Canadian illustrator Mike Holmes is the artist behind the Secret Coders and Wings of Fire graphic novel. His debut middle grade graphic novel My Own World came out June 22. I interview Mike about the difference between illustrating other people’s work and his own and how My Own World came to be.

Q. How did My Own World come about?

A. I’ve been working in comics for a long time, having an absolute blast drawing all different kinds of stories and working with people who appreciated what I have to offer. But I knew I had to tell a story that really meant something to me, and not just because I felt like I HAD to make a book. So, as I worked on other books, I built the ideas and settings and characters of this one, a process that ended up taking a few years. I’m very glad it did though, because the book that’s now for sale is the book I knew I wanted to make.

Q. Why was this the story you wanted to tell?

A. When I was 12, our family moved across Canada, from one coast to the other. While I ended up loving the place we moved to, it was very jarring at the time, leaving the only place I knew, and that feeling has stayed with me ever since. When something stays with you that long, and you happen to be an artist, you almost have no choice but to find a way to express it in your work. So this book had to come out, one way or the other. In fact, I’ve still never returned to B.C. in the 30 years since we left, and that’s had the effect of giving a small suburb of Vancouver some mythic proportions in my imagination.

Q. The book deals with a lot of issues, including feeling alone in your family, bullying and health concerns. Why were all these situations needed for your story?

A. My original concept was, ‘What if you entered a magical place – like Oz or Wonderland or Narnia or Fantasia- and had it all to yourself? What would you do? How would you deal with the outside world when this other place was so inviting and rich with discovery?’ Then I started thinking about the kinds of things in my own childhood that would make me want to escape – the dangers, the worries, the desire to have a place of my own. I was driven by my instinct to at first escape – and then, more importantly, find a way to face and deal with – these problems in my life, both then and now.

Q. What do you hope readers will learn from your story?

A. I don’t know if I’d call it a lesson or something to learn; I find the more didactic a work is, the more alienating and less interesting it becomes. I really like looking at these things as a conversation and hear how someone reacts to my ideas about how weird and joyous life can be. I don’t know if there are any easy answers to the chaos of life, but it sure is comforting to know that other people want to talk about it with you. I really look forward to hearing from readers!

Q. You are the illustrator of the Secret Coders and Wings of Fire graphic novels (I love your dragons). What was the process of creating works written by someone else? Is there a lot of collaboration? How are you chosen as the illustrator?

A. Thank you! I love drawing those dragons, they’re like little parts of myself.

I’m very lucky that I’ve always worked with creative partners that match my enthusiasm for comics and storytelling. There’s usually a back-and-forth; sometimes I’ll be asked to make a pose or expression more or less dynamic, other times I’ll suggest a slightly different way of pacing a scene. I’ve never had a writer be anything less than flexible, and it’s great feeling to know that at the very least, your ideas are valid and worth considering. 

The process for being chosen can take a long time, but once I know they’re interested in my work I do all I can to meet their expectations. Sometimes it’s a little easier, but I’m never afraid to audition if the project looks fun.

Q. What was the difference in process between illustrating someone else’s work and illustrating your own?

A. You only have yourself to blame if it doesn’t work! I’m kind of joking, but it’s both freeing and terrifying to have the creative conversation be almost entirely limited to your own tastes and abilities (aside from the valued input of editors and trusted friends).

Q. Would you do it again (create your own book)?

A. In a heartbeat! I’ve got a lot more stories to tell.

Q. Was there more pressure (self-made or otherwise) on you for creating your own book than you may see what illustrating someone else’s?

A. Without a doubt. When you collaborate, you and your partners can share the glories and the criticisms. There’s also something to be said for being kind of invisible on a project – like, you’re not the main event, it’s the story that people came for, or maybe it’s the writer. But as sole creator, you’ve got to deliver on all levels. But it’s a challenge I’ve been wanting for a long time, and I’m incredibly proud of the work.

Q. How did you come up the idea of My Own World? Did you come up with illustrations first or the story? Do you write in illustrations?

A. I always think in images – I’ll sit and ponder an entire scene in my head until it feels like there’s no other way it could be imagined, and that confidence is what gets me to the next step of actually drawing the picture in my head. So, the image of Nathan approaching the lighthouse at night, with the moonlight mysteriously shining through the lens, or him racing on his orb-cycle through tunnels he built himself, were very early images I imagined and drew. The idea of the orbs as magical building blocks came to me early on. Originally they were going to be perfect spheres, but that seemed too rigid – an oval just seems friendlier, I guess? It’s really the only thing that made sense to me.

Q. How much did My Own World change from initial to pitch to current book? Did the story change as well as the illustrations?

A. Once I realized what the story was and pitched it, it didn’t change a whole lot – there were certain things, like the age of the main character, that were altered for the better. 

Q. Your book has just come out (June 22). What has been the response?

A. The response has been incredible, to say the least. It’s an interesting thing, making something so personal and then seeing how strangers react to it, but the reviews and feedback have been incredibly relieving. There are a lot of things I use to feel – and feel now – that I hoped could be understood by someone who isn’t me, and it looks (so far) like I pulled it off.

Q. If you could escape to a berry-coloured magic world, what would you do? Who would you bring with you? Who would you create?

A. I explored so much of what I’d love to do in the book through Nathan, but it would be incredible to do some big production number, like something out of a musical, with thousands of synchronized movements and cool lighting effects. Way over-the-top stuff- it was actually a scene that almost made it into the book, but I didn’t want to include it if I didn’t believe it could be done right.

I’d bring the three people I feel most comfortable sharing my imagination with – my wife Meredith, our son Oscar and my brother Jeremy. We’d stay for an afternoon and then come home and I’d make waffles for dinner.

Q. What are you currently working on?

A. I do a lot of woodworking and handy projects around our house, and I’m always up for a new challenge, whether it’s hanging drywall or installing a new closet system or building a bed for our three year old. In that way I’m still a lot like Nathan – I love to create, to pull things out of my imagination and make them real. In its own way, it’s pretty magical to get to do that! Aside from the fun of that, I’m writing out a few different pitches for my next book, and later in the year I’m back to work on Wings of Fire Book 6. 

 Q. Dream project? 

 A. I’ve always been drawn to the specific language of movies. I even wrote and drew my book as though it was a live-action film – there’s quite a bit of ‘80s-movie influence in there and the way that Miyazaki presents his child protagonists and how they explore their worlds is breathtaking and a massive inspiration  for me. I would love to have the chance to write and direct a movie someday – even the adaptation of My Own World!

Q. You were born and raised on the west coast before moving to Nova Scotia as a young child. How did you find yourself in Philadelphia?

A. I married an American! We lived in New York for a few years – that’s where she’s from – and then decided that Philly was the best place for us, since we’re drawn to city life. It’s a terrific place, we love it here. 

My Own World is from Raincoast Books and retails for $26.99.