In "Hippopotamister," the upcoming all-ages graphic novel from John Patrick Green, Hippo and Red Panda decide to leave their home in the rundown city zoo to try to find a better life in the outside world.
Of course, in order to live among the humans outside of the zoo, Red Panda and Hippo must find jobs and blend in with society. Hippo cannot remain just a hippopotamus -- he must become a Hippopotamister.
Hero Complex readers are getting a first look at the cover for "Hippopotamister," along with a preview of a few pages from the book. Check them out in the gallery below.
Hero Complex caught up with Green over email to discuss "Hippopotamister," his childhood career aspirations and creating all-ages comics.
How did "Hippopotamister" come about? Was there a specific idea that the story stemmed from?
I wanted to do a graphic novel for younger readers, and First Second had just started publishing books in that format and was looking for more. This story came about because that got me started thinking about great comics-format stories for younger kids.
The initial idea started with a kid at a zoo who would mispronounce the names of animals. She'd say "hippopotamister" instead of "hippopotamus," and the hippo heard that and thought it meant he was a person. The hippo then put on a hat, left the zoo, and tried to fit in human society. And the story evolved from there, with the hippo getting a panda friend and lots and lots of new jobs!
Out of all the animals in a zoo, how did you decide on Hippopotamus and Red Panda being the main characters?
When I was figuring out these characters, I basically went through a bestiary! I'd thought of writing about a rhinoceros, but the play on the word "hippopotamus" was too good to resist.
Hippo's companions were originally a fish and a bird. In nature, hippos have a symbiotic relationship with carp that swim into their mouths and clean their teeth, as well as oxpecker birds who eat parasites off the hippos' backs.
The fish and bird were both foils to Hippo's employment opportunities, but finding a way to consistently work the fish (who Hippo carried in a fish bowl) and the bird into each new situation became problematic. I needed to find a way to merge the fish and bird into one character, and since Hippo was coming from a zoo, I figured it could be any type of animal.
I'd always loved the red pandas at the Central Park Zoo, and so that just seemed to be the perfect tiny, cute, fuzzy, colorful and playful animal to pair against Hippo's size and shape.
How was working on this project as a writer-illustrator? How did it compare to your more collaborative projects?
It was both freeing and more isolating. I've been very fortunate in my collaborations, though aside from licensed work for Disney or Dreamworks, the only person I've really worked together with on comics is Dave Roman.
On our "Jax Epoch" and "Teen Boat!" series, Dave's role is primarily the writer, and mine the artist, but there's a bit more overlap in our responsibilities than typical writer and illustrator relationships. Instead of him just writing, and me just drawing, we'll bounce story and art ideas off each other, and in the end our roles aren't exactly split down the middle. There's a bit of me in the writing, and a bit of Dave in the art.
However, there are times when Dave will write something that I won't want to draw. Usually this is a crowd scene or epic battle or a horse, things that are just a chore or otherwise difficult to pull off. But I'll power through it because I know it's best for the story, and I don't want to do a disservice to Dave's writing by convincing him out of making me draw it.
When I'm writing for myself, there's more freedom to draw just what I want, but there's also more temptation to write around things I don't want to draw, even if it's not best for the story.
I of course want to write to my strengths, and it's easy to convince myself not to draw something I'd rather not, but if my story calls for something difficult to draw, then I have to motivate myself to rise to that challenge. With "Hippopotamister," I did still have some collaborators in the form of Cat Caro, who did the wonderful colors, and my editor Calista Brill, who provided excellent feedback.
One of the great things about "Hippopotamister" is that not only do Hippo and Red Panda try out a wide range of jobs, they're equally excited about taking each of them. Are there any jobs you remember wanting to have from your childhood? How many different jobs did you have before you ended up in comics?
The one job other than artist I wanted to have when I was a child was astronaut. If the opportunity came up, I'd still give it a shot! Hippo makes it into space before I do, though. As for jobs I had before ending up in comics, the answer is technically zero. I started making and selling my own comics in 5th grade, and while I've had a few gigs in video games, I haven't had any job that didn't involve comics.
What was your favorite occupation to have Hippopotamister and Red Panda try?
Probably firefighters, though there's only a single image of them trying this one out in the book. That or when they try to be Italian chefs. Both jobs involved a lot of pyrotechnics, as it turned out.
Another great message readers get from the book is that it's not the end of the world to try something, have it not work out for one reason or another, and go on to try something else. If you weren't working in comics, what other job do you think you'd have?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut, but with my asthma and allergies, I'd never pass the physical.
The easy answer to this question is probably anything else I could use my art skills for, probably because I know those are just the kind of jobs I could get! But a definite possibility would be in video games, or even board games.
I've made a few games in the past, and what I like about games is that, similar to comics, they can be used to tell a narrative with visuals. Games of course have an interactivity to them, with rules, puzzles and that sort of thing. But you can create a world that players can inhabit and explore in and experience and also have a story unfold.
What is it about creating comics for a younger audience that appeals to you?
Probably the puns. Kids love terrible jokes, and those are the only kind I know! Plus I get to draw funny animals or absurd things like icebergs fighting robot pirate ships.
What is the most difficult aspect of creating comics for younger readers?
There's a certain balance of "simple, but complex" that goes into comics for younger readers that you don't have to worry about as much when your work is for an adolescent or older audience.
I don't want to tell a simple story, but I want it to be easy to understand and read. I don't want my art to come off as simple, but I want the visual storytelling to not be confusing. Those things are basically true for any audience I'm working for, but younger readers have limits.
The lengths of sentences, the complexity of the grammar and vocabulary, the sizes and number of panels, visual angles -- these are all things you can't just throw at kids without carefully thinking them through.
I liken it to having a box of 64 crayons, versus a box of four crayons. With that 64-crayon box, I've got all the colors I could want to use, and my adult audience has seen all these colors already, so nothing's going to shock or confound them. For kids, though, I'm limited to the four-crayon box. But I'm not limited to FOUR COLORS -- with those four crayons I can MAKE any color from the 64-crayon box.
I can make just as complex an image or story I could otherwise, the difference is, by using those basic four crayons, I'm keeping the building blocks simple and recognizable. I can show my younger audience something new and unfamiliar, but they will be able to see how I got there.
Are there any current all-ages comics or shows that you are a fan of?
The cartoons I can't get enough of right now are "Gravity Falls" and "Steven Universe."
Seriously, "Steven Universe" is one of the best shows on TV right now, for kids of any age. Plus, and this goes for both shows, I like that there's a continuity, and progression and character growth with each new episode. There's amazing world-building going on, and while you can see a lot of the influences for the shows, there's been nothing like them before.
For comics, I can't get enough of "Yotsuba&!" It's so adorable, it drives me nuts.