Kazu Kibuishi, AMULET SERIES

Kazu Kibuishi, AMULET SERIES

Zibby Owens: Hi, Kazu. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Kazu Kibuishi: Thanks for having me on.

Zibby: My pleasure. I have to tell that your Amulet series is my older son’s favorite series of all time. He was so excited that I had the opportunity to interview you. Here I am. That’s what we’re doing here. His first question to you is, where did you come up with the idea for the Amulet series?

Kazu: You should just bring him on.

Zibby: I asked him, but I think he’s just being shy or something. He’s thirteen.

Kazu: The question was, what was the inspiration?

Zibby: What was the inspiration? Then tell listeners a little more about what the Amulet graphic novel series is about and how there’s one through eight and all the rest.

Kazu: I’ve been drawing comics since I was five. I always tell people when they ask me, when did I start? I usually ask them, when did you quit? I think we all drew cartoons when we started. I’m just the last kid out of the pool, so to speak. I’ve been doing it just out of sheer interest. When I started, I was inspired by Garfield at the Scholastic book fairs. I wanted to get the newest edition of Garfield and be the first one there because all the other kids wanted it too. I read Mad magazine, things like that. I did a lot of cartooning really early on. It wasn’t until I read Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki where I realized, oh, I could do these cartoons, and I can write stories with them that had a literary quality to it. It had the scale and scope of something of Lord of the Rings. Up to that point, I didn’t realize that I could do that with my cartoons. When I read that, I said, I’m going to try to do this instead of just the funny stuff. I used to draw hilarious cartoons and got myself into so much trouble in school. I was in detention for drawing all sorts of silly cartoons.

Zibby: Would anyone else find them funny except you, or did everybody find them funny?

Kazu: All the kids did.

Zibby: Okay, good. Just checking.

Kazu: So did some of the teachers. They would scold me because they knew that you’re supposed to scold the kids for doing things like that. I was always kind of a cartoon troublemaker. I always thought of cartooning as that, as something kind of irreverent, something a little off the rails. Then I read Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It had a huge impact on me. I knew at that moment, the moment I finished reading that book, that I would have to do this sometime in my life. It would be a mountain that I’d have to climb. It had nothing to do with career motivations. I was not motivated by career ambitions to do this. In fact, if I was motivated by that when I started, I think most people would’ve considered me quite foolish.

Zibby: What did you want to do? What were you motivated to do?

Kazu: I just wanted to make my parents happy. My mom told me I was going to be a doctor pretty early, so I just assumed that I was going to follow some kind of path like that. I thought maybe I could take this art stuff and turn it into something respectable. I thought maybe it could be filmmaking, and so I went to college for film studies and learned how to be a filmmaker with live-action filmmaking, be on the set, work with actors, write screenplays, all that stuff. That was kind of the path that I was going to be on. When I got out of school, it was really difficult to find work as a live-action filmmaker, as you can imagine.

Zibby: They don’t post that on Craigslist or Monster or whatever else the sites are these days.

Kazu: They wanted a director. That was the issue. There was a bit of a logjam in there. I ended up just getting work as graphic designer. It led me down this path where I was kind of on the cusp of becoming an architect because I ended up working in the field of architecture as a graphic designer. Did very well. Then 9/11 happened. It was a wake-up call for me. I thought if I was going to have to just go out right now, if the chips are down and everything’s over right now, if I look back at my life, did I do the right thing? I said, no, I don’t think so. I think that I have something more to offer. It’s through cartoons. As little value that some other people might find there to be in cartoons, I found there to be a lot. I knew that I could be somebody who could make that case. I thought if I didn’t do that, I’d be failing the world. Even since then, it’s been really easy as far as career trajectory. Even when I failed at cartoons, I’ve just stayed with it and said, you know what — all these opportunities came my way, movies, TV shows, all these different things. People have been really kind to me all along the road. I’ve had to turn down many great opportunities to stay focused on the one thing. That’s to draw cartoons and comics. I think the world is starting to catch up to that now. They’re starting to understand the value of them in our society.

Zibby: It’s so true. On 9/11, did you have a personal connection to it or firsthand experience? Did you just hear about it? Where were you and everything?

