John Patrick Green is a Long Island-based comics creator, best known for his collaboration with Dave Roman, Teen Boat. In an announcement made yesterday by First Second, Green is striking out on his own with the younger audience based Hippopotamister: the story of a Hippopotamus and his friend, Red Panda, who leave their home at a run-down zoo and strike out into the real world to get jobs. One by one, thanks to Red Panda, they get fired from each new vocation. Our hero then decides to return to the zoo, and use his new-found skills to return the zoo to its former glory, but can he do it without his longtime companion?
Beyond being an exceptional draftsman, Green is also an all-around renaissance man in the comics industry, having served in editorial positions and as a publisher. In honor of the big announcement, we discussed his career in-depth and the origins of Hippopotamister and what readers can expect from this 2016 release.
Why comics? Have you been a fan your whole life? What kinds of comics did you read when you first started–superheroes, all-ages, etc.?
I have been a comics fan my whole life. I was always an artist, constantly drawing as a kid. I was a very sick child and spent a lot of time indoors. Drawing was an activity I could do that wouldn’t cause an asthma attack or expose me to allergens. My gateway into comics were the funny pages, specifically Garfield. This was shortly before Calvin and Hobbes debuted, and that strip didn’t appear in my local paper for at least a couple years after it started. But the Garfield strips and TV specials were what got me into drawing comics, and using that 3-4 panel format to tells gags and stories. My brother, who is two years older than me, brought the first actual comic books into the house (my dad’s comic books having long been thrown out by his mom). I forget what comics he’d bring home, but I remember not being totally into them until I tagged along to the neighborhood Te-Amo store, which had a spinner rack. It wasn’t the first comic book I read, but I vividly remember the first one I bought with my own money being Marvel’s The Gargoyle #2 (in a Four-Issue Limited Series.) The cover and interior art by Bill Sienkiewicz was like no other comic I’d seen before. Soon my brother and I found an actual comic shop in our area, called The Incredible Pulp (now long-closed), and it was there that I’d get hooked on superhero comics (almost exclusively Marvel, aside from some more prominent DC fare like Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen) like X-Men and Daredevil and indie books like Nexus, Badge, Usagi Yojimbo, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And while I never really read Spider-Man much, one of my all-time favorites was the parody version, Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.
When did your career in comics start? At what point did you decide that’s what you wanted to do?
My career as an artist began in, I think, 3rd or 4th grade. I had a knack for drawing on model, so I’d draw posters of cartoon characters and sell them to other students for 25 cents. My own mother accused me of tracing an image of Yogi Bear, but she apologized after holding my drawing over the reference up to the light and seeing that the sizes were different. But it was also then that she decided to tell me about copyright law and suggested I create my own comics — which I did. So by the time I was in junior high, I’d already had self-published 9 issues (plus 2 giant-sized annuals) of my own comic book called The Footsies (mostly a parody comic of other cartoons and properties, only starring these three kids who had big feet), which I’d photocopy on my grandparents’ photocopier and sell to other students. The Incredible Pulp also sold copies on commission. Even before I started selling my art, I just knew I wanted to be an artist. My grandfather first said I could work for Disney when I was probably 5. Though I did actually want to be an astronaut most of all, but my health put the kibosh on that.
How did your career begin? What path did you take? What was your number one goal when entering the comics field?
If we ignore the self-publishing as a kid, I’d say my career began in college. In high school I’d kind of given up on comics. They got too expensive (the cover price went over a dollar!) and artistically, I was focused on things like watercolor and oil paints. I went to School of Visual Arts, but I didn’t go for comics or illustration. The school’s biggest focus when I enrolled was design, and the department had a 99% hiring rate upon graduation. I felt like the real reason to go to college was to get an actual job out of it, so I majored in graphic design. But I still *liked* comics, so I’d go to the occasional local comic convention. It was at one on Long Island where I met eventual long-time collaborator Dave Roman. He and his friends were super into comics, and this was early in the days of Image. I actually had a friend who worked at Extreme Studios, so he and I hit it off and they got me back into wanting to make comics. Starting with my sophomore year I took all the comics courses I could as electives. I was a big fan of Klaus Janson’s work, so I took his class, and during the second semester the students have to illustrate a full 24-page comic. We had the choice to draw a Daredevil or Batman script, or write one ourselves. So I teamed up with Dave, and we created the series Quicken Forbidden, which I drew as my project. When it was done we published it ourselves and distributed it through Diamond. So, just like when I was little, my path into comics was to Just Make Comics. Other than Just Making Comics, the goal was to get paid to do it. When graduation was approaching, Dave and I had already published two issues of Quicken Forbidden, so they were in my portfolio. SVA had a job fair for the design department, and as it turned out Penthouse Magazine had a rep there who said their comics-spin off was looking for an assistant art director. So I interviewed and before even graduating I had an actual paying job in comics, even if it was really just lettering porn.
