Sugary Serials is a webcomics site that evokes the spirit of Saturday morning cartoons: The stories are colorful, action-packed, and as easy to digest as a bowl of Lucky Charms. Editor-in-chief Jerzy Drozd has assembled a stable of creators, including Scooby Doo artist Scott Neely and nemu-nemu creators Audra Furuichi and Scott Yoshinaga, who enjoy making big, bold, adventurous comics that are more wholesome than they appear at first glance.
Drozd, a comics artist and freelance illustrator, was inspired not only by the cartoons of his youth but also by his favorite classic comics. “My introduction to comics was my parents coming home with a huge stack of Silver Age books,” he says. “We lived in a very small town and there was no dedicated comics store. They happened to stop in a used bookstore where they had a huge bin of dime comics—Richie Rich, Archie, Metal Men.
“There was this sense of earnest wonder in the old ’60s books, and so much value added because you got three stories in each issue and it took you 15 minutes to read a comic book.”
“At Sugary Serials we want to create stories that are not simplified but dense and full of inferential data, so it takes a while to read it even though it’s only 24 pages,” Drozd says. “You walk away with a lot more than a simple story.”
In order to keep the site fresh, Drozd has a group of creators working on different stories, each of which is presented in eight-page installments. That means the site is updated at least every weekday. At the end of the month, the episodes are collected into a comic that is available for download or print-on-demand.
Drozd himself collaborates with Sara Turner on the kids’ webcomics site Make Like a Tree Comics and Mark Rudolph on the Sugary Serials story The Galactic League of Marshals. “As Mark says, in the ’60s, nothing was off the table,” he says. “If you wanted to have a green pirate from the planet Saturn, you could do it, as long as it made sense in the story. It’s not ironic, not tongue-in-cheek, just a sense of wonder—and what evil can we come up with to for our heroes to overcome.”
Drozd has three guidelines for Sugary Serials creators, all based on the elements that made Saturday morning cartoons so successful:
1. Vibrant characters. “In Saturday morning cartoons, as well as in the ’60s comics, you had very limited space to tell the full story,” he says. “How are you going to communicate characters in an economical fashion while avoiding simplifying? You want them to feel like rich characters, but you don’t have much time. So you turn up the volume on the characters to 11.” That means making every word count. “You can’t write whimsical dialogue,” he says. “You have to ask yourself ‘How is it servicing the story and the character?’”
2. Economical storytelling. The old cartoons, which had two commercial breaks in every episode, were written as three acts with a cliffhanger at the end of the first two and the resolution at the end of the third. The comics on Sugary Serials follow a similar structure, with each act lasting just eight pages. “You have to be very economical,” Drozd says. “You don’t dally. This isn’t a Miyazake film, where you have a lot of mood-setting stuff and you can regard the beautiful landscape for two minutes. You have to hit your points fast.”
3. …And good for you, too. “I tell all our creators, you don’t have to have a moral message blaring on the cover, but at least avoid topics that celebrate ennui, hatred, negative feelings—if they are in the story, it should be someone overcoming negative feelings,” Drozd says.
“I honestly think, how can you succumb to despair when you live in a country where you have real opportunities and you have real recourse when something goes wrong?” he continues. “Of course, being raised on Silver Age stuff, which always had earnest optimism, I was indoctrinated as a child, so when Rob Liefeld, came along, I just didn’t get it. It was like another language to me.”
Drozd wants to get Sugary Serials into libraries, but the librarians he has spoken to have told him they want perfect-bound trade paperbacks, not magazine-style monthly issues. “I was in the graphic novels section [of the Ann Arbor library] and I saw a 13-year-old looking for a book,” he says. “I said, ‘Can I help you find something?’ and she said ‘I’m not looking for anything in particular. I read anything I can.’ A light bulb came on for me—libraries are where kids will find out about you. We have a very hungry audience looking for content, and that’s the place to go.”
In addition to his work on Sugary Serials, Drozd, who makes his living as a freelance illustrator, has spent the last two years working on a comics literacy project in the Detroit public schools. “They hired me to go into the classroom as a teaching artist,” he says. “I did an hour a week with kids, teaching the fundamentals of making comics. It ties into reading comprehension and literacy and getting them to think hard about what we know about a character by how we design them, what their inner lives are.”
Many of his students were new to comics. “I really was walking into an environment where you are dealing with kids who have never read a comic book,” he says. “It was astonishing to talk to kids who have never read a comic in their life, because they don’t have access and comics aren’t marketed to them, and teachers have written off comics as junk literature or at best a gateway to ‘real reading.’” In fact, he says, one teacher who started incorporating comics regularly into lessons learned that some children who seemed to be struggling with reading actually had a robust visual vocabulary that they didn’t have in words.
So it makes sense that Drozd would be interested in creating entry-level comics. “I get into debates with other comics creators who say ‘What you are doing is dumbed down, kiddified, not advancing the art form,’” he says. “I think there is a lot of effort that goes into constructing stories that kids and adults can enjoy, but you need comics that can get the entry person hooked. Then they can go on to Art Spiegelman or Phoebe Glockner. Phobe Glockner is not going to get kids into reading comics. Naruto, Fruits Basket—those are great, because they are getting people into the idea of reading sequential art.
“It feels like it’s something that’s beginning to pick up steam, and people are getting hungry for it. A woman with children came to me at the comics store and said ‘Thank you for having content I feel comfortable giving to my nine-year-old. I read it and found it charming.’ If you’re Grant Morrison, that’s death to hear, but I was glowing all day.”