Q&A with Josh Elder

Josh Elder burst onto the comic scene in 2005 when his short story "Mail Order Ninja" won Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga contest. Since then two volumes of Mail Order Ninja have been published by Tokyopop, and it has run as a syndicated comic strip in newspapers across America. Elder has also been writing issues of The Batman Strikes for DC's all-ages Johnny DC line (issue #36 is already on shelves, and more Elder issues will be out in early 2008).

Mail Order Ninja is based on the awesome concept of a young boy, Timmy McAllister, ordering a ninja from a catalogue to help deal with his bully problem. The ninja, Yoshida Jiro, arrives 2-3 weeks later in a crate. He lives with Timmy and his family, obediently following Timmy around like a pet. Timmy is determined to take back the school from the bullies and from Felicity Huntington, the rich and evil student body president. Felicity ends up ordering an army of her own ninjas, which leads to a giant ninja rumble at the school dance.

Simply having a story that involves ninjas beating up bullies should be enough to win over most kids. But Mail Order Ninja also has the added bonus of being very funny. Elder writes with a clever and wacky sense of humour that doesn't dumb down anything for kids. I lost count of the amount of crazy post-modern incidents, such as Timmy reading the very volume of Mail Order Ninja that I was holding. Every character is introduced, Vonnegut-style, with a few quick stats. The books poke fun at everything from youth-focused advertising, to pop music, to the absurdity of school politics. Maybe this is what happens when my generation, the most cynical and over-stimulated, starts writing books; the story is fast-paced and insane and packs in a ton of stuff on every page.

I really like that Timmy's teacher is one of the heroes of the book. Often in books written for kids the teachers are one-dimensional non-characters, or they are the enemy. Ms. Melton is not only one of Timmy's allies, she has a great romance subplot with Jiro.

Elder has a real gift for writing young people. His issue of The Batman Strikes was a lot of fun, and I look forward to more.

Josh Elder was kind enough to do a Q&A with me about the importance of intelligent all-ages comics, writing Batman, and dealing with bullies.

Q: One of my favourite things about Mail Order Ninja is that it has an intelligent sense of humour that doesn't talk down to kids. This seems to be a trend in children's entertainment over the past decade or so (I'd say particularly starting with Disney's One Saturday Morning cartoon line-up from the late nineties). We're seeing it continued in comics like this one and Amelia Rules. When you're writing all-ages books, are you consciously trying to incorporate a "mature" sense of humour into your writing?

The best literature always challenges its readership, and kid lit should be no exception. If anything, kid lit has an added imperative to challenge and educate as well as entertain. Plus, most children's entertainment actually gets consumed by the whole family. Mom and dad deserve a little love too.

For me, the gold standard in children's entertainment has always been "Looney Tunes." Those cartoons are as hilarious to adults as they are to kids, just in an entirely different way, with "What's Opera Doc?" being the perfect example. When I was a youngun', I laughed my little head off at Bugs and Elmer Fudd running around in weird outfits and blonde wigs while singing silly songs. Then I saw it again as an adult and realized that they were parodying Wagner and it was a whole different but equally awesome brand of funny.

We're lucky to be living in a renaissance period for children's entertainment -- everything from Bruce Timm's animated superhero work to Jeff Smith's "Bone" and, of course, "Harry Potter." These are works that will stand the test of time better than most contemporary "adult" literature because they're designed to be accessible to children, but speak to everyone. I'm not operating on nearly that level, but I still try to do the same thing.

Q: One of the criticisms I read somewhere of Mail Order Ninja (and I don't know if this is a common criticism) is that the premise is ridiculous, or at least poorly explained. It struck me that there is something tragic about the modern comic reader's inability to embrace absurdity. In the silver age a story about a kid ordering a ninja out of a catalog would have been downright sensible. Do you feel that there are limits on what a comic writer can get away with these days ? Are you as sad as I am that everyone needs their comics to make sense all the time?

