Middle-Grade Graphic Novel Writers on Creating the Next Generation of DC Comics Heroes

DC YA Roundtable - Publicity - H 2020
Dustin Hansen, Gretel Lusky, Maca Gil/DC
The writers of 'Anti/Hero,' 'My Video Game Ate My Homework,' and 'Primer' discuss the influences, origins and future of DC's new properties.

This week sees the release of Primer, the latest in DC’s line of middle grade reader graphic novels. Created by Thomas Krajewski, Jennifer Muro and Gretel Lusky, it’s also the third young reader graphic novel from the publisher to center around all-new characters and concepts being introduced into the DC universe.

The expansion of the middle grade line into new IP comes years after its 2018 launch and follows the successful release of a number of titles repurposing existing DC properties including Green Lantern: Legacy, Black Canary: Ignite and Dear Justice League. The first of the new concepts debuted in April’s Anti/Hero, followed by My Video Game Ate My Homework and now Primer, each introducing new characters with a very different take on what it means to exist in a fantastical world of super powers and abilities.

Anti/Hero’s two teenage protagonists exist on opposite sides of the good/evil divide — or so it seems until a Freaky Friday-esque switch causes them to have to live each others’ lives; My Video Game Ate My Homework sees a group of friends brave countless threats in a virtual world to avoid failing science class; and Primer’s hero is trying to start over with a new foster family…and a new side gig as a secret superhero.

The three books bring different flavors to the DCU from that offered by Superman, Batman and the Justice League, intended to bring new readers into the fold. The Hollywood Reporter talked to the writers of each of the three books — Anti/Hero’s Kate Karyus Quinn and Demitria Lunetta, My Video Game Ate My Homework’s Dustin Hansen and Primer’s Jennifer Muro and Thomas Krajewski — about creating the next generation of DC heroes for the next generation of DC readers.

DC’s been producing middle grade graphic novels for a while now, and they’ve been successful — but, up until this year, they’ve all featured preexisting DC characters and concepts. That’s not the case with Primer, Anti/Hero or My Video Game Ate My Homework. How did you all get involved with the initial wave of original concepts for the line, and how aware were you that this was a big deal?

Thomas Krajewski: I was immediately aware of how big a deal this was! DC’s Super Heroes are iconic household names, so when they said “yes” to Primer, I was stunned. I’d been reading DC comics my whole life, and the 1989 Batman movie was huge for me. So to have co-created a brand new superhero that would join the DC universe and possibly go on to fight alongside Batman is an honor.

Jennifer Muro: Michele Wells [vp & executive editor of DC’s Books for Young Readers line] had mentioned this new line of graphic novels to me and asked if I had any ideas for original characters. Coincidentally, Tom and I had already been hashing out the idea for Primer, so I soft-pitched the idea to Michele. Michele really believed in it, so she championed it at DC. And Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman was everything to me growing up, so to me it was a very big deal.

Dustin Hansen: If I’m being honest, when I began thinking about My Video Game Ate My Homework, DC wasn’t even on my radar. I’m a super nerd for DC comics, but the idea of pitching them a new IP didn’t even cross my mind. A lot of this was just luck and timing for me, because I had just swapped agents and I sent my new agent — hi, Pam! — a one-pager pitch for MVGAMH and she took it with her to BookExpo. The first person she showed it to was Michele Wells, and she jumped on it. It was all kind of a whirlwind, so I’m still kind of trying to process it all. To say it has been an honor to play in DC’s playground is an understatement. 

Kate Karyus Quinn: I actually didn’t want to pitch Anti/Hero to DC because I thought there was no way they’d take it. But Demitria — wisely — pointed out that the worst they could do was say no. When we found out that they were actually interested, we were both so incredibly excited. So, from the beginning it was a very big deal to us to be allowed to bring our characters into DC’s world.

Demitria Lunetta: Anti/Hero was an idea we’d been throwing around for a while, and I remember the conversation where Kate told me DC wanted pitches. I told her we already had a superhero idea…and the fact that we could set it in the DC universe was too good an opportunity to let slip by. I definitely thought it was a big deal. I am a huge comic book fan and having a book pubbed with DC is huge

One of the things I really enjoyed as a reader was the stylistic diversity in each of these books — My Video Game doesn’t look or read like Primer, which doesn’t look or read like Anti/Hero. There’s a sense that these are books that really embrace the different readers — or different types of readers — that might pick them up. Can you talk about the individual influences for each title?

