Why Not Smile? | Raina Telgemeier

Catching up with Raina Telgemeier, author of the autobiographical webcomic-turned-dental drama graphic novel Smile, on the floor of the inaugural C2E2 convention.


Losing your teeth. It’s a nightmare that’s all too common, up there with falling through the sky or showing up to school naked, and it’s a nightmare that came true for 11-year-old Raina Telgemeier when an unexpected trip knocked out her two front teeth. But after years of pain, embarrassment, and extensive dental work, Telgemeier ultimately won back her smile, a tale she tells in intimate detail in her webcomic-turned-dental drama graphic novel, Smile.
Photo by Marion VitusBut Smile is much more than simply a diary of Telgemeier’s excruciating run-in with the world of orthodontia. It’s also a memoir of growing up different, of junior high crushes and back-stabbing friends, and, most of all, of learning what’s really important in life. It’s a story told with an eye for detail, giving it a personal and heartfelt touch. The book is sure to resonate with any teen struggling to fit in (or any adult who remembers that struggle all too well), and it’s all captured with a unique flair by Telgemeier’s clean, expressive, Jeff Smith-inspired art.
Telgemeier began serializing Smile online in 2004, but she became better-known in the meantime with the release of 2006’s Kristy’s Great Idea, the first in a series of graphic novel adaptations of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club book series. She would ultimately draw four Baby-Sitters Club books before her publisher, Graphix (the graphic novel imprint of youth-lit publisher Scholastic), took a chance on Smile, releasing the previously black-and-white webcomic in a full-color hardcover this past February. During the final stages of Smile’s development, Telgemeier also collaborated with her husband (and fellow cartoonist) Dave Roman and artist Anzu on X-Men: Misfits, a shojo manga-styled re-imagining of the venerable Marvel Comics franchise that recently made waves in the comics blogosphere when it was announced that publisher Del Rey would not be releasing the series’ second volume. (To read our own Byron Kerman’s take on the series’ first volume, click here.)
PLAYBACK:stl caught up with Telgemeier on the floor of this year’s inaugural C2E2 convention to discuss the genesis of Smile, the reactions to the work so far, and the cartoonist’s upcoming projects. 


