Raina Telgemeier on Babysitters, Dentistry & X-Men

School of Visual Arts graduate Raina Telgemeier is best known for adapting and illustrating four "Baby-sitters Club" novels for Scholastic's Graphix imprint, comics that have been recognized by the American Library Association and YALSA and nominated for Eisner and Ignatz Awards. Telgemeier has also contributed to DC's "Bizarro World" anthology, the "Flight" anthology, and also produces numerous minicomics and webcomics.

With the fourth and final volume of her "Baby-sitters Club" adaptations on shelves now, Telgemeier has moved onto other projects including "Smile," an expanded version of her webcomic to be published by Scholastic in 2010, and co-writing a series of X-Men mangas for Del Rey with her husband, the cartoonist and editor Dave Roman.

CBR News sat down with Raina Telgemeier to talk about these projects and her career.

CBR: In your webcomic "Beginnings," you tell the story of your father giving you "Barefoot Gen" when you were nine and your response to the book. How interested were you in reading comics before and after that moment, and how much of a role did that book play in your becoming a cartoonist?

Raina Telgemeier: The first comics I read were in the newspaper. I was in third or fourth grade when I started reading them daily. Before that, I was big into animated cartoons and movies, and I read tons of illustrated books as a kid. Comics were a natural extension of those interests. I bought the bound collections of all my favorite strips as they came out, and read and re-read them, studying the language and the timing and the format. "Calvin and Hobbes" is funny when you're nine, but gets even better as you learn what all those words mean.

For years, I thought I'd grow up to make comic strips, but as I got a little older, alternative short story comics ended up catching my interest. Lynda Barry and Adrian Tomine were responsible for my leaving the prospect of "the funnies behind. Because of those two artists, I started writing short narratives in a personal voice. And I guess I never stopped.

You started out making minicomics, which has sort of been replaced by the internet now. Were you still in school when you started doing that?

I made my first minicomic during a summer program at Otis College of Art and Design. I was attending junior college in San Francisco at the time, but I got to live in L.A. and draw comics for a few months, which was fun. I wrote and drew an 8-page story called "Bugged," about trying to chase down a mosquito. We had to Xerox the minis and distribute them to our classmates. I had a ball doing that, and made another minicomic the next summer-but I didn't really have a means of distribution for those, other than giving them to my friends. I didn't have comics peers at home, and I didn't know about small press and alternative comics shows. And I didn't know about the internet!

When I finally transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York for their Illustration BFA program, I was suddenly surrounded by cartoonists and comics readers and professionals, and it opened up the whole world for me. I made my first issue of Take-Out at SVA, for a cartooning class, and kept making them after graduation. I did seven issues, and finally started selling them at conventions, through comic stores, and from my website. They acted as my calling card for years. Because of minicomics, I met my husband, and my editors at Scholastic, and a great many of my friends. So I hope they haven't died out!

Your drawing style is very distinctive, and it seems to borrow a lot from comic strips or animation as much as it's influenced by the style of someone like Lynda Barry, who you mentioned. How did you latch onto this style and what influences are you aware of?

Well, I learned to draw the characters I liked in movies, TV shows, and illustrated media-picture books and comics. So I practiced drawing Disney-style people a lot. There was this educational book series called "Ready, Set, Grow!" that we had a bunch of volumes of, illustrated by a guy named Ernie Hergenroeder, who was also a big inspiration in the way I drew kids. He had a very '70s, cartoony style. And then there was Lynn Johnston. She was my closest match, stylistically, for ages. And I think the spirit of Bill Watterson snuck in too, although I'd kill to have half of the grace and charm he gets across in minimal brushstrokes. Later on in college I read "Bone," and that was the final puzzle piece as far as my influences go.

Why did you decide to create "Smile," an autobiographical comic about your teeth and dealing with the dentist?

Most of the comics I write are autobio, or very thinly veiled autobio. Telling a story about my teeth was something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, as it was a story I was constantly telling and re-telling people. It was so long and complex, I figured it would be good to get it all out of my head and down on paper. I had no idea it was going to become a 200-page coming-of-age story, though!

You've been working with Scholastic for a few years now, how did the deal to produce a print version of "Smile" come about?

I had been talking with my editors about bringing "Smile" to print for a couple of years. These things can sometimes take awhile! But the timing worked out well-I was finishing up my "Baby-sitters Club" contract, and they offered to publish "Smile" next, so I went from producing "BSC" fulltime to working on "Smile" fulltime.

