Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Nathan Hale. Watch the video interview with Nathan Hale.
Creativity on the ski lift
So I grew up in Utah, and my parents – this is such a stereotype, my parents were ski instructors. And we had a bizarre year round school schedule, so our summer was only five weeks long, but we got this three week breaks throughout the year. And my parents – because they worked at Sundance Ski Resort – put our three week break right after the holiday break, so we ended up having five weeks of skiing, and we had no choice, because they weren’t going to pay a babysitter to stay home with the kids, so we had to ski from 8am to 5 when the mountain closed, every day.
Which seems fun for the first few hours, but if you’ve ever been in the snow for that long, you know, it’s a long day. And I spent a lot of those hours sitting on chairlifts just daydreaming and thinking about stuff because there’s nothing to do [chuckles] on a chairlift, while thinking about, I wonder if I can track down one of my parents mid-lesson – you know, they’re trying to do their job, and I’m bothering them for lunch money.
[whispers] Can I have a dollar? Yeah, but a fun place to grow up. A very quiet place, it’s great for cartooning because there’s not a lot of distractions. You know?
Drawing while listening
So, my strange parents – not only did they have weird jobs, like ski instructor, but they also didn’t have a TV. They didn’t make a lot of money. [chuckles] So we did not have a TV, we lived in a small two bedroom apartment, and my dad would read to us, and I was the oldest, oldest of five kids, and he would read to us the fantasy stories he liked.
You know, we were lucky because he liked The Hobbit and he liked The Lord of the Rings and he liked The Chronicles of Narnia. he read to us and while he would read I would draw, make little doodles, and pictures. And that really became an exciting thing for me to listen to a story while I drew.
And so fairly – I wish I found them sooner, but I would say maybe 9th grade I started discovering audio books, books on tape, at that point they came in the big plastic case, and you got sixteen cassette tapes, and I would put them into my headphones, and I would listen to them, and read them.
But I was a big fan of science fiction, of fantasy, Roald Dahl, of course, was a big one for me in middle school – or middle grades, elementary school. My favorite of the Roald Dahl books was not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel where Charlie goes to space with Willie Wonka and they fight aliens. And I tell that to some kids today, and they’re like that didn’t happen, and I’m like it’s a real book, you can check it out.
Omnivorous reading (and listening)
My sister was also a reader, she was a year younger than me, and she read – you know, in those days what we called [air quotes] the traditional girl, girl books, but I’d get bored if there wasn’t enough books in the house, so I’d go and pull her books. And one year for her birthday she’d be given the Black Stallion Collection because she was a horse lover, loved – she had little horse statuettes. And, it was a box set, you know, The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, the Black Stallion –
Anyway, book five I think was The Black Stallion and Satan, right? And I was looking at the box set and I was like [mumbles] I had no idea the Black Stallion went on these amazing metaphysical adventures, I’ve got to find out what this horse does to meet Satan. [chuckles] So I read the entire Black Stallion. The whole work – And I got really into it, I learned a lot about Arabians and Arabian horses and races, and all of these different things, and I was pretty upset to find out that Satan was just a red racehorse and was not a giant cool demon [chuckles] or something. But, yeah, I just read nonstop. To me, it was always interesting, and I followed in my dad’s footsteps because he loved science fiction and fantasy so much. He’d bring home adult sci-fi and fantasy, and after a while, as a kid, I was like, well, this has a spaceship on the cover, I’ll just read my father’s books, and so I read his science fiction and fantasy, and just kept with it.
Read all of the audio books I could on science fiction and fantasy, and then hit the wall, there were no more I could listen to, but I had the habit in place. So, I closed my eyes, and I thought, well, I’m going to have to keep listening. This is my favorite thing to do. So I stuck my hand out in my public library’s bookshelf, I said, “I’m going to listen to the first thing I touch.” and I hit the biggest spine on the wall, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and I was like, is this seriously about a sad bird? [chuckles]
Why is this bird so lonesome? But I said, I made a deal, and I checked it out, and I was immediately introduced to historical fiction, which changed everything, and that audio book section kind of opened the library for me, because I was comfortable there, that was how I liked to read, audio books. And because I was comfortable there I was willing to take risks and chances, jumped into historical fiction, which led to nonfiction, which now I’m a history writer. So, it all started from a parent who read aloud, and I got hooked on that listening while I drew.
