It might be hard to definitively prove Raina Telgemeier is the most popular cartoonist on the planet, but she's certainly in the running. As if creating New York Times bestselling original graphic novels "Smile," "Drama" and "Sisters" wasn't enough, she's also the winner of two Eisner Awards and is responsible for adapting and illustrating four "Baby-Sitters Club" graphic novels based on the popular series of novels.
Next up is "Ghosts," arriving September 13, which deals with death from the perspective of an 11 year-old. But despite what you might expect, unlike some of her more autobiographical works, "Ghosts" is steeped entirely in fiction. At WonderCon, Telgemeier sat down CBR TV's Kiel Phegley to discuss her massive popularity, encounters with young fans and how she views her role in inspiring future creators. She also discusses why she's making a conscious move away from telling comics about her life with "Ghosts," and the problem with the "all-ages" label.
The first half of the conversation focuses on Telgemeier's massive fanbase, something that keeps her busy beyond just producing graphic novels, and what it's like interacting with young fans who have been touched by her stories. She also comments on how she views her role in potentially inspiring the next generation of storytellers and the lessons she wants to impart without scaring anyone off from following in her footsteps.
On the best reactions from younger fans to her work and how they express what the stories mean to them:
Raina Telgemeier: Sometimes they can't even talk. Sometimes the kids are just overwhelmed and their mother has to speak for them, "It's her favorite book and she's read it six times." It just feels like the way that I felt about comics when I was nine, which was that they mattered to me and they really connected with me. And if I had had the chance to meet Bill Watterson or Lynn Johnston when I was nine, I would have been overcome with emotion. It's just such a personal connection that kids make to this work and I don't know if it's because I'm telling my own stories and they feel like they already know me as a person and then they meet the real me and it's kind of like meeting Mickey Mouse. [Laughter] It's very surreal, but I don't know what it's life for them. Maybe it's surreal too because they get to know me as a cartoon character and then I'm me.
On whether she sees herself as a role model for future comic creators and storytellers:
I've been trying really hard to sort of show them how much work it is [Laughs] because when you're nine you just want everything right away and you think everything happens very quickly. And a graphic novel, at least in my case, takes two years to make and it's me mostly running things but I have a colorist and I have an editor. So I've started doing something called Daily WIP, that's the hashtag I use on Instagram and then I carry it over to my other social media. Pretty much every day, or almost every day, I'll post just whatever is on my desk. So that was thumbnails for a year, and then it was pencils, and then it was the inks, and sometimes I'll just take a picture of my computer screen and it says "buffering" or something. It lets them see the process over time and how long it takes. I've had especially teachers tell me that they'll share that with their students. Social media is amazing. So they'll share that with their students and the kids are like, "Oh, it takes more than like five minutes to make a comic. Okay." They realize just the work that goes into it. I sometimes see myself as an educator in that sense, sometimes as an advocate, just like a cheerleader for what we do because there's like a thousand people behind me right now who do as much work every single day and it's not for nothing. I think that kids who say, "I want to be a graphic novelist when I grow up, that sounds great, but that means you start now.
Telgemeier then turns to the subject of her new graphic novel, "Ghosts," commenting on how long it's been on her mind and why it's not exactly like her previous works, but still feels very much like part of her oeuvre. She also discusses who the audience is for each book, who her actual audience is, and the promise and peril of the all-ages label.
On how conscious she was of wanting to do something different than her more autobiographical work with "Ghosts":
I've been thinking about this project since at least 2002 and it came from, partly, a class I took in college. It was Latin-American literature so I read a bunch of magical realism. It was like, "Oh, it's so interesting and cool." And then I started seeing images of Day of the Dead everywhere and it started getting into my head. I knew I wanted to do something that had those elements in it. A few years later, recently really, I had a loss in my family that really resonated deeply with me. I had a cousin who was 13 die of cancer. This is not a cancer book. This is not a book about a death, but it is a book about kids who are dealing with heavier subjects than they've dealt with in my past books. And it's fiction, it's nothing like any of the books I've done before and yet I think it still has the same kind of personal sincerity in it. [Laughs] I don't really know. I don't know what words people use to describe my work. It's still a personal story, it's still a grounded story in reality, but it's got a lot of like really fun... skeletons. [Laughs]
On if she's comfortable telling all-ages stories or if fans can expect to see something more adult in the future:
Originally I thought "Drama" was going to be about high schoolers, and for high schoolers, but I think I just have a real innocent sensibility so that ended up being a middle school book. And this book is also a middle school book, it's about 11 year-olds dealing with this heavy stuff, but 11 year-olds deal with heavy stuff all the time so I know that young kids can handle it. What I've seen over the years that fascinates me it that my readers keep getting younger. So at first they were 10 and 12, then they were eight and nine, now they're six and seven. So I'm aware that I'm writing for this sort of increasingly younger audience, but my audience is also growing up so I have a wider age range in my books than a lot of other people do. And middle grade, it is generally thought of as about eight to 12, so it is weird to be expanding in both directions beyond that.
They use the term "all-ages" [Laughter] and I always fought against that term because I thought, I don't know, that doesn't work in like libraries and schools, you need to be more specific. But people often use Pixar as an example of like, those are films that like anybody can enjoy. The dad and the kid are both gonna get something out of that moviegoing experience. I remember going to see "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" with my dad when I was eight and freaking out when Large Marge was on the screen, but after we saw it the two of us were like, "That was awesome!" We're like high-fiving each other. I want my books to feel like that. They can be a little scary, they can be a little sad, they can be a little deep -- they can be all these different things but maybe they make a conversation happen afterward. So that feels amazing.