Crilley, Mark: Autobiography Feature
I learned how to write at Hampton Elementary, a public school within walking distance from my childhood home in Detroit. Learned how to write, that is, in the see-Jane-go-see-Spot-run sense of the phrase. Learning how to really write—write well—is something I'll be working at until the day I die. But my first written sentences came into the world courtesy of Hampton Elementary.
I'm guessing it was around the year 1973, when I was in the second or third grade. My parents saved a nice big pile of papers from those days, and even now when I go to visit, they sometimes pull the pile out and let me sift through it.
There are stories I wrote about race-car drivers, men who turn invisible, and kids living in the future who take antigravity pills (or wear antigravity boots, or spend a good part of their lives—in some manner or another—defying gravity). There are the usual misspellings, letters flipped backwards, and sentences furiously erased or obliterated by pencil lead. And there are drawings. Always drawings.
I was the kid who could draw. There's one in every classroom, and I was the one in my classroom. My devotion to drawing was such that writing was definitely a secondary concern. In fact I'll bet I wrote stories simply to give myself something to illustrate. Which is still true of what I do to a certain extent. But more on that later.
I remember one school assignment that I loved. The idea was to describe a monster or some such creature in several sentences. Something like, "It has a dinosaur's body, a shark's head, and tusks like an elephant. It has seven legs and feet like a duck." Then everyone would have to switch papers and draw one another's monsters. I thought it was the coolest class activity ever devised. No doubt kids who hated to draw had a very different opinion. But I would have been content to do nothing else all day long for the rest of elementary school.
I can't talk about my early creative years without mentioning my parents and my two older brothers. My father and mother, Robert and Virginia Crilley, knew just how to encourage a young doodler like myself. They had a huge stack of white paper in a cupboard low enough to the floor that I could reach in there and grab several sheets at a time. There were plenty of pencils—number two Dixon Ticonderogas—and a good, sturdy, electric pencil sharpener. The distance from the paper and pencils to the surface of the kitchen table was no more than four feet, and I took full advantage of the arrangement.
My parents were not artists. Still, my mother had a creative streak and was always making things for us: stuffed animals, superhero costumes. Perhaps even more importantly, she had—and still has—one of the prerequisites for acquiring a skill quickly. I call it "creative tunnel vision." When my mom gets into something, she's into it whole hog, with little time for anything else. By the time the fascination burns off, she has taught herself everything she needs to know about the subject, and then some. I've definitely inherited a fair amount of this, and it has served me well over the years in my writing, my artwork, and a great many other things.
My parents may not have had much drawing skill, but my older brothers, Bob and Jeff, had loads of it. I remember watching them make flip cards, the form of crude animation made possible by drawing a succession of stick figures on card after card, adjusting an arm here, a leg there. The resulting five-second masterpieces tended to feature fishermen getting swallowed by fish or unfortunate souls falling off cliffs or getting squashed by boulders. I was suitably impressed and did my best to copy them.
Bob had a knack for Disney characters. Mainly Mickey and Donald, as I recall. Jeff invented his own superhero: Missile Man. He even made a full-blown Missile Man comic book, Xeroxed copies of it, and sold them at my dad's church. (My father was the minister at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in downtown Detroit, which meant that the congregation there became a captive audience for all three of the Crilley kids and their various creative endeavors.)
For some reason I was the only one who kept on drawing, year after year. Bob and Jeff moved on to other things and, so far as I know, hardly ever draw anything these days. Interestingly though, all three of us now have jobs that involve writing. I'm sure we got that directly from Dad. The Reverend Robert H. Crilley could tell you a thing or two about writing on a deadline. He had to come up with not one but two sermons per week, every week of the year. More if there was a wedding or a funeral.
But for me, as a child, drawing was king. I didn't see myself becoming a writer. Certainly not in those days, and not for many years to come. Writing was something that would creep up on me from behind.
I have foggy memories of the whole family attending an M. C. Escher exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, not long after the artist's death in 1972. I was really and truly blown away. Back at home, going through a book of Escher's collected works, I knew that this was what I wanted to be able to do: make realistic drawings of strange, other-worldly things.
In the fourth grade my parents moved me from Hampton Elementary to Gesu, a Catholic school just a few blocks further south. There I went through a rather scary first year, in which I discovered that all the other students were already doing multiplication and division, to say nothing of their amazing ability to rattle off a bunch of Hail Marys without even trying. Still, I made it through all right and before long was very much at home in my new surroundings.
I was a big reader back in elementary school, but the stuff I was reading is not exactly something I want to brag about. For me it was strictly Mad magazine. I read those things cover to cover and probably picked up a lot of my present-day sense of humor from them. Writer/artists like Sergio Aragones, Al Jaffee, and Don Martin completely knocked me out. The jokes they wrote were brilliant, unique, and wickedly satirical. Come to think of it, maybe I do want to brag about having read nothing but Mad magazine.
