Australian writer and illustrator Aaron Blaby I gave myself an ultimatum in 2014. The father-of-two, then 40, worked a slew of increasingly unsatisfying day jobs — from acting to advertising — and while his children’s books were “warmly received” (as he put it), the earnings didn’t support his family. He decided that if he didn’t succeed in them, and quickly, he would instead look for a permanent job or, as he said in a recent interview, “a life of abandoned dreams, low-level corporate creativity and mundane compromises.” ”
But in one day, he came up with the concepts for what became the best-selling books Bad Boys, Thelma the Unicorn, and Pug the Pig.
In less than a decade, he has sold over 30 million books. Bad Boys is his absolute success, a series of graphic novels for children that have been adapted into an animated film that hits screens on Friday and features the voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Aquafina and Zazie Beetz.
The heart of the series is a charismatic gang of “bad guys” who aspire to be heroes – Mister Wolf, Mister Piranha, Mister Snake, Mister Shark and Miss Tarantula – but fail again and again. (Book #15, “Bad Boys in Space Saying ‘Aaaah’,” is out July 19.)
“I guess I’m the epitome of late bloom,” said a bearded, bearded, bespectacled Blaby dressed in a black Bikini Kill T-shirt. Before the series started, “I had exactly 40 years of zero commercial success.”
Speaking during a video call from his Los Angeles hotel room that overlooked a Bad Boys billboard, Blaby talked about what he was aiming for when he came up with the concept for the series and how Quentin Tarantino is featured in it.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Tell me who the Bad Boys are and when you first imagined them.
The bad guys are a group of suspicious animals with a terrible reputation. In the books and to some extent in the movie, they decide to do good and do good deeds, whether you like it or not.
I was 40 years old, I had two young children, and I needed to somehow succeed, otherwise I was going to give it away [writing and illustrating books] and [“The Bad Guys”] just came to my mind. This is the culmination of what I have been looking for all my life. I wanted to create a children’s book that was as addictive as playing on an Xbox or watching a movie.
I thought about what my children loved at that age, they were 6 and 8 years old, and what I loved at that age, and what I love now, where Tarantino element came into it. I thought: how can I mix all this and somehow adapt it for children?
So what happened next?
All of these ideas came together while walking through the countryside in 2014, and when I wrote down the idea with all the character names, I texted a friend and asked, “What do you think about this?” and she replied, “It looks like a DreamWorks movie.” We both laughed and I didn’t think about it anymore until I was in Hollywood talking to all the studios and working at DreamWorks.
Did you base the film on the books, or is it a completely new plot that readers are not familiar with?
A little bit of both. The film is very loosely based on the first four books in the series, but with the addition of a plot about the heist of the writer and crew. I was very wary of this when I entered it. There were a lot of studios interested in it. [adapting] it, and the couple were actively involved in it, but I chose DreamWorks because I trusted their sense of tone, and they were reverent about the tone of the book, they wanted to keep it.
When I knew the tone was safe, I was open-minded about what was actually there. I was delighted to see how many moments directly from the books are spiced up with the whole story. Children will see all the things they love about books and recognize all the characters, but it will be a completely new story.
Bad Boys was inspired by one of your favorite directors, Quentin Tarantino, right?
Absolutely. It opens with a scene that is a direct homage to the diner scene in Pulp Fiction. In the books, I play with the fact that you are attracted to things that you are not allowed to touch. The idea for me was to take iconography from films that were considered too scary or too rough but sharpened for kids.
The film didn’t go well with this cutting edge, almost human animation. It reminds me a little “Danger Mouse” series from the 80s.
I was surprised and pleased because my drawings are limited at best. This is part of the charm of the books and part of the reason the books are so successful. My somewhat rudimentary drawings have a kind of carelessness and energy that really comes alive. [The filmmakers] added to it all this 2-D, the comic, so there’s a great mix of 2-D and 3-D, and a bunch of other influences brought in by the director. [Pierre Perifel].
Are your young readers contacting you? Do they have a favorite character?
They contact me. Mr Piranha [voiced by Anthony Ramos in the film] was usually a fan favorite because he is probably the funniest in the group. My personal favorite has always been Mr. Snake. [Maron] because he is the hardest of the group and the one who fights the most. He’s kind of a recovering alcoholic, he tries to stay on track with the other guys, but he keeps falling and they keep trying to help him. The journey is more like a struggle for him.
I think the main relationship between Mr. Wolf [Rockwell], who is an optimist despite his circumstances, and Snake, who is a pessimist, create a relative tension that my kids have loved from the start, and it seems like the other kids get it too. Their relationship is intricate and complex, like real relationships between people, which is quite rare in books for the 6 to 12 year old market. My kids have always loved it [complexity]. It didn’t seem childish to them. There was a feeling that they were being treated like little adults who could understand something. Having said that, my own kids who are now 14 and 16 also love Piranha because he is the funniest.