Raina Telgemeier Opens Up About "Smile"

In just a few years, Raina Telgemeier has gone from an unknown cartoonist to a gifted and highly sought after creator, not only because of her skill as a cartoonist but also because of her uncanny ability to write teen and preteen characters. The Eisner and Ignatz Award nominated cartoonist has adapted four of Ann M. Martin's "Baby-sitters Club" novels in addition to co-writing the "X-Men: Misfits" manga series and her many short stories, minicomics and webcomics.

Telgemeier's new book "Smile" began as a serialized webcomic and is now out from Scholastic's Graphix imprint. The book is the true story of Telgemeier's own extensive dental work, but it quickly becomes about more than that. While never being just a metaphor for awkward adolescence, Telgemeier delivers a great coming of age story that is familiar and emotionally resonant and never looks away from the awkwardness and uncomfortable moments that so often stick in our minds.

There will be a book release party at the Brooklyn comic book store Rocketship that will feature "Braces-friendly food" and '90s music this Saturday February 13 from 4-6 pm.

CBR News spoke with Telgemeier about the story behind "Smile," its serialization on the web, and recent publication in print.

Why did you think that your dental drama would make a good comic?

Raina Telgemeier: Before I started "Smile," almost all of my work had been personal, short-form autobiographical stories. So, as my first long-form comic, I figured, what would be better than to take one of my most personal, life-shaping experiences, and explore that?

What made you decide to tell this story as autobiography as opposed to fictionalizing it?

Truth is stranger than fiction!

Were there any scenes you didn't want to include or still felt uncomfortable about, or have you gained enough distance from what happened?

I feel a little bit bad about demonizing some of my dentists in the story, but I tried to filter everything through the lens of how I felt about it at the time. I've completely come to terms with everything as an adult, but I can still channel the experience through my pre-teen self pretty easily.

When you began did you have a rough idea of what the story would end up encompassing and where it would end and how big a story it would become?

I had a rough idea. I knew it started with knocking my teeth out in sixth grade, and ended my second year of high school, when I finally got my braces off. And I knew the major points I needed to touch on along the way, but wasn't quite sure how many directions it might go in, how many tangents I'd explore, or how many characters would ultimately be involved. I was actually surprised I managed to fill up 220 pages with dental stories!

Did serializing the story online affect how you told the story, and would you have done it differently if you started from scratch as a book?

It definitely informed the story's pacing. I was updating once a week, so I felt like I needed a beat or a punch line on every page, just to hook readers and keep them coming back. Because of that, the story had a more staccato rhythm than if I'd sat down to write it as a book from the outset. In some ways, it felt more like the comic strip collections I grew up reading (and loving), than a straightforward graphic novel.

Thanks to the instant feedback I got each week, I was also able to gauge which storylines resonated with my readers, and discovered fairly early that the relationships between the characters were as interesting to a lot of people as the dental drama. So, I started playing that up even more!

What was your experience working with the colorist, Stephanie Yue, like and how did you enjoy seeing the whole book in full color?

Steph is really wonderful, and I couldn't be happier with the work she did on my book. One funny thing that happened while we were working together, was she took a trip to San Francisco (her first), and told me how crazy it was to suddenly recognize the places she was coloring!

You've been adapting the "Baby-sitters Club" books for Scholastic. How did that relationship lead to them publishing "Smile?"

As I was wrapping up work on "BSC" #4, my editors offered to publish "Smile." The audience for "Smile" is very much the same range of people that's already reading my "BSC" adaptations. My editors were also the ones to specifically request it be a full-color book.

How did the experience of working on "BSC" books help you as a writer and is there anything you learned that changed how you worked on "Smile?"

I guess working on adaptations gave me a better sense of how to pace a story, comic or otherwise. The "BSC" books are pretty tightly written, but a larger story unfolds over multiple volumes. I'm looking forward to applying that to a multi-volume comic series, some day. Ultimately, I think I learned more about drawing than I did about writing from working on the "BSC." "Smile" was drawn alongside my entire tenure drawing the "BSC" series, so my style on "Smile" evolved in tandem with the other work I was doing. The beginning few chapters of "Smile" resemble the earliest "BSC" art; the last chapters bear more in common with the most recent "BSC" art.

How did the trailer for the book end up coming together?

My husband Dave and our friend Alison secretly created a video trailer for me as a birthday present last year. They showed it to me for the first time during a panel we were on together at the MoCCA Art Fest, and I had no idea it was coming! However, the song they used for the trailer was by a band on a major record label, and we spent months trying to get the rights to use the song in the trailer online, which is why it took so long for us to post it. In the end, we couldn't get legal permission to use the song. So we replaced it with a track by Paul and Joe DeGeorge from the band Harry and the Potters, who are friends of ours, and were happy to let us use their music. Alison re-edited everything to better fit the new music and I'm really happy with the final results!

I know that you're done with the "Baby-sitters Club" adaptations, so what's next for you?

I'll be doing a lot of touring this year, trying to go to as many comic conventions and comic shops as possible! The next book I've got coming out is volume 2 of "X-Men: Misfits," which will be published in September. In the meantime, I'm working on the first draft of a new comic script about a high school stage crew, which I'm really excited about!

What can you tell us about the upcoming volume of "X-Men: Misfits" and what new characters can we look forward to?

I don't want to give away too much about the book, because almost everything is a spoiler! A couple of new girls join the ranks at Xavier's Academy, and the students are all required to form teams for a school-wide competition. Kitty rallies the misfits of the school to form a team of unlikely heroes. I can't wait to see Anzu's interpretation!

When we talked last, you mentioned Lynda Barry and Adrian Tomine being big influences on your work but I wanted to ask about Lynn Johnston (who wrote a lovely blurb for "Smile"). Did "For Better or For Worse" have a big influence on you?

Lynn Johnston is probably my biggest influence of all. I started reading "For Better or For Worse" when I was nine (and the kids in the strip were ten and six...), and went out and bought as many of the books as were in print at the time. I pored over those things like you would not believe, reading and re-reading them, copying, tracing, and studying the art. I kept right on being a fan as I grew up, because there was a new strip to read every day, and a new collection published every year.

Perhaps because of this, my drawing style evolved to be very obviously informed by Lynn's, and up through college people typically either thought I was ripping her off or paying homage to her. Style is funny that way. I think in the years since college, and after drawing so many of my own comics, my style has kind of become its own thing, but I still wear the "For Better or For Worse" influence on my sleeve. Receiving a quote from Lynn was my single biggest thrill of 2009.

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