Eisner Award winner Eric Powell isn’t known for putting bunnies, flowers or other precious kid-pandering elements in his popular “The Goon” series, and even when it comes to making comics for the all-ages audience, the artist is more comfortable with gross and gruesome than cute and fluffy.
At Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, Dark Horse Comics has announced that Powell will return to the world of his all-ages graphic novel “Chimichanga” with a new four-issue series launching later this year. The original, self-published work told the story of Lula, a little, bearded girl from a broke circus sideshow who hatches and befriends the titular monster. This new series will be titled “Chimichanga: Sorrow of the World’s Worst Face” and follows up on the original story –a creepy comedy about friendship and corporate greed — with a new adventure written by Eric Powell with art by longtime comics and kids book illustrator Stephanie Buscema.
“It’s not set up like a sequel or a cliffhanger from the first book,” Powell told CBR News. “It’s all about taking the characters and putting them in a weird situation to see what happens. I’m really excited about getting another volume of this book out there. That first book was so counter to my regular fan base that I love the fact that I’m getting everyone, from adults to little kids, reading the book. It’s the project where I can say, ‘Oh, you have a five-year-old? Give them this.’ I can’t do that with a lot of my work.”
In our exclusive first interview about the project, Powell and Buscema both spell out their take on modern kids comics and explain why sanitized, fluffy stories meant to teach lessons have nothing to do with the latest adventure of Lula and Chimichanga.
CBR News: Eric, the original “Chimichanga” graphic novel is a project that I think you referred to as being accessible to kids, but it isn’t necessarily the kind of thing that you’d say is a children’s story. How do you view this new series?
Eric Powell: Well, we originally conceived it as an animated children’s show. And then, at the request of my sons — well, not so much at the request but because they liked it so much — I decided that I couldn’t let it go. I said, “I’m going to make something out of this.”
So I did intend it to be accessible to kids, but I also feel like that you don’t have to make something for kids and then dumb it down. There’s too much of that Disney Channel type of stuff as it is. They pander to children and make things really dumb and way over the top cutesy and baby talk to the kids. I think kids don’t necessarily need that, or like it. The stuff kids seem to like most is the stuff that you make that’s accessible to adults too. The more it’s entertaining to them, the more kids will gravitate towards it, too.
Stephanie, you’ve a background in illustrating picture books and other things in children’s publishing in addition to your comics. With this project, are you able to stay close to that zone while also being able to draw the kind of things you’re not encouraged to do on those jobs?
Stephanie Buscema: Definitely. I agree with what Eric is saying about how the stuff specifically geared towards school kids these days is dumbed down and candy-coated. I was a kid once, and I really, really gravitated towards scary stuff. It wasn’t stuff that was necessarily for kids. So I was a big fan of “Chimichanga” when Eric put it out a few years ago.
With my comics projects, I definitely haven’t been sheltered as much as when doing the picture books. With picture books, you have to go by all of these rules that I don’t think are appropriate. Kids are smarter than that. There is freedom in doing comics, as far as the content goes. It’s not over-edited and filtered constantly. In picture books, you’re asked to redraw things five or six times, and it’s being filtered by the editors and a board of people who will tell you what’s good for kids and bad for kids. It’s a big reason why I think I’ve gotten a little bit away from doing the regular picture books and chapter books geared towards young readers. I don’t feel like kids are deserving of that. It’s a lot more fun being able to explore these different stories that I couldn’t get past a lot of people in picture books. [Laughs] I’ve wanted to do this kind of thing for a long time, but most people who publish those books for five to seven-year-olds won’t allow it to happen. So this has been a real treat, and I think kids will really, really enjoy it.
In the first book, we were introduced to Lula — the bearded girl from a traveling circus who hatches the title monster out of an egg. Where do we pick up with them in this new book?
Powell: The title of the story is “The World’s Worst Face,” so that might give you some idea of where we’re going. [Laughs] Especially with a serialized story like this, I feel like you have to take an interesting character and not make it too much about, “How can I change this character over the story?” You’ve got to instead make a character that people want to listen to, and that they’re interested in — and then you drop that character into a crazy scenario and let that unfold.
