Interview with Alex de Campi: Kat & Mouse

Kat & Mouse 1: Teacher Torture

I recently reread the three volumes of Kat & Mouse, the Tokyopop series about two girls solving mysteries at a snooty New England private school. I’ll say up front, I think canceling it (and leaving major plots unsolved) was a very bad idea, since it’s a wonderful book to push to fans of things like Gossip Girl or similar stories of class-based plots among the school-age set.

However, its odd format — not manga-sized, but half that length, for $6 a book — was, in my opinion, a major detriment to reaching any audience. It’s more expensive than a typical comic, but it doesn’t appear at first glance to be a better value to justify the price.

Anyway, once I reached the end and found myself wondering what was intended to happen, I decided to ask author Alex de Campi about it, and she was kind enough to share her thoughts on the title, working with Tokyopop, and whether we’ll ever see the conclusion. Here’s a short interview with her about the book.

Q: How did Kat & Mouse come to Tokyopop? Who came up with the idea?

A: I just cold-emailed Tokyopop when I was starting out and they were beginning their OEL initiative. I’ve always loved teen/high school drama, and I wanted to write stories that had the appeal of Nancy Drew, but felt modern… and didn’t shy away from portraying just how awful kids can be to each other in 7th and 8th grade. I also wanted to write about girls, as there were so few good comic books for/about girls. I wanted to write the stories the 12-year-old me wanted to read. And I was furious about that Harvard president’s comment about how girls were genetically no good at science and math. Dude, Marie Curie is so going to come back from the dead and salt your Viagra with radium for that, you sad old git. (I am a feminist. GO TEAM X CHROMOSOME!)

Kat & Mouse 1: Teacher Torture

So everything about Kat & Mouse was entirely my idea, except for the character designs which are obviously Federica’s. The pitch went to Mark Paniccia first, and while he was keen on it, he didn’t think it could get approved without it being more “manga”. Yeah, I know — teen school drama/romance/mystery, already a MASSIVE manga genre in Japan. Like Tokyopop had never shifted many copies of a book called Mars…. But I swear to God, they were pushing me so hard to put a talking cat or a vampire in it, as that was what “manga” meant to them. I was like, “uh, thanks, interesting idea but NO.” I stuck to my guns, found Federica as an artist, and the project was finally approved on the basis of (shock!) it being a good story.

Mark left during the process to go to Marvel. I later had interesting adventures with him choosing a desperately inappropriate artist for a mooted Marvel teen-girl series for me, which resulted in me walking off the series…. and Marvel realising that Paniccia had forgotten to get me to sign either a contract or an NDA for the series so I still owned the script. That was fun.

In any case, back at Tokyopop on Kat & Mouse, I then inherited Tim Beedle and Carol Fox as editors and I couldn’t have been happier. What a wonderful pair of people they were. Intelligent, hardworking, and not afraid of the dirty business of telling me (or Federica) “you could do better”. I think I stayed with Tokyopop so long because of Tim and Carol. I just can’t say enough good things about them as human beings and as editors.

Q: Kat & Mouse appeared in a kind of hybrid format, shorter than the manga digest Tokoypop popularized, at a $6 price point. Was that format planned from the beginning? Do you think it helped or hurt the project?

A: Oh heavens. It killed the project stone cold dead in the market. It looked too wimpy and kiddie for its audience, and if you racked it spine-out, it just vanished. Plus, the usual Tokyopop no-marketing-support-unless-it’s-Princess-Ai. And no, it wasn’t planned from the beginning. When they told me they approved the project, they then sprung the whole 90-page thing on me. Considering my plot outlines had written for 160-180 pages, I was shocked and disappointed — but I didn’t feel like there was anything I could do.

Here it is: Tokyopop always felt like it was flailing around with no sense of purpose or long-term strategy, and they would spin out these silly jelly-at-the-wall ideas on a regular basis rather than just knuckle down and focus on great stories, well-marketed. When they launched Manga Readers or whatever that little format was called, they were all “we will get this in the YA section of bookstores!” Um, did they? Did they heck. They also didn’t follow up with any marketing outside the comics world. I remember speaking to one of their marketing people and going, hey, have we tried to get this reviewed in some newspapers’ kids book sections? Can you show me what reviews you’ve managed to get for the book? And they were completely flummoxed. They ummed and ahhed and then asked me if I wanted a free pass to Bristol Comic Con in the UK as if it were a big deal. “No, we didn’t get a single mainstream review of this book but that’s OK, we’ll give you this great opportunity to go to Bristol!” Look, if you do comics in the UK, you know Mike (who runs Bristol Comic Con) on a first-name basis. You don’t need a company in Los Angeles to get you that as the sum total of its big marketing push for your book.

