Rashad Doucet is probably best known for fantastical comics like Pax Sampson, or his work on Invader Zim, Rick and Morty, and more. But for his new graphic novel Art Club, which is in stores today, he looked a little closer for inspiration: his real life, and his love for manga and anime.
“Most of Dale is me as a kid trying to figure out a career,” Doucet told Comic Book Club in an interview over email. “Visually though, I like big hair and bright colors and his design reflects that. Also as a ’90s kid I love black teen fashion and shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. So, his look is a merger of that and anime/manga. But for the feel of the overall story, I was heavily inspired by Ghibli films like Whispers of the Heart and all the work by Makoto Shinkai.”
In Art Club, we meet Dale Donovan, a middle-schooler who is trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. That’s when he realizes what he loves is comics, and art — and so he sets out to assemble his own team of all-star Avengers (aka, talented middle-school kids) who can join his club, and make it the best ever. Along the way they run afoul of villainous Vice Principals, the limitations of their own talents, and of course, parents.
For much more about Doucet’s inspiration for the book, including his relationship with his grandmother and grandfather, read on.
Comic Book Club: You talk about this in the backmatter of the book, but it seems like you were initially hesitant to do something more grounded/true to life… What was the hesitance there?
Rashad Doucet: Great question. The stories that have inspired me have always been ones about magical or some kind of super-powered heroes rising above adversity to defeat evil. Not just physically but in their personal lives as well. Creating those stories usually comes easier to me. I like the fun of designing places that don’t exist but are still based on real things. I also really like energy beams and sparkle effects lol. Stories based on real life don’t always give me that visual freedom. But with Art Club I found a way to do so by having the game world they play in as well page effects inspired by shojo manga.
It’s an interesting approach to do what is being sold as a “memoir-inspired graphic novel,” versus a straight memoir. Why not go the autobio route?
More freedom to explore storytelling-wise. An exact retelling would limit what could or could not be told. For example, Dale’s journey to choose art as a career was something I didn’t really decide until I was much older and over various periods of time. However setting it at a specific time, I can center the entire story around a theme, adding characters and situations that can enhance how the reader perceives it.
That said, I love how the book mixes a lot of different pursuits for the kids into the same art club… Can you discuss the inspiration behind your “Avengers” as you call them?
I’m a huge fan of ensemble casts of different backgrounds that share the same goal going on adventures. When Andrea [Colvin, comics editor for Little, Brown] suggested I tell a drama with Art Club I wanted to bring in those elements but in a real-world setting. Also art universities are often like this as well. So, I wanted to reflect that a little with these kids.
Your main character, Dale, has a bit of the manga/anime sense about him in terms of wanting to be the absolute best and having total confidence in himself – but runs into the reality of being an actual kid, with actual limitations. Why was that important, and how did you arc him out there?
First, thanks for the comparison! Manga/anime has played a huge role in my development as a creator and it’s good to see that inspiration is coming through in my work even though my visual style is more cartoony. With Dale I really wanted him to search a bit for what he needed to focus on, then realize it’s always been there, he’d just never thought of it in that context. But of course dreaming something vs actually doing it is very different. Like all the manga-inspired characters before him he has to learn how to adapt and grow to accomplish his goals not just scream it out loud lol.
Were there any specific manga or anime that worked as inspiration for Dale?
Honestly, not directly, most of Dale is me as a kid trying to figure out a career. Visually though, I like big hair and bright colors and his design reflects that. Also as a ’90s kid I love black teen fashion and shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. So, his look is a merger of that and anime/manga. But for the feel of the overall story, I was heavily inspired by Ghibli films like Whispers of the Heart and all the work by Makoto Shinkai. My goal when creating middle-grade comics is to make them feel like Shinkai movies, films like Your Name or Suzume, but from an African-American perspective. With Art Club I wanted that plus a rural American setting.
You have a lovely emotional thread in terms of Dale’s Grandma’s memory inspiring him… It feels very well modulated throughout the book when you drop it in to hit those emotional beats. How tricky was it to plot that out, without getting too maudlin?
My grandma was the biggest reason why I fell in love with comics, she encouraged me to always read, draw, and just explore my imagination. She also always told me to dream big. My grandpa told me no matter what I choose, work hard at achieving it. Art Club and my previous book, Pax Samson, are both reflections of their influence on me. Weaving their words into the story came naturally since it’s me remembering all they taught me. But they were also big on seeing the silver lining in things, even when life throws you very upsetting situations or just everyday hardships. They encouraged finding a reason to be content with what you had even when you wanted more.
Without getting too far into spoilers, you’ve got a great villain here in the Vice Principal, who seems to have a whole backstory of his own… In fact, there seems to be a whole opportunity for Art Club: Origins, or something like that. Is that something you planned out? Or did it get cut for time?
I like grounding stories in as much of that world’s reality as possible in regard to what other characters experienced before our main characters came along. So even when they’re not the focus I want other characters to feel well-rounded. There were no plans for an Art Club origins but I did want Je’nae to have her own story so she didn’t come off as 2-dimensional emotionally. And while the vice principal is the antagonist, from his perspective he’s not at all. The character is meant to represent those who on some level mean well and want what’s best for you but just have a limited scope of what that can be.
Not sure if you have any plans settled yet, but there seems to be a real opportunity to engage real art clubs in schools with this book. Is that something you’ve done already, or are planning on doing?
I used to teach kids in various after-school programs and I’m currently a sequential art professor. But I’m always open to participating in programs for kids and adults at any age to encourage comic creation. Comics are so unique in that they can be both extremely commercial and extremely self-expressionistic. I want to encourage everyone to dive in and see what they can come up with.
Now that you have written something based on your own life, do you have a hankering to do more? Or is it back to fiction for you?
All of my stories are based on elements of my life but just how much of it is set in a reality that’s closer to ours is the question. The short answer is yes to both, lol. I like telling stories. I have a billion ideas. That being said I do have solid plans for one particular idea that’s close to Art Club style-wise and it involves my time as a martial artist.
Art Club is out now in stores everywhere from Little, Brown.
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