Transcript from an interview with Matt Holm

The true story of how Babymouse was born

Hi, I'm Matt Holm and I'm the co-creator of the Babymouse and Squish series.

The true story of how Babymouse was born.  Well, see Jenny was the only girl in a household with four brothers. So, she grew up reading a lot of boy comics her whole life. And she liked them a lot, but she really wished that there were better girl characters in comics, you know.

Most of them seemed to be running around in their underwear all the time as superheroes, you know, and she really didn't identify with that, and so that was sort of stewing in the back of her mind. And then one day when she was in New York City working in advertising at the time she was having a bad day, as I'm sure many people in advertising do.

And she came home, and she was cranky, and everything had gone wrong that day, it was what we now think of as a typical Babymouse kind of day. And she said, "Right then, the image of this cranky little mouse popped into her head." With, you know, a frown on her face, and her whiskers were messy, and had her hands on her hips. But she had a little heart on her dress.

So she was still cute. And she scribbled it down on a paper napkin, and the next time I saw her, because I was living in New York at that time too, she gave me the napkin, and she said, "We should do a book about this." So I said, "Cool!" And then I took it home, and I did some sketches, and then I lost the napkin somewhere, so. [sighs] Yes, I lost the very first ever drawing of Babymouse.

So, after the initial sketch, we made kind of a day in the life of Babymouse pitch. Where it was about 50 pages long, Jenny wrote the whole manuscript out in storyboard format. And I did some key art for about a dozen pages throughout it. And we pitched that for about three years actually, after we came up with it, it took a long time. And no one was really making graphic novels for kids at the time, I think we kind of had to - we had to wait for the times to change.

Because in 2004 when we finally sold Babymouse to Random House that was when everything else was happening in comics too, you had Scholastic was picking up Bone from Jess Smith, and Raina Telgemeier was doing the Babysitters Club graphic novels. And so I think it was just something in the air then.

Fantasy in pink

And Babymouse then, instead of being this sort of like loose story through her day, where we didn't really follow a tight narrative, became a very tight narrative where we had, you know she had a specific struggle throughout each book, and it followed a normal narrative pattern, like any novel or chapter book would.

And then we also started developing things like, how are we going to deal with her fantasies? Because she has these crazy daydreams, and we didn't really know how to show that transition from the real world to the fantasy world. And we were going to make the hearts on her dress pink, we knew that, we were like, we'll have one little tiny splash of pink in everything, everything else will be black and white.

But as I was coloring Babymouse's bedroom in one of the first scenes, her bedroom is covered in hearts, there are hearts on the wallpaper, hearts on the bedspread, on her dresser, on the floor, on the carpet, you know everywhere. And so I said, "Oh, there's going to be a lot more pink than we thought here."

So, when we got to the first fantasy sequence I just put a pink wash over the whole thing, I said, "Oh, this is how we can show that she's transitioning from the boring black and white world into the exciting vibrant pink fantasy world that she has."

Storytelling in graphic novels

The graphic novel format, it's interesting because when Jenny and I were growing up we read probably equal amounts of picture books like Dr. Seuss and Charlie Brown comics, you know we had all of these old collections going back to the 50s that our eldest brother had collected.

And so, we were just used to reading comics, and it just seemed natural that you would learn to read from reading comics because you have the pictures, and you have the words right there, and they kind of guide you along hand in hand.

And so, now that we're making comics, the format, it gives you some freedom to do different kinds of things that you can't do in a regular novel or a chapter book, you can show a lot more than you ever could in a novel or a chapter book, just like if you're doing a movie you can show things, you don't have to sit there and describe everything, and it kind of takes the wind out of the sails if you're like explaining everything.

Instead you're showing every single thing that's happening, which is amazing. But then the text can sometimes, you know it's always fun in Babymouse to sort of puncture Babymouse with the narrative text. Because the narrator will come in and give snarky comments back to Babymouse, and give her advice which she usually ignores, or you know, he even has his own ideas about himself, and he should be the star of the show sometimes.

And Squish is very similar, and a lot of that sort of commenting came out of Jenny and I actually writing notes to each other in the margins of the layouts when we were working on them, like, "Oh yeah, this is going to go well for Babymouse, right." When she's trying to do this thing that's impossible. And we just had to work that in somehow. And Squish same thing, we had these little arrows that sort of like make fun of squish, but also identify things.

So you can have sometimes a really concrete way of just cutting straight to the point like, you know saying, "Squish, he's an amoeba," you know, "a single celled organism." And really get some information across very quickly.

