Shelf Care Interview: John Gallagher

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview, a special installment in our Graphic Novels in Libraries month celebration, is sponsored by Random House Children’s Books.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Sarah Hunter, editor of the Books for Youth and Graphic Novel sections at Booklist, talks to John Gallagher. John is the art director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick magazine and has been drawing comics since he was five. John is also the cofounder of Kids Love Comics, an organization devoted to using graphic novels to promote literacy, and leads workshops teaching kids how to create their own comics. John lives in Virginia with his wife and their three kids. Visit him at MaxMeow.com, on Twitter @JohnBGallagher, on Facebook at Max Meow Cat Crusader, and on Instagram at johngallagher_cartoonist.

Max Meow: Cat Crusader, the first book in John’s Max Meow series, published in October 2020.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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SARAH HUNTER: Welcome, John.

JOHN GALLAGHER: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

We’re happy to have you here, too. So tell us a little bit about Max Meow.

Okay. Well, Max Meow is my graphic novel series and it’s about a podcasting cat named Max Meow. He’s not very popular with his podcast, he only has 12 or 13 followers, and he decides that he’s going to go visit his super scientist friend, Mindy, to have a broadcast and look at all her cool inventions. And she has inventions like a pizza frisbee that you throw and it comes back and you eat it, and self-tying shoelaces, and all sorts of crazy stuff. But what Max loves most is a meatball she discovered in outer space. It’s a giant meatball, and just as they’re looking at it, an evil robot comes to steal it. And a piece of that meatball falls into Max’s mouth. Eating that piece of meatball gives Max superpowers and he becomes the Cat Crusader. So basically he and Mindy end up having to protect the city of Kittyopolis from this evil robot, Reggie, and Agent M, who’s sort of a grumpy mouse, as they try to take over the city.

I’ve read this book and it’s just a fun mashup of classic superhero tropes with a really tongue-in-cheek attitude about some very tried-and-true superhero narratives, which is super fun. So given that, can you tell us a little bit about what inspires your writing and artwork, specifically for Max Meow?

Sure. Well, Max Meow is a superhero and I grew up on superhero comics. It’s sort of twofold, going all the way back to when I was five, because I loved the Super Friends cartoon show, which had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin, and Aquaman. My mom took me to the grocery store and there I discovered a giant-sized Shazam! comic book, and there was just something about that combination of words and pictures that makes comics so neat for me. I started drawing comics not long after that, just because it really opened up my world.

Now, my most recent inspiration for Max Meow, though, came from an after-school comics class that I was teaching at the local elementary school here in Virginia. And when you teach a class like that, half the kids are going to just pick up a pencil and paper and start drawing and they’ll be like, “Hey, Mr. Gallagher, just come back to tell me how great I am later on.” And the other half, though, were completely paralyzed. They did not know what to draw. They didn’t want to put a single line down because they might mess up.

So what I did was I gathered around these . . . it was like six or seven kids and said, “We’re going to create a comic together, so I’m going to draw part of the page, then you draw part of a page and then I’ll write this page and then someone can write that page.” And we created this mashup superhero and I said, “What do you guys like as far as comics go? And someone yelled, “Dog Man!” And I said, “Well, there’s already a Dog Man, so let’s do a cat.” And someone suggested, “Let’s have a superhero.” And another was like, “Add a robot.” And someone said, “We need a scientist.”

And we created this character that went on to become Max Meow. What’s funny is I finished my class for the week, I came back the next week and I thought oh, we’ll just do something new now, and they wanted to know what had happened to our superhero cat. I realized there was something here that was really connecting with the kids and that was the character that eventually became Max Meow.

What a cool origin story for that character.

It’s so neat because it really is kid-tested and approved.

Have you talked to those kids since Max Meow has been published? Have they given you any feedback on the book?

Because of COVID I have not gotten to talk to them. Because some of these kids I was teaching over a course of three years, because I kept doing this after-school class, I got to announce to them that I had the book deal with Random House and they were all so excited and proud—and I did do a thank you in the book to them—but I haven’t been able to really talk to any of these kids yet. I just can’t wait to have a time when we can all get together. I really had planned for us all to have a book launch and invite all of them.

Oh, what a bummer.

Yeah.

So this is the most fun question I’ve ever written for one of these podcasts. Are you ready?

I am really scared.

Okay. If you could eat a radioactive meatball, what superhero powers would you like to have?

Oh, that’s a great question. Well, I’ve heard that people always say invisibility or flying, and I do think flying would be really, really cool. So I’d say flying, in part because as a kid I loved Robin, Batman’s sidekick, and I always assumed like oh, well I’ll learn like ninja karate skills and be a great fighter. So if I added flying to that, that would be wonderful.

I know I touched a little bit on the superhero references that are in Max Meow. Were there any that were really important for you to include in the book from superhero comics you read when you were younger?

Well, a lot of the time I took ideas that, as a kid, even when I created my comics, I sort of tried to turn on their head a little bit. When I was growing up, Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman . . . I mean, Batman was rich, superman was a super strong alien, and Wonder Woman was a princess. And I hadn’t really discovered the imperfection of Peter Parker and Spider Man yet. So I try to incorporate the idea that Max has gotten these powers and is just like, “I’m a superhero!” and his friend Mindy is sort of trying to teach him, “You aren’t a hero yet just because you have power.” So I tried to play off that. I guess that’s played into the whole, “with great powers comes great responsibility” thing. And Mindy’s point is you have to have a plan. You want to do things carefully, you want to practice. And that’s really the big conflict of this story between the two of them.