Who are your biggest influences as an artist?
This is probably the hardest question for me to answer. It’s one that evolves over time. Things that influenced me when I was younger can have had a long-lasting effect, even if I don’t currently consider them to be an influence. So, to bring it back to Garfield, Jim Davis was a huge influence on me. When I was little I sent him some strips I drew and he wrote back personally, encouraging me to do more. And while I can list off all the comic artists, as well as fine artists and illustrators like Van Gogh, Renee Magritte, Norman Rockwell, who I admire, it’s really the fact that I grew up with very supportive and understanding parents and teachers who accepted that I knew, at a young age, that THIS was what I wanted to do, and they let me do it.
At what point did licensed comics become a reality for you, with Phineas and Ferb? How did that experience affect how you worked? Did it change your working style, or were there increased challenges working on a property that wasn’t your own?
Drawing Phineas and Ferb came about mostly because I’d had a long relationship with Disney. After Penthouse Comix, I became the comics assistant at Disney Adventures Magazine. Like Penthouse, it initially mostly involved lettering. The position evolved over time and eventually I was writing and coloring Disney and Pixar comics, but the only comic I drew was a gag strip called “The Last Laugh.” Fast-forward 9 years and Disney Adventures was cancelled. But Disney was still doing magazines and comics, and my former boss contacted me about drawing Phineas and Ferb. Apparently finding someone to draw in the style of the show was difficult. There are a lot of traditional animation techniques (eg, squash and stretch) that the show doesn’t really do, and translating the feel of the show into comics was proving difficult for the studio Disney normally had handle licensed comics. But it was right up my alley, and I was only doing behind the scenes freelance work for publishers here and there, so it was great to work on something that got a little bit more of the spotlight.
How did you go about developing such a variety of skills, having done font and book design? Did you aim to do those things, or did you find yourself in a surprising place with them?
I think they all sort of came about out of necessity. As a graphic design major, I’d do book designs as assignments, but that’s mostly covers and doesn’t really help when trying to lay out a comic that you have to send off to a printer. When I was at SVA everything was still done by hand, all paste-ups and mechanicals. It was at Penthouse that I learned how to color in Photoshop, letter in Illustrator, and lay out comics in Quark. During the year I was there, Dave and I continued to do Quicken Forbidden, but now instead of printing out lettering, gluing it to my art, and mailing that to Quebecor, I transitioned to all-digital. We were just using a free comic-style font for the first few issues, which was turning up in EVERY small-press/indie/self-published comic, so I just said “I’m going to figure out how to make a font based off my own lettering.” Word just got around that I knew how to lay out comic books, design fonts, and get them distributed, and I found myself helping other people who wanted to get into it. Then when larger book publishers, who were mostly unfamiliar with comics, wanted to start their own line, I guess they heard about me.
When did editing become the direction your career took? Did Disney lead to Penthouse, or did Penthouse lead to Disney? How did those two gigs happen, and were they back to back?
Penthouse lead to Disney, and they were indeed back to back. I had known Heidi MacDonald (full disclosure, she runs The Beat) through Friends of Lulu, an organization that was devoted to encouraging more women in comics, both as readers and creators. Yeah, it was a little weird working at Penthouse Comix and being a member of this group, but you can make the biggest changes from the inside, right? Not that it mattered, because after a year there, Penthouse Comix was getting cancelled. At the same time Heidi, who was the comics editor at Disney Adventures, was looking for a new assistant. I think maybe a month passed between when my Penthouse job ended and I started at Disney.
Did your experience working on Phineas and Ferb make the editing job on Disney Adventures Magazine easier?
While Phineas and Ferb debuted during the last year Disney Adventures was active, there actually was no overlap. But I was familiar with the property, and had worked with Steve Behling who was editing the Phineas and Ferb comics (and taken over for Heidi after she left Disney), so the whole process was easy to slip into.
How do all your past jobs (artist, font designer, etc.) inform your work as a publisher?
I do have an extremely critical eye, especially when it comes to production, lettering, and design issues. Probably to the point that it’s detrimental.
Do you find that readers often have a misunderstanding about the work that goes into the editorial role?
