Mark Crilley (1966-)
While teaching English in Japan, Mark Crilley wrote and illustrated a comic book story for young readers. He stowed it away in a trunk, only to take it out a few years later when he returned to his home in Michigan and watch it grow into a popular comic-book series called "Akiko" as well as a series of books that have won fans among many older elementary-grade readers. In the series that includes the curiously titled Akiko and the Great Wall of Trudd and Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000, Crilley has built a following for his spunky young Japanese-American protagonist, Akiko, and her out-of-this-world adventures.
Born in Indiana in 1966, Crilley moved to Detroit, Michigan as a young child and passed the time by drawing constantly. Although Crilley was a good student in school, he was also known for being shy and rather reserved . . . that is, until the fourth grade when he discovered a yet-unplumbed talent for making up humorous one-liners during a school talent show. Soon acting was vying for first-place as one of Crilley's career possibilities, although art was always a possibility. A friendship with noted author/illustrator David Small, who then taught at Kalamazoo College, pulled the young man back into the arts arena. As Crilley recalled of Small in an interview for Authors and Artists for Young Adults: "I was there at what I now realize was a very trying time in his life—making the transition from teacher to full-time writer/illustrator—but all I recall from those days was how he took me under his wing and got me to work harder, to learn from the masters, to always strive for excellence as an artist."
After Crilley graduated from Kalamazoo in 1988, his career veered off both its preordained courses; moving to Asia, he taught English in Japan and Taiwan for five years. It was this time in Japan that inspired his first foray into comic books, penning the first incarnation of Akiko on the Planet Smoo. After he returned to the United States, he found a publisher in Dover, New Jersey's Sirius Entertainment, and his "Akiko" comic-book series was off and running, quickly becoming an underground phenomenon.
Inspired by both Japanese anime comics as well as by early twentieth-century cartoonist Windsor McCay and his popular fantasy comic strip "Little Nemo," Crilley's "Akiko" comic features a young protagonist in its perennial ten-year-old protagonist. With round eyes reminiscent of the anime style, Akiko also has unwieldy braids à la Astrid Lingren's heroine Pippi Longstocking. As feisty as Pippi, Akiko finds herself drawn into other-planetary adventures, accompanied by her unearthly sidekicks Spuckler and Mr. Beeba. Other friends include a brainy robot called Gax, and Poog, a disembodied head.
The first series of Crilley's "Akiko" comics were adapted into book form after, as Crilley once told SATA, "one of my comics found its way into the hands of Lawrence David, an editor at Random House Children's Books. Though I had no experience in writing (apart from my own comic books), Lawrence felt confident that I would be able to create a series of four novels based on the first eighteen issues of my 'Akiko' comics."
Crilley's first four novels for Random House—Akiko on the Planet Smoo, Akiko in the Sprubly Islands, Akiko and the Great Wall of Trudd, and Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor—proved as popular with young readers as his comic books had. In the first novel the Japanese-American fourth grader travels to Smoo, where she is assigned by King Froptoppit to see to the rescue of the kidnapped Prince Froptoppit. The saga continues through the next three novels as she and her unusual friends travel through a number of amazing lands, encounter serpents and other evil creatures, and ultimately find themselves confronted with the reason behind the prince's kidnapping. In a School Library Journal review of Akiko and the Great Wall of Trudd, Elaine E. Knight praised Crilley's young protagonist as "a strong female character whose leadership holds her strange band together." While some critics were less-than-impressed with the written text of the series, others looked favorably on Crilley's efforts, Booklist reviewer Francisca Goldsmith praising Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor as "a fun introduction to [the] genre" for "youngsters unfamiliar with" science fiction. Knight continued her praise of the heroine in a review of the fourth "Akiko" installment, noting that in Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor "the bickering dialogue among the adventurers is amusing and Akiko herself shows strong leadership in helping them work as a cohesive team."
Crilley has continued his "Akiko" book series by writing stand-alone novels that are not adaptations of the comic, but instead new stories created especially for the chapter book format. In Akiko and the Intergalactic Zoo the well-traveled preteen is rewarded by King Froptoppit with a visit to a zoo on Planet Quilk, but when the greedy zookeeper realizes that his latest guest is actually a potential specimen of an Earthian, Akiko finds herself in trouble. Escaping from this pickle, Akiko is thrust into another in Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000, when Spuckler enters his jury-rigged spacecraft in a trans-galaxy race and needs his Earth friend to sign on as pilot. In School Library Journal Knight remarked that the book "clearly shows its comic-book roots," while in Booklist Goldsmith praised Crilley for including "generous doses of wit as well as moralizing," creating "an adventure story that packs gender equity" while casting aside racial—and planetary—bias.
"The process of writing juvenile fiction has certainly been challenging for me," Crilley once admitted to SATA, "and even now I'm not quite convinced of my own competence as a writer! I think of myself as a storyteller really, and I simply do my best to entertain. I try to provide a quiet message in my books about the value of friendship and the great things a child can achieve when people really believe in her. I am fortunate to have both my Akiko comics and novels embraced by a small band of dedicated fans, without whom I'd never have made it to where I am today."
Crilley makes his home in Michigan with his wife and young son, Matthew, and he enjoys making trips to schools and libraries to talk about his books and the life of an author/illustrator with young students. He continues to write and illustrate "Akiko" comic books, and by early 2004 was on issue number fifty-two and still going strong. In addition to adding to his ten-volume "Akiko" book series, Crilley has also expanded his writing projects with the 2004 book Billy Clikk: Creatch Battler. Featuring Earthbound monsters and exotic settings, the new book promises the same brave young hero and offbeat adventure Crilley's fans have come to expect.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 50, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Booklist, March 1, 2000, Chris Sherman, review of Akiko on the Planet Smoo, p. 1243; January 1, 2001, Shelle Rosenfeld, review of Akiko in the Sprubly Islands, p. 958; January 1, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor, p. 856; May 15, 2003, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000, p. 1660.
Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1998, "Mark Crilley: Cult Cartoonist," p. 90.
Family Life, March 1, 2001, review of Akiko in the Sprubly Islands, p. 87.
Library Talk, September-October, 2000, David Linger, review of Akiko on the Planet Smoo, p. 41.
Publishers Weekly, January 17, 2000, review of Akiko on the Planet Smoo, p. 57; January 8, 2001, "Encore Performances," p. 68; June 18, 2001, review of Akiko on the Planet Smoss and Akiko and the Sprubly Islands, p. 83; August 27, 2001, review of Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor, p. 86.
School Library Journal, February, 2000, Lisa Prolman, review of Akiko on the Planet Smoo, p. 92; November, 2000, Lisa Prolman, review of Akiko in the Sprubly Islands, p. 113; April, 2001, Elaine E. Knight, review of Akiko and the Great Wall of Trudd, p. 105; November, 2001, Elaine E. Knight, review of Akiko in the Castle of Alia Rellapor, p. 113; October, 2002, Susan Weitz, review of Akiko and the Intergalactic Zoo, p. 100; September, 2003, Elaine E. Knight, review of Akiko and the Alpha Centauri 5000, p. 176; December, 2003, Elaine E. Knight, review of Akiko and the Journey to Toog, p. 112.
Akiko Homepage, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (February 4, 2004).
Mark Crilley Web Site, http://www.markcrilley.com/ (February 4, 2004).
Worlds of Westfield, http://westfieldcomics.com/ (August 30, 2002), Roger Ash, "Mark Crilley Interview."
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Ciara Biography - Wrote Out Goals to Elizabeth David (1913–1992) BiographyMark Crilley (1966-) Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Work in Progress