Known as a cast member of The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, Winick has also had a storied career in comics and television. Releasing on September 1 is the inaugural volume in a new graphic novel series, Hilo, an adventure in which an out-of-this world kid collides with some pretty average Earthlings. Winick talked to PW about the inspiration for the series, and how his previous work has informed his new book.
You’ve mentioned that writing Hilo was the culmination of all the writing and comics work you’d done before. How so?
It was truly a little bit of everything. I started out wanting to do comic strips. That’s what I wanted to be since I was a kid. When I was nine, 10 years old, I remember telling my parents that I might have to leave school when I become a famous professional cartoonist. I remember Mom shaking her head at me, with a look like “that might actually not happen.”
I did a comic strip in college. I got a development deal to get syndicated after that, which was then dropped because they didn’t like what I was doing. After that I gravitated toward spot illustration work, which was purely about learning to draw better.
Then I realized I might starve to death. I got syndicated around the time I was on The Real World, and that wasn’t quite working, doing four panels and a punchline repeatedly. With my now-wife, and then-girlfriend at the time, we went on the road after [Real World roommate] Pedro passed away, lecturing, it didn’t feel like I was telling a real story, I wanted to do something more, so I created Pedro and Me, which was more of a memoir. [After that, Winnick worked on superhero comics, where he learned] how to tell long stories, with arcs and a long view of the character. That eventually led me to an animated series for kids The Life and Times of Juniper Lee, which lasted for three seasons. I created and wrote and produced the show, working the same approach as comics, where I wanted grownups to like it, too, and I felt that I was back to writing for all ages.
That’s led me back to comic strips, and Hilo is sort of a superhero story in disguise. It’s an action-adventure with Comedy (with a capital c). I’m drawing the way I know how to draw, it looks somewhere in between Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, but plays out like something between Iron Giant and Dr. Who.
Do you approach writing for kids differently than for adults?
I’d say only in two major ways, in vocabulary and cursing. I try not to use a lot of SAT words. There’s no need to get too erudite with my language choice, and with cursing. Other than that I just try to tell it the way I think will entertain people. I have a great editor – Shana Corey –who will say “I know what you’re saying, but is there a way we can make it just a bit clearer?” When I’m drawing, I can hear the dialogue in my head, the music in my head for certain scenes, but sometimes I need more words and panels to make my point clear.
The book is called Hilo, but D.J. really seems to be the main character, and he is a kid with no special talents in a family of overachievers. Why did you decide to put an everykid type character at the center of the book?
For the one thing, it really is about D.J. I think kids, and even more than that, people, fall into two categories. There are people that are out there who have bigger fish to fry, a lot of ambition, and see their own self-worth, and there are people that don’t. I wanted to take the kid who is surrounded by a family of [high achievers], what can D.J. do? Nothing tangible. But what makes him extraordinary are his intangible qualities. It takes literally this thing falling from the sky for these amazing qualities to come out. It adds a magical quality, not in the wand-and-sorcery way. I like that Hilo will bring out amazing things in D.J. He never treats him as anything less than extraordinary and astounding.
Do you have other projects in the works?
Six of these books. So the answer is no. The last thing I was working on, The Awesomes (a Hulu series created by Seth Meyers); I left to focus on Hilo. The schedule for Hilo is really breakneck. The second book is done. Before I was on the phone with you I was literally drawing book three. I finish a book, and then walk around for a week, then get started on the next book. I can’t stress enough this is what I want to do. I started out wanting to be a cartoonist. After seven to 10 years developing cartoons, working on TV, the misery of not doing [being a cartoonist] became overwhelming. I wasn’t aware how much I missed doing it, and how big a part of it is who I am. As my kids were growing older, I realized there was a problem not doing what I loved.
I have a lot of stories that I want to tell only in this way. So there’s a couple one-shot graphic novels and another series I have in mind, that I’m trying to not think about yet.
Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick. Random House, $13.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-385-38617-3.