In Jon Agee’s graphic novel fantasy adventure, Otto: A Palindrama, a boy eating wonton soup falls into a daydream about pursuing his runaway dog Pip, and enters a weird world defined entirely by palindromes—from a billboard that reads “Regal Lager” to the mind-spinning line of dialogue, “Eva, can I spit Q-tips in a cave?” The 200 palindromes that make up the text are mostly by Agee, with others, as the acknowledgements note, contributed by his global palindromist network. In an interview that does not read the same backwards as forwards, PW spoke with Agee about the origins of his palindrome passion, the weird storytelling places that palindromes lead one, and how he maintained his palindromic stamina over the course of eight years and 144 pages.
Where did this fascination with palindromes start?
Back in the early 1990s, I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in New York and as we were waiting for our food, we were asking what everyone was doing, and one friend said he’d been creating palindromes. I sort of knew what they were—“Madam, I’m Adam”—and I passed him my sketchbook and asked him to write them down. He actually drew little pictures to go with them. The palindromes themselves didn’t make sense, but the picture brought it all together, and I went home with my sketchbook and looked at the palindromes with the little drawings and thought, “I can do this! I can do better than this!” [laughs].
And what I learned was that I was pretty good at it. I did not see that coming. It became quite obsessive actually, and friends would say, “Jon, would you stop talking about palindromes, please?” I was constantly looking at palindromes in newspapers, books, street signs, logos, graffiti, anywhere I was seeing words, just walking down the street. There are goofy names that we take for granted, but backwards they spell something: Who knew that Tylenol backwards is “Lonely T”? And then I’d turn it into funny sort of New Yorker-style cartoons.
I was motivated by combining these absurd sounding phrases and funny pictures—it was stimulating from a visual and textual experience. You get a palindrome like “Mr. Owl ate my metal worm,” and without a picture, you wonder, What are they talking about? But if you see a picture of a dapper owl with a bowler hat who looks ill and two robotic birds talking about him, you can make it somewhat plausible.
The friend who sparked my interest in palindromes is a fascinating guy, with a good sense of humor. Back in the ’90s, he was a fellow artist, who subsequently migrated toward information technology. In my fourth book of palindromes (Palindromania!) from 2002, I made sure to specifically acknowledge him.
Do you think there’s something about the way your brain is wired that makes you so good at this?
It's something I’ve thought about. For a documentary called “The Palindromists” [about the palindrome competition in Will Shortz’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament], they filmed a dozen of us meeting, and Martin Clear, a programmer from Australia, says [assuming an Australian accent] “Jon, you’re a bit of an outlier—most of us came to palindromes through numbers—you’re this kind of odd duck coming at it visually.” And it’s true, not many people are motivated by the same reason I am, which is to come up with a phrase and a drawing.
That may be related to my writing and illustrating children’s books. The writing part and the drawing part exercises two very different faculties and strengths, and the balancing act between them is like creating a palindrome and imagining the perfect picture to go with it.
You’ve made palindrome books before, but how did you decide to try the graphic novel format?
I’d done three palindrome books with stand-alone cartoons, each with about 80 pages, and then I’d done a fourth book with three-frame palindrome comic strips. So I thought I could do a longer form. My publisher, Lauri Hornik at Dial Books for Young Readers, said, “How about a graphic novel? Let’s do something completely different from what you’ve done before.”
I started it and it was very difficult. I asked if we could make it short stories, or shorter comic sequential pictures, and Lauri was pretty adamant. Her reasoning was, “If you can pull this off, you can certainly say no one has done this before.” And I said, “Yeah, and I might shoot myself” [laughs]. The guidance I gave myself was that I would only use really good palindromes and not let them dominate the story.
But the palindromes came first?
I had to have the language at my fingertips before I made the story. The scenes were all determined by the palindromes. I grouped them: anything that could be an epitaph could suggest a cemetery. There were others that could take place in a museum or be related to art. Anyone who does palindromes knows that a palindrome that starts with “Eva, can I…” has to end with “in a cave.” So I figured there had to be a scene in a cave.
Do you have a favorite palindrome in the book?
“No one made killer apparel like Dame Noon.” I figured Dame Noon would be a figure like Diana Vreeland, and you’d be looking at her tomb in a cemetery, and it would make all the sense in the world.
Even though there are a lot of palindromes in the book, there are many wordless panels that push the action forward. What was the creative strategy behind that?
As much as I admire a good palindrome, I really was intent on having people who are not interested in palindromes enjoy the book, too.
How did the plot for the book develop?
I looked back to see when the contract was signed, and it was September 2013. I wasn’t working on the book exclusively, but I started and stopped and resumed and scrapped and revised. At one point it had nothing to do with a young kid—it was about a grown man who makes wonton soup for his family—and if you make wonton in palindromic story and ask people if they want it, the answer has to be “Not now.” But about four years into the process, it didn’t have enough substance. Also, I realized this book has to be about a kid—after all, it’s being published for Dial Books for Young Readers. There are only two palindromic names for male figures, Otto and Bob, and I’ve never met a kid named Bob. It still begins with wonton soup, though.
Creating the opening, making it seamless, and setting up the plot devices was tricky. The dog was an essential plot device, because that’s what makes the story work. The boy chases the dog, the boy loses the dog, goes on his journey, and then is back with Mom and Dad. The cherry on top is that he discovers his dog isn’t lost.
Despite his many odd adventures, Otto never doubts himself or has a tearful moment yearning for home. Did you always intend to make such a purposeful protagonist?
He does take everything in stride, he never stops. There’s a scene where he’s approached by an enormous shark, and he’s a little concerned: “Won’t I be bit now?” But the shark responds, “Naw, I ate Taiwan.” And there’s a scene where a bully carrying a big salami bumps into Otto and calls him a name, and Otto yells back, “Go hang a salami! I’m a lasagna hog!” [Agee also used that phrase for the title of a 1991 palindrome book.]
But maybe the reason why Otto never stops or cries or has an emotional breakdown is because I didn’t have the adequate palindromes for such a scene.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten palindromes out of your system?
Absolutely I have [laughs]. I was creating palindromes every year to make the material to finish this book. I’m not really motivated to make another palindrome book.
What’s next for you, then?
For Dial in spring 2023, I have a picture book, My Dad Is a Tree. A girl is in her backyard and she’s standing with her arms out, pretending to be a tree because a tree gets to be outside all day long. She talks her dad into being a tree with her, but he’s much better at it: an owl and chickadees land on his shoulder, a robin builds a nest in his hair, and squirrel puts an acorn in his pocket, a spider makes a web in his armpit… and when Dad wants to stop because it’s dark or raining, the little girl says no, because trees don’t mind. Finally all the creatures on his body disperse and they do go inside, but the little girl thinks, “I wonder what we’ll be tomorrow.”
Otto: A Palindrama by Jon Agee. Dial, $17.99 Dec. 28 ISBN 978-0-8037-4162-1