Can you paint a dinosaur?
So I was just starting out as kind of a freelance starving artist. I was visiting my parents in Utah, and as I was driving on the freeway I saw a giant structure going up, and it was a dinosaur museum, under construction. And I thought – at that point I had done a lot of theater scenery, I had done a lot of murals in people’s homes, but just a lot of fun stuff. But I had gotten good at painting at very large formats, very quickly, the local theaters all liked me because I could paint really big and really fast.
The painters had painted it white, and I was like, “You’re not going to do immersive murals?” And they’re like, “Nah.” [chuckles] And I said, “Can I submit some ideas?” So I raced home and built a little mockettes of what I would do, for them, and kind of pulled together all of my portfolio of large scale theater scenery and home murals, brought it back in, and said, “Give me a shot.”
And they said, “Well, you’re just a kid. We’re going to start you in the gift shop. If you can paint the gift shop, we’ll see what you can do from there. So we want it to look like a jungle, paint a jungle in the gift shop.” So I went and I painted a jungle. And they liked that one. They said, “Okay, you can do the little kid’s area. We’ll actually put some dinosaurs in there. We want you to do realistic, not cartoony, uh, dinosaurs.” So I went in there and I painted the dinosaurs.
And they said, “Okay, we’ll let you do the underwater area.” And this continued on for an entire year, and the funny thing was they were very smart because they were getting a whole museum painted for a very good deal [chuckles] because I was just like, “Can I do the next one?!” But, after a year I had painted this entire museum, it’s called the North American Museum of Ancient Life. Apparently it’s the largest collection in North America, and it has my murals in it, every single wall in the museum is all what we did.
I ended up hiring a friend of mine, and a couple of kids from the local university art program, and they went in, and they all painted, and we had a great time. It’s not the world’s most scientifically accurate mural, but it’s very bright and colorful, and really brings everything to life.
Early career as a natural history mural painter
But while I was there, there was a guy who was very meticulously building a tiny undersea diorama, just millions of tiny, little corals, and brachial pods, and all of these cools things because they had a pre-Cambrian section that showed what the sea life was like in the different geological epochs.
And, he’d come in and watch when we painted every day, and he kind of stroke his beard, and then he’d leave you. Strange guy. Very serious. We never talked to him because he was always working on his diorama. And at the grand opening of the museum he said, “I’ve seen you here every day. You get here early, you stay late. You’ve painted this whole museum. I do these dioramas all over the world, do you want a job?” And I was a starving freelance artist and I said [claps hands] “Sign me up.”
And he runs a fascinating company out of the Ozarks in Missouri that installs dioramas and displays for natural history museums, all over the world, and he wanted to hire a new mural painter, so I was one of his new mural painters, so I was one of his new mural painters, he had some expert mural painters already working. You know, he started me small, I did a lot of small things, but I’ve got murals that went to Japan, I’ve got murals in Dubai. Most of them are behind the diorama. If you see an undersea diorama with kind of the flickering lights and the different creatures swimming around, chances are it’s that company that built it. They’re not a lot of companies that make scientific underwater dioramas. It was wonderful.
I was there for most of the 2000s. If you’ve seen the Mammoth Display at the Rochester Science Center, that’s my mural, 60 feet long. If you have been to the Illinois State Museum, a whole lot of the line work in there – because we did all of the murals like drafting drawings, line drawings, a lot of those are mine. The Sam Noble museum in Oklahoma has got bunch of mine. They’re just kind of scattered all around, and I never really got to sign any of them because it was a big company effort. But what a fascinating thing to spend all day painting these things, and they had scientists on staff, who would come up and look at your work, and say, “That’s inaccurate.”
I remember painting a tiny fish. It wasn’t even a prehistoric fish, it was just like a freshwater fish, that’s alive today, and they were counting the little lines in the fins, and they said, “Okay, this specimen does not have this many rays in its dorsal fin. You need 88 rays. You’ve got 14 rays. The rays are the little lines that are in the fins.”
