In the latest book in the long-running Bad Kitty series by Nick Bruel, the eponymous feline gets her paws on the most important device in anyone’s modern day-to-day life: a cell phone! Will Kitty ever do anything besides play the Feather Tap app again?
To learn more about the new graphic novel, The Beat caught up with Bruel over the phone and asked all about real-life feline inspirations, how writing Bad Kitty comics compares with writing Bad Kitty storybooks, and about whether or not the internet-related revelations in Bad Kitty Gets a Phone are based on fact or fiction!
AVERY KAPLAN: Kitty has had a lot of adventures over the years in many different formats. Did anything in particular inspire Bad Kitty Gets A Phone?
NICK BRUEL: Yes. I asked myself the same question every time I have to sit down and come up with new ideas for what to do with Kitty. The question is pretty simple. It’s what do kids care about? I’ve asked this question over and over and over, so once the answer was birthdays, and that inspired Happy Birthday, Bad Kitty. Once it was summer camp and became Bad Kitty Camp Daze. School. Sports was Bad Kitty Joins The Team.
Even though my daughter is 13 and is obsessed with her phone– She’s been like this since she was in 4th grade and even before she had a phone of her own. You see this every time you go to a restaurant. If there’s a little kid, they desperately want mom or dad’s phone to play with. Mom or dad hands it over or gives it to them because it’ll pacify them so they can eat.
I hadn’t really seen this topic covered yet in a kid’s book. I felt I’m going to give it a shot with Bad Kitty Gets A Phone because it is really something that kids deeply care about right now, whether they have a phone or not. I think more kids have them than you might even think. They really care about phones in general.
KAPLAN: Which one of the seven feats of strength faced by Kitty do you find to be the most daunting?
BRUEL: The first one that comes immediately to mind was changing the baby’s diaper because I did it plenty of times with my daughter. There is really no such thing as a good time to change a baby’s diaper, but boy, it has to be done.
KAPLAN: How does the graphic novel format compare with writing a storybook? Does the variable format affect your creative process at all?
BRUEL: The funny thing is, for me, the Bad Kitty books began as what Kirkus has deemed a graphic hybrid, in which my books were probably just as text-heavy but I told them in a format where I just didn’t have comic panels. That was the case for Bad Kitty Gets A Bath, the first one, and Happy Birthday Bad Kitty, and so on and so forth, the first several books. They just didn’t really have comic panels.
Over time, gradually, without my even thinking about it, I started using comic panels more and more to tell the stories. I think the comic panels became a really simple way for me to communicate dialogue and action within the same scene — It just became easier. I can have a character react in its own panel so that the character’s reaction is the focal point, compared to the character being a part of a larger page and reacting.
Just as on stage versus on television, I can go to another panel like I’m doing a cut and edit from one character to the next. Now, that character’s reaction is all the more emphasized. That’s really useful if you have a character like Bad Kitty who does not speak. It just became a way for me to communicate the same story. Ten years ago, I might not have used panels as much, but they have really become a valuable tool. Now that the books truly are graphic novels, whereas the first several, certainly the first five or six, probably — eell, they fit the definition. Literally, they’re both graphic and they’re novel form, but not in a comic format that I use now.
I’ve been really thinking about this recently. How it came about, without my consciously making the decision that my books have turned more into graphic novels than I ever intended them to become.
KAPLAN: I guess comics find a way.
BRUEL: Well, I grew up reading comics. Comics are still my absolute favorite thing to read during my downtime. It seemed like it was something that I would do, but it wasn’t the format I chose when I started making these chapter books.
— Nick Bruel (@nickbruel) November 7, 2021
Avery: Is there any particular inspiration behind Uncle Murray?
BRUEL: Yes. First of all, Uncle Murray exists because in the very first Bad Kitty book, which was a picture book, I go through the alphabet four times and one of those alphabets is an alphabet of foods and animals that cat wants to eat. I got to the letter U and I was stuck. I mean, really stuck. I couldn’t think of a food or an animal that started with the letter U. I thought “unicorns” but they don’t really exist, they didn’t seem to fit with my book.
One day, it occurred to me: wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote “Uncle somebody”? If I was going to do Uncle anybody, it had to be my own real-life Uncle Murray.
When I was a kid, my Aunt Jen was married to a really fascinating guy named Uncle Murray. I depict him as I remember him. He was big and doughy and mostly bald. I’d visit him at home, so he was always walking around in a stained gray T-shirt and his pajama pants.
My Uncle Murray was terrific. He used to tell me all sorts of stories that were possibly inappropriate for my age, about his friendship with Abbot and Costello. When I tell the story to kids, and they have no idea who I’m talking about. I tell them “Go find the movie called Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein.
If you love scary movies, you’ll love this movie. If you like funny movies, you’ll love this movie. While you’re watching Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein you can point to the screen and you can say out loud, “Hey, those two guys used to play poker every Thursday night with the real-life Uncle Murray.”
By the way, I know this interview is about Bad Kitty Gets A Phone, but in the previous book, Bad Kitty Goes On Vacation, Uncle Murray is such a central character, I decided that I would model that book after an Abbot and Costello movie. There are a couple of times in Bad Kitty Goes on Vacation and Bad Kitty: Puppy’s Big Day, they’re both very Uncle Murray-centric books. There is at least a chapter in each one which is totally an Abbot and Costello routine.
