Michael Fry has been working in comics for many years. He’s written and drawn many comic strips including the long-running “Committed,” but he’s best known for writing “Over the Hedge.” The comic strip has been running since 1995 and was the basis for a successful 2006 Dreamworks animated feature. The comic centers around three characters, Verne the Turtle, RJ the Raccoon and Hammy the Squirrel, who live on the edge of suburbia, and a lot of the comedy comes from how much the animals enjoy the comforts of suburbia and are puzzled by what human beings are doing.
Fry is also the co-founder of RingTales, which created hundreds of short animated pieces adapting various comics strips and “New Yorker” comics. His latest project is “The Odd Squad,” a series published by Hyperion Books that combine prose and comics into a funny and thrilling look at a group of middle school kids and a series of adventures that insanely over the top and deeply personal. Comic Book Resources spoke with Fry about his latest endeavor, what’s in store for his characters in the second volume and finding humor in hippies.
CBR News: Most people know you from “Over the Hedge,” but you did a comic before, is that right?
Michael Fry: Several of them actually. I started out of college with a local strip called “Scotty” that I did for eight or nine years. During that period I got syndicated with a strip called “Cheeverwood” for the Washington Post Writers Group that lasted a couple years. I did a strip with Guy Vasilovich called “When I Was Short” for King Features that lasted eight and a half years. Then the year before “Hedge” came out I came out with a panel called “Committed” that I did for United for eleven years. I ended it in 2006.
Why do you think that “Over the Hedge” caught on so successfully while others didn’t? The ’90s were not a great time to launch a comic strip.
Or now. [Laughs] It got off to a really good start and it stalled out at a couple hundred papers, but was doing well enough to keep it going. Then the movie came along and that gave us a nice bounce. It’s still a lot of fun to do. I think they’re great characters. I haven’t run out of ideas yet and I don’t think I’m repeating myself yet.
People may remember the “Over the Hedge” movie and I know many people in comics have this dream of Hollywood money. You had your comic turned into an animated feature by Dreamworks with Bruce Willis, Gary Shandling and Steve Carell providing voices and it made more than three hundred million dollars worldwide. Did it have a big impact on the strip?
Definitely. You can’t help when 450 really really smart people focus all their attention and money on this little thing that you made. I think it both refueled T. [Lewis, artist of “Over the Hedge”] and I creatively to look at it in different ways. Obviously they did some things that went beyond the scope of the strip itself. There were moments going to Glendale and seeing the process and hitting yourself in the forehead going, why didn’t I think of that? They were inspired by the strip and used a lot from it but they took it in directions I wouldn’t have taken it. In terms of the strip itself, we picked up papers. I think we grew maybe thirty percent the year that the movie came out. Frankly, it has propelled my career since then. I do a lot of school events and talk to a lot of elementary schools and I always lead with “Over the Hedge” and I ask for a show of hands of how many kids have seen it and almost every hand goes up. Sometimes every hand goes up. That’s pretty extraordinary.
There are lots of characters in the strip, but I always think of Verne as the center.
Definitely. He’s the reactor of the strip. RJ is a more extreme character and Hammy is the most extreme character and so those things can’t exist in a vacuum. If it was just a strip about a Hammy it just wouldn’t be that interesting because you have to have something somewhat normal to bounce that off of and Verne has his own weird eccentricities but they’re grounded and they’re more internal as opposed to RJ and Hammy being very external.
I was going to say straight man but ‘reactor’ is more accurate.
He is the straight man, sort of, but he has his moments. It’s tedious to do the same set up over and over again so I try to change it up. That kind of goes against the unwritten rule of comic strips that these characters are immutable and you’re doing the same bit over and over again. Lucy pulls the football out and that’s what the audience wants. They want to see that repetition, but from a creator’s standpoint it’s just mind-numbingly dull to do the same thing over and over again so I like to mix it up.
How much of their personalities based on the animal they are?
Almost none. They are very incidentally turtles, raccoons, squirrels. Only in the obvious physical sense. It was probably ten years into the strip where I went to the wikipedia page on raccoons just to see if I could come up with some ideas. The only idea that was interesting was how raccoons seemed to wash their hands and wash their food. That seemed very not RJ at all so it wasn’t really helpful. [Laughs] I did get a week out of them looking it up on wikipedia and saying, “RJ, this is how you should behave,” and some jokes about how the media always gets everything wrong. But no, they’re really little people in animal suits.
