The Children’s Book Review Interview in partnership with Anthony J. Rapino and Anthony D. Grate, co-authors of Tommy and the Order of Cosmic Champions
Told with brutal honesty and insight into the problems of adolescence, Tommy and the Order of Cosmic Champions explores divorce, broken friendships, lost childhood, and bullying through the metaphor of comic book heroes and villains. In this interview, co-authors Anthony J. Rapino and Anthony D. Grate share their connection with Tommy, the 80s, He-Man, and the message to be vigilant in reaching out to our children. Read on for a truly great conversation!
What was the inspiration for The Order of Cosmic Champions?
Anthony D. Grate: In the novel Order of Cosmic Champions is a popular animated program and toy line. Much of the inspiration for the property came from Masters of the Universe, which was similarly popular during my own childhood. MOTU was my go-to toy line for acting out adventures and the animated program was always on my TV screen when I came home from school. Many of the characters I created for the OoCC have a MOTU character serving as a foundation. For instance, He-Man serves as a foundation for Masculon, Teela and the Sorceress serve as foundations for Defendra, Skeletor serves as a foundation for Skullagar, etc.
Tommy is a realistic character, especially in how his emotions are portrayed in the story. Is he based on a real child or children?
Anthony D. Grate: While Tommy Grant is a stand-in for me, he is original in many ways. I believe Tommy is as much a creation of, and therefore an extension of, Anthony Rapino as he is of myself. Tommy’s emotions resemble my own in many respects, but he also has impulses and characteristics I don’t share.
Anthony J. Rapino: As with everything I write, most characters are a jumble of people. For Tommy’s character, the foundation was Tony Grate, but there’s a healthy dose of myself in there as well as characteristics that are uniquely Tommy.
In the story, Tommy’s parents and schoolteachers are well-meaning but ineffectual in helping him. Is there a message here for readers?
Anthony D. Grate: While I acknowledge there is still much to be done, I think society as a whole has come a long way in the past 30+ years in terms of meeting the needs of children when they struggle with difficult issues like bullying, divorce, and feelings of loss. We have a better understanding of how to approach these issues. But there are still a great many children who do not receive that help, either because they have become adept at hiding their feelings or because they are simply not given the opportunity to deal with them.
I think the message there is to be vigilant in reaching out to our children. Letting them know on a daily basis that whatever may be going on in their lives, we want very much to help them understand their emotions and help them develop ways to cope with their struggles. We need to be there for them physically and emotionally, no matter the circumstances.
Alcoholism plays a considerable role in this story. Do you have any advice for readers struggling with alcoholism in their own families?
Anthony D. Grate: I don’t feel qualified to give advice to those who may be dealing with the effects of alcoholism in families. However, having lost my sister at a young age to substance abuse, I feel confident in offering one suggestion to anyone with a friend or family member in that situation: help them break away from the people they previously associated with. In the case of my sister, she was ultimately unable to make a clean break from individuals who were terrible influences. It is imperative that those struggling with substance abuse do.
Tommy’s infatuation with comics and heroes gets him into many difficulties, but they also give him a lot of comfort. Do you feel that there is value in these sorts of franchises for young people despite their emphasis on consumerism?
Anthony D. Grate: I love this question! The short answer is a resounding yes!
Being a card-carrying member of Generation X, I witnessed firsthand the rise of child-centered marketing. The floodgates were opened and we as children were deluged with cartoons, television ads, print ads, product tie-ins… it was a glorious time to be a manufacturer of products for children. But it was an even better time to be a child. While the intent wasn’t always honorable, the effects ultimately surpassed selling products and these brands developed a life of their own in our memories. Memories we hold dear.
As an example: Worlds of Wonder. A manufacturer that no longer exists. But the products they left behind… Lazer Tag, Teddy Ruxpin… they live on and stimulate countless childhood memories that had nothing whatsoever to do with making a buck. These pieces of plastic, metal, fabric, and wood… they represent something special to us. Something that transcends consumerism.
This is, in parts, a difficult story to read due to the challenging topics you tackle. Was it as difficult to write? What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
Anthony J. Rapino: Absolutely, it was painful to experience the many pitfalls of adolescence along with Tommy. As a writer, putting characters I like through conflict is often one of the hardest things I do. I remember remarking to Tony Grate on more than one occasion, “I’m really putting Tommy through the wringer in this chapter. I can’t wait for the upswing.” On the flip side, these experiences are necessary. They make Tommy’s journey, and thus our own, meaningful.
The most challenging aspect of writing the novel was the fantasy-inspired scenes. I took great care in presenting fantasy elements that were grounded by the surrounding reality, and I left it up to the readers to decide if the fantasy moments are real or not. Creating a believable ambiguity took some careful planning along the way. We didn’t want to go too far in either direction but we also wanted to provide enough evidence for either circumstance to be possible.
The blurred lines between fantasy and reality are one of the most intriguing parts of the novel. What inspired you to blend imagination and reality in Tommy’s story? Are there particular writers who have influenced your style?
Anthony J. Rapino: When Tony Grate and I initially spoke about the project, this was the element I was most excited about. The line in his original summary was this: “During his journey, the boy’s imagination and perception of reality are blurred…” As a horror writer, this intrigued me, and I knew I could really sink my teeth into that plot point. Part of my response to Tony was simply, “I love playing with blurred lines of reality.” As mentioned earlier, it was a challenge but also a blast to write.
