Talking Babymouse With Matthew & Jennifer Holm

Babymouse With Matthew & Jennifer Holm

One of the biggest hits in the new wave of comics for all-ages is Babymouse. The impatient, irrepressible rodent has won legions of fans as she’s conquered the beach, summer camp, a school concert, and whatever indignities life throws at her. No matter what the situation, Babymouse has a plan…or at least a fantasy…to help her get through it.

With Babymouse’s latest adventure, Monster Mash, now in stores, we spoke with her creators: Newberry Honor recipient Jennifer Holm, and her brother Matthew.

The Holms were eager to speak about their unique collaborative process, their favorite comics, and how they’d like to see comics getting into the hands of kids.

Newsarama: Guys, how did you develop the character of Babymouse and her world?

Jennifer Holm: Well, we grew up together (they both laugh) as brother and sister, so that helped! He tortured me as a child, so…

Matthew Holm: No, we’re actually pretty far about, six years. Growing up, she basically completed ignored me because I was the youngest and she was off in her own little world. But once we were both out of college and had moved to New York City for work, we reconnected and became really good friends. And of course in New York City, it’s hard to meet anyone, so we wound up hanging out quite a bit! (laughs)

One day, while we were in Jenny’s apartment in Brooklyn, she handed me this scribble of a proto-Babymouse. And Jenny, you can tell the story we’ve told a million times of how this came to be…

JH: I was just having a bad day – what I call a “Babymouse Day,” the kind that starts off bad and just gets worse. You’re late for the school bus, you leave your sneakers at home, there’s a pop quiz, someone spills soup on you at lunch – I had one of those bad days and I came home, and my husband said, “Wow, you look really irritable.”

And this image just came into my head of a really irritable, cranky mouse, with crazy whiskers and an attitude problem. So I drew it on a napkin, and I gave it to Matt, and that’s how Babymouse started!

NRAMA: Matt, what’s your background in artwork? Had you done any comic strips or comic books before Babymouse started?

MH: Yeah, in the sixth or seventh grade, I had started drawing a comic strip about a little boy who was an alien, and he had a sidekick who was basically a hairball with eyes. And I just drew that for my own amusement. I was a total comic-strip junkie when I was a kid. We had pretty much every collection of Peanuts that had been printed since the 1960s, and later on we had Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury and Bloom County and zillions of Garfields and everything else.

I was pretty well-versed in the comic-strip newspaper format, so I drew some of those to amuse myself, and in high school, I took a bunch of art courses. I actually had a mentorship one semester with Tony Auth, who’s the political cartoonist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and saw how he worked as a political cartoonists…you basically have to read newspapers all day long until you find something to be angry about, and then draw a cartoon about it! (laughs)

When I went to college at Penn State, I became the political cartoonist for the newspaper there for three years, and really honed my craft in black-and-white – you have to get your ideas across in a pretty limited space. While I was at school, I did a sort of double-major with English and writing and art.

So when I got out into the world I had this background in art, and ended up working in the magazine industry. I wound up working for Country Living magazine for eight years. That was my “real” job while I was busy doodling on the side doing stuff – some graphic design, and a webcomic called Marty Gray, which is about a gray alien who gets trapped on Earth, and is a bit saltier than anything we do with Babymouse.

And that’s how I got the experience I needed when Jenny handed me a napkin with a drawing of a little irritated mouse. (laughs)

NRAMA: Jennifer, you mentioned having a “Babymouse Day,” but how much of Babymouse is drawn from your own experiences growing up?

JH: I would say a little…nope, make that a lot. Actually, the majority of it. I’m working out some elementary school issues, you know? I didn’t like getting up in the morning…I didn’t like getting on the bus…I didn’t like dodge ball or math class…there was a mean girl at school…I had a best friend who was a boy…I was always trying to figure out my place in the world. So I definitely have a lot of material for Babymouse.

NRAMA: What’s your process of putting the books together? Are you in the same room, is there a full script…?

MH: Our process is usually to think of a general theme. For example, with Babymouse: Beach Babe, we thought of the beach. So then we think back to what it was like to take all those trips to the Jersey shore when we were kids, or what it was like on the last day of school – cleaning the junk out of your locker, not caring all day long, being bored in the car, fighting with your brother or sister when you’re actually at the beach and getting sunburned…

So we think of things we would do as kids, and boring things we would have to endure, etc. etc. And then Jenny sits down and writes out a full manuscript, which she does in a storyboard-style format, because she came from the advertising world originally, she did TV commercials. So she does it like a movie storyboard without the pictures – there’s the narration, the action, and the dialogue for every single scene in there.

