Pranas T. Naujokaitis (pronounced Nigh-O-Kite-Us) has been my friend for something like a decade. We both went to the same high school, are both obsessive comics nerds, I even helped name his cat “Ripley,” after the heroine of “Aliens.” It was apparent to anyone with eyeballs in front of their face that the guy was destined to become a cartoonist of epic proportions, but when Pranas announced that his first major published work was going to be a children’s book titled “The Totally Awesome Epic Quest of the Brave Boy Knight,” it took more than a few people by surprise, myself included.
“Here’s the problem: I have a very kid-friendly style but I don’t do kid-friendly stuff.” he tells me,”In “Inkdick” I draw myself in the shower with my cartoon penis a lot and deal with adult situations. Just don’t tell your kids to go to that site.”
“Anyone who’s seen how you draw noses pretty much knows how you draw a cartoon penis,” I reply.
After a long pause, Pranas sighs, “Yeah.”
Surprisingly, though, “Brave Boy Knight” is a charming series of adventures with the pint-sized title character, sidekick Butterscotch the Sasquatch, and a shapeshifting Animal Princess. Imagine “Adventure Time” meets “Scott Pilgrim” for the pre-school generation, all retaining the same sly, tongue-in-cheek humor you would find in some of Pranas’ more mature stuff. Actually, considering his past formative work includes a town where everyone has a beard or a grunge-music-loving lobster, that should be “mature” in quotation marks.
“Inkdick” was a daily journal comic Pranas did for three years after Top Shelf Comix publisher Chris Staros saw early attempts and encouragingly exclaimed, “I want to see more dick!” Throughout its run, the self-published internet strip ran on a strict “open book” policy about every hilarious/heartwrenching facet of post-collegiate life in Savannah, GA, from little misunderstandings with his girlfriend to his mother’s battle with cancer, even a mugging or two.
“That’s what journal comics should be: honest,” says Pranas. “That’s tough, not everyone wants to put their dirty laundry out there for the world to see, and even tougher for people who have to live with that person. There have been times when my family or my girlfriend will say, ‘Don’t put me in a comic like that.'”
His girlfriend is an adorable, sweet-natured gal by the name of Amy Rumbarger who, in addition to being a serious foodie with her own cooking blog, is also the colorist of “Brave Boy Knight.” Now that the two of them are living together in Chicago, Pranas is officially a nerd done well, collaborating on cartoons for a living with his college sweetheart in a major city, a scenario that would have seemed unlikely to the self-deprecating high school version of our hero.
“I used to call myself “King Fanboy” or some stupid title like that back in my angry nerd period,” recalls Pranas of the tenure we shared in the suburban hell of Woodbridge, Virginia.
“You were like Kurt Cobain if he collected Jar Jar dolls,” I say.
“Not just Jar Jar, all of Star Wars.” he insists, “I don’t want you painting a picture of me as some Jar Jar obsessed fiend.”
The most accurate picture one could paint of teenage Pranas would be the kind of kid who was as comfortable thumbing through George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” or Chris Ware’s “Acme Novelty Library” as he was any random Marvel or DC superhero book. His preoccupation with drawing and absorbing all-things comics also extended to obsessions with Godzilla movies, “The Simpsons,” and a bedroom stocked past capacity with said Star Wars memorabilia. Luckily he found a few kindred spirits that encouraged these pursuits despite whatever roadblocks such antics may or may not have put up to eventually getting laid.
“I’m glad that they were there because I don’t know how I would have ended up if I lived in a wasteland. I didn’t learn about SCAD until my friend Chris Bivens brought it to my attention sophomore year. “Oh my God!” I thought, “They have a major for comics? Okay, I’m going there!’ If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have gone to art school. If it wasn’t for you and all the other art guys I don’t think it would have moved past a hobby.”
Once Pranas did enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design, he started a graphically experimental, decidedly off-beat comic strip for the school newspaper called “Rocket Tonic” in which he evolved past the “Big Nate”-esque silliness of earlier efforts and began dipping his toe into the same evocative artistic waters where R. Crumb swam.
“In High School I wanted to be the kid who did superhero comics and newspaper comic strips like “Garfield” and “Dilbert.” Now that I look back I’m like, “Really? I wanted to do THAT???” I thought I might be in The Washington Post someday and now newspaper comics are a dying art form because they refuse to evolve. They shun the internet.”
