Dave Roman Is Bringing Back Magic With Unicorn Boy

Dave Roman Unicorn Boy

Dave Roman is probably best known for his Astronaut Academy series at this point. But if you go back a few years to one of his earlier series, Teen Boat, you’ll know he has a knack for stories about kids dealing with their issues by turning into other stuff. In that case it was a teen who turns into a boat. And now, he’s brought on Unicorn Boy, the first volume in an all-ages series about a kid who starts growing a unicorn horn, and gains Sailor Moon-esque magical powers.

“I never fully wrapped my brain around books and media being targeted more for one gender over another,” Roman told Comic Book Club over email. “That was something I kind of had to learn and was reinforced after college when I got a job at Nickelodeon. I was really into the shows that were equally for boys and girls and in some ways gender indifferent. That always seemed like the ideal to me. And with Unicorn Boy I was actively mixing all these influences to make something I hoped could be fun and escapist entertainment for everyone.”

Unicorn Boy is in stores now, so you can snag a copy yourself. But to learn more about the graphic novel, as well as a little bit about the sequel, read on.

Comic Book Club: I love how this book starts pretty simply, and just keeps adding more and more details as you widen out the world… Was there a point when it was just going to be about a boy with a unicorn horn? Or was the plan always to create this fantastical setup for a potential series?

Dave Roman: Ha! It was actually the opposite of what you describe! I was obsessed with a show called Jim Henson’s The Storyteller where John Hurt would retell these classic fables and fairytales in new and funky ways. I’ve always wanted to do something like that in my own silly voice. So I had all these scraps of ideas and characters and was building a framing device for them when one of those characters just started begging to be its own thing. And after doing three books in the Astronaut Academy series where I was constantly alternating between the narration of 10-15 different kids it felt exciting to just do a straight-up hero’s journey kind of tale.

Did the book start with the germ of “boy with a unicorn horn”? Or was there some other inspiration?

Yeah, pretty much! It was doodle in my sketchbook that just made sense. Of course, as I started fleshing things out, I became a bit more conscious of how unicorns are marketed.  Growing up I was really into cartoons like Jem and the Holograms, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite, Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura just as equally as everything Star Wars, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Digimon. I never fully wrapped my brain around books and media being targeted more for one gender over another. That was something I kind of had to learn and was reinforced after college when I got a job at Nickelodeon. I was really into the shows that were equally for boys and girls and in some ways gender indifferent. That always seemed like the ideal to me. And with Unicorn Boy I was actively mixing all these influences to make something I hoped could be fun and escapist entertainment for everyone.     

I will say I have to take issue with your montage sequence showing hats that don’t cover the horn, I feel like you played fast and loose with that because there are definitely hats that would cover a unicorn horn. Care to respond???

Ha! Well, I say that no hat “was the right fit.” So, in many ways I mean, they don’t fit his personality. Like technically, I can wear a leather jacket…but can I actually pull it off and feel confident about it? Arguably not. The scene in the book where Brian is trying on the different hats is loosely inspired by memories of going shopping for clothes with my mom… Even as a I was very sensitive about what clothes fit my “vibe” despite whatever trends were popular at the time.

Brian and Avery are our two main characters here… What makes them unique? And why was their friendship important as the crux of the book?

Since Brian starts off shy and timid I wanted to pair him with a friend who would contrast that with a big personality, lots of self-confidence and fearlessness. Avery is the friend we all could use when our lives are turned upside down. They accept Brian’s radical transformation without missing a beat. And as the story progresses, we learn that ever since they were little, Avery has been a bit of a protector for Brian. So, when Avery is captured by the evil shadow monsters, Brian knows he really needs to channel some of Avery’s can-do energy to face his fears in order to save the day.

Unicorn Boy cover

I love the flashbacks throughout to how they met each other, and how their friendship grew… In particular, the comic book selection sequence felt very real and grounded. Was that based on an actual experience?

I wish the scene in the super cool basement of nostalgic treasures was real! I guess the spirit of it is. I remember going over to other kids houses and just being impressed by the toys they had, or funky disco basements their parents set up. I was trying to capture that magical time when you are just getting to know someone else for the first time. For me a lot of bonding happens by way of mutual enthusiasm.  

