Dave Roman Returns with "Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry"

Dave Roman has made a name for himself as a writer and artist behind a number of comics targeted at all-ages audiences. Books like "Jax Epoch" and "Agnes Quill" earned him a lot of attention, as did his work writing the "X-Men" manga from Del Rey and projects like his infamous "Teen Boat!"

"Astronaut Academy" began life as a webcomic before Roman transformed it into the book released by First Second Books in 2011. Now, Roman returns to that world with "Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry." He spoke with CBR News about crafting the sequel and upping the stakes while sharing an incomplete guide to the references older readers might pick up that younger readers might miss.

CBR News: What made you interested in returning to "Astronaut Academy?"

Dave Roman: I pitched "Astronaut Academy" to First Second as two books, because a futuristic space station school is filled with endless possibilities. Book 1 establishes a world where people (like characters in a videogame) have multiple hearts in order to survive physical and emotional attacks. Señor Panda (a secret agent/Spanish teacher) enlists Miyumi to help him to track down a strange creature that's hiding somewhere in the school, feeding off human emotion. In Book 2, the monster disguises itself as different people, specifically objects of affection in order to win the hearts of the student body. Breaking each of the "Astronaut Academy" books into two separate semesters was an opportunity to showcase kid characters who grow and mature over the course of a school year.

The story originally began as a webcomic, and the second volume has been serialized online since last year. What has the experience been like and how has it differed for you from how you worked the first time around?

I love being able to serialize graphic novels! It's unbelievably fun seeing how people react, page by page. Readers can comment on each twist and openly speculate on where they think the story is headed. It's a kind of engagement that most authors never get to witness when people read a book all in one go. The online experience seems to also build a sense of community which I think is really cool. The biggest difference between now and when I ran Part 1 of "Astronaut Academy" as a webcomic is that the new story was already at the printer by the time we launched the website. So it's  obviously too late to tweak anything based on reader input! Another difference is that now there are kids who discovered "Astronaut Academy" through the printed version of the first book, who have been reading and commenting on the site, where before it was adult webcomic fans.

For people who liked the first one -- or even if they missed the first one -- what can people look forward to in "Re-Entry?"

"Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry" has more intensity and is scarier than the first volume because of the higher stakes. It's not just Hakata who is being attacked, but anyone with a heart in their chest. No one is safe from the monster because it keeps changing identities in order to steal hearts. The school goes into lockdown mode, as parents and teachers foolishly try to protect the safety of students by putting a "ban on love." The kids have to become their own heroes in order to save the day. Along the way, there's some cool backstory on popular characters and there are new dinosaur cars, a space ninja master and bears who shoot lasers out of their feet. So really, something for everyone!  

This book feels different from the first one and has more longer stories running through the book. How much of this you were conscious of, how much was an interest in doing something different, or what?

When I started "Astronaut Academy," I was trying to jam as many ideas and characters in as possible. I wanted to create an original story that had the feel of a comic strip collection, which were the books I'd pore over and constantly re-read as a kid. Even though I was contracted for two books, I still treated it like it could be the only book the only book I'll ever get to make!

By the time I started Book 2, I had more confidence (and the guidance of a great editor, Calista Brill) to step back, save some ideas for later and keep the action focused on fewer characters and storylines. I consciously tried to give scenes more breathing room and do a few more 2-page spreads. But it was a balancing act, because I still wanted to keep the unique energy from the first book and not calm things down too much!

Why did you opt for a black and white approach as opposed to color?

I grew up on black and white "Calvin and Hobbes," "Far Side," and "Garfield" comic strip collections. And as I jumped into the world of self-publishing with books like "Jax Epoch" and "Agnes Quill," I took my inspiration from books like "TMNT," "Bone," and the books Slave Labor Graphics were putting out. Black and white was just how things were done! I like the idea of graytones for "Astronaut Academy" to add a retro-spacey feel and tie in a bit with the manga that helped inspire the series (though I didn't have the confidence to try screentones). I never even thought about doing "Astronaut Academy" in color until after the first book came out! I am hoping that I can draw a color book someday, even though it takes way more time to produce.

One thing that I think really makes the books stand out is your designs. You have a lot of characters in the book, and if you saw the characters in silhouette, you could immediately tell who was who. Talk a little, if you would, about how you design characters. Walk us through your thinking.

