There’s few sections of comics publishing that are exploding quite as quickly as graphic novels aimed at young readers. In recent years, just about every major publisher dedicating entire departments to their production in recent times.
However, DC Comics has been ahead of the curve in this respect, releasing popular and critically lauded titles that reimagine their universe through the lens of younger characters in more accessible stories. The latest of these is Metropolis Grove by Drew Brockington, a story set in the suburbs about kids who don’t believe Superman is real, and the fallout of their friendship with a new kid from the city when she tries to tell them otherwise.
With the book out May 4, we had the chance to speak with Brockington, touching on the book’s origins, its subject matter, and the GN craze for young readers, among many other topics.
AIPT: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Drew! Let’s start by talking about how the idea for Metropolis Grove and these characters came to be.
Drew Brockington: DC was looking for another young readers project and my name came up because of my series CatStronauts, which was for a similar audience that the DC kids books were aiming for. I was able to learn about what they were looking for in a pitch, and what really enticed me was that they wanted something that was set in the universe, but not necessarily canon. They didn’t really want anything starring any DC characters – Like please no ‘Bruce Wayne growing up’ or things like that. So they gave me a list of properties that were already being developed and they asked me to let them know what characters I might be thinking about.
That kind of led me to the idea of wondering — what’s a town where people have maybe never seen a superhero before, and what their reaction would be if it just showed up? So I thought if Metropolis is a place where superhero things are happening all the time, it’s got to be pretty dull out in the suburbs. Then I came up with the idea for the kids who have never seen a superhero before, and then they see Bizarro and immediately think he’s Superman, which obviously leads to problems. So I kind of went from there.
AIPT: I think a big part of the theme of the story is that friendship is always going to involve conflict resolution, especially with people who are different from you. And Bizzaro is such a great character to use as a metaphor for someone who is an outsider.
DB: Yeah, I feel like the core of it is about how sometimes the things that you do to try to get your friends to like you are ultimately more destructive when they don’t come from a genuine place. Sonia was initially this vessel to reinforce that Bizarro is Superman since she’s the one who is from Metropolis who has actually seen him. But as the story developed, it became about her feeling like she had to keep a lie because if not, her friends would abandon her. So the small secret that you try to keep can easily spin out of control.
AIPT: Is there a particular reason you gravitated toward the Superman lore for this story? Were there any other characters you considered basing the story around?
DB: For a while, I briefly played around with this idea of what it would be like if the Justice League ran a summer camp or something like that, but it always seemed a little too corny to me. When I had the idea of seeing your first superhero as a kid and what that would be like, that’s when the characters really started to drive the story and it began to click for me. It’s not about a superhero in a town that’s boring, it’s about a boring town’s reaction to encountering a superhero, which I really liked a lot.
AIPT: Are there any specific challenges to doing a young reader book for DC?
DB: It was really just about making sure everything in this book would be believable in the DC Universe. As I said, it didn’t have to be canon, but I really wanted to make sure it felt like it could still exist alongside the monthly issues and stuff like that – especially from the art side the art is more approachable and cartoon-like, but I still wanted to focus on details and making it feel like it was almost similar to a DC animated project to keep it in the same universe as other stories we’ve seen.
AIPT: Totally! And I loved the character design of Bizarro here — it was familiar but also wholly unique and tailored toward a younger reader sensibility. You wrote, drew, and lettered this book right?
DB: I did!
AIPT: What is the working relationship like doing all that yourself and then handing the coloring off to a different collaborator?
DB: Yeah! So I had a chance to color the cover myself and that was great because it allowed me to set the foundation of the color palette, the style, the characters, etc. Then the samples that Wendy sent over were so brilliant in how they took my ideas and made the palette really pop in a way I couldn’t have done myself. The lushness really increased the reality and the believability, especially with response to nature and the woods, which play a big role in this story. In terms of that collaboration, it was really about finding a way early on to set up that artwork in a manner that allowed Wendy to interpret certain elements in her own way, such as the depth and scale of the woods.
