Thursday, May 19, 2011

I would be DAN SANTAT's SiDEKiCk Any Day!

I rambled off fifty different ways to start today's interview. I was smart, witty, and dashing (although you couldn't see it - I really was). I dressed in superhero gear, prepped my utility belt, filed the batarangs and gassed the Mattmobile (my version of the Batmobile disguised as a silver Chevrolet). Sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, you just can't be fully ready for an explosion of geektastic awesomeness that is today's interview. Seriously folks, I am over the moon. I have been a big fan of DAN SANTAT for a long time. His work is inspiring and laugh-out-loud makes me want to cry amazing. Thanks to LISA YEE, I finally got to meet him. But that is enough of my fan boy blathering. Let's get down to the meat and potatoes!

Coming in July is Dan's latest graphic novel that is going to melt our faces off, turn them to dust and blow the ashes into the wind. If you are not aware of SIDEKICKS (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011) - you are now. Dan and I talked about this awesome book and I of course had to ask other slobbery fan questions. So sit back and enjoy the awesomesauceness about to unfold...

Can you tell me a bit about Sidekicks and how the story came about?

DAN SANTAT: When I was in art school I took a Natures of Materials class where we learned how to paint in various mediums and experiment with different painting surfaces. All the assignments had to have a theme and so I went with superhero animals. The first one I did was a beaver dressed as Captain America (which ended up becoming the hamster in my book) and the next came an electric cat and so forth. I started sketching out these characters more and more in my sketchbook until I had six characters that I was fully satisfied with and I called them The Domesticated Six.

I still had a good year left in art school and I began appropriating them into other class assignments hoping that I could have a whole picture book dummy to show by the time I got out of school. Turns out that a year after graduating I met Arthur Levine and he offered me a two book deal (the first being The Guild of Geniuses) and the second was The Domesticated Six, which he bought just on the idea alone.

After the release of The Guild of Geniuses I ended up working on other projects and eventually getting my own cartoon show with Disney Channel called “The Replacements” while the whole world was eagerly waiting for JK Rowling and Arthur to finish up Harry Potter 6 and 7. Within that time the Graphix imprint at Scholastic was starting up we switched gears and Arthur asked me if I was interested in doing the story as a graphic novel. This was, originally, how I had envisioned the story to be in the first place and so I agreed to take on the task never having done a graphic novel before. The premise about neglected children who fight for a working parents attention seemed to hit pretty close to the model of today’s modern parent. It’s never a parent’s intention to spend less time with their families, it’s just that it’s harder than ever to make ends meet and you are slowly seeing more two income families with kids who spend hours in after school daycare and so forth. The family dynamic has changed tremendously since I was a kid and I just thought it would be an interesting story to tell. The first draft took me one year and it was 500 pages and it was a total learning experience on how not to make a comic. I was told it was too long and that two of the six characters just seemed too thin. After rewriting the manuscript we got it down to four characters and around 200 pages. The reason why this all took so long was because I was spreading myself too thin in every direction trying to pay my bills and raise a family of my own and certain paying assignments just always too precedence over that ‘white whale’ of a project what had an open ended deadline. It was about 5 years after I originally signed the contract that I finally squared away the manuscript I wanted to tell. The other two years was just drawing and coloring.

Are you a comic book fan? What books or stories are you following and who influences you the most (characters or creators)?

DS: I’m a HUGE comic book fan. I grew up giving almost every comic out there a fair shake until I eventually settled into reading mostly Marvel comics. I had a friend who introduced me to every title out there from the more obscure characters such as Dr. Strange to the very popular X-Men. After about five years of collecting I had collected about a thousand comics and when there was that mass exodus of talent to start Image Comics I started branching out into Manga. Back in the day when you wanted to see Anime you had to go to a comic convention and buy it off some guy who recorded a movie off of a laserdisc and sold it for $30.

All of it was in Japanese and I couldn’t understand a single word but it clearly was a different philosophy of storytelling and I wanted to know more and so I started reading AKIRA and Appleseed and so forth. The beauty of those titles was that characters had major flaws and would suffer from their dearly for their mistakes, sometimes even death which was uncommon in American mainstream comics. Sure Superman died but they brought him back a few months later.

The death of Robin was the closest thing we ever seriously got to anything I read in Manga.