Thanks! I'm a compulsive sketchbook doodler and will draw all sorts of random shapes that turn into people (or bunnies, pandas, tanuki etc.) and eventually start to solidify into characters with personalities. When populating a futuristic school, it makes sense for there to be lots of diversity and it's fun to bounce differing attitudes/worldviews off each other. Specifically for "Astronaut Academy," my rule is to always keep things simple. Avoid unnecessary detail (like noses!), making sure each line has a reason to be there. I try to think about archetypes I might be playing to or against. For example, Hakata Soy is introduced as a mysterious hero with a troubled past, so he wears a high collared jacket and has wild hair, sort of like a sci-fi James Dean. When designing him I jokingly imagined a middle school kid who might have a 5 o'clock shadow and have Wolverine's muttonchops.

I want the reader to  know exactly what kind of character each kid is when they are introduced, but then hopefully be intrigued  as they move away from stereotypes into more layered personalities. A subtle thing most people probably won't notice: In Book 1, Hakata is very reserved, so his jacket is always zipped up and he hides his face behind a scarf when he's extra insecure. But in Book 2, as he lowers his guard a bit, we see him unzip his jacket and even take it off, once he feels he's truly amongst friends!

You enjoy throwing in lots of pop culture references and Easter eggs that many younger readers might not get but older ones do. What are some of the things you referenced which readers can keep an eye out for?

I grew up on movies like "Airplane!" and "Johnny Dangerously" where the jokes are constant and coming from more places than you can keep track of. When I saw "Spaceballs" as a kid, my parents weren't as obsessed with "Star Wars" and sci-fi movies as I was, so they didn't get the nerdier jokes, but appreciated the social satire in ways I didn't care about. With "Astronaut Academy" I like to be an equal opportunity referencer and hope there's just as many homages to things parents might not be familiar with, but kids will appreciate! That's part of the fun for me, mashing up the inspirations, so you don't have to "get it" to enjoy it. I'm not sure who is meant to appreciate a character like "Battle Royale With Cheese" that combines "Pokemon" (kids game), "Battle Royale" (violent Japanese franchise) Mayor McCheese (McDonalds icon) and "Pulp Fiction" (definitely not for kids) -- but I'm sure they are out there, somewhere!  

Here's a (possibly incomplete) list if anyone wants to go on a pop culture scavenger hunt through "Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry!" Some of the other things possibly referenced include "My Neighbor Totoro," "THX 1138," My Chemical Romance, Harry and the Potters, All Girl Summer Fun Band, The Knitting Factory, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Doctor Who," "A Wrinkle in Time," "Back to the Future," "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time," "The Halloween Tree," "Sweeney Todd," "Star Wars," "Mystery Science Theater 3000," "The Aquabats," "Digimon," "The Ewok Movie," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "The Black Hole," "The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown," Sega Saturn games, "Dark Side of the Moon," "Pinocchio," "Sailor Moon," Kiss, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," "Gatchaman," Cobra Commander, Tales of Ribaldry, Pom Poko, "Transformers," "Say Anything," "Voltron," "The Fly," MC Hammer, Depeche Mode, "Sonic The Hedgehog," Bum Equipment, Ub Iwerks, Bumper Boy, Monticello, "The Secret of Nimh," ShamWow, Team Rocket, "Super Mario World" and "Flight of the Navigator."

You're doing something with your local bookstore, WORD, in Brooklyn. Talk a little about what you're doing with them.

I'm fortunate to live near amazing independent bookstores like WORD that work with the community to organize unique events with authors and fellow book lovers. The store has a workspace area, where we'll be hosting collaborative comics jams with kids from the nearby schools. In the evening there will be a book release party open to the public with drinks (both for kids and adults), an interactive visual reading from the new book, and some other fun stuff. The folks at WORD are also helping with a pre-order campaign so people who can't make it to the event can get signed books mailed to them!

I have to ask, what's more dangerous: playing fireball with a heart deficit or being one leg of a love triangle with a heart deficit?

The burning pain of love scorches more than any fireball ever could!  But loving someone enough to forgive them for loving another, can lead to something mutually beneficial! [SPOILER ALERT]

What comes next for you? Do you have any plans for more "Astronaut Academy?"

I'm developing a graphic novel about a bunny who travels from planet to planet and hopes to start his own food truck business. It shares a lot of the spirit and humor of "Astronaut Academy," but with new characters and more straightforward adventure. I've also been collaborating with Jason Ho and some other artists on the teen detective horror series, "Agnes Quill." I plan to launch a new AgnesQuill.com website early this summer, so we can serialize the new stories.

Also, my script for the follow up to "Teen Boat!" (which we are referring to as "Nautical by Nature") is with our editor at Clarion books, so John Green should be diving in, and starting the art very soon! It's going to be the most epic thing we've ever done!

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