"Tiny Titans" became a surprise phenomenon when it debuted in 2008. Created by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the series, starring little kid versions of DC Comics' Teen Titans, went on to win two Eisner Awards for Best Series for Kids and introduced the world to a style that proved so popular, DC re-enlisted the duo for a "Superman Family Adventures." From there, the duo went creator-owned with a line of their own comics under the "Aw Yeah Comics! label. Most recently, Dark Horse launched "Itty Bitty Hellboy" -- Baltazar and Franco's take on Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" universe.
Now, Dynamite Entertainment has gone into the Art & Franco business, and just for a single book. At New York Comic Con 2013, Dynamite announced its Li'l Dynamite mini-event, taking Dynamite's licensed properties and giving them a kid-ified facelift with a barrage of creators at the helm. Although Baltazar and Franco lead the charge with "Li'l Battlestar," creators Roger Langridge, Jim Zub, Brandon Jerwa and Eric Trautmann are also on board for the January initiative, all of which feature covers by Baltazar.
"It's hard to believe this is happening!" Baltazar told CBR News.
"It's so cool to see so much kids content happening," Franco added. "We need more of it!"
"I was looking forward to drawing some adults in my cool superhero style," Baltazar said of his cover work. "This was real fun! I've been a Caption Action fan since I was little. I never owned him but would always see him in those action figure price guides."
"With our 10 year anniversary coming in January, we wanted to try something different with our characters and make it a 5-week event for January," Dynamite Publisher/CEO Nick Barrucci told CBR. "The idea of doing 'Li'l' versions came from assistant editor Molly Mahan. It's been something she's mused about since she hopped on board. Senior Editor Joe Rybandt brought it to my attention during a comic book convention this year and it sounded like a great, fun opportunity for us to work with some name talent for the first time, as well as give a few of our staple creators a chance to do something different with characters they love. Molly and Joe really ran with this. This is their baby. I only had one request, which was to ensure that Roger Langridge, as I am a huge fan of his work and wanted to work with him for years."
Langridge, the man behind BOOM! Studios acclaimed "Muppet Show" comic, has taken on the task of bringing a "Li'l" version of Dynamite's "Evil Ernie" to the printed page, writing and illustrating a series of four self-contained short stories.
"The essential set-up is that Little Awful Ernie thinks he's a real badass, but he's actually not; he thinks not returning his library books on time is incredibly daring," Langridge told CBR. "In the first story, he bumps into Mister Smiley in a graveyard. Mister Smiley has been assigned as his conscience, Jiminy Cricket-style. From then on, Ernie's attempts at mischief and Smiley's attempts to make him change his ways are the central dynamic of the book. And hilarity, one hopes, ensues!
"I've always enjoyed writing comedy double-acts, and the Evil Ernie concept has that built-in with Ernie and Smiley, so there's that," the writer continued. "The Smiley character can be made into a kid-friendly visual with minimal tweaking -- it's virtually there already. As far as my style of storytelling goes, I've basically reinvented the thing for my purposes in order to play to my strengths, so I don't know if it's so much a question of Evil Ernie lending itself to my style of storytelling as it is me whacking an Evil Ernie-shaped peg into a Langridge-shaped hole! Regardless, I think it'll be a fun book."
Part of the allure of the "Li'l" books for Dynamite is to bring new readers to comics, and the publisher sees the five week-long event as a great way to draw in younger readers, specifically.
"Not many people start reading comics when they're 25 years old, and that seems to be what the majority of the market is focused on," Barrucci explained. "If we want generations of readers to continue to pick up comics, we got to get ‘em while they're young, right? Believe it or not, we've been trying to break into the younger demographic for some years, now. This is perhaps the most overt attempt in its visual appeal, and yet it's for all fans young and old. That said, it's a huge experiment. Five titles, five stories, five creative teams. We'll see what the market likes and go from there."
Part of the driving force behind adding "Li'l" comics to Dynamite's publishing catalogue had to do with the success of previous themed initiatives, including covers and the strengths of the publisher's stable of artists.
"'Li'l Vampi' has been a comic that's been begging to be made for years; we just weren't sure of the time," Barrucci said. "We've had success with 'cute' covers on 'Battlestar Galactica' and other titles over the past couple years, which led us to think that maybe the market was ready for a full comic of 'cute' Starbuck and Apollo. After seeing Agnes Garbowska's covers for 'Red Sonja' earlier this year, both Agnes and Sonja seemed like obvious fits."
