was like an act of destructive creation – like being there at the beginning of the Earth. It’s so inspiring as an artist – the visuals are so amazing. It doesn’t work photographically, it’s very hard to take photographs, but it just inspired all my senses as an artist. It is so staggering – I just had to do something with it.

Also, it is so different from all the volcanoes we are familiar with from literature and movies. They always just go kaboom, the top goes off the mountain, villagers run screaming…this is a shield volcano. Its eruptions are more or less a regular process – they increase, they decrease, and they sometimes get a little inactive. It is a constant flow of lava and land-building, and it gives you an opportunity to interact with it that you don’t get with an erupting volcano. It gave me space and time for my adventure to develop without a cataclysmic explosion.

The second bit volcano-oriented thing that inspired me was that I began to explore lava tubes. Lava flows in a shield volcano downhill to the ocean. It creates a roof by developing a hard crust that dries out over the top of the tunnels, and then the molten lava flows beneath. When the lava’s drained out, you’re left with all these catacombs that run underneath the island. There’s one that’s 30 miles long, which is the longest lava tube in the world, and where I did most of my exploration. The flowing lava and the lava tube environment had never really been touched on by any media, as far as I could remember, and I had to write about it.

NRAMA: Sounds like you have a real fascination with this stuff –

DW: Let me interrupt you – anyone who gets near this stuff has a real fascination with it. Everyone who I’ve taken to the lava – I’ve gone out to sea, seen it from the air, trekked it many times – anyone who’s seen it pronounces it one of the most incredible experiences of their life. Some pronounce it “life-changing.” I had a friend come back the other day from a tour, and he looked me in the eyes, staring like they do in the comic books, indicating total oblivion, and he said, “I am significantly altered.” (laughs) I love that quote.

So it’s not just me. In fact, the term “lavaholic” is not something I made up. It’s a term for people who are fascinated to the point of compulsion by this.

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NRAMA: What do you feel is the source of fascination with lava?

DW: Power. Beauty. There’s a touch of danger…but it’s probably more dangerous driving to and from the flow than from actually trekking it. I never heard of anyone being hurt by the hot lava, though cold lava is quite dangerous. It’s like crystalline glass, and if you fall on it, it will really mess you up.

The flow of lava is so gorgeous – it’s always different every single time. The experience is always completely unique. And artists are drawn to power. It’s exotic, unique, and it has power – that’ll fascinate any artist.

NRAMA: You talk about how you drew this on a tablet. The book has a unique color scheme – how did you develop it on the tablet?

DW: I’ve been working digitally on a Wacom Tablet since 1992. The one I have now has Photoshop and Painter. My wife and I were the first to produce pixel-oriented digital children’s books, as opposed to object-oriented children’s books, which did proceed us. So I have a long history of going to digital and back.

It’s interesting that you mentioned the color scheme – no one has before. It’s something I definitely paid attention to, but there was nothing intentional about it – it was just straight-up intuitional. Of course, you do have 16 million colors to choose from, which is quite a lot of options! (laughs) But it was intuitional, which is something I’ve been doing for years.

NRAMA: What were some of the classic adventure stories that influenced this?

DW: It is a classic adventure story, and I anticipated this question, and I dodged it in previous interviews because I didn’t want to seem as though I wouldn’t credit my influences. But they’re buried so far back in my past…I’ve thought of this all morning, and I can’t pin it down!

I can say that as a child, in comics, my fascination with one particular artist was so intense, though I didn’t know his name at the time, was Carl Barks on the Uncle Scrooge books.

NRAMA: That’s the guy who got me reading comics in the first place! They reprinted his stuff in the 1980s.

DW: (laughs) That’s so strange, him influencing us decades apart.

NRAMA: I read them all – “Back to the Klondike,” “Land of the Pygmy Indians,” “Tralla-La”…

DW: “Tralla-La!” I had the original of that, I bought it for a dime! I would haunt the drug stores on the way home – I bicycled three or four miles home every day, and there was a drug store that was way out of the way, but I didn’t care – I would buy the comic, and take it home in my backpack.

