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Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind 'Aster and the Accidental Magic'

Comic Books

Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind ‘Aster and the Accidental Magic’

Karensac and Thom Pico discuss their highly whimsical middle-grade graphic novel.

In Aster and the Accidental Magic, creators Thom Pico and Karensac take us to a seemingly quiet valley in the middle of nowhere. For young Aster, who isn’t yet aware that her move here is decidedly permanent, this valley seems initially boring. Then, she goes for a walk and everything changes.

This delightfully colorful story from Random House Graphic may be aimed at a middle-grade audience, but there is something here to enjoy for readers of any age. Aster and the Accidental Magic is a fun and whimsical tale that will transport you to somewhere completely new and fantastic.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with the duo about the story, character development, childhood inspirations, and much, much more.

Aster and the Accidental Magic hit shelves on March 3.

What was the inspiration for this story?

Karensac: It’s the result of a lot of wishes and experiences. I particularly wanted to do something in the same genre as all the comics and cartoons I watch all the time. Thom Pico and I both love the cartoons of the last decade, like Gravity Falls, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Hilda, and Over the Garden Wall.

Thom Pico: Adventure Time and Steven Universe, too. They all gave us common references, and from there, stories more or less wrote themselves. We tried to give a real mythology to Aster’s world. When I came up with the idea for lords and ladies of the seasons, it naturally intertwined with the trickster that Karensac had imagined for Aster’s first adventure.

Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind 'Aster and the Accidental Magic'

Can you tell me a little about world building? Was the valley based on somewhere real?

K: It’s based on my childhood memories. Growing up in the mountains, I spent a lot of time hiking there and discovering many small lost villages, which there are a lot of in France. When I started to think about Aster’s history, I wanted to rediscover these sensations.

TP: That’s what I liked about Karensac’s story. I grew up in the countryside, certainly not in the mountains, but in the heart of the forest. When I was little, I imagined a lot of monsters and mysterious creatures lurking in the valleys. When Karensac showed me a cryptid design for the story, I immediately felt like I was ten years old again and back in the woods.

When creating the stories, is there a different approach when writing for a middle-grade audience?

TP: We underestimate children. They are perfectly capable of following a complex story and understanding serious issues.

K: At the end of the day, we’re careful not to send a message that could be misinterpreted.

TP: In general, we try to share something positive. Children will have the opportunity to become cynical as they grow up. In my opinion, Aster is as much for adults as it is for children.

What can we expect for Aster in the future?

K: We still have two seasons left! Winter is coming, and with it a new threat! Well, if you can call it a threat. . . .

TP: The tone of the stories varies a lot. Winter, which is supposed to be the coldest of the seasons, is our funniest and warmest story – it features an army of completely idiotic sheep who want to conquer the world!

K: And after that, spring will conclude with the return of an old enemy and lots of surprises. Aster’s going to meet a whole bunch of new characters, some very funny, and some . . . more worrisome.

Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind 'Aster and the Accidental Magic'

Can you expand a little on the different stages of the art process? We get a little note at the end of the book about the line work being done of paper, inks and colors on Photoshop, and letters in Hawthorne. Can you tell me a little more about all this?

K: When Thom gives me the final script, first I take the time to read through it, to have an overarching view of the whole story. Once my ideas are in place, I start by cutting out all the text and making thumbnails that are very small compared to the final boards, but still very precise. This is my favorite step because it’s really at this point that the comic starts to come to life. Once everything’s approved, I scan it and then I go to the computer. There I’ll do very detailed pencil sketches followed by inking on Photoshop. Going through this step on the computer allows me to save a lot of time, especially since it’s much easier to correct and arrange the layers. Once I’ve finished inking the whole book, I move on to color — a long but incredibly satisfying step, since I spend my time experimenting with new effects and color combinations. The final step is to fill in the bubbles with Thom’s dialogue using the Hawthorne typeface I created.

What was the character design process like, for the monsters especially? I also loved the Chestnut Knights and the dogs. The designs are so awesome and memorable.

K: For the monsters, I often start from simple forms. Then I add elements of animals by exaggerating them. This lets me to create monsters that are simple to draw, but at the same time unique. It’s obviously necessary that I like how everything looks!

For Buzz, he’s a mix of two dogs: the basset hound and the Great Pyrenees, with some exaggerations.

The chestnut knights come from my love for Japanese RPGs! Their designs and abilities are inspired by what you can find in these kind of games. As for the fact that they are chestnuts . . . to be quite frank, it’s because I thought it was a funny idea!

Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind 'Aster and the Accidental Magic'

Can you talk about the color palette changes between the two parts of the book? They correspond to the different seasons, right?

K: Yes indeed.

For each story, I try to depict a season by giving it a color palette that corresponds to it and brings out the personality of the season. So each story has its own unique visual identity. Plus, it gives the impression that the mountain is really alive, and constantly changing. As a result, even as Aster is discovering more and more secrets, the mountain still keeps a part of its mystery.

AiPT: Even though this book is for middle-grade readers, you don’t shy away from intricate words, phrases, and sentence structure. It really feels like you’re giving young people the credit they deserve and not speaking down to them in any way. Can you speak to that a bit?

TP: I remember when I was a kid, I hated it when a book or a comic book would address me as if I was an idiot. Children are perfectly capable of understanding complicated sentences and words, and when they don’t, they never hesitate to ask. Karensac and I wanted to make a comic book that we would have liked to read when we were younger; it’s very close to our hearts.

Buzz’s voice is so cool to me. Such a smart young pup! Can you talk about finding his voice?

TP: At the beginning, in Karensac’s story, Buzz was much closer to what we find in other stories where dogs talk — like in Up, for example. He wasn’t stupid, but his interests were very simple. I knew we had to give him more potential if we wanted him to become Aster’s best friend. So I went to the complete opposite of that, making him a dog with a rather advanced life philosophy.

With time, Buzz loosens up a bit, and he discovered a passion for terrible puns, like me. Our editor told us that now she can hear my voice when she reads his dialogues!

Battling cynicism with talking dogs: A Q&A with the duo behind 'Aster and the Accidental Magic'

Did any moments in Aster and the Accidental Magic change between story development and scripting? Did you ever feel the script pull you a different way as you were in it? Or did it largely remain the same throughout the process?

TP: Both of us developed the story together. Karensac and I live in the same town; we see each other very often, and we take the opportunity to brainstorm. When I have enough ideas, I start to develop and organize those ideas into a coherent story. Then I present it to Karensac, and she gives me her feedback, which creates new ideas. Sometimes in the middle of writing the script, she’ll send me suggestions for characters and new ideas, and I try to integrate those as best I can. Sometimes it’s complicated, because it involves rewriting whole sections of the story, but that makes the story better. For example, that’s how the Chestnut Knights joined Aster’s world — our great delight. Since the script changes a lot during the process, I have to constantly rearrange things to make it coherent. That sometimes happens even after Karensac has finished drawing the boards.

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