If you’ve ever worried about the plans hatched atop Observation Mountain in Grand Forks, within the lair of the devious Dr. Scalpel, you needn’t fear, for Wild Willie will no doubt hatch a plan so courageous and so zany that it might just foil any disastrous plot that the evil inventor creates. And if you’ve never heard of either character, then it’s just that you’re not on 10-year-old Eholt resident Kluane Gross’s distribution list.
Gross is a budding doodler and storyteller, well-practiced in the margins of his math notebook, who wants to one day be a newspaper cartoonist. Wild Willie, meanwhile, “does crazy stuff like trying to stop scientists who could probably turn him into a frog,” according to his creator.
“I really like to dazzle people,” Gross said. “I’m just testing out my skills right now. Once people like and trust my work, I can create comic books and then I can become a world-famous cartoonist.” Like the creators of his own inspirations, Calvin and Hobbes, Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid —but not exactly like their styles.
Two years ago, Gross said, he was trying to copy the art of his favourite artists (Bill Watterson, Lincoln Peirce and Jeff Kinney) but he quickly realized that to grow as an artist and storyteller, he’d have to find his own voice.
“I realized that if I do copy a big name,” Gross said, “no one will really look if someone else has already made the idea.” That’s when he settled on exploring his own creativity.
“If I create my own art, even if people say mean things about it, other people will still like it,” Gross said.
The love of comics started approximately four years ago, when then six-year-old Gross was sat on the couch at his grandparents house with a broken leg. Bored, he picked up a Calvin and Hobbes book from the coffee table.
“I really liked it because Calvin was kind of mischievous,” Gross said of the eternally young character. “He goes on wild adventures like me.”
The affinity only grew from that first read, after which Gross’s grandmother crocheted him a two-foot tiger, just like Calvin’s imaginary friend, but beyond adventure, creativity and maybe sometimes being a bit clever for his own good (Gross said that after getting in trouble in class for talking, he and a friend developed a secret code to pass notes), Gross also differs from the comic strip character in a few key ways.
“We’ve talked about how some of the ways Calvin sometimes acts aren’t always the best way for friendships,” Gross’s mother, Malayna, said. But, she added, the two tiger-toting kids certainly share a creative muscle.
Where Calvin tells himself stories to escape on adventures, Gross’s imagination seeps out through Sharpie ink on paper and characters on stage, where the budding cartoonist is also honing his storytelling skills through musical theatre (a passion that also began when Gross was recovering from his broken leg). In both drawing and acting, Gross said, “You’ve got to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to dazzle the crowd.”
The trick to hooking an audience, he suggested, hides in the details of the piece. In drawing, it’s the finer pen strokes that, as the artist says, make the story “pop” to life, just like using adjectives and strong verbs in writing — something he’s been learning at Perley Elementary with his teacher, Ms. Wanda Garrison.
Take, for example, describing a simple bike ride.
“Say someone says, ‘We went on a bike ride. We went on the rail grade to Grand Forks. The end.” That’s just boring, Gross said. “[Why not add], ‘The fresh dew, tickling our ankles,’ or something?” Then, Gross said, readers can feel like they’re in the story.
Details also help his readers get the message of his stories. In the case of young Wild Willie, it’s all about being good people in their community, Gross said.
“We still have a really strong belief that we need to be trying to be kind and helpful,” said Malayna, summarizing her son’s intention with the Wild Willie adventures.
Gross and his young characters have big plans for defeating Dr. Scalpel, who, in a June comic, set out to cancel the Grand Forks International baseball tournament — plans that involve a surprise attack and a memory ray gun, but to say any more would be to spoil the surprise for Gross’s future readers.