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Elementary Pop Quiz: An Interview with Dave Roman

Dave Roman delights audiences of all ages with his comic Astronaut Elementary, where the future looks like your grade school in zero-g. Originally over at Girlamatic, Roman has moved to Webcomics Nation. Despite his recent engagement to fellow webcomic creator Raina Telgemeier (see How We Got Engaged) he took the time to answer our questions.

Tell us a little about yourself. You've done a lot of creative things – Quicken Forbidden, Teen Boat, Keep Warm, Go Tortoise Boy – when did the bug to create bite you?

I’ve been drawing comics in some way, shape, or form since I was in elementary school, probably after I got my first Garfield comic strip collections. I was already drawing a lot as a kid and enjoyed comic strips, but seeing them all collected into a book was really inspiring. I started making my own characters like Rad Brad and Samurai Jack (total coincidence that Gendy Tartokofsky would create a show with the same name many years later). I’d get my parents to photocopy the pages I drew, so I could assemble them as books to sell to my sister and my cousins around the corner. This pretty much continued all the way through high school. That’s how I met other kids interested in comics like John Green, and started self-publishing under the moniker of Cryptic Press. Along with our friends Rich and Paul, we’d hang out on weekends drawing comics, going to Kinko’s, and eventually small comic conventions, trying to sell our homemade books. By the time I started college, both John and I were doing lots of separate books, and eventually teamed up to do a comic for a class project that I wrote and he drew. This ended up being Quicken Forbidden, the sci-fi fantasy series that was our first attempt at professional self-publishing, with a big print run and carried by Diamond Distribution. Over the years we’ve published 13 issues of the series, which have been collected as trade paperbacks by AiT/PlanetLar. Along the way we also did a lot of short stories for various anthologies, like Substance Effect with Scott Morse, Imagination Rocket with Brian Clopper, and the 9-11: Emergency Relief book from Alternative Comics – as well as lots of random mini-comics. One of the most random was Teen Boat, which ended up being one of the most popular comics we’ve ever done! I guess we hit upon the under-served market for boy + boat-action melodrama.

How'd you come up with the idea for Astronaut Elementary?

I had done a couple of drawings of the character Miyumi randomly in my sketchbook. I sorta had her personality, but not really a story. Then my friend Titin Pantoja (who does the webcomic Sevenplains) told me she was looking for fellow School of Visual Arts alumni to submit to a Shoujo Manga anthology she was editing for the school. I think she thought I’d contribute a Jax Epoch/Quicken Forbidden story, but I was feeling a bug to try something new. And I liked the idea of doing something that would specifically be in a manga anthology. Because I love Manga and Anime, but had never really tried to draw in that style. I don’t think I could even if I wanted to! But I love a lot of the elements of Japanese comics culture, and wanted to do something that evoked it. Especially all the cute knickknack stuff you see in Sanrio and Korean stationary stores. Since a lot of Shoujo Manga books I’ve read have elements of love and crushes, I decided it would be fun to focus on that. So I guess that’s really how it all came about. I just wrote the first comic as a two-pager and it was so much fun I never stopped.

You've got a very fluid but minimalist style. Who are your artistic influences?

I’m constantly inspired by artists like Rodney Greenblatt (who designed the video game Parappa the Rapper) and J. Otto Seibold, a children’s book artist who created Olive the Other Reindeer and Mr. Lunch. As far as comic book artists who affected my current style, Andi Watson (Skeleton Key, Love Fights) was probably the biggest influence. I discovered his comics at the perfect time in my life. He really just showed me how art could be really cool-looking without being especially detailed or realistic. And the times I met him he was really encouraging of my stuff, at a time where I kind of assumed I’d never make it as a comic book artist and would just focus on writing stuff for other people. I had tried to draw more "realistic" or superhero type stuff, and it was always so all over the place. But my sketchbooks and my more comic strip style things were what people seemed to really respond to. And it just came so much more naturally to me to draw things that were cute and minimal. Once I embraced the cuteness, everything else started to fall into place. I spent less time trying to draw really exciting poses and perspective, and was able to focus on the story and just being consistent with my art style. I also started realizing that simple, appealing character designs can be just as effective, if not more so, than heavily rendered figure drawings. Probably that section in Understanding Comics, where Scott McCloud discusses the impact of minimalism through cartooning, had a major effect.

Who are your writing/storytelling influences?

It’s not too often that I specifically strive to be like a specific writer. But I get really jazzed whenever I see a really well written movie or episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Usually that makes me want to go work on my comics. And usually those comics have nothing to do with those things I just watched or read, it’s just the emotional ride of seeing good work that gets me motivated. All I have to do is go shopping at Virgin and buy some new CDs and it will psyche me up to wanna draw comics. I’m probably as influenced by Jim Henson as I am by the band They Might Be Giants.

So who's your favorite character/student? (Or non-student... I rather like the Panda who's a Spanish teacher.)

I’m pretty fond of the Senõr Panda too. I like playing with expectations and doing weird match ups. Sombreros and Pandas are both kind of funny, so putting them together can make for unique results. I knew that students would question WHY a Panda would want to teach a Spanish class. And that train of thought tends to lead to new story directions, like deciding that Senor Panda would really be an FBI agent in disguise.

