Of DC Comics’ ambitious dive into the thriving market of graphic novels for young readers, there isn’t a single one I’ve liked more than Dear Justice League. Michael Northrop and Gustavo Duarte’s graphic novel is charming from cover to cover, as each member of the Justice League answers the burning question of a young fan.
Duarte’s character designs for the League are cute as heck, his pages fairly exploding with energy and humor; and Northrop’s story is executed with surprising depth for such an easy-to-explain premise.
But if I was most surprised about anything in Dear Justice League, it was not how clearly it would appeal to kids, but how much it also appealed to me, a grown adult. Northrop and Duarte clearly took the “all-ages” mandate very seriously. So I sat down to chat with Northrop about making comics for — shocking, I know — kids.
How did you get involved with DC’s kids imprints, and where did the idea for Dear Justice League, an epistolary comic book for kids, begin?
The thing with DC, actually, is that it was kind of great: They contacted me when they were ramping up their YA and middle grade imprints. They reached out to some authors in those spaces and I was one of the middle grade writers they contacted. And they asked me if I had some ideas and of course, I had about eight million ideas right off the bat.
I ended up settling on two of them and writing up two pitches. One was Aquaman, a classic origin story-type thing. I thought for a middle grade space that origin stories, at that age, might make sense.
But the other one was Dear Justice League. That idea came from my old job; I used to work at Sports Illustrated Kids. I was there 12 years, I interviewed a lot of athletes, and — it’s pretty well known — they’re not always the greatest interview subjects. They can be pretty guarded; they have their cliches at the ready. Taking it one game at a time and all of that. But because it was Sports Illustrated Kids, one of the things we did sometimes was ask questions that had been sent in by kids.
Those were always the best answers we got from the athletes. It was really eye-opening. They would just be a little bit more open, a little less defensive. I think it’s one thing when questions are coming from sports reporters and it’s another thing when they’re coming from some 10-year-old in Texas. I always remembered that.
When I was thinking about superheroes, and superheroes as they relate to this age [group], there are a lot of similarities between sports stars and superheroes. These larger than life figures with their secrets — a little bit guarded and a little bit defensive. I thought that the same thing could work. If questions were coming straight from young fans, it might lower their defenses in the same way. That’s what I wanted, that sense of direct communication between kids and their heroes. In this case, the heroes, instead of being sports guys, were superheroes.
You go into Dear Justice League thinking that each chapter is going to be a new superhero, but the book also has an overarching plot. Was it important to you to do both?
When I was thinking about how this book would work, I thought about it as a comic book, just a normal comic book, but the action was mostly what would happen in between the panels of a regular comic book. This was the stuff that would mostly get cut out. In a regular comic book, you’ve got some threat or some battle or something, and the stuff that doesn’t relate to that plot— that’s what gets lost between the panels. This was kind of the opposite; the action was them back in their rooms, online or just flying, or Batman interacting with Alfred or that sort of thing.
So I wanted to have that — that sense of here’s the stuff that you’re not seeing in a regular comic. But I also wanted to have the regular comic, I wanted to acknowledge that that’s how these things work, and that’s where this came from. So the throughline is really that it’s a regular comics and the rest of it, in my mind, it’s the stuff that’s happening in between the panels of that comic.
On my first read of Dear Justice League, the art was so forward and charming and integrated with the story that I simply assumed the book was the work of a single creator. What was working with Gustavo like? And have you worked with illustrators before?
I had not, and it was an amazing match. Right from the start, we had the same conception of these heroes. Obviously, Gustavo and I have very different backgrounds, he grew up in Brazil and I grew up in Northwestern Connecticut, but we grew up on the same idea of these characters. We both watched Super Friends, grew up on the same comics, and for me especially the Richard Donner Superman movies. And those are funnier, more kid-friendly takes on these characters. Obviously superheroes in general have gotten quite a bit darker and more adult focused. But because those were such formative experiences for both of us, those stayed with us. And when we started this, I think that’s where both of our heads went — to that retro idea of these brighter, more kid-friendly superheroes.
And we have the same sense of humor. So much of the book is physical humor; it’s the expressions and the body language, and the bloopers. That stuff would be almost really impossible to script — not what’s happening, but what’s funny about it. It’s just one of those things where Gustavo and I have the same sense of humor when it comes to this physical comedy.
It is so funny because we’re from such different backgrounds but we see so eye-to-eye on these characters, to the extent that, as I was going along, my scripts became much less detailed because I just trusted him to get it. To get what I was going for with the situation and find the best way to communicate that. It was a situation of just giving him space to operate and trusting that we were both going the same direction. It was really fun, because I [both] felt like I knew where he would go with it, [and] it was [also] just a great surprise to get a new batch of pages in to see what exactly he had done. It was really a fun mix of comfort and surprise.
These days, kids are much more likely to be introduced to superheroes through PG-13 movies or cartoon shows than superhero comic books themselves — which have largely become a marketplace for teen and up readers. Do you see Dear Justice League as a part of getting kids into comics to form the next generation of older comic book readers?
It is amazing — I go to New York Comic Con every year, and it’s an overwhelming experience. Just from the perspective of being there and the physicality of it; it’s so crowded, it’s so many people, and it’s so much going on. But one of the really interesting things about it is how few kids there are, relative to the space. I do feel that [DC’s imprints] especially with the middle grade line and the YA line; it’s a really conscious attempt to introduce kids to a version of these heroes that they might connect with.
But I also feel like it’s a little bit of a pendulum swing thing. [Superheroes] used to be completely for kids, and then people thought, “They’re goofy, they’re corny, they’re just kids’ books.” And then with [things] like The Dark Knight and Wolverine, it was this big [change]. It was exciting, Look, they can be for adults too. And I think the pendulum just really swung very far in that direction, to the extent that it used to be all kids and now it’s almost all adults.
I think that naturally, the pendulum swings back a little and it would be great to find some middle ground. Where it’s not all for adults or all for kids but there’s something there. Because these characters are so important. They’re such big pop cultural touchstones that it would be great if there’s a way for kids and adults and everyone in between to enjoy them and to have some access to something that’s gonna resonate with them at their age.
I think that [Dear Justice League] is part of that. It’s not a replacement, it’s an addition to the shelves and what’s out there. And in a sense, it’s retro, right? It’s going back to the roots of comics, which were so much ‘for kids,’ but not really going back. All the stuff we’ve learned, all the amazing artistic leaps that have happened since the 1980s, since The Dark Knight and all of that, are still there. It’s moving forward, knowing what we know now and having learned so much about comics and storytelling this way.
With graphic novels now such a big thing, I think it’s just a way to find some equilibrium. To have something out there for anyone.
As an adult who really enjoyed Dear Justice League, I think you hit that line.
Thank you very much! The idea is that it’s all-ages, right? When people see that, they just nod and they think, “Oh, what they really mean is kids, for little kids.” But for me and Gustavo too, that we were taking that literally. We want a book that all ages can enjoy.
Dear Justice League is on shelves now.