Frankie in Earnest
Somewhere between chapter books and comics lies Frankie Pickle. The engaging new books from Eric Wight are perfect for beginners and capture the spirit of graphic novels. Here, Wight talks about his inspiration for Frankie and why he created him for a whole generation of young readers.
Who is Frankie Pickle, and where did he come from?
Frankie Pickle is a typical kid with an anything but typical imagination. Sometimes it leads him on adventures. More often it gets him into trouble. But the important thing is that he always figures out a way to set things right by using a little creativity.
So much of Frankie is a reflection of my own childhood. I think back to what it was like when I was a kid, how my friends and I would create our own adventures inspired by our action figures, comic books, and favorite Saturday morning cartoons. I was a constant daydreamer, which occasionally got me into trouble like Frankie.
When did you create Frankie?
A couple of years ago, I was approached to create an animated series for Cartoon Network. Frankie Pickle was born, but we had very different creative visions for how to proceed forward, so I took it off the table and socked it away for a rainy day. As I transitioned my career toward publishing, I dusted off my proposal for Frankie and pitched him to my editor at Simon & Schuster, Justin Chanda. He really connected with the material, and here we are.
How were you inspired to write Frankie for this young age group?
When my son began graduating from picture books and wanted to have chapter books read to him, I realized there weren’t nearly as many choices for boys as there were for girls. I thought it would be fun to create a book that new readers like my son would find engaging (as well as reluctant readers), which is why I chose to make the book a hybrid. In the same way the comic book elements empower Frankie to solve the problems he is faced with, I hope they also empower struggling readers to tackle the prose.
How do you make sure you relate to that age group when you tell these stories? And how do you do it without talking down to your readers?
Being a parent definitely helps. The constant interaction I have with my children helps me understand the way their minds work, how they process their emotions and new experiences. So many of Frankie’s character traits are directly inspired by my own son’s behavior.
The not talking down part is essential. The trick is creating a story that kids and adults can enjoy together, even if it is on different levels. Maybe some kids find the physically comedic parts the funniest, or adults like the subtle parental jokes best. But regardless of the specifics, I strive for the sum of the parts to be entertaining for everyone. I’d much rather have a child ask a question about something they don’t understand, or look up a word in a dictionary, than have it spoon fed to them.
You’ve had a diverse career in illustration and animation, working on a lot of Warner Bros. animated projects and working on The Escapist. How’d you break into the business at first and how did you land such high-profile gigs?
I went to the School of Visual Arts for animation. My junior year, I was accepted into a Disney training program that really opened my eyes to what being an animator was all about. By senior year, recruiters came to my school to hire new talent. But I had my heart set on working on Batman, so I contacted Bruce Timm and convinced him to take a look at my portfolio. He liked my work, so they sent me a character design test (which they paid me for, if you can believe that!), and I guess I did well on it because they hired me. I did that for about a year, until I felt like I was starting to lose my own identity in the style of the show. So I transitioned into a development artist, which allowed me to work in a wide variety of styles.
I wish I had a formula for how I ended up being a part of so many incredible gigs. A lot of it was luck, and being in the right place at the right time. But it also had to do with being ready when those opportunities came knocking. To continually challenge myself, and update my portfolio, and not be afraid to work through the night to create samples that were specific for what the job demanded.
Are you a fan of manga? If so, which particular titles do you enjoy?
My love of manga can be sporadic. I would pick things up here and there, and then when I did My Dead Girlfriend for Tokyopop, I devoured everything I could get my hands on. Now I’m back to being the occasional reader. I’ve been a fan of Gunsmith Cats for years. I adore all things Tezuka. Right now, I’m reading the original Speed Racer manga to prepare for Frankie’s next adventure.
Do you remember your first comic book?
My earliest memory of a specific comic was an issue of Detective Comics that had a horrifying new version of Clayface. His helmet looked like a blender with a gooey mess of a face inside. It totally gave me nightmares, but I couldn’t stop reading it over and over again.
What are some of your favorite comics from when you were a kid? What are some of your favorite comics now?
I was totally a DC boy as a kid. Justice League of America, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Flash. I also read Spider-Man and the occasional Captain America, but it wasn’t until I started working with Bruce Timm that I really gained an appreciation for unbelievable stuff that Marvel produced in the ’60s.
My collection is now dominated by what I call comic phonebooks: those 400+ page collections of comics from the Silver Age. I also have a bit of an obsession with newspaper-strip artists like Milton Caniff, Frank Robbins, and Hank Ketcham.
I also have a pretty sweet collection of French comics. I hope to one day learn enough French so that I can read them, but for now I just marvel at the pictures.
Did those comics inspire the work you’re doing now?
Many of the artists (and writers for that matter) that inspire me are those who abstract reality, who cut to the chase and aren’t afraid to imply details rather than over render them. They let your imagination fill in the blanks. Elmore Leonard put it best when he said to leave out the parts that readers skip, and the same can be said about drawing comics. Our eyes scan the page so quickly, the pacing of a story can be compromised by over rendering too many details.
I’m also very drawn to artists who ink with a brush. I find the boldness irresistible. A spontaneity that can’t be captured with a pen or quill. I do my best to try and evoke that same energy in my own work.
When did you start writing and drawing comics?
I was writing and drawing comics for as long as I can remember, right up until high school, when I did a comic strip for the school newspaper. But then I changed gears and pursued animation, which consumed all of my time. A solid eight years went by before I drew comics again. And it wasn’t until I was approached by Tokyopop to create a manga that I began writing. For the longest time, I considered myself an artist who enjoyed writing. It wasn’t until I turned in the final draft of my first Frankie manuscript that I felt like I could actually call myself an author.
Do you have a lot of interaction with your readers? How do they respond to your work?
For the past month or so, I’ve been on tour, traveling throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic visiting schools, libraries, and bookstores. One of the coolest parts of my job is getting to go into classrooms and empower kids to create their own characters and comic strips.
The response to Frankie has been amazing. With it being my first book for younger readers, most kids that I meet at signings or school events have never heard of Frankie before, so I get to see their initial reaction firsthand. And it’s been incredibly positive. Many of the kids can’t even get out of the store with their copy before starting to read it. Parents are buying three and four copies because they are so excited about it they want to give it to their child’s teacher or their neighbor or cousin. One mom told me that her son carries it with him everywhere he goes like a teddy bear.
The best feedback is when parents tell me that Frankie Pickle is the first book that their child read all the way through. Or that by reading it, they were inspired to draw comics of their own. That’s the stuff that puts it all into perspective for me, and drives me to want to continue making books.
Do you see the Frankie books being used in schools?
Absolutely. My intention for creating a hybrid was to make a book that would motivate both new and reluctant readers. Frankie could have many applications in the classroom, from teaching kids how to create their own comic strips to analyzing the underlying messages of each story. Even though there is a sparse amount of text, the word choice is fairly advanced and could be used to help expand vocabularies.
What’s next for Frankie?
Frankie’s second adventure is called Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000, which is the Pinewood Derby meets Speed Racer. Following that is Frankie Pickle and the Multiplying Menace, which combines math with medieval fantasy. I have about a dozen books planned so far. The goal is to put out at least two volumes a year.