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It’s a Bird; It’s a Plane; It’s Drew Brockington’s Metropolis Grove!

Metropolis Grove cover

Metropolis Grove coverWe sat down with Drew Brockington to talk Catstronauts, comics, cheese, and his new graphic novel, Metropolis Grove, available from DC Comics for Kids on May 4th.

MUF: Hi Drew! I’m really excited to talk to you today because I’m actually a really big fan of Catstronauts and Hangry, which I’ll ask you about in a bit, but first, can you tell us a little bit about Metropolis Grove.

DB: It’s about these three kids who become instant friends in a suburb of Metropolis, Metropolis Grove. The two kids that live there, Duncan and Alex, they’re really skeptical about superheroes. Nothing happens in their small, quiet suburb. It all happens in the big city, and all they see is all this superhero stuff happening online or in the news. So, when Sonia moves from Metropolis to their neighborhood, they’re instant friends, but with Sonia being from the city and having seen Superman, she’s like Superman’s number one fan. She tries to teach them about how cool superheroes are, and they try to teach her about living in the suburbs, exploring the woods, and building a clubhouse. They see Bizarro out in the woods, and everybody assumes that he’s Superman. Sonia, having seen Superman, isn’t so sure, but she doesn’t want to mess up her new friendships. So, she starts keeping secrets.

MUF: That leads right into my next question. Sonia is pretty Superman obsessed. Did you have any favorite superheroes growing up?

DB: Growing up, we had a big collection of the old Super Powers action figures. I was definitely a fan of Batman and Superman growing up. I was really into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well. That’s actually how I started drawing. I was getting more into the Turtles and learning how to draw them.

MUF: So you got started doing fan art?

DB: Haha, yeah I guess. Back then, I don’t know if the term was fan art, but I was just drawing in my spiral notebook. I remember my brother teaching my how to draw 3-D so that the characters weren’t just flat on the horizon.

MUF: Kind of going back to Metropolis Grove, Sonia’s fish-out-of- water story dovetails nicely with Bizarro’s. Did youPage from Metropolis Grove choose to write about Bizarro or how did that work?

DB: DC really wanted a story that was not another little Bruce Wayne story or Wonder Woman growing up on the island. They wanted to dig a little deeper into their universe of characters. I came across Bizarro in the animated series, and I remembered him from Superman comics from when I was a kid. I really liked his origin that he was a Superman clone that wasn’t finished and escaped. So, I liked this idea that he’d just broken out of the clone facility and had the idea that he was a hero, but he didn’t know how to go about it.

MUF: I’ve already talked about how much I love Catstronauts and Hangry. You’ve already created these wildly popular characters and worlds. What was it like going into an already established world?

DB: That was a little daunting, and part of the reason of me taking it out of Metropolis and putting it in the suburbs gave me the blank slate so that I could build that world. But there was this point where I was working on it that I realized that they existed in that same universe. It’s a scene where Sonia is doing research on the DailyPlanet.com, and there’s a story by Lois Lane, and it’s as I was writing those lines, I was like “Oh yeah, this in the universe.” So, then I went back and mined the DC Universe for those nuggets to pull in to make it feel like it’s part of the same world, but it’s a new part of a map that you haven’t explored yet. So, that was exciting to dip my toes into.

And the other thing that I wasn’t prepared for that I should have been was that this was a book with humans as opposed to cats like in Catstronauts. So, I had to remind myself how to draw humans, and just because you are drawing a person, there’s a lot more attention you have to pay to the artwork to make it feel more natural. Like no one has ever seen a cat flying a spaceship, but when there’s a kid climbing out of their window, you have a very specific image of what that looks like. So, it was a much more intense art session.

MUF: Did the story come first or the art? What does that process look like?

DB: When I was working on this book, I was writing the outline to the story, but also in my sketchbook, I started trying to figure out who these characters were and what they looked like. The character design happened as the same time that the outline was being written, and as I started writing the script, I do really rough page thumbnails to gauge how the book is gonna be paced. Then, I go back through and revise the thumbnails and tweak the script. When all the words are in the bubbles, I read the words out loud so that it sounds like something a human would say.

MUF: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey to this point?

DB: Catstronauts was the first book that I published and it was the first thing I’d written professionally. Before I spent two years working on a graphic novel that was to teach myself how to write graphic novels and explore comics. I also started going to different comic cons and zinefests. I was working on this large graphic novel and also working on all these mini comics. I remember when I got the green light from Little Brown on Catstronauts, and I was like “This is amazing!” A few days later, they came back and wanted four graphic novels, and I was kind of diving in and trying to figure out how these characters were gonna grow in the series. The cast of Catstronauts is really large, and one of the big hurdles is how to further a character’s development when they’re only in the book for a page or two. I started re-watching Star Trek The Next Generation, and that’s a huge ensemble cast, and you have all these little nuggets of characters in the background, and I really took that to heart and put that into practice while working on the Catstronauts books. I’ve now written 6 Catstronauts books, and one picture book, which is another way different genre to write for. When I was working on Hangry, you only have 40 pages to tell your complete story, and word economy is such a big part of picture books. So, every thing you write has to be the word you intend on using, as opposed to Catstronauts where you have room to play. Then, pivoting to work on Metropolis Grove, with these new characters that have to exist in the DC universe, I relied on those lessons from Catstronauts and working with an ensemble. I needed to make sure that when you met these kids, they had a whole childhood before the story.