Then she emails that to me, and I take a sketchbook and go through and do pages and pages of thumbnail sketches for every scene she’s got in there. I’ll think of angles for different scenes, and ways of depicting certain parts, and I’ll cross out things I don’t like.

Then I’ll email the whole thing back to her, and then she goes through and essentially picks and chooses from that and create the rough layout for the book. So she’ll take the pages and lay them down on two-page spreads for a mock-layout, and then she’ll send them back to me, and then I go and do the final sketches, which I do straight in marker.

Unlike comic books, where the pencils are almost finished art in themselves, we try to keep this a bit looser, so you don’t lose that energy you have when you’re first doing sketches. So I go straight into markers, I don’t try to overwork anything, and then we send that in to our editors, and once all the changes are made, I’ll do the final-final version on a tablet.

NRAMA: How long does it take you to put a book together?

MH: Time-wise, you’re probably talking a year from conception to when I hand the final copies over to Random House. In actual work hours, probably three solid months, I would say. And that usually comes in chunks of time, so I usually spend two to two and a half months doing the final sketches and final inks in the computers.

JH: It’s a lot of back and forth, where we have to turn it in, and then hear back from the editor, and the art director, so…

NRAMA: How long do you see the series going on?

MH: Well, we’re contracted through Book 12 at this point, and frankly, as long as…they want them, we’ll keep wracking our brain for anecdotes and things. (both laugh)

JH: Until Matt’s hand falls off!

MH: Yeah, until my hand’s in a cast, we’ll keep going! (both laugh)

NRAMA: You talked about drawing from your childhood anecdotes…obviously, you both have a lot of stories on your own, but do you ever talk to friends or kids for things that could happen to Babymouse?

JH: I don’t talk to kids that much for ideas, but we do get a ton of fan mail suggesting what the next book should be!

MH: Oh yeah.

JH: I will say that some kids we know have seen their personalities work their way into Babymouse. My own son…you never know, he might end up there someday as some animal! (laughs)

NRAMA: How did you put together the black, white and pink look of the book?

MH: I think we knew from the start that it was going to be black and white, partly because that was the style I was used to working in. I had done some color when I was younger, but it was very time-consuming, and this was already time-consuming enough! (laughs)

I was pretty confident working in black and white. We also knew that we wanted to go with a traditional book publisher, because Jenny had a lot of experience with that. Also, when she was in advertising, a lot of their guys worked in comic books, and she had a lot of horror stories about that…!

So we knew black and white would be an easier sell to the book publishers – it’s cheaper than doing color for every page. And we also knew – Jenny knew right from the start that the heart on Babymouse’s dress had to be pink on every page.

We pitched it to Random House, they loved it, we were doing books one and two at the same time. I was drawing it, we were laying out the pages. And we were trying to figure out how to do these fantasy sequences that Babymouse always lapses into. As I’m coloring in everywhere, we get to Babymouse’s bedroom, which is of course covered in pink hearts, because that’s her thing. (laughs) And as I looked at that, I said, “There’s going to be a lot more pink in this book than we thought!” (laughs)

So we got to the fantasy sequence, and I just threw a pink wash over the entire scene, and it was like, “Ohhhhh! That’s how we do it!” (laughs) So now, in retrospect, it seemed obvious to use pink as the transition to her fantasy world.

NRAMA: Jennifer, who did you know from the comic book world in your advertising work?

JH: My first job was at a place called Broadcast Arts, which was an animation company back in the day when they hand-colored cell animation, and they did the animation on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. And they also produced a lot of animated commercials and things, so a lot of freelancers they hired to ink the cells and things were freelance comic book artists who did animation when they weren’t on a gig. It was this big world of freelancers.

So I would just – and this is dating me – I would see these guys flow through, and working on their comic books. A lot of them seemed to publish them independently, and they worked so hard, but I think one thing that stuck with me was that the whole distribution thing – particularly when it came to younger children – was very hard.

I mean, Babymouse is geared toward younger children, sort of first grade and up. And to get them in the hands of younger kids, especially back then, was difficult. You weren’t going to have young kids coming into comic book stores, which were the main outlet. Now, of course, you have the Internet, and everything is everywhere. But I wanted to get Babymouse into classrooms and libraries, and I knew from my experience as a children’s book author that the best way to do that was to go through a children’s book publisher.

NRAMA: What are some things you’ve been able to do with a graphic novel that you haven’t been able to do with prose?

