Comic Book Yeti's Byron O'Neal is always searching for the next great comic book for the YA or all-ages markets. It is his mission to expose more kids to the joy and diversity of comics written and illustrated with them in mind, and he's had the opportunity to interview a few people focused on them recently on the Cryptid Creator Corner podcast: Sam Beck, Nathan Tomsic and Georgian Brown, and Eric Gapstur to name a few.
Today, he got the chance to sit down with creator Brian Middleton to talk about his new all ages project Poiko: Quests and Stuff.
COMIC BOOK YETI: This is Byron O’Neal, Media Editor for Comic Book Yeti, sitting down today with comics creator Brian Middleton to talk about his all ages graphic novel, Poiko: Quests and Stuff, from Vault/Wonderbound. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today, Brian.
OK, I’m simply in love with this book, so it’s now my mission to spread the word of how amazing this story is. Tell us a little bit about Poiko for those that haven’t heard about it yet.
BRIAN MIDDLETON: Sure thing! Poiko: Quests and Stuff is an all-ages adventure book, created by me and published by the wonderful folks at Wonderbound! It features an intrepid and carefree lion named Poiko and a time-obsessed scaredy-bat named Kensie. Together they make deliveries in a fantasy kingdom, meeting new friends and learning some employable life lessons.
CBY: Poiko is seemingly fearless. He’s constantly encountering what could be scary situations with lighthearted aplomb. Was there somebody in your life or another fictional character he was modeled after?
BM: When I set out to create Poiko and Kensie, my goal was for their strengths to balance out the others’ weaknesses. So, for example, where Kensie is fearful, Poiko is brave and adventurous. This is modeled after my wife and I. She is the type who wants to get outside and hike and see waterfalls and wonderful things like that. I’m the type who wants to stay inside or only go to places that I’m certain are safe. The balance we strike between those two motivations is wonderful and benefits the both of us.
CBY: Kensie is without a doubt my favorite character, but I have a thing for bats. I worked in a bat research lab in college and bat conservation is a big deal for me. Do you have a love for all things Chiroptera too or is that just a happy accident for me that there’s a bat sidekick in this story?
BM: That’s awesome! I don’t have any special love for bats beyond just finding them interesting. When my eldest daughter was learning to read, I used to write and illustrate simple one-page adventure stories for her to practice on. Because she was just starting out, the main characters were generally a cat or a bat (often in a hat). When I started conceptualizing Poiko’s story, I realized that I wanted him to have someone to pal around with. I’ve always been inspired by the visual dynamic of the hero and his smaller companion presented in many of the Legend of Zelda games. I loved the bat that I had been illustrating in those one-page adventure stories, so I brought him in to play the role of Kensie.
CBY: A central theme in the book is that Poiko and Kensie run a delivery service. I get the impression you don’t or didn’t work for UPS or something because the overall tone of interactions with everyone in the book is just too positive. Why a delivery service then?
BM: I worked in the shipping department of a pillow factory for over 10 years, so I’ve interacted with tons and tons of delivery people at every stage of a shipment. For the most part, they were awesome people. Just recently, I learned that one of my favorite LTL drivers from my days at the pillow factory is now delivering for the Postal Service, so I get to see him on occasion. So that is pretty cool. As far as the “why” of the delivery service, it was basically just to give Poiko and Kensie a motivation to move around in the world I wanted to see them in. My initial idea was just to have two characters walking and seeing what they could get into. Adding the delivery aspect gave them a reason to meet certain people, and added a neat way to close out each adventure!
CBY: What made you want to create a middle age book?
BM: The book, to me, is really a love letter to my daughters. My main motivation for creating the book was to make something that my daughters could hold in their hands and know was a reflection of their dad, in case, God forbid, something ever happened to me. Early on in the process of creating Poiko, my grandfather unexpectedly passed away. The fact that tomorrow isn’t promised is always on my mind, but in the early days of Poiko it was even more present.
CBY: It would be easy to just tell a cute story and call it good, but you are not shying away from some harder emotional themes. Achilles, talks to Poiko about his grandfather passing for instance. It could get heavy, but the messaging is overwhelmingly positive and upbeat. Kids have been exposed to so much emotionally over the past couple years. Why did you want to tackle some of these tougher narrative concepts when it would have been easy to just make it fluffy?
BM: In my previous answer, I talked about my grandfather passing away. I had a bit of a surreal moment at his funeral where I was looking at my father, who was looking at his father who was now in a casket. I realized that one day my daughter would be sitting where I was sitting, and eventually where my father was sitting. If it was up to me, she wouldn’t have to deal with that for a very long time, but it’s the nature of life that we don’t really get to choose when those things happen. I really wanted to show characters dealing with grief, and also show how Poiko is able to provide comfort by just being there and listening. It was important for me to try and convey the idea that life is bittersweet, but there is also much joy to be had.
CBY: One of the things glaringly absent in the book’s material culture is much in the way of electronics. I’ve got a son, you have kids. It is sometimes difficult to get them to detach from a screen. Why did you want to make your world without these modern visual anchors?
BM: I’m not a huge fan of electronics, and it would be nice if I could say that that was intentional, but I think most of that just comes from the fantasy setting of the world. At one point I did consider giving Poiko a cellphone, so that he would have a way for Brutanis to communicate with her family. I settled on the conch shell instead so that it wasn’t too jarring.
CBY: As an artist, you have a unique vision here with rendering depth and scale. It’s atypical and really stood out to me as capturing that uniquely childlike dimension where imagination can just run wild as Kensie and Poiko transition along on their adventures. You’ve got several moments with larger creatures like dragons and dinosaurs that could be frightening but aren’t and occasional laddered panel construction that feels like a video game that reminds me of playing Mario Brothers when I was a kid. First, what were some of your visual inspirations for the book? And second, why is it important to construct things like this for a younger reader?
