From his work ghosting "The O.C." character Seth Cohen's "Atomic County" strips to his work on the "animated" issue of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to his retro-inspired work at DC Comics to his acclaimed but tragically cut short TOKYOPOP series "My Dead Girlfriend," Eric Wight has earned a reputation across comics fandom for mixing the most recognizable elements of fanboy hits with a classy, youthful cartooning style.
So it should come as no surprise that Wight's latest project combines his deep pop culture cred with stories a younger crowd can connect with in the Simon & Schuster graphic novel "Frankie Pickle And The Closet of Doom." Divided between crisp comic pages and traditional kids chapter book elements much like Dan Pilkey's popular "Captain Underpants" series, "Frankie's" inaugural volume focuses on the titular hero's struggle to overcome his growing room garbage after his parent's tell him he doesn't have to clean up anymore. While the chapter segments explore Frankie's real world problem, the comics pages take place in his own imaginative fantasy world where his struggles mirror pop culture cornerstones including Indiana Jones, the Transformers, Batman and even things like medical dramas and Sergeant Rock.
"In every single story the things I'm passionate about and the things I love like comics and genre and old movies - all that stuff filters its way in," Wight told CBR. "What I'm trying to do with the series is have each book focus on a problem that kids normally deal with. The first one is about personal responsibility. And what kid enjoys cleaning their room? But I thought, 'If I could turn it into an adventure it would be more fun.' And then I could have him realize, 'Okay. I get it now. I do have to take responsibility because if I don't things could break or get ruined.'
"I love that the possibilities are endless. Working on the next few books, the second one revolves around the Pinewood Derby, or my version of that, and so it's like 'Speed Racer' meets the Cub Scouts. It's about being able to ask a parent for help and not always try to do things on your own and realizing that that's okay. Being a winner doesn't mean you have to do it all on your own. A great player takes a great coach -Â but all through the vision of these heart-pounding race scenes. And the third one is all about math, but it's math meets 'Lord of the Rings.' It's like this Medieval fantasy."
And while real life messages may creep their way into the series, the artist noted providing educational content was not his primarily goal with "Frankie Pickle," which started out as an animated series pitch to Cartoon Network. "I would hate for it to be the sort of thing where a kid is beaten over the head with a message, but at the same time I like that it's something a kid can relate to," Wight said. "Like, 'Yeah. I'm having a really tough time with math, but here are some fun ways to tell time or count money or do multiplication.' So I take the kid problem or issues they're dealing with and take favorite genre or aspect I would love to draw and write about, and then how do I put those two together? There's another story coming up where one of the kids gets hurt on the jungle gym, and it becomes this noir story where Frankie is the detective trying to solve the mystery of how this kid got hurt and then realized that he was the one who caused it. Again, anything is possible."
The opportunity to aide young fans with their reading skills isn't lost on Wight or big book publishers like Simon & Schuster, many of whom see comics as a way to draw more kids to books. "It's become a really big target for reluctant readers, and that's been an for teachers that's always been a tough nut to crack. They're starting to realize - after so many people discounted comics as a viable artform for so many years -Â that it's a great artform, that there are some really great comics and graphic novels out there for kids and it's something kids can get excited about," Wight explained. "My son is six, and he's just starting to read. He was reading 'World of Quest' the Jason Kruse book, and it was totally by himself. Besides Dr. Suess, it's the first big book he's been reading, and he's way into it. So I think it's a great outlet for kids, and it's real exciting."
Wight hits the road in support of "Frankie Pickle" this month, with planned stops at elementary schools, libraries and bookstores from New England through New York and down to Washington D.C. Next weekend, he'll be attending the Toronto Arts Comics Festival. Simon & Schuster hope the events will make "The Closet of Doom" a hit with kids early as future volumes are already on the slate for February and August of 2010, with story ideas written down for almost a dozen volumes.
"It's a real big series, and in fact all of this is leading to a full-color graphic novel," Wight revealed. "As the chapter book series has run its course, then the graphic novel is the next step in Frankie's story. If the chapter books are Frankie in third or fourth grade, this is Frankie in fifth grade as he starts to get a little too old to be getting lost in fantasy and how that affects his whole world and the world around him -Â literally the world of imagination and the world around him collide."
Eric Wight himself remains no stranger to colliding worlds, having worked in nearly every segment of the comics publishing industry. When asked if his kids work meant readers would no longer be seeing his art gracing the pages of mainstream superhero titles like "Justice League of America," Wight admitted he would be on a break from such gigs for a while -- a welcome break. "I wouldn't say the door is closed, but it's definitely not on my radar right now," he explained. "I spent so long trying to prove myself in that world, and for whatever reason, I never quite found my way. Although the fans have been unbelievably supportive and voracious for whatever I would do, but for whatever reason with the powers that be, it was never quite the right fit. I don't know if it's just that I have such a love for a different style. If I ran a studio, my take on it would be a little more of a Toth and a Kirby and a brushy approach to the art, and I know that so many of the books now are so much more coming from the Jim Lee school. It just isn't me.
"A couple of buddies and I had our geek-out moment a few years ago at New York Comic-Con when David Mazzucchelli had his table there. We went up and were talking to him, and he was showing us all the stuff he was doing and this amazing graphic novel he was working on. And he had all these amazing drawings of Batman and Daredevil to sell at the show, so I said to him, 'Do you ever miss doing superhero comics?' And he said, 'You know, when I was a kid all I wanted to do was draw superhero comics, and then after I'd done it I felt like, "Well, I've done this and now I want to focus on my own stories. And I'm really happy doing that.' It was exactly how I felt. From the age of three I wanted to draw Superman and Batman, and I can still do a drawing of Superman or Batman whenever I want to, but I have so many stories I want to tell. Working in publishing is such a wonderful experience that I can't see myself going back."
As for whether or not Eric Wight will ever be able to go back to his highly praised "My Dead Girlfriend" series, which saw one volume released by TOKYOPOP in 2007, the creator remains hopeful that some day he will do more with the characters, although currently the rights were tied up with the manga publisher. "It was a rough experience. They approached me because of my work on 'The O.C.' to help them 'reshape the face of manga,' and I was really excited to do that. I did 'My Dead Girlfriend' for them, and it was very successful for them. But unfortunately, I think their vision of success and my vision for fairness were not on the same page. With everything else happening in the economy, it's hurting everybody, but unfortunately we're in the situation now where I feel like my creation is being held hostage and they're not willing to allow me to do anything with it, whether it be by having another publisher acquire the rights or whatever."
But the future looks bright for "Frankie Pickle" and more kids comics to come. "Fortunately, if there's such a thing as Karma, I have definitely found it at Simon & Schuster," Wight said of the budding connection between large publishers and the comics world. "It's been really encouraging seeing the progress over the last couple of years. It's going to be interesting to see as publishers continue to publish more graphic novels and they don't find themselves limited to a manga trim size or a traditional superhero comic trim size and they can treat each book as they do their novels and as these little books of art with different paper and hardcovers -Â really find some creative approaches to how they package them. It's exciting."
"Frankie Pickle And The Closet of Doom" is in stores this week. For more information on the book, visit Simon & Schuster's website and look for Wight to be signing at this weekend's Toronto Arts Comics Festival.