Keith Graves' Seriously Ridiculous Stories
Where are the kids?
Up the stairs and around the corner, under the "BookKids" sign and past the ABCs, 123s, and Dr. Seuss, Max Graves stands sole sentry to a small-scale amphitheatre and its absent audience. Leaning against a little blue house with an aquarium window that faces this miniature stadium, beneath the giant, red 'n' black caterpillar etched on one of the corner nook's tall glass walls, the handsome four-year-old wears a serene smile. Exudes a peaceful air in the quietude. He has his mother's coloring and father's round face. Quite the young man. Seated at the long, square table next to him, meanwhile, the latter parent -- Keith Graves -- is lost in his own Zen. Drawing monsters.
"They're coming," says Max, taking a few steps to the window, surveying the Whole Foods/BookPeople parking lot. He's referring not to the five dozen Winn Elementary first graders being bussed in on this bright May morning, but rather his mom and his sister. They're not here, either. "They're coming," he repeats.
Ann Mathews, until recently the BookKids marketing director, gives Keith more books to emboss. In some, he draws a picture to accompany his signature. Something playful, a troll maybe, or some bulbous beastie -- with a hat. He says he's done "maybe 20" signings by now -- Austin, Dallas, L.A., Mississippi. When Mathews and her ilk found out that Keith Graves lives in town, they arranged a reading.
"It's a piece of cake compared to painting all day," cracks the 41-year-old Austin illustrator.
Max points out at the minivan pulling up to BookPeople. "They're here."
So they are. Minutes later, Mom is explaining Emma's etiquette.
"She likes to rearrange the furniture," motions Nancy Graves toward Max and Emma, who are repositioning their table and chairs closer to the bookcases. "She'll lay out and arrange all the books she wants to look at."
Oops. Nancy takes Mathews' arm.
"I hope that's all right?"
By now, the twins are gleefully plucking books off the shelves. Nancy pulls up a seat at the decidedly non-grownups table. Dad looks amused. The Graves household must have lots of children's literature.
"A ton," snorts the author.
A woman with a baby approaches. In one hand, she clutches two copies of Graves' first book, Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance. In the crook of her other arm, 7-month-old Evan. He's big. Very big. With big, curious eyes.
"I love this book!" she enthuses. "Really. I love this book!"
Evan eyes the book, the green dancing monster on its cover tipping his hat while hoisting a cane. Bob Fosse as Frankenstein. Keith inks his appreciation on both volumes, and rises to give them back to their owner. Evan sizes him up. Sarah with an "h" is thrilled.
"Do you like to dance?" she ventures.
"Maybe," he says, considering Frank's fate. "If I could fall apart."
She laughs, and continues browsing. Sell to the parents, right?
"That's what the publishers say," nods Graves.
And what do they advise when you've been stood up by two classrooms full of 7- and 8-year-olds? Before this can be properly addressed, two orange school buses pull up on Lamar, half an hour late. Lumbering down to the walkway below us, the first one pulls up and disgorges its contents, who line up single file like antz.
Former Grande Dame of the Republic, Ann Richards, in shorts, T-shirt, and sunglasses, hops up on the sidewalk and smiles as she breezes past. The schoolkids exit stage left and give way to the second bus and another 30 or so charges. Ninety seconds later, the BookKids coliseum is transformed into a scene from Gladiator.
"Okay, gimme five!" shouts the teacher, a wiry, black woman used to riding PFCs. Up go the palms, shut go the mouths. The artist and author stands ready, in front of an easel. "This is Keith Graves."
"Howse everyone doing?" he greets the 4-foot mob of primarily black and Hispanic rambunctiousness. The answer is deafening. He pauses. "So, you guys are all in high school now?"
"I thought we'd read this book."
He holds up Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance. Opens it to the first page, where Frank, in his purple bathrobe and mouse slippers, sits in his electric chair watching Soul Train on the tube, remote control at the ready.
"Frank was a monster who wanted to dance ..." begins Graves.
"Louder!" bark several of the minions.