To puree a metaphor: People in spandex houses shouldn't throw stones. At least the premise (Boy orders ninja from catalogue, ninjinx ensue.) of "Mail Order Ninja" doesn't ask anyone to actually take it seriously. Unlike, say, the straight-faced assertion that the Hulk's many, many rampages never generated a single fatality, or that ultra-dense material from a white dwarf star can somehow be engineered into a shrinking device. These critics are encountering my out-there premise as adults rather than children and judging it accordingly while giving equally outrageous superhero conceits a pass because that's what they grew up with. I speak from experience on that one.

However I will concede that the underlying premise doesn't get as fleshed out as it could have been. Thankfully I'm writing a multi-volume series where all those questions will be answered. Other Cherry Creek kids buy their own toys of mass destruction from the JacquesCo catalogue, leading the Federal Trade Commission to order a mass recall of all JacquesCo products which naturally leads to Jiro battling clones of former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. So be patient and all questions will be answered in future volumes "How the Ninja Stole Christmas," "All the President's Ninja" and "Mr. Yoshida Goes to Washington."

Q: Now you are writing The Batman Strikes for the Johnny DC all-ages line. Is writing Batman a dream come true for you? How does working with an established character compare to writing your own original characters?

I'm honestly more of a Superman fan -- and I have the "S" shield tattoo to prove it -- but it's still pretty darn awesome to be writing the Dark Knight. I'm contributing to something much bigger than myself and it's both exhilarating and humbling at the same time. Plus everyone knows who Batman is, which really helps in legitimizing my chosen career path to everyone who expected me to be a lawyer or doctor.

As for the differences between writing "Batman Strikes" and "Mail Order Ninja"... It's much easier to write the former than the latter. Thanks to 60+ years of stories, I know what Batman is supposed to sound like and how he would react to any given situation. Heck, I probably know Batman better than I know most of my friends. I'm still trying to figure out all that "interior existence" stuff with the cast of "Mail Order Ninja," which makes it far more difficult process, but also far more rewarding. I'm actually adding something new and ninjarific to the pop culture landscape, and that's awesome beyond words.

Q: Do you feel that writing for Johnny DC is a stepping stone into the "big leagues" or are you perfectly content to write for kids? How important do you feel the Johnny DC line is, relative to the main DC line?

"Wizard of Oz" author L. Frank Baum once said something to the effect that adult literature is very much a product of its time and place and rarely travels beyond those confines, while children's literature knows no such boundaries because children are much the same across the world and across the ages. By writing for children, I drastically increase the potential reach of my work, not to mention its importance. Kids lit matters more than adult fiction because those years matter far more in determining one's character than any other. There have been numerous works that have influenced me as an adult, but none so much as the bible stories I read in Sunday School or the Superman comics I read in kindergarten.

Of course I want to write fiction for adults, too. In fact, I have an adult romantic comedy called "Love Bytes" coming out from Platinum Studios in December. Still, I imagine that a good portion of my career will be spent writing for children and I'm more than okay with that.

As for whether I plan to use "Strikes" as a stepping stone into the mainline DCU... not really. Personally, I think the Johnny DC line should be the main DC line. Streamlined, iconic takes on characters aimed at a younger audience should be DC's principal focus. The endless soap opera that is mainstream comics really doesn't appeal to me and really doesn't appeal to any kind of mass audience either. Superheroes began as a kids lit subgenre, and its foolish beyond belief to abandon that. Not that superheroes can't be used to tell adult stories, but those are few and far between -- and are almost never found in the pages of monthly continuity titles.

To put it another way, "Watchmen" is a mature superhero work that stands next to anything on the fiction shelf at Barnes & Noble. "Identity Crisis" clumsily tries to aproximate that maturity with rapes, murder and morally conflicted protagonists but only succeeds in creating a poorly constructed, juvenile parody of an adult work. Plus "Watchmen" actually has a proper ending, something "Identity Crisis" and pretty much every other mainstream continuity title lacks by design.

Not that I would turn down an offer to write "Action Comics" or anything, I just wouldn't try to tell a story that didn't belong in that venue.

Q: Your issue of The Batman Strikes had a real emphasis on the younger characters - Robin and Batgirl. Was this done consciously, considering the target age of the readers?