Kazu: I was in downtown Los Angeles working in the — it was, at the time, the Citigroup building, I believe. I was the top floor. I was a graphic designer for Altoon & Porter Architects. Woke up the morning of, and I got a phone call from my coworker and good friend, Ryan. He called me. He said, basically, “They’re evacuating the building right now. Don’t come into work.” I was like, “What’s going on?” He said, “Just look at news.” I saw what was going on. There was even reports of a plane coming to LA. That’s the one, I believe, that landed somewhere in Middle America. That was only in my early twenties. I just thought, you’re supposed to get a job. Everything’s going to line up. Everything’s going to be easy to understand. You can chart a course for your success. That’s the career. That’s your life. It’s safe. It’s all okay. Then that happens and you realize, oh, man, we live in a volatile world. Things can just change at the drop of a hat. I decided if that’s going to be the case, I better put my best foot forward. When I was doing graphic design, it was convenient for me because I could make good money, but it wasn’t what I could produce. Graphic design was only one element of the things I’ve trained to do. I trained myself to design well, but also to illustrate well, to write well as well, and speak as well like this.

Zibby: Yes, you’re speaking very well.

Kazu: I thought I was really wasting something. I felt like I would be really letting down a lot of people if I didn’t get back on my horse. Here I am.

Zibby: I had that same experience with 9/11, actually. I lost my best friend and roommate who was working in one of the towers that day. I was twenty-five at the time. As you were speaking, I was thinking about the impact of the people like us in our twenties and how our careers — I wonder if it’s a whole generation where we searched for more meaning from the beginning. Whereas other people, maybe they were too entrenched in their careers in their thirties and forties, even. Maybe the people in their teens hadn’t even had to pivot because they hadn’t had a vision yet. I feel like all of us had a chance to say, wait a minute, no, no, no. I’m going to bring my whole self to what I’m doing. Now’s the time. Anyway, it’s nice when I hear —

Kazu: — That was it.

Zibby: That was it. I was like, if I’m going to die at my desk, I better be doing something that means something. That was my theory. Look at your books now, your best-selling series, this hugely successful artist. You just had to listen to yourself. It just is sad, almost, that it takes these massive world-scale events to shake us into doing what our calling really might be.

Kazu: I feel like success is really a reflection of a responsibility. I feel like it just means that a lot of other people have recognized that you are taking on a responsibility that you may be able to fulfill, and the success comes your way. Then it becomes a new responsibility to have to deal with it. That’s something that I think a lot of young artists don’t hear enough about, the idea that once things do go well for you, are you doing the right thing then? Are you prepared for that moment? That’s a big one. It’s a big transition from going from, no one knows who I am, to, now everybody’s listening to what I have to say.

Zibby: How did you handle that?

Kazu: I came into it in such a different way because of 9/11. It was so visceral, the impact of the event. My wife was in Manhattan. She was right there. She was having to deal with all the stuff that was happening on the ground, trying to match it with how the media and everybody was talking about it and stuff and how different all the different viewpoints were and realizing that things can really spin out into chaos if we’re not careful about how we go about our lives. Cartoons in general, they’re really best at clarifying at information to simplify things to the point where it could be universal. A cartoon can be read by people who speak any language. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You can pick up an Amulet book and understand it to at least some level. Then you may even use it as a guide to allow you to understand the words that are inscribed in there. You’re going to learn English. I think there’s a lot of kids who learn English through Amulet.

Zibby: It’s almost like hieroglyphics in the olden days, in the old cave drawings way back when, when that was how people communicated. They didn’t even have language. This is the most elemental means of communication there is that withstands time and borders and anything else you want to throw at it.

Kazu: Even the written language, they’re in pictures too that we memorize. I think we often forget that. It’s so interesting too because we often look down on the cartoons despite the fact that they are the most ancient form of communication we have. Maybe there’s value to that. I think often it allows cartoons to have more power because of how disarming it may seem that we continue to say, cartoons are kid stuff. It’s garbage. It’s just something silly. I think that allows people to come to it with unconditional love. It’s an interesting thing. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve stuck with it.

Zibby: To your point earlier where you were talking about managing the success of being successful in whatever endeavor you’ve achieved, how did you adjust to being just you, graphic-designer you, to you with lines-out-the-door-at-the-bookstore you?

