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Here Comes the Grumbling Splunk

Leo and Laura Espinosa put the wasabi in the Saturday morning cartoon SushiPack. Next up for the Cambridge couple: A children's book that's just as much fun.

The latest project from Laura and Leo Espinosa is their first children's book, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk. The latest project from Laura and Leo Espinosa is their first children's book, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk. (Photo by Kathleen Dooher)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Rachel Deahl
March 30, 2008

Graphic designer Leo Espinosa was staring at the menu in a sushi restaurant near Harvard Square when he began to see the dramatic possibilities of raw tuna - and salmon and octopus maki. "I was looking at the names and thought, 'These are fantastic. They can be characters, absolutely.'" He went home and created a cast of superhero sushi - crime-fighting cartoon characters that battle the bad guys with pinching crab claws and fireballs of spicy wasabi - and decided to shop them at a licensing trade show. An executive from American Greetings bit, and the result is the Saturday morning animated TV series Sushi Pack, which debuted last fall. Now Leo and his wife and creative partner, Laura, are working on two new shows, and their children's book, Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk, will be in stores next month.

The pair, whose business is called Studio Espinosa, met in 1992 in a class at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts taught by Milton Glaser, the man behind the "I Heart New York" logo. Back then, neither would have guessed they'd have a career in television, much less get their big break with super-sushi. Nor, for that matter, did they foresee living in a three-story Colonial in Cambridge. But after a brief time in a New York suburb and a year in Barcelona, they headed to Massachusetts in 2002 to raise their children, Ben, now 9, and Sofia, 6. That way, they could be closer to Laura's folks in Newton while continuing to turn Leo's whimsical art into entertainment properties. While both designers say the Boston area is strong on family-friendliness, it isn't crawling with people working in creative media. They do, however, think the city is getting hipper all the time.

"Boston has the infrastructure to become a much more creative place," says Leo. "I mean, there are young people here. There's the money. And I've noticed, little by little, things are becoming groovier." In addition, Colombian- born Leo says he has seen an evolution in the field of design that has expanded his own sense of community. "In the past four years or so," he says, "I've noticed there's a crossover between fine arts, graphic design, illustration, and sculpting."

For people in show business, the duo's far-from-Hollywood locale is actually a plus. Jon Berrett, an executive producer of the Nickelodeon children's show Yo Gabba Gabba! who's also helping to produce a show with Studio Espinosa, thinks it's the reason Leo's art maintains a kind of "purity." Joan Lambur, an executive at Toronto-based Lenz Entertainment who's working with the Espinosas on an adult animated series, agrees: "I think it's a huge advantage that they don't have a TV background. The look is iconic and fresh. And because Leo and Laura come from marketing and design, it's also well thought out." (Ninjamaica is considerably more South Park than SpongeBob. The show, which is not yet at the pilot stage, follows a hemp-loving former spy who starts touring the globe as a member of a band playing reggae and hip-hop.)

When the Espinosas married in 1996, Leo already had an established career as an editorial illustrator; his drawings ran in publications that included The New York Times, Time magazine, and this newspaper. Laura, who had majored in English and fine art at Tufts, was freelancing as a website designer for clients such as the UN. But Leo, unsatisfied with the short shelf life of his work in print periodicals, wanted new outlets and asked his wife to join him in creating their own studio. Even though Laura now leaves the design work to Leo - she handles the bookkeeping, the writing, and client relations - the shared effort is key. "It's his art," she says, "but it's our life."

Initially the Espinosas assumed the way to turn Leo's art into something other than magazine spreads was to plaster it on products. But then they went to the annual International Licensing Show in New York and got a wake-up call: Companies weren't interested in using unknown characters to sell products; they wanted characters they could turn into brands through entertainment. And the Espinosas were very much in the right place at the right time. Laura calls Sushi Pack, with its Japanese-inspired drawings, "a riff on the Powerpuff Girls." She says its look was exactly the kind of thing American Greetings, which owns stodgier brands like Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, wanted to license and put on TV. Of course, there are downsides to selling your ideas. Sushi Pack, for example, with its basic story lines, is not as inventively written as its concept would indicate. Laura calls the show "a really solid B" and says that for future projects, Studio Espinosa hopes to maintain more creative control.

Writing and illustrating a children's book is in line with that goal. The story, about two best friends who go on a camping trip, may become a TV show, but only if the Espinosas can do it on their own terms. (They're shopping a pilot.) Now the couple, working in the basement of their house on Wright Street, are hoping to do their share to contribute, one idea at a time, to the "grooviness" they see popping up around them.

Rachel Deahl is a freelance writer living in New York. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

Illustration from Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk. Copyright © Houghton Mifflin Co. (2008); all rights reserved. Illustration from Otis and Rae and the Grumbling Splunk. Copyright © Houghton Mifflin Co. (2008); all rights reserved.

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