With the ring of an old cash register, Mat Heagerty cashes in a $10 bill and pours a new drink for a young woman. She thanks Heagerty and leaves him a tip before taking a sip from her cocktail. Heagerty moves on, smiling at patrons, striking up conversations and greeting regulars who know him.

“I’m kind of a veteran here. Ancient in bar years,” Heagerty says as he runs off to serve another drink.

Though he’s been a bartender at El Rio for 11 years, Heagerty has also pursued a writing career and his newest book, the graphic novel Unplugged and Unpopular will see a wide release and hit stores on October 15. The 144-page graphic novel is aimed at middle school readers but can be entertaining for any audience. 

Published by Oni Press, Unplugged and Unpopular will be the second published graphic novel Heagerty has penned, preceded by a smaller release of a novel he wrote called Just Another Sheep, a young adult graphic novel that was published in 2015.

Unplugged and Unpopular follows seventh-grader Erin Song, who is forced to take a break from her digital life. Soon, she discovers that aliens are using smartphones and other connected technology to manipulate and control humans, and enlists the help of her grandmother and her grandmother’s elderly friends to fight back. 

As a bartender, Heagerty noticed patrons at El Rio having fewer conversations and spending more time on their phones. One day, while writing longhand with his then-infant daughter sleeping on his chest, the idea for the book finally came to him. 

“I see people in San Francisco so anxious and attached to their phone. A little bit of time away from our phones is sometimes needed and that was what inspired me,” he said. 

The book took four years to get published, he said. 

Unplugged and Unpopular’s cover. Courtesy of Mat Heagerty.

Illustrations for Unplugged and Unpopular fell to Tintin Pantoja, whose real name is real name is Maria Kristina San Buenaventura Pantoja, a graphic artist based out of the Philippines who has worked in the industry since the mid-2000s. Pantoja had the task of illustrating all 144 pages of the book, coming up with character and scene designs. 

“The more you draw the character, the more you see their idiosyncrasies,” she said in a phone interview  from Manila in the Philippines. “At first it feels clunky and stiff. Then slowly you realize what kind of clothes this character wears or how this character should move.” 

She draws from styles that influenced her as a kid — anime and manga, superhero comics, Archie comics and, of course, Tintin. Coincidentally, Tintin is also a nickname for Kristina in the Philippines, she said. 

The influence of manga on American comic books and the publishing industry have been profound. In Japan, comic books often came out in serialized editions that were more than 100 pages long. Their western counterparts have adopted the ideas of a full graphic novels with great success.

“I think manga started really hitting about a decade ago, and as a result, you have a lot of people working on comics. A lot of women are part of that movement too,” Heagerty said. 

Producing comic books is the fulfillment of a childhood dream for Heagerty. Comic books even helped him learn how to read – he is dyslexic and had trouble learning how when he was young, but the comic book visuals and panels allowed him to develop tricks to overcome his condition.

Leef Smith, the owner of Mission Comics and Art, said that the publishing industry is really embracing the graphic novel format. He fished out from the kid’s section a hardcover copy of Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, a 244-page graphic novel which has sold millions of copies.

Smith has another favorite in his kid’s section of the comic shop — a graphic novel called Smile by San Francisco native Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier’s story is an illustrated autobiography that covers her life from sixth grade until her sophomore year of high school. The graphic novel won multiple awards and has also sold millions of copies.

“It’s a really big segment of the industry and it’s really growing,” Smith said. 

Travis Nichols, another comic book writer and illustrator who was visiting the comic book store, said another big shift in the industry has been improved printing capabilities. Companies can print more efficiently and with more color and it’s driven down prices to the point where they can take a chance on fun projects. Nichols had his own books in the store, including one called Maze Quest that is a hybrid of adventure novels with mazes to navigate. 

“With bookstores being on the rise again, there’s been more attention to kids’ literature. They’re the ones still holding things in their hands and reading them,” Nichols said.

Heagerty said he has three more graphic novels planned that should be released in the next two years. He’s also seen a shift in the publishing world where even textbooks and educational materials are being designed similarly to comic books.

“I think a lot of it has changed even in 10 years. Comics are in a better place than they have been in a long time,” he said.