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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Sarah Hunter talks to Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson, creators of Barb and the Ghost Blade, the sequel to Barb the Berzerker.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Dan Abdo and Jason Patterson are longtime partners, best friends, and co-creators of the animated comedy series Rocket Monkeys. Their credits also include developing shows for Disney, Sesame Workshop, Fox, and Nickelodeon, not to mention directing lots and lots of animated commercials.
Sarah Hunter: Today we are here to talk about the indefatigable Barb! Dan and Jason, tell me a little bit about your inspiration for Barb.
Dan: That was such a great intro. Thanks so much. Thanks for having us.
Jason: Yeah. Indefatigable, indefatigable. That’s such a great word. I wish I could say it.
Jason: Indefatigable. Oh, man. That’s awesome.
Sarah: It just means tireless, which I would say is true about Barb.
Dan: A hundred percent. I feel like that’s spot on. Jason and I, we’re always coming up with ideas, we’re always trying to figure out what the next story is we’re going to tell and what medium we’re going to tell it in. And for a long time we were coming up with show and film ideas. And we decided that we wanted to do something that we could just make on our own. That we didn’t have to have a crew. Didn’t have to ask a bunch of permission. And so we started throwing ideas around and Barb developed out of that. We knew that we wanted to do something in the fantasy, swords-and-sorceries world. We knew that we wanted to have this female protagonist who was this total badass. And yeah, it just developed from there.
Jason: I feel like it started with a sketch of this character, and she had wild hair and she had a bandanna and she had a sword, and that was all we really knew about her. Like Dan said, we love to play in fantasy and genre. And I feel we bumped into Barb and we just followed her into this amazing world and it just kept unfolding. It was a really fun, creative experience where I think we went into writing these series without a huge master plan or a really super considered idea. We were just following Barb and all these other characters. Her world just started unfolding before us, and it was really super exciting and fun and also scary.
Sarah: The sword-and-sorcery tropes are all over these books. And I’m wondering if you can speak to some of the stories you were directly referencing, or anything that you wanted to leave behind from the sword-and-sorcery genre.
Dan: We grew up reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and loving Conan the Barbarian and Gru and all that stuff. I remember always when I was a kid on the playground being like, “Okay. I’m going to be this character and you’re going to be that character. I’m going to be Michaelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or you’re going to be Hans Solo from Star Wars.” Jason and I both have kids and have daughters, and I remember we were like, “Who are our kids, who are our daughters going to be like?”
And so we were like, “Okay. Let’s create this Barb character, who, she’s wild. She’s got this crazy energy in her. She makes mistakes, but she’s always trying to do the right thing.” There was all these things that we knew we wanted in a hero that you see in those fantasy stories. And we just tried to infuse Barb with as much of that cool stuff as we could.
Jason: And I think one of the touchstones . . . we were talking a lot about He-Man, and it was such a great animated kid show when we were growing up. But there’s a real awesome message in it, which was, He-Man grabs his sword and he says, “I have the power.” And so I think part of wanting to have this strong female character in the story is we wanted girls out there to have that kind of character say, “I have the power,” which feels like a really cool thing to be able to tell a kid.
Dan and I have been to some conventions and stuff and when we’re signing our Barb books we usually say, “You have the power,” whoever it is. Because I think that’s something that kids are always told they don’t have a lot of power. They have to follow rules. They have no money. They can’t get rides anywhere. There’s a lot of stuff they can’t do. I remember it was fun for me as a kid liking He-Man and being like, “Oh, my gosh, what if I had that sword? I would have the power.” So to try to channel a little of that into our kids’ generation seems like a really cool thing to be able to do.
Sarah: Yeah. And that definitely comes to the fore in Barb and the Ghost Blade. But I won’t spoil the ending. I’ll just leave a tantalizing little hint out there, but that’s an important plot point. Tell me a little bit about the origin story of your collaboration, because you’ve worked on lots and lots of projects together.
Jason: Dan and I grew up in Montpelier, Vermont together, and we started hanging out in the back of, it was called the Independent Art Room. It was behind the regular art room and it was basically just a closet with no windows. I think there was a window they boarded up in the ‘70s for energy reasons. I was a nerdy dork. I was in the student council and Dan had these super baggy pants and he was a skateboarder. But we both loved Ninja Turtles and we loved comics, and we would just hang out back there and draw. And it became this little secret escape pod for us in the midst of high school and growing up, that we could just hang out and sit elbow-to-elbow and just draw all these silly fun worlds, I guess, that we got to share and inhabit.
Dan: We were variations of nerdy dorks. We were two very distinct variations of nerdy dorks.
Jason: Yeah. I was dorkier than Dan. Dan was way less dorky than me. He could skateboard. I could not skateboard.
Dan: Hold on, I think that could be contested. But yeah, I remember we became fast friends. There was a boom box back there that kids would bring their cassettes in, their mixed tapes. And we’d play music back there and draw comics and come up with our own comics. And it did feel like it was this special place where you could just let your free flag fly and do whatever you want. And we had an awesome art teacher. We had a great art teacher who was really encouraging and really supported us and championed us.
Jason: After we created Barb, we realized that our art teacher had wild hair and a sparkle in her eye and her name was Barb. So I think we have a shared collective unconscious, and Barb definitely came out of that too, I think.
Sarah: That’s very delightful. I was about to ask, are there any lingering things from those early collaborating years that make their way into your later work? But you just answered that question for me: it’s Barb!
