Captain Underpants has been flying around in naught but a cape and a pair of tighty-whiteys since his first book was published in 1997. Since then, author Dav Pilkey has penned nine gleefully gross illustrated adventures involving everything from talking toilets to a “Bionic Booger Boy,” the latest of which, Captain Underpants and the Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers, hits stores next week. We spoke with Pilkey about his elastic-waistbanded hero, being puerile and proud, and inspiring his readers to be creative (while still being kids).
It’s been six years since the last Captain Underpants book. Did you find it was easy to get back into writing the series?
I actually had to sit and read through the whole series again, it was surprising how much I had forgotten.
Why the hiatus?
I intended to write the next book right away, it’s just that my father got ill and so my wife and I were helping to take care of him. It wasn’t a good time for me to be writing and after he passed it just took me a long time to get back into the swing of things.
When did Captain Underpants, in all his comfort-fitting glory, first pop into your brain?
That was in 2nd grade. A teacher used the word underwear in class and the entire classroom just burst into laughter. Then she got mad and said, “Hey, hey, boys and girls. Underwear is not funny!” And I remember thinking, Wow, underwear is really powerful. I should find a way to capitalize on that. So I started drawing Captain Underpants.
When you’re writing about sentient toilets and snot monsters as a 46-year-old, do you try to channel your inner second-grader?
I’m really writing to the kid that I used to be. When I was a kid I had a lot of reading problems. Anytime you put a book in front of me it was like punishment. However, I would have liked books about superheroes who battled monsters in their underwear. So I’m really writing to the child I used to be, that kid who didn’t like books.
Does that also explain the picture-to-text ratio?
When I was a kid we would have “Library Hour,” where we’d go to the library and have 10 minutes to pick out book to read and I could never find one I wanted to. The librarian would always get frustrated with me and would say, “You’re taking too long! Here’s a book about football, read this!” And I’d say, “But I don’t like football.”
Did you draw a lot in school?
I also had some serious behavioral problems. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was a class clown kind of kid. So I spent a lot of time in the hallway and I used to draw comics.
Are George and Harold, your series’ young protagonists, supposed to be you split in two?
Exactly. I really think of Harold, he’s kind of more of an introverted kid. He’s real quiet and a little shy. And George is the crazy kid who is bouncing off the walls and comes up with these crazy ideas. It kind of depended on when you caught me, but I was one of those two kids, or a mixture of the two. I still am, actually.
When did you realize you could make a living writing children’s books?
Sometime in my 20s, maybe? I wrote a book when I was 19, and it got published. I didn’t make a living with it, but I was a traveling author. I’d do slideshows and talk to the kids about my experiences as an author. I had this presentation where I would talk about my experiences as a kid and I would have a big pad of paper and usually I would talk about Captain Underpants, creating him, and the entire room would just explode with laughter. When there was a question and answer session at the end, the big question was always, “Are you going to do a book about Captain Underpants?” That’s when I thought, “Maybe it’d be a good idea.”
And you had to do this in a lot of libraries?
Mostly elementary schools, so a lot of school libraries.
As much as you hated them as a kid, you couldn’t escape!
It’s like in The Godfather III: Every time I get out, they pull me back in! My message when I was out talking to kids, I really wanted them to know that I was kind of a goofball in school and I was kind of misunderstood. I wanted kids to know that just because you weren’t successful in school doesn’t mean you won’t turn out okay. I never heard that in school, so I wanted to tell them. And the reaction I got from kids about Captain Underpants, from all over the country, really inspired me. It was mission, I have to bring this character to life.
The go-to compliment for children’s literature is always “It gets kids to read.” But your books also encourage them to write and be creative.
It was always a dream in the back of my head that some kid would be so inspired that they’d staple some pages together, grab some pencils, and make their own comics. Now I get comics sent to me every month from all over the world. This isn’t a homework assignment for them. Nobody’s standing over them saying, “You need to do this comic.” These kids are doing it on their own and that’s really, really cool to me.
Do you find you have to set your humor back a few decades when you write?
Nope. I guess I still have a very second-grade sense of humor.
Have you gotten push-back from parents who feel bodily functions have no place in literature?
Every now and then, there will be a parent who just doesn’t think that it’s funny and they’ll try to get my books banned. But fortunately, I’ve never met a kid who thought that way. My target audience gets it.
You placed No. 13 on the top 100 banned and challenged books of the ’00s, beating out The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I did?! That is a great, great honor.
How is the Dreamworks animated adaptation coming along?
They hired a writer and a director. I guess that’s official pre-production.
Are you going to be involved?
They’ve been very welcoming to me, but I don’t know if it’s necessary for me to be involved because it’s Dreamworks. I think my biggest responsibility is picking out a tie for the premiere. It’s a bit surreal. I mean, when you’re a kid sitting in the school hallway drawing pictures, you never think that’s going to be a movie people will see all around the world.
I guess you’ve finally proved that teacher wrong.
Kids all around the world have proved that teacher wrong. I don’t care what you say: underwear is funny.
Finally, how do you pronounce your first name?
I accept both “Dave” and “Dahv,” sometimes even “Däv.”
From Scandinavian fans?
Yeah, I give bonus points for that.