When Judd Winick walked away from writing superhero comic books three years ago, he dreamed of writing and drawing his own series of all-ages graphic novels — dedicating himself full time to the endeavor, even though he didn't have a publisher.
Three years later, that dream is becoming a reality.
Winick's new book, Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth, will be released by Random House in September, the first of six books in an ongoing adventure story for people of all ages.
Although the book is filled with fun humor, the title of the book is also an accurate description of the sci-fi mystery that lies at the center of the story. A mysterious boy named Hilo crashes to earth, and he becomes friends with to everyday, "normal" kids D.J. and Gina. But as the story continues, readers begin to wonder — was Hilo the only thing that crashed to earth? And can the three kids unlock the secrets of Hilo's past and save the world?
Winick has lived a varied life in the public eye, known to many as a member of MTV's Real World cast, to others as a superhero comic bookwriter, and to yet others as the creator of TV series The Life and Times of Juniper Lee.
Now that his first Hilo book is weeks from release, Newsarama talked to the cartoonist to find out more about how he got up the nerve to start this new project and make it a reality.
Newsarama: Judd, let's talk about the premise of Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth first. Who are the main characters at the center of the story, and what brings them together?
Judd Winick: Yes, there's a boy named D.J. And D.J. isn't very good at anything. He's got two older brothers and two younger sisters, and they all pretty much excel at something. His older brother's a star tennis player. His second older brother is a chemistry whiz. His younger sister can sing and plays piano and does ballet. And his youngest sister has skipped three grades already.
D.J. is OK. He's not exceptional at anything — except he used to be friends with this girl named Gina who lived next door. He was great at being best friends with Gina. They were terrific together.
Then she moved away. It's three years later, and he hasn't been good at anything ever since.
And then something falls from the sky and lands in his back yard. When he runs over the the crater and looks inside, there's a boy in there wearing silver underpants. That's Hilo.
And we take off from there.
There's a lot of running around and screaming.
And giant robot insects.
And saving the world.
Nrama: And I assume Gina returns?
Winick: Yep. Before you know it, Gina moves back to town.
Nrama: I know you started out as a cartoonist — many fans remember the series you wrote and drew called The Adventures of Barry Ween: Boy Genius. But I seem to remember that when you first came up with the idea for Hilo, you were driven by a desire to create something for your son. Am I remembering that right?
Winick: Yeah, my son, who was seven at the time, wanted to read my Batman books. And I told him no, because those were for older kids and grown-ups. Let's just say Batman has some anger issues to work out.
So we looked around for books that were more his theme — more all-ages comic book. I wasn't necessarily looking for comics just for kids. I wanted to find an all ages book that I thought we both could enjoy. And I landed on Bone, because that's what I knew, and that's what I always loved.
He went bananas for Bone. And because I know Jeff Smith, I told him about it, and he sent us T-shirts and action figures and posters. So he's playing with all this stuff, walking around with the stuffed animals and wearing the T-shirt — and I've got myself a Bone super fan.
And I got jealous.
Because I'm a cartoonist too. Even though, for about a decade, I was mostly known for writing superhero comic books and maybe for being the creator and producer of my Juniper Lee anime series, I'm a cartoonist. It's who I am.
And watching him dig on this so hard, it did a little something to me. It gave me a little twinge and I was like, you know what? I can tell those kind of stories too.
And I really should.
So I went about trying to come up with a story for my son to enjoy, that kids could enjoy, but also something that would feel all ages.
I wanted it to feel like a Pixar movie, like the great Disney movies that don't necessarily feel like they're only for kid. I wanted them to feel like they're for everybody and not dumbed down, that have a sense of story.
And the more I played around with it, the more I realized I wanted to do a story about kids. I always seemed to like that, in respect to Barry Ween. And it always seems to be three kids — the hero in the middle, the wizard or what-have-you, and the best friend who doesn't know what the hell is going on, and then the really smart girl: These are my tropes.
I really just wanted to tell a story that my son would dig, and things that, as a kid, I liked. And I kind of landed on Astro Boy. There's a grain of Astro Boy not being seen now for kids — literally a boy who can fly around. And it's the smallest, simplest thing — I want to see a kid fly off the ground. I want to see a kid superhero. What would that be like?
I did about half the book and showed it to my son. And he really, really liked it. Not like a little bit. Like really liked.
I made something and my kid loved it and wanted to talk about it. And I was like, "this is the greatest!"
Nrama: So you had one fan. But how did you turn that into getting it published?
Winick: I swore that no matter what happened, I'd get it published somehow — I'd self-publish, I'd do a Kickstarter, whatever. It didn't matter.
But luckily, when I finished it, I gave it to my agent. And she's amazing.
And she sent it out and we got offers from just about everybody. It was great. And Random House has been terrific.
Nrama: And I remember that you got a multi-book deal. So are you writing the second book already?
Winick: I'm actually up to book three. I've just begun penciling book three.
Nrama: And there are six books. But I'm sure you've outlined the story and figured out what's going to happen in each book?
Winick: Yes! And that was harder than I expected. But I'm done with that, and now I'm penciling. And this is just about the best part, right now. The hard work is done; the book is written; and now I get to draw it, which will be great.
Hopefully I get to keep doing this until I'm an old man.
Nrama: But Judd, we should probably clarify that, although you were talking about being a little jealous of Jeff Smith, he actually encouraged you in this endeavor, didn't he?
Winick: Oh yeah! Totally! He inspired me. He's always been an inspiration to me, but at this point, it just became a tangible thing.
Jeff and his wife, Vijaya, were — outside my family — just about the first people who read it, even before it went to a publisher. I had them read, both because I wanted to show them what I made, but also just a gut check… what do you think?
Delightfully, they said, "you shouldn't be doing anything else — this is great." And that's when Jeff said, "you want a blurb for the submission? I want my name on it — people should know."
So yeah, he gave me support before we even had a publisher. That's how far back Jeff goes with this.
Nrama: And I remember when you left superhero comic books — you didn't have a publisher yet, did you? This was kind of a leap of faith for you, wasn't it?
Winick: Yeah, yeah.
Nrama: This was quite a risk for you. You quit Catwoman and Batwing to draw something you didn't even know if you could sell.
Winick: Yeah. I was hoping to have a bit of an overlap, but I didn't. I mean, it wasn't like I was in a hurry to get away from that work — my job writing superhero comic books. Everybody should be that lucky! But I'd been doing it for over a decade.
When I decided to get back to cartooning… part of it was that I really wanted to work full time on it. And if it didn't work out, I guess I was thinking I could go back. I had a safety net. I jumped, but I knew the net would be there.
I think I thought about it less than I probably should have! [Laughs.]
I can blame my son. My chest swelled up with both pride and a little bit of ego, to be honest. It was like, "this is going to be great! It's got to work out!" And luckily it did.
I'm so, so grateful it did. There are always a lot of turns and bumps that take you along the road to where you are. And it is where opportunity and luck meet. And things aligned just the right way.