Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary














February 23, 2019


CR Sunday Interview: Aron Nels Steinke

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*****

imageI'm a fan of the new series by Aron Nels Steinke, Mr. Wolf's Class, the second volume of which is out this season and should as of this week be purchasable at all the usual outlets. Mr. Wolf's Class represents the side of kids comics publishing I find most interesting. Rather than fantasies about extraordinary children or avatars of same accomplishing great tasks undertaken or thrust upon them, books like Steinke's focus on the rhythms of everyday life through actors whose lack of life experience make the ordinary strange and unusual.

Steinke's series offers more complexity than most of even that type of work by focusing on a classroom's worth of kids, their delicately expressed interactions, and the occasional grace note from the eager teacher. Steinke no doubt draws upon his own teaching experience to interesting effect. The pages of the comic are filled with remembered activities experienced anew. I could read 50 pages of comics like this every day for the rest of my life.

What follows was edited slightly for flow, clarity and at least one word I made up. My thanks to Aron for his patience. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Aron, I don't know much about you that I haven't read between the lines of your interviews. When did comics enter your life and how? At what point did you realize that you might want to do comics? You've hinted that you weren't particularly into comics at an early age, perhaps to your developmental disadvantage.

ARON NELS STEINKE: I first got the comics bug when I was in the 5th grade. My dad had started a side business selling home soda machines. He called it The Pop Shop. At the time he was a high school math and science teacher but I'm not sure how happy he was at the time. At one point he teamed up with a house-less man he met outside of a Costco who sold hot dogs. My dad bought a bus and parked it on a corner in suburban Vancouver, Washington, where he and this other man would sell ribs and soda machines. It was not exactly a lucrative business for my father. [Spurgeon laughs]

On weekends my dad would drag me around to flea markets to give out soda samples and I'd work for him on commission. I think I only sold two of those machines. The Drink Maker was what they were called. I was apprehensive of flea markets at first but then I soon realized how amazing they could be with all their treasures. One day he gave me some money to buy some comics from a dealer who had several long boxes because my dad had a fondness for the western comics he read as a kid. I bought Wolverine #23. It was my first comics purchase although I do remember my brother had some Krull and Star Wars comics lying around our room.

So with this first purchase an obsession followed. I spent the next several years accumulating comics -- mostly superheroes from Marvel, DC, and Image. But I didn't learn how to make comics from reading them. The complexity in the art I was copying was just too challenging for me at the time to make more than one image -- let alone tell a story that way. I would just draw covers and pin-ups. I couldn't seem to draw sequences of images. I was so confused and curious about how they made those pen marks and the color gradients. I couldn't feel the connection between human hands and that art.

I did read Peanuts -- of course. Garfield, Nancy -- I think -- and then later The Far Side. I remember devouring the collections of Spy vs. Spy that my brother bought. I wish I had been exposed to Little Lulu, Archie, Tintin and Asterix.

Kids today are growing up reading Raina Telgemeier's books and Dav Pilkey's Dog Man comics and with the wealth of material available they grow up having the language of comics in their blood. There's an accessibility with the work that's being produced for children today that those traditional mainstream superhero comics didn't provide me when I was a youth.

I had only started drawing narrative comics after I graduated from animation school. After seeing the film version of Ghost World I then tracked down Eightball back issues, I read Blankets by Craig Thompson, and I read Clumsy by Jeffrey Brown.

Reading Clumsy really helped me break free from the stiffness of certain creators I was emulating. The less precious comics of David Heatley and James Kochalka showed me that you could make comics that were less precious and more about expression. John Porcellino's King-Cat taught me the poetry of pacing and of line.

imageI went from drawing huge 11 x 14 inch pages to six panels per page where each panel was a tightly rendered square inch. I put together an autobiographical mini-comic with these little six-panel-per-page comics called Big Plans. I applied for a Xeric Grant and got it. I was given $1,530 to print 1,000 copies of my mini-comic and it felt like all the money in the world. Miraculously, I got the book into Diamond and sold about 460 copies and then I got the self-publishing bug and kept going -- fueled by narcissism, student loans, and delusions of grandeur.

Around the same time that I was printing my first mini-comic I met Dylan Williams of Sparkplug Comics as well as many other great soon-to-be friends. But Dylan was the glue and lifeblood of the Portland comics scene. My friends Jeremy and Allie Tiedeman had just opened a comic store called Guapo Comics and Coffee. That store kind of became a de facto meeting place for the cartoonists I was socializing with at the time. They'd put on events connected to the Stumptown Comics Festival and you'd get to see and hear from so many great up-and-coming cartoonists in that space.

SPURGEON: Is there an influence in your work that you see that maybe no one else does? How much did other work inform developing your own very distinct style and storytelling solutions? Does that include kids' book illustration as something you've processed separately from comics, or are they all of a type in your own personal creative cosmos?