Kazu: I was really fortunate because I got to go slow. This success didn’t happen overnight. Some people might perceive that it was an overnight thing, but it was a long night. I was fortunate to be working with David Saylor who created the Graphix book imprint at Scholastic. He designed the Harry Potter logo and worked with JK Rowling on those books and saw the success of that and all the other successes that Scholastic has seen over the years. When I was at the start, he was really helpful in coaching me through it. He pretty much just told me, “It’s going to happen for you. Here are the steps. Here’s what you want to consider.” When I was painting the fifteenth anniversary edition paperbacks for Harry Potter at Scholastic, they even coached me through how I should speak to media and all those types of things. I thought, this is really neat. I was already pretty well-versed in all that, but it was really nice to get their feedback and really professional, ground-level information and very detailed stuff. They told me, “Don’t say this. Say this. Say that.” I was like, oh, okay.

Zibby: That’s helpful.

Kazu: That is helpful.

Zibby: That’s a course that everyone should take in general. Every child should have to take that course before they graduate, maybe even before they graduate lower school. That would be nice to save the middle schoolers some issues. Then I read in your bio that you had some form of meningitis and you were in a coma. What was that all about? What happened?

Kazu: I nearly died. That really helped redefine this part of my life. I got meningitis. I’m not exactly sure how that happened. I’m guessing it might have been something to do with — I had a broken hand. I think it may have been some kind of expired drugs or something like that, the injection from the steroids that they put in for the pain. My guess, but we don’t know that. We’ll never know now. I came out of it having lost a lot of my memory functions. Now my short-term memory is pretty bad. Prior to that, my memory was so sharp that it actually scared people. Amy, my wife, often tells me that I came out of the whole experience a nicer person, less intimidating.

Zibby: Wow. How old were you when this happened?

Kazu: What was it? It was 2012.

Zibby: Eight years ago, so in your thirties or something? Twenties? Thirties? I don’t know how old you are.

Kazu: I was thirty-four. When I woke up, I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t walk. I had to figure out how to do all that stuff again. No one knew it was going on because I was even between books. I was so fast at making Amulet at the time that it pushed us back about a year. People complained. I had to learn how to write with a brain that just didn’t work as well as it used to. Now I have to take more notes. I’m the guy after the event now. I have to take tons of notes. I have to know that I’m going to forget everything all the time. After taking care of my grandparents and hanging out with older people, I see that in how they are. That’s what happens when you’re older. My brain ended up having to accelerate because of this situation. Now I just have to deal with, kind of, an old person’s brain. It’s the biggest struggle now making these books. One of the reasons why it takes a lot longer is that, one, I need more sleep. If I don’t have the sleep, I can’t repair my brain. Number two, I can’t retain information the way I used to. I’m like a fisherman. I’ve always been a really good fisherman of ideas and things like that, but now I’ve got a net with a huge hole in it. How do I do that? How do I still keep the books at the level that they always were at and not feel like I’ve lost a step? It’s really just meant that I have to be more disciplined in my effort.

Zibby: Wow. Did you consider just not going back to it? Did you ever think, that’s it for me?

Kazu: Like I said, I’m the last kid out of the pool. I don’t quit.

Zibby: That’s great. Wow, that’s amazing. What a story.

Kazu: The work itself helped me, though. It’s cognitive therapy, especially working on the Harry Potter covers because I couldn’t write my book at the time. Scholastic asked me to do those on the side for a little bit. I took a little time off just to paint. That really helped to get myself back on my feet. I didn’t have to worry about the difficult task of writing a book. All I had to do was focus on drawing.

Zibby: All you had to do is paint the cover of the most popular series on the planet. Just a little rehab exercise for you.

Kazu: To be honest, it was enjoyable. It felt like a break. I was so glad to be able to take that. Writing these stories is so much work. It’s such a challenge. Drawing it is the fun part.

Zibby: Interesting. When is number nine coming out? Can you say yet? Not yet?

Kazu: I’m going to be done relatively soon. We’re on the long final stretch. This will be the final stretch of this entire series. I’m taking my time to do this right. I don’t want to rush it out. I know Scholastic wanted it — everybody wanted it earlier, but I really held off. I just felt like it needed time. It just needed to marinate. I needed to get in all the ideas that I was trying to get in in all these years. This is one last shot on this series. I want to reread the series just to get to the final book. I find that too many series these days, because there’s so much money and so much pressure involved, a lot of the writers, they kind of lose a lot of energy down the stretch. You’ll often things peter out a little bit. It doesn’t complete itself in the ways that I think a lot of fans want to see it done. I feel that I have an opportunity to avoid that. I feel like I can do this right. It’ll come at a cost to me because I’ve got to pay for my time and just spend more time. I’m not an employee. That’s something that people have to remember. I’m not on somebody else’s clock. I’m on my clock. I’m taking that extra time and putting that extra energy and resources and everything to make sure they get my best shot. It has to be the best book in the series by a long shot, in my opinion, or else it’s just going to be disappointing. It’ll disappoint me. I’ll be disappointed myself if it’s not the best sci-fi/fantasy graphic novel ever made.