Now I’m rather picky about what I read. I often like to support the smaller independent writers and I’m actually less of a superhero fanatic than when I was a kid. Right now the only real serialized comic that I’m reading is “Blade of the Immortal” but for the most part I’m reading stories like “Ghost World”, “Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid in the World”, and most recently “Scott Pilgrim” and anything from First Second Comics (I mean anything). Throughout my life I find myself being influenced by folks like Masamune Shirow, Katsuhiro Otomo, William Joyce, David Sedaris, Daniel Clowes, and Tex Avery.

As a writer/illustrator can you tell me how your process works? Do you find yourself doodling and then inspiration strikes for a story or does the story hit and images come later?

DS: I’m always infatuated with the story. Illustrations can give me ideas but I never actually draw anything unless I feel the story is solid and it’s worth my time. I may draw the characters a few times to figure out how I want them to look and that will often reflect their personality, but that’s it. I outline (Sidekicks was about a 27 page outline) followed by storyboarding the dialogue and then assemble the boards into comic spreads and finally ink and color.

When I think about storytelling I’m sometimes inspired by a drawing I’ve done, other times I’m inspired by other stories which I feel could be interesting if approached it in a different way. As a whole I’m often inspired by everything I see and read and I flesh out and outline.

You created a wonderful cartoon, The Replacements. How different is it working in animation for you than illustrating books? What are the biggest challenges in animation?

DS: In animation you work with a group of folks, (creative and administrative) and the idea is agreed upon as a whole and the end product is about getting as many viewers as possible. What I feel it suffers is that it tries to be everything at once and in turn becomes a watered down version of the basic idea. The biggest challenge in animation is having your choices constantly having to be filtered and approved before you can move on to the next step. It’s a constant start and stop and you often find yourself having to compromise on some things. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate a team effort but when you compare it to publishing it’s just you, an editor, and an at director. The vision is more pure and the editor helps you make your vision come out clear and concise. Though animation pays much better I prefer the clear pure vision of the original idea any day.

I certainly hope there will be some new cartoons coming from you. Anything you can share with us? Tease us about?

DS: I’ve been playing with some ideas but I haven’t really approached the animation industry since the Replacements. I’ve been really focusing on becoming more relevant in publishing and firmly establishing myself there, besides, it’s a lot easier to get a book deal than a TV show, and I have a lot of stories I want to tell.

Well I am glad you are doing books right now because I think they are the truest form the creator can have.

What do you love about the writing and illustrating process? What do you hate about it?

DS: I love the outlining process of writing a story. It’s the fitting of all the pieces of the story where I finally see things come to life. It’s only after I do an outline that I can fairly judge if an idea I have is worth publishing or not. When I illustrate it’s actually more on the finishing end that I appreciate. I’m pretty loose when I paint and things don’t really come together until the last few steps. In fact, I rarely sketch things out unless it’s needed. I generally like my artwork to evolve from nothing rather than be so carefully calculated. I understand the need for it though which is why I try to put most of my energy in the sketching process so I don’t have to redo as much in the end.

If you could adapt any story you wanted into the Dan Santat version/retelling what would it be and why?

DS: I have a Dune/Nausicaa idea (though not as dark and creepy) that I’m working on that I’m really excited about but it will be years before I even get a chance to tackle it. There aren’t any specific reasons other than the idea came into my head and it just feels really exciting.

That sounds fantastic! Can I pre-order that now even though it is not ready? No, really... can I? 

Okay, last question (I promise). Let's say there is a zombie apocalypse going on and you are trapped in a house for a long time with only ONE book. What would it be and why?

DS: “The Zombie Survival Guide” by Max Brooks. Duh!

More like super DUH!! But Dan is the first one to say this book! That's why I would be his sidekick. Chewie to his Han, Robin to his Batman, Strawberry to his Shortcake... er. Well, you get the idea.

Okay, that was FANtastic for me and I hope everyone else enjoyed as much as I did. A super hero sized thank you to Dan for dropping in, kicking butt and taking names. A Batastic hug to Lisa Yee as well for being her usual superb self. Be sure to follow Dan (because he is hilarious) and all his happenings through his website and blog here. Until next time, keep kicking TAIL!


  1. AWESOME interview! It was so great to learn more about such a superhero of a guy. Dan rocks!

  2. Really great interview, D.M.! When I first saw Dan's worked I knew it looked familiar, but I never expected it to be the same guy that created The Replacements. :D

  3. Batastic hugs back to both you boys. Great interview!

  4. Awesome interview dude. I'll definitely pick this up and I'm thankful to Dan for graphic novel suggestions. Also, I love that the first video you embedded has incorporated the music of Cowboy Bebop and The Gorillaz. I'm happy.