It’s certainly easier to point at a page and say “this person drew that” or “that person wrote this,” than it is to point out how an editor has affected the final comic you hold in your hands. But the process of making a comic is a mystery to a lot of people. I think most readers don’t understand just how collaborative creating a comic actually can be. An editor plays an important role in any book, but comics is a unique way of telling stories. So even if a person understands what an editor traditionally does, there’s an extra layer to understanding their contribution to a comic.
As a publisher, how do you go about looking for new and interesting talents for Cryptic Press? What are the works that you’ve published that you’re most proud of?
It’s been a while since Dave and I have published other creators’ works. We had grand plans of being this indy press startup, putting out this cool underground comics, like Slave Labor and other small publishers we admired. I miss those days a bit, it was a lot of fun being a ‘businessman’ in comics, not just a writer or artist. Aside from our own book, Quicken Forbidden, the most notable books we published were the first issue of Farel Dalrymple’s Pop Gun War and an issue of Aim by Miss Lasko Gross.
What are the origins of Hippopotamister? What made you want to jump into your first solo graphic novel?
I have a thing for puns and wordplay, and while I’m sure it’s an easy name to come up with, when “Hippopotamister” popped into my head I just knew there was a story there. I really enjoy collaborating on comics with another creator, but every so often I’ve got an idea in my head that takes shape on its own. Bringing someone else in to work on it with me would just be a step backward. So like many other ideas, this one got filed under “do it myself.” Why this idea became my first solo graphic novel was really just a matter of opportunity.
What is the premise of Hippopotamister? Why a hippopotamus?
I had the title before I had the book concept, but not by much. It started with a kid at a zoo calling a hippopotamus “hippopotamister,” like the kid is mispronouncing the word. The hippo hears this, and thinks “hippopotamister” means that he’s a person, not a hippo, so he puts on a hat and leaves the zoo. And for some reason, whatever hat the hippo wears, like a fireman’s helmet, people think that’s his job. The story evolved, and it’s now very different from that original concept, but the hippo still leaves the zoo and wears lots of different job-related hats.
As a publisher yourself, what made you want to go to First Second with Hippopotamister?
I’ve known everyone at First Second since I think before there even was a First Second. My editor Calista Brill may even remember catching me using the office photocopier to make copies of Teen Boat minicomics when we were both at Disney. I’ve been a fan of their work since the beginning, and I’ve done behind the scenes work for them for years (book layout, ad designs), and I knew they were looking to do more graphic novels for younger readers. I like their approach to comics, and have wanted to do an actual book with them. So when they responded well to my 10-second pitch for Hippopotamister, I knew it would be a good fit.
Is the intended audience for the book all-ages, younger readers, or do you hope it will entertain readers of all ages?
Hippopotamister is definitely for younger readers, but as a creator I generally want as many people as possible to find something enjoyable out of my work.
A sizable portion of your comics work has been in collaboration with fellow Comics Bakery creators like Dave Roman…was it at all scary to break out on your own, or were you more excited about the opportunity?
I can’t say it’s scary. It really doesn’t feel like I’m breaking out on my own. For all the books I’ve done with Dave, be it Quicken Forbidden or Teen Boat (or ones most people have never seen, like Melon Head or I Just Had My Lab Test), it was just him and me. We didn’t really have editors or publishers, at least not until they came along to publish collected versions. With Hippopotamister, while Dave’s not involved, I *am* working directly with an editor and publisher. Plus, there’s Gina Gagliano, who does First Second’s marketing and PR, something Dave and I didn’t really have resources for as Cryptic Press. And I’m working with an amazing colorist, Cat Caro, on Hippopotamister. So while it’s technically a solo book, I’m certainly not alone in making the book happen, and it’s probably less scary than other projects. It is still very exciting to have the chance to make this book, though, that’s for sure.
How long was the production process on this graphic novel?
You ask that as if I’m not still in the middle of it! Hippopotamister should be in stores in 2016.
Were there any surprises or roadblocks along the way?
Not yet, knock on wood.
What’s the underlying message of Hippopotamister that you would like your readers to take away?
Don’t be afraid to try something new. You don’t have to be good at something to be able to enjoy it. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, try something else. You might even uncover some hidden talents along the way.
Is there another graphic novel in your future that fans can look forward to after reading Hippopotamister?
There is ALWAYS another graphic novel in my future! The question is just which one do I do next.
You can find Hippopotamister at local retailers in the Spring of 2016 from First Second