Animator and graphic novel creator James Burks introduces his action-packed series, Agent 9. James is himself a master of disguise. He's spent over 20 years working undercover in the animation industry on movies and television shows including Bravest Warriors, Space Jam, Treasure Planet, The Emperor's New Groove, The Powerpuff Girls, and The Iron Giant. He's also the mastermind behind the popular Bird and Squirrel graphic novel series. He lives with his family in a secret base hidden on an ordinary street somewhere in Southern California.
Agent 9: Flood-A-Geddon (Templar Publishing)
Read an extract from Agent 9: Flood-A-Geddon
When supervillain King Crab threatens a global flood, Nine is the only super spy left to stop him! Nine can't afford to bungle this mission - but has a history of getting things wrong.... Comic creator James Burks introduce us to Agent 9: Flood-A-Geddon - the first in his action-packed, hilarious graphic novel series!
Q&A with James Burks
Find out how James Burks got started in graphic novels; how Agent 9 became a cat; his favourite gadget in this adventure; and what his perfect super-spy writer's shed would look like!
1. How did you become a graphic novel creator, and what kinds of comics do you create? Why do you feel it's important for children to have good access to graphic novels?
I started making graphic novels as an outlet for my creativity. After working in animation for several years, I realized I wanted to create my own stories. Something that I call my own, especially since working on animated films and TV shows, is a group effort with hundreds of people working on every project.
I think it's crucial for kids to have access to graphic novels. Not every kid will take to reading books in the same way. So if a kid is a reluctant reader, they can start looking at the pictures and still follow the story. Then as they get more comfortable, they can dive deeper into the story by reading the words along with the pictures. The great thing about graphic novels is that the story is told in both words and pictures. One reinforces the other and vice versa.
2. You also work as an animator - what kinds of films have you worked on? Do you enjoy it?
I've worked on quite a few films and television shows over my long career in animation. I started at Warner Brothers Feature Animation, working on Space Jam, Quest for Camelot, and Iron Giant. Then I moved to Disney Feature Animation, where I worked on The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis, Treasure Planet, and Home on the Range. Then I jumped into TV animation and have worked on all kinds of shows, including Wow Wow Wubbzy, Ni-Hao Kailan, Fan Boy & Chum Chum, Bravest Warriors, Dinosaur Train, the Powerpuff Girls reboot, and most recently, the upcoming Nickelodeon show Rock, Paper, Scissors.
I love being able to work in animation and graphic novels. They both involve writing stories and drawing pictures. The only major difference is that in graphic novels, the story has to be told in panels without the help of audio or moving pictures.
3. Was your passion as a child drawing or telling stories? Which do you start with when you're planning a new comic strip?
I started drawing at an early age by copying the pictures of Garfield in a comic strip collection. It was something that I did for fun but didn't realize until way later in life that I could make a living as an artist. It wasn't until I saw the animated Disney Film Beauty and the Beast that I suddenly knew that was what I wanted to do. From that point, I took some classes and learned basic animation skills, which landed me an internship at Warner Brothers Feature Animation. Then ten years later, I started to write my own stories at the young age of 32.
Usually, my creative process for each book starts with me drawing a character. From there, I ask myself questions about who the character is and what they might want, and usually, the answers reveal the story. From there, I write an outline and then a script like you'd write for a movie or television show.
4. Can you tell us about your new series, Agent 9? What happens in Flood-A-Geddon?
Agent 9: Flood-A-Geddon is all about a super spy jungle cat named Nine who has to stop a crustaceous super-villain named King Crab from melting the polar ice caps to build his very own worldwide water park. But for Nine to succeed, they have to learn to think things through and be less impulsive since they tend to cause a lot of damage on every mission they go on. And if they don't get this mission right, they will get kicked out of the Super Secret Spy Service (S4). So there's quite a bit at stake for Nine.
5. Do you start your books/strips with a character or a plot?
All of my stories are character driven. Once I lock down their emotional story and know what the character needs to overcome, I work out the plot and throw as many obstacles at them as possible that will challenge them to change in some way by the end of the story.
6. So what inspired your calamitous action hero, Agent 9, who often gets things wrong….
The most interesting characters are the ones with flaws. There wouldn't be much of a story if they had everything figured out. So I always try to give my character a flaw or two. These flaws make the character relatable, and it pulls us into the story. It gives us something to root for. I usually base my character's hangups on my insecurities or things I struggle to overcome.
7. Why did you decide to create Agent 9 as a cat - and why have you made your villain a crab? Have there been many changes since your first ideas emerged?
I based Agent 9 on a Margay Jungle cat. Once I had that, I started to look at other animals to see which might make good supervillains, and the King Crab seemed the perfect choice.
There was one significant change to the story. I originally wanted the hero to be a monkey named Monkey Monkey, and the book was going to be called Monkey Monkey Mission-A-Go-Go! But when we submitted that idea to another publisher, they weren't keen on having a monkey as the lead. So I changed them to a cat, and Agent 9 was born.
8. What about the world of Agent 9 - how did you decide on the set-up with the Super-Secret Spy Service, and the kinds of cases Nine would face?
Well, initially, when Agent 9 was a monkey, the spy agency was going to be called Prime8, which I loved. So from there, I tried to develop a cool acronym, but that proved difficult. At one point, I considered W.I.L.D (World Intelligence League and Defense), but that seemed too complicated. I eventually found my way to something simpler, S4 (Super-Secret Spy Service).
In terms of the different cases, the first thing I do is think up a supervillain and what their plan might be to take over the world. After that, I tackle the most critical part of all - coming up with the perfect book title!
9. We love Nine's sidekick, FiN. What inspired you to create a small fish robot for Agent 9?
I knew I wanted to have a second character for Agent 9 to interact with because it gives them someone to talk to while on a mission. But I didn't want it to be another animal since my other graphic novel series features a Bird and a Squirrel who go on adventures. After a bit of thinking, I decided a robotic fish would be the perfect partner for a cat since cats love to eat fish. Then I took inspiration from Star Wars and decided that FiN would only communicate with Nine through sounds like R2D2.
10. Agent 9 has other gadgets, too, to get out of a tight spot - what's your favourite in Flood-A-Geddon?
My favorite gadget is the little gum pods that Nine uses to create a sticky situation that allows them to get away! I also wanted all the gadgets to be non-lethal and fun.
11. How do you make the books so funny?
I try to make myself laugh. I'm a big fan of physical and situational comedy. So I try to put the characters in funny situations and then have them react unexpectedly, which tends to create comedy. And if that doesn't work, I have them fall down in a funny way.
12. Can you tell us a little about the next book, Mind Control, and what you have planned for the series?
I'm excited for everyone to get to read Mind Control! It's probably the best story I've ever written. In it, Nine has to learn to work with another agent named Traps, who happens to be a mouse. Together they are on a mission to stop a lone Wolf hired by the sinister spy organization DiViSiON to hunt down the final pieces of a mind-control device they plan to use to take over the world. It's filled with even more action and comedy. It's even got a car chase!
13. If you could create a writing shed based on a Super-Secret Spy centre, what would it look like, and what kit would you need to have?
My perfect spy shed would be secretly located underneath a yummy Mexican restaurant where I could pop up and grab a taco whenever I wanted, which would be often, as I love tacos! The interior of my spy shed would be covered in bookshelves loaded with all my favorite books. Oh, and I'd also have lots of hot coffee on tap to keep the ideas flowing.
Thanks so much for the great questions and for helping spread the word about Agent 9 Flood-A-Geddon! I really appreciate it.
Thank you James, it's been great chatting!