The funny thing is that I enjoyed a humor magazine more than comic books, which my brothers read and collected in large quantities (the DC pantheon of Superman, Batman, and The Flash, in case anyone's wondering). In view of my future career, it would be nice to say I'd dreamed of becoming a comic book writer all my life. It's not true. I tried my hand at doing a comic book like my brother Jeff. I created a character called "Metal 8"—later "Metal Ring"—but didn't pursue the project beyond a couple of issues. I was interested in comics but not obsessed. Not by a long shot.
At one point in elementary school I wrote and illustrated a children's picture book as part of a class assignment. It was called "The Turtle Who Lost His Shell" and was about a shell-less turtle that turned out to be a crocodile. My parents adored it and to this day keep asking me to do it as a real children's book. The teacher actually submitted it to a publishing house not long after I completed it (I was only eight years old or thereabouts), and the kind folks who returned it included a very encouraging rejection letter.
By the end of the fourth grade, my reputation as the class artist was secure. But a second aspect of my personality had yet to make itself known. This was what I'd call "Crilley the showman." It came to the fore in the fifth grade, when I took part in the school's annual talent show. Up until then I was a fairly quiet kid, not one to call too much attention to himself. Boy, would that ever change.
For the talent show I cobbled together a bunch of jokes I'd heard (mostly from television, I'll bet) and turned them into a little one-man routine. I stood on the stage in the Gesu gymnasium, adopting the deepest voice my fifth-grader vocal cords could manage, and spoke as if I were a television news anchor. The last joke in the routine—the one that always got the biggest laugh—was actually a rather grim gag, come to think of it: "The world will blow up at ten o'clock tonight. Details at eleven." Still, it brought the house down, and that was all it took: I was hooked on the applause. I still am, and that's why my writing today is, if nothing else, accessible to the widest audience possible.
Late in elementary school—somewhere soon after the release of the first Rocky movie—I began to go jogging with my father once or twice a week. It was a brief period of regular physical exercise for me; I was certainly no athlete as a child. My father and I got into the habit of telling one another stories as we jogged through the neighborhood. (Dad now contends that I did all the storytelling and that he was too winded to keep up, but we have differing memories on that point!) This may well have been the first instance of me making up stories as I went along, throwing them together as ideas came to me. It was an approach to storytelling that would eventually play an important role in my writing.
These off-the-cuff tales were largely inspired by episodes of The Twilight Zone, which my brothers and I watched as reruns throughout the seventies. I remember one I cooked up in which a famous wine taster tragically lost his taste buds. It's interesting in retrospect that I may have gotten my start as a storyteller while literally running down the street. It fits: my stories today are all about motion, and my characters hardly ever get a chance to stand still for very long.
A few years later I moved on to the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. In view of my earlier success in the Gesu talent show, it was no surprise that I joined the drama club—cruelly named "The Harlequins," as if designed to extract the maximum possible amount of embarrassment from you every time you told other guys what you were up to after school. Still, it was lots of fun. There were two plays per year, and I made good and sure I was in all eight of the plays the Harlequins put on between the fall of 1980 and the spring of 1984. I specialized in doing voices. Fake British accents, for the most part, though I did adopt a gravelly middle-aged rasp for my biggest role: Captain Queeg in the Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. I loved it all so much I began to wonder if I didn't actually want to be an actor rather than an artist.
So here we have Crilley the artist and Crilley the wannabe actor. When did the writer come along? He was still a long way off. But I did take some first tentative steps. I remember an American history class my freshman year in which each of us was asked to write a report about an important figure from the Revolutionary period. I ended up getting so carried away with it I handed in a twenty-four-page beast of a thing that must have made the teacher, Mr. Saam, roll his eyes and wish for less enthusiastic students.
Though I didn't do so much writing in high school, I did more reading than I ever had before, Mad magazine notwithstanding. Like so many others of my generation (and seemingly every generation), The Catcher in the Rye was a big eye-opener. The sense of humor was key for me. Here was a book that made me laugh. Really laugh. I proceeded to read practically every other J. D. Salinger book, which is no huge achievement—there are so darned few of them—but they had a lasting effect on me as a writer. Today I still regard his writing style as one of the most instantly likeable of any I've encountered.
Another book that was important to me in high school was My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. I'm not so sure the writing style meant so much to me, but the subject matter captured my imagination in a big way. It's about an artistic prodigy growing up in a strict orthodox Jewish family and how a mentor—a professional painter—helps him grow and find himself as an artist. This book filled my head with dreams of finding a mentor of my own. I didn't really have one at the time, which meant that I just coasted along, more or less satisfied with my own abilities, not really pushing myself very hard to do better.
Potok and Salinger came to me by way of assigned reading. When it was time to choose reading of my own, true to form, I went straight for pop culture: Stephen King. I read a good half dozen of his books one after another, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Stand, Firestarter, Cujo. I picked up a trick or two from him, no question. I think one of the things about his style that left an impression on me was his knack for creating a sense of immediacy. When things get intense—as so often they do in a Stephen King book—the reader is right there inside the protagonist's head. Italicized thoughts race across the page, heedless of punctuation. Sentences get short and choppy. You sense King really going for broke to put you into the scene.