Dan: It was so funny. We didn’t even know it. I remember Jason pointed it out, I don’t know, months after the first Barb book was published. And he was like, “Oh, my gosh. Is this just like Barb, our old teacher?” And I was like, “Holy smokes. You’re right.” It was just, she was just this character in our subconscious. She was really special. She was a really special teacher, and she was similar in a lot of ways where she just had this crazy energy. And yeah, the art room . . . we went to a public high school. It wasn’t anything fancy, but the art room felt like this place where you could figure stuff out, which I think is really important for kids. I think it’s really important for kids to have a space where they can go and try stuff out and explore and express themselves.
Jason: One thing that was so cool about her, too, was that she really took art seriously, which really made it seem special. Because there’s the football team, that’s serious; math is serious; science, that’s how you make stuff. Art can be seen as just something to fill 45 minutes, but for her it was really serious. She’d have models come in and we would draw them. She’d always have still lifes set up. She had this huge kiln. She was always trying to throw different media in front of people, and she really took it really seriously, which made it really special.
Sarah: That’s so cool. That’s a really good segue to my next question. Which is, most of, I think the vast majority of your projects are all very silly and fun. And I’m wondering if you can talk about why you think fun is so important for, obviously right for kids, but I think it’s important for adults too. Can you talk about the role of fun and why it’s important?
Dan: Silly means a lot to us and we believe there’s a real deficit of silliness in the world and we’re trying to add some more to it. And I don’t know, it just feels like it’s really easy to let the weight of the world weigh you down, and a little respite from that, a little bit of silliness, a little bit of absurdity, I love that. I love seeing that in other art and writing. And so if we can bring a little bit of that to the table it just feels like we’re on the right path.
Jason: Yeah, totally. It’s like silly pushes against the sadness of the world, I guess. The stuff that Dan and I like the most there’s always a thread of silliness in it. Like Princess Bride . . . it’s this dark, sad world, but the characters are so silly and buoyant that it really pushes against that. And it creates a great tension in the work, I think, when it’s a little bit dark, but then there’s someone who’s making fun of the darkness a little bit, I think.
Dan: Yeah. I would say, I feel Jason is the master of that too. I feel my nature... I don’t know if you’ve seen any of our Blue, Barry and Pancakes books too, but there’s a character named Barry, he’s this frog and he’s real anxious. He’s got lots of worries and is really concerned about lots of stuff. And I feel if I was left to my own devices that would be me all the time. But to have silliness thrown in there with Pancakes or Pork Chop, or all these other crazy characters, Jason really, I feel brings that to the table. And it’s like, “Ah, just a little bit of light.” You know what I mean? It’s like you’re shining a light into the basement. You need that a little bit; you can’t worry about everything all the time.
Jason: But I feel like we do have one real—that’s really sweet, Dan—but I feel like we do have one worry hat that we take turns wearing. And sometimes I’ll put it on and be like, “This is never going to work. This is impossible.” And it’s totally to Dan... Dan championed us to do Blue, Barry and Pancakes. I feel like sometimes one of us has the glowing sword and is leading the way through the darkness and the other one is like, “We’re never going to make it,” and then we switch roles.
Dan: There were literally no more snacks in this backpack!
Jason: Yeah. It’s time to turn back.
Sarah: It also seems like, thinking a little bit about the freedom of the art classroom, that being playful and having fun and being silly gives you more leeway to experiment and try new stuff without the weight or pressure of excelling on your shoulders. I feel like that’s important too, for a lot of kids, especially kids who are looking at art and looking at comics and feeling inspired to draw comics, knowing that they don’t have to do it really hard right away, I think is really freeing.
Jason: I think that was something that Dan and I took forever to understand. But when we were drawing the first Barb comic, it wasn’t perfect. It was a little scribbly and a little weird and stuff wasn’t perfect, but it was a thing that we could make. And at a certain point through we’re like, “This is how we’re going to just draw this. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to look like this.” And that was great. When we’re pitching those shows to executives or something, you show them something and immediately all of these reasons why it doesn’t work. And when we show stuff to kids, kids have the exact opposite reaction, which is so cool. Kids lean in and they’re like, “This is amazing. I want to draw this.” They’re instantly on board and excited. And there’s like a magic in that, that I feel as an artist you can be in danger of losing. You should never just doubt yourself. I think just jumping in unprepared is a great start.
Sarah: I feel like kids are really good at knowing whether or not you’re having fun too. And I think that’s something that comes out in your books, is that you can tell that you’re having fun when you’re making them, and I think that adds to the silliness on the page.
Dan: And I’m so excited to hear you say that because I feel like one thing that we’re trying to do, or that would be so awesome if it happened, is that when kids read our stories, if they felt like they were spending time with friends, that’s the pinnacle for me. I get to spend all day drawing these stories with my best friend and I want kids to be able to pick up one of these books and settle into hanging out with their friends again. That’s totally how I felt when I was a kid reading comics. Picking up a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic or picking up Calvin & Hobbes, it feels like you’re settling in with friends. So yeah, that’s the goal.
Sarah: Well, that’s all the time we have for today. It was really great talking to you about comics and fun and art, and your very excellent art teacher. And thanks also to our sponsor, Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing for making this podcast possible. That’s all for now. Hope you’re getting ready to read something wonderful.
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