Our two-part talk with City Dog, Country Frog authors Mo Willems and Jon J Muth concludes today, with an in-depth discussion of what makes a comic a comic and a book a book, a long-lost comic project from Willems, and more.
Newsarama: Now, this being a comic site, I want to ask you about your work in comics, because Jon, you obviously have a history in the medium, and Mo, there’s a real comic influence in the pigeon books and the Piggie and Elephant books –
Mo Willems: I don’t think there’s an influence at all. I think they’re comics! I mean, that’s the thing that frustrates me to no end. I recently did a speech and someone asked me about my “cartoon-like” illustrations. It’s like saying “food-like beef!” They’re cartoons!
The fact is, these are not stapled or printed in a way that is traditionally associated with comic books, but these are comics.
Jon J Muth: It’s interesting, because I was just thinking about what comics do and don’t have room for. One of the things is the kind of joy your books so easily express. There isn’t room in the comic book business, for that sort of thing. It’s so nice that it’s finding an outlet here.
I think you’re right – I don’t see any reason why that can’t be a comic, or that it isn’t! I agree with you.
Nrama: Well, I’m glad to hear that, because there’s plenty of illustrators who would deny their picture books were comics. But a lot of classic picture books do have that comic-type format. They might have had word balloons, but they were done like comic books.
Willems: The only thing I don’t do in the traditional vernacular of comic books, which is why people don’t think my books are comic books, and why they’re given more respect than comic books, is that I don’t use dark panels.
I recently talked at the Center for Cartoon Studies up in Vermont, and I don’t know what it is, but I think people don’t respect things that have black panels around them. And I don’t do it purposely – I just don’t draw panels.
Muth: You’re talking about the black line around panels, with the gutter…?
Willems: Yeah. And I can’t explain it.
Muth: I can’t explain it either. I did a graphic novel for Marvel, one of their first, that was an adaptation of Dracula. And the text didn’t show up in word balloons, it was in play format, where I had the character’s name, and what they had to say, along with journal excerpts.
To my mind, that was a graphic novel, it was a comic, it was words and pictures working together to propel the story forward. So…I don’t have the same need for comics to be what people think they need to be. It’s how you choose to tell the story.
Nrama: It’s funny how there’s a resistance to these things – how one thing can be considered comics and another not, or more importantly, how one thing can be considered art, and another not.
Willems: Well, I don’t want my stuff to be considered art. That’s the kiss of death. At that point, it’s too important to look at. It’s craft work.
Muth: I just figure deciding what is art is up to someone else. I just do my work. I’m not trying to abnegate responsibility, nor denigrate the tradition in comics that there’s a specific form, but I just don’t understand the need for it to be the only form.
For example, if music is only the blues, where are people like Philip Glass? Unless, the form is just about expressing yourself through music. I see comics as like that - a medium - words and pictures. In an effort to make it respectable" some are trying to define its edges. So, whether or not something is a comic, I don’t care – it’s none of my business.
Willems: That is the danger of respect, and that is why I fear art. The second something is respected, you build a Center for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Not that great music doesn’t come out of there, but it’s calcified, at a certain point, from the grandeur of what is pure, and that’s the danger in all of this stuff.
You don’t want yourself to be respected. The reason that I’m a cartoonist is because no one suspects the cartoon. You start to suspect me of doing good stuff, you’re going to stop reading it! It becomes fossilized!
Muth: I agree.
Willems: We just read this newspaper article – the nicest thing that was ever said about my work. They wrote, “My kid doesn’t like reading, but he loves Elephant and Piggie.”
Muth: It’s really too bad, because you’re right. Tolstoy writes great, great, wonderful, rip-roaring stories. But because he’s Tolstoy, no one wants to read them now. They’re considered “literature.”
Muth: There’s all these people who write great stuff, but because you’ve got the weight of critics saying it’s “important,” it kind of loses its fire.
Willems: Put Tolstoy in a small book with a naked guy with kind of blond hair holding a sword, and surround it with sparkly stuff, and people will like it.
Nrama: …this started off as a conversation about a picture book about a dog and a frog, and now we’re getting into Tolstoy.
Willems: I think Jon had it right when he said earlier that you just do what you can do, and do it as well as you can do it, and hope that you have an audience.
Muth: And we’re very fortunate that we have an audience.
Nrama: Jon, having come from the traditional Marvel Comics background – well, as traditional as you can get with something like Moonshadow, anyway – to the realm of children’s books, what was the biggest change you saw in terms of what you were able to do, or couldn’t do?
Muth: The biggest change was that the people I was working with were not put under such incredible pressure. Coming up with the best book was more important than coming up with a book by Thursday. And that makes all the difference! It makes it much easier to create, I think.