Another important influence from those days—though not a literary one—was Monty Python. I was a huge fan and, like many a geeky Python enthusiast, memorized their routines word for word. Even more than Mad magazine, the Python sensibility shaped my sense of humor. There are lines in my comics and children's books that sound as if they came straight from the lips of John Cleese or Michael Palin. (I like to think so, anyway.)
I was lucky enough to be born into a family where everyone went to college, all expenses paid by Mom and Dad. When it came time to choose which college I would go to I settled on Kalamazoo College, a small liberal arts school where a student enjoys a lot of individual attention. It has an excellent academic reputation, which meant a lot to me when it came to choosing a college. I briefly entertained a notion of going to Princeton before realizing I was about a million math and science credits shy of being eligible.
The crown jewel of Kalamazoo College is its foreign study program. Nearly every student there studies overseas at some point. This was not such a big thing for me at the time I made the decision to go there. I had no more interest in exotic countries than the next guy and—based on my total inability to speak French after three years studying it in high school—had no discernable talent for foreign language.
A great many things happened to me during my freshman year at Kalamazoo College that would later have a big effect on me as a writer. First, though, I needed to see if "Crilley the showman" was really destined for the stage or not. I took an acting class my very first quarter on campus. At that point I was considering a double major in art and theater, such was my faith in my Harlequin-bred acting abilities. By the end of the class that double-major idea went right out the window. It was a very unpleasant experience for me, not least because I realized that real actors have to—gasp —work hard at their craft, not simply strut around the stage doing a decent Python-esque British accent. I slinked out of that class with my wannabe-actor's tail between my legs.
I then happily declared myself an art major and nothing more. It promised to be a comfy, cozy four years for me from there on out. I had at least as much natural drawing ability as anyone else at the school and probably could have got As and Bs in any art class I took. Things were going to be pretty easy.
Then along came David Small.
David, now a Caldecott winner and among the greatest children's book illustrators of his generation, was at that time the artist-in-residence at Kalamazoo College. It meant that he taught a few classes, pursued his children's book career in his spare time, and—for a lucky few aspiring artists—provided extra guidance outside the classroom. I asked David if I could show him some of my work. He agreed, and with that I found about as close to an Asher Lev-style mentor as I ever would.
I always describe David as the first person to give me a nice, big, creative kick in the pants. I definitely needed it. He rifled through my entire life's work in a manner of minutes and declared the lion's share of it good but nothing to get cocky about. "Millions of people out there can draw like this," he said (or words to that effect). "If you want to be really good, you're going to have to work harder. A lot harder."
He advised me to stop copying popular illustrators like Frank Frazetta and go back to the masters: da Vinci, Degas, Klimt, and others. He wrote me a list of them. I dutifully went off to the library and began doing studies. The effect on my work may not have been immediately evident; I didn't become a great illustrator, and I almost certainly never will. But there was something more fundamental about what David was encouraging me to do. He got me to hold myself to a higher standard. To be self-critical. He described it as having a host of little demanding connoisseurs perched on your shoulders every time you sat down to work, urging you to work harder, to question whether you couldn't do better.
This of course goes well beyond drawing. It applies just as well to writing. Again, I had not yet begun to conceive of myself as a writer, but the rigors of David's critical approach would definitely come into play when I finally began hatching stories of my own.
It was a magical time to be in the presence of David Small. He had just published Imogene's Antlers. I got to see all the original artwork when he put on an exhibition in Kalamazoo College's humble one-room gallery. I could have bought one of them—the prices were very reasonable—but didn't. Talk about a missed opportunity!
I saw David and his wife Sarah Stewart dozens of times throughout my college years, even after David's position at the college was eliminated and he was forced to go into illustrating full-time. His advice and his work had a profound effect on me. This was when the dream of illustrating children's books first formed in my head. (Even now I'd leap at the chance to provide the art for a picture book. With any luck I'll one day get that opportunity.) Perhaps without realizing it, though, I also began to envision myself being the one who wrote books as well.
To that end, I did have a teacher who instilled in me a love of words and of writing. Interestingly, he is known primarily not as a novelist but as a poet: Conrad Hilberry. I took a poetry class with him my freshman year. It was to be the only creative writing class I'd ever take anywhere.
Conrad provides a striking contrast to David Small. He is not a creative-kick-in-the-pants kind of guy. On the contrary, I've rarely encountered anyone so skilled in the art of breaking criticism gently. Still, he got his criticisms across. And in the process of writing twenty poems for his course (some good, some bad) I developed a strong sense of the importance of choosing the right words. Conrad got me to think about the fact that words like "fast" and "quick" are worlds apart. Not so much in meaning but in sound—in what they do to your mouth as you say them—and that these variations in sound can make all the difference in a poem.
Allow me to flash forward in time for a moment to illustrate a point. In my fourth book, Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor, there is a moment when one character smacks another character in the head, producing a sound "like a thumped pumpkin." The copy editors, who know their grammar like nobody's business, suggested changing the line to "like a pumpkin being thumped." Well, now, I could very nearly hear Conrad Hilberry whispering in my ear at that point, telling me to stick to my guns. There is a rhythm to the phrase "thumped pumpkin" that is entirely lost in the phrase "pumpkin being thumped." I asked that the line be preserved in its original form, and the copy editors—bless their souls—let me have my way. Sometimes the feel of a phrase trumps the grammatical rules. And when it does, chances are you owe it all to a poetry teacher.
