‘Let’s Make History’ with Nathan Hale | Interview
Nathan Hale, creator of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, knows how to make history fun and engaging. The popular creator of historical non-fiction graphic novels has a brand new graphic novel in the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series (published by Abrams Books) called Let’s Make History. The book is a change of pace: After 11 graphic novels that have focused on many important chapters in American history, this new title is a create-your-own-historical-comics guide that is jam-packed with 71 challenges to help inspire creativity for eager kid comic creators, with familiar Hazardous Tales characters like the Hangman along for the ride. Creator Nathan Hale joined me to talk about the new book and more.
What made you decide to create a book for kids on how to make historical comics?
This is a rare instance where it wasn’t actually my idea. Abrams, the publisher, pitched me the DIY concept. The second they told me the idea, I was on board.
How much time do you typically spend doing research for your Hazardous Tales books and does it vary from book to book? Luckily you have a crack team of research babies ready to help you!
The writing/researching takes between 4-6 months, the drawing/coloring take the same.
With some books, the research takes longer. Big picture/multi-character books take longer to research than more biographical books. My WWI book took the most research time.
With some books the drawing takes longer. Books with lots of group scenes, city scenes, horses, etc, take longer to draw than books with lots of nature. The Donner Party book was an easy draw, it was snow and nature. The Lafayette book had fancy uniforms, French architecture, big marching and battle sequences—that one took forever to draw.
I’ve been a fan of your graphic novels ever since the Shannon and Dean Hale-written Rapunzel’s Revenge which you illustrated. Did the old western/fantasy period piece graphic novel help to inspire you when creating the Hazardous Tales series since it focused so much on an old American west setting?
It absolutely did. Even though Rapunzels Revenge takes place in a fantasy “Western” world, I wanted the clothes, buildings, and guns to look authentic and real. So I did a lot of visual research.
The second book, Calamity Jack, took place in a large turn-of-the-century city that had recently been destroyed (by giants). In my research, I found a book of photos from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The photos were fascinating. I found myself far more interested in the realities of this mostly-forgotten historical earthquake than the fantasy aspects of the story.
Have you always been a fan of world and American history or is it something you’ve grown to appreciate and share with your readers?
I grew up loving historical fiction. But I never expected to become a nonfiction history author. I have no history degrees or background. I do think my naïveté brings a certain childlike wonder and excitement to the material.
What Hazardous Tales book took you the longest to research?
Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, the WWI book. Also Blades of Freedom, the book about the events that lead to the Louisiana Purchase, from Napoleon’s rise to the Haitian Revolution. The books that feature huge casts and major events take the most research.
Let’s Make History features many tips and exercises from researching historical-period clothing, a guide for researching in the library, drawing tips, reading research, symbols, the differences in storytelling from super-hero comics, manga, comic strips, and so much more. What’s your favorite part in the creative process?
The drawing. While the research is interesting, and the writing is challenging—drawing has always been my first love.
I loved the challenges you put into the book – especially the Schultz accomplishment where you must work on a comic series for over 50 years. Good luck for anyone making that challenge!
Newspaper comics and Schulz’s Peanuts in particular were very formative for me. I teach a cartooning camp every summer at the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. Being able to include a Schulz challenge was a treat for me. If somebody completes that challenge, I’ll be 95 when they do!
Let’s Make History also features some challenges that involve libraries. The Hang-Hyphen Challenge features an inking challenge that takes place at a public library as well as an entire chapter 7 dedicated to encouraging kids to visit and do research at their local library. Have libraries always played a role in your life and do you still use them to this day when researching?
Absolutely! I’m always popping back and forth to my local public library. Calamity Jack, my second graphic novel, was drawn almost entirely in a library carrel.
Will there be a way to share online some of the finished comics the kids will be creating?
This is a tricky one. On one hand, I love the idea of kids showing their work, on the other hand, I loathe social media—and I think kids should be free from the inherent misery, group-think, misinformation, and anxiety that comes with it. So I’m not building an official sharing space for finished art. That said, if parents tweet me finished pages, I’ll probably retweet them. I’m new to this do-it-yourself space, so I don’t know what to expect.
What do you hate to draw the most?
