Today we’re talking to author-illustrator, cartoonist and designer John Martz!
John has written and illustrated several children’s books including Burt’s Way Home and A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. He’s also illustrated several picture books including Abbott & Costello’s Who’s on First?, Dear Flyary by Dianne Young and Black and Bittern Was Night by Robert Heidbreder. Plus, John’s work can be seen regularly in MAD Magazine. (MAD MAGAZINE, GUYS!!! NINE-YEAR-OLD NASEEM TOTALLY FREAKS OUT EVERY TIME SHE REMEMBERS THAT ABOUT JOHN!)
John’s a super funny person on a whole and an exceptionally talented illustrator. His books are always packed with tons of kid-appeal, plenty of hilarious jokes and lots of heart.
Let’s talk to John about what it’s like to make books for children and adults, what his favourite picture books are right now and what made him laugh when he was a kid.
You’ve written and illustrated books for both children and adults. Why do you make books for kids? What do you like the most about creating books for kids?
There is little, apart from subject matter, that differentiates my books for children from my work for adults. I tend to favour small, short stories, and that’s just a natural format for children.
As a creator, I am drawn to the conciseness and the poetic qualities of shorter stories. I’m not interested in drawing a reader in to a sprawling, epic world—I’m content to grab a reader’s attention for a brief moment, just long enough to offer up a little story or distraction.
And of course a shorter story doesn’t mean a story without depth. That’s the interesting challenge as a writer—given a format that offers only so much space with which to tell a story, how can you do it in an artistic or meaningful way? What you leave out is as important as what you put in. It’s a puzzle, and I think you have to enjoy the puzzle as much as, if not more than, any other part of the process.
What is the one thing (TV show, movie, book, comic book, human being) that made you laugh the most as a kid?
I can only pick one? My answer could change based on mood or weather, but today I’ll go with the comedy album 2000 Year Old Man by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
It’s so simple in its concept. Carl Reiner is the straight man, interviewing Mel Brooks, who claims to be two thousand years old. Carl Reiner asks questions about historical figures or what life was like thousands of years ago, and Mel Brooks gives absurd answers.
I remember not quite knowing if Carl Reiner was in on the joke. I didn’t yet understand the concept or role of a straight man in comedy, and since much of the material was improvised, Carl Reiner often seemed generally surprised by some of the answers. So while I knew it was an obvious fiction, the mechanics of the skit eluded me somewhat. That mystery might’ve been part of the appeal.
I liked listening to comedy albums, and there is something about listening to comedy sketches that really sucks you in. It’s different than straight stand-up or joke-telling. There’s a story to it, with scenes and characters, and so much of what is happening has to be pictured in your head and imagined. You, as the listener, are doing some of the work. It’s participatory in that way.
More than anything, I think it taught me a lot about mining a simple premise for jokes—the simpler something is, whether it is a scenario, a character or a plot, the more malleable it is, and the more opportunities there are to play with it, subvert it, distort it and provide variations on it.
In your graphic novel Burt’s Way Home, you tell the story of an orphan named Burt who is trying to find his place in the world. It’s such a beautiful book—the perfect balance of humour and heart. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to write that story?
First of all, thank you!
One of my favourite movies as a kid was the Christopher Reeve Superman movie. There’s a scene in the movie when a teenage Clark Kent leaves the family farm and travels to the arctic on a pilgrimage to find the Fortress of Solitude. I don’t think it’s explained how he knows to go there. Through some sort of cinematic hand-waving or internal voice, he is compelled. It’s a spiritual calling—he’s going through super-puberty and he has an awakening to his own extraordinariness.
And that’s the real appeal of Superman as a fantasy. It’s not the particular superpowers themselves; it’s that Superman is singularly extraordinary. He is truly special—the only one of his kind on a planet of billions of regular people. He’s an orphan, not just from his parents, but from an entire world. Superman is lonely.
And of course we see this trope of an orphan hero in all sorts of fantasy stories. Once you notice it, it’s everywhere: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, Spider-Man, the Wizard of Oz …
So I wanted to see if I could tell a version of that story, and I guess the “what if” scenario I gave myself was, “What if an orphan-turned-superhero origin story was told from the first-person perspective of a kid making it all up?” The story grew from there.
In the book, it is intentionally ambiguous as to whether it’s a fantasy or not, but in order to suggest that it might be a fantasy, I realized I needed a secondary point of view, which became the character of the foster mother. And so as I wrote the story, it evolved to become less about Burt’s heroic adventures, and more about the relationship between him and his foster parent.
Who are your favourite picture book authors and illustrators these days?
Here are some recent (or recent-to-me) picture books I just loved:
- Duck, Death, and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
- Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
- What Is a Child? by Beatrice Alemagna
- It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee
- And, of course, all of Jon Klassen’s hat books
- And anything illustrated by Christian Robinson
- Or Isabelle Arsenault
- Look, this list could go on forever
Fart jokes in children’s literature: Yea or nay?
This is an excellent question, Naseem, and I hate to answer a question with a question, but I must. What kind of fart? Do you mean just a little VRRT!? Or a long, high-pitched FWEEEEEEE!!!? I suppose a barely audible PFF could work, but it may be a wasted opportunity for something with a little more get-up-and-go. Certainly I would shy away from a real bone-rattling BRADARAPF!!, and I’d be hesitant to employ anything in a POIT!! or a FLURRRBPLBPLBFFT!!! I’d maybe aim for something between the piercing sophistication of PARP!! and the classic chime of a simple TOOT!!, but I will wait for further clarification.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.