Jason Platt had been making the webcomic Mister & Me for years before he began making graphic novels. His second, Middle School Misadventures–Operation: Hat Heist is just out and is his best work yet.
When Newell’s favorite hat gets stolen at school, and then confiscated by the principal, he and other students stage an elaborate heist to take back, well, every hat the principal has confiscated over the years. Also, the plot hinges around the character’s love for The Captain, a science fiction TV show about a World War II bomber pilot thrown halfway across the galaxy.
Platt and I spoke recently about heist films, color, and trying to make each of his books completely different.
How did you come to comics?
I had an early fascination with comic strips when I was a little kid. Like everyone else I would read Garfield and Peanuts and Beetle Bailey all of the time and I thought it was just magical how these creators created something out of thin air. When I was older I got into Mad Magazine, and Mort Drucker’s artwork especially. When I was looking at Mort Drucker’s work as a kid, I was in love with his linework. How it would go from thin to thick and look inky and really expressive. I remember when I was in high school, my art teacher gave us pen nibs and bottles of ink, I thought, oh my god, this is how they do it! When my teacher gave us those nibs and ink, I felt like I cracked part of the code.
I know that you attended Savannah College of Art and Design. What was your journey from art school to making your comic Mister and Me?
Around high school I was known – like every other artist – as a the kid who can draw. I wanted to see what was out there. I started to do more painterly illustrations. I went to community college and then transferred to SCAD. I was looking at N.C. Wyeth or Gregory Manchess. Not that I was on their level at all, but that was the direction I wanted to go in. It was funny because whenever I would just draw for myself, it was always cartoony stuff. It wasn’t until a couple years after I graduated that I had this self-realization, this is what I should be doing. There’s a natural love of that I just gravitate towards. I have this baby sketchbook of my son as an infant where I drew him and his milestones. When he turned 3 I gave him a book of poetry that I wrote and did some illustrations in. When he got older, I thought, what am I going to do for him now? The idea of doing a comic strip with him and me as protagonists just seemed like a really fun idea. That was about 10 years ago. I had no idea that I would still be drawing these characters 10 years later.
Flipping through the book, one can see that you craft these wonderfully dense pages with lots of panels, lots of dialogue. It looks and feels very different from a strip.
A comic strip is almost like doing a sitcom. You have to really hit the jokes fast and hard – and you only have 3-4 panels to do it in. What’s great about the graphic novel is that you can really build up to a joke. You can take your time. I really enjoy those moments where, at the bottom of the right hand page, you have a surprise as you turn the page. It’s such a different beast from doing the comic strip, but it’s really inviting.
There’s a clear rhythm to a three or four panel strip, as you said, and in the books – this new one more than the first – it has its own rhythm and tone and feel.
It was a blast to work on the first book, but as much as I’m in love with the first book, I feel like I was getting my legs with it, and with the second one I feel like the gears are catching better. The rhythm is more on point, the comedy is more on target. I’m really pleased with both of them, but I’m really happy with how the second one came out.
Where did idea for Operation Hat Heist start?
There were a couple seeds. One of them was my son Wyeth, whose favorite hat right now is from the character Ness in Earthbound. He would wear it all the time. He wore it to school one time and the principal came into the class and said, “I would love to add this hat to my collection,” or something like that. Wyeth was really scared about losing it, and I just filed that idea away. I didn’t want to make it an ordinary baseball cap, it had to be something really unique. As a big fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I wanted to capture a unique hat so when you saw it on someone’s head or in profile, you knew exactly what that hat was. It wouldn’t be mistaken for any other hat. The other seed was my own experience where, when I was in junior high, someone broke into my locker and took something of mine, and having that feeling of betrayal of someone stealing something of yours. I took those two ideas and meshed them together.
I enjoyed the story of The Captain, which is this wild Farscape-y space opera adventure. Now I want a book about The Captain.
[laughs] It’s funny you say that because I actually made a four part mini-serial that you can read for free on the Little Brown blog.
When I was starting to write the second book, I felt like I needed to know the base of who The Captain was and what his adventures were like. I needed it to make sense for me so the audience would fall in love with the character. I found myself world building more than I needed to with The Captain and so I needed to write something because I was having too much fun with it.
How did you think about the color scheme and how you wanted the book to look? Because The Captain sequences are colored and paced a little differently, as are the flashbacks and fantasy sequences.
That’s a great point. I wanted to make sure that the flashbacks are not confused with something happening now, so I make them more monotone, just one color and white, to make it clear that’s a flashback.
I wanted the book to be bright and vibrant. Even though there’s a flatness to the colors I want to make sure I’m adding just a hint of weight or shadow. Like Newell’s hairline. I always made sure I had just a hint of shadow to capture just the tiniest bit of depth and spatial awareness. Really trying to make not just each panel, but each page, flow with colors as well. Making sure that it’s not too static and keeping that moving just as I am with the story and the pacing. It’s so fun and interesting to think about all this lumped together like this big gestalt theory of making one cohesive piece, and every instance of every moment is important whether the drawing or the coloring. I always try to make sure that the colors are just as important as the story itself.