JH: I think what’s so nice about graphic novels is that you can use less text! (laughs) I’m kind of a wordy writer – my historical fiction books are kind of thick books for third or fourth-graders and up, and they’re always wordy and I’m always cutting myself.

Graphic novels are kind of a nice shorthand. And I love laying them out – I can’t draw at all, but there’s a part of the process where I can scribble a little image and describe it to Matt. And it’s fun!

MH: And Jenny obviously has a lot more history doing filmic sort of things and seeing directors lay out storyboards and things from working on commercials. And she reads a lot more comic books than I do now – I don’t have the time!

She’s actually a lot more knowledgeable about current techniques than I am - -she’ll send me a clip from a book with a note reading, “Make it look like this! The monster is giant and coming over buildings this way!” Or “the giant bird is swooping over the buildings this way!” and there’s another clip, or…what are you reading right now?

JH: I’m kind of obsessed with The Goon at the moment. I love Franky! He’s like the best sidekick ever!

NRAMA: What are some other books you’re currently reading?

JH: I just read Sub-Mariner…I’m kind of a Marvel girl, I have a crush on Wolverine…I love waiting anxiously for the new Courtney Crumrin – I did a book fair with Holly Black, and she said “Oh, I’m doing a graphic novel with Ted Naifeh!” and I was like, “Noooooo! He needs to do more Courtney Crumrin first!” (laughs) But Holly is pretty much the coolest girl ever, so it’s okay.

I really like Grant Morrison – I love We3, it’s such a weeper, you know? And I kind of go through these manga stages – I read far and wide and all over the place. My husband is a game designer, so he reads all these comics too – he’ll come home with all these books from the comic shop to “help me with my research.” (laughs) It’s a hard life.

MH: Yeah, I tend to binge more when I do my comics. I don’t have it in me to go every week or every month, but I tend to get everything in collected graphic novel form. I just finished Y: The Last Man...just finished Death Note before that. And I’ve been reading a bunch of one-off graphic novels like Tales From Essex County.

JH: He keep sending me animals-in-space books like Laika...

MH: Yeah, animals in space! I also got First in Space from Oni, and there’s a lot of interesting historical books. I like that about graphic novels today, that there’s a lot of historical stuff that’s being done in a cool way, rather than the confessional type of stuff that people expect. I’m not interested in all those introverted people out there writing about their horrible, horrible lives, I guess. (laughs) I’d much rather learn something.

NRAMA: And you just had the latest Babymouse come out…

MH: Yeah, Babymouse: Monster Mash. It’s a Halloween-themed, and there is no pink, all in orange and black! It’s been very exciting, and kids have really been into it. And boys like it, because they tell us they enjoy the series, but feel weird about picking up a pink book. (laughs)

And then we have Babymouse: The Musical, which is of course a takeoff on High School Musical and that whole craze. It’s a spoofing every big musical ever, because Jenny grew up in the age of Broadway musicals, and our house was full of Annie and Cats

JH: We gave little recitals from Grease in the living room.

MH: That’s coming out around Christmas or so.

NRAMA: Sounds like you’re going for a new audience with these…

MH: Suits me! (laughs) I’m sure the dedicated fans will stick along, and that’s all right with me.

NRAMA: Do you have any plans to do comics outside of Babymouse?

JH: We’re under contract with Random House to do a graphic novel series that’s…not in pink (both laugh), but it’s such an early stage that there won’t be anything for years.

MH: It’s pretty much all Babymouse, all the time right now.

JH: But that’s okay with us. (both laugh)

NRAMA: Any final thoughts?

JH: We know you have a slightly more grown-up audience, but we do like to evangelize a bit about comics for kids. Comics are good reading for kids! If you have a kid, and they don’t want to pick up a book, but do want to read a graphic novel, that’s okay! There are a lot of great graphic novels for kids, and in a lot of classrooms, teachers are now picking up graphic novels, and using them as tools for reading. That’s so great. So, go comics in the classroom!

MH: Growing up with the Comics Code, and there were things like The Superfriends. Right when I got into high school, you had Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns come out, and there was this backlash like, “No! Comics are not for kids!” And the last couple of years have been like, “Comics can be for kids! Please?”

JH: We’re kind of on the side of “Rah, rah, sis boom bah! Let the kids read the comics!” And I think a lot of public librarians and school librarians and even teachers are picking up the baton, and that’s really cool. They’re really helping kids find the comics.

MH: The obstacle for educators isn’t getting kids to come into the library, because they want to read, but the parents are like, “You assigned my kid to read a comic book?!” One more thing to knock down, and then we’ll conquer the world! (laughs)

Babymouse: Monster Mash is in stores now.

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