Nathan Hale is the name of a Revolutionary War spy. It’s also the name of an author.
In the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, Nathan Hale (the spy) tells stories from history to a hangman and a British officiant in order delay his inevitable execution. The trio’s gag lines, along with well-researched and carefully illustrated history, make this series a delightful addition to elementary and middle school library collections.
Nathan Hale (the author)’s most recent addition, Alamo All-Stars, was released this March.
NFNT Interviewer (Amy Estersohn): What’s your research process like? Do you have a sense of what historical topics you’d like to cover before you begin research on a new book in the Nathan Hale series, or do you wander into a library looking to learn something new and see where it takes you?
Nathan Hale: I give a handful of potential topics to the publisher, usually three or four ideas. For example: The Pony Express, The War of 1812, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (these are random examples, not a list of what’s coming in the series…or is it?). Then the publisher chooses the subject they are most excited about. Once I made the mistake of giving the publisher a list of ten topics to choose from. It took them months to decide. Now I keep the list slim.
Once the topic is decided on, I’m off to the library. I check out all of the books on that subject and read them all. I then buy the books I really liked so I can mark up the inside with notes and underline things. Then I go to the internet to see if I’m missing any major books on the subject and track those down. More reading, more marking. I’m basically writing a giant research paper. Once I get the facts in place, I begin writing the narrators’ reactions to the events. When the manuscript is finished, it goes through a rigorous fact-checking at the publisher. My goal is to get my manuscript back with no changes from the fact checker. This has never happened. The fact checker really digs in and finds all kinds of errors or poorly communicated ideas, which I then fix. Then it’s time for drawing.
Drawing takes just as much, sometimes more research than the manuscript because now I have to know what everything looks like. I have to track down photos, paintings, images, trips to museums, etc. The research never stops until the last panel is drawn. These books start with research and end with research. Phew.
I’m always on the lookout for potential subjects for the series. But lately, thanks to school visits, kids are constantly shouting ideas at me during Q and A sessions. “Will you do a book on WWII?” (That’s the most common one.) “Suffragettes?” “The French and Indian War?” “What about the Benedict Arnold book promised in the back of One Dead Spy?” “Vietnam!?” I now have a mountain of possible topics.
NFNT: How do you turn all of that research into sequential art? If you write text, it’s really easy to make small changes to a document. Do you ever draw a full page only to realize that you’ve come up with the perfect comment for the Hangman?
Nathan Hale: A lot of the jokes come out of the drawing process. I’ll have the manuscript all paneled out on the page, then—like you said—the perfect comment will pop up for the Hangman, so I’ll fit it in. I work in Photoshop, so it’s easy to rearrange things as I go. My first graphic novels, Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, were inked traditionally, and there was no rearranging things on the fly. The fluidity of working digital really adds room to play with jokes. About 30% of the dialogue gets rewritten or added to during the drawing process (to the frustration of my editor). There are jokes that work better on a panel than a manuscript—and vise-versa. So things are constantly changing and evolving when they hit the panel. Things like the Grim Reaper in Donner Dinner Party didn’t even appear until the drawing stage.
Changing the manuscript on the fly is one of the benefits of being the author and illustrator. You can’t do that when someone else wrote the story.
NFNT: How has your new book, Nathan Hale’s Alamo All-Stars, challenged you as an author and artist?
Nathan Hale: A lot of stories about the Alamo—some of the most well-loved stories, aren’t, um, how do I put this, based on recorded facts. There are a lot of events that fall into the category of legend rather than historical event. The line drawn in the sand by William Travis, David Crockett using his rifle as a club until the very end—these are stories that every student of Texas history knows about, but there is little or no documentation to back them up. What do I do? Fortunately, this is a comic book, so I show the legends! But I also get to explain why they may or may not be true. I basically get to have my cake and eat it too.
No other subject I’ve written about has had as many legends and folklore as the Alamo. So many legends!
NFNT: How did you decide to start drawing comics? Any advice? Regrets?
Nathan Hale: Oh boy. I start drawing comics in 2007. My first comic was Rapunzel’s Revenge. I met the author Shannon Hale at a writing conference, she had seen my picture books, asked if I’d ever thought of doing a comic. I said, “Sure. That sounds fun.” One extremely long year later, I had drawn Rapunzel’s Revenge. Yeah. Late bloomer. (Thanks, Shannon!!!) Before that I focused on picture books and illustration—but not in the comic style. Fortunately for me, comics are just like reeeeeeaally long picture books, with waaaay more pictures.
My advice to young cartoonists: Draw, draw, draw. Drawing comics is time consuming. You need to build up the ability to draw for hours at a time, and the ability to draw any scene you can think of. Fan art of existing things (Star Wars, manga, video games, etc) is fun, but don’t make it your central purpose. Create your own stories, draw your own characters, discover your own style. Draw, draw, draw. Write a lot and read a lot—and not just comics.
Regrets? Well, I regret that I have but one life to give to…er, drawing comics.
NFNT: How does your spouse feel about the fact that you took your Mac and a bunch of extension cords with you on a camping trip so that you could keep working, even in the great outdoors?
Nathan Hale: Ah, yes, the Facebook photo of me working in the woods with my Cintiq tablet. I get asked about that at more school visits… Yes. It’s a real photo. I didn’t stage it. This wasn’t just any camping trip, this was the HALE FAMILY REUNION. I have about a million cousins. Last Fourth of July we all got together, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, everybody. This is rare and only happens about once or twice a decade. I was under a major deadline—the Alamo book, in fact. We wanted to get the book out in March of 2016. But in order to do that, I had to really crunch. I was behind—it was my fault, I had signed up for too many school visits and book festivals that spring, so work on the Alamo book kept getting pushed into summer. I had no choice! How did my spouse feel? She wasn’t even there! She couldn’t get work off (she’s a public librarian, she had a big event that weekend). So I was able to laugh and chat and catch up with my cousins, all while drawing pages for Alamo All-Stars.
You can get a lot of work done when you’re stuck at a family reunion.
NFNT: Who are you reading right now?
Nathan Hale: I’m reading a lot of books on the Doolittle Raid, a WWII bombing run. Lots of books. I wonder why.
I’m also listening to two audio books: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (which is 27 hours long and I’ve been chipping away at it for over a month now) and a horror novel, The Consultant, by Bentley Little. As for comics, I just got Daniel Clowes’s Patience, but I haven’t started it yet—I hid it on a high shelf where my ten-year-old daughter won’t find it. She’s reading Unicorn vs. Goblins by Dana Simpson.
NFNT: What do you want readers to appreciate about history after reading your Nathan Hale series?
Nathan Hale: I want readers to feel excited about history. I want them to see that history isn’t just names and dates, it’s people—crazy people, doing insane, gross, heroic, reprehensible, hilarious things!