A Story to Sink Your Claws Into: Gene Ambaum Talks About Poopy Claws
Gene Ambaum is well-known to most of our readers. The teen-services librarian is half (along with cocreator Bill Barnes) of the force behind the hilarious comic Unshelved. He’s also now the writer of a new all-ages graphic book called Poopy Claws, the story of a very messy cat. We talked to Gene about his new book and his upcoming plans.
You were just at ALA. Were there any big surprises for you? Anything new or interesting that you see happening in relation to graphic novels and libraries?
I should probably pay more attention to what's going on nationally, but now it feels like everyone (with the exception of a few misguided throwbacks) sees graphic novels as books. We are where we wanted to be in terms of graphic novels acceptance in libraries.
At ALA the things that got me most excited were 3) the exhibit floor creamsicle giveaway. The vendor in question didn't want to hand out any to exhibitors, but fans brought us more than we could eat after we started whining. And 2) the level of talent that was in the Artist's Alley in the ALA Graphic Novel area was astounding. I hope most folks who walked the exhibit floor passed through the area. The highlight for me was talking with Jason Shiga and getting to meet James Burks. I even won a piece of Burks' art in the auction. But 1) The coolest thing I saw the entire show was a preview of Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet iPad app. It looks amazing. The art from Amulet was made to glow.
How did you and artist Sophie Goldstein work together on Poopy Claws?
I wrote the text a few years ago. I met Sophie at the second NEWW (New England Webcomics Weekend) and then we had dinner in New York during BEA 2011. I realized she had a sick sense of humor and drew in a cute style anyone could connect with. During dinner, I leaned over and said something charming like, "Could you draw a cat licking itself?" She laughed and sent me some drawings. I sent her the script. Less than a year later, we had the book in-hand.
After Sophie came on as the artist, we did a bit of editing and rearranging together, and then she just drew. She did complete pencils first, then inks and colors. Every time she sent me a finished page or two, my jaw hit the floor—her color choices and the textures she created amazed me.
We agreed that we both had veto power over everything, so we both had to agree on every detail. (This is how Bill and I work on Unshelved.) As the book came together, there was a bit more editing and a few details were tweaked, but we rarely disagreed on anything.
What made you want to do an all-ages book now?
I love "kids comics." I feel like the art form is at its best when stories can be enjoyed by everyone in my family. Andy Runton, James Kochalka, Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, Franco & Baltazar, Lewis Trondheim—their work for "kids" never fails to amaze and inspire me.
Plus, there are a ton of funny poop books out there, mostly for kids, and they crack me up. Have you seen The Long Journey of Mister Poop/El gran viaje del Señor Caca? A fox follows an apple through the digestive tract. It's hilariously weird, plus it's bilingual. And I like saying "Señor Caca."
What was the inspiration behind the story? Any particular cat or cats you’ve owned before?
One of my cats, Tokyo, is very strange. He sits and stares at our kitchen floor for hours. He'll go outside for a few minutes and then suddenly burst back into our house like Kramer entering Seinfeld's apartment. He drinks water by dipping his paw into the bowl and licking it off of his paw. He always leaves muddy prints on the floor because he never washes his paws first. His water bowl is in the bathroom, so these tracks are often right in front of the toilet. Hello, inspiration.
What’s your best—and your worst—true cat story?
My favorite cat was Sammy, a blue point Siamese that my grandmother had when I was a kid. He'd come running every time we cooked bacon or chocolate chip cookies and demand his share. (He ate both.) He survived being run over twice and liked to ride around in a doll stroller.
Worst is harder. Tokyo will chew all of the hair off his lower back and tail if he doesn't get a daily dose of Prosac. Last week he threw up on a tatami matt. That was no fun to clean. But at least I don't have to follow him around my neighborhood with a plastic bag in my hand—I can just pretend I don't know he's crapping in my neighbor's flower bed.
What category would you put this book in?
I hate categories, because they're all about who to sell a book to and where to put it in a store. I feel like most books belong in more than one place, but I know that's not likely to happen in the real world. But if I got to tell booksellers where to put it, I'd prefer it with those unclassifiable gift books at the front of the store. (It's an impulse purchase.) For librarians, I hope it makes a display about potty humor. I'd also put it with the graphic novels and the kids’ comics.
There’s a lot of humor in the book. Who were some of the comic inspirations for your writing?
You ever seen It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia? As far as I'm concerned, "Who Pooped the Bed" is the funniest episode of any sitcom, ever. The characters try to solve the stated mystery. There's an over-the-top denouement with a hysterical summary of the evidence and lots of finger pointing, which is completely wrong. Then the guilty party comes clean—he did it because poop is funny.
I blame the Babe Ruth scene in Caddyshack, too. And the fact that my grandmother, a registered nurse, asked me if I'd had a BM every day. If I admitted I had, she asked me what color it was. (This is true. The book is dedicated to her.)
What’s new at Unshelved that you would like to share with our readers?
Dewey's a father and his grandma has a memory problem. Bill and I are both dads, and our families both have someone dealing with Alzheimers-like symptoms, so this is a blatant attempt by both of us to (occasionally) bring some of our non-library and non-customer service experiences into the comic. Plus, Colleen, the old-fashioned reference librarian, retired during the ongoing budget crisis (she's now the nightmare patron who knows the exceptions to the library's rules). The library system replaced her with a paraprofessional, Dyna, who everyone is slowly getting used to. Except Dewey, because she may be smarter than him.
Also, Bill and I debuted an early version of our new keynote, "How to Ban a Book," at BEA last month. We pretend that a group of would-be censors has hired us to tell them how to go about getting books they don't like off of library shelves. By telling the best ways to really do it, we're making fun of the worst of libraries and censors. As a speaker, it's fun to hear giggles and see looks of terror.
What are you working on next?
A sequel to Poopy Claws, of course. And I'm always refining my list of T-shirt ideas, which seems sensible for any writer these days.