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Fountain of Youth: Embracing the All-Ages Market with Martin Powell

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Although primarily known for his work in the pulp genre on books and properties such as The Phantom, The Spider, and Bela Lugosi’s Tales from the Grave, fan-favorite writer and creator Martin Powell has also published extensively in the all-ages market, recently winning the Moonbeam Gold Award for Best Children's Graphic Novel, for his charming and whimsical The Tall Tale of Paul Bunyan.

In an industry that in many ways has refused to grow its audience instead of growing up with its audience, the all-ages market represents both untapped potential and a huge risk to established publishers. Broken Frontier turned to the versatile creator of
The Halloween Legion and Liberty Unlimited to get his opinion on the importance of creating comics and books for younger readers and the future of the North American market.

BROKEN FRONTIER: Do you believe the North American comic-book industry has done enough to grow its audience with books geared toward younger readers?

MARTIN POWELL: They are barely scratching the surface.  There’s a whole new enthusiastic audience waiting to be tapped out there, but most publishers don’t seem to understand or care about that potential.  DC, at least, has a handful of comics for younger readers, but even they can be tough to find in a local comic-book shop.  Most shops don’t seem to carry those kinds of comics at all.  I think that’s a tragedy and I’m working hard to correct it.

BF: You’ve worked fairly extensively creating books and comics for younger readers. Please, tell us about some of your past all-ages work.

POWELL: Well, to date I’ve written over 20 children’s books, everything from interpreting Lewis Carroll, to adding my own spin on the Brothers Grimm, to composing chapter books for young readers starring Superman and Batman.  Although I’ve been a professional writer for over two decades, I’m still relatively new to this particular field, having written my first children’s book in 2007.  And that, actually, all started because of my long association with Sherlock Holmes.  Stone Arch Books, a publisher of primarily educational children's literature, was familiar with my original stories of the Great Detective and approached me to write a graphic novel adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.  That book was successful and sort of jump-started everything else that followed.  It’s been a very busy, very satisfying time for me.

BF: You’ve recently won an award for The Tall Tale of Paul Bunyan. Could you please tell us a little about the award and the work itself?

POWELL: My older brothers used to read Paul Bunyan stories to me when I was little, and that really captured my imagination.  There’s something especially appealing about a colossal lumberjack when you’re about five years old.  When I learned that Stone Arch would be publishing a Paul Bunyan book, I lobbied hard for the commission.  Since I live in Saint Paul, I reasoned with the editors that this story needed to be told by a writer from Minnesota because, according to legend, Paul was born and raised here.  Ultimately, they were convinced and I happily scored the gig.  I even traveled to Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, Minnesota, so I could have my “About the Author” photo taken with their giant-sized replica of Babe the Blue Ox.

Then, last October while attending a book signing at the Minnesota Educational Media Organization conference, I learned to my great surprise that my Paul Bunyan book was a finalist for the 2010 Moonbeam Children's Gold Book Award, my first-ever nomination in a national award for young readers.  Apparently, after asking around, I was one of the few folks there who was unaware of that!  Obviously, it was very happy, but also rather terrifying news.

After a zillion various award nominations over the years, I finally actually won.  I could hardly believe it.  Still can’t.  The fact that my 86-year-old father loves this book makes it even more special.  While I have the opportunity, I’d like to publicly thank artist Aaron Blecha, editor Donald Lemke, designer Bob Lentz, editorial director Michael Dahl, and Stone Arch Books for their help in making The Tall Tale of Paul Bunyan such a beautiful book.

BF: Much of your all-ages work draws from classic literature, folklore, and myth. How important is it to you to draw attention to these important works and stories?

POWELL: These fairy tales and legends are the foundation of all imaginative literature.  Every classic myth features indelible archetypes which are as universal as they are indestructible.  I’ve always been creatively drawn to this sort of thing, but I never really expected I’d genuinely be contributing to them.

Red Riding Hood was the first of my many Fairy Tale retellings, and I was very excited to get the assignment.  This is probably the best known Fairy Tale in the world, and the various classic versions were already so multi-layered, and so rich with metaphors, that the old story practically howled for a new treatment.

The publisher graciously offered me full creative license in re-telling the story for a twenty-first century audience, so in many ways this was a dream project. I knew immediately that I wanted my Red Riding Hood to solve her own problem.  I sensed that some badly needed "Girl Power" could be an interesting mix into the legend, and no rescuing hunters or protective fathers would be necessary. Red Riding Hood herself would be the hero of her own adventure against the Big Bad Wolf.  My girl readers especially loved that twist, and it worked so well that I’ve since used very much the same approach with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, and a number of others.  It’s a fairly simple idea that has made the old stories fresh and new for a more demanding and sophisticated young audience.