So, while working there I got a real respect for making sure you get it right. You can’t just fudge things, you can’t make things up. And it was a lot of fun, it was remarkable to go sit inside dioramas and paint them, I got to travel a lot. Most of them we painted in Missouri and then shipped them out, had them installed, but it was a fascinating job. And I probably would have stayed there for life, but it was right when the big recession hit, and since all of our jobs were state jobs we all got laid-off, and they had to shutter their doors for a while.
I think he’s back up and running, but that kind of lit a fire under me to get back into publishing, otherwise I’d still be there happily painting little wooly mammoths, and stuff.
Getting published takes perseverance
I tried and tried and tried. I got in the cycle of “can I get a picture book published?” It became a hobby. My senior year of high school I had an art project that was to write a picture book, and then they would take them to the district bindery, photocopy them, and we would get 15 copies of our own little book that was bound at the bindery. And I went crazy, and I did a 72 page book. Choose your own adventure where a character in a gas mask gets killed violently, in many different ways.
And I thought it was very funny and gross, and my friends thought it was hysterical. And it was this big 72 page choose your own adventure. And, one of my friends just kind of half-suggested, hey, you should make this a real book. And that stuck in my head, “A real book? Maybe I could get this published.” So of course I went to my public library and checked out some, “How to Get Published” books.
And I was – this was actually pretty smart for a kid. I’m surprised I thought this through, I went to my local bookstore, and I looked at the publishers who published the strangest books, because I knew it was weird, and out of – you know, violent and strange, who published the strangest books? But I kept myself two children’s books, because I thought that’s what I want to do, I want to do picture books.
And in that point in time, I believe Laura Geringer at Harper Collins was doing the weirdest picture books. They were very strange, lots of off-beat, weird stories. So, I said, “Okay, I like this.” And I looked in the back for the address, and I got the information, and I sent that 72 page story off to Harper Collins. And I waited, and waited, and waited, and then my senior year took over, and I forgot all about it, and it wasn’t until a year later – I was away at art school, and I came into the house one day, and they said, “Listen to this.”
My roommates pushed the answering machine, and they said, “Hello, this is for Nathan Hale. This is Harper Collins – Don’t get excited! Your book is completely un-publishable, but we saw in your cover letter that you’re a high school student, and we think you should keep at it. So thank you so much for sending in your book and we’ll send it back to you. Keep trying!”
And I was so excited I rewound the answering machine to play it for my parents and it erased the message. I’ve never been able to hear it again, but that got me so excited. The fever caught-on and I started attending SCBWI functions and the little conferences on how to get published, and it just became my side hobby, at nights, and evenings I tried to get published, and I tried – I was sending in manuscripts and picture book ideas all through working in natural history, trying different things.
I was starting to get published in smaller press type of things, I had a wonderful relationship with “Cricket Magazine” and was doing illustrations for Cricket just about every issue, and I was really starting to feel like I was getting my foot in the door, but I could not get a manuscript sold.
First step into graphic novels
In 2005, I finally got my first manuscript sold, and it was for a picture book, about a little red devil, it was called The Devil You Know published at Walker Books, cute little mischievous devil causing trouble for a family. I thought it was a lot of fun, and funny and goofy, not a hugely popular book, but it looked sort of like a graphic novel.
Now, I wasn’t thinking of comics or graphic novels, but when I broke the book into little sections, it did kind of break into panels. And in my same state is an author with my same last name, Shannon Hale, who I’d never met before, we’re not related. But she was a big deal, her first book had just come out which was The Goose Girl from Bloomsbury. And I met her at one of these writing conferences, when my first book had come out, and I felt like I was hot stuff, and she was collecting books for donations, for charity, she said, “Hey, all local authors, can you give me a bunch of books? We’re going to donate them.” So I gave her one of my books about this little red devil, it wasn’t doing very well.
So I had lots to giveaway. And she looked at it and she said, “This looks like a graphic novel.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” And she said, “Would you like to do a graphic novel?” And I said, “You know, I like picture books. I like paintings, so, no.” And she said, “That’s too bad because my husband and I have written a graphic novel and we want to find an illustrator for it. It’s about Rapunzel.” And I was still like, “Eh, I’m not that interested.”
