Arts & Entertainment

Dav Pilkey stretches 'Captain Underpants' series

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This is the story of Dav Pilkey. Pilkey is the guy on the right with the wild hair and fake beard. Lily is the small dog on the left with the green dinosaur suit. Remember that now!

Though Lily may require an introduction, Pilkey most likely does not. The bestselling author of the ribald kids' series "Captain Underpants," Pilkey is a huge hit among the elementary school set — or those who parent, teach or otherwise come into contact with such children. Dog-eared and peanut-butter-smeared copies of his books about a bald superhero and his battles with the Wicked Wedgie Woman, Purple Potty People, Bionic Booger Boy and other outrageously off-color and onomatopoeic enemies can be found in the bedrooms of most first-graders.

Now, the 44-year-old writer is expanding on the series that has more than 45 million copies in print. His new graphic novel, "The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future," published Aug. 10, continues the ritual Pilkey started with Captain Underpants 13 years ago — of young kids cracking books' spines to read the "action" and "laffs" promised on their covers and to snicker and snort uncontrollably.

(Supposedly) written and illustrated by George Beard and Harold Hutchins — the mischievous fourth-grade protagonists of the eight Captain Underpants novels released so far — "The Adventures of Ook and Gluk" star caveman versions of the best friends who get into all kinds of trouble in their always-successful efforts to save the world from evil lunch ladies and other insidious souls. Pilkey's name appears only on the spine and copyright page of the new book — not the cover.

"George and Harold are really just two different sides of my personality," according to Pilkey. "George is the outgoing and confident side of me, while Harold is the awkward, shy and introverted side of me," Pilkey wrote in an e-mail interview from Japan, where he lives part time with his wife. Despite his extreme success as an author and comfort around kids, Pilkey prefers to conduct interviews by e-mail because he is "definitely more Harold" than George.

Pilkey is also more outrageous than most other authors writing for children today. Employing an amplitude of misspellings and potty humor and a cast of loin-clothed bad guys and vomiting dinosaurs, the story of Ook and Gluk is told entirely in comics that Pilkey draws himself in a style that is childlike and intentionally imperfect. There are line drawings of naked rear ends and two-page zoetropes called flip-o-ramas that allow kids to take a break from the reading and effect a sort of tactile cartoon that brings a pen-and-ink kung-fu fight or "regergitation" scene to life.

It's the sort of book that makes kids giggle and draw and reread it again and again, even if it makes some parents laugh heartily, albeit with some unease.

"These 'mistakes' occur in my books for a reason," Pilkey said. "I have an agenda: I'm secretly trying to inspire kids to create their own stories and comics, and I don't want them to feel stifled by 'perfectionism.' My hope is that they'll be so inspired by George and Harold's wildly imperfect (but still fun) stories that they'll pick up a pencil and start creating their own stories 'just for fun.' That's what I did when I was a kid. I never worried about spelling or grammar or perfect artwork."

Pilkey's master plan is working. He receives between 150 and 300 original comic books from kids each year, he says. And he reads every single one.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Pilkey said he wasn't much of a book reader. Despite librarians' urging to read books about football, Pilkey said he was much more interested in monsters and robots and magazines such as Mad and Cracked and Dynamite, which he begged his parents to buy.

"If someone had asked me (as a kid) what I liked to read, I probably would have said: funny books with lots of pictures, not too many words, and lots of short chapters. And they also have monsters and robots in them," Pilkey said. "Come to think of it, that sounds exactly like the kinds of books I write."

Pilkey has been drawing "ever since I can remember," he said.

Kindergarten was the first time he was singled out as the class "artist," he said. By first grade, that mantle morphed into class clown. According to his website, http://www.pilkey.com, "He was the undisputed king of funny noises, and held the classroom record for the number of crayons he could stick up his nose at one time (a record he still holds today)."

He created his Captain Underpants character in second grade, when, after misbehaving in class and being banished to the hallway, he whiled away in exile drawing comics. Though none of those originals survived into his adulthood, the Captain Underpants character and his experience of drawing them did.

Pilkey was already a published author and illustrator of dozens of picture books when he decided to re-create Captain Underpants. He'd been doing author visits to elementary schools, during which he regaled his young fans with tales of his prepubescent misbehavior illustrated with live drawings of Captain Underpants "in all his 'underpantsy' glory."

"The first question I would ALWAYS get was, 'Are you going to write a book about Captain Underpants?' I'd scratch my chin and coyly say, 'Well, gee, I never thought of that. Do you think I should?' The room would explode with cheering and clapping — even standing ovations sometimes. I think it was then that I first realized that Captain Underpants might be popular with kids."

Eight Captain Underpants novels and two "Extra-Crunchy Book o' Fun" activity books later, Pilkey said he plans to write four more titles for that series. He recently signed a contract with Scholastic for an additional four books, some of which will continue the Ook and Gluk story line.

The initial print run for "The Adventures of Ook and Gluk" is 1 million copies.

Like many of the other titles in Pilkey's 44-book canon, "The Adventures of Ook and Gluk" displays a fascination with power-hungry idiots and planet-polluting nuclear waste — along with robots, diapers and foul-smelling body parts.

"Nuclear waste is what we in the business call 'lazy storytelling,' " Pilkey explained. "It's a very convenient way to turn just about anything into an evil villain… Diapers and potty humor? Those are essential parts of any good book. A book without potty humor is like a banana split without hot fudge. It can still be good, I suppose, but you kinda get the feeling that something is missing."

Why Pilkey's books resonate so completely with elementary school kids, and boys in particular, is because "my books are just pure escapism for kids," Pilkey said. "Most kids are smarter than most grown-ups. Kids see the world in black and white… They look through all the garbage and see a world run by fools and dullards and lazy people. And there's nothing they can do about it because they have no power.

"[My books] give children a chance to live vicariously through kids with REAL POWER… The good guys (kids) always win and the bad guys (mean grown-ups) always get what they deserve: A good, swift kick in the pants. It's good, clean fun."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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