Aye, aye! Dav Pilkey, best known for his Captain Underpants series (which has sold 70 million copies worldwide), is launching a new spinoff series, called Dog Man; he’ll kick it off on August 30 in his hometown, Cleveland, with a multi-city Dog-gone Spectacular Superheroes Tour. Today he and his wife, who is his business manager, divide their time between Minamiizu, Japan, and Bainbridge Island near Seattle. PW spoke with Pilkey about, among other things, the inspiration behind his new title, next year’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of Captain Underpants, and a new DreamWorks movie based on the adventures of class-clown fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins.
You created Dog Man and Captain Underpants, in that order, when your second-grade teacher banished you to the hallway. Are you a packrat who saved those old drawings, or did you have to recreate them?
I’m not really sure if I have any of the comics. Somewhere up in my parents’ attic somewhere? But it’s mostly up in my memory. Dog Man did come before Captain Underpants. He was a little bit different when I first started drawing him. He was more of a superhero. I think he was a pet some children had, and he had superpowers. He wasn’t a police officer back in the old days. When I started drawing him as an adult, I wanted to create a new backstory for him.
What’s the backstory?
His current incarnation is as a police officer who’s part dog and part man. I mentioned him in the first Captain Underpants book. By the ninth book, he was a character showing up in George and Harold’s comic. My fan mail started to change. Usually kids would draw Captain Underpants. Starting with book number nine, they were all drawing Dog Man. That was one of the reasons why I decided to break out and start a new series about Dog Man.
So you based Dog Man on the hallway drawings, but you imagined him back then as a superhero?
Back then it was all about superheroes for me. Maybe that’s true with a lot of second graders. When you’re a kid, adults are always telling you what to do, and you feel pretty powerless. That’s why superheroes, especially for young kids, are pretty appealing. They can change the world. They can do anything.
How did the police officer persona come to be instead?
Dog Man is a spinoff book, kind of like George and Harold and Super Diaper Baby. They’re more super powered. I wanted to get away a little bit from the super powers and come up with a character who had to use his brain to solve his problems. I thought it might be more of a challenge if his brain was actually a dog’s brain.
The misspellings in Captain Underpants have vanished in Dog Man. What’s up?
This is their first book where the spelling is all correct. They still make up some of their own words. If you make up your own words, you can spell them however you want. Their grammar is not 100% perfect, but of course, it wouldn’t be because they’re kids. They talk the way kids talk.
And the drawings look different.
Dog Man is supposed to be drawn by Harold and written by George. They’re meant to be seen as if they were drawn by a child. In the Captain Underpants books, there’s usually one or two chapters where George and Harold take over and draw a comic.
You’ve talked about growing up with dyslexia and ADHD and about reading funny books that made you forget your struggles. How do you channel your inner kid and continue to come up with new potty humor and chapters with names like “Weenie Wars”?
I don’t know exactly how I channel that inner kid. George and Harold are characters I like spending time with. They started out as different versions of myself. Channeling my inner child is really just kind of like writing through them. It’s almost like being an actor, a character actor. You almost pretend to be someone else. That frees me up in a way because I don’t really have to feel like I’m my boring old self. I can be someone else.
I don’t think a lot of teachers back then had the tools that they have now when it comes to dealing with kids who had special needs like I did. When I came home, my parents were so encouraging. Instead of looking at these challenges as bad things, they wanted me to look at them as good things. In some ways, I was doing the cartoons and being the class clown as a way to shift the focus. I didn’t want to be the kid who everyone knew couldn’t read as well as everyone else. I wanted to be the funny kid, the artist.
So how did the books go over at school?
They were very popular with my classmates – not so much with my teacher. She was not a fan. She used to take my comics and stories and rip them up and tell me that I needed to straighten up, that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life making silly books. I didn’t get a whole lot of encouragement from my teachers. When I came home, everything changed. I had so much encouragement from my parents. They used to ask me to make comics for them.
Did they save them in the attic?
Yeah. I was doing a lot of potty humor back when I was a kid. They liked that OK. But they wanted me to do a superhero or series about someone who wasn’t a plunger or a toilet. I came up with a guy called Water Man. He could do anything water could do. He wasn’t necessarily a superhero. I think I did like 20 or 30 comics about Water Man. My parents saved every single one.
Where do you create most of your books?
I do a lot of my writing in Japan. There’s a cave near where we live. I kayak to the cave, and I do a lot of my writing and illustrations there. Just recently I’ve started working digitally, on a portable laptop, called a Cintiq. It’s like a tablet – it has a computer attached to it, and little pens come with it.
As Dog Man comes out, what would you like your fans to know about your life?
When I was a kid, I wish I had known that there were other people who I looked up to who had quite similar struggles to mine. I didn’t really know that when I was a kid. I kind of felt very alone. One of the things that I love most about my job is being given the opportunity to go out and meet children all over the country, all over the world. I’m carrying on the message that my parents gave to me. Thinking differently can be a good thing. And some of these challenges, something good might come out of it.
It sounds as though you’re truly enjoying book tours these days.
It’s so much fun to meet the kids. A lot of times, after they’ve been waiting in line, they’ll show me some comics they did or drawings they did. A lot of times they’re based on something I did. I love seeing that. It reminds me of my own childhood, when I was constantly drawing Charlie Brown or Snoopy. I would have so much loved to meet Charles Schulz.
My approach has changed. When I first started going out doing author tours, I was just doing signings and talking to the kids individually. I had to overcome the shyness, and I had to really work on that. Getting up in front of a group of people and giving a speech was terrifying for me at first. I’ve come up with a program with a PowerPoint presentation that I do, and there’s a lot of humor involved and a lot of line drawing.
What are your plans now?
Dog Man 2 is in the can, and I’m working on Dog Man 3 and 4. Dog Man has kind of taken over my writing and my thinking lately. I’ve been having a lot of fun with this character. Although Captain Underpants was a lot of fun for me, it was a bit cathartic because I was taking these sometimes very painful experiences and turning them around into something fun and funny. With Dog Man, it’s the first time I’ve been able to do books that are just pure joy for me. I love dogs, and I love kids. The ideas seem to be coming at a fast and furious rate.
I’m actually looking at one book for Scholastic after that, a bunch of stories from my childhood. This is kind of my first nonfiction book, hopefully for the spring of 2018. I just finished the dummy this summer. It’s actually for a YA audience. It covers from about age two to age 17.
How much is it like Persepolis?
I love that book. It’s not as serious at that. This one will be very funny, but there will be serious parts.
What will it be called?
The working title is The Moon Is Made of Cheese. It’s really an exploration of not only my childhood but the story of faith. I grew up in a Christian household and went to Christian schools. So it’s really a story of faith and belief and how it intertwines with my childhood.
How involved are you in the process of the Captain Underpants movie?
DreamWorks was so good to me. They said you can have as much involvement or as little involvement as you’d like. I decided to leave it up to them and focus on my writing, and they were fine with that. I trust them so much. Everything that they do I love.
The director is David Soren, who wrote and directed the movie Turbo. That’s such an amazing film. After meeting David, I felt like he seemed like one of the kids I grew up with. I know he used to make comics with his friends. He really seems like a kindred spirit. We were down at DreamWorks talking with David and a lot of the key people who were working on the film, and many of them grew up with Captain Underpants. The kids who grew up reading the books are now making the film. That means so much to me.
Dog Man by Dav Pilkey. Scholastic/Graphix, $9.99 Aug. 30 ISBN 978-0-545-58160-8