We both agreed the fantasy elements, especially the fight scenes, could be used as a potent metaphor for Tommy’s internal conflicts. Readers may notice most of the fantasy fights come directly after Tommy has to make a big decision or a hard choice.
Some of my influences as a writer are Kurt Vonnegut, Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemmingway, and not to be too obvious about it, Stephen King.
Do you have more books in the works, and will they explore similar themes?
Anthony J. Rapino: My current work in progress is an adult horror novel that takes place in the 1990s, following a group of teenagers who come into possession of a mysterious magazine called The Terror Times. The magazine collects localized urban legends, and when students begin going missing, the main characters suspect it has something to do with the magazine. I’m only about 35,000 words into this one, so the synopsis is still being polished as you can probably tell. There will be some minor crossover of themes here, especially as these teens come into their own through adverse circumstances.
Do you think more kids should try drawing their own comics? Why or why not?
Anthony D. Grate: Considering my background in illustration and my desire to actually BE a comic book artist in my youth, my answer here will be admittedly biased. Yes, absolutely. More broadly I think kids should have every opportunity to explore their creative side, whatever form that may take. It is something I encourage in my four children, and I will say they are all chips off the old block.
The reason is simple: where would we be without creators? In the case of comics, what other way could some of these amazing stories be told? Stories that perhaps could not work as television programs or novels. I think the most important point to make here is that kids should be allowed to express their creativity in whatever way they are comfortable… within reason, of course.
Is there anything else you feel we should know about Tommy and the Order of Cosmic Champions or yourselves?
Anthony D. Grate and Anthony J. Rapino: We would encourage anyone interested to visit the official website, www.orderofcosmicchampions.com. There we have created an amazing extension of Tommy’s world, with access to a mini-comic, fully animated intro of OoCC as Tommy would have seen it, access to the full novel soundtrack with a brand new theme song by ’80s soundtrack legend Stan Bush, celebrity reviews from ‘80s icons, OoCC merchandise like action figures and View-Masters, and much more.
And adult readers should know that Anthony J. Rapino has previously had works published in the horror genre. You can visit his website at www.anthonyjrapino.com for more information.
Written by Anthony J. Rapino and Anthony D. Grate
Ages 10+ | 392 Pages
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group | ISBN-13: 9781626349667
Publisher’s Book Summary: Sometimes our greatest moments of enlightenment come from our worst mistakes.
When life supplies eleven-year-old Tommy Grant with some unfavorable circumstances intruding on his otherwise tranquil life in rural 1980s Ohio, he retreats into the spell-binding Order of Cosmic Champions. When he discovers that the largely successful animated program and toy line is holding a nationwide ”Create-A-Character” contest where applicants submit their action figure designs, Tommy knows he has to enter as surely as he knows his own name.
But when Tommy’s character design fails to win the contest, he finds his world crumbling from all sides. And there is only one way he knows to fix it. What follows is a whirlwind coming-of-age adventure of righting wrongs, overcoming perilous obstacles, confronting our inner demons, and challenging the limits of reality. In this waxing nostalgic and imaginative fantasy, readers will discover what excitement lies waiting when you take risks and conquer your fears.
Only one question remains: In the final hour when you heed the call, the courage to give your all, will you stand or fall?
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About Anthony J. Rapino
Anthony J. Rapino resides in Northeastern Pennsylvania with his cats Luna and Poe. When he’s not writing speculative fiction, Anthony can be found in the classroom teaching English or crouched in dark alleyways sculpting horrific autumnal creatures out of clay. His work has appeared in On Spec, Acapella Zoo, Black Ink Horror, Madhouse, Liminal Spaces, and others. His novel, Soundtrack to the End of the World, and the story collection, Greetings from Moon Hill, are both available now.
About Anthony D. Grate
Anthony D. Grate lived through the ’80s, from ages six to sixteen, by surviving on steady doses of Masters of the Universe, Kool-Aid that he put way too much sugar in, and BarNones. Occasionally he put pencil to paper and created comic strips to entertain his friends. He dreamed of one day working for Marvel or DC. Once out of college, however, he found himself selling furniture. Life sure is funny.
After a few failed attempts to use a new thing called ”the internet” to find a nice lady to share life with, a nice lady found him. They married and soon found themselves raising four children together. Meanwhile, in his spare time, Anthony tried desperately to appease the creative spirit dwelling within him. Comic strips, websites, books, board games, interactive online games . . . you name it, he probably gave it a shot.
Nowadays, Anthony juggles the responsibilities of a husband, father, business owner, and creator pretty well—or at least he thinks so. He lives in the same quiet corner of Ohio that he always has, with no plans of changing that. The guy’s not much for change, which is probably why he still watches Masters of the Universe and eats too many BarNones. He did ditch the Kool-Aid, however.
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This interview—Anthony J. Rapino and Anthony D. Grate Discuss Tommy and the Order of Cosmic Champions—was conducted by Dr. Jen Harrison. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Adventure, Books Set in the 1980s, Fantasy, and Video Games.