"Frank was a monster who wanted to dance!" repeats Graves. He points to the voice bubble from Frank. "I know I could boogie if they gave me a chance."
"Heh, heh," gurgle the spectators knowingly.
"So he put on his hat, and his shoes made in France, and opened a jar, and put ants in his pants."
The soccer match chorus: "Euuuuuuuwwwwwwwhhhhhhh!!!!!"
"He drove to the theater and jumped onstage. Then he danced like his shoe-size instead of his age."
Graves points to another voice bubble.
"'Boffo!'" he pronounces. "You guys ever say, 'Boffo!'?"
No, and they don't know "fab," either.
"Frank shook his shoulders and strutted his stuff. The audience screamed. They couldn't get enough."
(The moment screams "jig," but Graves knows better.)
"Frank did a cartwheel. Frank did a flip. Suddenly his head began to unzip."
"Out flopped his brain... which plopped on the floor, which loosened his eyeball, which rolled out the door."
"See the brain there?" Graves points helpfully.
"But Frank kept on dancing. He said, 'What the heck?' and laughed as his head fell off his neck."
"He said to himself with a one-eyed glance, I might be a monster, but man can I dance."
Graves snaps the book shut.
It's a hit! Cigars for everyone!
"Wait!" someone wails amid the high-pitched merriment. "Read it again!!! It was too short."
Jolted to life by Lost Boys Studios of Vancouver and Santa Monica, the stop-motion version of Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance cackles and prances with a Tim Burtonesque dark glee. As its narrator dulcets his best Boris Karloff -- Frank interpreted as Jimmy Durante voiced by Buddy Hackett -- this two-and-a-half minute "work in progress" roars to life with its star Batmobiling it down to the danceteria on a twangy crest of Shadowy Men From a Shadowy Planet surftones. When Frank boogies down, the blurry inset looks to be either Gene Kelley or Pee-wee Herman.
The Disgusting Tribes of Planet Plurp
While it's no Nightmare Before Christmas, its source material is every bit as visceral as Where the Wild Things Are. Like Maurice Sendak's genre-defining 1973 classic, Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance lassoes the imagination on its cover and title alone. Where Sendak's colors are muted and his style somewhat impressionistic, however, Graves' lysergically saturated rainbow spectrum radiates Saturday-morning mayhem. Looney Tunes on three bowls of Crunch Berries. The Munsters as a comic book.
As with Mad magazine, often the humor is marginal -- that is to say, in the margins. When Frank sits at his vanity table, trying on his hat and shoes made in France, written on the side of the box below a tiny Eiffel Tower are the words "Le Shooz." His spray, "Le Smèll." Chuck Jones lives.
Even Frank's dedication, atop a malodorous, purple shoe, manages a wink and a nudge: "For Max and Emma, audacious dancers in their own right." Perhaps that kid at BookPeople was right: 14 pages is too short.
Petboy, by contrast, following up 1999's Frank this past March, is an altogether more serious and mature work. It's 18 pages. Petboy is also a fairly straightforward cautionary tale: Stanley collects exotic pets, which he neglects, until one day he joins the caged intergalactic ranks of "snakes with wings and seven eyes" ("Euuuuuuuwwwwwwwhhhhhhh!!!!!") and "stinky birds with fur" ("Euuuuuuuwwwwwwhhhhhhh!!!!!") as an alien abuductee. Petboy. Not as immediate as Frank, its visual puns and literal jokes are guaranteed to keep the MIB busy just the same.
Then again, what Petboy may lack in le shooz-filling charm, it recoups on marketability. Turns out Petboy is prime front-runner in an octopus' tentacle count of Gravesian animation that is currently hatching out of Hollywood. Multiplying faster than an overhead compartment full of Tribbles, Graves' options are so varied, neither he, his partner, nor agent list the same half-dozen projects when grilled.
Petboy, a pet project of Universal Studios poobah Casey Silver before he was stock-optioned out of a job, is now in development as a Nickelodeon feature film, and of all of Graves' projects is the likeliest green-light according to all three principals on Team Graves. Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, the scribes behind Toy Story, are working on the rewrite.