KAPLAN: I see from your website that you collect PEZ dispensers. Do you have a favorite in your collection and is there a particular white whale dispenser that you’re searching for?
BRUEL: I have such a collector’s mentality and my office reflects it. It’s just piles of comics and children’s books and PEZ dispensers, of course. I’ve never gone so far out of my way where I would spend even more than $10 on a single PEZ dispenser. I have plenty from my youth, I’ve traded with people, but I’ve never gone so out of my way where I would just seek out a specific dispenser because I covet it.
As for my favorite one, I think, it has to be Tinkerbell. I have a Tinkerbell from my own childhood. She just has this very sweet face. If for no reason other than this really adorable design, she has to be my favorite.
KAPLAN: Speaking of your website, visitors can take part in lots of Bad Kitty activities when they visit. Can you tell us where this innovative section came from?
BRUEL: Not from me. This is badkittybooks.com. If you go to nickbruel.com, it is just willfully out of date because I never pay any attention to it. It looks like a MySpace page from 1994 or something.
Badkittybooks.com is entirely the creation of my publisher, Macmillan and they are the ones who upkeep it. The most I do is once every few months, they communicate with me, intentions, and get my thoughts on things. I am just eternally grateful that they put so much attention into maintaining that website because my brain just does not function in the virtual world like it should.
KAPLAN: Can you tell us a little bit about your real-life cats?
Nick: Sure. We have two right now. The older cat is Rose, who we named Rose because she looks and smells nothing like a rose. She is an interesting cat. She is a very fluffy, probably part Russian Blue, the most mellow cat I’ve ever known, to the point that her favorite place to sit and sleep is on the stairwell.
She will look at you with these half-open eyes, and not flinch or move out of the way if you’re coming down the stairs. “Oh, is that a piano you’re carrying? Looks heavy. Wow.” She just won’t budge but she is definitely kept on her toes because we’ve had, for about seven or eight months now, our cat Noodles. The first cat we’ve ever actually adopted because every cat I’ve ever owned, they’ve always come to us.
Noodles is just a total boy of a cat. He still has a lot of kitten in him even though he’s about a year, a year-and-a-half old. He just wants to play. As far as he’s concerned, every single thing that exists in the world is a toy for him to play with, and who am I to say he’s wrong? He just loves to play and bounce and scratch. His absolute favorite toy in the world is his big sister, Rose.
I have to close the door to my office so that she can eat her meals because he just wants to pound on top of her and attack her. Because she’s so mellow, she just lets it happen. I’ve seen him sitting outside the litter box while she’s in there like he’s peering in and saying, “Oh hey, you use the litter box, too? Oh, so cool. Me, too. You know what we do? We should use the litter box together sometime. That would be amazing, right? Seriously, we should do that.” Watching them interact is just wonderful.
KAPLAN: Are all the facts about the internet and phones included in the book, true?
Nick: Yes, absolutely. With the potential exception of– There’s that weird section in there, where there are these dogs talking about cats, and one of them says, “I read a scientific article explaining how cat tails are really snakes.” “Yes, I read that, too.”
Well, I guess, for Uncle Murray’s fun facts, I go into a different place where I go into the fact versus opinion versus interpretation debate. You have to bear in mind that I was writing this book a-year-and-a-half ago, so this would have been right in the heart of election season. Facts, opinions, and interpretations were all just getting thrown against the wall like paintballs, and getting all mixed in together.
I felt at the time that this was a really important subject for me to explore and is certainly one that is encountered every day, especially with kids.
I researched, I really work hard on the fun facts. I try really, really hard to make sure that anything I put into those Uncle Murray fun facts is absolutely true because I just dread the day that I am proven wrong by a clever child in the 4h grade who reads something, questions it, researches it and finds a proof that I’m wrong, and tells me.
I’ll tell you a good example, actually, of one that really shocked me because I wrote something down and I thought, “Oh, wow. Before I actually hand this in, I better make sure it’s true.” This was in Bad Kitty for President. I wrote down the sentence that “You have to register to vote in every state in the U.S.” I was like, it seemed obvious, but I thought, “I better look it up.”
Lo and behold, wow. I discovered that, no, you don’t have to register to vote in North Dakota. It’s the one state where no one actually registers to vote. You just show up and vote. It was like, “Okay, I dodged a bullet there.”
It was a good moment for me because it really explained, I have to be very careful about everything that I write down in those fun facts sections.
KAPLAN: Is there anything else you’d like me to include?
Nick: Yes. I’m hoping we can do this again this time next year because the next book I do, is even more comic-centric. It’s actually going to be called Bad Kitty Super Cat. It’s going to be my Bad Kitty book about superheroes and playdates.
I’m working on the cover right now. I’m handing it all in about a week. It will be the longest Bad Kitty book at 176 pages. It is very much a homage to my youth and love of comic books and superheroes. Also, how kids interact and play with each other, which is something that Kitty being somewhat neuro-challenged as a cat, is not used to. She has to figure out the rules to even games where there are no rules.
Bad Kitty Gets a Phone is available now at a bookstore and/or public library near you.