With this book, I can’t really say where this specific idea came from. It’s definitely influenced by “The Elephant Man” film, and I wanted to do something that was sideshow related. Lula is such a bubbly and positive character, even though she lives in that setting. It’s one of the things I wanted to do with the whole “Chimichanga” series — give kids the kind of character they don’t normally get. Lula is a chubby little girl with a beard, so she’s not your stereotypical kind of hero. She’s completely cool with the way she is, and she’s happy about it. I’m kind of playing against that with “The World’s Worst Face,” because she comes into contact with someone who is the exact opposite and is pretty angry about it. I think that was the theme of this series.
What’s the collaboration been like between the two of you? Even though your individual work looks very different, I get the sense that you both have a real fondness for mid-century commercial art — Eric with his sepia-toned colors and Steph with her kind of Little Golden Book painting — that seems like it would make you mesh well on the page.
Powell: I hate to use the word “retro,” but I think we’re both into that older kind of stuff. I come at it from a grittier focus — my muddy washes and things like that — while Stephanie comes at it with a crisp, precise style. But it’s definitely a nostalgic feel almost. I try to go for that kind of thing in my own work.
Buscema: I feel the same. A lot of that has to do with me being influenced by older picture books from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, or old album covers and things like that. Seeing those images influenced the way I work and the way I always wanted to work. I just can’t get that painted look digitally.
Everything in this story is established by Eric. He’s doing the layouts, and these are all his characters. I get free rein, of course, but these are all things he’s created. I’m grateful for the chance to get to go in and draw and paint from his layouts the way that I draw and paint. That’s been fun. It’s a challenge, of course, because these are his babies. You want to make everyone happy with how you approach the work and the characters, but it’s certainly been a playground. Especially with my painting, I can go nuts with it. It’s been really, really fun to have that freedom.
Powell: I don’t think our styles are all that similar, but I think that’s a great thing. I wanted to work with Stephanie because she had such a distinct style. She’s got her own voice when it comes to her art. I thought that would make a great match up with “Chimichanga.” As soon as I got a few test pieces from her, I got really excited. I think it looks great.
I always want to collaborate more with other artists, because comics are such an isolationist existence. You just spend all this time working on your own thing, and then you put it out there. I miss being a part of a collaborative effort, so I was really excited when Stephanie agreed to do this. It also gets harder doing creator-owned comics because you don’t have a big budget to throw around to entice people to work with you. You have to pick and choose when you’re able to do that kind of thing, and this was definitely an instance where it was a great move to bring someone else on board to “Chimichanga.”
Buscema: I spoke with Eric when we were first starting the book; I asked if he wanted me to follow the color scheme of the original book, and he told me I could do my own thing with it. That was super cool. I kept the basic colors of the characters and their outfits true to the first book, but I kind of went a little nuts with the background color. [Laughs] I tend to paint a little bright, but I still wanted to keep a bit of that gloominess in the book in a way. It was definitely a challenge, but even as I tried to do keep in line with the first book as much as possible, there’s only so much I can do. I only know how to paint the way I know how to paint, so it’s hard for me to follow exact stuff.
Powell: Yeah, I definitely wanted Steph to do her thing and not try and copy what we’d already done. She has such a distinct style, but I think it’s actually better. [Laughs] Her sensibilities fit this world so well, and her use of color is an improvement to the characters and the story.
As this book has come together, what are the moments from within its pages — gross, gruesome or otherwise — that you think best show off the kind of kids comic you hoped to achieve?
Powell: I decided when I started working on this book that I was going to let it get really weird. And I think so far it’s going that way. [Laughter] I wanted this to be really bizarrely imaginative. There’s a part in the first issue dealing with Chimichanga’s stomach that really nails that.
Buscema: This is what I wanted to do, so I’m not shocked by anything in Eric’s story or grossed out. It’s just fun stuff. This is the way all-ages books should be. I just have fun with it and go with it. The weirder it gets, the more fun I have, honestly.
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