The duo, it seems, is also working on an original "Futuristic Circus Project" according to John Williams of Vanguard Films, Graves' benefactor/partner and producer of the currently $100-million-and-climbing Shrek. Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Graves' agent at Michael Ovitz's Artists Management Group (AMG), mentions a teleplay titled "Sammy Finkelman's Search for His Imagination," plus a story Graves lists as a future publication Pandora's Box. Williams counters with a Sony pilot titled Rednecks in Space, not to be confused with another trial 'toon Graves fires up at home, Thunderpig, a cartoon noir following the exploits of a porker who loses his best hair ("I'm just a hog with an unruly coif"). Quorum on the No. 2 most likely candidate for a screen near you goes to: Young MacDonald, a book/television series about a genius superkid who bioengineers animals.
"Like, for instance, the bull is a beatnik that drinks espresso," explains its creator.
That's in development at Disney. There are also high hopes for Loretta, Ace Pinky Scout at WBTV, which Buffy's slain vampire killer, Sarah Michelle Gellar, has already committed to lending voice. Not coincidentally, Loretta is next in line on Scholastic Press' publication schedule. They're Graves' second publisher, by the way; both Frank and Petboy belong to Chronicle Books, while this fall's forthcoming Uncle Blubbafink's Seriously Ridiculous Stories and 2002's 3 Nasty Gnarlies round out the Scholastic trio. Graves says a deal for books six and seven is being negotiated now at Scholastic. Confused yet?
"I can't even keep track of all the stuff he's got going on," laughs AMG's Goldsmith-Vein.
Let's not forget to name-drop E. Elias Merhige, who directed the superb Shadow of the Vampire and wants to collaborate with Graves ("We met last time I was there," he says). Or Henry Selick, who directed Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas and brought Roald Dahl's juicy James and the Giant Peach to the big screen. Selick wants Graves' help with The Mini Meanies and has put in for helming Petboy.
And if being his own Tinseltown cottage industry weren't enough, Graves' illustrious illustrating career hasn't even been brought to light: 10-plus years of Texas Monthly illustrations; contributions to Mother Jones, Spin, Playboy, The Atlantic; covers for Guitar Player and Robert Cray's 1995 blues smoothout Some Rainy Morning. Once upon a time, in the mid-Eighties, there was even a series of front-pagers for a fledgling weekly in the Texas state capital. We leave anything out?
"Oh," remembers Vanguard's Williams. "We have a licensing agent working on creating a game called The Disgusting Tribes of Planet Plurp, which has wide applications as a video game, small characters in line with Todd McFarlane's Yellow Submarine, Shrek, and Spawn kind of creatures, and also playing cards. That's another one we're currently pursuing."
The Digusting Tribes of Planet Plurp?
"A Pokémon spoof," explains Graves.
Talk about your creatures.
"When I first met him, it shocked me," confesses Nancy Graves. "It was shocking. Like some of his first pieces. They seemed so out there. It was a little scary, like, 'Where does this man's mind go? What places does this man's mind visit?'"
Mr. Wizard's Rich, Juicy Experience
Rollo Banks chortles.
"On the Chronicle covers, he used to do the same cover over and over. He liked the idea of the wizardy-looking guy looking down into the crystal ball, and he would change that up -- change it into a cook looking into a fire. He liked that composition big-time."
A renowned skin-trade illustrator and one-time Austin Chronicle art samurai, Banks recalls two young illustrators shuffling around China Sea Tattoo in the mid-Eighties -- Graves and poster-artist-to-be, Frank Kozik.
"And the reason I went with those two guys was because when I first came to Austin, I tried meeting all the art kings there -- [Jim] Franklin, and [Guy] Juke, and Mike Priest -- and they gave me the fucking gas. They were silk-hatting me, these fucking guys.
"So when I got that deal to do the covers for the Chronicle, I didn't wanna give those old guys work. They were smug, complacent jerks -- the art establishment in Austin. I was looking for new guys, and Keith came around."
