Smash Pages Q&A: Dave Roman on ‘Astronaut Academy: Splashdown’ and more

Creator and editor Dave Roman discusses the long-awaited third volume of his kids’ graphic novel series ‘Astronaut Academy,’ as well as his work editing First Second’s line of science and history comics.

Dave Roman’s Astronaut Academy has had a long history, but after the second book was published in 2013 by First Second Books, he thought he was done with the series. Neither went out of print, though, and the book kept selling and Roman kept doing school appearances where kids would ask, “When is the third book coming out?”

Well kids, the long wait is over, and the first two books have been re-released in full-color editions alongside a third volume titled Astronaut Academy: Splashdown

Besides his work as a cartoonist, Roman has also long been an editor, working at Nickelodeon Magazine for many years and currently working at First Second Books, where he oversees the History Comics and Science Comics series. We spoke recently about comics, editing, life and more.

Dave, funny enough, we actually spoke when the first Astronaut Academy book came out 10 years ago. And I remember it being a webcomic before that.

Its very first iteration was a two-page comic for a shojo manga anthology put out by the School of Visual Arts. One of the students at the time, Tintin Pantoja, saw me at a party. I think it was a book release party for Jason Little’s book, Shutterbug Follies, and she asked if I wanted to submit to her anthology. I was really flattered and I did it as a lark, based on random things in my sketchbook. I had so much fun drawing the characters that I then started making mini comics, which were eight pages each, and I decided that I should put them up on the internet. I crossed paths with Joey Manley and Lea Hernandez. At the time there was this Modern Tales family of webcomics. There was a lot of debate around paywalls versus should people put comics up for free, or should you charge a subscription? That was my first introduction to webcomics in a structured, organized way, as opposed to posting my art on Geocities, Tripod, LiveJournal, Alta Vista and whatever free web hosting existed at the time. 

It’s been through many incarnations, and here we are, 10 years later. You made a short comic about why there’s a new book, but why did you make a third volume?

The true story is that I was initially contracted for two books. So I made those two books and I put “The End” at the end of the second book. So for all intents and purposes, that was going to be it. But time passed and I kept doing school visits. Macmillan/First Second is really good at putting you in front of librarians and educators, and when that happens, you sometimes get invited to speak at schools and libraries. I really enjoy that. I have a ball talking to kids because most of them are hardcore graphic novel readers and they want to make their own comics all the time, and they’re pumped to meet someone who gets to do it. It ends up being this really great circular inspiration where I’m encouraging them and showing them how I loved to draw as a kid, and now I make books and they all can do it, too. And they’re sharing their uninhibited creative mojo and that’s inspiring to me and I want to make more crazy comics for them! What’s great about kids is that they don’t care about contracts or publishing deals, so anytime I would explain that I was only contracted for two books they say, “We don’t care, just make another book!”

After the original Astronaut Academy books came out, I was doing at least one school visit every month, sometimes more. And every time you do that, word gets out and kids start reading your book. And the kids who didn’t read you before will go to the library or bookstore after the visit to see if they can get the book. My Astronaut Academy sales stayed pretty consistent over the 10 years since it came out. Which is not unheard of, but it’s not super common. I think there’s a sweet spot of two years where your book comes out, gets some promotion and attention, and then it all starts to fade away. Unless you continue the series. First Second originally had no plans for Astronaut Academy beyond book two, but the two books stayed in print and on store shelves. Some stores still have the old black and white editions, even now! I don’t know why. [laughs] The only thing I can figure is that maybe it’s from all the school visits I did? And during that time, a lot changed in the kids comics marketplace. I shared my ideas for a third Astronaut Academy and they seemed open to it.  When the first two books were published, manga translations were booming, and a lot of other kids comics were also in black and white or had like a single spot color. It wasn’t weird at the time for my books to be in black and white, but now the market is almost entirely full-color comics for kids. My publisher and I agreed that if we did the new book in color, we should also color and repackage books one and two. Let’s treat it like a relaunch of the series because at this point the kids who originally read the books have gone off to college. [laughs] 

When you started to think about making another, how did you decide to make a story about summer vacation?