STEINKE: Aside from those I listed above I'd say the people whose art most directly influenced my art were: Maurice Sendak, Joe Matt, Marjane Satrapi, Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown, Hayao Miyazaki, Yuri Norstein, Jason, Lewis Trondheim, Peter Bagge, Mat Brinkman, Chris Ware, Marc Bell, Anders Nilsen, Kevin Huizenga, Gabrielle Bell, Frank Stack, Gary Baseman, Dan Moynihan, Joe Sacco, David B., Keiji Nakazawa, and Michel Rabagliati.

I remember thinking in my early twenties about how I had no personal style but I desperately wanted one. By the time I'd discovered most of those people above, my own style had started taking shape but I'm not sure how it happened except through hours and hours of drawing and being embarrassed at how derivative it all felt. And then my style appeared by embracing my strengths and knowing my limitations -- when I started drawing small. It freed me up to focus on pacing and storytelling. I couldn't make flashy pages, so why bother? Over time I've gradually begun to draw bigger. Now most of my pages are done at 9 x 12 inches on hot press Fabriano watercolor paper. I'm very lucky that I was successful at developing a personal style. If I wanted to make it more illustrative rather than cartoony I think I could do it but I'd certainly have to push myself and experiment.

imageSPURGEON: How did you fall into the First Second orbit and how much of your development of Zoo Box involved working your editor? I tried to reverse engineer when you started with that book, and I believe there was enough time from start to finish to put you fairly early on in that company's publishing plans.

STEINKE: I started working on The Zoo Box with my wife, Ariel Cohn, in 2012. She came up with the plot, we co-wrote the details together, and I supplied the art. We approached First Second in 2013 -- their 7th year of publishing?

SPURGEON: [laughs] Maybe not that early, then.

STEINKE: We didn't have an agent but I remember writing to our editor Calista Brill, and basically sending her an almost completed version of the book. It was good timing because they were launching a couple other books that were sort of a cross between picture books and comics and The Zoo Box fit right in.

I had hoped for The Zoo Box to be this exciting comic for reluctant readers; something that was easy to access on reading level but a little darker than most beginner reader books. Calista had some minor suggestions and I think we ended up adding in a page or two without changing much else.

SPURGEON: We talked the night you won your Eisner for that book. Was that a good experience? I know that awards recognition can be tremendously satisfying but comics is such that there's very little to no financial boost the way that programs in other media might provide.

STEINKE: I know it's not healthy to get caught up in awards but that was one of the best days of my life. I don't think there was any direct financial response (sales) but it did give me some notoriety and acclaim that I could use to help me with pitching and launching Mr. Wolf's Class. I also met Cassandra Pelham Fulton at the awards who is now my editor at Graphix and who acquired Mr. Wolf's Class.

I had brought a stack of my early mini-comics that I was never ever going to be able to sell and I was just handing them out to random people. I wasn't thinking of this as any kind of networking trick. I'm sure I came off as obnoxious to some people. I just wanted to save these comics from my recycling bin. I gave them out to anyone who would receive them. I gave Cassandra a comic or two. I may have handed you one. I know I gave some to the custodial staff at the Hilton. A month later Cassandra sent me an email saying how much she liked my mini-comic and if I had any projects to pitch her.

Ariel, unfortunately, was not able to attend the awards. It would have been so much better if she could have been there but just this past year we both went and and got to sit at the table with the Graphix crew. When you go to the awards you get to cheer for your friends. Liniers was at our table, too. He's hilarious, by the way. His speech really added some much-needed levity to the room. And then he bought us all a round of champagne. I didn't do that when I won. That's classy. That's what you're supposed to do when you win. I know better now.

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SPURGEON: As fond as I am of Zoo Box, I'm fascinated by what a different work in term of atmosphere and aim the Mr. Wolf books have been thus far. How did you pivot to that project?

STEINKE: Ariel really helped me out of a creative slump with The Zoo Box. I really had no projects in mind when she wrote The Zoo Box. She may have saved my career. With that successful little project I got the confidence to move onto a bigger book.

I was making the Mr. Wolf comic strips during that time as well but I was really just making them for fun. I was putting them up on the internet without any ambitions beyond that. After 200 or so Mr. Wolf comic strips it was clear to me that I was ready to tackle a big project. Those pages and The Zoo Box were warm ups for the Mr. Wolf's Class series.

SPURGEON: I'm a little lost. What role did First Second play in the move to a series?

STEINKE: The Mr. Wolf's Class series is published by Scholastic's Graphix imprint.

SPURGEON: [laughs] That explains my confusion. Of course. You just mentioned Cassandra.

STEINKE I have no doubt that First Second would have done a great job if that's where the project had landed.