I’m an oddball, I enjoy drawing everything. I really do. Some things are trickier than others—horse’s legs are so confusing. Kids in a classroom full of desks is a common scene I’ve had to draw a lot in my illustration career. It’s so much more complex than it should be, the desk legs, the chair legs, the kids legs—it’s a forest of poles and legs!
What were some of your favorite inspirations growing up that helped to inspire your art style?
Newspaper comics. Garfield, The Far Side, Peanuts, and a comic about birds who work at a newspaper called Shoe. Shoe gets forgotten, but wow, was the drawing beautiful and the cranky old newspaper birds had such personality. In middle school, I discovered Edward Gorey, he put a huge stamp on me. I was also really into the sci-fi/fantasy art covers that were out when I was a kid. My favorite cover illustrator was named Michael Whelan—I sometimes bought paperback books just for one of his covers.
I know you share the same name is the historical Nathan Hale, but if I had to guess which character best reflects you – is it the Hangman? He seems to be the 5th grader in all of us who still makes fart jokes and points out you’ve got a bat in the cave.
I loved the Take a Break challenge from chapter 6 in Let’s Make History. Creating comics can be a very sedentary life and there’s a need to get up and exercise to help clear the mind and get the creative juices flowing. I was happy to read that you’re a runner too like me. Why is it so important to be sure to be active while working as a graphic novel creator?
Drawing, while sedentary, is still a physical act. Long session drawing—which is all comic artists do—takes endurance. If you don’t take time to exercise and strengthen your body, you will lose that endurance. Drawing injuries, carpal tunnel, repeated motion stress—these are real issues for the cartooning community—and staying healthy can alleviate some of those things.
I also loved that you get to express your love of running in the book! You’ve completed 16 marathons – that’s quite an accomplishment! I’ve only done 4 marathons (my marathon PR is 4:17:52) and I’ve done over 20 ½ marathons myself (my PR is 1:46:37). How long have you been a runner and do you have any races coming up you’re training for?
Nice times! I just completed marathon #17 this past weekend in St. George, Utah. It was my third this year, starting with Nashville and Pittsburgh, then I’ll do a fourth in Dallas this December.
I had a horrible middle school gym teacher who punished his students with “fun runs.” My three year grudge match with that teacher gave me a lifelong love of running. Sometimes it’s the bad teachers that change your life.
Who are some of your favorite comic book creators and comics that you love reading?
In high school I discovered Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, an astounding, surreal comic from the 1910s. That got me interested in old comics. Most of my favorite creators are long dead. Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, E.C. Segar’s Popeye, Tove Jansson’s Moomin, and Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics to name a few.
I’ve only recently jumped into manga, but I’m blown away by it. The pandemic lockdown really let me dig deep. My favorite books and creators so far are Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, Bakuman by Ohba and Obata, and pretty much anything by Naoki Urusawa.
Is it true that you got one of your biggest artistic breaks by painting murals in a dinosaur museum?
Yes! As a kid, I found myself working a lot of part time jobs as a theater scenery painter. I got good at large format painting. This lead to doing murals in homes, then businesses. I seriously considered a career in scenic painting, but as I was choosing my major, projector tech was getting better and many theaters dropped hand-painted scenery for cheaper, easier projected images.
Anyway, in my early twenties, I had a robust mural/scenery portfolio. When I saw a big dinosaur museum being built, I marched in with my portfolio and got the job. The North American Museum of Ancient Life in Utah—it took just over a year, but I covered every wall in the place with murals.
Speaking of dinosaurs – no one asks adults what their favorite dinosaur is. What is your favorite dinosaur?
Styracosaurus. That’s the ceratopsian with the burst of horns all along the frill. It’s like an over-the-top Triceratops. That’s my favorite. Thanks for asking!
About Mike Pawuk
Mike Pawuk has been a teen services public librarian for the Cuyahoga County Public Library for over 15 years. A lifelong fan of comic books and graphic novels, he was chair for the 2002 YALSA all-day preconference on graphic novels, served as a judge for the Will Eisner Awards in 2009, as well as helped to create the Great Graphic Novels for Teens selection committee for YALSA. He is the author of Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More, and co-author of the follow-up book Graphic Book II both published by Libraries Unlimited/ABC-CLIO Publishing.
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