And there was a ritual – this was the Holy Grail. I was born in a small farming town in complete isolation, there were no artists for a hundred miles, no bookstores for forty…I don’t think I walked into an art gallery until I was an adult, I didn’t walk into a real bookstore until I was an adult. And this was my contact with some real, quality literature.

And I remember some real disappointments, some Scrooge comics that let me down, and I couldn’t figure out why they let me down. And the reason was that Carl Barks didn’t draw those issues! (laughs)

NRAMA: He had that reputation – he was never credited, but fans knew him as “The Good Artist.”

DW: Exactly. And to tie this back to Into the Volcano – the audience I have spent most of my life writing for, which is three-to-five-year-olds, if anyone says they don’t appreciate quality, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They may not be able to articulate it, but they can tell if something’s good or if it’s not as good.

And in Scrooge’s case, some of the stories were done by a master, and some weren’t. So quality all the way through a career is the way Aubrey and I have gone, because I remembered feeling that disappointment when I was young.

I wrote this book, by the way, for myself as a 10-year-old. It was the book I would have wanted to move to when I left Uncle Scrooge behind.

NRAMA: The book has that feel – the opening, where Duffy and Sumo are pulled out of school to go on this adventure in Hawaii –

DW: (laughs) That could have been Huey, Dewey and Louie, right?

NRAMA: Duffy and Sumo probably could have used the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook a few times on their adventure.

DW: (laughs) You are dead on! Duffy had everything go right, and Sumo had to learn, but Duffy would have had the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook in his back pocket and memorized everything in it.

But you are right – it was very much based in that idea from the old stories, of ordinary people suddenly thrown into extraordinary circumstances.

NRAMA: How long have you been interested in Hawaii – you’ve been living there for a while, obviously, but how long have you been interested in this area?

DW: My wife tells me that back when I was putting myself through grad school with a job at a sale loft on the bay in Oakland, I was hoping someone would take pity and ship me to some tropical island somewhere. It probably comes from my growing up in a very land-locked area. So there’s been a tropical island fascination with us forever.

My wife and I and some people who knew what they were doing sailed from the British Virgin Islands to South America and back about a decade ago, which was one of the grand adventures of my life. It was one tropical island after another…they’re a big thing for me, and this tropical island has not disappointed.

NRAMA: What your book really evoked for me was the exoticness of Hawaii – that’s kind of a clichéd thing to say, but it does get into the aspects of Hawaiian culture that are often overlooked in popular culture, in the sense that it can be both very alien and very beautiful.

DW: You can just put that down as my answer. This island, and all the islands to a certain degree, are more exotic than you would imagine, especially when you get into the interior, into the depths of it. It is both foreign and familiar. It is more exotic than you know, but it is also a part of the United States. It’s a very interesting place to live, and there’s a lot of great things here that the mainland is almost totally unaware of.

NRAMA: Why do you feel there’s this disconnect?

DW: Because this is not a tourist area. There are a lot of tourists on the lee side of the big islands, but here, we lack the white beaches. It’s somewhat insulated, too – I have friends who have never left here; they’ve only been to other islands in Hawaii. So it’s very insular, but also very creative and intriguing. It mystifies me that more of the culture hasn’t been touched on in the media.

The Hawaiian cowboy culture – no one’s done anything on it! There’s great, great stuff – country-western music blaring out of bars while you’re driving through Waimea with oversized pickup trucks with big tires in the back, and Hawaiians wearing big cowboy hats with hibiscuses stuck in the headbands. How can you not love that?

NRAMA: Do you see yourself doing more stories on this island, or just featuring Duffy and Sumo in general?

DW: I don’t know! I just have so many ideas kicking around that I haven’t settled on anything yet. I worked so hard the last year that I’ve taken some time off, and I’m just now working on the future. But I wish I had three lifetimes – I would answer “yes” emphatically to all of those.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself continuing to work in the graphic novel format in the future?

DW: I find it irresistible. But I love children’s picture books as well, and they’re calling me. But I love this medium. Like I said, I wish I had more lifetimes, but I think I’ll definitely do another graphic novel. I had too much fun working on this one, and it’s just too rewarding to resist.

Into the Volcano is in stores now. For a look at the making of the book, visit http://www.audreywood.com/

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