Squish, the amoeba

Well, I think with Squish, you know we were looking around for what kind of creature should we have for the star of our new series. We knew we wanted to make another one, and we like working with animals rather than people as our main characters, they're more fun. And we're like what's out there that hasn't been done? You know, there's ton of bears and bunnies, and dogs, and cats, but we're like, microorganisms, no one has done amoebas, no one has done paramecia, or euglenas, or any of these other creatures, like it's classic.

And really, you know for a lot of kids school is like, it's a, it's a battle of survival, with Squish it's a literal battle of survival, like a bully might actually eat him if things don't go well. But it just sort of amps things up to that next level. And it's fun because we can, we always like to have another layer to whatever book we're doing. With Babymouse it was the ability to have a way to introduce all of this classic literature, and all these, this pop culture, Babymouse the musical, all of these classic musicals that kids might be interested in later.

With Squish we can sort of introduce all of this science content. And not in a really boring teachy, preachy way, just sort of like, just little bits here and there, which is how we learned a lot of stuff. Again I think back to reading Peanuts cartoons by Charles Schultz, you know that's how I learned about Beethoven, and psychiatry, and things like that, with Lucy's little psychiatry booth, or Schroeder always playing Beethoven. I never would have come across those words for years otherwise.

Pink and pond-scum green

Well, the palette for Babymouse just seemed a natural because Jenny, when she was a girl pink was her favorite color. I think it was, actually I don't know if it was her favorite color, or if my mom felt bad that she was the only girl with all of these boys, and she tried to overcompensate, and so everything in her room was pink, you know, you had pink bedspread, pink wallpaper, pink carpet, that kind of stuff, so it was like a lot of pink.

And so I think, that memory of what it was like for her as a girl just meant there had to be pink in Babymouse, so that seemed natural.

And then for Squish we actually had a hard time figuring out what color to make Squish. When I was doing the early drafts, when I was working on the early art, and we were still trying to think of what we should do, whether it should be a blue or a green, or a yellow, or something we didn't know. I was actually working in purple at the time, so I wouldn't influence us, so we wouldn't be stuck with some like early blue that I just picked.

And we were like, well, we're used to that, so we're going to go with that. And then we're racking our brains, like should it be, like a watery blue, because he's in a pond? Or more of an oceany blue green? Or a forest green? A grass green? And finally Jenny said, "You know what? It should be pond scum green." So she actually got a photo of some pond scum off the internet, sent it to me, and I used that to sample the color, and that's how we picked the color green that we use in Squish.

Teaching with graphic novels

Yeah, I mean graphic novels are a great teaching tool. Not just as a way to, a sort of a direct way to get across information, because they're great for that, and one of, Josh Elder who's a great comics advocate, he has a great line he always does in his presentations, which I'm totally going to steal, which is that, "When you get onto an airplane, the most important information about what to do if the plane crashes, how do they present that to you? Not with a whole bunch of paragraphs, they give you a cartoon." You know, that's, it's the best way to get across information.

 

It's the fastest, the clearest, the most direct. And so, it's a great teaching tool for things like history, for science, you look at the stuff that Nathan Hale is doing with his Hazardous Tales, or all of the adaptations of Beowulf, and Macbeth, and that sort of stuff. Like it's great for getting that information across to people.

But it's also just great for teaching kids how to read because it again, it helps them along, the pictures, and the words help them, and you learn, it breaks out certain things in text that are not so clear in prose, like for example, dialog in prose is kind of buried in the paragraph. You know, it's inside those little quotes, but unless you're looking real hard for them, you may not understand that concept.

Whereas dialog in a comic is up in a speech bubble, you can see. Again narration text in a paragraph is just sort of everything, it's just a big mush. But narration in a comic is in a little box, and you can clearly see what's going on with it. So, it really breaks out some concepts for early readers that are [unintelligible] struggle with these things.

Visual literacy

I think it is a more intuitive process to decode the image. It's what we do normally, you know. When you're learning language, someone shows you an apple, and they say, "Apple", and you say, "Oh", and you link up that image with that word. It's the same with alphabet books, when they have "A is for apple" you start learning basic words with basic images.

 

But there's more complicated things to decode in pictures too. And there's a lot of complicated, sort of visual design, and things that are happening in comics. And that takes a little learning. But that's important because we're in a very visual society now.

Kids aren't going just have to write straight text as they grow up. I don't know a single person in the business world that doesn't have to make PowerPoint presentations all the time. They're going to know how to have to present information in a visual way, and how to understand it, whether it's a PowerPoint presentation, or it's a poster on a wall at a voting booth, or at the post office or something.

