Saying Goodbye To The Kojo Nnamdi Show
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes cartoonist and graphic novelist Judd Winick to the show on Monday, March 15 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
When he was a kid, Judd Winick loved reading comics in the newspaper. As an adult, he wrote for DC Comics — stories about Green Lantern, Batman and Catwoman among other superheroes. Then he decided to write a whole book of comics about a character of his own: “Hilo,” the boy who crashed to Earth.
The graphic novels in the “Hilo” series, now seven books strong, have climbed to the top of The New York Times best sellers list. And the latest “Hilo” book was just published — the first starring Hilo’s friend Gina in the enticingly titled: “Gina: The Girl Who Broke The World.”
We welcome Judd Winick to the show to talk about Hilo, Gina and the other characters he has written about and drawn. And we also welcome the students of Janney Elementary School in Northwest Washington. We’re eager to hear their questions for Judd Winick, and yours too — if you’re a kid.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 23 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Judd Winick doesn't remember a time when he wasn't drawing. As a kid, he liked to copy his favorite comics, especially Garfield the cat. When he grew up, D.C. Comics hired him to write stories for famous superheroes, including Batman and Green Lantern. But in the past few years, Judd Winick has been creating graphic novels about a character from his own imagination, Hilo, also known as The Boy Who Crashed to Earth.
KOJO NNAMDIWe're talking with Judd Winick today about the Hilo series, which is now seven books strong, and how you, too, can turn your ideas into stories and comics. We also welcome the students of Janney Elementary School. Judd Winick, welcome to the program.
JUDD WINICKKojo, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. I'm trying to keep from giggling on this end. As you warn, like, no grownups, just the kids. Because I don't want to hear any, like, oh, my name's Timmy. I'm nine. (laugh)
NNAMDII do my share of giggling on this end, too. We'll get to your cartoons and books in a minute, but first, tell us about when you were a kid. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
WINICKI grew up in Long Island, New York. I grew up in, in hindsight, a pretty idyllic suburban upbringing. We -- my family -- we were just about middle class, you know, and we did fine. And I'd say, in looking back, I went to an excellent school district, which really took care of me, as a budding little artist. You know, I was very fortunate. I went to an amazing elementary school, junior high school, high school that had -- they still had art. And my art teachers found me, right out of the gate.
WINICKYou know, for one hour a week in elementary school, we'd leave the classroom -- it seems crazy now (laugh) -- and go to another classroom and do art projects once a week. And from there on, for years forward, art teachers would find me, you know. And they knew I could draw a little bit better. And I'd get a little extra attention, little extra projects. And as I got older, I realized how fortunate I was just to have that, just to have, you know, that hour a week here or there. So, it was wonderful. You know, I've very little to complain about growing up.
NNAMDIYou've been drawing as long as you can remember. You always really liked comics. What did you love about them, and which were your favorites?
WINICKOh, just about everything, you know. I think my earliest memories of reading cartoons -- well, for our younger viewers, there were these things out there called newspapers which were kind of like iPads made out of paper that had current events on them. You might've seen pictures. So, when I was a kid, the best -- well, we had the funnies, we had comic strips, which were like two to three pages, you know, right there in the center of the paper.
WINICKAnd it was like magic. Every day the newspaper would show up, and you had all these comic strips. That's where my love for cartoons and storytelling really began. It began with "Garfield," and later Berk Breathed's "Bloom County." And it was when I was, I don't know, six, seven years old, I'd already made a decision like, yeah, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make comic strips.
WINICKAnd somewhere after that, my dad had grew up reading comic books, superhero comics, you know, tossed a few of those on my lap and, you know, thus began my relationship with Spider-Man and Superman and the X-Men, after that. And those are the ones that taught me how to draw. I would copy drawings right out of comic books and out of, you know, the comic strip pages. And it also, you know, taught me how to story-tell.
NNAMDIComic pages are still the first part of the newspaper I read every day. When you were in college, a famous cartoonist you had always admired decided to become your mentor. Who was that, and what did you learn from her?
WINICKThat was Cathy Guisewite, who some of our older listeners might remember. So, Cathy's strip, which came to fame in the 1970s, and Cathy was one of maybe the first syndicated women to have a comic strip. Lynn Johnston did "For Better or For Worse," was a little bit after her, just a little bit. And Cathy went to the University of Michigan. And I literally was walking around my art school one day and I saw a poster that said: "If you want to be part of the mentor program, seek out a mentor."
