Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hey, what real-life lessons can kids (and adults) learn from superheroes? (How about the right way to breathe away angry feelings from The Hulk?) Randall Lotowycz talks about SUPERHERO PLAYBOOK (I already bought up copies to give to friends.)

Come on, how COOL is this?

Portrait of the author as a superhero

Ok, so it's always exciting to get to work with someone new at Algonquin Books, my publisher, and as soon as I knew that Randall Lotowycz was going to be the new director of marketing and sales, I emailed to say hello, and discovered we both share an obsession with movies. BUT here is the really cool part. I didn't know that Randall is the creator of DARTS!, the world's first and only magnetic dartboard wall calendar, AND   the author of DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex. And wait, there's more! He also wrote SUPER-HERO PLAYBOOK, which I bought immediately (because authors need sales, no matter who they are), and it promptly became one of my favorite books because of its incredible life lessons and positive spin on being kind, standing up to bullies the right way and even how to control your breathing so you don't get angry. And here, Randall tells us why.

Thank you so, so much, Randall.

Where did the idea for this book come from? To me, it’s pure genius to take something that seems pure escape for kids and to turn it into something that is an important learning experience? Also, I found my own heart being warmed by reading this book, and I love that this is something that can benefit kids, parents, and anyone who loves superheroes. In a way, you are challenging people to be their own real-life superheroes, right?

The germ of the book formed years ago, mostly in response to a specific group of adult male comic book readers who have a rather toxic outlook. They believe they “own” these characters and are quite vocal (on social media and sometimes in person) about their displeasure when they feel their cherished characters are being ruined in some way and that current comic creators are catering to a modern, more diverse audience instead of the “true” fans. Comic book writers Brian Michael Bendis and Greg Rucka, among others, have spoken online about how this group of fans acts in a way that is completely at odds with the virtues these comic characters extol. I found that dissonance fascinating and stewed on it for a while.

Flash forward a few years, and I have a young stepson. I’m lucky enough to share my love of superhero comics and films with him. It was important to me to lead with the virtues. I wanted to share why I loved these characters. I could have kept this between he and I, but I was fortunate to find a publisher who was excited the idea and wanted to make it into a book.

I look at these characters as modern day folklore. They’re a distinctly American tradition that has roots going back to Johnny Appleseed and John Henry (that’s not diminish the many influential and important international comic book creations). We can learn something from them. I wanted to share with my stepson, and anyone else interested in reading, ways these characters can teach you how be a good person, the core of any superhero. I just happen to like my parables with tights and capes.

I love the voice, which is funny, warm and reassuring. (Are you up for the challenge? I knew you would be.) What kid wouldn’t love that! So how did you come to that voice?

I just wanted to speak in a way I hoped the intended audience would respond. I wanted some of my humor in there. And I didn’t want to sound like I was lecturing. I’m sure I had Mr. Rogers speaking over my shoulder as I wrote. But to keep it relevant to the subject, I’d say a healthy mash-up of two of the best incarnations of Superman: the winking paternal 50s Superman George Reeves and friend you can always count on, Christopher Reeve.

I have to know how you found all these superheroes—I didn’t know there were so many. I was happy to learn about Swamp Thing and Cyborg. And Squirrel Girl!

30 years of reading comics and a semi-encyclopedic memory carried me through. The hard part was narrowing it down to 20. I wanted to a wide variety and I didn’t want them all to be straight white men (that’s not always easy, btw). There were old favorites and, of course, the stars of the latest Marvel movies. And then there’s Squirrel Girl. She’s fantastic and has had a wonderful series over the past five years by Ryan North and Erica Henderson, from which I drew nearly all of my chapter on her. She was due to star in TV show meant to air by the time the book came out, but the show wasn’t picked up. Hopefully we’ll see a live-action Squirrel Girl sooner than later. Until then, read her comics! I may have boiled it down to a simple lesson, but they crafted a delightful and beautiful world around her.

What I love so much about this book is the incredible messages (even bad guys can have good ideas!) body image issues, learning to be a good person in the world. And the real-life examples (if someone is mean to you, you can respond with restraint and love like Wonder Woman!) You don’t talk down to kids. And oh my god, HULK BREATHING to calm yourself down. Actually, you talk UP. I also loved that every superhero is presented with challenges that can also be kid-sized. Can you talk about all of this?

I wouldn’t have Hulk Breathing without my wife, a yoga instructor. I borrowed/adapted the technique of Lion’s Breath from her lessons.

But, in general, I wanted something tangible for each lesson. A child isn’t going to have to fight Ares the God of War but they will have to know how to react to someone who is mean to them. Children are drawn to superheroes. Who hasn’t tied a towel around their neck at some point? With each lesson, I wanted to seize on that moment to show how they can act like their favorite heroes, even in their kid-sized, towel-wearing world.

I aimed high, so I know younger readers might need their parents to explain some of the lessons. And maybe some parents won’t necessarily want their 8-year-old learning about how to question authority, but a little troublemaking never hurt anyone.

The drawings are fantastic, fun and bright and the whole set-up of the book, with the sidebars and the colors are perfect, too. How did you come to figure out the structure? And how did you work with the illustrator.

Where do I begin? I had a truly talented team who took what I wrote and elevated it in a way I could never imagined. All credit goes to Tim Palin for his brilliant imagination and artistry, Jeff Shake who knocked it out of the park with his development and design, Alejandro Arbona for his editorial insight, and everyone at Duopress for their enthusiasm and care. This book couldn’t have existed without their unique talents.  

What superhero do you think the world needs now and why?

My default answer will always be Superman because he’s my favorite (I’ll have to show you my Superman and Lois Lane tattoo sometime) and he embodies so many of the virtues I wish I could possess on a daily basis. I could’ve done a book just on him. But in this immediate moment in time, I think we need young superheroes like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl, and the new, younger Spider-Man, Miles Morales. They’re young, full of hope, and are going to save the world. That’s not say I want to pass the buck to the next generation. Every single adult needs to be out there doing what kids like Greta Thunberg and David Hogg are doing. But we need young heroes to inspire future generations.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Time, mostly. Balancing it, using it wisely, appreciating it in the moment. This answer is vague, but honest. This year has been a reflective and productive one, and it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile those two states.

I’m also obsessing over finding English subtitles for a Chinese horror film that hasn’t been released in the US. That’s probably taking a little too much time.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I can’t think of one. This has been a lot of fun. Thank you for the opportunity!

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