And then said it’s about “Rapunzel in the old west.” And I thought, “Wait, really? That sounds kind of cool.” Let’s talk more about this, because she was very popular with that first book, I wanted to follow her lead and be popular, too, so we just jumped-in. Her publisher Bloomsbury had never published a graphic novel. She and her co-author, her husband Dean Hale had never written a graphic novel. I had never illustrated a graphic novel, and the editor had never read a graphic novel.
We jumped in and just did it. It ended up being one of the hardest years of my life. I was stunned at how much work it was. I thought this was something I would do in a couple of months, and I spent a year trying that book, and by the time it came out it was more popular than anything I’d ever worked on. At that point I think I’d had two books published, and my third was coming out, and none of those picture books did well.
But the graphic novel was exciting. It was picked up by the “Today Show” as the book of the month. It popped up on a bunch of state reading lists. It was a Texas Maverick’s book, and people were going crazy for it.
We immediately did a sequel, and on the sequel I was a little faster, it was a little less hard, and from there I just thought, you know what? I loved drawing these fantasy characters in the old west, but what was really fascinating to me was the old west, itself, the hats, the boots, the guns.
Fascinated by history
The second book is the “Jack in the Beanstalk in the Old West,” but we wanted a big turn of the century city, sort of like a big Chicago, but it had been ruined by giants, because it was a “Jack in the Beanstalk” story. So I thought, are there any pictures of turn of the century cities that have been destroyed? And sure enough the big earthquake of 1804 in San Francisco, and of course, the Chicago Fire, and so I bought two books on those, and I would pour over those images.
And there was an image that just caught my – I just fixated on it. It was a giant rolling sewage remover, like an outhouse system, because the people still wanted to live in the city, but the city was ruined, and the plumbing was gone. And I thought, good grief, they had to figure out their plumbing for years while they were rebuilding the city. That is so fascinating. And I just kept reading. And I’d be like, oh yeah, I got to draw fairies and goblins and dragons, and then… Those are fun enough, but I want to know more about this history stuff. So I started doing small mini-comics just about history. At that point I was experimenting with web comics and blogging. And I set a pace for myself to put a new piece of content up every week day.
But, I did a little story about Lewis and Clark, a history story with a little bit of comedy. The story had to do with the fact that Lewis and Clark, and the core of discovery were consuming mercury, they were eating it in pill form, mercury chloride, the powdered concentrate of mercury, which of course led to them having explosive bathroom moments in the bushes, which I thought was a very funny thing.
So I made a little cartoon about it, and my agent put that out into the ether, and I started getting calls on it. They said, do you want to do a graphic novel series about explorers? And I was like, “Oh, explorers would be neat.” Do you want to do a standalone about Lewis and Clark? And then it just slowly turned into, do you want to do some history stories? You have this name Nathan Hale. And I thought, yeah, like I don’t have a history background, I love historical fiction.
I love accuracy and reference and research, and all of these things. I liked funny stories too, though, I wonder ... can I make history stories? But make them really funny and we’d kind of make fun of the history, and make fun of the people, but we make it all accurate, and amazingly enough the people at Abrams said, “That all sounds great. Let’s do it.”
The weird thing I assumed there would be kids, maybe one kid per school that was a little history nerd. It turns out the kids are crazy for nonfiction and history right now. I got very lucky to be out at the same as “I Survived” by Lauren Tarshis, and the great “Who Was?” series by Scholastic. Kids are just eating up this nonfiction and this history. I think the fact that it’s all real stuff and real stories kind of gives them a thrill, gives me a thrill when I write it, so it’s been a great time for both graphic novels and nonfiction. And to be right in the center of it all with nonfiction graphic novels makes me very excited.
Origins of the Hazardous Tales series
When I started the series I wanted each book to just be a standalone. This will be the book on the American Revolution, this will be the book on the Monitor and the Merrimack in the Civil War, this will be the book on the Donner Party. And my very wise editor said, “No, no, no, no, we need a through-line. How about a narrator that pops up in each book?” And I was like “Ehhh, I don’t want a Ms. Frizzle situation. You know ‘Magic School Bus’ or Talking Eagle, or something.” That’s actually what we landed on was a talking eagle, you know a little golden eagle on top of the flag. We chose that because the eagle on the flag has probably seen a lot of things in history, so it was going to fly from page to page, and talk about each thing.