WINICKAnd I actually went to the dean of the art school and said, yeah, I'd love to talk to Cathy Guisewite. Like, she went here? I was like, yes, she went here. She went here, and I want to talk to Cathy. And it was nuts, because like a week and a half later, I'm on the phone with Cathy Guisewite. And she's one of the biggest cartoonists in the, I mean, just in the whole wide world. And she was nice enough to chat and said, like, yeah, send me your stuff.
WINICKSo, every month, I would send her my college comic strip. And the end of the page was that by the time I was going to graduate, before I graduated, I had developed the old Universal Press Syndicate, and that had everything to do with Cathy, who literally marched it into her boss's office and said, like, yeah, there's this college student that I know. You should syndicate him. And then nine months later... (laugh)
NNAMDII was about to say, tell us what happened.
WINICKYeah, it's one of those things. I mean, we learn from our failures. So, they gave me a development deal, which was I was going to do the comic strip without being published. I was going to do my comic strip and send it to them every week to show I could make deadlines, to show the work was good. And after about nine months into my one year, they decided my work wasn't as good. (laugh) So, they decided -- I think the official line was they didn't think it was up to the professional competitive standards of the syndicated market at this time. And it could've just killed me. I was...
NNAMDIBut it didn't.
WINICKSay again, sir?
NNAMDIBut it didn't.
WINICKNo, no. I mean, I was pretty full of myself, and I think everyone needs to get kicked in the pants and knocked to the ground a couple times. And that was the first big one in my professional career.
NNAMDIWhat's your advice for when things don't go the way you hope?
WINICKOh, unfortunately, it's all the old adages. I don't have anything new to add to the conversation. It is literally you've got to pick yourself up and get started again. I think the only thing I would tap into would be, just what you were saying, that, you know, getting knocked on your butt is not the worst thing in the world. It really isn't. You need those failures, because it's the only way you're going to learn. It's the only way you're going to appreciate your successes. I think if you peak too early, you run into trouble. I think if you peak too early, you begin to, like, not look at yourself with a critical eye.
WINICKI mean, I always go back to, there was the terrific interview with Branford Marsalis -- I don't know, it could've been 20 years ago, maybe more -- where he was telling the story of a buddy of his had mentioned to him, that he said to Branford, he said like, hey, it must be great being at the top of your game. And Branford had said, oh, my God. I hope not. I hope I'm not at the top of my game. He said, I hope I've got -- I've got a ways to go, I hope. Like, if this is it, if this is the top of the ladder, this is the best I can do, I don't know. Because you always want to improve.
WINICKSo, you know, for everyone out there who's getting knocked down, for everyone who's just starting out, you should know we're always getting knocked down. We're always improving. I mean, I look -- I've been doing the "Hilo" series for, I guess, about eight years now. And I look at the first book and I look at the seventh book, and, to get really specific, I draw better now. You know, I've gotten better at, like, you know, what the characters look like and, you know, how I'm putting things together. It just looks better.
WINICKAnd someone might not notice, but I do. (laugh) I look at the earlier books, and I'm supposed to wince a little bit here and there. I' supposed to look at the earlier work and go, like, ooh, that's -- I could've done a little bit better with that. You're supposed to. You're supposed to fail a little bit.
NNAMDIOn to the callers, kid callers, many from Janney Elementary School. We'll start with 11-year-old Becca. Becca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BECCAHi. My name is Becca, and I go to Janney. My question for you, Mr. Winick, is what inspired you to write "Gina, the Girl Who Broke the World"?
WINICKOkay. I'm giggling because -- Becca, thank you for calling in. Just I don't want to embarrass you by saying, like, this is just the cutest thing in the whole world. Okay, we'll blow past that. So, yeah, the first six "Hilo" books, the series is called "Hilo," and Hilo is our hero. He's the one with the superpowers. And he gets backed up by his buddies, Gina and DJ. Well, the 7th book, we pivot, and Gina is now our hero, who's at the center of it with the powers and the magic. And DJ and Hilo are backing her up.
WINICKAnd for me, the book series has always been about the three of them. It's always been about Hilo, Gina and DJ, and revolving around the three of them, and they all play their parts. And, for me, I just saw this story going this direction. I just thought it was an interesting way to go, that I think we finish this big story arc with Hilo. And I think it just fed naturally into, like, let's tell one where Gina's at the center of it.
WINICKAnd I'd always -- Gina's cool, and Gina's just got powers, and Gina could do things. So, let's let her drive the car for a little while. That's what I thought, you know. And I could go on and tell you about, like, oh, I thought it would be fun to have a female protagonist. You know, that I've got a 12-year-old daughter here who, you know, wanted to see Gina in there. And she did. But I'd say my 12-year-old daughter likes Polly, who's this anthropomorphic cat. That's probably her favorite character. But I think Gina just became, as I did it, a rich and interesting character, and I thought it'd be kind of fun to put her in the driver's seat.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Becca. On to 11-year-old Daphne. Daphne, your turn.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Daphne.