But back to Kalamazoo, circa 1985.
In addition to meeting David Small and Conrad Hilberry, at least one other thing happened to me my freshman year that sent my life whirling off in an entirely new direction. I fell in with a bunch of exchange students from Europe. It was one of the few times in my life—to this day—that I felt a part of a big group of friends. But there was more to it than the joys of having interesting people to hang around with. I got bit by the travel bug.
It started, naturally enough, with Europe. I got the addresses and phone numbers of all my European friends and arranged to go visit them the following fall. Kalamazoo college's unusual schedule allowed me to use that quarter as a time of "career development." I don't know if it led to me developing a career, but it sure was a heck of a lot of fun. I had briefly visited England and Germany with my family years earlier—and hats off to my folks for giving my brothers and me that opportunity—but here I was traveling on my own. In five countries. For three months.
The countries were Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, and Greece. It was certainly a very big deal for me as an artist. I did drawings every day, visited art museums everywhere I went, and soaked up the amazing sights that have been dazzling visitors for a thousand years. Did it shape me as a writer? Well, I didn't come home with a batch of short stories under my arm. But the idea of visiting a new place, where people speak a language I don't understand, where things are done differently, where architectural wonders abound . . . this idea took hold deep inside me and would eventually emerge as the dominant theme of my first writings.
Even before going to Europe I had had to make a decision about where I would go for foreign study in my junior year. Having taken French in high school, I chose the most exotic country available for those studying French: Senegal, West Africa. If Europe opened my eyes to the possibilities of foreign travel, Senegal made my head spin right off my shoulders. Europe to an American is like your own backyard compared to Senegal. Here was a country where men and women dressed in beautiful flowing robes, where the call to prayer was heard five times a day, where minibuses announced their destination by having a boy hanging out the back yell it to everyone they passed on the road. I was there for eight months, and pretty much every day was a revelation. Again, my focus was on drawing, and I did plenty of it.
But I did begin writing in Senegal. Not novels or even short stories, but letters. I wrote to a great number of friends and family at that time. (It was 1986, and the word "e-mail" would have elicited a blank stare.) One of the correspondences I began in those days was to tower above the rest and to outlast them all. It was an exchange of letters with Ian Jackson, a British exchange student who was my roommate during the winter and spring of sophomore year. We addressed one another as "Roomie" and continue to do so even now.
They started as fairly conventional letters. Then I got it into my head to turn my letters into little "books." Cutting ordinary pieces of writing paper into quarters, I wrote on both sides of each sheet, creating as many single pages as verbosity allowed—which, on occasion, ran well over twenty and even thirty pages. (Yes, they were small pages, but still. ) Then I would fold a thicker piece of paper around them all as a cover and finish it off with a silly illustration of some sort on the front. Ian returned the favor, adopting my "little book" approach for his own letters. Not an illustrator, his letters featured photos clipped from magazines and newspapers. I wish you could see them. They are a glory to behold.
Off we went, Ian and I, writing one another as many letters as we could manage per year, each of them describing what was going on in our lives in painstaking—and to anyone else, no doubt very tedious—detail. The style was extremely florid. Why use just one short adjective when you could squeeze in half a dozen good long ones? None of it constituted great writing, much as I may have believed I had a masterpiece in front of me every time I wrote the words "your Roomie, Mark." Still, it was the first time I began writing on a schedule of sorts, and I'm sure it helped me get started as a writer.
One significant thing that happened during my stay in Senegal was that I made considerable progress with a foreign language for the first time. I learned to speak passable French (which I have since largely forgotten) and even a few bits and pieces of a local African language, Wolof. With absolutely no science to back it up, I believe that learning a foreign language is an asset to a writer. The act of juggling words in your head, learning entirely new ways of concocting sentences, battering your way through conversations to get your point across one way or another . . . it's all got to be wonderful exercise for a would-be author. At the very least it gives you a profound appreciation for the natural fluency you have in your own tongue and an inclination to make full use of it. That's my theory, anyway.
I returned from Senegal to a slightly anticlimactic senior year: it's very hard for Kalamazoo, Michigan, to compete with Europe and West Africa. Still, there was one last experience that resulted in some of my first published writing, albeit writing published on a very small scale. My last quarter on campus I became editor of the Index, Kalamazoo College's student newspaper. As is probably true of college newspapers everywhere, most of the work ends up being done by a handful of people. By the third and final month I was writing half the articles myself. It was nothing Pulitzer-worthy (for one article I penned the title "I Like My Whines to Be Read"), but it sure was a thrill to walk around the campus and see people reading my stuff.
I graduated in the spring of 1988. I had just spent four years, at considerable expense to my parents, learning to draw and paint. It is a credit to Mom and Dad that they were all for it when I immediately took a low-paying job that had nothing whatsoever to do with art. I became an English teacher in a Taiwanese YMCA.