           

BF: How much of your young-adult and all-ages work is intended as educational?

POWELL: Telling a good story is always the most important thing for me.  Reading is, in itself, highly educational and stimulates the imagination.  I tend to introduce certain aspects of genuine history and real science into much of my fiction, whether for younger readers or for grown-ups.  That’s just the way I write.  So, ultimately, I suppose a great deal of it is educational.  The trick is to design the story so that the reader is compelled to turn each page.  The thrill we experience while we read an exciting story is part of the joy of learning.  Once you’re entertaining kids, they don’t mind that you’re also teaching them.

BF: What are some of the challenges of teaching through graphic storytelling? What are some of the benefits?

POWELL: The only negative challenges I’ve encountered have been with a few editors who sought to compel me to write down to kids, something I refuse to do.  Kids are bright and savvy, and often wiser than we realize.  They comprehend a lot more than they are given credit for.

The benefits are enormous.  Think back to when you were read to by an adult when you were a kid.  Remember when you’d get to a part where the grown-up would flip the book toward you, showing you an interior picture from the story?  Kids love pictures, and always want more.  I know I did.

Comics and graphic novels catch and hold their interest immediately because they are a story completely made up of pictures.  At a glance the reader is immersed in the adventure on the page, much like a movie, but it’s a more intimate experience because they are also privy to the inner thoughts of the characters, a device film generally doesn’t attempt to accomplish.  The reader is instantly involved in what’s going on.

BF: Could you please tell us about The Halloween Legion and Liberty Unlimited?

POWELL: I’d be delighted to talk about them.  The Halloween Legion is a concept I originally dreamed up many years ago, way back in high school.  I was drawing constantly in those days, and I began sketching these strange figures in my notebook:  a Skeleton, Witch, Devil, Ghost, and a Black Cat, the iconic archetypes of All Hallows Eve.  I remember getting a chill when I first drew them all together, a sort of twinge of awareness. Suddenly, a series of mystery-adventures flashed in my mind for the group—the World’s Weirdest Heroes.

Autumn has always been my favorite season and Halloween is my favorite holiday.  I wanted to capture that feeling of magic and mystery, the sort of thrill you get as a kid when the falling orange and yellow leaves chase you down the street.

Last year Ron Hanna, the founder and publisher of Wild Cat Books, invited me to write a short novel for him.  Ron also very generously allowed me to, literally, write about anything I wanted.  That was an offer no other publisher had ever given me, so—remembering The Halloween Legion—I enthusiastically jumped at the chance.  I chose Danny Kelly to illustrate the cover and interiors. There is a raw, elemental quality in his art that perfectly fits my little group of weirdos.

      

Liberty Unlimited has much more recent origins, partially inspired by my successful “Girl Power” spin on classic Fairy Tales.  I envisioned a twenty-first century, sci-fi, mystery-adventure series starring a brilliant young superhero in training.  It’s also a series about working toward your dream.  The series will be comprised of both illustrated chapter books and comics, starring Libby the future-girl, her best friend Zoey, Libby's super-scientist dad, and their bodyguard, the mechanical miracle Red Rover.

My creative partner and artist is Jay Piscopo, the creator of the popular Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli and Sea Ghost.  Jay and I are of one mind when it comes to providing quality all-ages reading material to kids.  Of course, if you’re a grown-up who has fond memories of Doc Savage, Jonny Quest, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys, then Liberty Unlimited is for you, too!

BF: Why did you choose to publish in a novella format?

POWELL: Mainly because it gives me as the writer the opportunity for more depth and detail than the much more finite pages the typical comic book format offers.  Also, I’d like for my younger readers to read more than just comics.  There’s room for everything.

BF: Are there plans for comic book versions?

POWELL: Absolutely.  And beyond comics, too.  There will also be things like coloring books and fun educational card games.  Ultimately, I’d like to see The Halloween Legion and Liberty Unlimited available as action figures, like Jay’s cool Commander X toy series, and eventually as animation and more.



     

BF: Why is it important to create comic books for an all-ages audience?

POWELL: I remember getting such joy from comics when I was a kid.  All kinds of comics.  There is a certain magic that only reading can provide.  Kids love comics and are immediately drawn to them.  I’ve seen this effect over and over through various conventions and book signings throughout the years.  Comic book shops are heaped with many dark, grim, and very violent comics aimed at older readers, but there’s very little that’s appropriate for young folks.  There needs to be more fun stuff for them to read.  I want today’s kids to be as lucky as I was!

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