G3 Interview: Rob Kelly of ‘Hey Kids, Comics!’

Hey Kids ComicsAs anyone who loves comics knows, the books we buy every Wednesday are more than stories on a page. For those of us who got hooked on the medium as children, comic books are intertwined with some of our most powerful memories, good and bad.

Robert J. Kelly, or Rob as we know him, has captured that in “Hey Kids, Comics!” a diverse collection of essays by longtime comic book lovers including the likes of Archie Comics writer Paul Kupperberg, NPR contributor Glen Weldon, TV/comics writer J.M. DeMatteis and, somehow, yours truly. I’m grateful to Rob for the opportunity to be part of a wonderful project that’s a pleasure to read. “Hey Kids, Comics!” isn’t about the minutia of comics but the magic.

Rob, a fantastic illustrator who’s behind The Aquaman Shrine and the Ace Kilroy comic, talked to G3 about how the book came to be and the special bonds readers form with comic books in childhood.

G3: This is a passion project of yours that has been several years in the making. What inspired the anthology?

Rob Kelly: It started with the Hey Kids! blog. I liked the idea of creating a blog that was mostly other people’s comic book-related memories, and it didn’t take long for me to see the quality, the breadth and depth of the stories I was getting. After a few months of putting stuff like that up on the blog, I realized “Hey, this would make a great book.” I did some research and saw that there really wasn’t a book like this out there, and it seemed like too good an idea to just let drop.

G3: Were there any common themes in the essays?

RK: One thing I didn’t want the book to be was a series of recollections about the minutiae about this panel or that story (“How cool were the Skrulls, right?”), because that could be like hearing about someone’s dream — like, who cares? But the essays weren’t about that stuff. Instead, they tended to focus on some moment in the writer’s life that was memorable, and that comics books were involved, and how the two could never be separated.

Despite people’s divergent backgrounds, they frequently used or engaged comics in similar ways, and I found myself nodding along to many of the moments in each of the stories. It’s probably not a big surprise to learn that a lot of people who were/are comic book fans felt like outsiders, uncomfortable in the world, and comic books transported them to other, somehow more attractive worlds. When I was growing up, if you had asked me, what was more terrifying, junior high school or Conan’s Hyboria, I would have chosen to live in the latter in a heartbeat, giant snakes or no.

Kids reading comics

G3: Not to give too much away, but what were some of the most surprising stories? Do the essays cover a wide emotional range?

RK: There were a lot more “serious” stories than I would have imagined in the beginning, and for a brief time I worried that the book would be a downer with so many like that included. But one of the benefits of having so long to work on the book was having a lot of time to really live with these stories, read them and re-read them, and I stopped worrying about how serious they were and just concentrated on how powerful they were.

Not too long after I started assembling the stories, I got contacted by TV/comedy writer Tim Neenan (“Childrens Hospital”), offering a story for the book. I was touched someone, a stranger, would make such a gesture, so I said sure, and then was stunned by what he wrote. I don’t want to say any more about it. Everyone should just read it.

On the other end of the spectrum, my friend Doug Slack (Slacker Comics) told a story about trying to convince his Mom to buy him a particularly expensive comic book, which to her seemed like an absurd proposition. I knew Doug’s Mom, so I could hear her voice in my head, berating her young son for ridiculous begging, which made me laugh out loud.
There are a number of stories like each, which I think makes for a great balance.

G3: How did you get into comics as a kid? I love the reference to the era of spinner racks.

RK: I’ve never known a time in my life were there weren’t comics. Searching them out in places high (supermarkets, department stores) and low (a candle store) became one of the recurring events of my life. While I wouldn’t trade the ease of going to a comic book store, knowing it will have what I want, there was a palpable sense of excitement and mystery to buying comics back then that just doesn’t exist anymore. I remember buying an issue of Sgt. Fury — even though I had precious little interest in the book — simply because it rarely showed up at my local 7-11, so finding it felt akin to stumbling over buried treasure.

