Dogs and Breaking Into Comics: An Interview with Nathan Fairbairn and Michele Assarasakorn About P.A.W.S.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret.
You have to promise not to tell anyone. Scout’s honor. Seriously, I shouldn’t even be telling you, but we’re old pals and I trust your discretion.
This past Thursday the Evanston Public Library determined, once and for all, the books that would appear on the 101 Books for Reading and Sharing List for 2022. Out of all the titles published during the year (thousands and thousands of the things) a mere 101 made it to the final list.
I am now going to quote for you, practically verbatim, a debate that happened between two committee members, discussing what to do about two different dog-related picture books:
Committee Member #1: I don’t want that book on the list.
Committee Member #2: Well, I don’t mind that one, but I hate this one.
Committee Member #1: I’ll make you a deal. If you let me take off one, then we can take off the other.
Committee Member #2: Sounds good to me.
Committee Member #1: But P.A.W.S. stays.
Committee Member #2: Oh, God yes! P.A.W.S. absolutely stays!!
Such is the opinion of professional library types, cutting deals, but always keeping what’s important topmost in their minds.
You see, this past March a graphic novel was released from Razorbill called P.A.W.S.: Gabby Gets It Together. Now I read whole heaping helpfuls of comics in the course of a given year, but this one was special. It actually tapped into a tone that I hadn’t felt since Raina Telgemeier started adapting the Baby-sitters Club books into a graphic form. In the book, three girls desperately want dogs but their parents all have legitimately understandable reasons for not wanting pets in the home. Then, it hits them. Why not make a dog walking agency? That mix of cutie pie pups and capitalism, to say nothing of the complex interpersonal issues, has made P.A.W.S. the hit it is today.
Now, this November, comes the sequel. In Mindy Makes Some Space, and there are different issues to address. Here’s the publication info:
“Best friends Mindy Park, Gabby Jordan, and Priya Gupta are back in business! After a few ups and downs, their dog-walking business is booming and the girls are closer than ever. It’s a dream come true!
But for Mindy, things at home are beginning to feel like a bit of a nightmare. Her mom just started dating someone, which has Mindy feeling like the odd one out. For as long as she can remember, it’s been just the two of them and she doesn’t want that to change. (So what if her mom’s boyfriend has a cute pet cat, and all of Mindy’s friends seem to think he’s pretty cool?)
And things only get worse when a new student named Hazel arrives in class and seems totally into joining PAWS. Sharing her mom feels bad enough, so there’s no way Mindy’s is going to share her best friends and her business, too! But when Mindy’s stubbornness starts to hurt everyone around her, will she be able to overcome her fears and learn that change doesn’t have to be a cat-tastrophe?”
When offered the chance to talk about the books with creators Nathan Fairbairn and Michele Assarasakorn, I kinda, sorta, completely jumped at the chance:
Betsy Bird: Michele and Nathan, thank you so much for talking with me today! P.A.W.S., I am pleased to report, has done wonders at filling that little niche that the graphic novel versions of The Baby-sitter’s Club opened up but simply cannot constantly meet.
Nathan & Michelle: Thanks very much! The Baby-sitters Club is a big inspiration of ours, so we’re happy to hear that P.A.W.S. has found a place alongside it.
BB: Just to start us off, and maybe to fill in anyone who hasn’t read the series yet, how did P.A.W.S. come to be? What’s its origin story?
Nathan Fairbairn: After almost a dozen years working in the comic book industry on titles such as Batman, Wolverine, and Scott Pilgrim—as well as having written an original Sci-Fi graphic novel called Lake of Fire—I wanted to make a book that would appeal to my own daughter, Lily.
Lily was a huge fan of middle grade graphic novels—especially the work of Raina Telgemeier—but nothing I’d ever worked on was remotely interesting to her. So I came up with a handful of concepts and pitched them all to her. I still clearly remember her giving me a hard pass on everything until I presented her with the idea of a group of friends who start their own dog-walking business. It was an idea that was inspired by a problem I was desperate to solve—at the time, Lily was obsessed with having a pet, but we couldn’t give her one for a variety of reasons: we lived in a rental building that didn’t allow pets; I’m mildly allergic to animals; and, if I’m honest, I like to keep a clean house, and a big fluffy animal makes that sort of thing tricky!
Anyway, once I had my concept, I just needed a partner to help me tell the story. As luck would have it, Michele had just moved to Vancouver and we connected through our shared work as colorists for publishers such as Marvel and DC. I pitched the idea to her and she was immediately interested. The rest is history!
BB: Okay, I kind of love that the three different reasons the three parents give were all concentrated in one person: yourself. So I’ve already alluded to the fact that with its let’s-start-ourselves-a-club premise, this has some surface similarities to The Baby-sitter’s Club. Was that in your mind at all when you initially wrote the books?
NF: I’d be a liar if I said the thought never occurred to me! Reading comics in bed with my daughter was a nightly ritual for years (a ritual she has now sadly outgrown) and the Baby-sitters Club books were always among my favorites, especially the early volumes by Raina and Gale. I honestly haven’t revisited those books since I started writing P.A.W.S., but the tone and feel of those books definitely informed some of my choices, especially early on.
