Holy Hannahs! — BMS creators launch book series for kids
Husband-and-wife cartoonist couple Rod and Leanne Hannah are at a crossroads in their creative careers.
Their popular webcomic Blue Milk Special , which launched in 2009 in the darkness of space to the crescendo of music, is well into Return of the Jedi. It’s been a long road for the sci-fi parody, affectionately skewering Star Wars (and other movie and TV franchises) through A New Hope, New Hope: Aftermath, Little Alderaan, Boba Fett Adventure, Holiday Special, Greedo’s Cousins, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, Empire Strikes Back, and Shadows of the Empire. But when the Death Star explodes into a billion bits (again) and Luke, Leia, Han, et al share a final embrace, BMS in its current form will come to a close.
At the same time, their career as children’s book authors is just beginning. Their first Hickory Hippo book is on shelves, online and physical. In the Hannahs’ first picture book, Hickory Hippo & the Snow Mystery, the inquisitive ungulate investigates mysterious tracks in the snow and makes a frozen friend.
A diagram illustrates the overlapping projects.
Here’s an interview with Rod and Leanne about the two projects, their partnership in life and the creative arts, and Star Wars.
When you were deciding on a webcomic project to work on together, why did you choose Star Wars, and not Masters of the Universe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, or something else? What is it about Star Wars that makes BMS work?
I think the biggest factor in the subject matter zeroing in on Star Wars was simply that we had been rewatching the trilogy together at the time. I remember doing what I suppose most geeks will do, and quoting both obscure and famous lines as they came up in each scene — probably really irritating Leanne in the process! But I made it fun by changing the lines to make them dirty or just completely silly. At least some of the stuff I had come up with over years of watching Star Wars seemed to stand on its own pretty well and surprisingly hadn’t cropped up in other parodies before.
The other thing that occurred to me was that because Star Wars is generally more universally known than some of our other genre interests, the gags and tangents we would be spinning would have a better chance of registering with readers than, say, an obscure joke about Teela’s mother, the Sorceress, getting knocked up after a one night stand.
I’m not sure it could have worked as well if it had been anything other than Star Wars. Harry Potter has a lot of potential because so many people are familiar with the story and specific scenes and characters. It helps having subject matter that is widely known. Doctor Who is popular again, though it’s the classic series that I’m most steeped in, which limits my interest since so many New Series fans have little interest or appreciation for the original series. Star Trek is enormously popular, but where do you start? The Original Series? The movies? The Next Generation? I never really followed Voyager or Enterprise so it would have had to have been one of the earlier iterations. I think Romulan Ale Special doesn’t just have the same ring to it though. 😉
What are some of your favorite BMS strips, and why?
I think my all time favorite is probably one of our earliest strips where Biggs Darklighter swings in too late to save Luke (much less Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen). It’s such a simple strip but does so much to show how we’d decided to portray our version of Biggs. It still makes me chuckle every time I see it.
I think Luke singing “Black Betty” to help Leia find him under Cloud City is a favorite of mine. There are about 600 strips though, so it is impossible to remember them all. I liked the gag of Ponda Baba constantly losing additional limbs, and the Sithtah Act gag with Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan / Imperial Dignitary … that was suitably obscure and Blue-Milksian.
Which would you change or get rid of if you ever had the Lucas-like urge to redo them?
Oh, I’d definitely go back in and redo the artwork. When we started creating BMS, I was hand-drawing everything on paper and scanning it into the computer. Nowadays I draw everything digitally, so the art is nice and crisp. Plus, my style has evolved a lot since the early days, and I tend to cringe at some of the really early stuff. But I suppose it has its own charm in some ways, so that keeps me from going all George on it!
I’m already guilty of making some tweaks, but I don’t think there is anything glaring that I would want to go back and change. Making little tweaks and fixes genuinely made me reconsider a little of my stance about Lucas doing the same to his films. I think he has the right to change them, but I don’t think the world should be deprived of the original theatrical releases pre-heavy changes of 1997. Those versions meant too much to too many people, myself included, to just throw away Lak Sivrak or Arleil Schouss, or Lapti Nek and other works by talented prop-makers, effects artists and musicians.
