Jerry Craft has been working as a cartoonist for decades and is best known for his long running comic strip Mama’s Boyz, which he ended late last year. He co-wrote and illustrated the middle grade novel The Offenders, and illustrated numerous books including The Zero Degree Zombie Zone and Khalil’s Way. Craft is also a co-founder of the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center, which held its fifth annual show last month. His new book is New Kid, which was just released by Harper Collins.
The semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Jordan, who is the new kid attending an elite private school. The book has a lot of dramatic moments, and as I spoke with Craft I mentioned how many moments resonated with me, but the book is also an incredibly funny and visually inventive story. The way that Craft is able to make the story dramatic and comedic and visually inventive is not surprising to anyone who had read Mama’s Boyz, but the way that the story of Jordan and his friends and family come together make this arguably his best work to date.
We spoke recently while he was in an airport to talk about the book.
I always like to ask people, how did you come to comics?
I never remember not being in comics. My brother had Daredevil and X-Men and Silver Surfer. My sister had some Archies. I loved comic strips. I grew up reading Hagar the Horrible and Broomhilda and Peanuts and as I got older, I just never remember not being around comic books and comic strips.
How did New Kid happen?
I was having a conversation with a publisher. This was 2014, I think. It was an introductory meeting where they said, show us what you’ve got, and I showed them my picture books and the middle grade novel and I’m doing the whole big presentation with jazz hands. It ended and they were like, wow, this is great, have you ever thought about doing a graphic novel? I had the concept of a semi-autobiographical story about being one of the few black kids in a predominantly white private school. They all sat up and said, why don’t you give us some samples. That was 2014. I signed with Harper Collins in January 2017. I literally started drawing from 9 am to 1 or 2 am almost seven days a week for about 14 months. I finished it in March of 2018 and so I’ve been waiting almost a full year for it to come out.
I’m sure after doing a weekly strip and self publishing for years, waiting a year for the book to come out feels like forever.
Oh my goodness. It was excruciating. The only ones who had read it were my family, my agent, my editor. It was like making up that imaginary girlfriend that no one believes you have. No no really. She lives in Canada. [laughs] It wasn’t until they made the announcement in Publishers Weekly that people went, oh, and it built up from there.
Why decide to make a fictional story as opposed to a straight autobiographical story?
I wanted more leeway to add to it because I lived it when I was a kid but then I had two sons and we sent them to private school. I wanted a combination of that because they experienced some things that were similar and some things were different. For example – and kids always scream when I say this – there was no internet when I was a kid. There was no facetiming and tweeting and snapchat and any of that, so I had to rely on my sons’ experiences to create something that today’s kids could look at and identify.
You have two sons, but is Jordan’s experience with his parents more like you and your parents, as opposed to you and your wife and your sons?
I would say about fifty-fifty. The whole you can’t go to art school because you’ll live in our basement until you’re fifty years old and be a starving artist, that was basically my parents. They didn’t think that being an artist was a “real job”. The dad and the mom talking to Jordan and saying stuff like, don’t let anyone talk down to you, warning him about how it’s going to be, warning him about the lack of diversity – that’s more of what my wife and I did as parents. I remember telling my sons, if there’s ever a time in school where they say we’re going to study black history, don’t be surprised if all the kids turn and stare at you or the other black kids in the class. One day my youngest son came home and he said, the teacher said we were going to study the Civil Rights movement and everyone turned and looked at me. I asked how he felt and he said, I knew it was going to happen so I just laughed. So they were a little more prepared where I felt like I was more pushed into a swimming pool and told to learn how to swim.
As far as making it contemporary, what was the process of writing it and combining all these experiences and inventing things into this story?
If there was something that happened to all of us, then that was definitely going in there. Like black students being called by the wrong names or having so few other kids to talk to or not having black teachers who could emphasize with you. Those kinds of things went in. My sons didn’t have my experience. It was more distinct going from a black neighborhood up to Riverdale. I don’t think that my sons necessarily experienced people saying, you think you’re all that or you’re selling out or you think you’re better than other people. That was a big thing [for me] so I had to focus on keeping my friends from around my block. In the end I was trying to make the most interesting story.