BB: Michele I feel like you’ve done a supremely good job with the art in all the P.A.W.S. books. Going from something like GOTHAM ACADEMY to a series with such a younger audience feels like it would require a bit of a shift. So I’m curious. How do you pare down your art for a younger readership without losing something in the process?
Michele Assarasakorn: Thank you very much, but I can take only the coloring credit for Gotham Academy!
P.A.W.S. is the first project I have ever drawn. My background is more in concept design and painting, so it took tremendous effort to hone a style for this book.
Luckily, my drawing inspiration has always been more cartoony and I had second-hand experience in animation storyboards (I’ve worked on one show but I’m married to a storyboarding wizard) so P.A.W.S. was the perfect project for me to start on.
BB: Of course what really made P.A.W.S. memorable for me were the individual battles that each girl in the group was fighting. Of particular note was the challenge of being a year younger than your friends and how big a deal that is. Did any of the girls’ experiences come from real life at all?
NF: Absolutely. There are definitely aspects of these books that draw from Michele’s and my own childhood memories, but much of the friendship dynamics and power struggles in P.A.W.S. come directly from observations of my own daughter’s social life. In fact, the characters and personalities of P.A.W.S. were so directly inspired by the experiences of my daughter and her friends that it felt utterly necessary to set the story in our own neighbourhood in East Vancouver. It’s a choice I’m really glad we made. I feel like grounding the story in a specific place helps the story and characters feel real, and lets me as a writer connect better to my characters.
BB: I’m going to remember that, next time someone asks me for middle grade comics set in Canada. Of course, one thing that struck me when reading your bios was that both of you started out as colorists. Now I’m not overly familiar with how one breaks into the world of comics. My brother-in-law was an inker for D.C. for many years, but that’s not exactly the same thing.
NF: Oh that’s cool! The comics industry is surprisingly small–I bet I know your brother-in-law (or at least his work). What’s his name?
BB: Steve Bird! He’s Atlanta-based. I remember him doing his inking during big family events over the holidays. I’m also friends with David Baldeón, whom you may know. But back to my question! How did you both come to work in the comics field and why did you come to it via the role of colorist?
NF: I’d always dreamed of becoming a comics writer, but had no idea how to go about doing that. After college, I spent a few years spinning my wheels. I wrote spec scripts that went nowhere (often literally, as I didn’t even know who to send them to) and entered writing contests that I never heard back from. Once, out of frustration I even physically mailed off a few sample scripts to Marvel, and eventually got a lovely form letter back asking me to stop doing that. I still have and cherish that letter. It’s got Spider-man on it!
Anyway, I eventually decided to try to get into the comics industry through a side door. I’d always drawn—I even did a weekly (terrible) cartoon strip in the university paper—but I knew I didn’t have the chops for professional work. However, I suspected that I could get my coloring or inking skills up to par reasonably fast. Inking is harder than coloring, so coloring it was!
I started getting more coloring work from Marvel and DC than I could handle, and for almost a decade my writing aspirations became a victim of my own success as a colorist. (Well, that and the fact that I started having kids and stopped sleeping for five or six years.) I ultimately realized, though, that my editors were never going to think of me as a writer and I would have to stop taking on coloring work if I was ever going to get serious about writing.
It’s a decision I still struggle with. I love coloring! And it’s a heck of a skill to bring to a creative partnership. I’m coloring P.A.W.S., because I can and because it saves Michele time.
MA: Honestly, I kind of stumbled onto colouring comics after enthusiastically offering my painting skills to Karl Kerschl, an artist I admired at a comic convention in Toronto. He reached out to me months after because they needed someone to replace Gotham Academy’s colourist, and the rest is history! I started phasing out all my animation and game jobs and focused on colouring full-time until I moved to Vancouver, BC where I met Nathan.
I draw 99% of the time now..well more like 40% because I have a toddler, and will squeeze in colouring a cover here and there.
BB: So the moral of the story is, kids are a time-suck. Got it. I’m so glad that the series is catching on and that we’re seeing another book in the series. MINDY MAKES SOME SPACE shifts the focus to Mindy’s life with her single mom and the changes that are happening there. It’s funny, but sometimes it feels like narratives from the perspectives of one-parent households was something that got really big in children’s books in the late 70s and 80s and then kind of disappeared for a while.
NF: I think I know what you mean by that! My own childhood was rather chaotic at times, and I always loved it when the characters in books I read had unconventional families, like mine.
BB: Right? Along those lines, how did you go about making Mindy’s experience as real as possible?
NF: It was really important to me that this series represented a range of family types and parenting styles. So for Mindy’s family I drew upon feelings and experiences I had as a kid (plus a few details I picked up from some close friends). There are very few characters and relationships in these books that are completely fabricated—if there are parts of it that ring especially true, it’s probably because they are!
BB: That’s awesome. Okay, final question, and it’s for the both of you: What are you both working on next?
NF: We’re hard at work on the third volume of PAWS, of course! It’s called Priya Puts Herself First and it should be out next fall.
MA: Apart from catching up on sleep, I’m very busy drawing our third book at the moment. It’s going to be a good one!
Thanks indeed to Nathan and Michele for taking the time to answer all my questions today! Thanks too to Kaitlin Kneafsey and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for setting this up. Mindy Makes Some Space will hit shelves November 15th and, of course, you can pick up Gabby Gets It Together wherever good comics are sold or borrowed.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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