All-Ages in a Onesie. Corey Babra Talks 'Yam'

It’s a lovely life on the island of La Leche de la Luna. On an average day, you might find yourself dealing with a cupcake that thinks it’s a pet, a flower that wants to start a rock band, turtles with delicious treats for shells, or even meet the girl of your dreams…and hang out with her in her dreams.

It’s the life of an adventurous little boy with a jetpack and orange onesie known as Yam. For years, his adventures have appeared in Nickelodeon magazine, and now they’ve come to comics in Top Shelf Productions’ new collection Yam: Bite-Size Chunks, which features an all-new 38-page story. Yam’s creator, Corey Babra, talked to Newsarama about his surreal creation, and how it came to be.

Newsarama: Corey, could you describe Yam to a new reader?

Corey Babra: Yam is a little boy who flies around a remote tropical island with a magical backpack/jetpack. He has these sort of surreal adventures, and when he comes up against a challenge- he's forced to use creative solutions. Some of the circumstances are a bit odd- like, he lives alone, just him and his pet TV.

There's also some mystery concerning where he's from. It all started as a series of visual gags, but I've developed a mythology about the little guy. The island is called La Leche de la Luna, which is Spanish for "The Milk of the Moon.” And we'll be finding out more about that. Yam’s best pals are Gato the cat, a young girl named May, and Grams, and nice old lady who lives near Yam.

NRAMA: How did you come up with the concept?

CB: I had drawn a bunch of little pictures as a kind of exercise, and one of them was the first ever drawing of Yam. He was flying over the city, and I thought, "Wow- he's like a cool little baby super hero" Except traditional super heroes didn't really interest me. I figured if he had wacky adventures, maybe I could pitch them to Nickelodeon Magazine.

Incidentally, a few days after that first Yam drawing, I discovered a photo I'd taken of our little son Elijah at the zoo- he was sitting in his stroller wearing an orange hoodie. It was weird. The Yam adventures I ended up creating were dreamlike scenarios- you know, little situations where I could use and bend child-logic. Like, if you put sod on your head and watered it, would you grow flower hair?

NRAMA: I’m sure we’ve all been there. How did you become involved with Nickelodeon Magazine, and what's working for them been like?

CB: I first approached the Nick Mag art director at my wife's urging. I had been doing these humorous illustrations and I thought I could sell some work to them. The A.D. called me back with an assignment for a few illos, and said she'd also passed my stuff along to Chris Duffy, the editor in charge of the magazine's comic section.

I pitched a few things to Chris soon after that, including an adaptation of a children's story I had in mind. A few years later, when I first pitched Yam to Chris, he thought it was too baby-like for the Nickelodeon readership. Then he got back with me and that he'd reconsidered- he would run what I'd pitched. I probably wasn't that invested in the character at the time- had Chris not changed his mind, I'm not sure Yam would be around today.

That was quite a few years ago, and now I've spent all my time with Nick Mag in the comic section. And I'm in awesome company. The Nick Mag "Comic Book" is full of amazing cartoonists who often times have one foot in the underground or indy world. Good stuff.

NRAMA: How did the collection from Top Shelf come about?

CB: I had written a long-form Yam story with the goal of getting a Yam book published. I sent it around to Chris Staros at Top Shelf- who wasn't quite sold on that particular story, but enjoyed Yam and all the short stories I showed him.

He said if I wanted to collect all of the Nick mag color comics and all the other shorts I had, he and Brett [Warnock- Top Shelf co-publisher] would put it out. I then wrote the 38-page story to round out the book. Staros was a big help with that- he wanted be sure that whatever I cooked up had some heart to it. Now there's going to be a series of Yam books.

NRAMA: What's the process of creating a Yam comic? How do you plot out the story, and what are the challenges in telling it without words?

CB: The best ideas are bolts out of the blue. They pretty much arrive ready to be drawn. Others start as seeds of a gag that need to be thought through to get something worthwhile. Then I'll spend time laying it out and deciding on the best images to show.

The tough part about doing a "silent" strip is that it's acted out in pantomime. There's no exposition where a character talking to another can explain all the boring stuff I don't want to draw. If I want the audience to know that something has occurred, I have to show it in some way; it makes you think about how to best get an idea across.

There are dream sequences in "Toy with My Dreams" that I handled by making the style of panel border into clouds. There are whole pages with cloud borders, and it keeps the reader informed as to when the dream ends. Future Yam stories will utilize flashbacks in time as a way to show past events, and the color stuff will switch to sepia tones as a way to show that.

But it's a fun challenge to rely on the acting of the characters. I take a lot of cues from animation and Charlie Chaplin movies. Things have to read well, you know? If there's one action taking place that the reader doesn't understand, the whole thing can just fall apart.