My parents learned quickly that the easiest way to mollify me was to get me comics. My Dad used to take me with him to his office when he occasionally had to work a Saturday, so before we’d go we’d stop at a department store and he bought me five to six “treasury” comics and there I sat at his secretary’s desk, nary making a sound while he got work done. What can I say? I was a cheap date. So comics have always been in my life, even during periods where I thought most of what was put out was garbage (I’m looking at you, mid-’90s). And in one way or the other they always will be around. I’m looking forward to being a 90-year-old with a Pull List.

G3: How did you go about recruiting writers for the project, and were contributors enthusiastic about the idea?

RK: Well, the first people I contacted were those who were comic pros that I had befriended over the years via my various other blogs (mostly The Aquaman Shrine) — Paul Kupperberg, J.M. DeMatteis, etc. And when they said yes, and said yes quickly, I thought I just might be onto something. These were people whose work I grew up reading, so the idea that people like this would deign to be involved in a little humble project like mine gave the confidence I needed to start going after people I didn’t know as well, or didn’t know at all.

The hardest time I had was explaining the project to people. A lot of them thought it was a comic book, or a series of fictional stories. There is no other book out there like this, and without examples to point to, it was at times an ungainly process trying to get across just what “Hey Kids, Comics!” was, rather than what it wasn’t. I got in contact with a number of “big names” who were interested, but I think were a little gun shy about committing to a project whose future seemed uncertain. I’m looking forward to going back to them with the book and saying “I’ll be doing another book, and it will be just like this. Are you in?”

I gave out “Hey Kids, Comics!” pins at the Baltimore Comic Con, and it made me happy to see them dangling from everyone’s lanyards as they walked around the con floor. They’re proud of their participation in the book, which makes me feel enormously proud.

G3: You’ve alluded to some of the difficulties associated with making this book a reality. What made you want to keep going, even with all the obstacles?

RK: If this book had been entirely written by me, I think I would have packed it in a long time ago. I don’t mind rejection (I’m quite familiar with it), but it was the kind of responses I was getting. I had an editor from a big publishing house ask to see an outline of the book, so I sent them a 30-plus page treatment, filled with sample stories, pictures, references to other books that were similar to “Hey Kids!” They read it, and still didn’t understand what the book was going to be.

But I knew what I had, how good the material was, and I felt like I couldn’t let everyone down by giving up. These people (present company included) were generous enough to write something for me, and it would have been awful to have go back to them all and say “Sorry I wasted your time.” So while there was time when I just let the book languish for a while, I never totally gave up on it. These people showed faith in me and my book. The least I could do is see it to fruition.

When creating anything and trying to get it Out There, the deck is stacked against you from the beginning. Not due to people aligning against you specifically, but something I like to call a Bureaucracy of Indifference. There are so many levels to climb that even if a couple important people in the process don’t get back to you, or don’t do their jobs, it throws a monkey wrench into the works. I dealt with that over and over again, and when it got too much I put the whole thing aside for a while. Then when I had the energy to climb back up that hill, I went back into battle.

G3: Why do you think comics remain such a big part of people’s lives long after childhood?

RK: Well, for many generations (and only ending fairly recently), comic books were cheap and available everywhere. When you have something ubiquitous like that when you’re a kid, where every experience is heightened with drama, you’re bound to make connections that stay with you the rest of your life. For some people it’s music, or television, or sports, but for people like you and me, it was comic books. They offered a cheap escape and offered the opportunity to expand your mind in a thousand different ways, a lot of which get closed off once you read adulthood. But when you’re seven, an issue of Where Creatures Roam can bore itself into your brain and it never, ever goes away.

4 thoughts on “G3 Interview: Rob Kelly of ‘Hey Kids, Comics!’

  1. I will be looking for the book, sounds very interesting. I was one of the exceptions to the rule though. Growing up in a rural area, there were several of us reading comics and trading them around. No real outsider issues except with adults. I had a very “Leave It To Beaver” childhood and am very grateful for it. My first exposute to comics in the fifties, the barbershop.

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