Cathy Camper: Writing Lowriders in Space

Lowriders coverLowrid­ers in Space
writ­ten by Cathy Camper
illus­trat­ed by Raul the Third
Chron­i­cle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrider culture?

Probably in the early 1980’s, when I visited a friend of mine who lived in the Mission District of San Francisco. There were a lot of lowriders in the neighborhood, and since we were young women at the time, we’d get flirtatious attention from guys showing off their cars when we walked down the street.

How was the decision made to make your three heroes non-human (the fourth hero, Genie, is a cat and I don’t need to ask why a cat is a cat)? They are an impala, an octopus, and a human … how did that come about?

Back when the book was just a daydream, I thought up the names of the characters first. I liked the name Elirio, and the name Elirio Malaria was really fun to say. I’d walk around thinking, Elirio Malaria, what kind of guy is he? Then one day it was as if a little voice whispered in my ear, “I’m not a guy, I’m a mosquito!” Duh!

Lowriders cast
Heroes in Space

Lupe (short for Guadalupe) Impala also got her name because it was fun to say, and because Impalas are the cho­sen cars of lowrid­ers. She real­ly is an impala, which is like a deer, or gazelle. For some rea­son read­ers don’t seem to know what kind of ani­mal she is; they think she’s a fox, a wolf, a mouse?!? Raul and I thought it would be clear from her name, but you just nev­er know…

And Flappy…I was read­ing an arti­cle about octo­pus­es, and dis­cov­ered there real­ly is a super cute kind of octo­pus called a Flap­jack Octo­pus, because its ten­ta­cles are short and stub­by. Bam, you couldn’t ask for a bet­ter character.

It cracks me up when I hear the heroes described as a mos­qui­to, an impala and an octo­pus, because I nev­er thought of them as those ani­mals first. Their ani­mal nature came out of their names and personalities.

For the kids who’d like to make their own comics, how did you find Raul the Third? And when you found him, did the two of you work on developing the graphic novel together? Or was there the typical separation of author and artist?

Lupe at the Wheel
Lupe at the Wheel

Raul and I met via a mutual friend, who was drawing another comic I’d written. He couldn’t complete it, so he emailed me to suggest his friend Raul might like to work on it. I never finished that comic, but several years later when I’d written the script for Lowriders, I emailed Raul to see if was interested in a kid’s book, because I liked his art and knew we both had a good work ethic – we like to meet our deadlines.

He read it and wrote back, “This is the book I want­ed to read as a kid,” and start­ed send­ing me sketch­es the next day. He lives in Boston and I live in Port­land, and we even­tu­al­ly met in per­son before embark­ing on such a big project, but from the start, it was obvi­ous we had sim­i­lar goals and shared the same sense of humor and approach to get­ting things done. In gen­er­al, I write the sto­ry and he does the art, but we’re lucky that our pub­lish­ers have let us col­lab­o­rate a lot. Some­times Raul will sug­gest plot changes or add dia­log that fits with his chore­og­ra­phy of the sto­ry. Like­wise, some­times I’ll spec­i­fy some things that need to be shown in the art. It’s kind of like jazz, riff­ing off each oth­er, where jokes and plot lines move back and forth between words and pic­tures. We also both have to adjust what we do to fit our edi­tors’ and art director’s instructions.

Because a comic book or graphic novel often lets a story be told between the panels, did you do more editing to fit the illustrations than you might have with a picture book?


When I write the script, it’s very descriptive, because I’m trying to convey a whole world to Raul, my editors, and our art director. When Raul draws the thumbnail sketches, a lot of the writing falls out, because the story has now moved into the pictures. So if a character says, “Look, there’s a falling star!” once he’s drawn it, the character might just need to say, “Look!” I also try to leave some large spaces where big drama occurs, so the art can take over.

I think our book is dif­fer­ent in this way from books like Dra­ma or El Deafo, in that their art fol­lows the plot line a lit­tle more direct­ly, where­as Raul and I want­ed some­times to let the art just enve­lope the reader.