NRAMA: It seems like the no-dialogue approach is a great trend in all-ages comics these days, Owly and Korgi being two other examples. Why do you feel silent stories work so well in the all-ages format?

CB: Yeah, that's odd, huh? When it came time to find a publisher, seeing that Top Shelf was doing Owly and Korgi certainly made me think they might be open to Yam.

I think it's less of a movement and just kind of a naturally occurring thing. There have been wordless picture books for children forever. I've seen wordless alternative comics in anthologies like RAW going way back. Norwegian cartoonist Jason does great wordless stuff, and I definitely count Jim Woodring as an influence.

If it's well told, I think wordless stories can work for anyone. And I still consider it reading, even though there are no words

NRAMA: There's also the matter of length – what are the challenges in doing Yam as one-and-two-page strips, and, conversely, what was it like doing the longer story for the collection?

CB: Short, wordless stories are way more challenging from a writing standpoint. You may have a great idea or a gag you want to convey, but if there's only a page or two worth of panels to get it across, that's tough; it forces you to cook it down to the bare bones. Only the necessary actions can make the final cut, you know?

And each pose you choose for the character has to communicate the maximum amount of expression. Too bad a one or two pager will take less than a minute to read. You can’t think about that sort of thing up front, though.

“Toy with My Dreams,” the longer story in the book, was a pleasure to make. It gave me some breathing room that I ordinarily don't get. The humor is gleaned more from the situations and drawings, less from gags.

It’s a nice thing- not having to stuff an idea into a predetermined amount of little boxes. I mean, it’s a great discipline, to be able to economize your drawings, but it sure is good to have the luxury of space and time.

NRAMA: What were the inspirations for the countless living creatures in Yam's world? It reminds me of the old Terrytoons where everything seemed to be alive.

CB: The animation of the Fleischer Brothers is a big influence on me. Things were always coming to life in the old Betty Boop and Popeye shorts. Part of it is also inspired by Japanese pop culture, though- when I was a kid, I imagined that if you walked down the streets of Tokyo, you’d find that everything had a face and wanted to befriend you.

NRAMA: What materials do you use to illustrate Yam? Given that some of the stories are done in different styles from others, do you use the strip as a way to experiment artistically?

CB: Yeah, if you flip through “Bite-size Chunks” you’ll see that the mediums used to draw the strip range from Sharpie markers and brushes to crow-quill dip pens. There was a period where I was just doing stuff using whatever materials were handy, then I sort of honed in on the things I liked best.

I’d been a brush and ink guy for a long time- which gave me a real slick look, but I found that the tool that feels most natural for Yam is the dip pen. They give you this scratchy, intense quality you can't get with anything else, and to me it just says, "comic strip.”

I think it feels like a connective tissue to the strips that have inspired Yam the most-the great newspaper cartoonists like Winsor McCay, George Herriman and E.C. Segar. The Sanrio influence kicks in after that.

There is still some experimenting that occurs. I was looking at some Peanuts strips recently, and I thought the obvious evolution that the characters undergo is so awesome. I wanted a totally different looking version of Yam, but not as an evolution or replacement.

This would be a big-headed Yam that could exist in a book with the standard-designs of the characters, but in different stories. So yeah, I designed this alternate version of the character. He's in the book. I call him "Candied Yam.” He's 30% cuter than regular Yam, and inked with a brush for maximum smoothness. We'll see more of that in the future.

NRAMA: Mmm…candied yam.

Have you had any talks about doing Yam in animation?

CB: There's no talk of anything at the moment, but animation is one of my big loves, so yeah - Yam will definitely be brought to life that way at some point.

NRAMA: Completely silly question: Does Yam's pet TV have a name?

CB: He does- it’s TV.

NRAMA: Touché. What are some of your favorite all-ages comics, and what are some other comics in general that you enjoy?

CB: For all-ages stuff, I think: Spiral Bound by Aaron Renier is a terrific ride, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Jay Stephens’ Space Ape #8 & Jet Cat stuff is awesome.

Comics in general: I'm a huge fan of Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Dan Clowes is hands-down the World’s Champion cartoonist. And I’ll always have a place in my heart for Charles Schultz, Charles Adams, Jack Davis, Crumb, Osamu Tezuka. And way, way more.

NRAMA: Do you have any older-skewing works in the vein of your webcomic "The Big Kiss-Off" coming up in the future?

CB: I do have some things in the works, but my focus is really on Yam and developing the world of La Leche de la Luna. If I didn't focus on this, I'd be all over the map. Too many ideas, you know?

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks is in stores now. For more Yam comics, visit www.coreybabra.com

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