Doug Hiro is probably my favorite student, but he’s also one of the hardest to write for. I find he’s most effective in small doses, so I try to have him show up when you least expect him. Of course, they are really my children, so I probably shouldn’t be saying who is my favorite!

Who's more fun to write about in the school – the students, or the faculty?

Definitely the students. I’ve always had more interest in writing stories about kids than adults. I tend to have more interest in a movie or book if a kid is the protagonist. I always relate to them, probably because I have a hard time accepting the fact that I’m 28! Sometimes I wonder if I should have established The Future (where Astronaut Elementary takes place) being like Peanuts, where you never actually see the adults. But instead I’ve tried to put a varied group of teachers in the school to keep it interesting for me and the students. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to develop some of the teachers’ backgrounds and origin stories, like the Guidance Councilor who descends from a race of advanced Worker Bees.

Why bring this out on the web as opposed to any other medium? What's the best thing about doing this as a project on the web – and what's the worst?

I wasn’t sure what I’d do with Astronaut Elementary at first. I had drawn a couple of pages for the Shoujo Manga anthology, and kind of just kept going because they were lot of fun for me. I had seen a post on a message board about Lea Hernandez looking for submissions for the GirlAMatic anthology website. I didn’t know if it was the type of thing they were looking for but I figured I’d take a chance and e-mail her what I had done so far. Luckily, Lea and the other artists on the site seemed to enjoy the strips. It was a huge burst of encouragement for me to start doing them on a regular schedule with a specific goal in mind.
My favorite part of doing Astronaut Elementary for the web is the constant cycle of excitement. I draw a comic page during the week, post it late Saturday night, get a bit of feedback, and then go back to work on the next page. It just keeps me really buzzed about what I’m doing. Drawing comics can be really solitary, but everything about doing webcomics feels like connecting and sharing ideas with other people. I can’t really thinking of too many downsides to it!

You just need to make sure you can maintain your own schedule. And if real life issues get in the way, it can be extra stressful to finish up a comic in order to post it in time. But deadlines are the same in any business.

What sort of elementary school memories do you have – and do any of them carry over to the strip?

When I started the strip I kept reality pretty far out of Astronaut Elementary, just focusing on random stream-of-conscious stuff I thought would be funny. But as the series has evolved, I’ve started putting more of my own experiences into it. The most literal one being the story I did about Maliik Mehendale falling in love with the back of a girl’s head. I spent many classes daydreaming about girls who sat near me. But I knew nothing about them outside of class because I never spoke to them, so it was always an abstract kind of crush. One of the ongoing themes of Astronaut Elementary is that the kids kind of create their own identities. On the surface they may say one thing, but eventually you see that their personalities don’t actually match up with their taglines. Team Feety Pajamas claim to be evil villains, but they really just like playing with teddy bears and reading comic strip collections.

You seem to be having fun, mocking every sf cliché possible... from time-stopping watches to killer cyborgs. Are you fascinated by space and science fiction, poking fun at what you love, or do you think an obsession with sf and outer space is a bit... silly?

I think it is a lot of fun to play with clichés, even when they’re from things I personally love like anime and science fiction. Any time you do genre stories you find yourself going out of your way to avoid doing something that’s already been done to death. The joy of Astronaut Elementary is I can choose to just embrace the tropes rather than fight them. The fun is taking the classic ideas and pushing them in new directions that are unique to the characters. Hakata Soy, being a new kid in school who misses his home… wouldn’t be THAT interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that his home is in a giant robot that used to save the galaxy.

You've gotten a lot of recognition, seemingly, in a short amount of time. You won for Best Character Design at the WCCA awards, for instance. But oftentimes overnight "success" is really years of work finally getting recognized. Do you feel, "this is happening too fast" or "finally, I'm getting some recognition"?

Well certainly, acclaim can never come fast enough! I’ve been drawing comics since I was a kid and seriously making a go of self-publishing since 1994, so I’m actually starting to feel more like an old timer. But at the same time, I feel like every comic project is new to someone else, and I keep finding new venues and avenues to explore like webcomics. The WCCA award was a total shock, because I didn't realize I was nominated–when I went to vote for the Best New Character Design category, the ballot said that there was an instant winner. Since it didn’t say who that person was, I never in a million years would have assumed it was me! So when they made the announcement it was shock. Especially since I didn’t even have to ask people to vote for me!

What are your plans for Astronaut Elementary? What other plans do you have in the works?

There will be a lot more romance and possibly a giant rumble!

The plan is to tell a school year’s worth of story. The comic begins in mid-September at the beginning of the school semester. The current storyline takes place a few weeks before winter break.

So the goal is to get to the point where Miyumi and Hakata graduate for the summer. But that will probably actually take me about 2-3 years to draw! Then, if I’m not burnt out, I’d like to pick up the following September as a whole new cast of younger kids starts class. And then the older kids from the first year could be like their mentors. Basically, ripping off what they did with Digimon Season 2. Which is where all the best ideas come from!