"X-Men: Misfits" Takes Mutants In A Manga Direction

Dave Roman, a long time editor at Nickelodeon magazine until the magazine's recent demise, is the cartoonist and writer responsible for a long list of titles, including "Agnes Quill" from SLG, "Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden" from AiT/PlanetLar, the webcomic "Astronaut Elementary" and anthologies including "Flight" and DC's "Bizarro World." He's also co-writing both the prequel and adaptation of the upcoming film "The Last Airbender."

Raina Telgemeier, who spoke with CBR earlier this year about her adaptations of The Baby-Sitter's Club novels by Ann M. Martin for Scholastic. Telgemeier is also publishing, through Scholastic, her upcoming graphic novel, "Smile," which began as a webcomic on her website, goraina.com.

The two also happen to be married and have collaborated on a number of short projects in the past. They recently wrote the first issue of the new manga series, "X-Men: Misfits," from Del Rey Manga that offers a very different look at Marvel Comic's most popular mutant team, the X-Men. CBR News recently spoke with the couple about this unusual project.

How did you get involved with "X-Men: Misfits" and what was it about the project that interested you?

Raina Telgemeimer: Tricia Narwani, an editor at Del Rey Manga, approached me based on my work adapting the "Baby-sitters Club" series into graphic novels. They were interested in seeing how I might re-imagine the X-Men for a teen girl audience. I wasn't very familiar with the X-Men beyond the films, and was worried that it might be too much to take on, since I was still finishing up my graphic memoir, "Smile," for Scholastic. But Dave saw how it could be a really fun opportunity, and convinced me we should at least give it a shot!

Dave Roman: I kept thinking how much my sister loved X-Men comics growing up. She was so passionate about the characters and the world they lived in, talking about them like they were real people. I instantly starting thinking how a lot of what seemed to be popular about X-Men, were the same kinds of things manga was really good at doing. It wasn't hard to start connecting the dots, and I really wanted to see what the characters would look like in a shojo style. It also seemed like it would be a lot of fun to see what kind of personality touches Raina would add to the mix.

I know the two of you have worked together before on short stories, but what was it like co-writing a project like this?

Roman: I had blind faith that it would work. Raina was a bit more skeptical, because she had never written for another artist before.

Telgemeimer: But Dave has written tons of scripts for other artists. So I had blind faith in him!

How did the artist, Anzu, come on board the project, and what was your working relationship with her like?

Roman: Anzu was on board before we were! Having never worked with her before, Raina and I weren't sure, at first, how to approach the scripting. We had no idea how to describe someone turning into a chibi, or what kind of flower patterns should appear to convey abstract moods. We just had to trust that Anzu, and our editors, would know what we were going for. Luckily they did, and after seeing the first batch of pages, it empowered us to push things a lot further as we went along. When we saw how good Anzu was with comedy, it made us want to incorporate as many silly moments as possible (like the reactions to Gambit's cooking, or the singing on the subway). My favorite thing about Anzu is how she strikes a good balance between drama and comedy!

The character designs really took a lot of liberties in ways that I'm sure will delight, puzzle, and likely frustrate people. Beast was fabulous. How much of that was you and how much was Anzu?

Roman: It's very easy for a writer to say, "Maybe Colossus should be a combination of Pops Racer and Tik Tok from the Oz books," but it takes a great artist like Anzu to make it awesome! Everything about "X-Men: Misfits" became a true collaboration between the three of us. Especially since neither Raina nor I could ever draw boys as pretty as Anzu does!

Telgemeimer: Right. I can try, but my boys will never go beyond "cute."

How much freedom in terms of what you could do, or was there some kind of editorial mandate of what they were looking for, because it felt like you had free reign to do what you wanted?

Raina & Roman: My understanding was that Marvel signed up with Del Rey because they wanted to do something completely different than what they would normally do. Del Rey and Marvel were amazingly supportive, and it often did feel like we could do whatever we wanted. But the goal was always to make it work as a shojo-style series over everything else. We really tried to play with the tropes of that genre, but kept enough of the elements that still make the X-Men work after all these years. So, even though we probably could have...we had no interest in giving Kitty Pryde magical powers or having her transform into a princess. Instead, we just chose to focus on the school setting and the social dynamics between various characters, because those were the things that a lot of the best shojo mangas do so well. There are also a lot of "guilty pleasure" aspects to shojo manga that makes it very entertaining, and hopefully we captured a bit of that as well.

At what stage in writing the book did you decide to make the book's focus Kitty Pryde and make her the only girl in school?

Telgemeimer: We decided to focus on Kitty right from our initial brainstorms. She seemed like the perfect entry-point character (as this was her original role in the comics), and her powers of crossing through walls has a lot of emotional resonance that relates to being a teenager crossing between different social groups, when you are trying to find your identity. The all-boy aspect evolved out of simply thinking how our world would be a bit different from things people had already done with the X-Men (in various mediums). It's a common trope of shojo manga to have a "nice girl" surrounded by cute and potentially dangerous boys (a la "Fruits Basket"), as that offers lots of comedy potential.

Roman: Making Kitty the only girl also added to our theme of Kitty feeling like an outsider - even in a school full of outsiders. We rationalized that, in our world, girls are less ready to accept themselves as mutants. A lot more of them are still "in the closet." So, even though a few girls had gone to Xavier's school in the past, Kitty is currently the only one.

When I gave the book to someone, I said that you took the X-Men, threw them into a blender and this is what came out. Same names, same ideas, but completely different meanings and contexts. Blob, Hellfire Club, so many elements are completely different. Was this your intention?

Telgemeimer and Roman: Absolutely. We got to cherry-pick the characters and powers we wanted, with the goal of making sure it all played to the themes of the specific story of social identity we were telling. In some cases we didn't have to change very much, but in others, sticking too close to past continuities wouldn't have made any sense at all. We didn't want to make Colossus a student just so he could hook up with Kitty Pryde in the comics.

So, what are your plans for the next volume?

Telgemeimer and Roman: Volume 2 will show how Kitty has grown, both as a character and as a mutant. She's a bit more in control of her powers, and is trying to take charge of her life. Jean Grey will be returning as a teacher, along with two new female students, so that will certainly change Kitty's place in the school hierarchy.

Do you have a favorite X-Men story?

Roman: I always thought it was fun when the X-Men faked their deaths and hid out in Australia. I was also pretty fond of the early "Generation X" issues.

Dave, one of your upcoming projects is co-writing the prequel and adaptation of "Avatar: The Last Airbender." From your perspective, how is working on that similar and dissimilar to this experience?

Roman: It's similar in that I'm teaming up with another writer (in this case, Alison Wilgus), and working on a beloved series. But the big difference is, I already had a working relationship with the creators of "Avatar," Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, through my job at "Nickelodeon Magazine," so there's a more immediate sense of responsibility to not mess up their characters! There is also a lot less creative freedom because we're working within the context of a pre-existing mythology, and a pre-written screenplay. But we have immense respect and admiration for the world that Mike and Bryan have created, and it was hard not to want to play in it a bit longer (after working on over 150 pages of Avatar comics for "Nick Magazine").

Raina, I know you're prepping "Smile" for release early next year, what else are you working on?

Telgemeimer: I'm currently developing a new graphic novel about stage crew kids, loosely based on my own high school experience. That, and preparing to teach a full semester of after-school comics workshops at a middle school in New York City - something I've never done before!

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