Directly after the rather perfunctory launch of Manga Readers, Tokyopop were off onto some other new shiny toy… and so its old toys withered on the shelves. I just so wish I’d been able to write a normal 160 to 180 page tankubon as I had intended. That probably also would have failed, but at least I would have felt better about the series being in its original, intended format. Of course, there’s always the huge heaving possibility my writing just sucks and that’s why the series didn’t sell!

Q: The setting of a private school where mysteries occur has a long history, with many varied appearances. Which are some of your favorites/influences?

A: Oh, clearly, Nancy Drew! I’m a sucker for a good mystery romp. I also grew up glued to American teen school-drama TV, like 90210 (I always thought, why does the West Coast have all the fun? East Coast schools are much more interesting…), Square Pegs, Saved by the Bell, and of course John Hughes films. Genre is genre because people love it. It doesn’t matter if the setup is old and hoary. If you write good characters with experiences and feelings that connect to readers, that readers feel are true, then it doesn’t matter that there are a lot of other school mystery stories.

Q: I loved how you featured a strong theme of class distinctions based on money. What was behind that choice?

A: I went to a private East Coast day school — much of what I wrote was based on my own experience or observations. There was a girl who was the math teacher’s daughter at my school…. she had it really tough. And I and my girlfriend Ellen totally got called “lesbi-friends” when we were in fifth grade. I had to go home and ask my mom what that meant! There was also a lot of upper-middle-class posturing going on: who got invited to cotillion, who had the hot new sweater from The Limited, who had a boat, who had a Porsche as their first car. My family was scrimping and saving to send me to that school (thank heaven I was an only child), so I sort of felt like an alien.

Although I always sort of feel like an alien. There’s part of me that’s always at a remove, just watching and recording. I desperately want to get a dictaphone so I can covertly tape sounds and strangers’ conversations I overhear in public places but my family are fairly sure that will result in my getting beat up.

Q: Given how much was left hanging at the end of book three — we don’t know who stole Chloe’s necklace or who the Artful Dodger was, and the “next time” blurb also promised revenge and a teacher’s secrets — will you reveal the answers? What was intended to happen in book four? Who was the Artful Dodger?

A: Book 4 is complete — drawn, lettered and toned. It was complete before Tokyopop “restructured”, and it is just mired somewhere in the swamp of despair that is that company. Tokyopop have not communicated with me since… hang on, Gmail search ahoy… June 16th of this year. They say they’ll release it online at some point but I have a standing $20 bet with another comics writer that Tokyopop will declare bankruptcy and/or totally shut down within the next 12 months, so I’m not holding my breath. This is NOT a company that can survive as a purely marketing entity — oh, the irony! If/when they go under, I’ll of course throw the book up online for all to read. All plot lines are resolved in Book 4; that’s all I’ll say.

Q: What was your planned conclusion to the series? How many volumes would it have run if things had gone perfectly?

A: The series really could have spun out as long as I wanted it to. I was planning mini-arcs of about 4 books each with maybe a complete stand-alone or two in between. I mean, Kat & Mouse mysteries are pretty much always stand alone but certain groups of mysteries also deal with a larger story arc, e.g. the Artful Dodger. I was going to do a stand-alone about a hidden treasure over Christmas…. then the next arc would have dealt with the arrival of the Princess (who is a bit different than everyone might imagine), and major upheavals in the social structure of Kat’s class. Then a stand-alone about summer in Maine and a “trap war” (where lobster fishermen start cutting each other’s traps over perceived territorial infringements). Although given the current economy, I might have done a story or two about kids having to leave Dover Academy due to their dads losing their investment banking jobs! The stories just run and run with Kat & Mouse…. it’s so easy to think up fun things for them.

Q: Are you working on any comics now?

A: Mm, no. Vaguely contemplating a couple things but I’ve been non-stop with the music videos of late, and I need to finish a feature screenplay I’m working on. If I do anything, I’ll find an artist who’s just willing to go ahead and do it, and we’ll keep control of the project ourselves. It will obviously thus happen VERY slowly. So I feel a little like a fraud being interviewed about comics — I don’t know if I “count” as a comics writer any more.

Q: If you could do it again, would you do anything differently?

A: I think I would have been more stroppy about the whole Manga Reader thing (and Manga Chapter, the other random spin-off format that they shoved my Agent Boo series into). I would have said no, this must be a proper tankubon, or nothing. But I don’t really regret anything. I know I’m seen as this loose cannon who speaks truth to (and about) power and is thus persona non grata at a couple publishers but I don’t care. If I cared, I’d STFU. I don’t feel for a second that I’ve missed any opportunities — and, most importantly, I’ve kept my soul and I’ve had a heckuva good time.


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