Mild spoiler: there’s a zine in here called Super Veggie Dumpling, which I was dismayed to find doesn’t seem to be real… Any plans for a spinoff series?

I would love to draw a Super Veggie Dumpling mini-comic that could be a bonus thing for people at comic conventions and stuff. That would be rad. I hope I can carve out some time to do it! Wouldn’t it be funny if Super Veggie Dumpling ends up being more popular than the book it initially existed in?

You’ve also got a magical talking muffin. Can I ask: what flavor of muffin is he?

It’s probably best to leave it up to the imagination. I know people have very strong feelings about muffin flavors and I don’t want to alienate any readers. 

I can see a lot of different inspirations in this book, from Sailor Moon, as you mentioned, to Orpheus and Eurydice… Can you talk about some of the influences at play here?

Yeah, I like to say my brain is just a hi-speed blender mixing up every piece of media I’ve ever consumed. Sailor Moon and Orpheus and Eurydice are two of the big ones. I had the Hadestown soundtrack on loop as I was finishing book 1. Lots of old school video games have that level where you go descend into an underworld, and I was trying to capture some NES and Sega Genesis vibes. And of course, season one of Stranger Things has the kind of kid’s spooky vibes that I (and every 80’s kid) gravitate toward. I also love the way Luke Pearson makes the world feel so magical and cozy in his Hilda books. I think his cartooning is otherworldly. Oh, and I didn’t `realize it till I was almost done, but I think Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight worked its way into my subconscious for sure. I love that freewheeling whimsy of that classic series.

Without spoiling too much, the first “magical girl” transformation in the book made me laugh out loud… What went into that moment, in particular?

Thanks! The trick was evoking Sailor Moon (and other Shojo heroes) without using any of the iconic poses! I was also thinking of the old Filmation shows like He-Man and Ghostbusters (the one with the Gorilla), as well as Digimon –how every episode would reuse that same (awesome) animation clip of them transforming. I wasn’t sure if that could translate in comics without the triumphant accompanying music. But I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s one of the pages I’m most happy with how the inked brush lines turned out. It was one of the earliest pages I drew and used to pitch the book to First Second.  

The unicorn horn also sings songs… Do you have tunes made up for those songs? Are we going to get Unicorn Boy: The Official Soundtrack Album?

I’m like the Kristen Wiig character from Saturday Night Live.” “Don’t make me sing! Okay, if you insist…” Find me on Spotify!

You’ve done a ton of books for kids at this point, but one of the things I liked here was the focus squarely on the kid characters — to the point when adults showed up, it was almost surprising they exist at all in this world. When you’re writing a book for children, how important is it to include parent characters? Or not?

I actually really like when parents are in kids adventure stories! Not every kid hero needs to be an orphan, right? Though I do understand the writer’s inclination to get rid of the parents to add stakes and not have to worry about how the parents are letting all this happen without adult supervision. I think it’s nice to have supportive parents who actually listen to their kids, even when they are being told about outrageously unbelievable things!

Getting back to the original question, you’ve got a lot of mythology you’re laying down here that you don’t deal with in this first book… How much do you have planned out at this point?

I had initially roughed out enough story for two books, but as I was knee-deep drawing Book 1 a lot of the setting and plot focus for Book 2 evolved. Without giving too much away, I think my initial idea was a bit more generic fantasy story, but now it’s much more rooted in the specific concerns and anxieties of Unicorn Boy and Avery. Similar to the basement scene you referenced, I’m pulling from more of “what does it feel like to be a kid and navigate places outside of your comfort zone?” Can friendships survive the twists and turns of life? A bunch of new characters are introduced that I can’t wait for readers to meet!

Similarly, when you’re creating a new world like this, do you have an eye to “series” or is it more important to make sure the book works on its own, first?

I treat every book like it could be my last book ever…just in case it is! But I’m always planting extra seeds and laying groundwork for things that could be expanded on in if I’m lucky enough to draw future volumes.

Lastly, if any kids reading this book want to make their own unicorn horns to wear, any tips on making one?

If anything I’m hoping kids will give ME tips! There’s so much cool unicorn-inspired fashion that definitely wasn’t around when I was growing up! I did buy a glowing unicorn horn to wear in some promotional videos but I already accidentally broke it! Whoops!

Unicorn Boy is in stores everywhere now from First Second and Macmillan.

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