And I’d even drawn up some picture of this eagle, it was called Susan B. Eagle-Bee [chuckles], I’m embarrassed by that. But, one day we were talking about the cover because it had to have a series title, the book title, and then my name. And I thought, we’re out of space for illustrations. As an illustrator I wanted to have the best possible cover. So I said, “Can we just cut my name from the cover?” And she’s like, “No, that’s ridiculous.”
And I said, “How about if we make my name part of the series titles so it just cancels that extra line of text out?” And she’s like, “Why would your name be in the series title?” And on the phone I was just like, “You know there was this Revolutionary War spy with my same name, Nathan Hale, and maybe he’s telling the stories to stop his execution?” And my editor was like “Hang-up right now, write this all down, immediately. This sounds a lot better than that eagle.” I wrote it all down.
And suddenly we had this kind of little Greek chorus, our hangman, provost, and Nathan Hale. Between the three of them, Nathan Hale tells the stories, he just lays out the facts. The British provost is very cynical, he doesn’t buy it, he doesn’t believe it. And he wants to know specifics, and the hangman just wants to make jokes. He wants to know where people go to the bathroom. He wants to know what they were eating and he loves fluffy animals, and cute nonsense.
So he’s constantly disrupting things with his demands. And between the three of them, we’re able to kind of bounce these history stories around in a slightly different way than maybe kids have read them before.
Enter the Research Babies
So, each one of these books takes so much research. And I’m jealous of authors because they can just research and then type. They can say the soldiers went to war and they had helmets and boots on. Done. But if you’re the artist, if you’re showing all of this stuff, well you can type that out, but you also have to show the boots, you have to show the helmets. So I’m double research because not only do I have to find all of the written research, which is very rigorously checked by our fact checker at Abrams, who really gives me a difficult time, very good at their job, catches single thing, makes me fix everything. But then I have to find all of the visual elements.
And some of those things are harder than others. Revolutionary War is not the hardest because those uniforms were kind of mismatched and all over the place, people were piecing stuff together. We don’t have photos, we have some oil paintings, we have some etchings, but you get a little bit of freebie on getting things exactly right on the uniforms and the weapons. Now the Civil War, that’s another story, and you get children whose parents are re-enactors, and they are there counting the sergeant stripes on sleeves, and things, and saying, “Oh wait, no, no, no. This Illinois Regiment did not have those pants.” So it’s a lot of careful, careful research.
And I’ve made a game out of the research for the readers because I know things will always change. We’re always going to get things wrong. History – they’re always making new discoveries. So, in order to make the research, really, more part of the fun of the book, I made up a fictional team of researchers. So when you get to the back of the book you see the bibliography, and it said this – “Everything in this book was researched by babies.” I did this as a joke in the first book, just thinking, what’s something that people – If they’re writing a review online, and they say “This research is terrible.” And they say, “Well, it’s done by babies.”
And the kids who read that first book really liked those cute little babies, they’re crawling all around in the bibliography, they’re complaining. So it’s a little team of babies that do the research. I draw them in the back. They’re called the research babies and they’ve kind of become a character in their own right.
And there’s also a Corrections Baby, who runs the Corrections Department, and if you find something that’s wrong I’ve got an email right there, and you can send the Correction Baby that information, and then hopefully in future editions we’ll fix that. For example, in my most recent “Lafayette” book we transposed, we turned – we swapped 1780 for 1870, just, you know, a little something that the proofreader didn’t catch, and a million kids were so excited. They’re like “We found it!”
There’s a lot of very detail-oriented kids that really want things to be right, but I think that they like knowing, hey, well, if I found something that’s wrong that’s exciting, let’s fix it, and they send it in. So, yeah, the books are researched by babies. And I make the research part of the book. The bibliography, in a lot of cases, is a comic. So you’re seeing the books as little comic drawn things.
I think it’s an important part of the whole book to show all of that research. And then of course behind the Research Babies we have lots of bibliography – or lots of photos of the, of the events, and people from the book. I think a lot of kids actually jump in, as he’s reading it, just thinking it’s going to be a fun, wacky adventure, and they get to those final pages, and go, “This was real? I don’t believe it!” And I think – hopefully for them it’s an exciting moment of realizing how exciting the history and the research is.