I always had that in the back of my head. Because books one and two were fall semester and spring semester, so I had the sense that IF there were ever a third one, it would make sense for it to take place during summer break. But I didn’t have any story. It ended up being fun for me because it was different enough from what the first two books were because the story didn’t take place in a school setting. It wasn’t limited by what could happen in or around classes, what could happen with teachers around, etc. It was just pure freedom to tell a wild adventure story. Once I committed to making a third book, there were kids in my head who I thought of as the audience for it. Which was very different from before the original books came out. When I made the first two books, I was just entertaining myself and maybe my friends. But now I had met all these oddball kids and gotten a sense of what they reacted to and what they connected with. You meet kids who say, I really understand what Hakata Soy is going through, or, I identify with Doug Hiro for these reasons. It’s super humbling.

The first two are very different from each other, and setting this in the summer makes it different from those two.

In a way each book is its own thing. The first one was a completely improvised webcomic. I didn’t know it was going to be a book when I started it so you can tell I’m making it up as I go. [laughs] 

I would have phrased it as the first one is much more episodic, the second one has more plot and the third is focused on story with some asides.

Absolutely. I kind of wrote myself in a corner in the series by making it so episodic. When I started the third book there was part of me that wished that I could ditch the micro-chapter structure, but I knew I couldn’t because it’s one of the things that kids really respond to. A lot of teachers and parents have told me that it makes the books accessible to kids because they feel like they accomplish something with each chapter being a self-contained scene. The structure speaks to certain types of kids, I guess. So I knew I couldn’t deviate too far from what people liked about the originals. I’d love to tell one big story with all of the kids and not keep jumping back and forth between the various perspective changes, but its baked into the DNA of the series. That said, I hope I struck a good balance telling a bigger story broken into fun-sized chunks.

One of the things that people love are the references and the details, and hopefully no child gets all of them because that would mean they’ve been exposed to a lot of art that they really shouldn’t be, but you’re having a lot of fun.

There’s so many references that I assume nobody gets ALL of them! Some details jump out to specific people but then other things will fly right past them. It’s satisfying because the kids who do get it, really GET IT, and feel like they’re part of like a secret club. It’s a magical feeling when you read a book and you feel like the author is giving you a high-five or a wink and a nod. The reader gets to geek out with the author over these old movies, TV, shows, video games etc. Meanwhile your friends might read the same book, and not get all the same “Easter eggs,” or just take everything at face value. Everyone is going to have a wildly different experience and appreciate things on different levels. 

I remember in the first book, Miyumi has a watch that talks to her, “S’all right.” [laughs] I don’t know how many kids get that, but I loved it.

The publisher lets me get away with a lot! And those are references so verbal. Ha! I mean, you did the voice. Having a watch that talks like Señor Wences, the Spanish Ventriloquist, in print, people can easily miss it when reading it because it’s less obvious without the vocal inflection that made it so iconic. I’m glad you got it! If you didn’t grow up with the same exposure to old TV shows, it’s not going to ring a bell. Whereas if the same reference was a cartoon show, you can at least tell that someone’s doing a bit. The kids would notice you changed your voice. Like when Bugs Bunny would do an impersonation, it’s super clear that this is supposed to be some celebrity. In print it’s harder.

The third book has those little touches. One of the last pages has “Winds of Change” labeled in the background and I started hearing the song, and then there’s an Einstein-Rosen bridge. Which is not how I expected book to end.

I usually have no idea how my books are going to end! This is one of the few times I had the end from the beginning. It’s a science fiction series and the kids who really dig these books, they’re ready for this kind of heady science fiction.

So do you have plans for more Astronaut Academy?

If I get enough peer pressure from kids. [laughs] That’s really what it comes down to. I’m not actively working on a fourth. I have a clear vision of what a fourth book could look like and should feel like. I think it would be really rewarding to the readers. I think my idea would be a very satisfying payoff for everything that’s come before. Whether or not I could convince the publisher to go for it, who knows? Maybe! So far I’ve been very lucky. If the kids demand it, then I’m sure I will make it for them. In the meantime I’m starting a new book and we’ll see what happens after that. The hardest part about graphic novels for me is that they take two years to make. So talk to me in two years and we’ll see where we are.

Are you going to make more StarBunny Inc.?