The truth is the travel bug had pretty much taken over at that point. Nothing in life seemed so interesting to me than living overseas and learning foreign languages. The further away the country—and more indecipherable the alphabet—the better. So I packed up my things in the fall of 1988 and began the first of five years, off and on, teaching English in the Far East.
I have a lot of rosy memories when it comes to my first days in Taiwan. It really was a dreamlike time for me. The Taiwanese are among the friendliest people I've encountered anywhere, and in spite of my thoroughly Anglo-Saxon heritage, I really felt very much at home among them. I picked up Mandarin Chinese relatively quickly, even learned to read and write a fair amount. Having had no training as a teacher wasn't a hindrance to my work at all. I loved my students and enjoyed my classes. And without going on about it, I'll just say the food, the scenery, the sights and smells, and pretty much everything about Taiwan thrilled and interested me as an artist and as a human being.
Did I start writing about it? Nope. (Well, not unless you count the letters I was still firing off to my old Roomie, Ian Jackson.) But that theme of the young person in a strange land became even more deeply imbedded in my mind. Side trips to Thailand—if anything, even more exotic than Taiwan—drove the theme even deeper. It was going to come out eventually, but for whatever reason I was not yet ready to cook up a story based on it. So I kept teaching English. Kept memorizing Chinese characters. Kept planning new trips to even more far-flung destinations.
After a year and a half in Taiwan I was ready to move on. I was lucky enough to arrange some volunteer work at a YMCA in Hyderabad, India. Charting a deliberately circuitous path through Macau, Hong Kong, Nepal, and northwest India, I set sail on March 28, 1990. Among the few nonessential things I'd crammed into my backpack was a hardbound sketchbook. This was to become my first effort at a publishable piece of work. (It remains unpublished to this day, but no matter.) I even gave it a title: "Across Asia." My plan was to make an illustrated diary of the journey, full color, with all the work to be completed in hotels along the way.
Once an art major always an art major. "Across Asia" was really just a series of illustrations with words dropped in to move things along. But it was writing. And it told a story, with a beginning, a middle, and—when I caught hepatitis and had to fly home to Detroit before even reaching Hyderabad—an end.
One of my favorite pages is typically minimalist in terms of the text. A single sentence at the top reads: "Some Indians seem to have changed little over the centuries." Beneath are two near-identical illustrations of a turbaned, shirtless man, walking stick in hand, standing barefoot with a goat behind him. The illustration on the left is labeled "500 years ago." The illustration on the right is labeled "Today." In the "Today" illustration, the man is wearing glasses and a wristwatch.
So I had finally started inching my way toward writing something. And people liked it. My friends thought I could have launched a successful illustration career based on "About Asia" alone. But my rambling years were far from over.
After several happy months living with my brother Jeff in St. Paul, Minnesota, I took a job at a little English school in Morioka, a small city in the north of Japan. My life in Japan was a far cry from the happy, sun-drenched world of Taiwan. People in Morioka were pretty tough customers when it came to Americans in their midst. It wasn't so much that they treated me badly—Japanese don't treat anyone badly if they can help it—they just did the one thing that "Crilley the showman" couldn't bear. They ignored me. Add in some very long, cold winters (even by Michigan standards), and you've got a recipe for a lot of time indoors, alone. Bad news for my social life. But excellent news for a budding author.
Around 1991 or thereabouts I came down with an awful cold and was stuck in my one-room apartment with truly nothing to do. At that time I had a one-on-one class with a student named Tomomi Kawamura. She wasn't exactly the world's most talkative student, so filling the hour with conversation was sometimes a daunting task. Tucked under the covers with a box of tissues nearby, I grabbed a piece of paper and decided to start writing and illustrating a comic book story. I figured I could bring it into class for Tomomi and she could learn some English from it. To be honest, though, the main point was to give myself something to do.
The resulting story was entitled "The Beast That Ate Morioka." Working at the leisurely pace of one page per week, I eventually wrapped it up in twenty-six pages. It was a simple Godzilla parody, about a boy named Hiroaki Okada who accidentally created a monster. This tale not only had a beginning, middle, and end, but also a full cast of characters and—I still think—a pretty good plot with a satisfying ending. (Much more satisfying than "I caught hepatitis and had to go home.")
Was it publishable? Not really. The artwork was uneven, and the story was suicidally Morioka-centric, littered with references that only folks in my adopted Japanese hometown could appreciate. Go even a hundred miles south and no one's going to get a joke about the Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree (a Morioka landmark) and Kawatoku (the biggest department store in town). As such it actually did get published, but only as a serialized feature in a local newspaper, the Iwate Nippo.
But without really thinking about it very much, I had jumped into my first experience of crafting dialogue, coming up with jokes, building suspense, and breathing life into imaginary characters. Young Hiroaki was not exactly a fully rounded human being, but he wasn't a cardboard cutout, either.
During the two years and two months that I stayed in Japan, I finished two more stories. The first one doesn't really count as my own writing. It was a loose English translation of the popular Japanese fable "Momotaro," the story of a boy that was born out of a peach. Far more significant was my second comic book story, which I began in the fall of 1992. I called it "Akiko on the Planet Smoo."