School visits, with lots of drawing
I love visiting schools. I did not have an author visit my school when I was a kid. The closest thing I had was a girl in my class whose dad worked at the old B. Dalton bookstore in the mall. And I do remember going, “Wait, you can have a book job? Work with books, that sounds neat.” But it was Career Day, her dad came in to tell us what it’s like to work at a bookstore, and then he left behind a big box of free giveaway books, and we’re able to all go up and pick out a book. And that was a very special day for me, I mean it was just a career day, I don’t think many of the other kids remember it, but I remember getting that book and knowing you can have a book job. So I’m a big believer in school visits.
When I visit a school I do a big presentation all about American history and I draw the whole thing. I got a tablet that plugs-in and I’m drawing on the screen, and it’s appearing on the screen above me. So when you see me at a school you’ll see 20 pages of comics drawn live, a crazy story, and I love it, and the kids get all whipped up and excited about it, and I tell them where they can research more about the stories I tell. I do a thing about the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark, a bunch of different stuff. And I bring books from their library up and I show you, “Look at this, here’s a book that shows all the animals that Lewis & Clark discovered on the trail. And here’s a book that shows what the trail looks like today.” And I get them all excited about it.
And then we open it up for questions, and the questions are never questions, well, I mean, they are questions, but they’re like okay, “When are you going to do the Titanic?” I get a lot of Titanic. A lot of interest in Vietnam. The kids are very interested, they’re like what is Vietnam, what’s the Korean War? They don’t know what it is. What’s this, the Korean War? The one I get a lot is the Cold War. I don’t think they know what the Cold War was [chuckles], and I think they’re getting the Cold War confused with “Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” where people are running around in the cold and shooting each other with guns.
You know, the kids have these interesting ideas. So my mind is always open. In fact, the next book to come out was titled by a student, the next book comes out at the end of this year, it’s going to be book nine in the series about John Wesley Powell the geologist slash Civil War Major who took the first expedition through the Grand Canyon by river, and he did it with one arm.
And I explain the premise to a room full of kids at a school visit lunch, and I said, “Who here has an idea because we haven’t titled it yet?” You know it’s about a one armed guy going through the Grand Canyon, what should we call it? The kid raises their hand, “Mission Impossible!” I say, “Well, I like it, but I think that one is taken. Oh, another hand, what would you call it?” And the little kid said, “Major Impossible,” because he was a major, Major John Wesley Powell. And I said, “Give me your name.” And I wrote his name, and he’s going to be thanked in the acknowledgments of the book. We need to find his address so we can send him some stuff, but he named the book. The kids are very involved. They want to be part of the history and the research. They love going to the sites.
Kids will send me weird fan mail where they’ve gone to a historical site. They take a picture of them self next to the tank or next to the thing, and they’ll just send it to me, they’ll say, “Look at this!” And that’s it. But they’re fascinated by history. It’s a great, great moment for nonfiction in history.
The expanding world of graphic novels
And when I did my first graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, I was shocked at how much information you could dump into each panel, I was coming of course from scientific illustration and picture book illustration. And I thought with all of these squares you can do so much. And I felt like I was kind of reinventing comics for myself. I wasn’t super well-versed in all the superhero comics and how those things worked, and I thought, “Well, that’s okay. I’m going to learn this for my subject matter.” So when you look at my comics they don’t necessarily look like other comics.
They certainly don’t look like superhero comics, nobody has huge bulging muscles. I do a very simple color scheme, one color plus black and white. When I read a super oversaturated color, it’s a little comic with a million colors, and things all over, it’s a little overwhelming. It’s too much information for me. And now I have a hard time reading comics.
To me, it’s harder, if I’m going to read a comic I have to sit down at a table, open it, put a light right on over it, and do it. For me it’s harder to read a comic than a graphic novel than a regular novel. I just into a novel and just grind through it. But with a comic I really feel like I need to take my time and look at each page.
And I think a lot of the teachers and parents who don’t love graphic novels, I think there’s two reasons why. They see like these comics with the muscles and the oversaturated colors, and the violence, and they’re just like, “That’s not what I want my kid to be reading.” But, also, they try to read it themselves and they can’t do it, so they go, “They must not be real reading because this makes me angry.” And I think it’s really they need to take more time, maybe try some more different styles of comic.