I said before that I was a scholarship student at a prep school and so even being white, there were a few moments in the book where I saw these things or similar things happen. And I don’t want to minimize any of that, but the one scene in the book that shocked me was when one of the teachers confuses one black teacher for another. I remember thinking, this must have happened.
Oh yes. That happened at my sons’ school. People would always get the head of diversity mixed up with the athletic director. Except for having shaved heads, they really looked nothing alike. There was a woman who worked there who was 6’1” and people would ask, how’s your baby? She would say, no I’m the tall one with short hair, you mean the one who’s 5’6 with curly hair. They literally looked nothing alike. That was the kind of thing I had put in. This was also the first time I met other black kids who I had nothing in common with. I probably would have hung out with you because I had more in common with white kids from middle class backgrounds than some of the black kids who had been there since first grade and lived in Riverdale. We just had nothing in common.
You did Mama’s Boyz for over two decades and it wasn’t for kids, but like most comic strips you were aiming for an all ages audience. With New Kid you’re making a book for younger readers. Did you have to approach or do anything differently?
What’s weird is that I made Mama’s Boyz for adults who like comic strips – like me. I remember the first time someone came over and said, can I give this to my son? He’s ten. I said, I guess. His son literally walked down and sat in the corner of the bookfair and started reading it. So the next time someone asked, can I get this for my son? I said sure. Then it became a kids book. It was probably better because I think if I had set out initially to do a kids book I might have simplified it and stayed away from certain things. I think what kids liked was that I didn’t talk down to them. By the end, I was literally making it for kids. So when I did New Kid I knew that there’s a certain amount of stuff that I could say and address. I didn’t want to oversimplify things. I didn’t want to run from certain things but I knew to be careful with the language, which I always was, and that if I added a lot of humor I was confident that it would be well received.
Besides the strip, you also made a Mama’s Boyz graphic novel. New Kid is your second and was there anything that you learned or wanted to do differently this time?
I was definitely a lot more aware of the color palette. I did Mamas Boyz in color as a practice book for doing New Kid. I wanted to see if the font that I created from my handwriting was legible and how it read in the word balloons. Real technical things. I had a colorist who did most of New Kid. Working with an editor and having a whole team looking at it and scrutinizing and asking questions was all new to me because I was always a one man shop.
What was the process like of working with the colorist, Jim Callahan, because I’m sure there was a lot you were very precise about like the color palette, like the skintones.
The color palette for the private school kids – and this comes from my sons – the pink/salmon colored shorts, that spearmint green, the real pastel colors, the khaki shorts, the Vans, Grapevine Groves. That color palette was something I was very specific about but my colorist actually chose the colors and made the whole palette. I was able to learn from him and watch him. Meanwhile the kids from around Jordan’s block have more earth tones, blues, black, gray.
I wanted to ask about Alexandra and where her story came from?
I have no idea. [laughs] It’s the weirdest thing. I wanted to add some real humor to it and I wanted it to be laugh out funny. I’ve had a lot of librarians and bookstore owners who said that people would come in asking for the next version of Wimpy Kid. There was nothing with boy characters that were humorous as opposed to adventure. So I decided to push it by having cherubs and things like literally drawing him as a giant oreo cookie and creating a universe where anything could happen. So Alexandra is so happy to be taking a walk with Jordan and Drew that she’s literally off the ground. I felt like the more I pushed it visually with the humor that would make everything else a little more easily digestible. Even if there was something that was uncomfortable, there was enough humor that would enable people to relax and digest it.
You said that you have more books planned.
I already handed in the manuscript. My editor has gone over it. I just have to move some things around and we are looking now at a launch of Fall 2020. In the second one Jordan still plays a big role but it’s going to focus a little more on Drew and Liam, but Jordan is right in the midst of it all.
We wanted something that was different enough that it felt like a new book, but I wanted to have the same characters. I want them to be characters that you know. There was a lot of back and forth between myself, my editor and my agent about exactly how to do that and at the end we solved that by having more with Drew and Liam, it would be different enough where it would feel like a new book as opposed to rehashing the same stuff from book 1.