What was it about the "Baby-Sitters Club" that made you want to adapt those novels? In talking with Scholastic, it was you that you suggested it.

Kind of! The editors at Scholastic wanted to work with me, but we weren't sure what kind of project was right. I had only written short stories at that point, and none of my long-form ideas were really ready to go. So they asked what books I'd been a fan of as a kid, and when I mentioned the "BSC," they said that might make a fun graphic novel adaptation, and would I be interested in doing some sample pages? Everything fell into place very quickly.

What is it about childhood that you find so fascinating?

I think I was around 10 or 11 when I started drawing the things that happened to me every day. It wasn't exactly a journal comic, but I would draw scenes from my life, with dialogue balloons, and fill pages and pages with drawings of myself and the people in my life. I kept doing that all the way through college. It was never meant for public consumption! I threw a lot of that work away. But there were moments in my life that really stayed with me, and when I began making autobio comics to actually show to other people, old stories that I wanted to explore further crept in, along with my day-to-day accounts.

I have so many sense-memories from childhood. When I drew comics about those memories, I got a really strong reaction from my readers. It got to a point where I was mostly focusing on my memories between ages 6 and 12. "Smile" covers my life from ages 11 to 15. I could get into older teen stuff if I wanted to, but over the course of my career I've met so many young girls who are hungry for comics made just for them, about people like them, and I'm happy to help fill that need.

Do you have plans to adapt more "Baby-sitters Club" novels for comics?

Nope, I'm done with that series. It was a four-book contract. I suppose it's possible that I could do more in the future, but currently there are no plans to do so.

After adapting four books, would you want to do more adaptations or are you more interested in turning towards more personal work for a little while?

I've really enjoyed working on the "BSC" adaptations. People have sort of pegged me for the idea of adapting 80s-centric, teen girl fiction in general, though, so I get a lot of people asking me if I'm going to adapt "Sweet Valley High," too. I didn't read those books growing up, so that's not something I'm interested in. If I were going to do more adaptation work, I'd like it to be from books I have some sort of emotional attachment to. But a lot of my favorite books have already been adapted into movies or television shows, so that kind of takes the fun out of it! For now, I want to focus on things I've both written and drawn. Writing is a skill I'd really like to develop.

Before "BSC," you hadn't made any book-length stories, just shorts. Have you gotten accustomed to the graphic novel length and the form?

Absolutely! It was a little intimidating at first, thinking about the sheer number of pages and hours of work involved in making a graphic novel, but once you've done it, it's no big deal. I've been lucky enough to make comics fulltime for over three years now, and I'm completely in the habit of working a certain amount of hours every day, and keeping myself on track. It can be a lonely job, and it takes a ton of self-discipline, but it suits me well.

What's the editorial process at Scholastic like and what are the differences between "BSC" -- where you're adapting a story they know -- and "Smile," where it's your own project?

The editors at Scholastic have been great about letting me work the way that's most natural for me. In my case, I create a full thumbnail script first, whether I'm working on an adaptation or an original project. The editorial process is a little quicker with an adaptation, because the story arc and the characters and the pacing are already there, I'm just translating it into a new medium. There were several people who had to approve my "BSC" drafts, including the original author, Ann M. Martin.

With an original script, my editors and I go through the whole thing the way you'd edit any manuscript. There are inevitably more re-writes and revisions. But, in the end, we're all happy with a script before I draw a single line. My editors also copyedit like crazy, which I love!

Before "Smile" comes out, though, you have a slightly different project being released later this year. How did you and Dave Roman come to write an X-Men manga?

Tricia Narwani approached me about working on the project, based on having read and liked my "BSC" adaptations. They were looking for someone to write an X-Men manga series for teenage girls, a very similar target audience as the "BSC." I was up to my neck in work at the time, but Dave was really enthusiastic about the prospect, and started listing tons of ideas and directions I could take an X-Men script in, and we both realized it was something the two of us could collaborate on even better than either one of us alone. He has more experience with both the X-Men and manga than I do, and I have more experience writing for young girls. Tricia was game to have the two of us co-write the books, and we dove in. We had a blast with it!

So what's next? Do you already have your next graphic novel in mind?

Yes...I'm working on something, but can't really start talking about it yet!

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