Conversing on Comics with Kazu Kibuishi
Kazu Kibuishi has found success in comics by charting his own path, one that took him from creating the Eisner-winning Copper to editing the acclaimed Flight anthologies to finding a home for his Amulet graphic novels at mainstream publisher Scholastic.
His work led him to be selected to create covers for the 15th anniversary re-release if J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter books. Kibuishi approached this prized assignment with reverence and deep knowledge for what Rowling and original illustrator Mary GrandPré did before, but infused the artwork with his own style to make the new editions stand out. And he took what he learned from that project back to his own books.
Kibuishi is finishing up the sixth volume of Amulet, subtitled Escape From Lucien, and recently complete a massive undertaking of Kickstarting, self-publishing and shipping out a new edition of his long out-of-print comic series Daisy Kutter: The Last Train. However, perhaps the biggest hurdle he’s had to deal with was overcoming bacterial meningitis, for which he was placed in a drug-induced coma for a week in summer 2012.
ROBOT 6 spoke with Kibuishi about what projects are on his horizon, those in his rear view, and what it’s like working on Harry Potter and overcoming a serious illness.
Chris Arrant: I have a lot of things to ask you about but let’s ease into it: What are you working on today?
Kazu Kibuishi: As I answer these questions, I’m putting the finishing touches on Amulet, Vol. 6, and soon after that, I will need to roll right into Amulet, Vol. 7, in order to stay on schedule.
I remember you once saying your initial contract for the Amulet series was only for five books. Can you talk about being at the point that it’s successful enough – and you’re still creatively fulfilled by it – to keep going to six and beyond?
I could probably draw Amulet books forever, but there is definitely a clear story arc coming to an end very soon. The current contract is for seven books, and if the story looks like it needs to end there, that is what’s going to happen. When I started the books, I envisioned a single 300-page book that was split into two parts because Scholastic wanted to print a shorter book, but as I was coming to the end of the second book, and saw that there was a lot of story left to tell, I went back to Alledia and kept the journey going. I work for my characters, so they can tell me when I need to stop.
In the last two volumes I feel like you grew a lot in terms fo storytelling and the structure of story. Am I seeing things, or did you deviate somewhat from the plotting you did in the first three volumes?
Every time we produce a book — by we, I mean my assistant Jason Caffoe and I — we try to push our abilities a little further and add new challenges into the mix. This principle definitely applies to the artwork, and it’s clear to see we get better every time. As a writer, I feel my confidence has grown by leaps and bounds over the course of the series. I used to hold on to a lot of set structures and storytelling formulas, but now I just freestyle and know that I’ll land on something that works. It’s kind of like jazz music or a lab experiment. Much of the storytelling comes through intuition now, and I have my own system that allows for a lot of improvisation. Writing my stories is a lot like creating a music album.
You’ve assembled a crew of artists and assistants to help you with Amulet. Just to give us an idea, can you run down who’s helping you on the creation of the book?
Jason Caffoe has been with me since Amulet, Vol. 2. He handles so much of the production artwork duties and organization of everything we do. Along the way, we have worked with a lot of young freelancers, and they always bring their own unique styles that get incorporated into the books. Our outfit is sort of like a classroom, with Jason and I being the teachers. Students move through here, learn a lot, then move on to jobs in the entertainment industry. I liken it to an apprenticeship program at a small animation studio. Jason was one of these students, but I felt he understood the vision of the work better than anyone, so I decided to take the leap and offered him a full-time job, moving him out from Minneapolis to come work with me at the studio.
American comic books break down labor into penciling, inking, coloring, while in manga they often do it based on the prominence of figures and background. How do you divvy up it all?
Both Jason and I do pretty much everything. Even though I handle all of the writing and the penciling/inking, Jason is a great writer/artist in his own right, so he is my first-pass editor on everything I do. He always lets me know when something isn’t working. I usually come to the same conclusions, but it takes me a while because I have to step away to see it all clearly. Jason gives me that same feedback instantly, so I get to the conclusions faster.
And are their certain things you could give up to someone else to do but you still enjoy doing so much you keep doing it?
I honestly just try to fill whatever role I’m needed in. If I ever felt it was best for me to pass the reins over to someone else for any part of the process, I would gladly do it — if it made sense. My favorite part of the process is actually painting the books, but I have handed over those keys to Jason, and I just work on adjusting pages and painting large spreads just to establish a sequence. Seeing the results have been great. Whatever the project, the readers, my publisher, or my family needs me to do, I’ll be glad to do, as long as I see the vision of it and that it makes perfect sense. At this moment in time, I think I am most effective illustrating and writing the books.
Amulet’s been coming out at a steady clip at around one per year, but there’s a break somewhat between volumes 5 and 6 for which you did the new 15th anniversary covers for the Harry Potter books. You’ve talked elsewhere about creating those, but how do you think doing those affected what you do when you came back to working on Amulet?
The bigger reason for the break is that I got sick with bacterial meningitis and was hospitalized. While in the hospital, I was put into a drug-induced coma for a week while they treated me and when I woke up, I pretty much forgot everything. I didn’t recognize my own family. I couldn’t even draw or walk. After a couple of months, it all started to come back to me, but that unfortunate event is what pushed Amulet, Vol. 6 ,back, and not so much Harry Potter. However, doing the Harry Potter covers did take a lot more time than I anticipated. Ever since I recovered from my illness, however, I have been more driven than ever to do the best work I possibly can.
You seemed a very measured and trained professional. How did going through this horrible experience with bacterial meningitis affect you once you got back on the horse and back to work?
The experience was just another reminder that life can be short, and since I still have so much that I want to do, it was like a big kick in the pants. I was pretty disciplined with my work before, but now I’m even more focused. Also, the short term memory loss seems like it’s going to be with me for the rest of my life, so I have to be a lot more disciplined if I want to operate at an even higher level than I previously did.
