Dav Pilkey’s second-grade teacher wasn’t a comedian by choice. Still, when she uttered the word underpants, she couldn’t stop her class from breaking out in hysterics. Pilkey created the character Captain Underpants the very next day, but it was more than two decades before The Adventures of Captain Underpants hit the shelves.
Since Scholastic published the first installment in 1997, the series has grown to 12 graphic novels and, as of 2017, a DreamWorks film featuring the voices of comedians Kevin Hart and Ed Helms.
We caught up with Pilkey to discuss his latest spin-off, Dog Man. The first volume in the Dog Man series opens with Captain Underpants’s fictional creators, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, rediscovering a box of old Dog Man comics, which they created when they were in kindergarten. That origin story isn’t far from the truth.
Q| How did Dog Man come about?
A| Dog Man is a character I created when I was in second grade, just before I came up with Captain Underpants. I mentioned Dog Man in the first Captain Underpants book, and by book #9 he was being featured in George and Harold’s own comics. The response I received from fans was overwhelming, and I was having so much fun with him and his crazy world that it was a natural transition to begin making entire books about him.
Q| Why include George and Harold in both series?
A| Captain Underpants is a fictionalization of my own childhood, especially of my troubles in elementary school. I had a lot of challenges with ADHD and dyslexia, and my teachers and principal were not very supportive. Some of them were bullies, in fact. I escaped this situation as best I could in my drawings and through the comic-book stories I made as a kid. In a way, Dog Man is a metaphor for that escapism. It’s George and Harold’s way of dealing with the harshness of the adult world, which can seem very oppressive at times.
Q| They get in their fair share of trouble. Is that what school was like for you?
A| Yes, definitely. George and Harold both have ADHD, as did I (although I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood). I hope that this revelation will empower kids who are going through similar challenges. My official diagnosis was “extreme hyperactivity,” and my specialist suggested that I drink coffee every morning. The caffeine, which makes adults jittery, often has a calming effect on children. It didn’t work for me. Nothing seemed to help except for the support and understanding I got from my parents. Their love got me through the toughest times.
Q| You leave cross-outs and revisions visible in Dog Man. Why?
A| There are two reasons for this. One is that it’s realistic. That’s what it looks like when kids make comics. But the second and more important reason is that, as any teacher will tell you, things improve with revision. I think it’s good for kids to see that George and Harold rewrite and revise their stories to make them flow more smoothly. Kids who pay attention will even discover that George and Harold’s spelling has improved. I hope that children who spot these mistakes and improvements will discover that artistic expression doesn’t have to be perfect—especially at first. Art, like everything else in life, should always be evolving.
Q| Tell us about the illustration style in Dog Man.
A| I studied a lot of the drawings I received from fans over the years—especially from my younger fans. I love the simplicity of the art. In a way, it reminds me of the paintings of Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, and Grandma Moses. It’s primitive and beautiful, with nothing to get in the way of the emotions of the characters. The artwork in Captain Underpants is more traditionally “cartoony.” I hope that the art in Dog Man captures more of the folksiness found in children’s art.
Q| Your books are known for reaching reluctant readers. Is that part of why you write?
A| I write for the kid I used to be, and I was a reluctant reader at first. I was fortunate that my parents always let me choose what I wanted to read, without judgment. [Their support] helped me develop a love of reading. I hope that same thing happens with kids who pick up my books. I really want kids to associate reading with fun. It sounds like such a simple idea, but it is crucially important. Kids who have fun reading will grow up to be lifelong readers.
Q| Captain Underpants has topped the American Library Association’s “Most Banned Books” list more than once. How do you feel about that?
A| I’m surprised, because my books don’t contain profanity, drugs, alcohol, sex, or any type of violence that would be out of place in a typical episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. I do find comfort in the company, however. It’s amazing to be featured on the same list as Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, and Harper Lee.
Q| What's been the most fun part of your adventures with Captain Underpants and, now, Dog Man?
A| Meeting my fans and their parents. What started out as a few simple drawings and comics when I was a child has grown into something I could never have imagined. I hear all the time from parents and teachers who have used my books to turn their kids into readers. Now those same kids—many former reluctant readers—are graduating from college and starting their own lives as successful adults who still love to read.
Photo: Kai Suzuki