Another thing that evolved during this time were increasingly nasty depressive periods where the roof caved in on his ability to do… well, anything, really.
“Every time I came back for winter or summer break from art school I would be like, “I’m gonna do all these things, all these projects!” and I never did. As soon as I stepped foot in Woodbridge I’d be creatively drained. I don’t know why that is. I was a very depressed teen. Probably should have seen a therapist… I mean, I got through it but it was a hellish ride. Some of that madness added fuel to the creative fire. I can now pull from those experiences whether they be for kids stuff or the adult stuff I do.”
Once Amy came into his life and the SCAD years were behind him, Pranas started “Inkdick” as well as a series of self-produced mini-comics which he began taking to indie zine fairs like Mocca and the Small Press Expo (SPX).
“It’s fun to sit at the table and just do comics, but artistically I like being crafty, getting my hands messy,” Pranas explains. “With minis I like silkscreening and how the packaging effects the comic, like the one I just did for SPX called “Sack Lunch” is all in a paper bag, and inside are three mini comics and each cover is the shape of the food that comic’s about: sandwich, juice box, and raisins. You couldn’t conventionally put that out with a printer, you couldn’t get the same effect online. Taking the comics out of the bag, reading them, and have them be the same size as the food they’re about is like being in Elementary School again.
“You’re never gonna make a living from mini-comics, that’s impossible. You’re lucky to break-even. I love web comics and getting my work out there, but I still love print and don’t want to see it go anywhere, I want them to co-exist. Doing mini-comics helps, in a small way, to keep print alive. Shows like SPX and Mocca are successful enough that they prove people still want that feeling of opening up a book, especially one with clever packaging. Print is becoming a fetish object, but that’s okay!”
Another side-effect of attending shows is getting to hobnob with publishers, such as an editor from Blue Apple Books who approached Pranas at a show two years ago.
“After I met the editor from Blue Apple they offered to fly me to Newark to discuss some books,” he remembers. “I was worried about ownership, it becoming their property, so I pitched them a lot of my “D” material and ‘”Brave Boy Knight” was one of my D-listers. They liked the idea, and luckily Blue Apple is freakin’ awesome! They are a small-to-mid-sized publisher compared to Scholastic, but there’s a lot more freedom. They worked one-on-one with me to get a good book out. ALSO, I keep all the rights to the characters and the story, so suddenly my D-listers became A-listers and I got a really good story out of it, as well as sequels.”
Pranas admitted to feeling guilty for having achieved every cartoonist’s dream only a few years out of school, but is energized by the whole enterprise and has a doozy of a follow-up already in the works…
“‘Dinosaurs In Space,” he states dryly, “is exactly what it sounds like. It’s gonna be a Balloon Toon book, which is the same line the “Brave Boy Knight” is a part of which is 32-page comics for early readers. It’s gonna be 32-pages of dinosaurs in Space. It’s fun, I just turned in my thumbnail sketches, waiting to hear back. Hopefully I’ll start drawing the final pages soon.”
Since chatting in October he’s finished “Dinosaurs In Space,” which is now available for pre-order on Amazon for a September release, alongside hardcover and softcover version of the well-reviewed “Brave Boy Knight.” Although uncertain about what bags of money might come of these kid-friendly properties -Nickelodeon, are you listening?- getting published certainly isn’t the cure-all you’d think it would be.
“I’ll always have insecurities. This makes me sound like a total tool, but I felt almost entitled to be a published author and successful because “I deserve it” for whatever reason. Eventually I got over myself, and some insecurities have lessons, I guess, but all artists go through that. I’ll never be good enough. I want to be the most famous cartoonist in the world, but on the other hand I’m a little scared of success. I just want to crawl under a rock and have no one know who I am. I have little battles like that all the time, looking for middle ground. Sometimes I do sabotage myself. There’ve been opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of, or act on soon enough.”
He then adds, deadpan, “The artist’s psyche is a delicate thing and we’re all precious little flowers.”
Taking all this into account, it seems to me that my good buddy Mr. Naujokaitis has the capacity to “out-Crumb” Robert Crumb, “out-depress” Dan Clowes, or “out-memoir” “Blankets.” Whatever he does I know it’s gonna be good, and I know people are gonna mispronounce his name.