Jake Parker: From "Flight" to "Missile Mouse"

Jake Parker has been working in comics and animation for years, but his first long form comic book work has just been published by Scholastic's Graphix imprint.

The writer/artist's day job is at Blue Sky Studios, the company behind the "Ice Age" movies and "Horton Hears a Who" among other films, while his comics have been published in various issues of the "Flight" anthology. In the recent "Flight Explorer," Parker wrote and illustrated a story featuring a new character, Missile Mouse, a character who is the titular subject of the creator's first full length graphic novel, "Missile Mouse: The Star Crusher."

CBR News spoke with Parker about how the Missile Mouse character came to be, what it's like fulfilling his longtime dream of working in comics, what the future holds for Missile Mouse and more.

CBR News: Jake, most comics fans probably know you as one of the cartoonists from the "Flight" anthologies, but I was wondering if you could just talk a little about your background and how you became interested in cartooning and animation?

Jake Parker: I grew up watching cartoons, reading the funnies, and drawing what I watched and read, like any normal kid. But about the time most of my peers grew out of that stuff, I discovered my first comic book shop and my interest in animation, comics, and drawing compounded. Call it fate or just plain luck, but there happened to be a comic book shop next door to the sewing store my mom frequented. The next time she needed to go pick up needles I made sure I was in the car with her. We split up, and when I walked into Atomic Comics for the first time, my mind was officially blown. It was like Darwin setting foot on the Galápagos for the first time. I had known about comics, but the diversity and breadth of books splayed out before me was absolutely earth-shattering for me. I discovered the X-men, manga, and Usagi Yojimbo on that trip. Subsequent visits yielded even more discoveries.

From that point on, every scrap of money I found, every wage I earned, ended up in the cash register of that little shop. And all the while, I was drawing, and drawing, and drawing. When the time came for me to decide what I was going to do with my life, there really was no choice. It was either draw some more and figure out how to get paid for it, or take a creatively vapid job and suffocate. Since making that decision, I've done a little bit of everything. From working on a dinosaur exhibit for the local natural history museum, to television commercials, to game cinematics, to feature animation, to comics, there's not much I haven't had my hands in artistically.   Where did the idea and the look for Missile Mouse originally come from?

Missile Mouse was initially conceived when I was just a kid, and as such is very much a product of the influences saturating my brain at the time. As was standard practice for me in my early teens, I would combine anything I thought was cool try to make something new out of it. The fallout from this procedure generated rejects like Yo-Yo Boy and Beaver Man, but one character seemed to work, and I liked him a lot. He was part Rocketeer, part Spaceman Spiff, part Rescue Ranger, and part James Bond. I ended up drawing Missile Mouse off and on for the next 15 years, gradually evolving him into what he is today. You can see his design history here.

The character's first appearance was in the "Flight Explorer" anthology. Did you have plans for the character beyond the story we read there?

I've had big plans for Missile Mouse ever since conception, but I wanted to ease into it, mostly because of my own insecurities and shortcomings as a story teller. At twenty pages, it was the longest story I had drawn at that point. So to commit to a full length graphic novel coming out of the gate would have been way over my head. The "Explorer" story turned out to be a proof of concept for me. One, to see if I enjoyed drawing twenty pages straight of the little rat, and two, to see if I could tell a compelling short Missile Mouse story that left people wanting more.   What made the character one you wanted to spend the time and energy on creating a full length graphic novel around?

I'm not only drawn to the character, but the whole world he inhabits. Taking on this project was less about drawing a space mouse for 175 pages and more about creating and exploring a new universe with all it's worlds, aliens, spaceships, and technology. I love coming up with that stuff and drawing it. So the idea was to create a character that would allow me to live in a world like that. That's why I'm so inspired by world makers like Lucas, Tolkien, and Mignola. They didn't just create a character for us to follow; they created whole realms for us to explore. Missile Mouse is my humble attempt at doing the same.   How did you end up connecting with Scholastic?

They had seen my work in" Flight" and had been working with Kazu on his "Amulet" book, and I think the next obvious step was to branch out to other "Flight" artists and see what they were up to. So they contacted me, and we talked about some ideas. They were really drawn to Missile Mouse, and so we started to put that project into motion.   What's your experience of working with Scholastic and the editors on the book been like? How did they help as far as telling such a longer and more complicated story?

