“Yeah we loved working on that idea”, Art Baltazar enthuses during our all-too-brief interview. Already halfway through at this point, the interview prods me into a dawning realization—that any interview with Art Baltazar and Franco would be all-too-brief. Their work dynamic is clearly visible during the interview. It’s playful, cooperative, jocular. They embellish each other. Baltazar and Franco are the creative team behind Tiny Titans, the Eisner Award-winning children’s book put out under the Johnny DC line. Baltazar and Franco co-write, with Baltazar doing the artwork as well. Our conversation is focused on Tiny Titans volume 6: The Treehouse and Beyond, which releases next Wednesday. But it’s been too easy to slip into the past, into a discussion of who Art and Franco are, how they came to be the creators they are today, what fuels their creative energies.
At this point in the conversation, already halfway through, we’ve wended our way into talking about the standalone Justice League of Pets issue that appears later in the collection. And there’s a certain kind of zany logic at play here. If kids are the sidekicks to adults, then it only makes sense that pets would be the sidekicks to kids. Right? Actually, maybe not so much. “Yeah we really loved working on that idea. We did a spoof of, a little joke if you will, about the comic Batman: Battle for the Cowl”, Art continues. He’s speaking about the 2008 event that followed in the wake of “Batman R.I.P.”. Battle for the Cowl that saw Batman missing feared dead, and the heroes and villains of Gotham battle to replace him. Art explains, “We thought it would be funny if we wrote it as ‘Battle for the Cow’. So that I ah…”. Then it’s Franco that picks up the conversation.
“I think that came from my son. Because he was like ‘Dad, why’s Batman fighting for a cow?’”. There’s a roar of laughter, none louder than mine. For just a second I’m recalling the story of the Beatles writing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. It’s never been about LSD, Lennon had always claimed. His son Julian, a kindergartener at the time, had drawn his playmate Lucy spinning in the sky. The diamonds were an ornamentation to ensure the world recognize Lucy as beautiful. And it’s a strange coincidence. That decades later Franco have the same story for inspiring a fixture in his own work.
Or maybe not that strange. Earlier on, we spoke about the guys’ creative process. “When I come up from the basement, I know it’s going to be a good issue if my wife lets me know she heard the laughter”, Art tells me. It’s not a question of the guys having commandeered Art’s basement as their writers’ room. Art and Franco don’t even live in the same city. Instead, the basement is where Art keeps his computer, and where he Skypes with Franco on almost a daily basis. It’s a new kind of writer’s room, one located in cyberspace. And the ease with which Art and Franco bring their audience into complex ideas, long believed to be the sole purview of more adult comics, is a testament to this new kind of writers’ room. “If you don’t disrespect you audience, and you explain the concept, you’ll be surprised how easily an audience can follow along”.
Franco doesn’t use the more demonstrative “kids”, a word that would construct an “us-and-them” condition between adults and kids reading Tiny Titans. Maybe that’s why I’m sneaking time away from writing up the Geoff Johns interview, the PopMatters exclusive with DC’s Chief Creative Officer, to read Art & Franco’s Tiny Titans. Maybe that’s the reason I’m doing this.
Or maybe there’s a deeper reason. Strip away the kids-oriented visuals, and you find scores of pages in each of the six volumes dedicated to the hardest thing a cartoonist can do—tell a complete story in a single page. And it’s not just that each single page is a complete story, it’s that the dramatic tension carries forward from one complete story to the next. And it’s that none of the emotional complexity of the Wolfman/Perez run on Teen Titans is lost. Art an Franco’s ability to communicate that at a level that is accessible to kids but still relevant for adults is nothing short of genius.
Tiny Titans volume 6: The Treehouse and Beyond releases next Wednesday, December 21. I’ll be looking forward to reading it to my nieces who will relish in the energy of Art’s illustration, and thrill in the pure fun of his and Franco’s story. They’ll be on the look out for Raven’s Dad who’s a cool monster, for a journey into the underworld to meet the girl dinosaurs, and yes, even the aquatic adventures of the Justice League of Pets. And when the time comes to finally head home, I’ll be sure to leave Tiny Titans behind. Not that I’ll like doing it mind you, but how else would I get any work done?