Justice 101: Secret Hero Society’s Derek Fridolfs & Dustin Nguyen

Secret hero society: study hall of justice by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs. Cover by Dustin Nguyen. Banner.

When Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice was announced, I was excited. Not only would we be getting kid versions of the DC trinity (Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman), but the team behind my favourite ongoing series when I got into comics, Batman: Li’l Gotham, would be the ones to do it.

Young Bruce Wayne is the new kid at Ducard Academy, a prep school for gifted middle school students. Bruce finds out pretty quickly that he doesn’t fit in: the faculty seems to not just encourage villainous behavior from its students, but reward it. He makes friends with two other outsiders, farm boy Clark Kent and the regal Diana Prince. The three band together to form a detective squad to find out why all of these extraordinary kids have been brought together at Ducard Academy, and to see just what the faculty is plotting.

I was excited to interview Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen about the book, their past collaborations, the differences between comics and books, and what they would tell their younger selves. Enjoy!

This is not the first time the two of you teamed up on a project. You’ve done Justice League Beyond and Batman: Li’l Gotham together over at DC Comics. I absolutely loved Batman: Li’l Gotham, and it was one of the reasons I really wanted to read Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice. What was that experience like for the two of you looking back now, and what did you learn that informed this new project?

Derek: I’ve worked with Dustin for a majority of my comics career, stretching fifteen years now. And it’s always great when we get a chance to work together. A project like Li’l Gotham was just a fun excuse to be silly and not take comics too seriously. I think it was done as much for ourselves, as it was for the audience that likes those kind of stories and art. Over the years you work together, you develop a shorthand and get to know what the other person likes and is capable of. So I think working on Li’l Gotham got our feet wet telling light hearted stories. And I think Secret Hero Society continues that.

Dustin: Derek and I broke into the industry together way back, so it almost feels like we’re siblings in comics. It’s as natural as can be for us to get together on a project like this. Derek handles these characters so well.

What’s the collaboration process like? Is it a more defined division of labour: Derek writes and Dustin draws? Or are you both very hands on in crafting what’s happening in the story? I know you’re an inker/artist as well, Derek, and I wondered if you dabbled with the art in any way.

Derek: The art is all Dustin on this, and rightly so. His style fits this material so well, I get to sit back and enjoy seeing what he comes up with. While my scripts might tend to be detailed, since I see things from an artistic point of view as I write, I also try to leave the script loose enough that Dustin can interpret it how he sees fit. And especially for him to have fun with it. For the most part on something like this, the division is pretty simple with Dustin on art and me writing. But there’s also opportunities for Dustin to add things in the art that I might not think of. Or funny bits like what to write into the background of scenes.

Dustin: Exactly what Derek said!

I love the watercolours you use in your art, Dustin, and your style was a component of why I was drawn to Batman: Li’l Gotham, since nothing really looked like it at the time. What do you think of the current diversity in art styles over at DC now? Is DC very open to experimental or a wider variety of art styles, these days?

Dustin: I feel it really just depends on the title and what it calls for. Lil Gotham might have been a special case where we presented it with that look to the title.

Secret hero society: study hall of justice by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs. Cover by Dustin Nguyen.

Scholastic is the one publishing the graphic novels—or “illustrated novels” as the press release states—and it’ll be a three book series. How did this all come into being, and what’s it like working with a book publisher versus comics publishers like DC Comics or Image?

Derek: Dustin will be able to explain the beginning of this project better. But basically Scholastic approached him for the project, and he recommended me to write it.

What I can say about the difference between comics and books is that comics operate for the most part on a monthly basis. And it’s always down to the wire. You have on average three to four weeks to get done with a book in all phases (writing, pencils, inks, colors, letters, sent to be printed). There’s not a lot of time to get stuck reworking things, because that eats up what little time you have. It’s a deadline driven, consistent demand to keep on top of things to get finished. And once one issue is done, you’re moving right into the next.

For book publishing, with this being my first foray into that, I’ve found it’s “the long game.” Meaning that a book like this takes well over a year from concept to execution. There’s a lot of stages of approval, multiple drafts or writing and rewriting, formatting, advertising … the list goes on and on. But it also is a well oiled machine. And before you know it, the book is prepped for release, and it seems like only yesterday you were first starting it.

Dustin: Pretty much what Derek said! People really recognize us as a team when it comes to this lil universe, and he brings a ton to the table. As far as the difference in working style of comics vs publisher, the scheduling is the biggest difference. It’s almost similar except for the amount of time we have to complete each project. Comics is monthly, so you can imagine the madness that involves on a four week schedule. Books are equally as intense, but you can spread the madness out over a longer period of time I think.

What is it about telling the stories of the younger versions of DC heroes and villains that keeps you coming back to it?

Derek: I don’t know what it is, but it just comes very naturally and easy.

Batman: The Animated Series was always a HUGE inspiration to me—what Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and the crew did on that show. The stories, characters, and style were very inspirational and motivational to what I liked and what I wanted to do as a storyteller. So I always try to draw back to that, and what I consider a very easy to follow, pure realization of that character (and what they continued to do with a majority of the DC characters). And all of that constantly sits in my mind whenever I write DC characters, no matter if they’re presented younger or older.