To me, the physical effects are an achievement of that era that should be forever appreciated in a historical context. Also, when you replace the work of artists who contributed to a classic, you disrespect them and erase their contribution to cinema history. It’s very inconsiderate on George’s part.
However, I don’t think me fixing genuine frame overlaps and typos is in quite the same category … but I do think some of our early work is a little embarrassing to look back at. So, yes … I can understand Lucas’ embarrassment as a motivator, but I think it’s misplaced.
What are some things you’ve learned about Star Wars (and life) from working on BMS? Coolest parts of being part of Star Wars, on a panel with John Morton and Timothy Zahn, meeting Garrick Hagon, serving with the 501st, etc.?
Probably the biggest plus for me is all of the friends we’ve made through BMS. And not just here in the States, but all over the world. It’s amazing to see how many people read the strip, no matter where in the world they live. And we finally had a chance to meet some of our international readers a few months ago, which was just a HUGE blast. I will always treasure these friendships we’ve made, no matter where BMS ends up taking us.
What parts of BMS or the greater Star Wars universe would you change if you could? How do you deal with the trolls?
Well, if you create (whether it’s art, writing, etc.) and then post your creations online, you have to develop a thick skin pretty quickly. Trolls are just about everywhere due to the anonymity of the Internet. Criticism (especially when done maliciously) is tough to take sometimes, but we try to focus on the fact that there are people who DO like what we do. You can’t please everyone.
I can’t really change this, because it’s human nature, but I’d love for people to stop taking life and Star Wars so seriously. There is a Star Wars fan out there that has an answer for every possible oversight that George Lucas and the Expanded Universe authors have made. I don’t think ANYTHING should be placed on a pedestal and be exempt from a little objective and humorous criticism now and then. Sometimes you have to be able to laugh at yourself and your hobby and realize that seeing humor in something does not mean you are denigrating it.
Do you think Star Wars VII will be good? Any chance you’ll BMS it?
Yes, there’s a reasonable chance it will be good, but I’m not the typical fan and I’m fairly jaded and grumpy these days. Right now, I really don’t want to do a BMS parody of Star Wars VII, but if it blows my socks off then that could change. I’m just not one of those people that decides they love something before they’ve gotten to know it!
When developing a book project to work on together, why did you choose the children’s storybook genre?
There are several genres that interest us both, and writing for younger children is one of those. In some ways, it was a simpler project to start our collaborative professional careers. With a picture book you have a limited page count that is still demanding for Leanne, but not nearly as epic a project as a 100+ page graphic novel or tankôbon Manga. You also have a potentially wider audience in children and possibly the most rewarding responses. If you can make an impact in a child’s imagination with your story, it will stick with them for the rest of their lives. That’s a pretty special feeling, to know you are contributing something magical to their lives.
Hickory is inspired by a toy hippo – who gave Leanne a stuffed hippo and why? What about that particular toy stuck with you over the years and when you were thinking of a character for your books? Do you still have it?
I was given a hippo stuffed animal as a gift from one of my dad’s good friends when I was two years old. I immediately took to the little hippo, and cherished it for years (heck, I still do, if I’m being honest). He went everywhere with me— doctor’s appointments, sleepovers, hospital visits. Everywhere. Because the toy seemed to resonate so much with me when I was little, it seemed only natural to me that it might be something that would touch other children as well. So I set out to create a hippo character who would have fantastical adventures with his own set of animal friends. Hence, Hickory was born! And I do still have my stuffed animal, who is named… (wait for it….) Hippo.
Why create children’s stories that are sweet and sincere, in an age where ironic children’s books like Go the F*** to Sleep seem popular?
I guess we just didn’t want to do anything derivative or another parody when we had the opportunity to make something original at long last. We wanted to tell a genuine children’s story that would hopefully mean something to kids. I guess, given our reputation with Blue Milk Special, you might expect us to keep that sort of ironic vein of humor in other works too, but now we are adults we both wanted to give back something of the magic we felt from the stories we were read as children. I also felt like there is room for a whimsical “magical world” of talking animals. There are too many slice-of-life anthropomorphic tales out there at the moment. Escapism is so much more fun.
