blog 49: In which I tell the tale of Eric Vale.

Ever wondered about the story behind the inspiration, creation and development of the ERIC VALE series?


Well bad luck, because that’s what this blog is going to be all about!

10. M&J with Book

14033_490002617723823_559709611_nStrangely enough, the whole Eric Vale series owes its very existence to my inability to type properly. As it happened, one day when I was writing a comment on my daughter Meg’s facebook page about something being an ‘epic fail’, I accidentally typed ‘eric fail’.

Yes I had an epic fail with my epic fail!

After Meg pointed my error out to me we started to refer to mistakes as Eric Fails. And that led to me thinking about a boy whose name unfortunately sounded like epic fail.

Some time later my publisher asked me if I had any ideas for a book for younger readers. As I was planning to write a serious YA book my answer was, ‘No, not really. Except maybe I’ve got a title – Eric Vale Epic Fail.’ I thought it could be a story about a boy who gets the nickname Epic Fail and because of that things start going wrong for him and so he has to have some kind of an Epic Win to set them right.’

My ever-wise and supportive publisher Dyan Blacklock saw potential in that idea, so she encouraged me to think about it a bit more, and the rest as they say, is the fairly recent past.

It’s hard to believe that three books and the incredibly wonderful experience of working with my son, all came about because I typed one wrong letter. I’m constantly amazed at the tiny, seemingly insignificant things, that can sometimes grow into stories.

Dedication for Eric Vale Epic Fail

Dedication for Eric Vale Epic Fail

The other thing I mentioned to my publisher back then was that I’d love to do something with my son Joe because as well as being an amazing film-maker (script-writer, director, actor, editor, special effects etc) I said he was also brilliant at cartoons and illustrating. My publisher knew a bit about Joe because he had created the original covers for Don’t Call Me Ishmael and Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs, but I’m sure my claims just  sounded like an over-proud and very biased dad talking.

Joe putting together the shot for the cover for Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs on a local squash court.

Joe putting together the shot for the cover for Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs on a local squash court.

Joe creating the original DCM Ishmael cover when he was in Grade 12.

Joe creating the original DCM Ishmael cover when he was in Grade 12.

But I was confident that if he was given the chance, Joe could do a brilliant job at illustrating a story.

And I had years of evidence to support this belief.

Joe and his older sister Meg had been drawing pretty amazing things ever since they could hold a pencil. When Joe was at pre-school and other kids were doing stick figures, he was drawing anatomically correct dinosaurs. At one point he started a project where he was attempting to draw and label  – with their scientific names – every type of dinosaur bone known to man!

Joe and big sister Meg. Drawing was an everyday activity.

Joe and big sister Meg. Drawing was an everyday activity.

We have boxes filled with Meg and Joe’s illustrated stories. When he was a bit older Joe started drawing cartoon strips. He was in Grade Three (8 years old) when he created and completed The Adventures of Mr Reasonable – an epic comic adventure that went for 34 detailed pages.

Mr Reasonable cover

Mr Reasonable cover


One of the 34 pages of The Adventures of Mr Reasonable. A modern classic!

Joe also did some very perceptive family portraits, including this one. I think he was 12 years old.


And without any formal art training he seemed to be able to create fantastic sculptures as well. Here are some he made for me over the years.



Even though I like to think that some of Meg and Joe’s artistic ability came from me …

Joseph's Discovery0002

My failed attempt from many years back to write and illustrate a picture book. It was about a boy called Joseph who liked to draw and was obsessed with dinosaurs and dreamed of discovering one of his own. Gee, I wonder where I got THAT idea from????

… but the real source of their talent was their grandfather, my wife’s father Ben.

Ben earned his living painting houses and hanging wall paper and crafting beautiful things for people, but he was also a very talented artist and sculptor and a perfectionist in everything he did. He spent lots of time with Joe and Meg teaching them the finer points of drawing and illustrating. I dedicated the second Ishmael book to Ben.

To my father-in-law
L.P.J. ‘Ben’ van Schyndel (1925 -2006)
Master tradesman, artist, philosopher, knight in shining white overalls
and tireless promoter of my books
With love and thanks

Joe with his late grandfather Ben.

Joe with his late grandfather Ben.

One of Ben's sculptures - The Inquisitor.

One of Ben’s sculptures – The Inquisitor.

Ben self-portrait.

Ben self-portrait.

As Joe got older he filled book after book up with his cartoons, jokes and funny ideas for stories. He even did a cartoon strip for Pizza Capers based on their mascot Wedgy.



Joe’s main passion of course is film-making so he also draws detailed storyboards for his films. They are works of art in themselves. Below are two pages from the 166 page storyboard for the first feature film he and his partner Rita made, a horror/comedy called The Killage.


J & R0001So back when I told my publisher that I thought Joe would do a better job illustrating my books than any other illustrator she could offer me, I really meant it. (And having seen the finished products I wouldn’t want anyone but Joe to illustrate the books).

My publisher however  was understandably and rightfully dubious. Joe would certainly have to prove himself. There was no way in the world he would be given the important task of illustrating an entire book if he wasn’t up to it. He was on trial.