I’ve done a majority of work on all-ages projects at DC and comics in general. But my approach to it has never been to dumb down the stories for the audience. If anything, I approach writing what I want to read, whether I’m in the mood to be silly or serious or both. I pick up kids stories just like I pick up stuff aimed at an older audience. And so having something that anyone can find enjoyable no matter what their age, is something I’m constantly striving towards.

Dustin: Honestly, I just like telling stories, no matter what they are. It’s the combination of the written word and pictures that keep me coming back. There’s just something about the simplicity of a small team working together to tell an equally effective story to any other medium out there. Comics and books are amazing, and I feel if you can play with these characters that are household names already, draw in an all ages crowd, you’ve pretty much hit the biggest audience there is.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of the book and despite the art not being completely done, I really enjoyed it and thought the roughness gave me glimpse into the process of creating a comic. If there was one major thing separating comics from books—aside from images—that you could explain to non-comics readers, what would it be?

Derek: I think for comics, the reader is an active part of the storytelling. You read the story at your own pace, and come up with scenes between the panels to move the story along. Comics are visually driven, working hand-in-hand with the reader’s mind to make it come alive.

The difference with a children’s book, is now there’s more room for words on pages without pictures.

Joking aside, in these books, we’re able to show a range of material. There’s spot illustrations, sequential comic pages, but also diary pages, computer entries, texting, fliers, and all manner of ways to present the story. It’s a real catch-all of ideas. And as a writer, I don’t feel as limited for space as I would in a 20 page comic. I can get inside my characters’ heads as they devote entries to their thoughts and feelings. Stuff like that, you might not have as much room in a comic without covering up a lot of the great artwork.

You two were able to make the story so much fun for kids but also accessible and entertaining for adults. Was balancing the two something you wanted to accomplish?

Derek: Definitely. I just try to approach writing it so anyone can pick it up and enjoy it. There’s an obvious age group and section this book will appear in at bookstores and kids book fairs. But it doesn’t stop me from writing it for any age in mind. Kids will gravitate towards the clever and funny art, and stories about kids their own age in school; but the adults will be able to pick up on Easter eggs of things they’re familiar with as well.

Dustin: Most definitely. As a parent myself, I’ve always wanted to create stories we can share with our kids, and also enjoy ourselves.

Now for some fun questions: Who is your favourite DC character?

Derek: Batman. But I’m also a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s contributions to the comics (The New Gods, The Demon, Kamandi).

Dustin: Superman.

Batman/Superman by Dustin Nguyen.

It’s English class and you need to assign book reports to Diana, Clark, and Bruce. What’s the book you would assign to each of them?

Derek: I think about the books I read growing up at that age and some I read much later. A book like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan or Tolkien’s The Hobbit seem suited for Clark. For Diana, I’d recommend Jeff Smith’s BONE for its strong female protagonist in Thorn and great fantasy adventure. And Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness is something Bruce might be able to learn something from, about the drive of obsession (although maybe not aimed at his age, but I always tended to read older anyways). But then I’d also recommend any of Shel Silverstein’s poetry books as something whimsical they can all enjoy (even Bruce).

Dustin: For Diana, The Pigman’s Legacy, so she’ll know what it’s like to grow up like a normal kid maybe? And for Clark and Bruce, The Dark Knight Returns, so they’ll both know how it ends for them.

Would you rather never consume media (read, write, watch, etc. other people’s stuff) or never create media?

Derek: That is tough. Thankfully we never have to make that choice. But I’d probably say never consume media, as I still have so many stories I want to tell myself.

Dustin: Past Dustin says he’d rather never consume, because he was competitive and was always busy. Future Dustin says he’d rather never create, because I think he’s going to be REALLY LAZY.

What was your favourite subject in school?

Derek: I always enjoyed English and the arts (art and music). And I think I was able to incorporate all three in my studies through school. I got a music scholarship to attend college, I got a Bachelor’s degree in English, and I took art and animation classes during and after college. But reading and creative writing were always the courses I gravitated towards the most.

Dustin: Science.

If you could tell your child self one thing, what would you tell them?

Derek: All the things you watch, play with, and enjoy as a kid, you’re going to get paid to do as an adult. Never grow up!

Dustin: Pay attention sucka.

Do you guys have anything else you want to plug? Dustin, I know you have a creator owned comic with Jeff Lemire over at Image Comics called Descender. Any other projects on the go?

Derek: I’ve got a range of stories I’m writing for DC (Scooby-Doo, Teen Titans Go), Boom (Munchkin), as well as doing art for all of them. Covers here and there. And some comics to appear in upcoming magazines.

Dustin: Yes! I’m also putting out a children’s book this summer, written by my wife and illustrated by me. The fun part is that she wrote it when she was in fifth grade, and I’m re-illustrating from her drawings. It’s hilarious.

Thank you so much, gents. Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is in stores now!

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.