Jason Bays aspires to be a professional 12-year-old.
Which means his preteen son is his best role model. It’s not traditional, but then again, neither is Bays. He has constructed a reality in which he can function: one without cubicles or limitations.
The writer and illustrator quit his 15-year stint in advertising to create Kid Rocket Studios, a concept-based studio concentrating on entertainment for children. He’s the brainpower behind “Kung Fu Robot,” the company’s interactive graphic novel starring a red robot and his human sidekick, Marvin.
The career switch came from a simple desire to create something kid-focused with silly, off-the-wall humor. Kung Fu Robot’s mission? Creating the ultimate PB&J sandwich.
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“That’s what childhood is about: celebrating the simple things,” Bays says. “If you pull from something simple, you immediately make the story relatable to the kid. When they go back and make a sandwich, they can connect to it.”
And no one understands that simplicity better than Bays’ own sidekick: Ashby. As Bays drives his 12-year-old son to school, he’ll pitch potential Kid Rocket ideas. He knows within 10 seconds whether it’s a hit or miss with Ashby.
“He’s like my little creative director for the most part,” Bays says. “He thinks things through, and he analyzes them probably more than most kids at this point because he’s been continually part of the process.”
Three nephews, all within a year of Ashby’s age, also serve on Bays’ informal think tank. The boys spout ideas and provide the honest, blunt feedback that only a kid can deliver.
“They’re the most important resource I have,” Bays says. “Plus, it’s just fun.… My son will have sleepovers, and they’ll come to me in the evening and see what I think of an idea they’re working on (to pitch to Bays). It’s pretty fun to get to validate that kind of energy and excitement.”
Kid Rocket Studios has teamed with Propaganda3, a digital production company in downtown KC, to produce the iPad version of “Kung Fu Robot,” which has garnered 168,000 national and international downloads from the Apple App Store since last year. The success validates the idea Bays almost gave up on: that innocent, amusing stories appeal to kids from every perspective. About 20 percent of their downloads come from China; other hits trace to the Middle East or Australia.
Batman battles the Joker, Spider-Man rivals Green Goblin, and Kung Fu Robot combats Kung Pow Chicken. Not every reader understands making poultry into an evil mastermind, but Bays cares only about his target audience: kids. He avoids all plotlines that capitalize on shock value or innuendo humor. He’s forced to be more creative that way, he says.
“It’s very easy to get kids’ attention by shocking them a little bit with borderline humor and graphic portrayal of things,” Bays says. “It was more of a challenge for me to do something fun and innocent … that I could be comfortable with no matter the crowd I’m showing it to.”
Within Kid Rocket headquarters, Bays typically collaborates with two other Propaganda3 employees, John Kreicbergs and Aaron West. The three work near an office window with their desks pushed together, almost like schoolchildren collaborating on a project.
It’s their little corner of the world that refuses to grow up.
Kreicbergs, the Kid Rocket Studios president who Bays describes as the “residential grown-up and boat-steerer” of the group, keeps a Nerf gun on his desk. West, their tech guy, is dubbed the “chief digital wizard of the high order.”
These guys know their audience. In a lot of ways, they embody their audience. Bays isn’t attached to a certain medium or idea. Kids constantly create their own content and landscape for entertainment, he says, leaving most adults in big companies scrambling behind them. Kid Rocket just tries to keep up and adapt.
Bays sits with four computer screens in front of him. They display freelance work, a Pinterest tab and Calvin and Hobbes desktop wallpaper. The comic stars Spaceman Spiff, one of Calvin’s alter egos who flies a red saucer. The cartoon is one of Bays’ inspirations. A Calvin and Hobbes book and a few comic strips hang around the room.
“I love the Spaceman Spiff sequences of Calvin and Hobbes where he’s just completely lost in his own head, daydreaming about wrecking his spaceship on some planet,” Bays says with a smile. He leans forward. “Because I can relate to that. Put me in a cubicle and that’s what I’m going to be thinking about.”
Kreicbergs laughs, possibly in agreement and possibly because he knows it’s true.
Bays spent 10 years struggling to publish a print version of “Kung Fu Robot,” Kreicbergs says. Using an iPad to launch their own content skips the middleman. And for them, it works. Their latest story installment, Volume III, Part I of “Kung Fu Robot,” recently was published in the App Store.
“We’re in complete control of it,” Bays says. “We don’t have to address it to anybody or pitch it to anybody. This is the dynamic here … it’s meant to be small and nimble because it is about response rate.”
While between “Kung Fu Robot” digital volumes, the three debated creating an iPhone version of their game by the same name. Seven hours later, it was done. Now, they just need to decide whether to charge for the game.
“We can’t sit here for three months and try and figure out what we’re going to do, because the landscape will change, and we may have missed the window,” Bays says. “We may have missed three windows.”
Bays says Kid Rocket isn’t a typical or practical model of what creative people usually do in the studio. From his years in advertising, he knows Kansas City provides a strong service-based industry. Kid Rocket’s style is to bet on themselves and hope it works.
“It’s scary. It’s terrifying, you know?” Bays says. “It’s all based on our own inclinations and our own directions. The matter of success is completely based on how creative the ideas are and the execution of the ideas. Which, then, you know, a good portion of that comes from whatever trickles out of my head.”
And while Kid Rocket’s methods are unconventional by traditional comic book standards, it doesn’t matter.
“Kids don’t care how it’s supposed to work,” Kreicbergs says. “Kids just care if it’s entertaining.”