SPURGEON: No doubt! Sorry, I'm a bit out of practice with these interviews. [laughs]

To broaden things a bit, then. An item of conventional wisdom in your part of the marketplace right now is to value series over individual books; that's what this latest book is, the second in a series. Was that a comfortable creative choice for you to make? Is there something you like about working with some of the same material over multiple works?

STEINKE: I've always wanted to work on a series. I know how ravenous kids can be about their books. Comics, especially. They'll read my book in an hour or less and then ask where the next one is. It's incredibly rewarding to be able to satisfy that need. I love hearing about kids who read my books multiple times while they're waiting for the next in the series. That's the best compliment an author can ever receive.

imageSPURGEON: What caused you to move from the teacher-centric material to engage first and foremost with the kids?

STEINKE: I wanted this project to be sustainable. Writing for kids is a bigger market and it was also the audience I was directly relating to day after day as an elementary school teacher. When I was making the Mr. Wolf comic strips about things that happened in the classroom I had to share them with my students. I couldn't not share them. I'd print copies of the comic strips without the text for students to fill in the speech balloons, captions, and thought bubbles. It was fun to see if they knew which moment or event I was depicting or what their interpretation was. Kids became the audience.

SPURGEON: You've brought up the late film director Robert Altman's approach to ensemble acting as a north star for this work, and you're also working directly from your own experience as a teacher. How did those fit together? Do you see that kind of collective-scene consciousness in your classes the way that Altman developed them or is this more of an exciting tool for you just in the use of it?

STEINKE: I think you'll get that ensemble feeling more and more as the series progresses. That's what I like about my favorite TV shows: You get to spend time with multiple characters and watch them develop. Multiple perspectives provide more entry points for relating and connecting with characters and you can build empathy for those characters that maybe readers don't immediately identify with. And the best is when characters change and get you to love them when at first there was apprehension. That's what David Simon and Ed Burns do so well.

You want to know something really dark? At first, in the brainstorming phase when you're just throwing out ideas I had the idea to make a children's version of Twin Peaks. [laughter] I thought maybe there was a character -- student or teacher -- who would go missing in my story and the mystery driving the plot is what happened to the missing person. Kind of like what if Laura Palmer had just gone missing rather than "Who killed Laura?" But of course that plot was so dark and scary. I had to throw away my first draft of the book so I could start totally anew.

SPURGEON: As someone without kids and decades removed from being the age of the kids in the class, what is the unique quality that you get from kids in that 4th or 5th grade range that you wouldn't get from 1st graders or sixth graders?

STEINKE: Fourth and fifth graders are capable and earnest. They're usually still in awe of their teachers and want to please them. That's mostly gone by sixth grade. First graders are awesome! They say crazy stuff and are totally fun but I didn't want to have the protagonists so young. It would have been more difficult for a fifth grader to identify with six and seven-year-olds. Kids typically want to read about kids their own age or where they will be in a year or two.

SPURGEON: You know, your pacing is wonderful.

STEINKE: Thank you!

SPURGEON: You make really strong choices within scenes that lets any individual episode develop at its own speed. I feel that's the primary distinguishing factor of both books, at least in a formal sense. How conscious are you in terms of controlling the speed with which your narratives unfold, and how much time to spend on any one moment?

STEINKE: I love planning for how a reader's eye will move across the page and how they'll turn the page. I like planning that forward momentum and when there will be a rest or pause. It's musical. It's about rhythm. I obsessively reread my work to look for that flow and check for the beats. I often try to minimize the text on the page, and what kind of action happens from one panel to the next. I really try to eliminate redundancy unless I'm going for word prediction and planning scaffolds for emergent readers who need that word and picture agreement. That's another aspect I love about writing for kids: planning the readability in the words they're presented and how I can sneak a new word or two in there that I'm specifically trying to teach them.

SPURGEON: Can I ask after the running gag with the rats? Does that come from a particular place. It's very funny on the page and sort of creepy in abstract. Is there a particular effect you want there?

STEINKE: I have worked in schools where we've had mice problems and in my own home I've had rat problems. Rats are super intelligent creatures but of course we don't want them in our walls. So often times we resort to killing them. I'm an animal lover so this is painful. It's easy for me to imagine a little society of rats. I put clothes on them because I wanted to play up our sympathy for them. I also was reading a Jim Henson biography and I think a little bit of the societal separations between the Grogs, Fraggles, and Doozers seeped into my consciousness.

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SPURGEON: I'm always happy when Mr. Wolf gets a satisfying moment to himself or otherwise scores a win. Is there anything you're trying to communicate about this massive task of teaching through that character, how we reacts to things and his generally easygoing demeanor?

STEINKE: It all started with my mini-comics with Mr. Wolf as the protagonist and he was essentially a stand-in for me. As such, the whole narrative was through the lens of a teacher. I've had to scale that back, obviously, to write a book for kids. It can't all be about Mr. Wolf but I do try to sneak his thoughts and feelings in whenever I can. I want him to be well-meaning yet fallible. I want readers to feel comfort in imagining that he is their teacher and comfort in knowing that teachers are human, too, and they aren't always perfect.

