The Way We Work: Michael Gerard Bauer and Joe Bauer on Eric Vale Epic Fail

Each author-illustrator pairing finds their own way of collaborating. We asked a father-and-son team about their working relationship during the making of a brand new series for younger readers,

MGB: Eric Vale Epic Fail came about because of a typing mistake. One day I wrote a comment on Facebook and instead of saying something was an ‘epic fail’ I mistakenly typed that it was an ‘eric fail’. My daughter Meg picked it up (as she does all my mistakes!) and it became a bit of a joke between us. For a while there whenever we did something wrong we referred to it as an Eric Fail.

Then one day my publisher asked me if I had any ideas for a book for younger readers. I said the only thing I had was a possible character’s name and story title. I said the story could be about a boy who gets the unfortunate nickname Epic Fail and needs an ‘epic win’ to overcome it. My publisher (who is a wonderfully wise person and the font of all knowledge!) really liked that idea.

The other thing I mentioned to my publishers that day was that I’d really love to do something with my son Joe who I said was a brilliant artist and cartoonist (Proud Dad Alert - also an award-winning film-maker and just 24!).

Of course my publishers understandably thought I was a biased and deluded parent, so they needed to be convinced. As soon as they saw Joe’s early illustrations of the text, they were. In fact they were so delighted and amazed by his talents, that as well as illustrating two more Eric Vale stories and possibly a spin-off book, Joe was asked to use his film-making skills to create an Eric Vale Epic Fail book trailer.

Even though Eric Vale Epic Fail is a father/son effort we certainly don’t work looking over each other’s shoulders (despite what Joe’s cartoon might indicate!). For the first book I wrote the manuscript and then Joe was given the type-set pages with the brief to fill in the spaces around the text as creatively and humorously as possible.

JB: With the first book, we initially assumed there would end up being somewhere around 30 cartoons in total. So we went through the manuscript to work out precisely where the illustrations should go and what they should be.

However, as soon I got sent the type-set pages that concept went out the window – there was far too much space to be filled and ultimately it became a case of several cartoons on each of the book’s 185 pages. It became a very spontaneous process – I would open the next two-page file, read the text, examine the space and then scour my brain in search of something to draw that would fit the two.

I knew I was going to be doing a huge number of cartoons, so the goal for the character designs was for them to be as simple to draw as possible but still highly expressive and distinctive from each other. It became important that each character had at least one distinguishing feature because sometimes they have to appear in different guises but stay recognisable (ie. Chewy is depicted as an alien, Eric as a Smurf).

MGB: I was thrilled with how much better the story was when I saw the first batch of Joe’s illustrations combined with the text. Suddenly the characters and action were alive on the page and I found myself laughing out loud at Joe’s drawings. What I loved most was how the drawings went beyond the text and brought their own quirky humour to the book. The whole thing immediately became twice as funny – at least.

Working with my son on something like this has been wonderful. I think we work well as a team and I have total confidence in his creativity and his skill as an illustrator. In fact I am in awe of it. I’m always impatient for the next set of completed pages to arrive to see what he’s come up with. It certainly helps that we share the same sense of humour, which means we’re on the same page so to speak when it comes to the story. I’m not sure what Joe thinks of working with me but I’m guessing he’d probably use descriptions like ‘the greatest moment of my life’ and ‘like dying and going to heaven.’

JB: Working with my father has been the greatest moment of my life – a bit like dying and going to heaven. Ok, seriously? It’s great working with my dad – there’s no pressure. Honestly, it’s easy to think up images to my dad’s writing because he writes in a style of comedic descriptiveness – often it’s a no-brainer what the cartoon should be because every page is packed with brilliant similes that cry out to be turned into an image. In Dad’s other books, each reader creates those images themselves, but this time I was given the sole responsibility. Big mistake.

MGB: For the second and third books there’s been a little more overlap between the writer and illustrator roles. We still work mainly separately, but we were able to discuss possible titles and general plot ideas for the next stories before I started on them, and as Joe writes his own hilarious comedy scripts for his films I always value his comments and suggestions on the draft manuscripts. The other thing I’ve found is that Joe’s illustrations for the first book, especially his depiction of the characters, have inspired new story lines for the sequels. On rare occasion I suggest illustration ideas to Joe.

Any final thoughts Joey?

JB: Just that it’s truly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life working on these books. I’ve never had any of my drawings published before, and to have all that in addition to doing it with my dad and also getting to draw things that reference some of my favourite films is a dream come true.

MGB: Ditto ‘dream come true’. My sentiments exactly!

Eric Vale Epic Fail is available now!