The second Middle School Misadventures graphic novel Operation: Hat Heist follows middle schooler Newell and his friends trying to steal back his favourite hat – the same hat worn by his TV hero – so he can wear it to meet his hero at a con. Crazy slapstick hijinks ensue.
Creator Jason Platt, a member of the National Cartoonists Society, was inspired by his son to create the 232-page graphic novel. He is the creator of the webcomic Mister & me. We interviewed him about the joy and challenge of making a big, thick funny graphic novel for kids.
Congratulations on the launch of Middle School Misadventures: Operation: Hat Heist! The book is actually something of an epic of kid's comedy. Can you walk us through how you planned out the story?
Thank you so much. And absolutely!
Like all stories, it all started with an idea. A seed if you will. And there were a couple of seeds that I took direct inspiration from when coming up with the story for Operation: Hat Heist! The first one was when my son, who was in middle school himself, was really, really big into playing the Earthbound series on the original NES. He loved it so much that we got him a Ness hat for Christmas one year. He loved it. Absolutely loved it. And wore it pretty much everywhere, even to school. Wearing it to school wasn't a big deal, but he wore it in class one day and the principal walked in, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, "I'd love to have this hat in my collection." Embarrassed, and maybe a little scared, my son took it off and stuffed it into his backpack. (Laughs) He hasn't worn it in school since. The second seed was when I had something stolen from me way back when I was in middle school. It was a horrible feeling of betrayal and that feeling stuck with me. So, I kind of mushed the two stories together to create this new adventure for Newell and his friends. But not just a regular adventure, but a heist. Because not only does Newell get his favorite hat stolen, but it gets confiscated by the principal, Mr. Todd.
So, in preparation for the story I did a lot of research to make sure I was hitting the pacing right. I watched a lot of heist films and took a lot of notes. I watched films from The Score; The Italian Job; Ocean's Eleven; and The Killing. But out of all of them, I watched the 1950's film Rififi and the first Mission: Impossible (1996) the most. I loved the build-up in both of those films. And when the heist actually happens, it's a white-knuckle ride. I wanted to try and capture that same feeling when writing Operation: Hat Heist! I jotted down key moments that I knew had to happen on yellow Post-It notes and stuck them on the wall next to my desk. I kept them there the whole time I was working, just to remind myself of what definite points I wanted to hit.
But while it's a heist adventure at the heart of it all, it's also kind of a mystery too. So, I wanted to make sure that I planted enough bread crumbs throughout the story to make sure that it all lead to a fun conclusion.
The whole thing was so much fun to write.
So how did you structure and plan the gag and slapstick sequences?
If my years doing comedic roles in theatre has taught me anything, is that it's all about the timing. There's no specific formula to it except keeping a keen eye on the build-up and the execution. I'm constantly looking at how the compositions of the panels work; how the dialog balloons draw the eye through and especially when there is a comedic beat just before a page turn. Each gag, or joke, is its own little recipe to make it turn outright.
Sometimes I will write and draw the gag out and step back to take a look at it. Studying how it works with the panels leading up to it. If it works, I'll leave it be—especially if it makes me giggle—but if there is something missing I will add a panel or change the blocking, whatever I need to do to make it work.
(Laughs) There's one gag that I'm thinking of in particular in Operation: Hat Heist! I don't want to explain it too much because I don't want to spoil anything, but there's this exchange between Newell and Clara—sometime after the heist—that comes to mind. It's not a joke per se, but a visual back-and-forth moment that I think adds to the moment. And it's that back-and-forth repetitiveness, along with the character's expressions through the moment that makes it kind of funny.
Did you run gags and ideas by your family to test them out?
You know it's funny, I don't normally test out gags or ideas with my family too often. Not that I don't want to, but I want them to experience the books fresh. So, I kind of keep them secret like a birthday present.
This kind of stems from my experience in theatre as well. When I'm rehearsing for a show, I don't want my family to read the script or help me with my lines because I want them to see the show fresh with no bias. Back when I was starting out, I would run lines with friends and family, and I realized that they would actually make me nervous in the audience because they knew my trouble spots. And they might not pay attention to the story if they knew it inside and out. So, I kind of take the same approach to my gags and ideas.
Sometimes though, I have to stand up and physically act out a moment to see how a body will react to get the drawing right. There's a moment in Operation: Hat Heist! where Newell is spinning around, and I had to see how the legs bent in relation with the arms and get a sense of what his balance was like. So, I would stand up and go through the motions that the character would go through; sit back down at my desk, draw a little, only to have to stand back up to go through it all over again. (Laughs) Sometimes my family will see me doing these kinds of things, which I'm sure looks a little odd, but they are used to it.
Hat Heist celebrates the imagination of kids and how everything can be an intense epic experience for them. Is this what you want the readers to take away from reading it?
Oh, Absolutely. But I think it kind of celebrates a lot of things.
It celebrates that time in their life where an intense epic experience might be just a first-world problem, but it's huge to them. It celebrates the friendships that are made during that time, and how incredibly important they are to us. It celebrates the simple day-to-day home life, and the traditions we all have. And it celebrates the simple joy those last years of childhood can be.
It celebrates the little things in life. And maybe—if we're lucky—learn to laugh at them, and ourselves, along the way.
Middle-School Misadventures: Operation: Hat Heist is now available in hardback, paperback, and ebook.