I don’t think it’s that dif­fer­ent from writ­ing a pic­ture book, except I have to use waaay more excla­ma­tion marks. There are some parts of the writ­ing I fight for, though, in order to main­tain a rhythm, a poet­ry and to retain deep­er lay­ers of meaning.

Did you set out to write a comic that had science elements in it? Was lowriding into outer space always a part of the concept?

I love science; it’s where I get tons of my inspiration because nothing is more unbelievable than what is true. My first idea for this book was that it would be cool to have a car that was detailed by outer space. So it was natural to include not just space science but the technology of cars. I also thought it was weird that we rarely see kids’ books about cars, when you think of the big part they play in our lives, and all the jobs folks have involving automobiles.

I love that this comic is virtually readable by any person of any age: was that a conscious decision?

Lowriders illustrationMy original target audiences were kids in third through fifth grade, English- Spanish readers, and boys, since their literacy rate is dropping. I also wanted something that wouldn’t seem babyish to older kids reading below grade level, since I work with a lot of kids like that as a librarian. And then Raul and I are both avid comics readers, so we wanted to include stuff that both parents and adult comics ‘ fans would enjoy. Plus a lot of it was just Raul and I making ourselves laugh.

Integrating Spanish into the story feels very natural—and I know a lot of people will be grateful for the instant translation on each page—which feels like a natural part of the comic book style. Was this a subject of discussion with your editor or art director?

Both Raul and I love Love and Rockets comics by the Hernandez brothers, (an adult comic). They always used drop-down translations and explanations beneath their comic’s frames for things readers might not understand. Our comic is definitely an homage to theirs (they have a female mechanic named Maggie who works on rockets, and who is Lupe’s role model) and so we thought it was natural to do this in our book as well. I wanted to include a glossary for many reasons, but first and foremost, to empower any kid to read. Incarcerated kids, immigrant kids, kids whose parents don’t speak English or Spanish, or don’t read super well. I wanted to give kids the opportunity to figure it out themselves. Also, learning to use a glossary is a skill in and of itself, which ties in with curriculum goals, which schools need to meet. And then there’s the kids that tell me, “I just love reading glossaries! “

Have you done any work on your own car?

Naw, although my car is kinda low and slow. It’s old and faithful.

Do you have plans to go into outer space?

No, I like looking at meteor showers, and the night sky, and spying on outer space through telescopes. I guess I’m not focused on just one field of science. I love talking to scientists and learning what’s new and cool. There’s so much to discover, and we live in an age where a lot is going on.

Does the group El Lupe y su Quinteto Impala have anything to do with Lupe’s name?

Ha! Nope, that’s a total coincidence. Although I do love cumbia!

For classroom teachers who might be working with students who are writing a comic book, what advice would you give them about the writing side of this?

As a writer working with an artist, you have to agree to collaborate. So you want to figure out right at the start who does what. Some artists want the writer to do all the writing, break down the dialog frame by frame, and even describe what they should draw in each frame. Other artists prefer more freedom. And the same can be true of writers. Some demand to have a lot of artistic control about how the art will look. Others are more open. If it’s clear from the beginning, no one’s feelings will get hurt.

Do a rough form of the com­ic, pen­cil­ing every­thing in loose­ly, before you com­mit to some­thing that will take a lot more work. That way, you can work out your mis­takes before you invest too much time in it. One very impor­tant thing is to fig­ure out where each page will fall. If you look at a com­ic, you’ll see how impor­tant it is, where each pan­el lands. A big dou­ble page splash page has to land on two pages that lay next to each oth­er. So it real­ly helps to make a rough mock-up of your com­ic to fig­ure this out.

I notice on the title page it says “Book 1.” Dare we hope for a Book 2?

Oh yes, book two is in the works as I write this, and it’s bigger and just as over-the-top as book one. Our intrepid heroes take a road trip in the opposite direction, into the center of the Earth! It will be out in spring of 2016.

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