But, I love that the kids are so excited about them. And I can’t believe what a great way they are to tell history specifically.
From narrative to infographics in the Hazardous Tales
If you’re explaining concepts, it’s funny to me that for decades in America comics were primarily for delivering superhero stories, which are fun, and exciting, but it’s perfect for delivering infographics.
I can segue from narrative into infographic without even flipping a page. It’s just nonstop infographics, details, maps, what the weapons look like, what the people look like, action happening. All at the same time, kids are big re-readers of the graphic novels, they’ll read it once, and then they’ll read it again, and then they’ll read it again and again and again, because every time they’re reading it they’re kind of editing it in a different way in their head.
Maybe they’re making the battle go faster, maybe they’re just looking for things they missed. They go back again and again, and I get so many parents come up to me and say, “My kid was never a reader. My kid has a hard time reading. He’s got reading disabilities. Now they’re an insane history buff and it’s because of these books.”
How graphic novels empower kids with dyslexia
I’ve actually talked to a lot of people who study dyslexia, and they say, “Sure, the pictures help, because, you know, the context, you can look at the picture, and look at the words. But, also, just the fact that they’re in a spherical bubble, in little bite sizes, and I write in all caps.” So they look at these little bubbles that are in all caps and it makes the dyslexia just a little easier, I can read that little bubble. It’s nice and uniform in size, and I can read it.
And then they’re looking at the stuff, and they’re starting to feel smart because they’re like, look at this, I’m reading this, I now know the causes of World War I, and the major players, and the big battles that happened. And as they’re going along, they’re feeling better and better about the learning experience, which hopefully propels them into other graphic novels. Propels them into other history, nonfiction, I really hope, I think a really good book is always a springboard into other books. And I really hope that they when they read the Hazardous Tales books and my other comics that it makes them want to go back to the shelf and find some more stuff, and find other, other takes on it, and other things.
Comic style influences
My art style is kind of hard to pin down, I think there’s a lot of Sunday morning comics in it, I think there’s a lot of Peanuts, there’s definitely a little Garfield slipped in there. As a high schooler I found Edward Gorey and just aped [phonetic] his style, and loved it. And, yeah, it’s just got a very simple, clean art style. The information is more important than the style for me.
I really like to be clean and sharp and easy to read. I love the look of the Franco-Belgian comics, Tin-Tin, those simple characters like that, that are simple, but they’re dynamic, and you can always recognize them, and you can always tell what they’re thinking because their face is doing the expressions.
And I still love reading new comics, reading foreign comics. All the different influences, seeing how people are communicating these things. I’m making up now reading lots of graphic novels and comics for the comics I didn’t read as a kid.
It has a tiny bit of Manga in there, too. If it’s hard for me to read regular graphic novels, it’s very hard for me to read Manga because then you’re switching everything in reverse which always takes a little learning curve every time I do it, but beautiful, wonderful work. Some of my favorite books are Manga books.
I do have a very nerdy hobby that I’ve had since I was a little kid. I’m endlessly fascinating with Lego®. My parents bought me a little space station when I was a kid, the robot command center. It was blue, kind of looked like a robot, had several little spacemen.
I probably used those pieces in a thousand different variations. And I love collecting them and buying them still to this day. My studio is just a landscape of crazy Lego® creation and beautiful things, I think – I find them very soothing after a deadline because they give you all the pieces, and they give you the exact instructions, and all you have to do is follow instructions.
You can create a beautiful, creative thing without having to be beautiful and creative yourself. You’re just – "Oh, I’m going to put this together, and you put it all together, and I’ve got some crazy stuff." My favorite thing is definitely those little single color spacemen from the 1980s, there’s a red one, and a yellow one, and a black one.
And any chance I get to buy those, I couldn’t have enough of them. It’s a mania. Fill my house with little spacemen like that. And, boy, if Lego® ever said, “You could design a set.” Boy, oh, boy. I think I would want to design cool space stations with the same little classic guys. I don’t know, it’s a dream. It certainly would be a lot of fun.