Someday, I really want to write a story where someone is shipwrecked on a new planet or on an island where it’s one person and they’re all by themselves because everything I’ve drawn lately, like the last Catstronauts had like nine characters that I had to draw, and Metropolis Grove has 3 kids and Bizzarro, and the whole middle school showing up, and it’s like what am I doing to myself.

MUF: I gotta ask because I saw it on your bio. Cheese-eating contests?

DB: My old neighborhood had a big street festival every summer, and the local cheese shop would sponsor a cheese-eating contest. So, I was a part of that for about four years in a row, and my personal best got better every year. They always did New York Cheddar which is a strong, dry cheese, and you had two minutes to eat as much New York Cheddar as you wanted to. My personal best is 9 ounces of New York Cheddar in 2 minutes, and I trained for it. I remember reading how the hot dog people can eat that much, and they do things like swallowing ice cubes to condition their throat and mouth to take bigger gulps and take a sip of water after each bite.

MUF: Do you have any writing or art advice to anyone who is starting out?

DB: If you don’t have a sketchbook, start a sketchbook. It doesn’t even need to be a book. It can just be a folder that you keep all your drawings in. That has been a game changer for me. Seven years ago, I took a self-imposed sabbatical from my graphic design job. And I said, “I’m gonna take a year. I have this graphic novel idea. I have a new sketchbook, and I’m going to draw in it every day.” That was my goal. I just needed to draw something. Some times I’d do drawing prompts from Inktober or random word generators online, and every basically every story has started as doodles in my sketchbook. Catstronauts started as a doodle, and then a joke with a cat holding a fish that says “Prepare for lunch”. I made a comic to help deliver that joke, ad now that joke is in every Catstronauts book.

MUF: What are you working on now?

DB: Right now, I’m working on a picture book called Puppy Bus. It’s about a kid who moves to a new town, and he’s about to get on the bus and go to his new school and accidentally gets on a bus full of puppies and spends the day at obedience school. It’s about how to navigate this new culture you’re in. It’s kind of absurd, but really fun. I just finished the artwork on that, and I’m working on a prequel series for Catstronauts about Waffles when he was a kitten. It’s about how he found the inspiration to become a catstronaut later. It’s called Waffles and Pancake. The first one is Planetary Yum, and it’s coming out in September. Waffles and his sister Pancake go to the science museum with their

Drew Brockington

dad and see a planetarium show and have lunch in the cafeteria. It’s intended for earlier readers, but Catstronauts readers will find lots of fun Easter eggs and cameos.

MUF: How can people follow you online?

DB: I’m on Twitter and Instagram, and I have the same handle for each. It’s @thebrockart, and I’m constantly posting behind-the-scenes and sketches and things I’m working on. You can follow on there for behind-the-scenes, and every once in a while, I’ll try to do a live drawing.

MUF: That’s so cool! Thank you for sitting down and talking with us today.

DB: It was great to talk to you too.

Amplify Black Stories

Amplify Black Voices

The Brown Bookshelf has partnered with the Highlights Foundation to produce a year-long program to support and amplify Black stories, storytellers, and publishers. The goals are to lift up Black creators and also confront industry challenges and foster change.

Amplify Black Voices

According to the program announcement,  Amplify Black Voices will feature monthly presentations from two distinct cohorts:

“The Storyteller cohort includes debut, midlist, and vanguard Black authors and illustrators across all children’s literature genres and formats, at no cost to the storyteller. Discover the 24 storytellers in the cohort.

The Publishing Teams cohort includes a diverse and inclusive gathering of executives, editors, and marketing and design staff from publishing houses. Our sponsoring publishers and organizations have empowered and funded Black creators and staff to participate while supporting this collaboration to dismantle the systems of racism”

Amplify Black Voices

What Makes It Tick?

The creative mind is a wonderful and mysterious thing.

Serendipity. Déjà vu. That sweet feeling when one thing enters the equation and the answer snaps into place like pieces of a puzzle. The workings of the human brain are sublime. Humans have worked for centuries to define the nuts and bolts of how our brains work.  The neurotransmitters, the ion gradients, the neurons, the processing centers, and the communication patterns are biologically understood. Understanding creativity, however, is a whole other thing. We can record Peter Brown’s brain activity but we fall short trying to understand exactly how his brain can take a shipwrecked cargo of robots, a remote island, and wild animals and then create the world of The Wild Robot.