They’re two best friends, but they start to have some fallout between each other because I think it’s the mistake we all make at times. We all get so excited and we kind of jump into situations, and for a kid, I think that’s really relatable.

So, tell me a little bit about how libraries have played a role in your reading or writing life.

Oh, well, libraries as a kid were really important to me. In fact, I think when I was not working on school projects, I often would be drawing, and there were times where I must have just started doing a standup comedy routine because my teachers all at some point used to just send me down to the library. And I became actually known as the kid in my elementary school that read almost every book in the library, which I didn’t know until I returned years later. I met a kid who basically said he was trying to read all the John Gallagher books because I had signed out every book.

And it’s just because from comics, learning to read through that, I learned to really love to read. And then in the summertime I would ride my bike down to the local library and I loved how quiet it was because the world seemed so noisy to me and I loved to just sort of stroll through and pull books out and look at them. Libraries were always sort of this nice, safe, quiet place for me.

And it’s funny because librarians have really been the superheroes that have helped me and graphic novels the last 20 some years. I started Kids Love Comics with some other comics creators—Jimmy Gownley, who does the Amelia Rules series and has a new book out, and Harold Buchholz, who does a character called Apathy Kat, and he for a while was Vice President at Archie Comics—because back 22 years ago, you had to actually tell people, “Hey, kids love comics.” And what we found was that librarians were already saying this, they were just looking for something to get these reluctant readers to read. I’m just so fortunate because I feel like librarians are the greatest, most dedicated fans when they find something that they like or their readers like.

I kind of want to return to a point you made a little bit ago, which was that reading graphic novels made you love reading, because I feel like that’s the opposite of what we continue to hear now. Even in our current year of 2020, there are still educators who think that graphic novels are bad for literacy, but like you appear to be proof positive that the opposite is true: that graphic novels help develop a love of reading. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that, especially given your experience working with kids who like to read comics.

Well, it’s funny because there really weren’t the studies or the scientific support of these ideas that comics were reading and that they support reading when I was younger. And it was really interesting because even as a kid, I kind of hid to some people that I read comics and that I drew comics and I didn’t know why, and I think there was that inherent accusation that comics were for bad readers. For me, I think it really does connect with . . . I was very visual in my thinking, and comics are one of the only media where you’re using both parts of your brain at the same time. And for me, that was just the way that I learned best. Just as there are some people who learn best through movement. This was just to me one of the seven or eight ways that kids can learn.

When you are not writing and drawing, what do you like to read the most?

My life has been changed by the iPad in so many ways because I used to draw traditionally on paper and pencil and the iPad, using a program called Procreate, is how I draw most of my comics in Max Meow these days. And it allows me to just draw anywhere, but the iPad has allowed me to download books almost immediately and read them in the dark while my wife is asleep because I used to have one of those little nightlights and she would always be like, “It’s too bright.”

So I use the apps to download books, and I really have enjoyed usually fantasy-related stuff, but, not Lord of the Rings, more . . . I’ve just read a book called The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, about a woman who’s lived for thousands of years and how that affects the world. I always love stories kind of like that, as well as some—they call it hard science fiction—where there’s usually some science related.

But at the same time, I’ve been trying to go back and read some books that are considered classics that I had never read, like The Great Gatsby I just read. I read Huck Finn a couple of years ago, and I will say that I have, every couple of years since I was about 12, read To Kill A Mockingbird, which is my favorite book and movie.

Great. There’ve been like a bunch of graphic adaptations of The Great Gatsby either coming out or soon to come out. Have you seen any of those?

I haven’t seen any of those. I have seen the graphic novel adaptation of Ulysses, which is a book that literally gave me a migraine the couple of times I’ve tried to read it. So I’m looking forward to the graphic novel adaptation of that. The Great Gatsby, it’s a very visual novel, like I picture it kind of like a movie in my head, and so I can see how that would work really well as a graphic novel.

It’s funny though, because there are some . . .  for instance, there’s a graphic novel version of To Kill A Mockingbird and I have not looked at it yet, maybe because what I picture in my mind is so concrete I don’t know if I would be able to appreciate it as much. It’s almost like I feel like one of those Star Wars fans who’s like, “Well, that’s not the Star Wars movie I envisioned.” It’s like, “That’s not the Scout that I envisioned.”

Right, right. I do feel like there have been a ton of graphic adaptations that have been coming out in the past few years, and I think each one of them brings out something new from the original material, which I think is really interesting. To see how somebody else has imagined it, even if it’s very different from what I personally see in my own brain when I read a book like that. It’s just a really interesting exercise to me, the whole process of interpreting a text and translating it into visuals is just really fascinating, I think.

Yeah. I agree, and I do think that’s a great point, especially when you’re adding a visual element to a novel. We all see different things stepping out. I actually will see the characters and sometimes I’ll even cast them. I’ll put actors in place of the characters and it is interesting to see where that falls. And there’s one adaptation right now of Slaughterhouse-Five that has come out.

Oh yeah, I read that. It’s awesome.

Yeah. And what I was so impressed with, because it’s such a strange book, us that they managed to add to it and stay truthful to it at the same time, which that’s asking a lot.

Yeah. Well, you know what, John, I think that is about all we have time for today, but thank you for this really fun conversation about comics and reading and libraries. It’s always a pleasure to talk about those things.

Well, thank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking with you.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by Random House Children’s Books, publisher of Max Meow: Cat Crusader, which is available now. Happy reading.

About the Author:

When Sarah Hunter is not reading for her job as editor of the Books for Youth and Graphic Novels sections at Booklist, she's baking something tasty or planning trips to the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahBearHunter.

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