DJ Stout, art director at Texas Monthly (1987-2000), got the next visit.
"One of things I found interesting was that he used to have a studio over by the Granite Cafe," recalls Stout. "There was this little garage over there, and in addition to doing illustrations, he would go out there and make these little illustrated works of art. They were made of wood, and he'd cut 'em out, and hook them up with motors.
"They were these little moving illustrations, but they were his fine art. He wasn't getting paid for it, he just did it on his own. Just for the hell of it. Then, every now and then, he would put on an art show in that little house. He'd call his friends and say, 'Do a piece of art for my show.' I thought that was amazing, that he was doing all this stuff in addition to his normal job -- which was illustration -- for which he was starting to get well known."
Vanguard Films' John Williams saw four of these illustrations in The Atlantic.
"Which is not noted for its illustrations," the producer points out. "It was a Halloween issue, and there were four creatures on the back page, about an inch high and four inches wide. They each had distinct qualities and characteristics that made them unique. I thought, 'These guys look like they're characters you could really build merchandising around.' They struck me like the Big Daddy Roth/Rat Fink artwork of years ago, but very of the moment.
"On a whim, I contacted the art director at the magazine, who then put me in touch with Keith. I asked him for his portfolio, and when I got it, I thought, 'This is the person I've been looking to for years -- someone to work with to build a media franchise.' Certainly the aspirations are not to be [Jim] Henson or Disney, but I felt, 'This has applications in all media -- television and features.'"
That led to a book agent.
"It was through John [Williams], who's a close friend," confirms literary agent Liza Voges at Kirchoff Wohlberg in New York. "He was so enthusiastic about Keith and knew he had some [book] dummies."
Which led to a film agent.
"Everything he's created as a book, we've sold as a potential television series or feature film," reports AMG's Goldsmith-Vein.
The book agent begot book deals.
"If I were describing it to somebody in the business," thinks Dianne Hess at Scholastic Books, the Harry Potter publisher, "I'd say his work reminds me of, as both a writer and illustrator together, Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, who have done a number of really popular children's books. It's very realized and detailed art, but it's kinda quirky and wacky. It's really completely a work of imagination."
The film agent opened artistic avenues.
"Now he's expanded into storyboarding," says Williams, "which he's very good at, and is part of the craft of animation for television and features. I think there's a franchise of Keith."
Which brings us back to Nancy.
"Now, I find I absolutely love [his artwork],"she says, sitting in her husband's small office in Austin, "because it's the first time I ever lived with anyone or been with someone in my life who truly goes through the process. I mean, I almost feel like at the end of the day -- I don't wanna say it doesn't matter what it looks like -- but I've quit judging it, because I respect the process so much.
"You know, being able to go to a place day after day, sitting down in this little tiny office, and asking himself, 'How can I please myself? How can I really create something totally new -- go to a new place I've never been before?' He travels that path over and over and over again.
"So the thing I get from living with him is, he's a very happy person. He's a very self-satisfied person. I would say this: The truth is, that can be a little threatening. My old image was that you're with someone and they take care of you. What I've learned from Keith is, and really, it's what I want with our kids -- what I want for myself -- you learn how to take care of yourself, how to satisfy yourself. That's when you're happy.
"Then wherever you go, and whatever relationship you're in, you really enter it not needing anything from anybody, because you've already pleasured yourself. You've already had this rich, juicy experience."
Despite having not one but two palm trees keeping the South Austin sun off their three-bedroom abode up behind Barton Springs, Keith Graves claims he has no intention of uprooting his family to the probably more career-friendly, palm-swaying hills of Beverly.
The Train in the Fireplace
"We're dug in pretty deep here," he says.
Hewn with a design that was popular as the Sixties dawned over the Cold War, the Graves' stout, one-story rental is all square and triangular angles, with a quarry's worth of stone inlay. Frank Lloyd Wright meets Stonehenge. Toys strewn at every turn, along the driveway, in the garage, on the doorstep, throughout the house, and spilling all over the back patio, the Graves castle is under siege of childhood.