BM: A lot of my visual inspirations do come from video games, specifically adventure games like Mario Bros and the Legend of Zelda. It makes me happy that you picked that up. Beyond that, Calvin and Hobbes is a big inspiration to me as an artist. That strip is why I first picked up a pencil and started telling stories. The strips where Calvin and Hobbes are out walking in the woods and talking about philosophy were always my favorites, and I think some of that is reflected here. I didn’t really have any grand motivations when I portrayed the larger creatures as pleasant rather terrifying. That was more to bring a sense of wonder to the story, rather than to impart some lesson. From the outset I wanted the book to be a stress-free reading experience and something that would calm anxieties rather than excite them.
CBY: You’ve also got a lot of rabbits in there too. My favorite being what looks like Poiko and Kensie walking between two flanking Towers of Gondor rabbit guards. What’s up with the rabbits and why so few cats? Your bio says you have six cats.
BM: In Delivery 3, Poiko, Eve and Kensie are visiting some ancient ruins, so it was important to me that there was some visual history there. What I strive for in my art is for there to be stories to be had in the images as well as the words. I wanted readers to see the ruins of this bunny-themed kingdom and imagine what adventures could have happened for those people in those days. Theming it after bunnies gave me a fun and easy way to tie it all together.
I do have six cats, and I love the crap out of them. There are a ton of cats and cat-like creatures in the background. I’d love for someone to count them all up and let me know how many are in the book!
CBY: You handled all the creative aspects for the project which means I get to ask about color choices, which I love. As a palette, it’s got a sherbet vibe to it if that makes sense. Everything is very bright and you’ve taken reality liberties, some of the trees are blue for instance. To compare it to something people are familiar with, a more liberally brushed Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax comes to mind. Did you start with a specific aesthetic you wanted to create? Do you fill in characters/creatures first? Inquiring minds, I, want to know.
BM: I mentioned Calvin and Hobbes as an influence, and the Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons also come to mind when I think about some of the color choices. Not necessarily trying to emulate what they had done, but more enjoying taking some of the the same freedoms that they had taken. Those blue and purple trees do a lot to sell the whimsy and fantasy of the world I wanted my characters to live in.
CBY: How’d you end up with Wonderbound? I recently read an interview with editor Rebecca Taylor talking about the direction of the Vault imprint. They are putting out some great stuff.
BM: I was working on a small freelance project when Wonderbound (then Myriad) announced that they were accepting submissions. I had been working on Poiko in between jobs and had about 30 pages in the can. I sent them in along with a pitch proposal. I was pretty nervous about the whole thing, but Rebecca called me up soon after I sent in the pitch and let me know that she loved it. She told me about their plans as a publisher and I was immediately sold.
They have been an absolute treat to work with. Rebecca was very understanding of my somewhat unorthodox way of working, and they gave me room to make the book how I wanted. This was my first time working with an editor, and it could not have been a better experience.
CBY: Are there plans for another installment of Poiko and company? BM: I have a few other books that I am developing at the moment, but I definitely am looking forward to the day when I get to return and tell more stories with these characters.
CBY: Publisher’s Weekly called the project a “sincere and exuberant fantasy adventure.” I always like to do a mental health check. The book has been out a month or so at this point. How’s the general feedback been and how are you feeling about now?
BM: I couldn’t have asked for a better response. The reviews have all been lovely. Getting reviewed is definitely something that can be nerve-wracking, at least for me, so that was definitely a relief. It’s been so nice to get to interact with the readers as well. I recently did a show and a young girl brought me an original Poiko: Quests and Stuff story that she had written. A couple in the UK messaged me and let me know that Poiko: Quests and Stuff was the first comic that their daughter had ever picked out for herself. And my daughter’s 4th grade classroom also loves the book. I recently helped to chaperone one of their field trips, and her classmates were very complimentary. It’s all been lovely.
CBY: This is just me being nosy and curious about the platform. I noticed on Twitter that you have been doing live drawing streaming on Twitch. What do you think of the platform as a vehicle, specifically for artists?
BM: I haven’t done a ton of streaming yet, but I think any platform where people can engage with their fans and build an audience is a good thing. The creation of art is generally a pretty solitary thing. So anytime you can get some interaction while creating, I’d count that as a good thing.
CBY: Ok, we mentioned Twitter and Twitch, where else can people find you and your work?
CBY: What other projects are you working on that you’d like to give a little more oxygen to?
BM: I‘m working on a handful of projects at the moment, but none of them are in a place where I can talk much about them. As soon as I am able to, I will let you know!
CBY: Last question, if one creature or character from the world of Poiko could come to life and hang out with you, who/what would that be and why?
BM: I’d love to spend the day with Poiko and Kensie. Hopefully I can get them in a package deal haha. I love those characters so much and am so glad to see them out in the world. How could I not want to hang out with them?
CBY: Thanks again for joining me today, Brian. I hope we’ve done enough convincing today that lots of people will go pick this up. I read a lot of all ages, middle grade, and YA comics titles and this is my favorite of 2022 thus far by a mile.
BM: I’m so glad that you dig the book! I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to me!
CBY: This is Byron O’Neal and on behalf of all of us at Comic Book Yeti, see you next time.
The image(s) used in this article are from a comic strip, webcomic or the cover or interior of a comic book. The copyright for this image(s) is likely owned by either the publisher of the comic, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the comic. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner in order to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.
All Poiko: Quests and Stuff characters and the distinctive likeness(es) thereof are trademarks of and copyright of Wonderbound or their respective owners. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.