When we came up with the strip, we followed the “Seinfeld” idea of doing a strip about nothing. Where it’s just the day to day existence of this group. To the extent that they’re animals, their situation is important, they live on the edge of suburbia and that obviously sets things up, but in their day to day interactions, they could just be very short people.
The animals in the strip are creatures one might see at the edge of suburbia, but that’s all.
Yeah, with some bizarre exceptions. They’ve been invaded by fire ants, although that could be reasonable, and after a hurricane there were displaced alligators.
Those are rarer and most of the strips are more day to day happenings, even if Hammy does make it more fantastic and crazy.
You’re right, the core of it — for me anyway — is just RJ and Verne sitting on a log and having just the kind of dumb conversations that friends have. How does Superman go to the bathroom. That kind of thing. The questions that have dogged mankind for ages. [Laughs]
I’m younger than you so this likely isn’t an influence but on “Fraggle Rock,” Uncle Traveling Matt would report on all the strange behavior of humans, which the Fraggles couldn’t make any sense of. You’ve done something similar with the strip.
We’ve done a lot of that over the years. It’s kind of the bread and butter of the strip, but it’s one of those things where if you do it all the time, it just becomes tedious. They mine that heavily in the movie. It’s always fun to do that. I always look at it as, for them, the suburbs are their natural resource and they’re the stewards. It’s like a National Park and they’re the forest rangers. They have to manage it properly. I always thought that was a fun conceit for the film and pushed for that. It’s a little abstract. You kind of get it and it’s clever but how do you implement that. They can’t just steal all the food all at once. They risk exposure so they have to manage it. So I see them as the ones in charge.
Your new project is “The Odd Squad,” with the first book in the series published earlier this year. How did you start working on the series?
I worked with this one particular literary agent in New York that had started working with some cartoonists. They were all chasing “Wimpy Kid.” “Wimpy Kid” has become this phenomenon. There was a lot of attention on publishing in this middle grade area to do these hybrid books that were half-written, half-cartoons. That’s right up my alley. I worked up the first sixty pages and presented it to publishers and we ended up getting five or six competing offers. That really blew my mind because I went, why wasn’t I doing this all along? [Laughs] I really enjoy it because it’s a longer form which suits me because it’s always been a struggle for me to trim my writing. It also combines cartooning. The money’s good. The first book’s been out since February and the second on will be out in September and it’s doing really well. I just found out some really cool marketing stuff they’re going to do in the fall that shows that Disney has some confidence in it and giving it every chance to succeed. I’m really enjoying it and the middle grade is interesting because I’ve always thought of myself as writing for adults but I haven’t had to make that much of an adjustment. [Laughs] I tell people it matches my level of emotional maturity.
I’ve read the first book and I’ve read a lot of middle grade books that to me as an adult come across being simple and simplistic, but yours did not read that way.
The “Harry Potter” books are very complex. Lots of characters, lots of things going on. Obviously they have a ton of adult readers, too, but I think kids like that. In Great Britain “Doctor Who” is essentially seen as a kids show and that show couldn’t be more complicated. [Laughs] Kids have a capacity to take in more than you think, or at least I’m trusting that. One thing I did was I have not read “Wimpy Kid” and “Dork Diaries.” I’ve read “Big Nate” for years as a comic strip and I’m a big fan, but I haven’t read his novel. I did it on purpose so I wouldn’t be influenced. I’m sure I’m doing some similar things but I just wanted to do what I wanted to do which is to write a book that was interesting to me that would also be interesting to kids. One of my rules is: no stupid adults. In the real world everybody does dumb things, but it’s just a crutch in a lot of stories to have the clueless adult who kids are smarter than and that’s not real. I replaced that with confusing adults or inexplicable adults. I throw everything including the kitchen sink into these things and we’ll see what happens. I think it’s the best stuff I’ve ever done.
It is fun and I think it feels true for kids at that age, where adults are on their own wavelength or they’re completely predictable.