Under siege by Max and Emma, obviously, who are in the carport painting when most nannies would have them inside watching TV. Actually, that's the one entertainment device that goes unnoticed inside. It's there in the living room, but since the children aren't allowed to watch television (movies, video games, and computers are also on hold), the idiot box takes a backseat to objets d'art.
This includes the kids' abstract acrylics, which concede the wall space to their father's "moving illustrations." Closest to the front door is "Jackie O," a 5-foot-square wooden box frame with enough thick, brown hair to carpet Martha's Vineyard and two shotgun shells where eyes in the back of one's head might go. Graves points to the dangling electrical chord.
There's also "Chauncey" the cat, stretched on his back over the couch, and a green dog with long, orange-blond hair and a Mona Lisa smile by the fireplace.
In Keith's "office" hangs a Cheshire smile with naked spinning pin-ups instead of peepers. Here, in the good light, on a besotted drafting table next to a formerly white plastic stand full of crumpled paint, Graves navigates his own imagination. One day soon, he envisions taking that trip in his own self-designed studio, mocked up as a balsawood model on the shelf over his computer table (www.keithgravesart.com). When the land up near Cedar Park sells, building on the property south of Oak Hill begins. For now, the back bedroom is studio enough.
"I was drawing from day one," reveals Graves. "I can't remember ever not doing that. That was what I always did. I would draw everything from realistic portraits of people and things to just copying Charlie Brown out of the Sunday paper."
Drawing in Mississippi and New Orleans, where he was born and grew up, respectively. Drawing at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, where he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts. Drawing for the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, where he studied for two years before succumbing to his love of Willie Nelson and hopping a stagecoach bound for Austin. Drawing at UT, where he landed an MFA, and a Dell management team trainer originally from Ohio. Caught her gaze over a "sea of mortarboards" at their mutual 1990 graduation. Five years later, Frank stitched together.
"I just started writing it," recounts Graves. "This was when I first sat down and decided I wanted to do children's books. It was a Saturday morning, and Nancy was gone. Pre-kids. She'd just gotten pregnant, and I decided I really wanted to do this. So I just sat down and thought, 'What would be the most fun?' And I thought of several different types of stories, and one was a monster story. I wanted the pictures to be really nuts, and I wanted to have a great character."
Why not Frank Was a Bunny Who Wanted to Play Piano?
"That's not what I'm interested in," he laughs. "I don't wanna write 'Pat the Bunny.' I wouldn't have any fun doing that. It's fun for me to create these things that are, you know, wicked."
Luke, Luke, the dark side ...
"I like stuff that's a little more enigmatic. I like bad guys that are funny. I like Tony Soprano. I just like to do things with different levels of interest. Like at a Magritte painting -- a train coming out of the fireplace. I love that. It's kind of scary, but it's kinda beautiful and weird, too. I guess that's my goal, is to go there. I don't always hit it, but sometimes I hit it, and it's something that's beautiful in a kind of indefinable way ...
"When I started trying to do Frank Was a Monster and Uncle Blubbafink as little dummy books, where I really made them with my hands, and did the sketches, and wrote the words, I realized it was a blast. Cause it was completely my world, my characters, my words -- everything. I really got off on that. I mean instantly, the graphic art business became a lot less interesting to me. I totally got off on creating my own thing."
Did you know Frank was good?
Graves, his poker face earnest, leans forward.
"No, that was another thing. How do you ever know it's good until you've been out there for a while? I knew I liked it. Early on, like back when I knew Rollo, the world wasn't giving me any strokes, saying, 'This is good.' Seemed like nothing I did achieved that. It was a great lesson to learn -- to get it into my head that it didn't really matter what anyone thought.
"I got it after a while, that was really the truth. That I didn't care what anybody thought. By the time I was doing Frank, I already had that in my inner being and I just sort of sat back and said, 'Well, I like it, so, it must be pretty good.' That's what it was. I said, 'Well, if I can get it published, great. If not, I'll make little dummy books and read 'em to my kids.'"
"I thought we could play a game," announces Graves after reading Petboy. "I need you guys to think of an animal."
