Illustrious Career


Dan Santat
Dan Santat, Revelle '98

What does it mean to have an unimaginable imaginary friend? In a reversal of the usual imaginary-friend narrative, Dan Santat takes us on a journey to find a special child in his story, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. Through his quest to find his perfect match in the real world, Beekle realizes that everyone has their unique traits, and you only need to be yourself to be adored. 

For Santat, children’s book author, illustrator and creator of the animated cartoon series, The Replacements on the Disney Channel, this isn’t just a book for kids. Beekle is also an allegory for his own journey from a one-time microbiology honors student at UC San Diego to his “perfect match” as a successful artist and storyteller. Today, he works from his Los Angeles home in a converted garage turned art studio. He watches reruns of The Daily Show on his 27-inch computer monitor while reserving the other half of the screen for his work. He “paints” on Waycom tablet, a drawing board with an electronic pen, to create wonderful imaginary worlds for young children, including super hero pets, three ninja pigs (a retelling of the Three Little Pigs) and a veterinary hospital, whose patients include characters from folklore—Big Foot and a lonely lake monster. His illustrations and stories are often inspired by a wealth of pop-culture knowledge, but also by his two children, Alex, 7, and Kyle, 4, with wife, Leah Tager-Sandat, Revelle ’98, a biochemistry grad. 

But once upon a time, Santat was a student in microbiology at UCSD… and a happy ending seemed unlikely.  “The whole time I was in college, everyone pretty much looked at me and said, ‘Why are you even doing biology?’” says Santat. “‘Your real calling is art.’” Perhaps they saw something in Santat that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t allow himself to see. Santat’s parents, a psychologist and a nurse, originally from Thailand, had hoped their son would be a doctor. And because it was their dream, it was Santat’s, too. “I chose UCSD because we had other family friends that had gone there and fared well,” says Santat. “UCSD has a really solid biology program.”

Then one day, while walking from Revelle to Warren College between classes, he stumbled on a job fair. He stopped at a booth for the Academy of Art in San Francisco and suddenly realized that to work in art, you didn’t have to be a “starving artist.” Art was everywhere! From CD covers and computer animation, to video games and advertising—he could make a living by following his calling.  

Although only two quarters away from graduating, and with plans to attend dental school at UC Irvine, Santat secretly applied to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He had never taken art classes and questioned if he would be ready to compete with real artists. “Most of my education was just drawing Spider–Man from comic books and trying to copy it, all by hand and with a #2 pencil,” he says. 

Coming in January 2014, The Rain Dragon Rescue, by Suzane Selfors, illustrated by Dan Santat
An acceptance letter arrived just days prior to graduation from UCSD’s Revelle College, and with it, a big surprise for Santat’s parents. “I told them, ‘Well… I got into this art school in Pasadena, and I really think I want to give it a shot, because that’s what going to make me happy.’” His parents were shocked, but to his surprise, 100 percent supportive.

During his 2 ½ years at the Art Center, he was exposed to a variety of courses including computer animation, gallery art, editorial illustration and more. For Santat, children’s books encapsulated all things he enjoyed about the program. “It was entertainment, type design, a little bit of fine art, illustration and narrative storytelling.” Although a small, niche environment in the vast world of illustration, it allowed Santat to diversify into other areas including entertainment design, editorial work and advertising. 

And that niche has proved successful. His first children’s book, The Guild of Geniuses, which he wrote and illustrated, was published in 2004. Following this, he illustrated the Otto Undercover book series by actress Rhea Perlman. Santat also created the show, The Replacements, for the Disney Channel, based on a children’s book he was going to write. He designed all the visual elements for the show and consulted on storylines for the entire series. The show aired from July 2006 to March 2009.

The ideas for Santat’s children’s books are not novel, but rather inspired by an abundance of 1980s sci-fi, fantasy and general “nerd culture.” In his graphic novel Sidekicks, which he wrote and illustrated, the reader meets an aging superhero, savior of Metro City, who is in need of a sidekick. His four house pets agree and battle it out “sibling style” for a chance to be the hero’s sidekick, but in the end, realize it’s best to be one large super–family. 

Crankenstein by Samantha Berger and illustrated by Dan Santat
A self-proclaimed TV junkie, Santat pulls bits and pieces from his wealth of pop culture references and then “mashes it up” into something else. Today, many of his ideas come from his children. In fact, the name for this latest project, “Beekle,” the unimaginable imaginary friend, was his son Alex’s first word for “bicycle.”

And what does Santat’s happily ever after look like?  For now, it’s a full docket of projects through 2014. Last summer, he had four books debut within a few weeks of each other including Crankenstein; the second book of the Imaginary Veterinary series,  The Lonely Lake Monster; Picture Day Perfection; and Carnivores. And in October, it was announced that Scholastic would publish newly re-illustrated editions of award-winning author Dan Pilkey’s Ricky Rocotta series, featuring a mouse and his big robot friend, with all new full-color art by Santat. In addition, he’s working on his next graphic novel, The Aquanauts and a follow up to the successful Three Ninja Pigs series with an updated version of Little Red Riding Hood, Ninja Red Riding Hood.

“There’s a functionality for children’s books beyond entertainment,” says Santat. “In order for my kid to be a stable human being, he needs a wealth of books to learn how to read, and pick up morals along the way.”

Malinda Danziger, Marshall ’00, is an associate editor at Triton Magazine.