Judd Winick Flies High with "Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth"

Judd Winick has worked on the creative side of comics in nearly every incarnation possible: as a comic strip artist ("Frumpy the Clown"), irreverent indie creator ("Barry Ween") and for a number of years, he was one of the industry's most prominent superhero writers with lengthy runs on DC Comics' "Batman" and "Green Lantern," and Marvel's "The Exiles." And while he may no longer be a monthly fixture at the comic book store, he's not done stretching his limits.

Winick's new all-ages book series debuts in September from Random House Books, and the first installment, "Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth," is suffused with humor, heart and thrilling action sequences thanks to its three young protagonists: DJ, Gina and fallen-from-the-sky Hilo. But while the relationship between the three children drives the focus of the book, Winick is quick to note that there are plenty of giant robot insects as well. And things get both weirder and more personal from there.

Winick spoke with CBR News about the genesis of "Hilo," his pull back from superhero comics, and the place where his book becomes "Doctor Who" meets "Calvin and Hobbes."

CBR News: DJ is the story's point of view, and he's sort of in that territory I think most of us experience at some point during adolescence where he just doesn't see what's so special about him.

Judd Winick: Yeah. DJ is the kiddo who finds Hilo (after, as the title tells you, he fell to earth.) I think kids run between feeling that they are "destined" for bigger fish to fry and feeling like they ain't never gonna catch a fish. DJ has an over-achieving family, so he's watching his brothers and sisters kick many levels of butt out there. He doesn't see himself as being good at anything. He will learn, and the story shows, that he possesses more intangible qualities. It's not about his grades or talent. He's loyal. He's brave. And that's going to very important.

Gina's outlook toward their home of Berke County has changed during the three years she's been away, but the qualities of her personality seem unaltered. Still, three years in the life of a child is a long time, isn't it?

Yeah. Gina was DJ's best friend then she moved away when they were 7. Now she's 10 and has moved back. She was a different kid when she was DJ's best friend and living down the street from him. Now his little running buddy has new interests. That's hard for DJ. A big part of the story is how friendships are formed and how they change. That and fighting giant robot insects. The important stuff in life.

We don't want to spoil too much about Hilo, but he brings a very open enthusiasm to DJ's life at a time when DJ seems a little harsh on himself. What sort of inspirations fueled his character?

I'd say the influences come from a lot of different places, from "E.T." to "Iron Giant" to "Doctor Who." I think that Hilo's enthusiasm is a Doctor Who meets a Calvin and Hobbes thing. The Doctor is often in awe and thrilled by things that might kill him. He's happy to see something new and amazing, even if about blow up or eat everyone. I love that. I think Hilo's got that in him. He brings out that thrill for excitement in DJ. And the Calvin and Hobbes part is the -- Run, yell, jump, gooooo! Big, fat, physical stuff.

Although there is plenty of sci-fi adventure and danger faced, the relationships between the three friends is the book's real draw. There's a realness to their camaraderie. Does your having kids influence the dynamic between the three protagonists?

Yes. I wanted to make a story that they could relate to. I wanted the kids to feel like real kids but aspirational -- kids they want to be like. But these three aren't perfect. They have flaws, and I'm hoping the flaws are also things kids can relate to. We root for characters we feel like we could know or even be. And these kids are funny. And having fun. I think the most important part of "Hilo" is that I wanted it to be funny. All of my favorite stories, even the big dramas, have lots of humor. Or like Pixar movies. Those are wall-to-wall jokes, but with 10 tons of heart. That was what I was shooting for. And I know my kids love stories like that.

You've set up a sequel that should really upend the characters' worlds. How much "Hilo" do you have planned for the future?

Six books. It's serialized. Each book will move us forward in the story. And it will end. The benefit of creating superhero comics for over ten years is that I got to develop all these muscles for making on-going stories. The advantage over super hero comics is that I can take the characters anywhere. Simply said, there's things I can't have Batman do since he's not my character. This story is mine, and it plays to a big end. I am really looking forward to that.

On the opposite end, what about the genesis of "Hilo"? How did the story start?

A few years back my son, all of 7 at the time, asked if he could read some of my Batman comics. I told him "No," explaining that "Batman is for older kids and grownups." And that was true. I mostly felt that my runs on there were pretty intense for a 7-year-old, you know? A lot of very angry, sad, vengeful Jason Todd stabbing and shooting people. And Batman wasn't exactly giving the criminals back-rubs. So we sought out more all-ages comics because simply, he really, really just wanted to read some comic books. He's been through the collections of my comic strip "Frumpy the Clown" and had been dog-earing my old "Garfield" books and "Peanuts" and "Calvin and Hobbes." But what he really wanted was a comic book -- word balloons and panels and an ongoing story.

So, I gave him Jeff Smith's "Bone" and my son lost his damn mind. Jeff's a buddy of mine so he sent me t-shirts, action figures, posters. I had myself a "Bone"-superfan here. And I got jealous. So, that got my engines going. I wanted to make something that my son would dig too.

You were part of the New 52 relaunch at DC, writing both "Catwoman" and "Batwing," but you've cut out your "mainstream"/superhero commitments. Was that a conscious choice to pull back from that work?

I think a better way of saying it is that I drifted away. It wasn't quite that conscious of it. I started working on "Hilo" while I was still scripting books for DC. I didn't have a publisher for "Hilo" when I stopped writing "Batwing," but I was just enjoying the heck out of almost being a full-time cartoonist again that I just wanted to really be a full-time cartoonist again. I didn't leave DC in a huff. No bad blood. All of those people are still my friends. And I may write mainstream superheroes again. But right now, I'm happy writing and drawing.

It seems like a long time since we've seen you as a cartoonist. While you're enjoying being a full-time cartoonist, were there unexpected surprises in going back to cartooning? Any rust? Any new tricks you've picked up and look forward to adding to your toolbox?

No new tricks -- just had to get "in shape" and remember the old ones. I'd only done a long-form graphic novel once, "Pedro & Me." And that was adapted from a lecture I gave about my friendship with my "Real World" roommate Pedro Zamora. So, that had a beginning, middle and end. The comic book cartooning I'd done in the past was "Barry Ween," all about 25 to 30 pages. Without laboring all the mechanics, I just had to figure out how I was going to write and draw these long stories. I had to find a new "process." In the end it was simply outline it as best I could then write as much as I could then do layouts. Then go back and write more then layout more. Back and forth. Back and forth. Write then layout. Write then layout. Very detailed layouts with word balloons and pretty expressive. All in all, it was a new way of doing it. It was challenging. Still is. But it works for me.

How is your work on "The Awesomes" going?

With an extremely heavy heart I had to bow out during Season 3. My "Hilo" schedule was getting too tight. For perspective, I'm drawing Book 3 right now. That's how fast and far ahead the schedule is. That said, working on "The Awesomes" with Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker was easily one of the best experiences I've ever had. These are generous and crazily funny dudes who love comics and wanted to do a comedy show about superheroes. About superheroes and not making fun of the genre. I am so proud of that show. Season 3 is gonna be awesome. Pun intended. I was very lucky to be on board. I'm hoping to get back in there at some point.

What else is in the works for you?

"Hilo," "Hilo," "Hilo." Books 2 to 6. Book 2 is done, Book 3 is being drawn, Book 4 is dancing around my head. I am very lucky to have the chance to tell a big story this way and to have people like this -- meaning Random House -- believe in the story so much. You know those annoying people who say they get up in the morning and think, "Man, I am so lucky to be doing what I'm doing." I am one of those people.

"Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth" arrives in stores September 1, 2015.

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