Would you say you’re fully recovered here now?
I don’t think I will ever fully recover, but I am back to a pretty good place now. My work hasn’t suffered for it, though. And because I’m working harder, I think it’s gotten better.
Did doing the art and storytelling needed for the Harry Potter covers help focus your mind when you went back to working on Amulet?
Yes, definitely. Creating Amulet encompasses so many difficult disciplines that to be able to work on just the illustrations and designs of a project for a little while was really freeing. It also allowed me to fall back in love with the act of illustrating, and helped get the gears moving to try and level up my drawing skills. Amulet, Vol. 6, really benefited from this experience and it shows.
You’ve talked a lot about Harry Potter, but one thing I haven’t seen you discuss much is those back covers – which intrigue me in a different way than those front covers. Can you talk about those? They seem like a pretty bold concept to get approved for such a high-profile project.
That was a pretty late-game decision on my part. Scholastic gave me some quotes they had from reviews of the books that I could place on the back covers, and it was suggested we just put some stuff that was featured in the books on the back covers. The thing is, the back cover accounts for nearly half of the book jacket’s real estate, and I thought it wasteful not to use it for something more significant. So I had a cover that I did for Goblet of Fire that I liked but didn’t use, and I put it on the back cover to see how it looked. I liked it, so I presented the idea of doing a full series of the back covers showing the progression of Harry through the years, and Scholastic approved enthusiastically. It was partly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s Artificial Intelligence project that was eventually finished by Steven Spielberg. The idea for that movie was to originally show a life lived through the years as it was occurring, by filming an actor every year for many years. Well, this sort of happened with the Harry Potter movies, and it is reflected in the stories, so I thought why not show it in a sequence of images? As for the quotes, I felt that we really didn’t need a review to tell us anything about these books, so I decided to use quotes from the books themselves that reflected the journey of each book’s story and painted a corresponding scene.
You also recently completed the marathon process of bringing Daisy Kutter; The Last Train back into print. That was your first major comics work, and from way back in 2004. What was it like to revisit it, polish it, and, most importantly, self-publish it with help from Kickstarter? Did going through that bring you back mentally somewhat to working on it in 2003 and 2004?
It was a great experience. Jason and I liken it to getting a master’s degree in publishing. All these years, we produced books without seeing what it was like to publish something ourselves. The project allowed us to see the entire process on a small scale, and I have to say it was humbling. Every writer or illustrator should give it a try sometime, just to see how much work a publisher does for you. The project itself didn’t really bring me back, only because I didn’t do any new work on the interior. That was all handled by Jason, so most of my time went into the fulfillment process, where I drew original art for backers, sketched in books, and packed and shipped orders.
One thing I realize while working on the Daisy Kutter Kickstarter was that I was a more efficient storyteller working on Daisy Kutter than I was as a storyteller on Amulet. It made me reassess how I wrote and drew the pages for Amulet, and how I could work to pack more of a punch per page. The results are on display in Amulet Vol. 6. If readers think the book provides a better reading experience than previous Amulet books- and I think it does- then they have Daisy Kutter to thank for that. The key was in changing the size I draw the original pages.
You’ve spoken briefly before about the possibility of doing more Daisy Kutter – and did a little bit in Flight, Vol. 6 – but what do you think the chances are legitimately to do another full-length story?
The Kickstarter project definitely did revive interest in finishing Daisy’s story. I have two other books in mind to do, but it’s been difficult finding time to work on them. I’ve been exploring ways to do those books, but it’s been difficult to justify the time and money investment. It would be purely a passion project. Perhaps some day.
You’re working with artists helping you on Amulet, but would you ever consider the possibility of working as purely a writer with another artist to do long-form comics?
Oh, sure! I’ve been trying to get projects like this started for years, but for some reason publishers don’t seem to be keen on them. It’s too bad, because I think there are some incredibly talented storytellers out there that could really use a shot at this.
What are you reading and watching now in terms of comics, movies and books?
This is a question for when I’m in the research phase of the next project. Right now, I’m focused on finishing Amulet, Vol. 6, so I don’t have time for much of anything else. Every now and then- just to get the wheels moving – I’ll watch a movie and study it. Pretty much any movie will do.
Over the course of your comics career you and your wife Amy Kim Ganter have had two children; most of your career is in what is considered “all-ages” comics, but does having kids reinforce or change the way you see your audience?
Throughout my career, I have always felt there’s been a real need for children’s comics, so my stance on all that hasn’t changed since having kids. I’m much less cautious now about how I write for kids, though. Over the years, I have discovered what I thought I knew at the outset, and that’s that kids are just new, little people, and they want to read a good book as much as any adult. So, if anything, I am much more willing to challenge my readers with my newer books, as my confidence in my approach has been bolstered. My son, who is four, doesn’t give much feedback except to say he likes looking at the robots. When I need to see what readers think of my books, I’ll just pay attention to librarians and teachers, and the students they teach.
Also, in taking care of my kids, my work ethic has really improved, and I have become very efficient with how I spend my time. So when someone says they’re afraid they’ll get less done if they had kids, that’s just not true. Having kids will make you value every minute you have available to work, and you will make the most of it.
Your books are all-ages – so at what age did you (or will you) begin introducing your comics work to your children? And in which order, do you think?
Oh, Juni looks at my comics all the time. He’s age 4. They can start as early as they want. The earlier the better, I think. My son has watched the original Star Wars trilogy more times than I have beginning when he was 2 years old (I estimate over 20 times), so he can handle any of the books I work on. And though Amy and I really don’t push it on him, I get the feeling Juni can be a pretty excellent storyteller if he decides to become one.