For Baltazar and Franco's "Li'l Battlestar," the duo are set to bring their story-driven process to the world of BSG.
"Well, the entire fleet is being chased across the galaxy by the Cylons," Franco said. "Apollo is looking for Earth and the Cylons are not helping, so he has to deal with that -- and Starbuck -- and his father Adama -- and the Cylons."
"Yeah, those creepy Cylons are up to no good, with that one creepy eye that goes back and forth while it's looking at you," Baltazar added. "You know which one I mean!"
Writer Eric Trautmann and artist Agnes Garbowska are set to give "L'il Vampi" -- or as Trautmann puts it, "Li'l Vampi's Spookytime Monster Bash" -- a cute makeover, with an issue that deals primarily with people turning into monsters in the small, sleepy seaside town of Barker, Maine.
"Enter Vampi, who wants to know why this is happening and how she can put a stop to it," Trautmann said. "It's a mash-up of sorts, between Encyclopedia Brown/Mad Scientists Club young-reader shenanigans and the horror/adventure stories Vampirella readers know well.
"I've always wanted to do an all-ages book -- not just a 'kiddie book,' but something that adult readers can enjoy as well," Trautmann told CBR. "It's a little nerve-wracking, because I've not worked on this type of material before, but that's part of the fun for me, I suspect: Getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things."
While Dynamite has the horror side of its line covered with "Li'l Vampi," "Skullkickers" and "Pathfinder" writer Jim Zub, alongside artist Joe Carroll, hopes to bring his high fantasy expertise into play in the cutest way with "Li'l Sonja."
"As anyone who's read my work knows, sword & sorcery is near and dear to me, so this definitely comes from the same inspired place," Zub said. "My nieces are at an age where they're starting to get into tabletop RPGs, and their enthusiasm for it reminds me of the simple joy of adventure I had at that age. I'm trying to channel that buoyant energy into this Li'l Sonja tale. It's been a lot of fun. I've put together a cute caper worthy of this pint-sized She-Devil With a Sword. Li'l Sonja encounters a town plagued by eccentric bandits, and she needs to figure out the pattern behind the thefts to bring the baddies to justice."
The final title of the five-issue publishing event is "Li'l Bionics" written by Brandon Jerwa with art by Ian McGinty and inspired by Dynamite's "Bionic Man" and "Bionic Woman" series, which takes Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers back to school -- literally.
"Basically, I've turned O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Intelligence) into A.S.I. ("A" for "Academy"): a school for unique kids," Jerwa said. "It's the obvious thing to do, but how could I not? Steve and Jaime are the newest students at ASI, which is run by Oscar Goldman. It's a story about fitting in when you're 'new' and 'different,' and it's all centered a big Field Day event. I'm embracing all the craziness from the TV series -- and yes, we have a Bigfoot!"
Much like Trautmann, the "Li'l" event is Jerwa's first opportunity to write an all-ages book.
"That's been a bucket list item for me since I started doing this job 11 years ago, and it simply hasn't materialized," Jerwa told CBR. "I'd love to do an all-ages monthly, or more regularly, at the very least. I'm a father, of course, and I just love kids in general. Having something on my convention table for the younger set is so important to me, and I'm extremely grateful to my editor, Molly Mahan, for calling me in on this project.
"I have a younger brother who is autistic, and I think the Bionic Kids are absolutely perfect to carry a subtle message to -- and about -- kids who face every day of their lives being 'different,'" Jerwa continued. "I don't want this to be 'a very special episode of "Bionic Kids"' by getting too heavy-handed with the social commentary, but I think there's value in examining how relative 'normal' really is."
While there currently aren't plans to expand the initiative beyond this five-week event ("It's an experiment and we have to see what the market says before we try to extend further," Barrucci said), the publisher hopes that it releases a product that can truly be enjoyed by all ages.
"Honestly, succeed or fail, these are just fun comics that everyone can enjoy," Barrucci exclaimed. "With licensed properties, we, of course, have to get approvals, and even the most receptive licensors might not be certain if they want their hard R-rated IP to be presented to children. Obviously, with our own properties, it's a little different, but we still have to be conscious of what we're doing and how the audience will react. It's a case by case basis sort of thing. And in this case, we've really been fortunate in the mix of well known characters in our event. Again, succeed or fail, this is going to an awesome event!"
The Li'l Dynamite books hit stores in January.