What would bedtime look like in Darth Vader’s household? What if Lord Vader had to oversee teeth brushing and read bedtime stories to Luke and Leia as toddlers, or teach Luke how to play soccer and manage Princess Leia’s teenage mood swings?
New York Times bestselling cartoonist and author Jeffrey Brown takes a comic-al look at such “what if” scenarios in his charming collection of Star Wars titles, like Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess — books equally beloved by adults and kids. (I know firsthand — my Star Wars-loving kids and I can’t get enough of Brown’s funny, heartwarming re-imaginings of family life in the Star Wars universe.)
Now, Brown brings the same playful approach to the Marvel universe with his newest book: Thor and Loki: Midgard Family Mayhem. The brothers, Thor, god of thunder and Loki, god of mischief, get Brown’s signature comic treatment in a sweet and silly collection of scenarios in which the young siblings bicker, banter, and give their parents some good old-fashioned kid trouble.
Brown, who received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is now a lecturer at the school, lives in the Chicago area with his wife and two sons. In the following interview, I asked Brown about everything from his influences and the evolution of his partnerships with Lucasfilm and Marvel, to his writing and drawing process, his advice for aspiring creators, and his favorite things to do and organizations to support around Chicago.
Better: You’re well known for your Star Wars books for readers of all ages. Is “Thor and Loki” your first foray into creating Marvel content? How did this project come about?
Brown: I was fortunate to have a few pages in each of the Strange Tales anthologies Marvel did a few years back, but this is the first time I’ve gotten to dive into a full book. Drawing some of my favorite Marvel characters is something I’ve always been ready to do, and Chronicle Books has worked with Marvel before, so it just came together sort of naturally between my editor Steve Mockus talking with Marvel, and then with me. To figure out which superheroes I might write about, I made a shortlist of my favorite Marvel comics when I was a kid, and Thor made sense to everyone, with the new movies and the Loki TV series.
You’ve written and illustrated numerous Star Wars books for middle-graders and readers of all ages — your love of these characters and deep knowledge of them really comes through in your books. Tell us about your relationship to Star Wars, and what inspired you to create content for all ages?
Star Wars was a big part of my childhood — with the movies, trading cards, books and of course toys. Star Wars actually inspired me to draw a lot as well, with all of the amazing storyboard and production art. My Star Wars books started with a call from Google, who had been thinking about a potential Google Doodle for their home page with an awkward everyday moment between Luke and Vader, and asked if I’d do some sketches. My son was 4 years old at the time so I made Luke four and put Vader in my shoes as a parent. Google decided to not use the idea, so I took it to Chronicle to see if they thought we could take it to Lucasfilm. Lucasfilm liked the idea, and it all worked out better than I could’ve planned. Of course, I thought I was making books for adults like me, who grew up with Star Wars and now had kids of their own, but it turned out kids liked the books just as much — if not more!
As a Star Wars and Marvel fan yourself, what’s it like to create new stories about characters you’ve known since you were a kid?
Once in a while it’s intimidating, like when I’m including a character I’m not as familiar with, but mostly it’s just fun. It’s like being a kid again and making comics with these characters, but I’m a bit better at drawing them now.
How has parenthood influenced your approach to creating these books that adults and kids can read and enjoy together?
I’ve loved reading with my sons at bedtime over the years, so it was just natural to start making the kind of books we’d been reading. It’s not something I’ve necessarily been super aware of doing, it’s more like I’ve soaked up a sense of kids’ books and it comes out organically when I’m writing and drawing.
Your books are packed with inside jokes and “Easter eggs” fans will love. What are some of your favorites?
I’m really happy I found a place for one of my favorite Thor characters — Beta Ray Bill. And fitting in Frog Thor and Alligator Loki was also super satisfying.
How did you get your start and what advice would you give aspiring author-illustrators?
I started out making minicomics and then self-publishing my first graphic novel, eventually building up enough of an audience to start working with some of the independent comics publishers, and from there growing into the bigger publishers. I find there’s no one way to make a career in comics, but there’s two main things I recommend to anyone who wants to try: first, read everything you can. And second, make work! Just write and draw as much as you can. It seems obvious if you think about it, but writing and drawing are the most essential things to becoming an author and artist.
How do you approach drawing such beloved characters? Do you have a favorite character to write about and draw?
I like to take the versions of the characters I read when I was young and filter them through my own sensibilities, hopefully to make something new and interesting but also has some of the original in it as well. I don’t know that I have a favorite, necessarily, but I always enjoy working with new characters. With Star Wars, I explored a sibling relationship a little with Luke and Leia, but Thor and Loki as brothers was way different and very entertaining, and maybe reminded me of how I was with my brothers growing up and getting into occasional mischief.
You live in the Chicago area — what are some of your favorite things to do with your family?
I love the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry and, of course, the Art Institute. We’re just getting back into the habit of getting out to museums, but I also like just getting outside and kicking the soccer ball when we can. This morning we woke up to some snow, so not quite feeling like spring yet!
You have a new Star Wars book coming out this year about The Mandalorian and Grogu. What can you tell us about that one?
It’s another project that’s so much fun to draw — Mandalorian armor is great and Grogu is adorable. The big challenge is that the series is already full of cute and funny moments, it’s harder to find ways to keep it fresh and engaging.
Are there any nonprofits or causes you are passionate about supporting?
There are lots of non-profits I try to support as much as possible, especially organizations that support books and free speech like Pen America and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I usually sketch at conventions to support the Hero Initiative. And locally in Chicago, there are organizations doing important work for people here, like 826CHI and Hope Chicago.
Anything else you’d like to share? Any other projects on the horizon?
I just wrapped up a book from another licensed property, for grown-up readers this time; I want to believe they’ll announce it soon, but until it’s out there I can’t explain it exactly, you’ll have to file away that information for later. I’m also working on a sequel to my middle grade DC graphic novel, “Batman and Robin and Howard.”
More from Better:
- Star Wars Actress Ashley Eckstein Talks Mental Health, Becoming Ahsoka and Standing Up for Female Fans
- Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser With Kids — Tips For a Family Trip to Disney World’s Star Wars Hotel
- The Power of Art to Prevent Gun Violence: Artist Bonnie Lautenberg Launches National Fundraising Effort with Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords
Brooke McDonald is the editor in chief for Make It Better Media Group. A Chicago native, she has worked for publications like O, The Oprah Magazine and SHAPE Magazine and her work has appeared in The Points Guy, Parents, TravelPulse, Insider and more. Her favorite nonprofit to support is Give Kids the World Village. Follow her on Instagram @brookegmcdonald and Twitter @BrookeGMcDonald.