An (Epic) Interview with Captain Underpants Creator

From the banned books list to a major motion picture, the Captain Underpants series has had its share of adventures almost as epic as those of pranksters George and Harold and their unwitting superhero himself, their principal Mr. Krupp, aka Captain Underpants. NEA Today talked to creator Dav Pilkey about his popular comic series, how to encourage kids to read, and the Captain Underpants movie.

What qualities do superheroes share?

It seems like most superheroes are born of adversity.  Superman, Batman, and Spiderman each found their purpose after the deaths of parents or guardians.  Dog Man (the hero from my new graphic novel series) is also brought to life after a tragedy.  I think this is what makes superheroes so relatable.  When times get tough, we must all dig deep and find our own superpowers.

Why does each book in your Captain Underpants series contain a mini-comic?

I made mini-comics when I was a child, and I really wanted to inspire my readers to start making their own comics.  The mini-comics in Captain Underpants look like they were made by children— the drawing style is very primitive, and the spelling had many mistakes in the early books.  My hope was that kids would see these very imperfect creations and feel like making comics was something they could do— and it didn’t matter if they made mistakes.

The spelling and artwork in these mini-comics has gradually improved as the series has progressed (by book 12, there are no spelling errors).  I did this to subtly show that although creativity doesn’t have to be perfect, we should always try to improve and grow.

George and Harold receive an assignment to write 100 pages on “good citizenship” – how would you define good citizenship for students today?

I think putting yourself before others is a good start.  Empathy doesn’t always come naturally, but just like any skill, the more you practice the better you get.  In the Captain Underpants series, George and Harold are constantly finding themselves in situations where things get out of hand, and they must risk their own lives to save others.  At first, their motivation is selfish (trouble avoidance), but as the series progresses they risk their lives to protect others because it’s the right thing to do.

Diverse books are sought out by educators now more than ever. Your characters are diverse – did you create them with that in mind?

I created characters that reflected the environment I lived in at the time. When I wrote the outline of the first Captain Underpants book, I lived in Kent, Ohio, and my neighbors had a Caucasian ten-year-old son who was best friends with an African-American boy. I saw them running around together almost every day, so I wrote what I saw in front of me. These kids became the basis for my characters George and Harold.

Why do you think some parents/educators wanted to ban your books? What did you learn from that?

I’m not sure that the folks who want to ban my books have actually read my books.  If they did, they’d see that they contain no cursing, no drugs or alcohol, no sex, and no more violence than you’d see on a kids’ cartoon TV show.

Anyone who reads a paragraph or two out of context will probably miss the point that my stories are about fun and friendship — about two kids who use their imagination and their creativity to save the world time and time again.

If this has taught me anything, it’s that reading is important, but comprehension is even more important.

As a student you had ADHD and some related behavioral problems. What do you wish your educators had done differently and what is your advice for teachers who have kids with ADHD in their classrooms today?

Unfortunately, my experience in the classroom growing up was not very positive. There weren’t many resources for teachers back then to deal with kids like me who had learning, behavior, and reading challenges. The term ADHD didn’t even exist back then.

I was very lucky to have a safe home environment, with parents who encouraged me not only to be myself, but to do the things I loved (draw and make my own comic books). They actually commissioned comics from me, and I wrote and drew original comic books almost as fast as my parents requested them.  Most importantly, my parents also let me choose the books I wanted to read. As long as I was reading, that’s what mattered. I read lots of comics, magazines, and anything that made me laugh. Soon, I began to associate reading with fun.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have met many teachers around the country, who, like my parents, support and encourage their students to choose the books they want to read. This can be life-changing and can forge a path to a kid’s lifelong love of reading.

The Captain Underpants movie is now in theaters — what was the best part about having the series turned into a movie? 

My wife and I saw an early cut of the film (it’s hilarious and surprisingly touching) and my favorite parts were when my characters did and said things that weren’t in the books.  George, Harold, and Captain Underpants are living apart from me now.  They don’t need me anymore.  They’ve become real.

I think this might be the same type of feeling that parents get when their children grow up and start families of their own.  It feels so rewarding to let go and see my creations fly.