Sixty odd imaginations respond at full volume.
"Think of something and raise your hand," corrects Graves. "I'll point to you."
They obey, more or less (less), and after some negotiation, a lion, giraffe, and anaconda have their hides thrown in the carnival ring. For his next trick, the Great Santini will now Dr. Moreau them into a single creature.
"What's interesting about a lion?" prompts Graves.
"They have manes!" makes the most sense, while "really long neck" pegs the giraffe, and the anaconda pulls bronze with the only answer possible: "Big snake." In the time it takes most cubicle jockeys to jot down a phone number, Graves whips up a lion with a Hanna-Barbera puss, attaches it to a long spotted neck, then morphs it into a snake. Taa-dahhh!!!
"Okay, think of an animal."
Max Graves raises his hand.
"Max, you got one?"
Talk about enigmatic. His father writes down ostrich. Cheetah and elephant join the list, as "trunk," "spots," and "feathers with a long neck" are singled out of Dr. Doolittle's Cliff Notes. Over to the side, two of the elder Graves' friends -- artist-looking types -- are cracking up.
"Keith TV," deadpans one.
"'All right, what's interesting about a baboon?'" quips the other. "'Funny ass!'"
Graves, meanwhile, sketches an ostrich with a trunk and lots of spots. Again! Rooster/zebra/bear: Smokey the bear, with a salmon in its mouth, broad stripes, and feathered tail. Next: tiger/pig/alligator.
"You guys think of an interesting name," he suggests casually before realizing his folly. "Think in your mind!!!"
Too late. Circus maximus.
"Excuse me!" yells the teacher. "You guys can't think and talk at the same time."
Graves finishes up a snouted face on a reptile with stripes.
"Okay, this has been too easy," he teases. "One more. We need a really hard animal."
He gets turtle, crocodile, snake, dragon. And an earful.
"I need total quiet to concentrate," he pleads weakly.
Thankfully, the ensuing Q&A is brief.
"How'd you draw that?"
"Uhhh ..." is all the author can muster.
"Are you a minister?"
"Let's ask questions about the book!" orders the teacher.
"When did you start writing books?"
"Five years ago," Graves replies.
"Do you write the words, too?"
"Pictures and words," he affirms.
That's it. Two minutes flat.
"Kids who purchased books can come up and have them signed," comes the final command. "Everyone else has to play the quiet game."
A handful of students have their copies of Petboy autographed. The last of the group, a trio of young girls, approach Graves. Two of them looked bewildered, uninterested. The third, watches Graves, smiling. "This is cool," says her expression. She watches the artist scrawl in her book, grinning all the while.
"Thank you" she says politely, looking down at the signature and turning back to the throng. Ninety seconds later, she and her classmates are gone.
Ann Mathews sets a stack of Petboys for Graves to sign on the table in front of him. Nancy, doing her best June Cleaver, comes up behind her Ward and slings an arm around his shoulder.
"Honey, did you have fun?"
Keith keeps signing and sighs.
"Hard keeping their attention."
"That was a lot of kids," says Mathews. "You did a great job."
"Yeah, honey," Nancy coos sincerely. "You did a great job."
Finished, shaking his hand out, Graves sidles over to his two buddies. He's glad to commune with some so-called "adults." One of them mentions "Graves TV," while the other stage whispers a retort and the group, now joined by Nancy, burst out laughing. They talk a bit, lunch planned upon exit, while Max and Emma whistle in and out of the BookKids playscape like Chip and Dale. A final customer walks up, a mother with two kids, 5 and 8 maybe: Benton and Esther.
"That's Graves, by the way," she pauses.
"Your name is Graves?" asks Keith.
"No kidding," he says, amused.
"We've had our books for a long time," she beams, handing over Frank Was a Monster Who Wanted to Dance.
Benton wants a dragon in his copy, while Esther desires a dolphin. Youngest sibling Ava, in absentia, gets a rabbit. Benton's mother nudges him to say "thank you." Benton stammers that he likes to draw and make up stories.
"That's how I started," confides Graves.