Random House Graphics has been absolutely killing it with their kids’ graphic novels since the imprint’s first book debuted last year. I wanted to give a shout out to one of their newest books, Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue. It is a wonderful, innovative, and adorable unexpected superhero story and it just so happens to have one of the most amazing casts of B-storyline characters ever:
The 217 cats Katie is babysitting for so she can earn enough money to meet her best friend at sleep away camp.
Cats who make tea. Know when you need to put your feet up. Can use the toilet because that many litter boxes…ugh. Cute tricks but hey, any animal can be trained if you start early enough, right?
Ms. Lang offers Katie $30 an hour to make sure they keep out of trouble. Seems like a cakewalk and a sure way to fill the camp fund jar.
But as soon as Ms. Lang leaves…
…the cats start trashing the house. Ordering pizza. And jet engines.
Because they’re sidekicks to the Moustress, who may be a supervillain but maybe something else. Something more. Someone who needs the help of a squad to change the world.
I love that each of these cats has a name and a personality and a specific skill. They each look different, have different postures, and strike that pose wearing an individual facial expression. And that Katie takes the time to get to know each of them. That instead of trying to come in and organize them or exercise authority, she joins them, adding her skills to theirs.
I know, I know, this sounds a little silly in the context of humans and über intelligent cats but remember, this is an urban fantasy/sci-fi story, so suspend your disbelief and go with it.
Here’s why I think this dynamic is great and why I want to give it airtime: it is a fantastic example of a trend I’m seeing in kid’s comics (from stuff for the itty bitties through YA) where writers and artists are taking the time to individualize and personalize not only the main characters but also the secondary and background characters. The “everykid” protagonist is appearing less and less often, replaced with main characters who are full realized people born into families and cultures and nationalities, histories, legacies, even generational trauma. They are immigrants. They are disabled. They are neurodivergent. They are LGBTQ+. And damn, will you look at that, they have a crew. They have friends. They have love and they have kindness and they give those things as well. Likes and dislikes, political opinions, hobbies.
Who fucking knew (sarcastic font).
Is all of this a work in progress? Yes. Of course. It will be a work in progress for a long time. Forever. But “in progress” is better than “stagnant.”
To see authors and artists putting this sort of effort into B-stories and B-characters is revelatory though because you don’t always realize what’s missing until suddenly it’s there. You don’t realize how important music is to a movie until a tense moment becomes terrifying because it pauses. That a book is missing a place description until a character walks into a bar. That your cookies are missing salt until you make a batch with it. That your secondary characters are based on tropes until suddenly, they’re individuals.
That the funny best friend is flat and has been used until they isolate themself or are seen crying in the school bathroom because they’ve been telling jokes to cover up hurt.
That the quarterback bros around because he realizes he likes the exuberant artist but he’s terrified his parents will throw him out of the house if he tells them he likes a boy.
That the mean girl is mean because her father is abusing her and she’s ashamed and embarrassed and if she makes friends and they invite her over then she’ll have to invite them over and they might find out (I have actual experience with this one because I’m stubborn and I wouldn’t give up on making friends with someone in middle school).
The quiet girl isn’t quiet because it’s her “nature,” she’s quiet because she has crushing anxiety and every time she says something, she loops for hours and day that it was stupid and everyone hates her (*waves*).
Building characters this way, all characters, is a lot of work. But it also gives your readers something real. It gives your characters real lives which helps them build real bonds. It teaches kids to look deeper, to be more kind, to remember that everyone is fighting a battle and they may share it, they may not, what the what doesn’t matter as much as the fact of the thing and that alone can bring you together.
Well done Colleen and Stephanie. And well done Katie.
Looking forward to what all of you do next.