DAPHNEMy question is, what was something from Hilo that was -- or is there something from Hilo that's based off something that actually happened?
WINICKWell, it's a great question, because, you know, at the center of it it is a boy who flies who shoots lasers out of his hands and a girl who makes sticks that shoots magic. So, (laugh) it is not really reality-based, but I will tell you this. The three characters that our story revolves around, Hilo, Gina and DJ, are all -- were kind of based on my life in small ways. Like, DJ's very much based on me when I was a kid. I was a very self-conscious kid. I was a very nervous kid, and I put a lot of that into DJ. We're different, that in when everybody gets into trouble, DJ's the first one to jump in to help. He's incredibly brave and forgets about everything when his friends are in trouble.
WINICKAnd Gina is very much based on my wife, Pam, because a lot of stories I would read, if a girl character was smart, she wasn't cool. And if she was cool, she wasn't smart. Well, my wife is both smart and cool. She's a doctor. So, she's brilliant. And she's extremely cool. She still colors her hair crazy colors. She's got a big blue streak in her hair right now, and she used to be in a rock band. She used to be on TV. She's ridiculously cool. So, I wanted that for Gina. They're similar in so many ways. Like, they both love astronomy, they both like, you know, read lots of books. You know, they love school. I mean, they're similar in those ways.
WINICKAnd Hilo's very much the best friend I always wanted. Like I said, I was a nervous kid. I would've loved to have had a best friend who would've turned to me and said, come on, let's go do this crazy thing. And I would've said, no, I definitely do not want to do that crazy thing. And a buddy would say, I don't care, we're going to do it, anyway. Let's go. I would've loved someone dragging me along to do something. So, in that way, they're very much part of my, you know, who I am and what my life's about.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Daphne. Judd, earlier, you talked about your drawing skills, you think, getting better. Well, seven-year-old Boaz asks -- and Boaz says he and his sister Marab (ph) love the "Hilo" books. He asks: How do you draw hair so well? Can you give us some tips? (laugh)
WINICK(laugh) Oh, it's like, you know, how to get to Carnegie Hall. Practice man, practice. Yeah, that unfortunately is the answer. I will tell you this, okay. Okay. I mean, the way I learned how to draw, first and foremost -- and still do -- is that I copy other artists. I don't look at -- honestly, I don't look at, like, real kiddo's hair and say, like, let me draw Hilo's hair to look like -- because I'm not drawing from life. I'm doing a very cartoony, stylized version.
WINICKThe key word is stylize. So, go look at other cartoons, how they do it, you know. And I do it very, very simply. I mean, a lot of my work looks like "Peanuts," you know, Charles Schultz's comic strip "Peanuts," and "Calvin and Hobbs" -- or rather, I spire to look like that. And I kind of look at how they might do things. Like, we're all doing the same feet, I'll tell you that. Like, the feet on the characters from the "Peanuts" and "Calvin Hobbs," we all do these -- all their feet look like bread loaves. I think that's what Charles Schultz had said. They all look like little chunks of bread.
WINICKAnd hair, just look at hair from other cartoonists, and not complex ones. Go find the simple ones and just copy them. And, after a while, if you copy them a bunch of times, just start doing it on your own, and it'll become your own. You'll start doing it from memory. So, yeah, copy and practice.
NNAMDIHere is 11-year-old Anika. Anika, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANIKAMy question is: What makes you come up with the drawings and, like, what inspiration do you have?
WINICKWhat inspired me to make my drawings, and I guess my stories, too. Well, for one, I have no other useable skills. This is pretty much it. But I think what inspires me means a couple things over. I'm inspired by other people's work. I talk about this often, that, you know, we learn by doing, we learn by copying. So, when you first start out, it is okay to copy other people's drawings. And, I'll go even further, it's okay to copy other people's stories.
WINICKNow, I'm not exactly talking about stealing ideas, but there's a lot of stories that just have the building blocks of storytelling and characters, and it's okay to borrow from them. Like a good example, like "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter," they're basically the same story. It's about a kid who aspires to, like, you know, to live a more interesting life, and he lives with his aunt and uncle. And he meets a powerful wizard, you know. (laugh) That's both Dumbledore and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he comes from this powerful, magical family -- Darth Vader, you know, and the Potters. Like, they're so similar. They're, like, the same story.
