Author Essay: Mark Tatulli

Becoming Short & Skinny

“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”

This ungallant sentence was spoken to me by a cartooning compatriot when I gave him the news that I had sold Short & Skinny, a mini-memoir of my life in the summer of 1977. You might think my first reaction would be to get indignant and huffy.

But all I could think in that shocking moment was: “Holy crap! He’s right! Who wants to read a story about me?!

I hadn’t thought of this before! I was so wrapped up in wanting to tell my story and analyzing my life as a detached, outside reporter that I never stopped to think, why was this a story worth telling? Who would want to read this? I forgot to ask myself the first question I always ask …why do I care?

How did I miss that very basic thing? What was different this time?

So I stepped back and reviewed…I remember reading Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (who hasn’t?) and being so moved and engaged by her very personal middle school story, and relating to the same thoughts and feelings at that age. And without hesitation, I jumped into writing/drawing my own middle school epoch…my story. As I pondered my early teens, the words and pictures came flooding out, right there in those spiral Strathmore sketch books. With no forethought. I just started to draw panels…and then myself in those panels, and suddenly it was May 1977 again and there I was at a desk in Memorial Jr High…drawing in my private world and swathed in insecurity.

The memories continued to bubble up and fill the pages. Soon my thoughts moved faster than I could draw, and I began to cram the anecdotes and events of my experience onto single Post-it notes, forcing me to keep them simple and to the point. I honestly, and at times painfully, examined my 13-year-old self (but always with a bent toward humor), with each distant recollection unleashing two or three more. Before I knew it, I had an entire door in my office, ceiling to floor, full of these little orange and yellow flashbacks.

Then I assembled the memory-squares into an arc of my life from that far past summer, and like a puzzle coming together piece-by-piece, the full picture of Short & Skinny emerged.

Then, I sat down and converted the story into comic pages like I saw in other graphic novels for middle schoolers. I had never written a long form comic story (I make two daily newspaper comic strips three or four panels at a time—a very different genre), and the process was sort of scary and exhilarating at the same time. I love learning how to do something new, especially if it combines cartoons and storytelling.

Soon I had 60 rough pages and the story treatment, which was passed along to publishers and before long, BOOM! A sale to Little Brown Books for Young Readers was made. Taa-Dah!

“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”

For the first time I thought about the “why do I care?” question after the story was written. And it dawned on me:  middle school is this weird, awkward bump in time for everybody. Everybody has that cringe worthy, outcast, ill-fitting, body-conscious period…when you have one foot in childhood fantasies and the other foot slowly making the turn into young adulthood, and nothing you do seems right or normal and you’re filled with doubt. When you are trying to find yourself. Everybody has a story about that time. And Short & Skinny is mine.

Who wants to read a story about me?

I do. Middle school me. I wrote this for middle school me, and all those other kids that feel like I did. In retrospect there’s nothing especially cataclysmic about being short and skinny, but when you are 12, 13 or so, it’s pretty devastating to be the smallest kid in your class. With no end in sight. So I wanted to let that me know it’s going to be ok. That in the end it doesn’t matter how tall or short or fat or slow or dorky or clumsy or different you think you are. It’s about finding your voice. All kids have that hidden voice, that something special just waiting to come out. For me, it was my storytelling voice and how STAR WARS unlocked that back in ’77. And I can only hope that Short & Skinny will be that kind of inspiration too. That being different isn’t a bad thing. As my Mom used to say, “It’s all about what you do with those dancing shoes.”

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