Talking Animals and Harsh Realities: An Interview with Kazu Kibuishi
Despite its target audience -- middle grade, or 10-12-year-olds, Amulet has a lot of crossover appeal. But Kibuishi doesn’t consider adult, or even teen readers, during his process -- beyond himself, that is.
Kazu Kibuishi knows two things: family and fairy tales. In his most recent series, Amulet, the 32-year-old author-illustrator deftly explores familiar themes -- grief, friendship, and, of course, the challenge of growing up.
Perhaps best known for his first true graphic novel, the award-winning Daisy Kutter: The Last Train, Kibuishi’s first real foray into the comic scene was with Copper, a much-missed web strip about “a scared little boy and his equally scared-looking dog.” Kibuishi acknowledges that the often light seeming strip belied somewhat dark beginning. “[Copper] was reflective of a time in my life when things weren’t working out so well,” Kibuishi writes in the foreword to his Copper collection, released early last year. Grim as it may seem sometimes, Kibuishi’s work is threaded with what he calls “cautious optimism,” a theme that’s grown into a dark, yet brightly tinted kind of hopefulness in Amulet.
The basic plot of Amulet will be familiar to most fairy tale enthusiasts: rocked by the death of their father, 12-year-old Emily’s family moves to an old and mysterious family home. When their mother is kidnapped, Emily and her precocious younger brother, Navin, are drawn into a fantastic and gorgeously illustrated underground world, Alledia. Within the first few panels of Emily and Navin’s sojourn into Alledia, it’s clear Kibuishi knows his stuff. Parts of Amulet are steeped in traditional fairy tale lore, though usually with a twist: fans of Russian folk tales will recognize an homage to Baba Yaga in the end of the first volume, The Stonekeeper.
“Some of the inspirations for the books do come from really old sources,” Kibuishi says. “The story of the Elf King is inspired by an old German folk tale [sic] about the Erlking, a demon spirit that lures dying children away from their parents.
Kibuishi’s influences aren’t limited to the traditional. When I ask him about Leon, the chivalrous fox who comes to Emily’s rescue in a tavern brawl, his answer is thoughtful. “When I was a kid I watched Disney’s animated Robin Hood, Don Bluth’s The Secret of N.I.M.H., and played Starfox on the Super Nintendo, so I probably had this notion that foxes were heroic animals. Foxes are also very prevalent in Japanese Shinto myths, though they are considered trickster gods.” The appropriateness of the figure also figured in Kibuishi’s character sketches: “[These influences]... and the ability to design him with sharp angular features, made the idea of him being a fox very interesting. Other animals, like Enzo and Rico... were chosen simply for design reasons.”says Kibuishi. “I liked the idea that a lot of Amulet’s mythology was derived from a wide array of existing mythologies. It helped me feel like Alledia was at least partly grounded in our reality at all times.”
Reality, while seemingly irrelevant in a fantasy world with anthropomorphic animal sidekicks, does creep into Kibuishi’s work. Instead of the usual “children away from home” set up, Emily and Navin’s mother is part of the arc, as, inevitably, is the parent-child relationship. But in early drafts of the story, it wasn’t mom who went adventuring through Alledia. “When I first created Amulet,” Kibuishi says, “I originally had the dad go on the adventure. He wasn’t the best dad, sort of a deadbeat, who would learn to be a better parent along the way... [but] in the real world, no one truly changes that drastically. The only thing that can change is that person’s perception of themselves or others’ perception of them, but they will essentially remain the same person they always were in the end.
“Ultimately, I felt the story was about the kids (and to some extent, their mother) stepping into the shoes of a great father that wasn’t there. From that, the opening scene was born.”
Despite its target audience -- middle grade, or 10-12-year-olds, Amulet has a lot of crossover appeal. But Kibuishi doesn’t consider adult, or even teen readers, during his process -- beyond himself, that is. “[Teens] don’t need comics so much as the younger readers do. I feel like my books are a bridge to all the great books, movies, and games I enjoy as an adult. I was never more excited about comics than when I was a little boy and I try to remember that when I go to work everyday.”
“If I don’t enjoy reading the book myself, then I will scrap sequences and start again,” Kibuishi says. “For the most part, however, I’m working to create material for the 10-year-old version of me... I also feel like I’m getting a chance to tell him things about the world that he’ll encounter in the years ahead.”
It’s this grasp of the more ephemeral qualities of childhood, of the expectation and fear, hope and frustration that sets Kibuishi’s work apart. And he’s clearly aware of the more esoteric parts of storytelling and myth; Emily’s quest closely parallels the hero’s journey described by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
“The hero’s journey is a reflection of a young person’s rite of passage into adulthood,” Kibuishi continues. “Detaching themselves from their parents and assuming responsibility for their world and society are things that the kids innately understand as something that will come to pass. These stories just provide some examples of other young people handling these situations under incredible circumstances. We love watching other people react to things. It’s often how we learn about ourselves. The hero’s journey allows us to learn while also experiencing some wish fulfillment by seeing the great things that the heroes get to see. I think it helps young people get excited about the future, and hopefully they will look forward to taking on the challenges ahead.”
But while the stories Kibuishi tells are relatable to many, he’s frank about the personal places where they find their roots. “Much of the inspiration for the subtext came from the struggles that my family has gone through and how I was often blindsided by events and forced to react quickly. So the book is like a time machine. I just want my younger self to get a hint of what he might be able to expect in the near future, while also remembering that he should have fun,” Kibuishi says. “My hope is that the books help him be stronger, and less fearful.”