I want to jump back a second – you said we started out talking about dogs and frogs, and now we’re talking about Tolstoy. Did you know that in Anna Karenina, there’s an entire chapter written from the point of view from one of the dogs?
There really isn’t that big a jump. The only jump is the one we put there when we say, “This is this, but it shouldn’t be that.”
Nrama: This is like a Grand Unified Field Theory of literature.
Muth: It’s just String Cheese Theory. (laughs)
Willems: You’re saying my stuff is cheesy?
Nrama: Mo, would you consider doing “black panel comics?”
Willems: I did! Around the time I did Knuffle Bunny, I was doing a very traditional comic book for DC called The 7th Helper. I wrote it but didn’t illustrate it; it was a nine-issue arc about a teenager who gets superpowers and battles robots. And I loved it, and I had a great time writing it, and it was canceled and it never saw the light of day.
Nrama: I missed this one…hey, we wrote about it! (link: http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=241)
Willems: Yeah, you did a big feature before it came out!
Muth: And then it never came out.
Willems: It was a little older than what I usually do, but I had a blast with it. It was an eight-issue arc, and then a stand-alone story. It was what I usually do – the villain of the piece was the President of the United States, who was eight years old, and he had lost the general election but won the 18-35 demographic, and therefore was President. Very timely. (laugh)
I would do more comic books, if they would print them! I find that them coming out is important. I wrote a lot for the kiddie comics – I did Sheep in the Big City and Codename: Kids Next Door stories, was part of cartooning groups like Monkeysuit and stuff, so I certainly have a background in that work.
The story that I’ve heard is they wanted something outside of the DCU, that had none of the established characters, so I did that. Then, before it was supposed to come out, I was informed that all new things had to be inside the DCU, and at that point you’d have to do something like change the balloons to read, “Boy, I hope Superman doesn’t come here in the Batmobile!” (laughs)
Nrama: Well – Newsarama readers, if you want to see The 7th Helper, let DC Comics know in emails and at conventions, and maybe we’ll see it as a graphic novel! Stranger things have happened!
Nrama: What’s next for both of you?
Muth: I’ve got a book coming out this fall, in September, called Zen Ghosts. It’s the third in my Stillwater the Panda stories – there’ll be four altogether, one for each season, sort of like a Japanese cycle of poetry.
And I’m doing a graphic novel with Scholastic called The Adventures of Ijon Tichy, based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem. This is his funny stuff.
Willems: This fall will see the conclusion of the Knuffle Bunny trilogy with Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion, in which…I can’t give away too much, but it’s about Trixie going to Holland to visit her parents, and the bunny continuing on, way around the world.
This is the last one! It’s all over! There’s a definitive ending! We discover who Luke’s father is! (laughs) It’s going to be a tough tour, because – and I’m not an emotional guy – I usually tear up at the end of the book.
And then I have an Elephant and Piggie book, which is my favorite Elephant and Piggie book so far, and I usually don’t pick favorites but this time I have. It’s called We Are in a Book, and Elephant and Piggie discover someone is watching them – the reader. And then they discover the book will end, and their mortality is clicking away with the page numbers.
Nrama: You are a very disturbing person, Mo.
Willems: The characters in my books would not hang out with me. It’s completely breaking down the fourth wall – you have these characters forcing the readers to say things like “banana.”
Nrama: So you’re taking the interactivity aspects of the Pigeon books and going straight for Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Willems: Well, more than that – what’s Ionesco’s most famous one? But it’s mostly based on reading a foreign language guide and finding the dialogues absolutely hilarious, and building on that. So it’s ultimately building on a Monty Python comedy sketch.
There’s also Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, which I wrote for the Kennedy Center. The title song is sung entirely in gibberish. And that will be touring the country for 18 months starting in October. And I’ll be touring for this book with Jon Muth!
Nrama: Are there any comics you’re currently reading you’d like to enjoy?
Muth: I like what Kevin Huizenga’s doing. I like his work a lot. Paul Rivoche's stuff is fun. And Dave McKean - when he's working in comics - is probably the best we have.
Willems: I just read all the Buddha books by Tezuka. I’m late to the game with manga – I worked on a TV show where the creator was deep into manga and anime and stuff, but I just sat down and read all eight volumes of Buddha in a couple of months, and it was lovely.
I learned a lot about storytelling from those books – character placement, design, efficiency in story, slowing things down, speeding them up – it’s been a great education. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Nrama: Anything you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet, or that you’d like to say to the fans?
Willems: Hi, fans. How are you? I’m fine. Thank you. Bye.
Muth: (laughs) I couldn’t have put it any better.
City Dog, Country Frog is in stores now.