WINICKSo, I'd say look to things you love, and try to emulate them. Don't copy, exactly, but, you know, it's like, it's okay to take a story like a "Harry Potter" or a "Star Wars," and it's like, let me change this, and I'll make this character a girl and it won't be space. It'll be like, you know, underground. And maybe there'll be, like, rabbits, (laugh) and let me take it from there. It won't be magic. They'll be able to make machines, but everything else will be the same.
NNAMDIHere is 10-year-old Alexandra of Janney Elementary School. Alexandra, your turn.
ALEXANDRAHello. My name is Alexandra. Can you hear me?
WINICKYes, I can, kiddo.
ALEXANDRAOkay. And my question is: What is your favorite part about all of the different characters in Hilo? And I'm in fifth grade.
WINICKWhat is my favorite part? Well, to be honest with you, it's a little bit right now, like this. Well, look, when I was your age, when I was like nine, 10, 11 years old, I used to make things up and draw them while I half-watched television. Now, I'm 51, and I make things up and I draw them while I half-watch television. That's my job. So, it's, you know, awesome. You know, it's really -- I often joke, but it's mostly true. I live like a 10-year-old.
WINICKBut what I also love is, like, you know, I'm talking right now from my studio, you know, and I live in San Francisco, California. And, you know, I make things up and I draw them, and it goes out in the world. And then I can talk to kiddos. I love when I get to go to visit schools and bookstores or whatnot and meet kiddos. And the things that I thought up in my basement studio here and I put down on paper, they go out there in the world, and I get to talk to you all about it. It's a little bit -- I swear to you, I'm not trying to be all kind of artsy-fartsy about it, but it's a little bit magical.
WINICKYou know, the things that come up in my head and I put down on paper that it goes out in the world there, and then we get to talk about it. And a lot of times I meet kids and they apologize for being overly excited about telling me something. I said, like, no, no, no, no. I get excited about it, too. That's why I made it. I don't make the stories go like, it is kind of boring, but I'm going to do it, anyway. Like, no, I tell these stories because I think they're funny and exciting.
WINICKAnd I am just pleased as punch when you all are just as excited, too. So, a lot of my favorite part is actually meeting people who's had an opportunity to read my stories, got something from it, and maybe want to make their own. That's the best part.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Alexandra. Eleven-year-old Grerajani (ph) emails: When you were making the "Star Wars, a Valentine Story" comic, how did you feel about being part of something that big? Also, your "Hilo" series is super great.
WINICKOh, okay. Thank you for the second part. To explain the first part, yeah, I had the opportunity to write one "Star Wars" comic. And a buddy of mine, she was a big-shot editor at Dark Horse Comics, and said, like, hey, we've got basically this pitch from Lucas Publishing that they want to do, someone should tell a story about that comes in between "Star Wars" and "Empire Strikes Back." Because in between "Star Wars" and "Empire Strikes Back," Han Solo and Princess Leia seem to like each other.
WINICKSomething seems to have happened that we've like skipped a couple of steps. They seem to, like, have a spark between them, that they already have a big old crush on each other, and we'd like you to write that story. And I just almost fell over dead. Just -- I'll even be honest. I was in my car when I was talking to my friend Diana, and I said, listen, I've got to pull over. I said, if we're going to talk about this I've got to pull over. I said, they want me to write this story? She's like, yeah. It's like, oh, my gosh, I don't -- okay.
WINICKSo, it was both overwhelming, and just such a delight. And I actually had to sit on it for a week, because I had no idea what to do. And then I actually watched the first 15 minutes of the "Empire Strikes Back," and I had forgotten, like, oh, they fight all the time. Right, okay. And then the story took me like 25 minutes to write, after that. I just, like, oh okay, I just figured out the rhythm of it. Like, yeah, yeah. So, it was an honor and a privilege. And I won't lie to you, I think about that story all the time. (laugh)
WINICKI do. I'm still very proud of it. It's just a 30-page story that I did, I don't know, 15 years ago, maybe longer. But it was a blast. Because a lot of this stuff, when you get to write superhero comics or you get to, you know, do "Star Wars," it's fan fiction. Like, I'm a fan, and I'm a kid who gets to play with all the big toys. It really is. It really is.
NNAMDIHere now is eight-year-old Ripkin from Janney Elementary. Ripkin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RIPKINMy name is Ripkin. I'm eight years old, and my question is: What inspired you to write your stories?
WINICKTo write what?
NNAMDITo write your stories.
