A shrieking rubber goblin in the teachers’ lounge toilet? Battery-operated motorized worms in the cafeteria mashed potatoes? Both are the handiwork of sixth-grader Desmond Pucket, who is known for his horror special-effects wizardry until he is forced to mend his gory ways and – even more horrific – sign up for dread extracurricular activities. This is the madcap premise of Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic by syndicated cartoonist Mark Tatulli (Heart of the City; Liō), the first novel in a series starring the eponymous prankster. Due October 1 from AMP! Comics for Kids, a line of middle-grade titles from Andrews McMeel, the heavily illustrated novel is a first for both the author and the line, which has focused on comics collections since its debut in fall 2012.

Tatulli is hardly new to the Andrews McMeel Universal family. His comic strips are syndicated by Universal Uclick, a division of the company, and his comics collections were published under the Andrews McMeel Publishing imprint before the launch of AMP!

“Though cartoons have been part of my life from the get-go, I also did animation along the way whenever I could, and started working in graphic animation for TV shows and corporate videos,” said Tatulli, who is a three-time Emmy-winning animator and filmmaker. “That was my bread and butter, but I always did comics on the side, trying to turn that into a career. That took a long time, but it did happen.”

Two friends who moved from syndicated cartoonist to illustrated novel author encouraged Tatulli to follow suit: Stephan Pastis (the Timmy Failure books) and Rick Detorie (The Accidental Genius of Weasel High). “Stephan told me, ‘You’ve got to get into this – it’s the perfect venue for us,’ ” said Tatulli. “Those of us who do comic strips are used to writing and editing ourselves daily, so the illustrated diary notebook format is right up our alley. And we’re childish to begin with – that’s how we think. Also, the bits of information in the short chapters of our books track almost like a comic strip – with a beginning, middle, and ending.”

Since Tatulli is “always looking for something else to do and it sounded like something I’d enjoy,” he decided to take a stab at an illustrated novel. He wrote several chapters of what would become Desmond Pucket and submitted them to Dan Lazar at Writers House. “Dan loved it and said he thought we could run with this, and offered to sign me,” Tatulli recalled. “We put together a pitch package with several fully illustrated chapters. There were eight publishers interested in the book, so it went to auction, and out of that Andrews McMeel, who I’ve loved working with on my Liō comics collections, floated to the top.”

Andrea Colvin, v-p of content for Andrews McMeel Publishing’s book division, felt immediately that Desmond Pucket belonged on the AMP! list. “When I read Mark’s proposal I had one of those really exciting publishing moments when I realized, ‘This is it—he’s got it,’ ” she said. “From doing his Liō collections, we have a great relationship with Mark and we knew we wanted this book to be our first illustrated novel.” The publisher has a 125,000 first printing on order for the book, which Tatulli will promote with a national tour in October.

From Syndication to Book Publication

The task then fell to Tatulli to write and illustrate a 224-page book – a novel challenge for an artist accustomed to creating inches-long comic strips. “The trick at first was figuring out what the process was,” he said. “Comic strips are like little poems, which take seven seconds to read and process. I’m used to dealing with little chunks like that, and now I had a synopsis but didn’t know what it would take to turn it into 30 chapters.”

For advice, Tatulli turned to Lincoln Peirce, whose Big Nate comics collections are also published by AMP! Comics for Kids. “I’ve known him a long time, and he was awesome – he talked me off the ledge,” said Tatulli. “He told me about his process for creating books, but I had to sit down and figure [it] out on my own, and it was very painful trial-and-error. The trick is trying to be original and clever without being too weird, and sticking to a format. Of course Jeff Kinney created the genre with Wimpy Kid and a lot of us are kind of following in his footsteps, but I had to make it mine.”

One component of his novel that came quite easily to Tatulli was his prankster protagonist. “Desmond is what I was like in junior high,” he said. “I planned elaborate ways to scare my sister, cousins, and neighbors, and as they became tuned into what I was doing, I had to become more sophisticated so they wouldn’t know what to expect.” Yet the author never went so far as to put a goblin in the teachers’ toilet. “I never did that, and never presumed to scare adults,” he said. “Though if I could have I would have.”

Tatulli, whose two-book contract with AMP! Comics for Kids includes a Desmond Pucket sequel scheduled for April 2014, is somewhat cagey when asked if he’s currently writing that follow-up. “No comment,” he said, and then backtracked. “Oh, no – I’m going to get myself in trouble with my publisher if I say that. So how about, ‘It’s going well’ – my stock answer.”

And after that? “Well, the hope is that the series will go on and on, but if not, I’ll try something else. I’m thinking I might possibly try my hand at a picture book – something weird, of course.”

Desmond Pucket Makes Monster Magic by Mark Tatulli. Andrews McMeel/AMP! Comics for Kids, $13.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4494-3548-6