Raina Telgemeier is an artist and writer from San Francisco and based in New York. She adapted and illustrated four Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, co-authored X-Men: Misfits, and is the author/illustrator of the bestselling dental memoir graphic novel Smile, which won the Eisner Award for Best Publication for a Teen Audience. Her next book is called Drama and is out in September from Scholastic Books.
Recently, comics writer Jorge Aguirre and comics artist Rafael Rosado sat down with Raina to talk about dental horrors, her precise work schedule, and the autobiographical elements behind Smile and the upcoming Drama.
JORGE: Writing-wise, what do you sit down with when you start drawing the page? An outline, a script, scribbled notes on a napkin? How detailed is your story worked out before you start drawing?
RAINA: I write in thumbnails, so each page has all its necessary elements before I begin drawing: character placement (by way of stick figures), dialog, sound effects, captions—it’s all there in my thumbnails. When I sit down to begin penciling a page, most of the hard work for me is done. I can concentrate solely on my art from that point on, which is the fun part!
RAFAEL: And to follow up on the last question, you’ve mentioned that Smile began as a web comic. I got the impression when I read your author’s note in Smile, that you had to go back and figure out a structure and make the web comic work in long form. Was that the case?
RAINA: I didn’t do as much revising as one might think. Scholastic signed Smile when I was about 120 pages into the story. I revised the first 8 pages, so the characters were all introduced up front, and my dental accident was paced out a little differently. Then, I added 3 new pages of content to what I had already created, to make some of the transitions smoother; removed exactly one page; and then created the final 100 pages of content. The last 100 pages were the biggest challenge—I knew where the story was headed, but wasn’t completely sure how I was going to get there. I probably re-wrote that draft two or three times before my editors and I were completely happy with it. I drew the final 100 pages pretty quickly after that.
JORGE/RAFAEL: We were both wincing when your younger self in Smile breaks her front teeth and we were also wincing when she/you had awkward encounters with boys. You did a great job of putting us in your younger self’s shoes. When you wrote Smile, were you ever concerned with whether boys would relate to your protagonist? We totally related.
RAINA: I never worried about it, no. I wrote this story mostly for myself, not really thinking too much about who my audience would be. It turned out to (mostly) be pre-teen girls, but I certainly have my share of boy fans, too! So thanks!
RAFAEL: As the father of two young girls and one of them is just a few years away from being your age in Smile, I really appreciated how you vividly portrayed the bundle of emotions that is being a pre-teen girl. How did you remember what it was like? Did you work off of old journals or just your memory of those days?
RAINA: I did keep detailed journals from about fifth grade on, and every so often as I was growing up, I would re-read them and reflect on the previous years of my life. I always had a feeling I’d be telling my dental tale one day, but I didn’t realize that the story would end up including all of the emotions, friend-dramas, and crushes from that time in my life. But when I began writing Smile, it felt right to include them.
JORGE: When you write yourself as the protagonist of a book like you did with Smile, do you find yourself thinking of the Raina in Smile as a third-person character and not as yourself?
RAINA: I’m still thinking of the character as ME, just a younger me. All of the narration in Smile is first-person. Most of the books that I grew up reading had first-person narrators, for some reason. My diaries were written in this voice, and since this story is autobiographical, it just felt like a natural extension.
RAFAEL/JORGE: Your characters in Smile and Baby-Sitter’s Club are incredibly expressive. We’re reminded of one of our favorite strips, For Better or Worse. Are you influenced by any particular strips or animation style?
RAINA: For Better or For Worse is one of my all-time favorites. I started reading in 1986, when I was 9, and immediately went out and bought the older collections to catch myself up to where it was at the time. I missed a few years of the strip when I moved away for college (before it was serialized daily on the web), but other than that, I read it religiously, daily, until the day Lynn Johnston retired.
I was also hugely inspired by Calvin and Hobbes, Fox Trot, Bizarro, Luann, Dennis the Menace, and The Far Side. I wish my local paper had run more comic strips! I was also very attentive to everything Disney.
RAFAEL/JORGE: Can you describe the difference in writing something you know you’re going to draw yourself like Smile and Drama versus writing for someone else to draw like X-Men: Misfits?
RAINA: I prefer drawing the things I’ve written, to handing them off to another artist. Turns out I’m a huge control freak—and because I write in thumbnails, the art is already happening by the time I start writing! When I thumbnail, I can see very clearly in my mind exactly how the final art will look.
RAFAEL/JORGE: From your website and Twitter feed it seems like you’re always out there, traveling, making author visits, doing talks at schools. How are you able to always be on the move? Do you do graphic novels full time? And how do you balance creating work with promoting work?
RAINA: How am I able to do travel so much? Well, my husband is also a graphic novelist, and we travel and speak together a lot of the time. We don’t have any kids or pets, so we can be as mobile as we like. What keeps us home is deadlines!
I try to view my career broadly: some years are hard-working, creative years, where I am chained to my desk. Other years are promotional. In 2011 I had to produce 240 pages of art for Drama, but I know my own work habits so well that I was able to budget exactly how much time that would take. 2012 is looking like a heavy promotion year, but with time set aside for writing my next book. It kind of goes in cycles. To that end, I only get paid a couple of times a year, and some years I make a decent amount and others I make almost nothing. Being a full-time graphic novelist means being extremely conscious and disciplined in your spending habits!
I started getting active in public speaking after watching a few other cartoonists who are extremely good at it: Scott McCloud, Gene Yang, children’s book author Mo Willems. There are thousands of books published every year, and convincing people to read YOUR book can be a challenge. But get in front of a room full of kids, and get them laughing and thinking and excited about storytelling you’ll make fans for life. That’s worth the hours I spend in various airport security checkpoints!
RAFAEL/JORGE: Is Drama going to be autobiographical? Can you tell us anything about it?
RAINA: It’s not straight auto-bio, no. But the book is about kids putting on a school play, and I was involved with the choir, theatre, and musical communities in my high school, so it does draw from my own experience in that sense. Some of the characters are modeled off of real people; others are not. Every character is ultimately fictional, as I let them dictate where the story would go. Drama will be out this September!
Jorge Aguirre is a writer and Rafael Rosado is an artist and together they co-created Giants Beware! from First Second Books. Besides graphic novels, Rafael is also an animator and storybook artist based in Columbus, Ohio, and Jorge writes for animated kids shows, and he’s based in New Jersey.