WINICKOh, my stories. Well, specifically, with "Hilo," my son's 15 now, and about eight years ago, when he was seven -- doing the quick math -- I was writing a bunch of superhero comics at the time, including Batman. And he was seven years old, and he came to me, and he wanted to read my comics. He wanted to read Batman. And I had to tell him, oh, no, no, you may not read Batman.
NNAMDI(laugh) Too dark.
WINICKYeah, it was most -- as I explained to him, it's like, you're seven. Those are mostly for teenagers and grownups. So, we poked around for a series that would be good for him. And the one we landed on that I really loved was the series called "Bone," by cartoonist Jeff Smith. And my son went just bananas for it, just loved it. Now, I happen to know Jeff Smith. He's a good friend of mine. So, I told Jeff my son went bananas for it. And then Jeff sent us this gigantic box of "Bone" merchandise, (laugh) T-shirts and hats and posters and calendars and action figures. Like, tons of stuff.
WINICKAnd so, there my son is just the biggest "Bone" super-fan, like everything in his world. And I had to step back from that and realize, like, I'm getting a little bit jealous (laugh) that he's liking this cartoon so much. So, with that is when I first started to sit down. It was like, you know what? I think I want to do a story for him. I want to write and draw a story that he would like, because at the time, superhero comics really weren't geared towards kiddos. And I actually spent a good decade myself making superhero comics kind of dark and gritty and not for younger readers.
WINICKSo, I wanted to make an all-ages comic that my son would dig, that I would like doing, and I could kind of put it out there. You know, a comic for like when I was a kid. Because when I was a kid, everybody could read everything. So, part of my inspiration was I wanted to tell a story for my son, because I got jealous of "Bone." So, there. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) Here is 10-year-old Somady (ph) in Annapolis, Maryland. Wait a second. Somady, are you there? Let me try Somady again. Somady, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SOMADYSo, where did you get the names for the characters from?
WINICKWhere'd I get the names? Well, I don't name the characters, right away. I kind of get to know them a little bit. Like, Gina felt like a Gina, DJ felt like a DJ. Hilo, it took me a little while to figure that one out, because I wanted it to be like a different name, one that isn't typical. And early on I was writing this scene where DJ was talking to Hilo before he was even named. And he got very poetic and, you know, he was talking about when Hilo first came to Earth, like, yeah, you fell out of the sky. You came from way up on high, and you were brought down low.
WINICKAnd, honestly, when I wrote that sentence something clicked in my head, like, high and low. I kind of like the poetry of that. (laugh) And, you know, so I put the two words together, like high-low. And so, I messed around with it for about a week. It's like, yeah, I think his name is Hilo. So, the quick answer is like, where did I get the name Hilo? DJ told me. So, (laugh) one of my characters cooked it up.
NNAMDIWell, eight-year-old Emeline (ph) from Miss Silinger's (ph) third grade class at Janney Elementary asks: What is your favorite character to draw in "Hilo"? Makenan, (ph) another third grader has that same question. We only have about a minute left.
WINICKOkay. I don't have a favorite. I'm all over the place. You know, it depends, like, you know, I mean, I've designed them all in a way that's fun for me. I will say, I always like drawing the characters when they are yelling. (laugh) So, if you look through "Hilo," when their big-old mouths are open, like, that's when I'm happiest. (laugh)
NNAMDIYes. A lot of yelling. Judd Winick is a cartoonist and author of the New York Times Bestselling "Hilo" series. Thanks so much for joining us on Kojo for Kids, Judd.
WINICKSir, it was absolutely my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIKojo for Kids with cartoonist Judd Winick was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about the latest on Amazon's northern Virginia HQ2 was produced by Ines Renique. Coming up tomorrow, the Cherry Blossom Festival is happening, even though the pandemic will force it to go virtual. When did the District's obsession with cherry blossoms begin? We'll talk about the history and the science behind the flower and some of the best places to see them.
NNAMDIThen, did you hear the buzz? Cicadas are coming back. We hear from Mike Raupp, aka "Bug Guy" about what to expect. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. And I want to take a second to wish a happy birthday to Kenny Pirog, our engineer extraordinaire. He makes sure the Kojo Nnamdi Show is, well, easy on the ears. Happy birthday, Kenny. Until tomorrow, at noon, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo talks with author Briana Thomas about her book “Black Broadway In Washington D.C.,” and the District’s rich Black history.
Poet, essayist and editor Kevin Young is the second director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. He joins Kojo to talk about his vision for the museum and how it can help us make sense of this moment in history.
Ms. Woodruff joins us to talk about her successful career in broadcasting, how the field of journalism has changed over the decades and why she chose to make D.C. home.