This time I decided to do it right. I came up with a story that had nothing to do with Morioka, or Japan, or even the planet Earth. I invented a little girl named Akiko—Japanese in name only—and had her go off to a distant galaxy for a series of adventures. I thought it was a fairly standard idea. Still do, actually. Take a child, send her into a fantasy world, give her some friends and a mission to go on, and see what happens. Years later I would be made to feel that casting a girl in the lead role of an adventure story was somehow a radical idea. Well, if swiping your basic concept from The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland is radical, then I guess I'm a real maverick.
Akiko's tale advanced beyond Hiroaki's in a number of ways. The supporting cast I came up with—space cowboy Spuckler, bookish Mr. Beeba, rust bucket robot Gax, and mysterious floating alien Poog—was far more vivid and interesting to read about than Hiroaki and his pals. The bickering between Spuckler and Mr. Beeba that began with this story was to prove a well-spring of comedic possibilities for years to come. They started shouting at one another on page ten and haven't piped down since.
The setting was a deliberate challenge I set for myself. I had to sculpt an entire world out of nothing but my imagination. It wound up as a combination of Star Wars, some scraps of anime-inspired design sense (this in spite of the fact that I knew—and still know—next to nothing about anime), and a patchwork of every children's book dreamland I could lay my hands on.
I got into a habit with this first story that I find hard to break even now. It's what you'd have to call the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of storytelling. It goes against everything they tell you about writing. That you should chart the course of the story from the start. That you should know your ending before you begin. That absolutely every last word of the story must be part of a sleek, well-oiled machine that carries the reader from first page to last.
Well, they're probably right. But I don't think I'll ever completely give up on the idea that you can tell a good story without knowing quite where you're going, discovering it only just before you get there. There's a freshness that comes with making it up as you go along, and though I concede it won't serve you well in writing a truly great novel, it actually works quite nicely in the world of comic books. Sound method or not, it's the way I wrote that first thirty-three-page story and many of the stories that followed, and as such is the approach that got me where I am today.
I wrapped the story up shortly before leaving Japan in early 1993 and brought it back with me to America. I had one last year of wanderlust to get out of my system before finally settling down. I went back to Taiwan in the fall and took a position at the Changhua YMCA, where I'd taught three years earlier. Things were both the same and different this time. I was teaching English again. But I was also creating children's books.
I came up with two books during that second stint in Taiwan. One was a simple picture book entitled "One Day I Got Very Small." There wasn't a whole lot to it storywise. It was more or less a series of illustrations showing what a kid would do around the house if he were three inches tall: ride the cat, pig out on giant-sized candy, etc.
The second book was a bit more ambitious: "Mark Crilley's ABC Book." I took the letters of the alphabet and made watercolor illustrations with each letter constructed from appropriate materials. "I" was an I-shaped island, "S" was built out of strawberries. The accompanying text did the job it was supposed to do, packing each sentence with as many representative words as I could think up, but it was nothing to be proud of as far as writing goes.
Looking back at these two books I did in Taiwan, they're not nearly as interesting as what I'd been doing in Japan. The difference? No question: storytelling. The two comic book tales I'd created had plots, characters, and dialogue. Somewhere along the way I'd gone from being an illustrator to being a storyteller. A storyteller lucky enough to be capable of illustrating his own stories, but a storyteller first and foremost. Sure, I could make good, fun, professional-looking illustrations. But my real talent now seemed to lie in the interchange between words and pictures. I see this in retrospect but was not aware of it at the time. I still thought drawing was what I was destined to do.
David Small had told me years earlier, "You can fart around in your twenties all you want, but by the time you turn thirty you've got to figure out what it is you really want to do with your life." No doubt there are plenty of people who prove a happy exception to that rule, but I wasn't going to be one of them. I was twenty-eight, teaching English in Taiwan for the second time, and sure enough, the thrill of living overseas was starting to wear off.
I had two old high school friends living in New York City: John Walter and Thom Powers, both working in documentary films. I arranged to stay with them in the fall of 1994. It was time to try to make it as an illustrator. What better place to start than the Big Apple?
There was one complicating factor. I hated New York City, and I knew it. I'd been there several times and never come anywhere close to falling in love with the place. Still, it was the illustration capital of America, there was no getting around that.
After one last burst of foreign travel (I met up with my parents for a weeklong visit to Beijing; a delightful farewell to my years abroad), I returned to Detroit and was off to NYC within days. I had scarcely recovered from my jet lag when Thom introduced me to Allan Neuwirth, an illustrator/animator/screenwriter/jack-of-all-trades living on the Upper East Side. Thanks largely to Allan's connections I got a nice long list of people to show my books and comics to.
In the months that followed I got my work under the noses of a good half dozen art directors. The response was nearly identical everywhere I went: "This stuff is fantastic. You have a very bright future ahead of you. You're going to get loads of work. But not today." People loved my work. They just didn't have any gigs they could throw my way.
The most promising moment came when I showed my work to Cathy Goldsmith at Random House, an editor who had worked with Dr. Seuss himself, Theodor Geisel. I wish a ghost of Crilley Future could have told me at the time that Random House would, six years down the line, be publishing a series of children's books based on the Akiko comic I had (along with all the other unpublished books) tucked under my arm on that day. I would have been less disappointed when, enthusiastic as Cathy was, there was no specific job she could put me to work on.
