When Janna Morishima, formerly of Graphix and Papercutz comics, introduced me to Hamster S.A.M., she described it as a “outrageously silly, slapstick humor” that any emerging reader will enjoy. And her take on the comic is very accurate. Hamster S.A.M. is a delightful read. To hear more about this self-published comic, which you may have not heard about, I interviewed author and artist Dave McDonald.
EK: Congratulations on self-publishing your first graphic novel. Tell us a little about Hamster S.A.M. and the inspiration for the story.
DM: Hamster S.A.M. Odd-ventures in Space! features a fastidious, overly serious classroom hamster that serves as an agent of
adventure for the Secret Adventure Patrol. His mission takes him to the Hamsternational Space Station in a portable potty rocket alongside his newfound sidekick, a folksy field mouse named Fescue. Together they face unusual obstacles and absurdities, such as the Intergalactic Grammar Police, a squadron of schnozz rockets and lunar dust bunnies! As you might have guessed, the main theme is humor; it’s a buddy comedy in space. I wanted to tell an outer space adventure story that I could then connect to real-life space exploration…but more about that later!
EK: You’ve self-published this comic. Can you describe the process?
DM: The first thing we self-publishers do is to get measured for our hat size, because we wear a lot of them! But for me, coming from the world of television production, I liken the process to the 3 phases of producing a TV program: pre-production (which, in terms of book production equates to writing, editing, project planning), production (creation of final art, designing the cover and producing the book files) and post-production (book promotion, sales & marketing). But just because the term is “self-publishing”, it doesn’t mean that mine was entirely a solo project. The best thing I did to increase the chances that I’d produce a decent book was to network with other independent creators and publishing professionals, and for them I am very thankful. It’s worth every penny spent on consulting with talented professionals who are willing to share their knowledge of the business. Early on, Harold Buchholz, now executive director of publishing & operations at Archie Comics, helped provide valuable insight into the way that publishing works, and what options were available to self-publishers for printing and distribution. My editor, Janna Morishima, former Scholastic editor and co-founder of their Graphix imprint, has been a godsend. Janna not only helped me to shape the story and the property, she also kept me focused on my target audience and made sure I took the right steps in order to reach them. From the beginning, Janna “got” what I was trying to do with Hamster S.A.M., and she has become an ardent supporter of my work and me; she is honest, hard working and kind; I can’t say enough about her. Today, many seasoned editors from traditional publishing circles are available to work freelance with self-published authors, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of finding one that is a good fit for the type of book you are producing.
EK: To me this read a little bit like a Saturday Morning Cartoon—fun and silly. What audience did you have in mind when writing the comic?
DM: I suppose that Hamster S.A.M. has the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon because of my television scriptwriting experience, combined with the fact that I spent my impressionable years soaking up the sweetness that was Saturday morning: Bowls of sugary cereal and plenty of corny cartoons! Bugs Bunny, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Super Chicken…these cartoons in particular had quite an influence on me with their truckloads of slapstick, bad puns and visual gags, all of which show up in large doses in my own writing. Those cartoons also contained humor that was intended for adults, and for me, once I got a little older and realized the meaning of the joke (or was told by an adult) it was like I was suddenly part of a secret inside joke society; I loved that! When I visit elementary schools today and talk about Hamster S.A.M., students will make it a point to tell me that they “got” a certain joke or a play-on-words; so I know first hand that my readers enjoy that kind of “inside” humor as well. The audience I have in mind when I write is, in all honesty, me! I still laugh out loud at classic cartoons and so-called “childish” humor today; I’ve never really grown up. However, when I have to be an adult and put on my “marketing hat”, I have to say that my target audience is kids 7-10; early middle grade readers who probably read the Captain Underpants, Wimpy Kid, Big Nate and Lunch Lady books.
EK: What is your [professional] background? Do you have a formal art education? Have you worked in the comics industry? DM: In college I studied film and television, and for nearly 15 years I was a producer/director and writer for a regional cable station in Upstate New York. I cut my teeth on sports programming, but eventually found my calling in children’s shows where I could infuse my wacky sense of humor through puppetry. I have no formal art education, but gained a good bit of practical drawing experience through the creation of storyboards for my TV productions. We moved to Charlotte, NC in 1995 in a search for warmer weather, and I worked for Paramount Parks Entertainment, who operated 5 theme parks in North America. I was the scriptwriter for the Scooby DooÔ musical stage shows and worked as a puppet/costume character designer & builder. Creating design drawings for professional mascot costumes and puppets gave me more practical drawing experience, and about 10 years ago I was given the opportunity to create an educational fire safety comic book. I immediately fell in love with creating comics! All of those storyboards I created for television helped prepare me for working in comics, as they’re both sequential art.
EK: In the back of the book you include an interview with an actual astronaut, Gregory Johnson. Can you give us some background on that meeting was it for research for your book?
DM: Meeting with astronaut Greg Johnson was specifically set up as an interview feature for the book, and it was a thrilling experience for me personally. To meet the pilot of the space shuttle Endeavor- I mean, holy cow- what an honor! And he was so down to Earth (no pun intended), so humble, sincere and not at all intimidating; he is a great ambassador for the space program and was so willing to go out of his way in an effort to get young people interested in space science- no matter what conduit it went through. So for the book, and like the children’s TV shows I had produced, I wanted to include a short feature that made a connection to the real world, in this case- actual space exploration, something that I think most kids are curious about. I wasn’t trying to create an educational comic, I simply wanted to create a bridge from absurdity to reality using my characters; to let them know that there are real people who go into space, and here’s where they go and here’s what they do. My personal feeling is that when you capture a reader’s attention with humor and have them fully engaged, you’ve created an opportunity to gently inform. Then, if you’re lucky- you’ll have created a spark of interest in that reader to where they will want to seek out more information on their own. I guess in a sense I’m planting seeds, in which case I am in reality, “Old McDonald”!
EK: There are a lot of graphic novels out there. What do you think makes Hamster S.A.M. stand out?
DM: The fact that a humor-themed book contains a non-fiction feature makes it quite different than other books on the shelves (and would no doubt explain why traditional publishers had NO idea what to do with it!) But I love that it makes a connection to the work of NASA and the International Space Station, and that I’ve done it in a humorous way. I also utilize actual photographs within some of the panels; composite images that combine my hand-drawn characters with photographic backgrounds. The idea is to strengthen the connection between fantasy and reality- this is pretty unique as well. In addition, the fact that you mentioned that it reads like a Saturday morning cartoon gives it a different feel than other GN’s; it’s gag-driven and designed for maximum laughs!
EK: What other adventures would you like to take Hamster S.A.M. on?
DM: Hamster S.A.M. tames the Wild West in his next book, The Great California Cheese Rush! (Late Fall 2014), and I’d like to follow that with a 3rd volume, but at that point I may have to assess how well I’ve done while wearing my marketing & sales hat on the first two books!
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 3 and regularly reviews for SLJ, LMC. In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics