American author and illustrator Dav Pilkey has done it again. This past summer, the author best known for his “Captain Underpants” series released his newest ‘tail,’ “Dog Man.” Published on Aug. 30, Pilkey has spent the past months touring the United States to meet his fans and he arrived at the Fairfield University Bookstore on Oct. 22 for a major event. Initially set up for only 250 people, the bookstore staff was faced with a dilemma when they were left with a seemingly endless wait list. Nevertheless, the staff handled the situation and ensured that there was space for everyone — families and college students alike. Afterwards, guests were able to take photos with Pilkey and have him sign their copies of “Dog Man.” Given that so many eager families were waiting on the line for hours, things were looking grim. However, “Captain Underpants” and “Dog Man” saved the day, gifting red capes just like Dog Man’s to each child, assisting the Starbucks staff members in handing out delicious treats and celebrating as winners for numerous raffles were selected from the crowd.
“Dog Man” was first described in “Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers” when Tippy Tinkletrousers went hurtling into the past — only to come across protagonists George Beard and Harold Hutchins during their kindergarten days. Having just defeated a sixth grade bully using only their wits, the two are thrown into detention by their arch-nemesis, Mr. Krupp, and are left to bond over the creation of their first comic book, “The Adventures of Dog Man.” Since 2002, we have seen many of Beard and Hutchins’ comics come to life, but “Dog Man” was one of the most highly anticipated and resulted in more than one Fairfield student revisiting these childhood favorites.
While an amazing creator of fictional works, Pilkey is also an avid supporter of children across the world with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. Pilkey himself was diagnosed with both of these disorders during elementary school and uses Beard and Hutchins to help children by fighting stereotypes. The two fourth graders live normal lives filled with chores, mean teachers, awesome grandparents and the occasional evil robot, superhero or sentient toilet. Both have ADHD. It is not announced on every page and the storyline is not focused on the struggles of their diagnoses because the characters, just like those who have these diagnoses outside of the world of fiction, are not defined by it. Their ADHD is just something that enables them to process information differently and invent solutions that might not occur to others. The truthful representation of people with any mental diagnosis is one that is frightfully absent in most media and Pilkey both addresses that and gives children characters that they can relate to — reminding them that no matter what people may be telling them or how they feel, they are not alone.
Due to the event, I was given the opportunity to speak with Pilkey about the writing process and his upcoming projects.
Q: What can you tell us about “Dog Man” and its upcoming sequel?
A: The first book is four or five stories that are interconnected, but the sequel is one long story [where] everything ties together. It’s a slight change in format, but has a lot of the same characters and situations. I’m confident that if you like the first one, you’ll have a great time with the second.
Q: What have you enjoyed the most about your tour promoting “Dog Man?”
A: The best thing is meeting the kids and meeting the parents. A lot of parents tell me that their sons and daughters didn’t like to read until they found “Captain Underpants” or “Dog Man,” and that the books have been a life-changing experience for their kids. I never get tired of hearing that.
Q: How did you come up with your half-dog, half-man “crime biting” canine protagonist?
A: When I was in second grade, I was always drawing and making up stories. “Dog Man” came before “Captain Underpants” and he was just a dog who was always getting struck by lightning. Every time he was struck by lightning, he would gain superpowers, fly around and save people.
Q: How much say have you had in the upcoming “Captain Underpants” movie?
A: I was involved quite a bit at the beginning of it, but one of the reasons I wanted to work with DreamWorks Animation is because I love all of their films and the director David Soren is the creator and director of the film “Turbo” and I’m crazy about that film. One of the great things about working with them is that they don’t need my help. I’m free to work on my books and they do their thing. They have shared a lot with me throughout the process. It’s all very exciting for me, but I think the best part is that they’re so talented that I don’t need to be involved, which is great.
Q: Where did your idea for the hypnotic ring used in “Captain Underpants” to turn the principal into an underpants-clad superhero come from?
A: When I would read comic books as I kid, the thing I found most interesting about them were the ads in the back or middle that promised outrageous things like a treasure chest that sold 100 toys for only a dollar — and it was always a total rip off. So I thought, ‘What if these things actually came through on their promise — if you could actually hypnotize people — wouldn’t that be cool? And what if it backfired …’ I think that was something that got the “Captain Underpants” ball rolling.
Q: There are few pieces of published media where the main characters have ADHD, but where the plot does not center on the diagnosis. When you created the characters of George and Harold, did you do so with the purpose of fixing this lack of media attention?
A: When I was a kid, I had ADHD and I had dyslexia, and I felt really alone. George and Harold are kind of based on me and I wanted [the kids who read the series today] to know that a lot of people have ADHD because I don’t want them to feel alone. I want them to know that it doesn’t have to be viewed as a challenge — that it can be viewed as just a different way of thinking and that’s what George and Harold do. They use their creativity, their imaginations, to solve the problems that they get themselves into, so I hope the kids with ADHD and other challenges view them as good things.
Q: What is your writing kryptonite?
A: The negative people. I think that’s tough on everybody — fortunately the positive people who love “Captain Underpants” far outnumber the bad guys, so I try to focus on the love and not the hate.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: Kind of unusual. My wife and I have a home in Japan and that’s where I do most of my writing. I get a lot of inspiration from nature, so I have this place down at the beach where I write, but there are these monkeys that live down there; macaque monkeys. They used to be afraid of me, but now they see me there all the time, so they look through my stuff, check out what’s in my pockets and crawl all over my lap. They’re a little obnoxious. So if I try to get rid of the monkeys and they won’t leave me alone, I kayak to a cave about 10 or 15 minutes away from where I live and there are no monkeys there, so I can be close to nature, get my work done and not be bothered by monkeys.
Q: If you could meet any of your book characters, who would it be?
A: Dog Man. I’d probably have the most fun with Dog Man. I love dogs and I love animals in general. I think he and I would have a lot of fun together.
Q: If you could pick any animal to describe yourself, what animal would you pick?
A: Dogs. I love cats too, but I relate more to dogs because they just kind of enjoy the simple pleasures in life — eating, taking naps, playing — and it doesn’t take a lot to make them happy — I relate to that. Also, dogs are always making silly mistakes and I do a lot of that.
Q: Is there anything you would like to say to the Fairfield students who grew up reading your Captain Underpants Series and the subsequent spinoffs?
A: Go Stags. Also, I hope they enjoy the new series and the movie that’s coming up.