For people who haven’t heard of it, can you summarize Smile? What’s your convention pitch to people when they walk up?
Smile is about being in middle school, having braces, and feeling really awkward about yourself. I actually knocked out my two front teeth when I was 11 years old, so the story is about the next five years of my life, and how I had to have a lot of dental reconstruction and, basically, how I got my smile back.
One of the things that really impressed me, as somebody who had braces: it brought me back to that moment. I could feel my braces being tightened, a sensory memory I hadn’t thought of in forever. What was it like having to kind of relive that trauma over the long length of time it took to actually make the book?
I think I have a pretty good memory for pain, and very explicitly how to describe the pain. That’s just one of my quirks. Reliving it was easy for me, I could very easily channel how it felt and what it was like. And possibly, that’s because I’ve had a lot of dental work since my teenage years because, having knocked out my two front teeth, y’know, the story ends when I’m fifteen but my story continued. And it continues to this day: every time I go to the dentist, there’s always a little bit of awful prodding and scraping that goes on.
Does that mean there’s a sequel? [laughs]
No! [laughs] There’s no sequel just because I think the story ended when I got my smile back and everything else after that would just be, I dunno, fodder…or anecdotes, but not moving in a specific direction. I’ve had teeth since then. [laughs]
I chiefly know you from doing the Baby-Sitters Club books. What were the challenges of working autobiographically as opposed to working on those fictional stories?
Well, all of the writing I had done before The Baby-Sitters Club was autobio, and all of my minicomics and short stories that I did leading up to getting the Baby-Sitter’s Club gig were autobio stories. I had a minicomic series called Takeout, and I did seven issues of that, 12 pages each, and I was working on those for four years before I started doing The Babysitter’s Club comics. So I was, really, an autobio cartoonist who then happened to start working on some adaptation projects. And then Smile was kind of going back to my roots, but it was the first long-form autobio comic that I wrote. I don’t know that there are challenges involved, but it’s just what comes naturally for me.
But I’ve written another book now that’s not straight autobio. It’s loosely based on events in my life, but heavily, heavily altered! To purest fiction! [laughs]
Smile was published as a webcomic when you first got started on it. Did you have the print edition in mind as you were working on it?
I’m a person who came to cartooning through print. I read comic strips in the newspaper, I read a lot of graphic novels growing up. I really love the print medium, and so [that] was always what I wanted to do, was to make books. And the webcomics thing happened because people kept saying, “Put your stuff on the web! Put your stuff on the web!” I didn’t know how to do that! I didn’t know what an FTP program was, I didn’t know how to get comics from my page to a screen. I had to have it all explained to me, over and over again, in detail, before I sort of figured it out.
And once I did, it was like, “Oh, I get it, you can get a much bigger audience this way, and you can really do a lot of interesting things with page layouts,” and stuff like that. But, because I came from print, I was still not stretching my wings too far as far as the format of the story, and I knew that I wanted to print it someday. So, I think it was like I was making a print graphic novel, but I was serializing it on the web on a weekly basis.
The book has been out for a couple months. What’s the reception been like so far?
It’s been astounding. Apparently, it’s already sold out of its first print run. Mostly that’s because of Scholastic book fairs…I guess kids in the fourth and fifth grades are getting it brought directly to them at school, and they’re buying it up and reading it and handing it to their friends to read. I’ve heard from teachers who are saying, “We have a waiting list thirty-two deep to read your book, the kids can’t wait to read it and they’re fighting over who gets it next.” I’ve gotten tons of emails already from kids that are just grateful to have a book that they can relate to, because it feels a lot like their lives.
Smile Live! Photo by Jason GreenI saw at 2 o’clock today, “Smile Live.” [Raina laughs] Could you tell me a bit about what this is?
I took a chapter from the story, and me and a couple of other actors are going to be up on a stage, showing it panel-by-panel and reading the dialogue. So it’ll be like a live reading from the comic.
Have you done this before?
I’ve done this type of thing a lot of times before, yeah.
You were just in the news recently because of the announcement that Del Rey won’t be continuing X-Men: Misfits. I was wondering if you had any commentary on that that you wanted to share.
Obviously, I’m disappointed, because we were hired to write a two-book series, and so we wrote a two-part story. Book one was just all setup, and we were going to pay off on a lot of things in book two. And now, we know what happens in book two, but no one else is ever going to get to know what happens in book two.
I don’t know, [I think] we would have done things really differently if we had known that we were only going to get one book published. Maybe Kitty would have actually started the X-Men in book one instead of waiting until book two to start the X-Men. That’s what was going to happen in book two: Kitty creates the X-Men. [laughs] It was going to be so cool!
It’s got to be frustrating, too, since they’re not your characters, so there’s nothing you can do.
No, no. It’s licensed and it was work-for-hire, so we got paid to do the work. And that’s how any work-for-hire job is: you can hope that the books will come out, but if they don’t, you kind of just have to shrug your shoulders and hope for the best next time.
What are your impressions of the first C2E2?
I like these windows! It’s so nice and light in here.
I’ve never been to a show in Chicago before, [but] I like it so far! It’s a little bit calmer than, for example, the New York Comic Con. It’s a lot calmer than the San Diego Comic Con. And I like that, because I get very over-stimulated at these things. It’s a nice, laidback version of one of the big shows.
Last question: what’s your next project coming up?
My next project coming up is going to be about high school kids on stage crew and the sort of drama that goes on behind the scenes when you put on a theater production. It’s written, but it’s not drawn yet, so I have to go home now and start the art for it. | Jason Green
To read Raina Telgemeier’s convention diary entry for her trip to C2E2, go to http://goraina.livejournal.com/236994.html. For more information or to read some of her webcomics, visit GoRaina.com.

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