Who are some people you’ve used as inspirations for characters, like the raven who always talks but no one ever listens to?
Edgar Raven was a character Rod came up with on the fly. I’d drawn him into the first book and after Rod saw him, he came up with his own little backstory for him. Naturally, we named him after a certain poet. Poor old Edgar may show up again in a future book… I like the little guy.
What are some of your favorite responses you’ve received from readers so far, of Hickory and BMS?
For Hickory Hippo, it’s definitely seeing the reactions from children. We’ve had a lot of customers send us pictures of them reading the books to their kids, and seeing their little faces and reactions is just awesome. Hearing that the children enjoyed the characters, or really got into the story, is just amazing. It’s exactly what we were hoping for.
How and when did you guys get together? (Rod grew up in New Zealand, about 8,000 miles from Maryland, where Leanne is from) How did you make a looong distance relationship work? What have you learned about each other, and each other’s home countries and cultures?
We actually first met on a G.I. Joe mailing list back in 2000 and became good friends due to a lot of similar hobbies and interests. It also helped that our timezones meshed— at the time I was in college and staying up all hours, so I was usually online whenever Rod was in New Zealand. Over the ensuing months we ended up talking on the phone, and then Rod came to visit me in the summer of 2002. After another year of international visits and jumping through United States immigration hoops (which is another story in itself), we married in 2004 and the rest is history!
Advice for others in long distance relationships, or working together on joint projects?
A long distance relationship entails sacrifices and those sacrifices will not be equal. You’ll make sacrifices and they will be worth it, IF you know you couldn’t be anywhere else than with your loved one. You need enthusiasm and a willingness to assimilate interests and tolerate quirks.
Unless you are both leaving your family and friends to meet and live in some neutral territory midway, it will always be a little tougher for one of the two people in the relationship. So long as that hardship is appreciated by the other, then I think it’s a burden that is bearable.
I am guessing that this same advice probably applies to joint projects. You can’t always have a perfect 50/50 split in creativity and work share, so you have to be able to appreciate and support the one carrying the heavier load and find other ways to get a balance. Not every idea you have is going to float your partner’s boat either, so you have to really understand each other and be able communicate, otherwise frustrations can brew and jeopardize the project.
How do you keep things together in the face of the challenges you’ve faced?
At the end of the day, all that matters is that you have each other. We’ve faced a lot over the years but having each other to lean on, in addition to such supportive family and friends, helps tremendously. Also having creative outlets like BMS and Hickory Hippo is just great for keeping our spirits up and the creative juices flowing. That’s huge for morale around the Hannah house!
What would you guys like to be remembered for? What are some things you’d like to do over the next couple years, and 50 years from now?
In the short term I’d like to at long last get one of my long gestation novels finished and published. I have a couple different sci-fi stories, an adult fantasy and a children’s fantasy all waiting to be unleashed. Over the next 50 years, I’d like to have published my stories in a variety of genres out there for people to experience and hopefully enjoy.
As far as being remembered, I think I speak for both of us when I say we’d like to have given something meaningful to people. We tend to think of that in terms of storytelling, but who doesn’t want to have made an impact in someone’s life, whether it’s friends or family, or complete strangers. We hope someday we might have left something behind that lives on. Some people have babies, others do their creating on paper.
Rod’s comics work includes writing for Mice Templar and Cereal:Geek, publishing Once Upon A Caper, and editing and lettering Lava-Roid and Pulverized. Leanne has drawn for Marvel Comics, Hasbro, Scholastic, and Mattel, with recent work including Casper and the Spectrals and Whatever Happened to Baron Von Shock. They’re working on a Hickory sequel to Snow Mystery, this time set in spring. I also wrote another article on Blue Milk Special. All comics and drawings are from the Hannahs’ websites for BMS and Hickory Hippo.