Sunday, June 11, 2023

Q&A with Jeff Sikaitis and Jake Wheeler


Jeff Sikaitis



Jeff Sikaitis and Jake Wheeler are the creators of the new middle grade graphic novel The Gullfather: Birdsy Seagull. Lifelong friends, they have collaborated on a variety of projects, including in television and feature documentary.


Q: What inspired you to create The Gullfather?


A: We were at a beach watching how seagulls act. They’re funny, relentless and super obnoxious. We saw them act as a gang to try and get food. We were talking about old-time gangsters, and when Bugsy Siegel came up, it hit us Siegel—Seagull. Instead of Bugsy, we came up with Birdsy.


After that it was too fun to stop so we kept running with it. It was one of those moments for us where the environment just slowed down and we are able to see these different seagull interactions play out in front of us (a seagull stealing a snack, two other seagulls squawking at each other, another seagull on his perch watching all the madness ensue) and we were just entertained by these mob-like gulls.

Jake Wheeler

Also it’s a new story-verse that hasn’t been explored for kids. We find many parts of the genre from the characters, the food, the clothing and especially the nicknames - one of the most underrated parts of the mafia genre lend themselves well to humor.


We think we have some great characters with some very sticky nicknames—Sweet Beak, Quack Quack, One-Wing and so many



Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the book?


A: Working together for so long there’s a lot of trust and comfort, both in terms of the creative process, but also in balancing other life demands.


On the creative front, this idea wouldn’t have even started if we didn’t have the freedom to throw out random and weird concepts to each other. There’s a tendency to build on each other first before applying the critical lens. That allows us to be explorative, to go off on tangents and before reeling it back in and grounding it.


Plus when you’ve been friends for this long, having fun becomes a very big element of work so that it feel much more satisfying and exciting than just “work.”


In terms of the actual writing, in the early early stages it’s just, “is this fun, funny, could this work?” Then if it feels like it has some legs we ask, “Who are these birds, what do they want and need broadly speaking and what roles do they play in their world and in their group?”


In terms of the first book, it then becomes, “OK, what is the particular problem, how do they respond, how do their personalities make the problem better or worse?”


In parallel there’s the visual development, first at the character level, then the overall tone of the world, landscape and settings. How to evoke the timeless gangster touchstones and yet create freshness. As it comes together there’s adjustment on the story level and the page level.


Q: You’ve worked in various other media, including television and feature documentary--do you have a preference?


A: As creative people, finding a new sandbox is always thrilling. And this particular sandbox - middle grade lit - allows us to indulge the 8-year old kid within us. We could be a little more silly in this format, which made it incredibly fun.


Also we fell in love with the graphic novel format—and giving readers the ability to “see” the story and the experience of letting the visual layer not only drive emotion and humor and narrative but to capture the energetic essence of a scene.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: There’s a sort of meta-message that reading can be fun and adventurous and visually powerful. Perhaps it can compete with the screens. And then there’s the message conveyed in the story, about family and responsibility and how we all need a crew.


We want kids to have a blast reading it. To laugh, find awe in some of the visuals, and bond with the characters. It would be a privilege to keep giving them that.


Q: This is the first in a series--what's next?


A: We’ve got big plans for Birdsy and his Crew with a few new books in the early stages. We want to keep developing the characters on the personal dimension while pushing their overall mission to keep Shoretown safe for their fellow gulls.


Which means that while some adventures and quests will be more one-off, we want to introduce longer-running enemies and bigger arcs, just like you would find in a TV series.


But specifically, expect to see a lot more of “Sweat Beak” and “Mickey Brains” who we teased in book 1 and then the introduction of some Shoretown baddies.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Much like Simon and Garfunkel, we have a number of projects both collaborative and solo efforts.


Jeff has recently finished another graphic novel series, The Magic Paper Society, and a recently released kids franchise, Oddfish, as well as picture book series My Funtastic Neighborhood.


Jake helped develop the TV series Rennervations, with Jeremy Renner, which is airing on Disney+. (premiers April 11). He’s also shopping a comedic sci-fi pilot called The Earth Is Nice This Time of Year, and a picture book series, Winnie & Walloughby.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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