Mr. Wolf’s Class, which The Beat named as one of the best comics of 2018, is a warm and genial series of books that explores the adventures of rambunctious fourth graders and their teacher, the eponymous Mr. Wolf. Written by Aron Nels Steinke, an Eisner Award-winning creator and a public school teacher, the Mr. Wolf series has become a flagship of Scholastic’s middle grade comics imprint, Graphix. With two books already released, another one on the way later this fall, and another one scheduled for 2020, Mr. Wolf’s Class represents that type of book that appeals to diverse audiences. Witty and highly entertaining, the series continues to grow with each installment.
Last time I chatted with Steinke, the first Mr. Wolf book had just been released, with the second installment still on the way. This time around, I asked about the arc of his own journey: how he went from self-published zines to having a character branded on gear found at the most influential pop culture convention in the world. I started by asking Steinke to go back to the beginning…
AJ FROST: Aron, it’s wonderful to talk with you again. Can we start our interview today by talking about your background in self-publishing mini-comics?
ARON NELS STEINKE: I started publishing mini-comics around the year 2006. I was lucky enough to get as Xeric Grant from Peter Laird from the Xeric Foundation, I made my first mini-comics titled Big Plans #1 I started sort of making mini-comics because I wanted to tell my own story. I come from an animation background and I didn’t have that the capital or the manpower; I certainly didn’t have a big animation studio. I discovered comics through alternative comics—the classic underground 90s stuff—and I fell in love. I wanted to make my own books. I didn’t think there would be any way for me to get published so I decided to print them at Kinko’s or print them at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland. I got hooked.
FROST: You just mentioned those zine shows. What were some of your experiences selling your wares there? And what was the initial reaction to these mini-comics?
STEINKE: The first show I went to was the Portland Zine Symposium in 2006. And the first book I ever sold to anybody was to a guy named Greg Means who is a writer and cartoonist. He is most famous for his Papercutter anthology which is pretty influential. I was lucky enough to get into that through meeting him. I also became good friends with him the Dylan Williams who had a publishing company called Sparkplug comic books. And through Dylan, I met so many other cartoonists. That was really welcoming. I found my friends. I found my place. We were all doing different work but everyone was supportive of each other. It was a community and I was grateful to have that. It was definitely an encouraging thing that kept me going.
FROST: Right now, we’re speaking now from San Diego Comic Con which is a world away from those zine shows from yesteryear. Can you talk a little bit about your feelings about the arc of your personal journey from small independent shows to the biggest pop culture media event on the face of the earth?
STEINKE: I feel I wasn’t always removed because you know Dylan Williams would go and represent and sell Sparkplug comic books at San Diego Comic Con, and he and Greg Means actually teamed up to publish my first professionally published work, a book called Neptune, a graphic novel published exactly 10 years ago this week. It debuted at San Diego Comic Con and the Portland Zine Symposium. So it was the dual nature of Dylan wanting to expand comics into and expand alternative comics and to reach a wider audience.
He always believed that you’ve got to do other things to get the books out there. My first San Diego Comic Con was in 2015 when my wife and I were nominated and won Eisner for The Zoo Box. I hadn’t been here until then. San Diego Comic Con is such a big thing; I’m definitely more comfortable in smaller shows. I prefer the one day, free-to-attendees kind of show.
FROST: I don’t want to knock smaller conventions because they offer more intimate experiences.
FROST: But do you think that without San Diego Comic Con, your work would have reached the people at Scholastic and Graphix?
STEINKE: That’s a good point. Like I said, my wife and I were nominated for The Zoo Box which First Second put out. I attended the Eisner Awards ceremony and when we ended up winning the Eisner. It was the same year that Cece Bell won for El Deafo, Gene Luen Yang won an Eisner as well and was sitting at the table with him; Raina Telgemeir won that year too. It felt like these were my people, the people that I was inspired by, the people I wanted to emulate. I wanted to be in their cohort. It felt like I was finally accepted into that cohort in a way you know. And then, I met Cassandra Pelham Fulton, the executive editor Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. I gave her a copy of one of my first Big Plans comics which were self-deprecating autobiographical comics that were typical of a twenty-something male.
There was something in it that she liked and she e-mailed me a couple of weeks after the show and said, ‘Hey, if there’s anything you’re working on that you’re interested in pitching, we’re interested.’ I had Mr. Wolf’s Class pretty much ready to go. I was just looking for a publisher. Months later, we ended up finalizing a deal together and now I’m working on a fourth Mr. wolf’s Class with her as the editor.
FROST: Was Mr. Wolf part of the Big Plans self-published stuff?
STEINKE: It was kind of separate for awhile. The wolf character appeared in Big Plans #2. He was my alter ego; he represented my anger. And then in the last issue of Big Plans, I got my teaching job. And that’s when everything changed because… I think I was mostly frustrated or angry as a youth because of my lack of being able to support myself and pay the bills. And you know, there’s not much money in alternative or independent comics; it’s tough work. So once I became a teacher, I finally was able to make an income I could live off of.
Once I became a teacher, I wanted to continue doing autobiographical work. But it didn’t seem right for me to represent myself as the way I look. I didn’t want to give things away. I wanted it to be a little more private and also express more of a universal experience. That’s when I took that Wolf character: he started out as this frustrated younger person and then he mellowed out and he worked with kids. And then I made many comics about Mr. Wolf inspired by my teaching experience. These were six-panel comics usually about the day in the life of my teaching experience. And they were usually true too: my experience that I lived.