Krajewski: One of my biggest influences for Ashley was Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. Without it, there would be no Primer. When I saw young Princess Diana mimicking the warriors’ fight training, I choked up. I had all the male heroes I could ask for as a kid, so seeing how much this movie meant to fans really made me want to create another cool new female hero to look up to.

As for Primer’s visual style and design, in art class I’d use crazy combinations of bright colors, because they’re positive and cheery. I wanted to translate that love for bright colors into a superhero whose personality would mirror those same attributes. Our artist, Gretel Lusky, figured out a way to make it look beautiful.

Muro: For the style of the story, our profession often involves us writing a lot of comedy, so making the book light-hearted just came naturally. Primer’s unique power — super-powered body paints — just seems like a fun idea. Although there are serious stakes, and Primer is dealing with personal issues, most of the book’s style reflects the fun of her powers. 

Hansen: Being the author and illustrator for My Video Game Ate My Homework, I really popped back and forth between designing the visual style of the art while I messed around with finding the voice for the book. I’m a huge Teen Titans GO! fan, so my original attempts were influenced by that style and tone, but the team at DC really pushed me to develop my own visual and written tone for the project. If there is visual diversity in these new IPs, the credit needs to go to the creative team behind the project.

My editor, Jim Chadwick, opened up a wide lane for me to experiment that I wouldn't have allowed myself. I guess what I’m saying is that this wasn’t an accident. Building unique, standalone, visually innovative books is a message I’ve gotten loud and clear, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Quinn: My two oldest kids, now 13 and 10, are huge fans of graphic novels and so they were the ones who introduced me to the amazing things that were happening with middle grade graphic novels. Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier, Nathan Hale and many many more fill their bookshelves. I love the mix of heart and silliness that can exist side by side for this age group and within this format. 

Lunetta: That is the beauty of graphic novels, their voice and stylistic differences. We definitely have to give a shout-out to [Anti/Hero artist] Maca Gill and her unique artistry. She brought our characters to life and made them fun and relatable.

There’s also a shared theme of self-actualization, maybe, in each book; each one feels like an origin story, to use the language of superhero comics, but an origin story that’s as much for the emotional journey of the protagonists as much as of any given alternate identity. Is there something about working in the superhero genre that makes it easy to work in this kind of emotional arc for the characters?

Hansen: My Video Game Ate My Homework isn’t a traditional superhero story, but there’s no doubt that I borrowed story beats from popular origin stories. I think one of the things I love most about Dewey’s arc is that he doesn’t really see himself as broken. He recognizes that he has a disability that makes him different, but he knows it’s part of who he is.

One thing I tried to show in this book is that sometimes our weaknesses can become our greatest strengths, if we’re willing to accept them, and ourselves. I guess Shazam! would have to be my biggest influence here, because it’s more of a “wow, this was in me all along” thing than a “blammo, something changed and now I’m awesome” kind of thing. 

Krajewski: I love superhero origin stories because the hero is generally broken in some way and going through something rough when they first become a superhero — and then that new power or identity helps them tackle their personal issues. And having read/watched a ton of origin stories, yes, it was fairly easy to work in an emotional arc for our main character.

Muro: Yeah, we concentrated on how to make Primer complex, without being too heavy or dark. Her backstory, which haunts her, makes her question everything about who she is and what she’s destined to become. So when she’s granted superpowers, it forces her to really face her inner demons to find those answers.

Quinn: In Anti/Hero we actually followed a format similar to that of a romantic comedy — where two characters who don’t like each other very much at the beginning gradually find out they have a lot in common and that in being together they make each other better. But instead of romance, our book centers around a friendship. The origin story of how they become heroes is equally the story of how they became friends. And getting to have two girls form a super-powered friendship and partnership was a really cool thing.

Lunetta: It also makes sense, in a middle-grade story to have your characters progress emotionally. Middle school is such an emotionally charged time, and everyone wants to fit in while also standing out. It was very important for us that our hot-mess hero and our reluctant villain grow emotionally through the story.

