Blast Off with Roman's "Astronaut Academy"

The cartoonist responsible for "Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery" and "Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden," Dave Roman is probably best known to mainstream comics fans for his contributions to numerous anthologies including multiple volumes of "Flight" and DC's "Bizarro World." Roman co-wrote "X-Men: Misfits" for Del Rey and the comics adaptation and prequel for last year's movie "The Last Airbender." For many years, he served as a comics editor at "Nickelodeon Magazine" before the publication's unfortunate demise.

The artist/writer's latest project, just out from First Second, is "Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity." Originally published online as a webcomic, Roman has expanded and added new material to the storyline for the printed edition and the creator is already at work on the sequel.

Roman spoke with CBR News while touring the country to promote the book, providing an exclusive look at his short comic that will appear in the anthology "Nursery Rhyme Comics" coming out this fall.

CBR News: Take us back, Dave; where did the idea for "Astronaut Academy," or "Astronaut Elementary" as the webcomic was titled, originate?

Dave Roman: I wanted to create a comic that was a mashup of stuff I love. Specifically, anime, manga, videogames and newspaper comic strips. It was also an excuse to draw cute, simply-designed characters making really over the top statements.

Reading the collection, it really does have a feel of a series of short, related pieces, generally told from the first person, all building to a larger story. Where did this storytelling conceit develop?

My love of monologues probably started with the opening scene in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the TV show "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," where characters talk directly to the audience. When I started the series, I had only seen first person narratives where you went into the main character's head, so you're always getting that specific and biased opinion. With "Astronaut Academy," I wanted a diverse cast of kids who all get a chance to tell part of a larger story, commenting on the arrival of Hakata Soy, the new kid with the mysterious past.

How does the webcomic format play to your strengths and in what ways does it continue to be a challenge?

It's less about playing to my strengths and more about just playing around. The creative freedom of the internet allowed me to try different things I might not have done with a set page count or deadline. Once "Astronaut Elementary" started evolving from a gag strip to more of an episodic story, I wasn't sure a page a week was really the best way to experience it, so I started thinking more about it as a book. But I don't think it would have been the book it is without the opportunity to experiment online.

What had to be done to turn your story into a graphic novel?

I added more breathing room than was the case with the original webcomic. On the internet, things are immediate and quick, for people with short attention spans! For the book, I redrew a lot of the chapters, expanding the scenes, making larger panels and adding backgrounds, so that it's less about rushing through and instead about enjoying the ride. I wanted the school to be more overtly like a space station version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, with hallways leading to all sorts of whimsy and crazy things around each corner.

I did want to ask about the dialogue, which I enjoyed because it has its own rhythm and flow, though it is a bit off-kilter. What was the thinking behind writing this way?

Another thing I've always loved is silly dialogue. As a kid, I'd crack up at "Monty Python's Flying Circus" or the "Ed Grimley" cartoon show because they would go out of their way to make simple sentences colorfully complicated. I got a special enjoyment out of watching anime and Godzilla movies, where the English translations were trying so hard to give viewer context, they took on a surreal level of character self-awareness. Since I was doing first person narratives and taking cues from anime, I kind of just ran with the idea that everyone in the future speaks in an over-the-top fashion. I enjoy trying to create sentences that not only lead into each other, but comment on the words themselves.

Was Hakata Soy and his past in the Voltron-esque Meta Team always part of the tale?

Miyumi and Billy Lee technically came first, because they were the only ones to appear in a 2-page comic I submitted to my friend's comic anthology. But as soon as I decide to expand and do more, Hakata Soy was the next character who popped into my head. I immediately knew he was part of a team of space heroes who had transforming robot vehicles. There were a lot of shows in the 80s, like "Voltron" and "Gatchaman," with similar team dynamics. The idealism of having teammates is a central theme and will play an even bigger role in Volume 2. Hakata's roommate Tak thinks they have nothing in common. But Tak plays for a sports team called the Chibi Sesame Seeds, who will end up recruiting Hakata for their Fireball Tournament.

I'm sure I'm not alone in loving the character of Doug Hiro. Where did he come from and will we be seeing more of him in the future books?

Doug is one of those characters that just seem to write themselves. He started simply, as kid who enjoyed outer space gymnastics and stubbornly wore his space suit in class. At first, I didn't think he'd be a main character, but I kept wondering what he was up to. And unlike a lot of other series, "Astronaut Academy" really is about the minor characters and sidekicks being as important as the heroes. I kept discovering new and unpredictable things about Doug Hiro, like his devotion to the guidance chancellor's secretary and his parents being invisible. And he's worked his way into a lot of integral scenes in Volume 2, even taking on a protege!