As Halloween rolled on to Thanksgiving and on toward Christmas, I failed to earn a single dime anywhere in New York City. The truth was, on some level, I wasn't really trying. You don't make it in that town without wanting it one-hundred percent, and I was somewhere down around fifty-fifty. By the time I rang in the New Year, 1995, the decision had already been made. I was heading back to Detroit to live with Mom and Dad. Beyond that, I had no plan.
Prospects didn't look very good. I'd blown it in the Big Apple, and Detroit was not exactly a hotbed of illustration opportunities. Still, I knew one guy who had real work he could send my way, and that was one more guy than I'd known in New York City. His name is Dennis Moylan.
Dennis is in the advertising industry. He has worked in virtually every area of the business. Back in 1995, he had the ad agency he was working for hire me to draw storyboards for some commercials. Within a few months I was doing it full-time. This had no direct role in shaping me as a writer, but it did keep me here in America. Without work I would have probably been on the next plane to Korea, or some such place, to teach English again. As it was, I was soon ready to lease a car and get an apartment of my own: two firsts for me.
Late in the winter of '95 I took a short trip out to Seattle to visit Dave Montoure, a friend of mine who taught at the same school I did in Japan. At that time I got the chance to visit Fantagraphics, one of the most respected comic book publishers in the world. I brought in my Akiko comic to show them, hoping they might be interested in publishing it. They weren't. But Eric Reynolds, the young man who showed me around that day, said something to me that no one else had up until that point. He told me in no uncertain terms that "Akiko on the Planet Smoo" was publishable. As is. He assured me that if I mailed copies of it around, I was bound to find a publisher eventually.
Eric gave me a list of comic book publishers and their mailing addresses. I took it back with me to Detroit and chose, nearly at random, ten publishers that were the next biggest publishers after the big guys: DC, Marvel, and Image. I guess I assumed those three were so big, and received so many submissions from one week to the next, that Akiko would probably fly straight into the trash can. Among the list of ten that I chose was a small publisher in New Jersey called Sirius Entertainment.
Robb Horan and Larry Salamone, the guys who ran the show at Sirius, received my submission—three or four Xeroxed pages from "Akiko on the Planet Smoo"—and wrote me back right away. That's when I saw the magic words: "We want to publish this." But then Robb added words that were even more magical: "I would like you to just consider whether or not your material has any potential as a regular series."
In December of 1995, Sirius published Akiko on the Planet Smoo, the very same pages I'd drawn in Japan three years earlier. At around the same time I stopped doing the advertising work and switched to working on the upcoming "Akiko" series, the first issue of which hit comic book stores in the spring of 1996. I was now a published writer—though people don't tend to view comics as writing—and doing it full time, to boot.
I leaped into the task with gusto. Writing new comic book stories was a natural for me. I sent Akiko and her pals on an epic-scale journey, ostensibly to rescue the kidnapped prince of Smoo. But anyone could see the real purpose of the mission was to throw my characters into one crisis after another, dreaming up as many bizarre locales and dire predicaments as I could. I took my memories of travel to distant lands—everywhere from Europe to Japan to India—and used them as inspiration for Akiko's voyage. Foreign language quickly became a recurring theme, as did exotic foods and unusual modes of transportation.
The sort of writing one learns to do in comics is shaped by the format. Individual issues of "Akiko" are twenty-four pages long, with only twenty-two of those pages devoted to story. I have a penchant for writing little three-or four-page backup features, thus reducing the number of pages even further. The result is stories that move. Really move. There is a need for action—or at least a powerful dramatic moment—in every issue. A single action sequence can chew up a lot of pages, so the space for protracted dialogue is severely limited. Early on I established a rhythm of quiet dialogue scenes interspersed with action scenes. I also tried, whenever possible, to end an issue on a cliff-hanger moment, thus insuring interest in the next issue.
Comic book writing is shaped to an even greater degree by the visual aspect of the medium. In my case, especially, the desire to create exciting sights drove the story. I often moved the story in one direction or another simply to introduce a spectacular piece of architecture or a hideous creature. I wanted people to see that this was an interesting story as soon as they opened the cover and started flipping through.
All these habits, born out of the comic book medium, became an integral part of my writing style. I don't know if I'll ever be able to shake them. When I sit down to write I can only go so long before I feel the need to throw the reader into a torrent of motion and peril. The result, happily, is writing well suited for the reluctant reader. Anyone opening one of my books can rest assured there will be a lot of action before long. If you didn't get any this chapter, you're bound to get it the next. That's the kind of writer you become when you get your start in comic books. Well, it's the kind I became, anyway.
My "Akiko" comics didn't exactly take the world by storm. Still, they found a dedicated core of readers, among them folks with considerable influence. During its first years in publication, the series was nominated for a flurry of Eisner awards—the comic book industry equivalent of the Oscars. The comics magazine Wizard dubbed it one of the best all-ages comics of the day. Worthy of these accolades or not, I certainly produced a lot of work my first few years out of the gate. Early on I managed to write and illustrate as many as ten issues per year.