Were there specific guidelines given by DC when it came to coming up with these projects? Perhaps not in terms of the finished graphic novels but even speaking to the characters at the hearts of them? It feels as if each of the three are re-approaching concepts and tropes from DC’s superhero universe from different directions, making them fresh again in the process.

Krajewski: Our editor, Jim Chadwick, essentially gave us a clean slate to work with, where we could explore our own ideas without feeling limited by any specific guidelines, so that was amazing.

Muro: It really allowed us to create a genuinely original superhero and story that stand on their own. The creative process was incredibly organic.

Hansen: I think I pushed to integrate DC lore into the story way more than the team at DC did. I mentioned the wide lane thing before, and that really is how the project was approached. DC wanted to let this project breathe on its own, but I have to admit, it was nice to sneak a couple of DC character Easter eggs in there from time to time. 

Quinn: The only real advice I remember is when we were working on our long pitch and DC noted they wanted stories that focused on the characters and their inner development. This was such a great note to have, because otherwise it would’ve been so easy to think DC! and Graphic Novel! and end up going big on action sequences and cool costumes. OK, we actually did still go big with action sequences and cool costumes, but we made sure that it all came back to our characters and who they were at heart and what they wanted.

Were there things that you were told to stay away from? I’m surprised that only Anti/Hero features preexisting DC mythology, and even there, it’s minor.

Lunetta: DC was very open and receptive…there weren’t any "don'ts," really. DC actually didn’t tell us to set our book in Gotham City, or have a Batman cameo…that was all at my insistence. While the story is about these girls, as a total geek I could not pass up the chance to have Batman visit…and to write dialogue for the caped crusader himself! We didn’t want Batman to overshadow the girls though, so we were very mindful of keeping them front and center. 

Was there any interplay between the creative teams on each title? Did you each know what you were working on, outside of your own titles?

Krajewski: I was aware what other books DC was making, but we didn’t talk with the other creative teams. I think it was important to DC, and to us, to just focus on our one specific story.

Hansen: What Tom said! I really didn’t know much until the other IPs were nearing completion. It was super fun to see the other offerings, and when I got a chance to read Primer and Anti/Hero, I was probably more excited than ever. Just being part of this family is an incredible experience.

Quinn: We had no idea! Although, to be honest, we were so feverishly focused on our own little book it never really occurred to us to ask.

Lunetta: Ha! Yes, we really had no idea about the other projects, but I’m so honored to be a part of this original concept trio!

Because each of the stories feels like an origin, and because Primer closes off this first wave, is there a hunger on each of your behalf to create the next chapter of your particular stories — and have you all checked out each other’s books and feel the desire for a crossover between characters and properties if you do continue…?

Krajewski: Huge hunger. Massive! If Primer does well, we already have the next two books plotted out. DC didn’t ask us to do it — we just love the character and world and, story-wise, we have some loose ends to tie up from the first book, so we have the rest of the trilogy already planned.

Muro: And we have checked out the other creators’ books and we love them, so big yes to a crossover. Though, with their very similar colorful styles, I’d really love to see Primer go up against Harley Quinn — and beat her — maybe in a movie, directed by Patty Jenkins. 

Hansen: After you play around with a cast of characters for a year or so, it’s pretty hard to let them go. I have a bunch of stories in my brain box ready to go with the cast of My Video Game Ate My Homework. I can’t help it; they still speak to me. And crossover, you say, um — yes! Count me in anytime! In fact, I may have done some fan art already.

Quinn: I haven’t read Primer yet, but I will definitely be visiting Barnes and Noble on release day to get a copy. Dustin and I did an ARC tradesy of our books, which was really cool. I didn’t actually get to read his book until several weeks after it arrived, because my daughter had to read it five times first, but when she finally allowed me some time with it, I loved it! So yes, a crossover could be so much fun!

Lunetta: Crazy crossover mega-book? I’m in! We would also love to play with more characters within the DC universe. It was such a fun, rewarding experience.

Anti/Hero and My Video Game Ate My Homework are both available digitally and in stores now. Primer will be released on June 23.