It's been great. The team of people at Scholastic have been so supportive of Missile Mouse. The editors I've worked with don't want to get in the way of any of the creativity. They're vigilant about making sure the story I want to tell gets told in the most clear and entertaining way. The notes I get are usually ideas to help clarify a character's motivation, or how to punch up the intensity in a certain scene. And having a publisher like Scholastic behind me really helps motivate me to do the best work I can do. From promoting the book, to the design of the jacket, they've been a fine group of people to work with. 

In the graphic novel, you really take advantage of the length and give the reader a look at Missile Mouse's story and who he was and how it plays into the character. Did you have all this in mind about the character from the beginning?

No I didn't. Ideas about Missile Mouse's back story evolved over time, just as much as his design has. I always knew I wanted him to be some sort of galactic special operations agent, but his motivations for that and how he ended up in that position have been all over the place. In fact, a large part my time spent writing "Star Crusher" was figuring out exactly who this character was. Once I had that figured out, plotting out the story for "Star Crusher" went along much smoother.   As you stated earlier, you obviously love science fiction and space stories and characters jetting along on strange worlds. In addition to Missile Mouse, there's Lucy Nova, who worked for, I think it was called the Intergalactic Research Agency. What exactly is it that you enjoy so much about these kinds of stories?

I love sci-fi. I love cheesy bad sci-fi, and I love serious sci-fi. Whether it's space opera, or just subtle incidental stuff, it's all good in my book. There's always something I can glean from it, regardless of how poorly made it is. I haven't thought too much about why I love this genre so much. I think my nature is pretty forward looking. I get nostalgic about the past, but more so, I'm always thinking about next year, 5 years from now, 50 years from now. I love seeing where technology is going, and projecting what a computer will be like when I'm 80 years old. I pray I'm not the grandpa who can't set the right time on my flux capacitor. My love of sci-fi might be an extension of that. But I'm also extremely interested in industrial design, exploration, archeology, different cultures, and bio diversity. I think sci-fi is unique in its ability to incorporate all of those things into one genre. Plus spaceships are just so cool. Pew! Pew! Shooooooom! That said, fantasy has been creeping in on my radar, and I'm feeling the itch to do a knights and dragons type story some day.  Do you have a favorite character or creature design from the book?

My favorite would have to be the Cephalodians. One of them first appeared in the "Flight Explorer" story, and I thought it would be cool to bring more of them into this book. The only problem was, I had only designed the head. In the "Flight Explorer" story, Missile Mouse fights a three tentacled Cephalodian designed robot, so thought it'd be cool if these guys were also three legged tentacle men. And, in staying true to the design language established with the robot, I gave them bulb shaped helmets and blasters. I think they offer a nice balance to the rest of the bipedal characters in the book. Here's a post I did on them.

Are we going to see more Missile Mouse in the future?

Oh yes. I'm finishing up the inks on Missile Mouse's second book. It's a completely different story from "Star Crusher." The idea being, each adventure can hold up on it's own like the James Bond movies. And if enough people like these books, I'm sure Scholastic will be up for putting more Missile Mouse stories on the shelves.   So what can we look forward to in the next Missile Mouse book, and when are we going to see it?

In the next book, Missile Mouse goes face to face against Blazing Bat (another product of those late adolescent character mash-ups I did) who is a hired assassin out on a mission to capture MM. I'm much more confident with this next story, and it feels like I'm beginning to hit a stride. There's a whole new cast of different characters with intertwining plot lines all converging to another explosive ending. It has monsters, mid air battles, a wicked king, robot commandos and fantastic environments. But it also has a lot of heart, too. It'll be on shelves next January.

Before we wrap things up, I wanted to ask about your day job at Blue Sky Studios, which is the company behind the "Ice Age" movies, "Horton Hears a Who" and other animated films. What do you do there, and how does it play to some of the same strengths that we see in your comics?

I've been with Blue Sky for almost 5 years now as a designer. The focus of my work there has been chiefly set design, though I'll dabble in character and vehicle design from time to time. A scene will come to me from the story department, and it has the Mayor of Whoville meeting with the scientist Dr. Larue in her office. I'll begin visualizing this space in sketches and work my way up to a solid concept design. The main object is to meet the needs of the action while still maintaining an appealing sense of design. Once the design is approved, I'll draft up different orthographic views and pass it to the extremely capable hands of the modeling team. Working this way has been a huge asset to me as a comic book artist because my job in the book is to make you feel like the character is really in the world he inhabits. And that's been a big goal of mine with Star Crusher is to make you feel like every location has been thought through, is tangible, and feels like it exists beyond the panel borders. Hopefully, I've accomplished that.

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