Nate: This book began when an editor challenged me to write the most exciting action/adventure story I was capable of. My starting point for the concept was my favorite subject: dinosaurs (the main characters in my last two picture books have been dinosaurs).
My wife died from her cancer in 2011. After that, I poured much of my grief into my manuscript, striving to find some kind of hope in the main character’s struggle. Writing this book became an escape from the bleak depression that gripped me.
The main female character in this book is strong and courageous, facing the challenges thrown at her with indomitable spirit and determination. My wife, too, was strong and courageous as she fought her cancer. She was my hero and my inspiration.
Ultimately, I write funny action-adventure stories for kids. I didn’t know how to write an insightful memoir that somehow did justice to my wife’s brave battle with a horrific disease. I could only write a story about a boy fighting in an intergalactic arena to save his planet and everyone he loves. During the gladiator combat, his alien opponent divides in two, becoming an even more menacing threat. This was my literal-minded way of portraying my wife’s cancer – a savage monster that replicated itself.
e: I'm so sorry for your loss, Nate.
How different was creating Tyrannosaurus Ralph from creating a ‘regular’ book? What was your path to publication?
Nate: Tyrannosaurus Ralph originally began as a first chapter book for young readers. My brother, Vince, and I were wrapping up another first chapter book at the time, and it seemed natural to just continue with this format for this new dinosaur concept. As the story progressed, Vince and I tossing ideas back and forth, the story got more interesting and complex. I decided that it was time to attempt to write a middle-grade novel. Up until now, my career had consisted of nothing but picture books and first chapter books for young readers. Over the next several years, I tried again and again to craft a story that had grown to a sprawling 30,000 - 40,000 words. My patient agent, Caryn Wiseman, kept reading different versions of the manuscript, and, while she was always very enthusiastic about the concept, she had doubts about the execution. My writing just wasn’t right yet and we both knew it. Finally, I decided to strip down the manuscript to just what excited and inspired me -- that was the action, the dialogue, and the goofball humor. At the time, I was listening to lots of podcasts about the craft of writing. My favorite is The Writers Panel hosted by Ben Blacker, which deals with writing for movies, and TV specifically. I became fascinated with the screenplay format and realized that writing a graphic novel was essentially like writing a screenplay. I proposed this new direction to Caryn and she gave me an enthusiastic thumb’s up. Now I had a format that seemed perfectly matched to the concept, and I found that many of my writing problems began to fall away naturally. And, because Vince used to work at Marvel Comics, he was the perfect artist for the project. He’d done various samples for the book’s earlier incarnations. For the graphic novel, Vince redesigned the main characters, and then drew a couple of sample pages to accompany the script. Now we had something worth looking at!
One of the happiest days of my life as a kid’s book creator was when an enthusiastic editor at Andrews McMeel Publishing wrote to say she wanted our book!
e: What is your creative process (and medium), can you walk us through it?
Vince: For the comic art, I start with rough thumbnail layouts first, just to determine the number of panels and how they fit together. I rough in the characters and the word balloons to make sure the page reads correctly. This is all very rough scribbles -- I have about a week before these sketches don't make sense to me anymore.
Vince: This is tricky because as much as this question is about art, it's also about the viewer. Things that I liked as a kid, I see now are lacking. They aren't worth a second look beyond nostalgia. But there are things that do stand the test of time. I still draw inspiration from the Tintin books by Hergé for their feeling of adventure and from the Asterix books by René Goscinny, illustrated by Albert Uderzo, because they have good comic poses, especially for walking and fighting. Also, in junior high school, I got my first art book featuring the fantasy paintings of Frank Frazetta. That book was a game changer! Until then I was kid with a vague notion of being an artist, copying Peter Paul Rubens and Jack Kirby. I opened that book on Frazetta and I knew this was what I wanted to be. Something just clicked in my brain that said everything you’ve looked at up to this point should be drawn like this -- animals, trees, people, and the mood.
Nate: Vince and I had been tossing story ideas back and forth throughout the writing of Tyrannosaurus Ralph. When I finally wrote the graphic novel script, it was a mish-mash of several different, earlier versions. I based the length on a movie script, 120 pages, and on a random sampling of other graphic novels I liked. The script that I sent to Vince was approximately 140 pages in length. Vince read through it, and in a classic case of artistic denial, thought that the final book was probably going to be about 80 pages long.
Nate: When the book was acquired by an editor, what actually happened is that the page count was expanded! The editor wanted the book to be 180 pages!
Vince: I freaked out! Then I freaked out a second time when I learned the book was in color!
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious? Vince: Faith in yourself will give you the strength to overcome most obstacles and fears. Having a couple of loyal friends doesn't hurt either.
Nate: What he said!
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Vince: There are a couple of projects Nate and I are working on that we may return too now that Tyrannosaurus Ralph is done -- or maybe a sequel to Ralph? Given my reluctance to reread manuscripts, it’s not surprising that I’m itching to do something different. I may return to oil painting, or a graphic novel for an older audience would be fun. Right now I'm posting to Instagram drawings that I've done in my favorite workspace, the commuter train. https://www.instagram.com/isaiddraw
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