Science Fiction Double Feature: A Dual Interview with Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo About BILLIE BLASTER, the New Comic
Folks, there are power couples you are fans of and then there are power couples you follow relentlessly over the years, through projects and children and even decades. I can recall, back in 2007 when I was in New York City, falling absolutely in love with Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo’s magnificent middle grade novel Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer. This was even before my blog moved to its current home at School Library Journal. Even back then, at the time, I wrote that, “Laini Taylor’s balancing act with this novel should be studied intensely by those wannabes that want to break into the world of fantasy writing for kids. It’s one-of-a-kind and worth a taste. I meant what I said and I said what I meant. If you read only one fantasy book this year, read this one.”
Well, years have passed since that time. We all got older and had children of our own. And now, a full 16 years after I wrote that review, I find that Laini and Jim are back but NOT in middle grade novel form. Oh no! They’ve made the leap to full on graphic novels and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Billie Blaster and the Robot Army From Outer Space taps into all that old space adventure stuff we’ve been seeing since the days of Buck Rodgers, honestly. Or, as the publisher describes it:
“Don’t you hate it when your archenemy launches your latest invention into space, accidentally creating a robot army that falls into the clutches of an evil alien emperor? Well, that’s how Billie Blaster’s day is going!
The genius child of two famous scientists, Billie is an inventor extraordinaire and the star of the annual science fair, much to the disgust of her nemesis, Tiny Hector Glum. But now their rivalry has gone too far, and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance. Can Billie prevent an intergalactic war that’s kind of totally her fault? With her pet goat, Lucy, a giant robot head, and a toilet weasel from a distant planet, she might just stand a chance. Join them on their perilous adventure, in a spaceship without a bathroom.”
It’s been a minute, but I had a chance to talk to Laini and Jim once again and to ask them some questions about this brand new book series.
BB: Laini and Jim!! It’s just so lovely to talk to you! Last time I saw you we were all consuming popovers with Laurent Linn! But even more exciting is the fact that you two are creating this out-of-this-world (literally) comic together. Where on earth did BILLIE BLASTER come from?
Laini & Jim: Hi Betsy!! ZOINKS, was it really that long ago that we last hung out?!? Sadly, that seems accurate. (Wow!) Well, let us hopefully be lucky enough to see you sometime soon (and more often in the future) and do away with these long hiatuses.
Before we dive in, we realized during some earlier promotion for the book that many people don’t realize—and why would they if they don’t know us?—that we’re married. In fact, we’ve been together almost exactly twenty-five years now, and while BILLIE BLASTER’s roots don’t go back quite that far, they do go back a long way:
We met in art school where were both studying illustration, and we’re both big-time lovers of art in books, from picture books to comics to the rarer illustrated novel. BILLIE BLASTER was born from us brainstorming wild, fun, funny, adventurous story ideas years ago (like, literally fourteen or fifteen years ago) after having attended the San Diego Comic Con for eight or nine years, as well as frequenting our local bookshops and comics shops. Art is something we always crave in books, and believe is appealing to readers of all ages, but early in our careers we noted a lack of comics and graphic novels for kids. It seemed like such a glaring hole in the market that we couldn’t fathom it at all. So we came up with a story together, Laini fleshed it out, Jim did some art, and we tested the waters. This was around 2008 or 2009, and book publishers hadn’t yet come around to the idea, so we ended up shelving it and went in other directions.
Fast forward to the early days of the pandemic: Our mutual agent Jane Putch, of Eyebait Management, asked us how we felt about revisiting it. When we looked at it with fresh eyes, we remembered how much fun we’d had creating it and fell in love all over again with the story, the characters, the plot, and the world, all so full of playful possibilities. We were thrilled when Abrams Books made a pre-emptive offer for it, and we’ve been excited ever since for the book to be in kids’ hands and for parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers to give their best shots at making up silly voices for the wacky cast!
BB: Well, that makes sense. Abrams has a tendency to try new things more than other publishers. Can you tell me a little bit about your process? Much to my delight you’ve got visual gags and jokes that land peppered throughout. So what was your writing process on this? How do you two typically collaborate?
Jim Di Bartolo: First off, that’s really nice to hear! We love hearing that our humor connected with readers. Huzzah! Victory is ours! But seriously, and again, we had a TON of fun creating the script and we’re glad it maybe shows in the finished product! Laini and I have a very connected and happy relationship and we have a lot (A. LOT!) of silly conversations between us and with our daughter, Clementine. Among the three of us, there’s really never a fear of a joke not landing, because the “duds” are usually swept away and forgotten by other silliness. So, when Laini got into the hunkered-down stage of writing of the script, she kept running things by me, I’d add a comment or joke, or we’d toss an idea back and forth, and we got what you see in the book. I should add that Laini is — hands down — my favorite writer ever. For those who have not read her middle grade and YA fiction, please RUN (or drive) to your nearest bookstore or library and DEVOUR it all. Truly. Every book by her is a master class in world-building, character creation, and a mental delicacy on every level. Easily ALL of my favorite pieces of any sort entertainment media come from her novels. Hands down. But what is often not commented on is how FUNNY she is within those books. Even the harrowing, seat of your pants, rip-your-heart-out portions of her books, each story also has tons of clever humor. So, having her brain in the world of BILLIE BLASTER was just a shift into the sillier parts of her creativity. And since we share a similar sense of humor and can riff back and forth, having both of our minds in the mix just added more elements. And then when I began illustrating the script, more gags and jokes popped up that I’d run by her, and they were added in at that post-script stage. I feel like that final stage of editing is crucial in making improvements.