Becoming a comic strip maker

Well, I always wanted to make newspaper comic strips, ever since I was young, although actually when I was very young what I really wanted to make was the little collected books of newspaper comic strips. I didn't understand for many years that those were the collected daily newspaper comic strips. I knew about Sunday ones, which were all in color, but these black and white ones, I'm like that's so cool they make these little books full of comics, like I want to make these little books full of comics like that, which is kind of what I do now.

And so, when I got into middle school I really became interested in comic strips, and how they were made, and started researching the materials that they used, and I would get like the Bristol board, and the right kinds of pens and ink, and everything. And then I took as many art classes as I could all through middle school and high school, even when it was an elective I would take it, for my senior AP art class I actually did an illustrated children's storybook that had cartoon illustrations.

When I was also a senior in high school I had a mentorship program where I went and followed Tony Auth, who was the Philadelphia Inquirer cartoonist who passed away recently. And, and he showed me around the Inquirer offices, and took me to the editorial meetings, and showed me what his day was like, and how he thought about and crafted a comic and everything.

And he was very like, "Are you sure you really want to do this? Like, I'm not sure this is the best career choice for a smart kid." You know, and then I went to college, and at college I did cartoons for the school newspaper, did political cartoons. And I also took as many art classes as I could, I was actually an English major, I was an English non-fiction writing major, magazine writing was my specialty. I thought I'd be a science writer, I did a lot of science writing when I was in college.

And I assumed I'd go work for Discover magazine or something. But all the time I was hedging my bets, and hoping there was some way I could make comics some day, but I had no idea how you did that, it wasn't like, you went to med school, and you became a doctor, and then you started your residency. You don't go to cartoon school, and become a cartoon doctor, and start your cartoon residency, it doesn't work the same way.

So, there wasn't a clear path. And I just kept taking as much art instruction as I could all the way along, you know traditional figure drawing, and oil painting, and print making, and then learning all of the digital stuff that was starting. I just realized I had been using Adobe Photoshop for twenty years which is alarming, I didn't realize that it had been around that long. [laughs] I was just thinking about that the other day.

Digital illustration

And so, I acquired all of this knowledge, and I didn't have anywhere to put it just yet. And I started working in New York City as a magazine writer and editor, I worked for Country Living magazine for eight years actually. And, and I became a very proficient writer, and proofreader, and copy editor, and all that sort of thing, and I still wanted to cartoon on the side. So, I did a web comic early on, back in like 1997 when there really weren't web comics practically.

And that started, that led me to my technique that I used for Babymouse and Squish where I do all of my final art digitally using a special stylus that lets me draw straight into the computer. And I did that at the time in the late 90s because I couldn't afford a scanner because scanners for computers were so expensive that I couldn't afford to draw it out, and ink it on paper, and scan it in to get it online, so instead I just had a little tablet that was small and cost like 99 dollars, and I drew on that, and that's how I got things digitally.

But I got used to that process, and being able to easily erase, or undo things, and move things around digitally, and recompose your image. And so I got proficient at that. And then when we finally got to Babymouse, and had the opportunity when, when Jenny was publishing her own children's books, and could get us into meetings to sell Babymouse then I'm like, this is how I'll actually do it.

Collaboration

Well, for each of our series it seems like the image of the character always comes first, and it's actually from Jenny, she's always the one who had the image, would scribble it down, and like this is the character, and then we would sit and figure out who it was, and what they did and everything. But after that initial thing everything else was always words first, we always work out the story to like the utmost before we start doing any drawing because drawing takes a tremendous amount of time, and there's a lot of steps.

We do pencil sketches, and then I usually do some marker sketches to clean things up, and then I'll do the final art inside the computer, and so that takes a long, long time. And it's always to make story changes early on in the text than it is to make things, changes later in the artwork.

Well, I do have a lot of experience as a writer. I was a writer for many years, as my profession. And, so I am writing children's books as well as drawing Squish and Babymouse. I mean I do also, do writing on Squish and Babymouse. Jenny will do the manuscript and send it to me, and then I'll revise it, and sometimes she'll just get stuck, and say, "Matt, write something funny here to fix this scene." And so I'll have to go and rewrite some stuff for her.

But, the biggest problem is, I just, I'm doing so much Babymouse and Squish work I don't have a lot of free time for writing. I do have a middle grade chapter book that I have been working on for, I don't know, six or seven years now that is finally being submitted to publishers now. So, hopefully in the next few years that will come out as well.

