Australian author and illustrator Aaron Blabey gave himself an ultimatum in 2014. The then 40-year-old father of two had worked his way through increasingly unsatisfying daily jobs – from acting to advertising – and although his children’s books were “warmly received” (as he put it), the earnings did not support his family. He decided that if he didn’t get them right, and soon, he would instead seek a permanent job or, as he put it in a recent interview, “a life of abandoned dreams, low-level entrepreneurial creativity and banal compromises.”
But in a single day, he came up with the concepts for what became the best-selling “The Bad Guys,” “Thelma the Unicorn,” and “Pig the Pug.”
In less than a decade he has sold over 30 million books. “The Bad Guys” is his latest hit, a series of graphic novels for children that has been adapted into an animated film that hit screens on Friday and features the voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina and Zazie Beetz. .
The heart of the series is its charismatic gang of “bad guys” striving to be heroes – Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark and Ms. Tarantula – but hilariously failing time and time again. (Book #15, “Villains in Open Wide and Say Arrrgh!”, is due July 19.)
“I’m the epitome of a late bloomer, I guess,” the gray-bearded, bespectacled Blabey said while wearing a black Bikini Kill t-shirt. Before the series took off, “I had turned exactly 40 without any commercial success of any kind.”
Speaking in a video call from his hotel room in Los Angeles, which overlooked a billboard for the film ‘Bad Guys’, Blabey explained what he was aiming for when he came up with the concept of the series and how Quentin Tarantino figures in it.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Tell me who the bad guys are and when you first conjured them up in your imagination.
The Bad Guys are a group of shady animals with terrible reputations. In the books and in some ways in the movie, they decide to be okay and do good deeds, whether you like it or not.
I had reached the age of 40, I had two small children and I needed to succeed somehow or I was going to give this [writing and illustrating books] and [“The Bad Guys”] just crossed my mind. They are the culmination of what I have been looking for all my life. What I wanted to do was create a children’s book that was as exciting as playing an Xbox or watching a movie.
I thought about what my kids liked at that age, they were 6 and 8, and what I liked at that age, and what I like now, that’s where that Tarantino element is came in. I thought, how do I mix it all up and hook it up somehow for the kids?
And then what happened?
All of these ideas converged on a walk through the countryside in 2014, and when I wrote down the idea with all the character names, I texted a friend and said, “Wha do you think about it?” and she replied, “It looks like a DreamWorks movie.” We both laughed and I forgot about it until I found myself in Hollywood talking to all the studios and DreamWorks.
Did you base the film on the books or is it a whole new plot that readers won’t be familiar with?
It’s a bit of both. The film is based very loosely on the first four books in the series, but with added plot from the screenwriter and crew. I was very protective of that, coming in. There were a bunch of studios interested in [adapting] it, and a couple are aggressively pursuing it, but I went with DreamWorks because I trusted their sense of tone and they were respectful of the tone of the book, they wanted to preserve it.
When I knew the tone was safe, I was open-minded to what the real story was. I was thrilled to see how many moments straight from the books are sprinkled throughout the story. Children will see everything they love in the books and they will recognize all the characters, but it will be a whole new story.
Bad Guys was inspired by one of your favorite directors, Quentin Tarantino, right?
Absolutely. It begins with a scene that is a direct homage to the restaurant scene in “Pulp Fiction.” What I play with in the books is that you’re drawn to things that you’re not allowed to get your hands on. The idea for me was to take iconography from films deemed too scary or too gross but suitable for children.
The movie didn’t go with that ultra-modern, almost human-like animation. it reminds me a bit of “Danger Mouse” 1980s series.
I was surprised and delighted by this, as my drawings are limited at best. That’s part of the charm of the books and part of why the books are so successful. There is a hubbub and a very lively energy in my somewhat rudimentary drawings. [The filmmakers] also added all that 2D comic book stuff, so there’s a nice marriage of 2D and 3D, and a bunch of other influences brought in by the director [Pierre Perifel].
Do your young readers contact you? Do they have a favorite character?
They contact me. Mr Piranha [voiced by Anthony Ramos in the film] has generally been a fan favorite as he is probably the funniest of the bunch. My favorite has always been Mr. Snake [Maron] because it’s the most complicated of the bunch, and the one that struggles the most. He’s kind of like a recovering alcoholic, he tries to stay in the way with the other guys, but he keeps falling and they keep trying to help him. The journey is more of a struggle for him.
I think the fundamental relationship between Mr. Wolf [Rockwell], who is optimistic despite his situation, and Snake, who is pessimistic, create a relatable tension that my kids loved from the start and it seems other kids got it too. Their relationship is messy and complicated, like real-life relationships between people, which is pretty rare in books aimed at the 6-12 market. My kids have always loved it [complexity]. It didn’t seem “kiddie” to them. It was as if they were treated like little adults who could understand things. That said, my own kids, who are now 14 and 16, also love Piranha because it’s the funniest.