I loved the heist itself. You straddled that very fine line of being over the top but not completely unrealistic.
That was a big concern of mine. I don’t want kids to think they can just break into the principal’s office for one thing, but I didn’t want it to be so over the top. I wanted to make sure the heist was fun and exciting and something you could see happening. That moment of making the switch, I can’t tell you how exciting it was to get to that moment of drawing it because it was so much fun. The buildup for me was so big, I couldn’t wait. [laughs]
You had to make it realistic enough that kids would follow along and go, “Someone could do this,” but over the top enough to make them go, “Someone could do this, but I couldn’t!”
Could you walk through your process and how you make the books?
I always have an idea of what I’m going to be writing about. I have a loose outline of what I’m expecting to do in each chapter, but it’s really fun because I don’t like to write an outline so tight that I feel like I’m held prisoner by that outline. What I do is like what Robert Altman would do in his films. I know what’s going to happen, I know where the characters need to go, but then I throw the characters into a scene and see what they come up with. There are so many instances where I’ve written a script but I realize that their reactions cause it to diverge. Or how they say something is different from what I wrote. I try not to hold myself to a script because it’s going to change in the end result and it’s so much fun to see the characters taking the reins. Like a director, I might go, that’s too much, or, I need to see more of this. It’s a real fun way to create something. I have a blast when I’m writing and penciling.
I work entirely digital with a Wacom Cintiq Pro. While I miss having an “original” piece of art to hold afterward, like I do with traditional mediums, the benefits of working digital balances everything out. I’m able to edit on the fly, adjust compositions or try a whole new color scheme without the worry of ruining the final art. It’s really nice. I’ve been working with Wacom products for about 20 years now. It doesn’t seem that long ago.
So you make an outline, and then penciling and drawing happens simultaneously?
Simultaneous, yeah. It’s fun and difficult all at the same time because the words and balloons are just as important for the composition of the panel and for the flow of the whole thing, so sometimes how I draw a panel is directed by how much dialogue there is.
I mentioned the density of your pages, and right now there are books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and others that are very stripped down, artistically and otherwise. You’re making these for a slightly older audience, but you fill the pages in a way that I really love. I’m curious about the reaction to that?
It’s funny because I have a lot of experience with theater and there, I get a reaction instantly. With books, the reactions are more like a trickle. I’ll hear parents saying things and kids sending fan art. It’s satisfying in a different way. But to answer your question, especially with the second book, I wanted to create something that I myself would love looking at. And something I would like to read myself. It’s really influenced by classic cartooning but also cinema. I love to show nonverbal instances with characters because they are helping tell the story even though there’s no dialogue. One of my favorite scenes is when Newell comes up the staircase and Clara says, “I thought you went down that hallway,” and he’s rushing down the hall and there’s something about the energy of that shot with him saying, “Excuse me.” It’s really rewarding when you look at a page saying, “I really love this.” I’ve had a lot of kids say that reading the book made them feel like they just saw a movie. It’s always a compliment when kids say that to me.
With heist movies, the good ones have a lot of layers and in every great heist story, something goes wrong. That’s part of the fun.
Absolutely! Writing the second book I watched so many heist films just to make sure the pacing for a heist film was evident in the book. I always noticed that in a good heist film, the heist takes place in the middle because there are repercussions that happen after the heist. I wanted to capture that feeling as well.
What films were you watching?
The two in particular were Rififi from the 1950s and the first Mission: Impossible. The first one isn’t a typical heist film but when they break into the building and Tom Cruise is coming down the ceiling, it’s totally a heist film. I think those two were my favorites.
Both films were very good at using sound and long sections without dialogue, and really focusing on using visual detail to tell the story. I can see how that would translate in the book.
You have to let the audience know what to expect from a successful mission, so when they see things happening that are wrong, they know right away. Like when the batteries fall out of the walkie talkie. Newell doesn’t know it, but the audience does. And they know right away that this is not good.
I’ve given some advance copies to friends and one of my favorite compliments was they said their kid read it and then reread it to follow the breadcrumbs about the clues.
That is a good compliment. Have you started thinking about a third book and doing something completely different with Newell? You seem to be interested in making each book its own thing.
Absolutely, and with the third book I really want to capture the anxiety and nervousness of a middle school school dance and how everybody changes with the thought of going to a dance and the expectations and how it changes everyone’s personalities.
I think that’s one of the things that’s really fun about this kind of character is that there’s room for more adventures. It’s not like a big epic, like Amulet, where you’re waiting for the next chapter to be released. I do have other stories that are in my head right now and I am prepping the third book right now. But it’s unofficial at this point.