Speaking of the next volume, what can we look forward to in "Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry?"

One thing I felt was missing from Volume 1 was monsters, so "Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry" will have some scary stuff added into the mix. Also, more action and heartbreak! The storyline of Volume 2 pays off a lot of the relationships set up in Volume 1. Hopefully, after you read it, you can re-read Volume 1 and find enjoyment in seeing the different evolutions all the students go through.

Are you planning to utilize the same structure and approach for the new book?

The second book will also alternate characters for each chapter, but since the kids have already been introduced, the drama in Volume 2 picks up even quicker! It's a bit of a challenge to have to keep switching characters every few pages, but it also provides unique storytelling opportunities I couldn't do in a straightforward narrative. "Re-Entry" will have a few less random tangents, but enough to keep fans of the first book's quirkiness happy!

As someone who's converted a webcomic into a printed graphic novel, I'm interested in your thoughts about it as a business model from the point of view as a creator.

Whether in print or the web, I think serialization can be beneficial to creators. It's hard to work for years on a graphic novel with only a publisher's feedback. I actually have no idea how to make money from putting content online, so I can't really speak to it as a business model. Certainly, more and more people are digesting media via the internet and mobile devices, but how you get them to willingly pay for it is still a mystery to me. I'm pretty new to the whole concept of trying to make a living off my art; up until recently, I was extremely lucky to have a day job that paid the bills, so I could make all sorts of comics without worrying how many people were (or were not) buying them.

It was announced a few months ago that another project of yours, "Teen Boat!," is coming out through Houghton Mifflin next year. Could you tell us a little about the book for people who haven't read the minicomics?

"Teen Boat!" is the most successful pairing of the angst of being a teen with the thrill of being a boat. It's literally about a boy named Teen Boat who can transform into a yacht. You may think that we are playing this concept for laughs, but this book is dead serious. It catches people off guard because it sounds like a really absurd idea. "Teen Boat!" is the kind of book that really makes you think. About boats.

When I first heard of the comic way back when, I was reminded of a very bad eighties Saturday morning cartoon, "Turbo Teen," where a teen turned into a car. Did you ever see the show?

I've actually never seen "Turbo Teen," which is surprising since I watched a lot of bad cartoons growing up. I'll probably track down an episode once the "Teen Boat!" book is actually published. Maybe if "Teen Boat!" is a hit, the creators of "Turbo Teen" will bring it back and we can do a crossover!

What is it about telling stories for and about young people that you most enjoy?

My favorite thing about making books for young people is that if they aren't already jaded, the right book can completely change their life. You are in the right frame of mind for everything to be your new favorite. I look back on books I read as a kid, and they just feel so important. When it comes to the books I read today, I still connect to kid protagonists more often than adults! I've never bought into the idea that adult stories are inherently more interesting. Sometimes I hear comments from people who act so surprised when they relate to someone who isn't their exact age or gender. If a story is doing its job, we should be able to connect to any type of character!

Is there anything else you're in the midst of right now that you're allowed to talk about?

I'm just finishing up collaboration with my wife, Raina Telgemeier, on a story called "Spring Cleaning" for Kazu Kibuishi's new "Explorer" anthology. Raina and I also both have stories in "Nursery Rhyme Comics," due from First Second in the fall!

Could you talk a little about how you became involved in "Nursery Rhyme Comics" and which story you took on and why?

I was asked to participate by the book's editor, Chris Duffy, who was my long-time boss at "Nickelodeon Magazine." I couldn't pass up an opportunity to work with him again! He matched up all the artists and stories, so I just ran with the nursery rhyme assigned to me, which was "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe." It's a very whimsical mad scientist adaptation.

You worked at "Nickelodeon Magazine," and then you were involved in the "Avatar" The Last Airbender" comics that were based on the live-action movie. Dark Horse has announced that in addition to collecting all those comics, there will be more "Avatar" comics coming out next year. Are you involved with them?

I'm really happy that Dark Horse is publishing the "Nick Magazine" comics. They were a real labor of love and I think the collection will make a lot of "Avatar" fans happy. I have no current involvement in any of the new "Avatar" comics, beyond looking forward to reading them!

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