Not really, I just really like the dynamic between those two characters on the show. Batgirl is the super-serious older sister while Robin is the bratty younger brother. Their relationship is made even better by their interaction with Batdad in all his stern paternal awesomeness. They're fun to write and (I hope) fun to read as well. I'm a comedy writer by inclination, so I always try to inject as much humor and fun into my stories as possible. Robin and Batgirl let me do that while still keeping Batman all grim and stoic.

Q: Getting back to Mail Order Ninja, what inspired the story? Did you have any personal experience with bullies growing up?

Did I... I had a bit of a weight problem growing up. Not to mention an acne problem and could-only-afford-to-buy-clothes-at-Wal-Mart problem. Not to mention I was on the math team. And played Dungeons & Dragons.

So yeah, I was pretty much the ultimate bully victim until I got to high school and the bullies grew out of most of their jerkitude and I went out for football and got over at least some of my dorkitude. I grew up, basically. Not that a ninja wouldn't have helped matters.

Now the actual genesis of the idea has a fun story behind it. I was a Film major at Northwestern University, and I was trying to come up with an original film short idea. I had just purchased a lot of old comics off ebay filled with mail order ads for sea monkeys, X-ray specs and Charles Atlas fitness regimens. So I thought, "What if you could order something really out there from one of these things, like, say, a ninja." My friends all thought that was the best I'd ever had, and they were right.

Sadly, we soon discovered that hiring a ninja was way beyond our student film budget, so I ended up doing "MON" as a comic. Artist Erich Owen and I entered the original 20 pg short into Tokyopop's 5th Rising Stars of Manga contest, we won the grand prize and the rest is history.

Q: Why did you choose to write Mail Order Ninja in the manga style? Do you have any thoughts about the gravitation of today's youth from traditional American-style comics to manga?

I like manga, and I read a lot of it. It's only natural that it would work its way into my work. The manga invasion has imbued our own cartooning lexicon with a wealth of new visual and storytelling idioms and I'd be foolish not to embrace them. Plus, I'm published by a company called Tokyopop. There are certain expectations of style that go with that.

As for why kids have embraced manga... why wouldn't they? Kids love comics, they really, really do. And these comics are fresh, they're dynamic and adults just don't understand them at all. It's the perfect storm of awesomeness for any kid.

Q: How important is it to make superhero comics accessible to kids again? What comics did you enjoy growing up?

It's extremely important. Kids love superheroes and they love comics. We need to be providing them with plenty of both if we want to have a comic industry 20 years from now. Teaching people how to read comics is just like teaching them how to read any other language -- it's best accomplished when the student is young.

I personally learned to read from comics, and they've been my constant literary companions ever since. Licensed stuff like "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" plus the standard superhero titles like "Superman," "Batman" and "Amazing Spider-Man."

Q: What are you reading and loving now?

I read so much these days it's hard to narrow it down. I've switched over to trades and graphic novels only, so that helps a bit, but it's still an awful big list. I'll just list a few...

"Amelia Rules" by Jimmy Gownley, basically the second coming of "Peanuts."
"Scott Pilgrim" and I don't think I really need to explain the awesomeness of that one.
"Iron Fist" by Brubaker, Fraction and Aja, basically the best title Marvel has at the moment.
"100 Bullets," "Scalped" and "Criminal." It's a great time to be a crime fan right now.
"Naruto" which is one of the most consistently entertaining books out there. Plus, you know, ninjas!
All things Green Lantern -- Johns is giving us the best era of the character ever.
"All Star Superman" by Morrison and Quitely. Probably the greatest Superman story ever told.
Anything by Jeff Brown.
"Marvel Adventures Avengers" Jeff Parker gives me action, humor and characters I can actually like and respect.
"Fables" by Willingham. Endlessly inventive and willing to change up its status quo on a regular basis.

Q: Who would win in a fight: Yoshida or Batman?

Such a battle would never be fought. They're both smart enough to realize that they're too evenly matched for there to be a clear winner. They'd just team up to fight ninja joker or whatever and then if they really HAD to have it out, they'd settle things over a game of Go or maybe charades.


Now that's a game of charades I would like to see!

Thanks, Josh! And I agree...I also know Batman better than I know my friends.