Right. I can have the teacher say something that a kid doesn’t understand, but as long as Nick and the other kid characters react to it appropriately I’m okay. As long as from their point of view I have no idea what I’m talking about. And the kid reading it is not going to have any idea, but they’re okay as long as I’m staying true to the characters. The other kind of adult characters like the guidance counselor is well meaning, but like you’re saying is just going through it by rote. Although she’s got some surprises up her sleeves in books two and three. I also like to redeem characters [so] that you think none of my characters are ever wholly good or wholly evil. That’s something you tend to see in kids stuff. Nowadays on good adult television, everything is nuanced, and I don’t why it can’t be that in kids stuff.
The first book clearly does that.
The first book is about bullying and the second book, again it’s not an issues book, but it’s part of the story. The second book is about some schools’ insane policy of zero tolerance, so I’m getting in my little subversive editorial digs warping the minds of ten year-olds. Again, it’s not the point of the book. I think it’s important that books be about something instead of just one gag after another. The third one is about teaching the test and standardized testing.
You do seem to be having a lot of fun working on the books.
It’s so much fun. I’m not inventing a new thing. “Wimpy Kid” did it too, but “Wimpy Kid” is like a journal that’s being done by the kid and he’s illustrating things in his style and “Dork Diaries” is the same. Even though we initially presented this with the hook of Nick was recording his impressions into his phone, that was the first thing that got jettisoned because it’s not necessary. I think that the genre has matured to the point where you can do what I’m doing, which is essentially just telling a story with words and pictures. It’s not necessary that you know, is Nick drawing those pictures or are these Nick’s imagination? I don’t think that’s a question anybody asks. I think that’s a sign that this has matured and hopefully will survive past “Wimpy Kid” and these other huge success stories.
I think the success was the voice, more than anything. People liked the style and approach but if he didn’t get the voice right, it wouldn’t have mattered.
It’s a first person story and in that sense, these things are all similar. They’re all focused on kids in school and slice of life stuff. I think I push the boundaries of realism to some extent. Kids crawling air shafts and dropping down into things. You can stretch that and it’s okay. It gives the thing a sense of adventure and some stakes, too. I had a few discussions with [my] editor that there’s a sense sometimes that you need to place it safe and not put the kid in danger. I said, “If you can’t get hurt, then there’s nothing at stake here” — or, If he can’t get caught or he won’t get in trouble. You have to push it so the reader is really wondering what’s going to happen so that’s always a struggle in these kinds of stories. Physical stakes are usually more visceral than emotional stakes. That’s real life but we’re hanging from an air shaft into the cafetorium over a python. [Laughs] It’s pretty ridiculous but I thought it made for a nice crescendo of the book.
What’s in store in the second book?
“Zero Tolerance” comes out September 3. Basically, they solved the bullying problem so there isn’t really anything for safety patrol to do. It’s gotten tedious and boring. Into this situation a new girl comes to school. She’s from France and she and Molly become great friends. Nick becomes a little jealous and this is at the same time he’s trying to figure out the Emily thing. Without giving too much more of the plot away, he ends up bullying himself to try to flush Emily out. That leads to a second strike and you’re out at that school and a policy of zero tolerance. He’s got three problems, the French girl, Emily, and trying to deal with zero tolerance which is brought on by bullying himself. [Laughs] He has a nose for trouble. There’s also a the big third act set piece takes place at an Egyptian themed water park. The spokes-character is a hip-hop hippo and I had a lot of fun drawing him doing hip-hop dance moves. I had to build an entire park. There’s a map with all the rides. It has the fake wildebeest going over the falls and fake crocodiles below every three minutes. I would go to this park. [Laughs]
In the first draft have you drawn anything or just planned out what you’ll draw?
After I write, I go back and do rough sketches for all the art because there’s a lot of writing in the art. I say first draft but it’s really the third or fourth draft by the time I send it in. There’s going to be some fun stuff in the third book, too. It’s a lot of fun to go into the schools to read from it. I do a powerpoint thing where I show the art while I’m going through it and the kids laugh where they’re supposed to laugh — or where you hope they’ll laugh. They really laugh at the word hippie. I have no idea why, it’s just funny to them. There’s a joke at the beginning of the first book about how Mr. Dupree was a hippie and those are skaters a million years ago and whenever I read that part it always get a laugh. I’m like, do you even know what that is? I don’t know why, but it always gets a big laugh.
“The Odd Squad: Zero Tolerance” goes on sale September 3.