The most important thing that happened to me during these years had nothing whatsoever to do with comics. In early 1997 I met one of the kindest and most loving people in the world: my wife, Miki Hirabayashi. Born and raised in Japan, Miki was studying at a local community college where I had started an informal social group for American and foreign students. Miki and I were so alike in so many ways, it was as if we'd known one another all our lives. We got married just a little over a year after we met. And a little over a year after that, Miki gave birth to a boy: Matthew. The irony is it took a Japanese woman to make me finally settle down in my own home country (to this day she has more friends in Michigan than I do). At the same time, the fact that her family remains in Japan provides us with an excuse for planning a trip there once every few years.
My friend Dennis says I must have the biggest lap in history, because things keep falling into it. That was certainly the case in 1998, when—after my comic book had reached its twenty-fifth issue, or thereabouts—I got an e-mail from Ken Tucker, critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He told me the magazine wanted to put me on that year's "It List" of the one-hundred most creative people in entertainment.
This stroke of good luck was more than just a big ego boost. It brought my comic book to the attention of two kind souls at Random House Children's Books: Lawrence David and Andrew Smith. Thanks to them, Random House decided to take a gamble on turning my "Akiko" comics into a series of children's books. I got to work on the first book in the fall of 1998.
Lawrence, the first of four editors I'd have in the years to come, was the perfect guide as I began the process of writing my first young-reader novel. I should have been intimidated by the task before me, but I was too ignorant for that. I jumped into it with the fearlessness of someone who has no idea what he's doing.
Random House asked me to divide my first eighteen-issue comic book story—a sprawling saga called "The Menace of Alia Rellapor"—into four parts, one part for each novel. So I had a very clear blueprint for each book, but there was one big catch. The first three books had to make readers hungry for the next installment without leaving them feeling stranded by a book without an ending. I did my best to walk a fine line between the two, leaning, no doubt, toward the to-be-continued aspect inherent in the tale.
The comic book writing had provided me with most of the skills I needed to put together a decent first book. The biggest challenge was taking this extremely visual tale and putting it across almost entirely with words. There were illustrations, of course, but I tried to write as if they weren't there, as if I were creating an audiobook version of the story. Thus the huge, towering Great Wall of Trudd had to be made huge and towering through adjectives and verbs, not by way of a flashy double-page spread as I'd done in the comic.
The first novel took its title from the comic book story that had started it all: Akiko on the Planet Smoo. Its arrival in bookstores early in the year 2000 was a big turning point in my life. I'd written my first book, and—unlike my comics—it was on the shelves in mainstream bookstores all across the country. There's nothing quite like that first hardcover in your hands. It's definitely one of life's dream-come-true moments for an aspiring author.
The "Akiko" novels did a wonderful thing for me. They brought me back to the readership I had originally been aiming for: children. The modern-day world of comics is so adult in nature that my "Akiko" comic books have always been read more by adults than by children. With the debut of the novels, I began to get letters and e-mails from young readers and their parents to a degree I never had before. Even better, I began to hear from teachers using the books in their classes.
In 2001 I began to visit schools and libraries throughout Michigan and beyond. For this purpose I developed a presentation in which I do drawings at an easel and—getting back in touch with my inner Harlequin—ham it up with readings from my books. This unexpected dimension of being an author has proven to be one of my favorite aspects of the job. Writing and illustrating are such solitary activities, it's truly a delight to get out and meet young readers face to face.
Meanwhile, the "Akiko" comic books remain an exciting outlet for my more experimental ideas. In one of my latest tales, The Battle of Boach's Keep, I allowed Spuckler to be the main character and thrust him into a thorny ethical dilemma involving his ancestral home and unresolved issues with his long-dead father. In this case, having an older readership freed me up to try a somewhat edgier style of storytelling. In the summer of 2003 Sirius Entertainment and I celebrated the fiftieth issue of Akiko, which—in today's comic book market—represents greater longevity than any of us could have initially hoped for.
Another milestone for me as an author is due in June of 2004. Billy Clikk: Creatch Battler will be published, launching my first non-"Akiko" book series. It tells the story of a boy who discovers that his parents are members of a secret monster-battling society. It will be, I hope, just the first of many projects in the years to come. With any luck Akiko will continue in both comic and book form, but I look forward to the opportunity to tell different kinds of stories and explore many new worlds in the years ahead.
It has been a little over eight years since I first began supporting myself—and soon thereafter, a family—as a full-time writer and illustrator. I've been blessed. Very few people are lucky enough to do something creative and get paid for it. On one level simply getting by in this way is all the achievement I'll ever need.
The funny thing is I don't see myself as a real writer or a real artist. I never have. I don't know if there's a good word for what I am. Maybe I'll have to invent one.
I can say this, though. When I look at myself and my work I see three different people I've been over the years, three different people I still am deep down inside: the guy goofing around in a foreign country, looking for something really cool around the very next corner; the student of Conrad Hilberry, struggling to find just the right word; and perhaps most of all, the kid up on stage in the school auditorium, telling jokes and smiling from ear to ear whenever people laugh.