AIPT: I feel like recently there’s been a shift in the understanding of how useful graphic novels can be in the development of young readers. Random House Graphic and First Second come to mind as specific publishers that are doing really well in this space and putting out great stuff. As a comics educator yourself, do you have thoughts on this boom time for Graphic Novels as learning resources for young people?
DG: Just recently I got an ad from Publisher’s Weekly for their “I can read” series of books, and I saw they now have an “I can read comics” list, which really made me realize that we are at a turning point. I think it’s now acceptable for graphic novels and comics to be used for children’s learning and development which is super exciting. My first graphic novel came out at a time when there was still some pushback, but for the most part librarians and schools were very on board, and they felt like as long as a kid is reading, the form shouldn’t really matter. Now 6 years later, it’s completely extended beyond that. Basically, every publishing house has a department that specializes in graphic novels, or their own imprint made up of people that come from comics. Ginga Gagliano and Whitney Leopard from Random House Graphic are great examples.
Publishers are so hungry now to explore this form that they barely even touched upon it for so long. My own kids at home were able to understand stories in graphic novels before they could even read because they could follow the images and understand the emotions, which I really think played into their development. I’m really happy to see how graphic novels for kids are becoming so mainstream – they’re available anywhere books are sold! It’s all very exciting.
AIPT: And I think a point that hasn’t been understood widely for a long time is that comics can be an even more cognitively rich experience than traditional reading because you are analyzing both words and images together – it flexes your brain in a different way.
DB: Totally. And now even in my own life, when I want to sit down and read something, I’ll read a comic. But if I want to experience a novel, I’ll just listen to it. The comics are a specifically visual medium, whereas I don’t have to look at the words in a novel. So I haven’t really read a novel in a long time, but you always have to actually sit and read a comic.
AIPT: I wanted to know if you have any thoughts on this idea that kids’ comic characters in the modern-day are being co-opted by nostalgic adults who want them to grow up with them. Do you think the idea of wanting the characters to become more mature and jaded with the readers is robbing kids of experiencing them the same way those older readers did when they were young?
DB: Oh yeah I can see that. I think if you look at what’s happening in something like the Star Wars franchise there’s this idea that it has to be so dark and real. Even something like the Mandalorian is very pulpy, but the second season is somehow so much more edgy and explosive compared to the first. I definitely sense there is that pull for taking properties and growing them up along with the fans. But at the same time, I think something like this book with the DC kids line gives a chance to reset a lot of those things. Like one thing I’d be really scared of is some kid who’s been reading the DC kids line and then jumps right into watching the Justice League Snyder Cut on HBO.
DB: Like would that child just be so lost and afraid of that? It’s a possibility. If I go to my local comic shop, the shelf of all-ages comics now is so huge and has so many different genres in it. So my hope is that since there is so much out there now that every fan really can have their own corner of the comic shop so to speak. The fact that something like the Snyder Cut, which is geared toward those hardcore older fans, exists alongside the theatrical cut and alongside the animated series is interesting because they kind of coexist in the same space now. And they sometimes trip over each other’s toes in that way. My hope is that if you want to stick to one particular version of that world, or genre, that there are enough options for everyone to exist in that world. You don’t have to absorb all of the content anymore — there’s so much different stuff.
AIPT: It’s true, definitely more so than before. My first exposure to any Batman media was Batman Returns as a small child.
DB: Oh yeah! Wow, that’s definitely not for kids.
DB: Even with the Archie line, you have the two versions of Sabrina that have been popular in recent times. One of them is light and funny, with hints of the spooky and supernatural. And the other one is genuinely horrifying and gave me nightmares. So it’s not even just with superheroes or the big tent pole properties.
AIPT: On a final note, what do you hope young readers will get out of this book when they read it?
DB: I really hope that it piques the interest in exploring some element of the book that they can expand on. Whether it’s learning more about Superman, or Bizarro, or maybe just the love of reading comics itself.
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