SPURGEON: I think you're nearly a full volume ahead -- has the creative process changed at all now that the books are coming out? Is there anything about the feedback you've received that's surprised you?

STEINKE: Yes, I'm one volume ahead right now and I'm putting the finishing touches on Lucky Stars, which is the third in the series. I finished Mystery Club, the second book in the series, about a year and a half ago. Working on these books while simultaneously being a full-time classroom teacher is quite difficult. I'm exhausted but I'm also having fun. There's momentum building and I want to take advantage of that. Also, making comics is what I do.

SPURGEON: I really like the scenario where the kids wonder after a previous teacher no longer at their school. I know I had a similar encounter with an ex-teacher, did you? For that matter, do the kids you teach know of this second career?

STEINKE: The idea of someone being here one day and then gone the next is something that happens to us all. Sometimes I'll have students abruptly leave the district in the middle of the year. It's shocking and there's sometimes no closure. It happens, too, when teachers transfer, quit, retire, or get fired. I'm not sure if kids are always given the full story.

In regards to my career in books my students know I'm a cartoonist. I have quite a few fans at my school, I think. I talk to them about the publishing process and I show them all my revisions and edits. I'm sure the work I do has helped me get my teaching job. Similarly, my experience teaching gave me something to write about.

SPURGEON: Is there any secret to maximizing your creativity within the context of another, and I would say primary, even, job? Was that constraint on time and where you got the moments to work something that you deal with differently than even while working on book one?

STEINKE: I'm creative at school but it's in quite a different way than my book work. I definitely have to compartmentalize otherwise I'd never survive. When I'm teaching I really try not to think about book work unless I'm specifically using it to teach a lesson. When I'm done at school I try hard not to bring schoolwork home with me. I know it's different for middle and high school teachers. The ones I know seem to be grading papers all weekend long. But I think because both jobs are so different I find myself left with more energy to make comics when I get home. More so than if my day job was editorial illustration or as a storyboard artist.

SPURGEON: Are there any works out there that you feel are like yours, work that you might recommend to someone to read between volumes?

STEINKE: I'd like to think that Mr. Wolf's Class is bridging the gap between the joke- and humor-driven work and the more serious comics for kids. It's humorous but it also deals with emotions and relationships.

* Dog Man. They printed five million copies of the newest volume! It's hilarious and it's so cute when Dog Man licks the police chief's face.

* Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. This book has broad appeal from both its target middle-grade audience up to adults. I'm not sure it's like my work but it's what I'd like my work to do.

* The Ariol series by Emmanuel Guibert and Marc Boutavant is similar to my work in that you have a class of anthropomorphs. It's certainly different in the fact that Ariol is the main character. It's a fun series that I think deserves a bigger audience.

* The Sunny series (Sunny Side Up; Swing It, Sunny) by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. I like how it's always got a little bit of darkness with Sunny's brother to contrast with its bright and paired-down illustrations and Lark Pien's soothing color palette.

* I recommend Sara Varon's New Shoes if you like anthropomorphs and Ben Hatke's Little Robot for great pacing. Of course the art is beautiful in both.

* I like Akissi by Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin.

* I think the Hilda books by Luke Pearson are similar to my work in terms of pacing.

* Of course I love Raina Telgemeier's books. She's got a new one coming out this year called Guts and an activity book called Share Your Smile: Raina's Guide to Telling Your Own Story. Kids already know her books but if you're an adult who still hasn't read her work, get on board. All of us working in kids' comics owe Raina a huge favor for blazing us a trail into the kids' market.

* I'm really looking forward to Andy Runton's Owly coming back into print in full-color from Graphix. I think he's working on new books for them as well.

* Allen Say's Drawing From Memory and The Inker's Shadow. These two are not too similar to my books but I love them and I'd like more people to read them. They are his comic/picture book memoirs about mentoring with a mangaka in Japan as a youth and then emigrating from Japan to the US and confronting the post-war anti-Japanese racism in California in the 50s. If you like books about cartoonists finding their way like Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life, Jiro Taniguchi's A Zoo in Winter, or Bill Peet: An Autobiography, you'd really dig these books. They're meant for kids but I enjoyed them so much as an adult.

*****

* Mystery Club (Mr. Wolf's Class #2), Aron Nels Steinke, Graphix, softcover, 160 pages, 9781338047738, February 2019, $9.99.

*****

* cover to new work
* pr photo supplied by Steinke
* cover to Big Plans collection
* fun panel from the Zoo Box stand-alone
* from the Mr. Wolf series, first volume
* one of the original teacher-centric Mr. Wolf strips that preceded the series
* a moment of satisfaction for the teacher
* the cover to the first volume in the series (below)

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