My friend Dana Sullivan has a huge imagination and a huge sense of humor. And he is terrific about supporting other book creators. So it gives me great pleasure to shine the spotlight on him today, in support of his brand new series, Dead Max Comix, and the first installment in the series, The Deadening (Red Chair Press) which is just out. Yes. This graphic novel does feature a dead dog. But Max is a very wise (and wise cracking!) dog who helps his boy Derrick navigate the rushing rapids known as middle school.
Dead Max lives! Dead Max Comix, Book 1: the Deadening is a cheery tale about a beloved dog who gets run over by a car within the first five pages and, after cremation, comes back as a ghost. He sticks around because his 7th grade boy, Derrick, needs Max’s doggy advice on bullies, girls, Derrick’s mom, and middle school life in general.
The real Max started out as my ten-year-old son’s dog, but quickly became mine.
He also became my muse. I made sticky note cartoons of him, cards, invites, wrote stories about him. He lived a good, long life of almost 15 years. But those damned dogs just don’t live long enough.
I was pretty broken up when Max went over to “the other side” and I missed him terribly. I was also touched and amazed by the amount of sympathy messages sent in response to posting his “Max goes to heaven” sticky notes. I realized just how precious our pets are to us humans. Those messages were eloquent, personal and every one of them made me cry.
After three months in his urn on my bookshelf, Max made it clear that he was sick of the boo hoo and wanted me to get back to drawing and writing about him. So I wrote him into my NaNoWriMo 2011 draft, which grew into a graphic novel idea in 2015 and, finally, into a real graphic novel project in 2018 – nine years after his passing.
I wanted to make my graphic novel funny and relatable to middle school kids, which gave me a reason to take a trip back to my middle school maturity level. Anyone who knows me can tell you that’s a short journey.
For me, middle school was kind of a tough time. It seemed everything in my life was changing – especially me. Friends moved away, parents split up, older sister grew out of my life to pursue her own. School now had multiple classrooms and teachers and, whoa! What happened to the girls? They looked so… so, girl!
I’m glad I had my dog, Mike, to walk, feed, and care for every day. Something outside of myself to focus on. We used to hike around the hills of San Diego, exploring and talking. And getting away from my mom. My parents had divorced the year before and Dad was in another state. I wished my dog and I were in another state, too.
Looking back, I remember some pretty great teachers who pushed me in different ways to stretch my talents. Music, writing, art. Even my math teacher left an impression, but it was more his conversations about music. I was never athletic, but there were a couple of coaches who made a difference with me – helped me grow up a bit and modeled a confident, but not arrogant, masculinity. As an adult, I can see that these teachers were really there for me and the other kids. I wish I had realized that and had spent more time with them. They had my back, I just didn’t know it. Thank God for my dog, my music, and my cartooning.
Life hasn’t gotten any easier for kids in the last 50 years. I am shocked and saddened by the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10 – 24. That just doesn’t seem possible, but I know from my own childhood that it is. I wanted my comic to give kids a break from the pressure of being a kid today and just have something they could laugh at. But I also wanted to let them know that they are NOT the only weirdos on the planet or in their school and that there ARE adults who can be trusted and who have their backs. That could be their parents, but that could also be teachers, other parents, other adults. We think at that age that we can handle anything, but we can’t and we need help. Still do, I’m here to tell you.
Speaking of trusted adults, my super agent, Anna Olswanger, started submitting Dead Max to publishers in April of 2016. Finally, in 2018, after 77 rejections, Red Chair Press made an offer. For four books. Turns out Red Chair Publisher, Keith Garton, has TWO urns on his bookshelf. He knows what it’s like to lose a pet. Most of the rejection notes had the words “too dark” in them, but Keith knew that kids also know what it’s like to lose a pet and would appreciate a dog who is so loyal that he comes back from the dead to protect his kid.
In Dead Max Comix I try to walk the line between ridiculous and comforting. I keep Max’s urn next to me so that whenever I veer too far into the adult-worrying-about-kids-today zone, Max can give me a nip on the ear and tell me to “Dog up, quit whining, and get some laughs in there! If you want to send a message, call Western Union!” Great advice, Max. Thanks.
And thanks to Kirby for the opportunity to share some of the story about Max!
Dana Sullivan lives in Port Townsend with his lovely wife, Vicki, barky dog, Bennie, and Max, who pretty much stays in his urn. Dana wrote and illustrated the picture books Ozzie and the Art Contest, Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari, My Red Velvet Cape, and Family Farm. He’s illustrated the Digger and Daisy early readers and the BodyOpolis series. The Deadening is the first book in the Dead Max Comix series and launched January 16, 2020. Book two, The Rocking Dead, releases in the fall and Dana is currently in the middle of sketching book three, Bully for You. Dana’s favorite color is dog and his favorite vegetable is peanut butter.
See Dana’s work at www.danajsullivan.com