Laini Taylor: Aww, thanks sweetie. *blush blush* The feeling is mutual and I’ve been known to joke (is it really a joke though?) that writers should marry artists if they possibly can because it’s just so awesome to collaborate with your super-talented partner!
The nature of our collaboration also makes the process a lot easier for me than it is for many writers of comics. Where a typical comic script requires detailed panel descriptions, I trust that Jim’s visual imagination is far superior to mine and leave most of that to his interpretation while he thumbnails out the pages. So my scripts are mainly dialogue with only simple, essential notes. I don’t even specify the number of panels! A note like “They fight,” might end up as a dynamic, eight-page fight scene in Jim’s capable hands, and he adds in so much visual humor and drama apart from what’s scripted that seeing the art is always full of surprises for me. It’s delightful.
BB: I love comics and I love science fiction. I particularly love science fiction comics. Trouble is, some publishers think that science fiction for kids doesn’t sell. Were you ever told that? What does science fiction mean to the two of you?
L&J: To us, science fiction means a world of heightened if not limitless possibility—the technological flavor of limitless possibility versus the magical flavor (which we also love). Honestly, though we enjoy many or most of the sub-genres of speculative fiction and can appreciate genre distinctions and classifications, as creators we don’t really care about any of that. We’re out to have fun and create fun, and the tropes of science fiction are just so much fun. Robots! Blasters! Aliens! Spaceships! Rocket skates! Shrink rays! (Toilet weasels!)
There’s an essay by Ray Bradbury where he talks about science fiction turning kids into readers, and he says: “Kids who had never read so much as one pirate’s obituary in their lives were suddenly turning pages with their tongues, ravening for more.” I love that so much, and I believe it. I also believe that science fiction is one of the best matrices there is for telling meaningful stories about human issues, and though “fun” was our first order of business, we sprinkled some seeds for thought in too.
As for sales: *shrug*. Science fiction is such a wide-open genre, and broadly loved to the point of being completely mainstream in pop culture. Star Trek, Star Wars, the MCU, Stranger Things? Even current box-office juggernaut BARBIE has sci-fi elements at its core. Whatever accounts for publishing trends, clearly there’s no innate resistance to sci-fi by the public.
BB: Amen to that. And just out of curiosity, what kinds of comics have you read to Clementine, your own kiddo, over the years that really worked for you? Were any of these an influence on BILLIE?
L&J: Though we noted the lack of children’s comics and graphic novels early in our careers, we were very lucky as parents that that ceased to be true by the time we were raising our reader, Clementine, who just turned fourteen (yesterday!). We would read to her every day, and fell more deeply in love with picture books than ever. But she started craving longer stories pretty young—around three or so—well before she was ready to jump to chapter books. Graphic novels were the perfect bridge, and we witnessed how neatly they smoothed her transition to more complex stories, and gave her pride and confidence as a reader. (Plus, something that we don’t hear people talk about much is that reading graphic literature teaches you to unconsciously integrate multiple storylines, both visual and textual, which can play off each other in sophisticated ways to produce irony, humor, subtext, etc, in ways that text-only story can’t.)
But going back to 2012 or so, on our weekly trips to the comic shop (Cosmic Monkey Comics in Portland, Oregon), we’d buy literally every children’s graphic novel that was published. This was early days yet—there were few enough published that we could do that! Over the years the selection grew so we couldn’t buy everything and had to be selective. It was really cool to witness the emergence of this whole awesome new category of books in real time. Some early favorites were Scott Chantler’s high fantasy Three Thieves series, Ben Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl, and the Yotsuba&! manga series by Kiyohiko Azuma, featuring slice-of-life adventures of a young girl in Japan.
Of course, none of those were around yet (we’d not heard of Yotsuba&! then) when we first conceived of BILLIE BLASTER in 2007 or so. We didn’t really sit down and discuss character archetypes or influences, we just created something that we thought our [then-unborn] child would appreciate based on what we ourselves would have wanted as young readers, and what we’re drawn to as adults.
Also, Clementine always loved heroic characters. While she’d definitely accept and root for a character who switched sides and ended up being heroic, she instantly emotionally bonded with the ones who “against all odds” stood up for what is right. I mean, I don’t know if it’s in our shared DNA, but that’s why Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman (all when written exceptionally well) are my go-to characters when someone asks what my favorite superhero is.
BB: There’s just so much packed into this storyline. Was there anything that had to be cut out in terms of space or time? Any jokes you’re sad you weren’t able to include?
L&J: It is packed, and while we didn’t have to cut anything, we’ve created a world and some story seeds that can be expanded upon in so many ways.
BB: By any chance can we hope for a BILLIE sequel one of these days?
L&J: Fingers crossed! We’ve got many notes, ideas, plotlines, and more scribbled down, if the privilege arises.
BB: Finally, Jim, I just have to personally thank you. We all have our strange little quirks and preferences. For me, aside from always wanting to see knitting needles positioned correctly in children’s literature, I also like to see that goat’s irises are sideways. It’s freaky and correct and you just NAILED IT with this book. Thank you for having the guts to show goats as they truly are.
JB: You’re welcome! I aim to please! And I’ll add that Lucy is actually based on a goat we had when I was growing up, the name and all! While my Lucy couldn’t talk, she was a sweetie and when we were thinking up companions for BILLIE, I pitched goat-Lucy to Laini with such a sincere love that Laini immediately got on board
Many thanks to Laini and Jim for answering my questions with such aplomb, and thanks too to Hallie Patterson and the folks at Abrams for setting this up in the first place. Billie Blaster and the Robot Army from Outer Space is on shelves as of this week and found wherever fine books are sold.
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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