I hope so. For me Starbunny is the personal project, the one that’s closest to my heart. As weird as it may appear on the surface, it feels truest to me and my voice. In a perfect world I would find a good publishing home for Starbunny Inc. and then we could do a sequel because it was a series that I always intended to continue. I don’t know why I’m treating this interview like therapy, [laughs] …but you’re very calming. I think it was too out there? Sometimes publishers want to have distinct boxes for books to fit into. There are shelves and which shelf does this book go on? But I think that the industry has changed and kids read a lot of weird stuff so I think kids are ready for Starbunny Inc. When I was doing it as a webcomic, kids were posting comments every week and were totally in it and invested in the characters. I didn’t think I was writing something that was too over their heads. So hopefully, a publisher will figure out a way to get it out there. Some day.

I think that’s true, but hopefully it’s becoming less so. I mean kids today have grown up with Steven Universe and Gravity Falls. Astronaut Academy is weird, but it has a framework. They’re in a school.

I think you nailed it. Because the characters are human and the trappings of school are very familiar, the structure gives people enough groundwork that I can go off and do weird things and they’re into it. Astronaut Academy is actually way weirder than Starbunny is! Starbunny is a much more of human story that just happens to star bunnies traveling through space and starting food trucks.

Talk a little about your day job at First Second, because you’ve been editing comics at Nickelodeon Magazine and elsewhere for years.

Editing is something that happened almost accidentally. I went to the School of Visual Arts for illustration, but very quickly found myself focused on writing. I became big on Neil Gaiman and a lot of the Vertigo comics. Reading interviews with those kinds of creators got me thinking about story and unconventional story structure. That inspired me to take an internship at DC Comics. I interned for an amazing editor named Dana Kurtin who ended up being such an advocate for me. I learned so much while I was there. We continue to be friends to this day. She opened my eyes to the idea of editing and helping people make their best comics. Through her I met Chris Duffy, who hired me at Nickelodeon. Chris has been a big brother, a mentor, a best friend. He’s my comics guru. I learned so much on that job. I also worked for Rob Simpson, who now works at Star Wars and Lee Nordling, who was editing for Platinum Studios for a long time. I just had this amazing education in the philosophy of comics, what makes a good comic, and working with people who had integrity at the highest level. I just had so much fun working with all these different artists and writers, many of whom were heroes. It’s a bit of a trip that we could call Mike Mignola and ask, do you want to do a gag comic about a chicken crossing the road? It was such a fun gig. And it helped that Nickelodeon paid well! That combined with Chris’ integrity as an editor created a lot of goodwill in the comics industry for us. So after Nickelodeon decided to get out of the magazine business my name was thrown around from time to time as a potential editor for various comics projects and publishing projects. For a while I turned most of them down because I was focusing on my own Astronaut Academy books and helping out on friend’s projects that I was really passionate about. But I developed this great relationship with the folks at First Second. They’re like family to me. When they launched the Science Comics series I became an instant fan. I loved the idea of doing educational comics that are aimed at kids like me who struggled in school. When it came to science and math I just could never visualize it. So when First Second mentioned that the editor who had launched the science series needed to step back, it felt like the universe speaking to me. Simultaneously there was this anti-science, anti-fact movement in politics and on the world stage that was just so frustrating! It was this great opportunity to align my interests and actually be a part of a positive change. Plus make some super fun books! And luckily people seem to really dig them and we just keep on making them!

You took over editing Science Comics after it launched, but with History Comics, you were there from the beginning.

History Comics was much more me. Once we had done 10 or maybe even 15 books into production of Science Comics, there was talk about spinoffs. One of those was Maker Comics, which Robyn Chapman shepherded. Calista [Brill] asked if I would be interested in developing something on American history and I enthusiastically said, yes. As much as I enjoy science, history was always my favorite topic growing up. So it was a great opportunity to have fun and push “my agenda” of exploring topics that are lesser known. One of the things I always loved about history is the real stories behind things. As a kid I grew up hearing sanitized versions. But when you learn the reality, sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s horrifying, but it’s always it’s more fascinating. Rosa Parks, for example. I grew up thinking Rosa Parks was this frail old lady who one day was a little fed up about having to sit in the back of a bus, and got arrested for complaining too vocally about it. But when you learn that she was involved with the Civil Rights movement from a young age, and hosted and organized these activist events, and was there on the ground floor fighting this oppressive system, it made her so much cooler to me. When I refer to “my agenda”, I want to tell those kinds of stories and show people the real people behind the legacy. I watched an episode of Doctor Who that had Rosa Parks in it and it was frustrating because they treated her like this cartoon character and not like the real Rosa Parks. I think a lot of kids would be excited and moved to learn the real people and why they actively put themselves in these dangerous situations. 