The first step in the journey towards the publication of what would ultimately become Eric Vale Epic Fail was that I wrote a brief sample story about a boy called Eric Vale who had an overactive imagination. I built it around some rough cartoons Joe had drawn in the past which I just cut and pasted into the text.  It was pretty basic and looked nothing like the eventual story. For example in this version Eric is the drawer of the cartoons. This is not the case in Eric Vale Epic Fail where Eric is a writer of an action adventure tale about Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale, rather than an artist.


After the publisher saw the sample she suggested that I should try to write the full Eric Vale Epic Fail story first and if it was successful then Joe would be given a chance at illustrating it. When the ms was finished and accepted,  Joe submitted his character designs. Below are some initial ones. Some characters (eg Chewy and Tyrone) were eventually changed or toned down a bit, but when the publishers saw these, I think they began to understand my confidence in Joe’s ability.


Initial character sketches.


Revised character sketches.

The first time I saw the initial 25 pages of Eric Vale Epic Fail complete with Joe’s illustrations, I was blown away. So were the publishers. It was much better than either of us expected. And I expected it to be great!

Suddenly my story was at least twice as good and twice as funny.  Joe wasn’t just bringing the action and characters to life, he was using the text to create his own jokes and plays on words and funny asides (as well as plenty of film references!). I loved it! Needless to say Joe got the gig and even though he drew far more cartoons than expected, he still completed the 186 fully illustrated pages on time despite a very tight timeline. An amazing effort for a first time book illustrator.

The text Joe receives.

The text Joe receives.

Same text with Joe's illustrations added.

Same text with Joe’s illustrations added.

Poem by the character of Chewy.

Poem by the character of Chewy.

Chewy's poem after Joe has added the illustrations.

Chewy’s poem after Joe has added the illustrations.

So the writing process for each of the Eric Vale books has gone like this:

1. I decide on a rhyming title (with the aid of many helpful and creative suggestions from Joe and my wife Adrie) that I think I can fit a potential story under.

2. I write the manuscript of around 20,000 words.

3. The publisher edits and typesets the ms in a handwritten-style font.

4. Joe is sent these typeset pages with the brief to fill in the white spaces on the page as creatively and humorously as he can. 

There is some general discussion between Joe and me about each Eric Vale story, but unlike Joe’s (cruelly life-like) illustration of us below, we tend to work quite separately on our individual parts of the  project. Luckily though we share the same sense of humour and understanding of the characters so it all seems to fit together perfectly.

Dad & Joe cartoon COLOUR

It really is a dream come true to work on a project like this with Joe. He has every bit of his grandfather’s talent and attention to detail and his drawings and jokes make me laugh out loud. I also love writing scenes and storylines that I know Joe will enjoy illustrating. As a big fan of the Batman Dark Knight and Indiana Jones films I knew he would love the superhero theme of Eric Vale Super Male. And as an equally big fan of films like Alien, Independence Day and Star Wars, I knew the extraterrestrial theme of Eric Vale Off The Rails would be right up his alley.

Speaking of films and extraterrestrial beings, recently Joe and his partner Rita (Artspear Entertainment) have been extremely busy filming their second feature film, a sci-fi comedy called AUSTRALIENS .  You can see a brief teaser for the film here. As soon as Joe completes the illustrations for Eric Vale Off The Rails he will be spending all his waking hours working on the post-production and special effects work for the film. 

Rita and Joe in AUSTRALIENS

Rita and Joe filming AUSTRALIENS

And if you haven’t seen it yet, Joe finally got to combine his illustration and film-making skills when he made the wonderful trailer for Eric Vale Epic Fail. You can check it out HERE.

That’s about it. If I can drag Joe away from his film work at some stage there may be a fourth Eric Vale in the future or even a stand alone Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale story or perhaps some other new and exciting project. I hope so. It is always a joy to work with my far-more-talented son. Besides, he makes me look good!

(Now I just have to find a way to work with my super talented daughter Meg. The only trouble is, she can already write me under the table!)


Below are some further links to things Eric as well as some miscellaneous photos that might be of interest. 

Teachers Notes for Eric Vale Epic Fail.
Teachers Notes for Eric Vale Super Male.
Kids Book Review.
Children’s Books Daily Review.
Bookseller + Publisher Review.
Readplus Review.
The Way We Work: Joe and I interviewed about the creation of Eric Vale here.




Joe’s character sketch poster of all the cast and crew of AUSTRALIENS. Can you find me and my wife Adrie in there as MIB Agents?

Joe & Rita & the K-Rudd

Joe and Rita promoting AUSTRALIENS with a well- known Australian.


Joe in his alien make-up.

Copy of scan0060

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2 Responses to blog 49: In which I tell the tale of Eric Vale.

  1. I love this post. I just showed my little boy who is sitting at the dining table drawing right now and he was super-inspired by The Adventures of Mr Reasonable and the amazing sculptures. Now he has plans to illustrate one of my books. Thanks Michael and Joe. I love the inventive ways you take us behind-the-scenes on your books, MGB.


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