Getting His Sidekicks: Dan Santat
Get ready for a charming adventure series for kids of all ages in Dan Santat’s new book Sidekicks. The picture book author describes his foray into graphic novels in this interview.
Sidekicks is really funny and charming. How would you describe the story for people who haven’t read the book?
Captain Amazing is an overworked superhero who adopts various pets, but because he's so busy being the protector of Metro City, his pets often feel neglected. When Captain Amazing is injured while fighting crime and needs a new sidekick, the pets all decide to audition for a spot, leading to fierce sibling rivalry. The story really revolves around sibling rivalry and parents who are overworked, which I think defines much of the family structure in today's society.
You’ve done picture books and chapter books, but this is your first graphic novel. What made you want to venture into this format?
I was a reluctant reader when I was younger and comic books kept me reading. I read syndicated comics as a young kid and bought my first Spider-Man comic when I was 10. Eventually, when I got older, I got a paper route, and every penny went toward buying comics. As time has gone on, my tastes have changed, but graphic novels are still my reading matter of choice. It feels as if it’s the next natural progression in my career and an inevitability in my life.
How did doing a graphic novel work for you? Did you enjoy it?
I loved the experience and I feel like it might be my format of choice in terms of storytelling. I loved doing picture books, but it's just not the right format for many of the stories I have in mind. With that said, making a graphic novel is also a laborious and daunting task. When people ask me about the experience, I equate it to climbing a mountain. I guess you could say it took me seven years to make this book because I didn't start working on it until 2004. Making a graphic novel takes a full commitment and you literally have to live and breathe it. I actually hold a great amount of love and bitterness for Sidekicks. It was the dream project I wanted to write since I was in art school and it was also, as my friends and I would joke, "my White Whale," which was going to kill me. I learned a tremendous amount from this first experience and I think I made every mistake there was to make, but I learned from them and I know that the second time around I can make a graphic novel in about a quarter of the time.
Tell us a little bit about the art process you used for this book. How did you come up with the look you wanted for this story?
I adopted a filmmaking approach to making the book. In order for my editor to fully see my vision without providing the visuals, I first wrote a detailed outline of the story. Sidekicks was about a 28-page outline. Once my editor and I worked out the kinks to the story I wrote a script, which looks much like a movie script showing stage directions and lines that each character would say. The next step was to storyboard the script and then I took those storyboards and designed the panels into page compositions. Once the compositions were squared away and the page count was sorted out, then I proceeded to the tight line work. Coloring was more of a team process. I blogged about needing help and got six responses from people all over the country. One artist was from the Netherlands. I gave each artist 20 pages at a time and provided a color key so they knew how each character had to be colored. This step saved me weeks of work and probably anywhere between two to three hours per page. The final step was shading, highlighting, and color adjustments, which just took me about one extra hour or so per page. The entire book was 100% digital. It's just a much speedier process for me and I've been doing it for such a long time I'm used to it.
What are some of your favorite graphic novels/comics and who are some of your favorite creators at the moment?
I've been a huge fan of all the comics that First Second has been publishing since their inception. Every year when I go to Comic Con, over 80% of my purchases come from their booth. Gene Luen Yang is one of my personal favorites. His stories, such as American Born Chinese and his newest novel, Level Up, really speak to me as an Asian American who had to deal with personal identity and growing up with parents who are unfamiliar with a culture you've grown up in your whole life. I've been a huge fan of Daniel Clowes for a long time, too. Ghost World and Ice Haven are personal favorites. Chris Ware blew me away with Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and I especially love his paper-craft works, which I've seen people actually construct and post on the internet. Right now, the only serialized comic I read with regularity is Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. The last comic that I read that really intrigued me was a comic called The Tikitis, which is about retired superheroes and their adventures on a secluded island where they live. I often also try to buy small-press stuff and support people who are passionate about their craft. Jordan Crane is someone who does great little self-published mini comics and he recently did one of Michael Chabon's book covers.
Years ago I followed other manga titles, but I'm rather picky with them these days because I tend to find that many manga titles follow many similar themes. Katsuhiro Otomo, specifically Akira and Domu are fantastic titles. Akira as a comic is by far much more superior than the movie. I feel Masamune Shirow has been a huge influence on me artistically as far as comic artists go. Most folks admire him for Appleseed, Dominion, and Ghost in the Shell, but my personal favorite is one of his more obscure series, Orion, which came to the States in the late ’80s but was pretty much ignored.
Who do you think is the audience for this book? Is it an all-ages book?
The book is listed for ages 8–12, but I really do feel it's a comic that can be appreciated by all ages. On the surface, if someone hears that Sidekicks is a book about animal superheroes, they'll think it's for kids, but there are plenty of things that adults can identify with as well. Manny, the cat, is a grizzled and cranky old veteran who feels, for the most part, that his heyday is over and fills in perfectly in the wise old teacher sort of role. One of the story's many themes also covers the theme of overworked parents and the desire to spend more time with family. Captain Amazing, the pets' superhero owner, also goes through the story contemplating retirement while the younger characters, Fluffy and Shifty, are just learning how to become superheroes and feel the need to prove themselves. Roscoe, the dog, is a character who has been trained in the ways of being a superhero and is eager to take on the world with the knowledge he has been given.
Do you have plans for a sequel to Sidekicks?
I do have a sequel in mind but with a lot of publishers it tends to be that many sequels are dictated by how well the sales are for the first book. I'm happy to say that Scholastic has been very supportive of Sidekicks and they feel very optimistic about its success. I have many other ideas I want to write about as well and I can only hope that I have enough time in my life to tell them all.
What are you working on next?
Well, I'm back to illustrating picture books right now because the manuscripts I have been getting lately have just been really excellent and I couldn't pass them up. Meanwhile, I just agreed to a two-picture-book deal with Little, Brown and I'm soon submitting a new graphic novel proposal to Arthur Levine Books that isn't Sidekicks related, but who knows? Maybe a Sidekicks sequel will be my next comic.