You can especially see that in the Chicago Fire book, which is a fictionalized version of what happened and how it affected people.

For that book I worked with Kate Hannigan who grew up in Chicago where you hear about the Great Chicago Fire your whole life. The facts, the legends, the myths associated with it. There are a lot of urban legends connected to how the fire started started and who took most of the blame. We relished the opportunity to separate fact from fiction. So even though we have these made-up protagonists to help pull kids into the narrative, the people that they’re interacting with and the facts being revealed as they go are as verified as we could get. 

The recent books about bison and mustang, which are in the History Comics series, but with some changes could have been in the Science Comics series.

Those two books edge into science – and some of the science books edge into history. Sometimes there is an idea that could have gone one way or the other. I really let the authors be as creative and follow their passion as much as possible. There’s no limitation of this is what a Science Comic is or this is what a History Comic looks like. I think the Bison book and Mustang book both do a really great job of telling the American story and illuminating the history of America through those iconic animals. I didn’t know a lot of that history going in to the projects so it’s fun to be the first reader!

They’re about these animals but the books are also about how the population changed, how people relationship to those animals and nature in general changed, about white people’s relationships with Native Americans, and Westward Expansion. There’s a lot involved.

And like you’re saying, there’s this idea of what they symbolize. And a lot of history is like that. People become symbols. One of the themes in History Comics is the symbol versus the reality. What things mean to America as a whole versus what they really are. Mustangs are this symbol of America, but for the longest period of time they were being abused and butchered and turned into dog food before people began to advocate for these animals.

Now that you’ve been making them for a few years, have you considered making History Comics books about stories outside of the United States?

At some point I assume we will run out of topics! Keeping the focus on the U.S. has made it easier to decide on what subject matter and themes to explore and develop as books. I thought the Science Comics series would burn out after 20 books, but we’re still going. So anything is possible!

It’s good to see that there’s a real appetite for it.

We made a book on whales and then people asked, “Are you going to make a book on dolphins?” They’re very similar and related, so I don’t know if we need a whole other book on them, but maybe? I love getting to share in the enthusiasm people have for things. Working on these books I get to meet scientists, historians and experts in these diverse fields. I’ve  gotten to work with a New Zealand spider scientist who goes by the name Dr. Spider. She’s exactly the person you want to be friends with. [laughs]

And you have to be passionate. In part because the tone is precise. Not quite fun but..

We have to get the facts right or the kids will tear us apart. [laughs] My nephew, who is 7, will correct you if you’re wrong.

Anyone who has talked to children about dinosaurs knows that if you get a fact wrong, they will come down on you. [laughs]

Yes, don’t bring your 1990s knowledge of dinosaurs to the table because he will shut you down! [laughs] I illustrated a book about the Planet Pluto and to this day I feel it’s the most political book I’ve ever worked on.

I’m sorry, you mean the “Former Planet” Pluto.

There we go! Hot topic.

But you’re having a lot of fun, which I would have guessed, and there’s still a lot to explore.

It’s the best kind of work. It keeps you young. I feel like I’m learning cool new things every day. I really enjoy meeting people who are passionate about these topics and uncovering and learning more about our country and history and science. I get my mind blown on a weekly basis. And there’s always something new on the horizon.  It’s great when these non-fiction books are a passion projects for a specific author. Though I’ve also had like 20 authors pitch me a book on boogers and that still hasn’t happened. Yet! [laughs]

If that weren’t enough, I know that you’ve been working on another webcomic.

I’m on a small break, but I’ve been doing a new webcomic called Pup & Duck that’s distributed through a weekly newsletter called Sunday Ha Ha. It’s a newsletter of kid friendly comics inspired by the Sunday newspapers of our childhood. Every Sunday morning you get like ten short form comics in your inbox. Digital magic! 

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