Reading to write

Well, you definitely need to be a reader to be any kind of writer, illustrator, or anything. Actually I think if you're making books, whether you're an illustrator or a writer, I think you need to read a tremendous amount, and you need to focus, you need to be a writer, even if you're not doing, not the one who's primarily doing the writing, because it's all about storytelling.

And I just look at the illustration as another tool in the arsenal for storytelling. I also did graphic design for many years, and I just, I still approach kind of our comics, and our books in the same way, like what elements do I need to use visually and textually and everything else to tell this story, to get this information across.

But, to do any particular genre or format you need to know that format, you need to know that genre, you need to read and read and read to the point that you don't even have to think about what the forms, how it's done, you just know, it just comes out, just like people that are going to be film directors they watch thousands and thousands of hours of movies, so that they know instinctively what kind of shots to cut into and everything.

And so, same thing with comics, I don't have to think about, now where do I put the speech balloon? It's just automatic, obviously it would go there, and obviously this is the kind of reaction that a character would have, and it would convey that kind of emotion.

And so, I of course still read comics, I'm, I don't have that much time to read things anymore, unfortunately I'm so busy making stuff. I try to keep on top of the other children's comics creators right now, which is a big task because there's so many of us now, which is amazing, you know I just read "Sisters" by Raina Telgemeier, and I read "Boxers and Saints" by Gene Yang.

I just, the other day read Bryan Lee O'Malley's "Seconds", that comic, not for kids, but still great. And then the rest of my time is either spent reading science stuff, I'm really interested in anthropology and that sort of stuff, I don't know, I'm like, I'm interested in human origins, and just where things come from and happen.

And I also read a lot of science fiction. So, I'm a big nerd, and I'm dying for the next Game of Thrones to come out, you know, so.

School visits

I just thought I'd be making comics, or writing books. I never thought that I'd also be going to schools and talking to kids. Like, why would that happen? My whole job is, my core job is sitting in a room by myself, doing my work, talking to no one basically. Like I need to be really good at being anti-social, kind of.

And then, but now to go, you know talk about the books and everything to kids, I have this whole other side of my personality I have to sort of conjure up. So, that's been personally interesting to learn what I can and can't do in that realm. But it's also been exciting with the kids to see what they respond to, the kinds of reactions they have.

Things like, so many kids are excited that they can read an entire book, you know they're like, I read a whole Babymouse book, or a whole Squish book, and it's a hundred pages long, and I never finished a book before. Like that's a big deal to kids. Like that was never anything that occurred to me, that like, they would need to feel a sense of accomplishment from being able to finish a book.

And then there are a lot of kids who are struggling readers who, you know if they're not reading a book like Babymouse or Squish, which is kind of appropriate for a pretty broad range of ages, from you know kind of K up through 6 and even a little higher, and that's totally fine, if you're a 6th grader still reading a Squish book that's cool, but if you're a 6th grader reading at a 1st grade level and you're reading a picture book that is not cool in any way shape or form. And so those kids would just stop reading.

So, it's kind of interesting to see that those kids feel like, ok, this is subject matter, and it's appropriate, and it's ok with my peers that I'm reading this book, even if my reading level is a little bit lower.

And so it can help them boost things up, and still give them confidence to keep reading.

Critiques and revisions

What's it really like working with Jenny? [makes dramatic sound effect like from a movie "dahn-dahn-da"] Well, she is my older sister, so, you know she always gets the last word, she always does boss me around, no.

But, but really it's surprisingly easy to work with Jenny. We both came from careers where we were heavily edited and critiqued. She was in advertising, so she was used to presenting a whole bunch of ideas, and having them all be shot down, and being told how terrible they are, all were, and have to come up with something new.

I was in magazine publishing, and so I would write an article, it would go through five editors hands in the copy department, and come back to me, and there would be maybe one word left that was the same. So, I got used to things being changed by other people, and you start to realize that, oh, you know, if these are competent people, and they have good intentions, then if they have an idea, and they're seeing something that's not working, you should pay attention to that.

And they're probably right. So, that's sort of the  attitude that Jenny and I have. If one of us has an objection to something, we're like, yeah this isn't working, we need to do something else here, we're like ok, you're probably right, let's fix that. We don't really say like, "No, this is how it should be, I know I have a vision." We're like, ok, I'm trying to get something across, I'm not getting it across, how do we communicate that better?

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." — Walt Disney