Cartoonist Ben Hatke, author of the forthcoming Little Robot graphic novel, was first inspired to make comics after Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comics strip, answered a fan letter from him when he was a kid. Raina Telgemeier (Sisters) fell in love with Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strip and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse. Those two, along with Bone creator Jeff Smith and Babymouse co-creator Jennifer Holm, got up close and personal with a hall filled with fans during the Comics Are Awesome panel, held Saturday at BookCon.

Moderated by PW graphic novel reviews editor Heidi MacDonald, the Comics Are Awesome panel offered a morning of inside information from the four bestselling cartoonists to the delight of several hundred hardcore fans. The panel regaled an enthusiastic crowd of kids, who were accompanied by parents and other adults who appeared to be having as much fun as the younger fans.

For the record, Jennifer Holm, who is publishing Sunny Side Up, a new non-Babymouse graphic novel coming from Scholastic in the fall, got the comics bug from reading Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, and Bloom County. But she was also a fan of Hal Foster’s classic strip Prince Valiant, just like her dad. “I loved the female character Aleta. She was an early example of girl power to me,” she said. Jeff Smith’s dad also loved comics, he said, and read to him from Peanuts and Mad magazine. But it was seeing the work of Pogo creator Walt Kelly—Kelly’s influence on Smith’s drawing and characters is clear—that “changed everything for me,” Smith said. “I got a Pogo book from a friend when I was a kid that I still have to this day.”

Telgemeier’s comics works, among them Drama, and especially Smile and Sisters, are essentially taken from her own life. When asked if she ever considered working in the fantasy genre, Telgemeier said that she grew up a big fan of YA novelist Judy Blume. “I read realistic stuff. I enjoy fantasy, but it’s kind of ‘other’ to me. It’s not what I do.” However, she added, “until now,” and she announced that “there’s paranormal stuff in my new book,” to the delight of her fans in the room.

Holm, who writes the Babymouse graphic novel series with her brother Matt Holm, also writes award-winning fiction for kids as well. She said her new graphic novel, Sunny Side Up. started out as a straight prose work but when the dialogue wasn’t coming along, she decided to switch it to a graphic novel, which was also drawn by Matt. And her secret to writing bestselling Babymouse stories? “Try to remember the worst things that ever happened to you!”

All the artists chipped in with stories about creating the characters and works they are best known for. Hatke said he created the Zita the Space Girl character because he wanted to impress a “cute girl.” Apparently he did, because he added that “she married me!” Telgemeier’s adaptation of Ann M. Martin’s bestselling Babysitters Club series was her first hit. “I looked for a connection to my own life and I used my own friends as the basis for the other characters. Ann Martin was also very gracious and generous to work with.”

Telgemeier described her approach to creating comics: “It’s interesting to take your own life stories and give it a beginning, a middle and an ending, since life isn’t really like that.” Smile was about her own dental calamities, she said, and Sisters was based on a two-week family road trip. “But I’m getting older and it’s getting harder to use my life. Scholastic wants kids' books, and I’m running out of stories!”

Smith, whose Bone series has, inexplicably, become one of the most challenged books in libraries and regularly is among the top 10 most banned books each year. However, Smith laughed at the dubious distinction, and pointed out that Telgemeier’s bestselling Drama, a story of a school theater group that includes a gay subplot, has replaced Bone on the list of most banned books this year. Though he remains baffled about why anyone would want to ban Bone, the fanciful story of the Bone brothers, whimsical creatures that live in a fantasy land.

“It was not intended for kids at first. Bone was intended to be an underground comic for adults and cartooning fans,” he said, describing the series as “kind of like the Smurfs, but cooler.”