It was fun to make those little comic strips, but then I was ready to make it into something bigger because I had created the world already and I was ready to make a bigger impact on comics.
STEINKE: It feels incredible. It feels really good. Working in the small press world is great. I love it and I love the community. It gave me that sense of community but I wanted a bigger audience. Working with children made me realize that, as a teacher, you know how satisfying an impact you can have on children. Now that I have these books coming out, I know thousands of kids are reading them. And now that I’m considering my fourth book, I really think about like ‘Wow. Thousands of kids are going to be reading this. And they’re going to be influenced by it.’ So I have a real chance here to put something useful in my books.
Before, I made things that made me happy. But now I’m actually considering what do I want people to get out of my books. What do I want them to get out my stories?
FROST: So you carefully consider the themes more so than you did previously?
STEINKE: Totally. It’s like this power has been granted to me. Scholastic has been a wonderful publisher to work for. And they have the reach to get their books to go far. And to hear from a parent in rural Canada say that their first or second grader chose my book and it was the first book that they read from beginning to end on their own is the best feeling I could ever have.
FROST: Can you tell us a little bit about the third book in the Mr. Wolf’s Class series? It’s coming out this fall, right?
STEINKE: Yeah, September 3rd, 2019. The third book is called Mr. Wolf’s Class: Lucky Stars. The first Mr. Wolf’s Class was more of an ensemble; no one character stood out and all the characters’ narratives were interwoven. The second book—Mystery Club—followed around the smaller group of students. And the third book follows Sampson, who is of modeled on me when I was a child. Sampson is experiencing writer’s block. He can’t think of what to write in class. (Students are working on personal narratives.) This is something I’ve seen as a teacher: How do you teach kids how to write? I wanted to put a little of that experience into the work. And Sampson has an experience that sheds some light on the writing experience. I don’t want to give away too much because I feel like there might be some spoilers. But let’s just say it follows one character more fully.
It’s a bigger book. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I’ve made three books in about three years and that’s four hundred and ninety-six pages. Kids zip through them and they’ll read one book after another and so it feels good to feel like I’ve got almost five hundred pages of comics that I wrote, illustrated and colored out there and another one on the way. And yes, the fourth Mr. Wolf’s Class is due out next fall.
FROST: How has your experience writing the previous three books influenced the way you now tell these stories now? I’m sure for the first book, you wrote it with a certain mindset and you used that to then build on the second one. In turn, you used the skills you gained on the second one for the third one. Does having an established character turn the pressure on you to produce a book at a certain level? Or are you now free to explore the characters in certain ways because people are now familiar with them?
STEINKE: It’s harder and easier at the same time. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The fact that you’ve already got the characters established and have the world… Any number of things can happen and I can imagine those. And so it’s actually easy to write a new story. But, as my editor told me, each book has to get better than the one before it if readers are going to be interested in the book. So, that’s been harder to do: to try and one up myself every time.
The whole first draft took me months and months and that one wasn’t good enough. My new draft of my book is a completely different story than the original one I’d planned for. But this one is much better. And it is hard because you’ve got to push yourself and you have to be creative. And writing is not easy. I really like the part where I’m sketching things out because then the characters become real for me and it is like a conversation unfolding in front of me.
I really like the process of directors who direct actors to live in the moment, where they kind of improvise on the moment when they see that the location provides something interesting for the actors get something interesting from. I think that the works of John Cassavetes really inspire me which is completely removed from you know children’s comics. I get a lot of influences from things outside of comics. And as a teacher, I like to think on my feet and I like to improvise based on what things my students respond to. It’s the same thing with my comics. I might have the script fully done but as soon as I start drawing it and I see something else that’s exciting I might have a go in that direction for a minute because that’s the more interesting thing.
FROST: I’m sure you give a lot of book talks at schools all over the country. What’s usually is the most asked question from kids about your books?
STEINKE: I love talking at schools. The most asked questions that students will usually ask you when you do these book talks is that they usually want to know how long it takes to make a book. But they’re really interested in the mechanics of making books. They’ll ask ‘How do you make the cover?’ And when they say that, they actually mean like how is the cover hard. And then I realize that they want to know that there’s a piece of cardboard in there and then there’s paper and it’s printed and it’s wrapped and glued around; they want to know how does a book actually look that way. I get a lot of energy from the excitement that kids bring and the different perspective that they have.
FROST: What are you most excited for the future of Mr. Wolf’s Class? Do you envision a fifth, sixth, tenth, or twentieth book?
STEINKE: I will keep making these books as long as they are being received and as long as my publisher will publish them. At the same time, I also have other ideas. And I am a full-time teacher, so it’s challenging. But at this point, I’m making about a book a year.
FROST: Any final thoughts?
STEINKE: I think it’s a really exciting time for children’s comics. We’re seeing new imprints starting every year. I think we’re going to see something exciting happen too as these kids who are reading become older. There are millions of kids who are reading these books and they’re already making their own comics. It’ll be exciting to see what the next generation brings.
FROST: Thank you so much for chatting.
STEINKE: Thank you!
The first two installments of Mr. Wolf’s Class are available now via Scholastic. The third book in the series, Lucky Stars, comes out this September. A fourth volume, Field Trip, will follow in fall 2020. To keep up with Aron Nels Steinke, follow him on Twitter @mrwolfcomics.