The Australian author and illustrator Aaron Blabey gave himself an ultimatum in 2014. The father of two, then 40 years old, had been working a series of increasingly dissatisfying day jobs — from acting to advertising — and although his children’s books were “warmly received” (as he put it), the earnings were not supporting his family. He decided that if he didn’t make a success of them, and quickly, he would pursue a permanent job instead, or as he said in a recent interview, “a life of surrendered dreams, low-level corporate creativity and mundane compromise.”
But in a single day, he came up with the concepts for what became the best-selling “The Bad Guys,” “Thelma the Unicorn” and “Pig the Pug.”
In less than a decade, he has now sold more than 30 million books. “The Bad Guys” is his ultimate success, a series of graphic novels for children that has been adapted into an animated film that reached screens on Friday and features the voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina and Zazie Beetz.
The heart of the series is its charismatic gang of “bad guys” striving to be heroes — Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark and Ms. Tarantula — but failing hilariously time and again. (Book No. 15, “The Bad Guys in Open Wide and Say Arrrgh!,” is due July 19.)
“I’m the epitome of a late bloomer, I guess,” said the gray-bearded, bespectacled Blabey, dressed in a black Bikini Kill T-shirt. Before the series took off, “I’d had exactly 40 years of zero commercial success of any kind.”
Speaking on a video call from his Los Angeles hotel room, which looked out onto a billboard for the “Bad Guys” movie, Blabey talked about what he was aiming for when he came up with the series concept and how Quentin Tarantino figures in.
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Tell me who the Bad Guys are and when you first conjured them up in your imagination.
The Bad Guys are a group of shady animals with terrible reputations. In the books and in some ways in the movie, they decide to go good and do good deeds, whether you like it or not.
I’d reached the age of 40, I had two little kids, and I needed to succeed somehow or I was going to give this away [writing and illustrating books] and [“The Bad Guys”] just popped into my head. They’re the culmination of what I’d been looking for my entire life. What I wanted to do was create a book for kids that was as exciting as playing an Xbox or watching a movie.
I thought about what my kids loved at that age, they were 6 and 8, and what I loved at that age, and what I love now, which is where that Tarantino element came into it. I thought, How can I mash it all up and hotwire it in some way for kids?
Then what happened?
All of those ideas converged on a walk through the countryside in 2014, and when I wrote the idea down with all the character names, I texted a friend and said, “What do you think of this?” and she texted back, “That sounds like a DreamWorks movie.” We both laughed and I didn’t think about that again until I found myself in Hollywood, talking to all the studios and being at DreamWorks.
Did you base the movie on the books or is it an all-new plot that readers won’t be familiar with?
It’s a little bit of both. The movie is based very loosely on the first four books of the series, but with an added heist plot of the screenwriter and the team. I was very protective of it, going in. There was a bunch of studios interested in [adapting] it, and a couple pursuing it aggressively, but I went with DreamWorks because I trusted their sense of tone and they were reverent about the tone of the book, they wanted to preserve that.
When I knew the tone was secure, I was open-minded to what the actual story was. I was delighted to see how many moments directly from the books are peppered throughout the story. Kids will see all the stuff they love from the books, and they’ll recognize all the characters, but it will be a brand-new story.
The Bad Guys were inspired by one of your favorite directors, Quentin Tarantino, right?
Absolutely. It begins with a scene that is a direct homage to the diner scene in “Pulp Fiction.” What I play with in the books is that you’re attracted to the things that you’re not allowed to get your hands on. The idea for me was taking the iconography from movies that were deemed too scary or too rude but tailored for kids.
The movie hasn’t gone with that ultramodern, almost human-looking animation. It reminds me a bit of the “Danger Mouse” series from the 1980s.
I was surprised and delighted by that, because my drawings are limited at best. That’s part of the charm of the books and partly why the books are so successful. There’s a scrappiness and an energy that is really alive in my somewhat rudimentary drawings. [The filmmakers] added that whole 2-D, comic-strip thing to it as well, so there’s a beautiful marriage of 2-D and 3-D, and a bunch of other influences brought in by the director [Pierre Perifel].
Do your young readers contact you? Do they have a favorite character?
They do contact me. Mr. Piranha [voiced by Anthony Ramos in the film] has generally been the fan favorite because he’s probably the funniest of the group. My personal favorite has always been Mr. Snake [Maron] because he’s the most complicated of the group, and the one who struggles the most. He’s kind of like a recovering alcoholic, he’s trying to stay on the path with the other guys, but he keeps falling off and they keep trying to help him out. The journey is more of a struggle for him.
I think the core relationship between Mr. Wolf [Rockwell], who is an optimist despite his circumstances, and Snake, who is a pessimist, creates a relatable tension that my kids loved from the outset and it seems that other kids get it, too. Their relationship is messy and complicated, like the actual relationships between people, which is somewhat rare in books for the 6-to-12 market. My kids always loved that [complexity]. It didn’t feel “kiddie” to them. It felt like they were being treated like little adults who could understand stuff. Having said that, my own kids, who are now 14 and 16, also love Piranha because he’s the funniest.