Zibby: Wow, that is some drive. You should bottle that up and sell a little bit with every book. Your mom must be proud. How does she feel now that you did not become a doctor and instead, this is what you’ve created, this alternative universe and healed people in a different way? How does she feel?

Kazu: She would’ve been proud of me no matter what I did. She loves me. Whatever I want to do, however I want to do it, she’s there for me. I do this for her too. She would’ve been devasted if I didn’t do art, probably, because she knew how much I put into it. In fact, I guess I could tell a little story about when I was younger. When I was in high school, I actually had to lie to my mom. I told her that I quit art at the time. It was a weird thing because I think she was devasted that I would say something like that. It was actually to protect it, to protect the art. In high school, I was a bit of an artist superstar as a kid. I was kind of a prodigy at this. I was being offered a lot of work early on. I saw that I could now be moved into all these different directions. My destiny was way out of my hands if that happened, if I took on opportunities that were coming my way, so I said no to everything. I told my mom too. She was pushing me into classes and different things and saying, “Here, talk to this person. Talk to this person,” and trying to be a good parent and seeing if she could help me up some kind of ladder. Every time those opportunities showed up, I decided, I’ve got to say no to all of them. My spidey sense told me that I had to become like a turtle in a shell and just say, I’m going to protect the art and the writing and the sanctity of the process of doing this. It needs to be within the control of the artist. That’s why I quit art.

I quit art to go to film school to go put my mind on something else. I went to film school not to make films, but actually to study them. I went to UC Santa Barbara. I have a film studies degree. It’s research. It’s history. It’s analysis of movies. It’s being a film critic, not a filmmaker. I think it was one of the best decisions I’d ever made because it gave me time to absorb information and know how to do that, something that I think artists don’t do often enough. They don’t know how to curate the information they put in their own brain and put into their work. They don’t research very much. They often just practice, practice, practice. There’s so much emphasis on practice, so much emphasis on drawing really, really well. Really, you don’t need to draw really well. You need to draw clearly. You can clearly communicate your idea. That’s a good drawing, in my opinion. It’s subjective, but my opinion is that if the ideas gets across, that’s a great drawing. That’s it. It doesn’t really take tremendous skill to do that. That was something that I had to take control over early. I don’t know how I got derailed into this thing, but I just thought it was something that some kids out there might need to hear, or maybe a mom, maybe a dad needs to hear that about their own kids. You want to give them agency, is I guess what I’m saying.

Zibby: I think that’s great advice. Do you have any other parting advice to aspiring authors out there?

Kazu: I killed so much time with that, oh, my goodness. Just try to involve yourself in everything. See as much as you can. I think there’s too much pressure to succeed early. I don’t think you need to. I think that maybe you do if you’re a professional athlete because there’s only so much time your body can do the things an athlete needs to do. If you’re doing this, your whole life is your career. You can be seventy years old and starting at making art or writing. When you have something to say and you put it out there, if it’s worth its salt, it’s going to be there for probably beyond your life. You might want to spend a lot of time thinking about what it is you have to say before you do. Instead of practicing, practicing, practicing, and putting it all out there for everyone to see, you can do it in your private life. Make a web comic for yourself and for your friends. Don’t worry about people making it popular or getting a lot of money. Just worry about making sure that you are saying the thing you’re looking to say and that you are just slowly getting better at your craft. That’s about it. Your success isn’t really in your hands. It’s often in the hands of the world at large. If you find success, then I hope you’re ready for it. That’s another thing. That’s a whole nother discussion.

Zibby: Thank you, Kazu. This has been so interesting. I really enjoyed our conversation. I will now send this off to my son so he can listen to the whole thing.

Kazu: He should be a part of the interview. Kids, they’re some of my best feedback and editing advice that I get for my books. I love hearing what they have to say. I always listen.

Zibby: If he has any feedback, I’ll shoot it over to you. Thank you so much.

Kazu: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Kazu Kibuishi, AMULET SERIES