A wonderful and mysterious thing, right?

What makes the creative mind tick? That’s a question I’m constantly investigating.  From voice to style to structure to wild, unadulterated imagination, the facets of a creative mind are the gears that drive the bus to its destination. I find this creative engine that floats inside our skulls amazing and worthy of study. What makes 1000 writers come up with 1000 unique stories even after being given a fairly strict and narrow writing prompt?

I want to know! 

Several months ago, while driving home from work, a memory of author/illustrator Bill Peet’s autobiography popped into my head. I remember reading it in the early 1990s after checking it out from the public library. I always liked Bill Peet’s illustration work so I enjoyed his illustrated autobiography immensely. That said, I hadn’t thought of the book in well over 20 years. The memory just popped out of nowhere and I made a mental note to see if the library still had a copy in circulation. 

I made no mention of this to anyone and soon forgot to investigate further.

The weird, wild, and serendipitous part of the story is that last week, my wife came home with a certain author/illustrator’s autobiography she pulled out of the culled pile of books from the library at the elementary school she teaches at. As if it appeared from thin air, I stood, open-jawed, holding a copy of, Bill Peet: An Autobiography.

It is as good as I remembered. However, I’m still perplexed at the pure, blind fortune that resulted in the book resting on my shelf. Was my mind sending electromagnetic energy into the universe about Bill Peet’s autobiography? Was this simple luck and the coming together of unrelated events? The answer may never be known; at least not to my feeble brain.

The creative mind yearns to understand. 

I’ve always had this blessing (or curse) to understand how things work. I’ve dissected everything from lampreys to cow eyes to dogfish sharks to learn anatomy and how it relates to function. I’ve set up elaborate experiments in attempts to figure out how infectious diseases work and how the host fights them. I’ve taken apart old furniture, radios, televisions, and computers in an attempt to understand their workings. The problem in my case is I’m not so good at putting these things back together properly. 🙂

Perhaps this is why I became a scientist and why I enjoy writing and studying the processes of how stories are built. Yes, part of being a writer is to understand how to build a story and then how to best build your stories. It’s akin to studying how Seurat, Van Gogh, or Kadir Nelson create their art masterpieces.

In short, in order to build a house, you first have to know what a house is and understand what the important bits are. 

The creative mind is curious.

Confession time…

I like writing craft books. I own too many. I probably spend too much time reading and re-reading them instead of actually writing. I know many of you can relate. Writers also learn to read with a purpose. Reading a book with an eye on the author’s craft involved in creating the work. Reading to find out what made that story, that book, that graphic image effective. Kidlit-ology!

There’s also an often untapped resource out there to help understand what makes authors tick.

The kidlit creator autobiography. 

As I hinted at above with my love of the Bill Peet book, I enjoy autobiographies. I really enjoy author autobiographies. They are often different from true biographies because they’re told through the lens of the person and not from a third party. The autobiography is told through a completely different filter. Author autobiographies are like taking mom’s sewing machine apart to see its workings; they are a peek into what made them the writer they grew up to be.

After an “extensive” internet search, which, in my case, is typing “children’s authors’ autobiographies in the search box, I unearthed an interesting list of kidlit author autobiographies. Some I own, some I’ve read, and many are new to me but are now on the TBR list.

On My Shelf List

  • Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood & Going Solo by Roald Dahl
  • When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
  • Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories by Jack Gantos

Ones I’ve Read List

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  • Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (Not exactly 100% reality but as the description says, “Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional…”)

 

 

The TBR List

  • Knots In My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli
  • 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tommie DePaola
  • A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary
  • Gone To The Woods: Surviving A Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen
  • Smile by Raina Telgemeier
  • Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Almost True Stories of Growing Up by Jon Scieszka
  • The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life by Sid Fleischman
  • It Came From Ohio!: My Life As A Writer by R.L. Stine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Have you read any of the books on the list?

Do you have other kidlit author autobiographies to share? I’m particularly interested in reading and studying more autobiographies from diverse creators, especially Native and Indigenous creators. If anyone knows of any, please share these books in the comments. I’d be very interested in adding them to the TBR list! 

Learning and growing. That’s what a writer does. Writing is a constant, ever-shifting process. Each piece is different in its own, unique way while carrying a core consistency that’s coined as “voice”. 

The mind is indeed a weird and wonderful thing. A writer’s mind is doubly so. A middle-grade writer may triple or quadruple that!

Have a creative spring and then carry it over into summer. Take inspiration and knowledge from those who came before us. Be a source of inspiration and knowledge to those who will come behind us.

Learn and grow. Every day.

You got this, friends.

Read. Write. Repeat.