Contextualizing History

I’m on three panels at MICE this year. The Teaching With Comics panel I’ve done three times already, so I think I’m ready for it. I’m also prepared for the Letters From the Editor panel, as I’ve been teaching a publishing class for the past five years and part of that class is telling people how to work with an editor. The History in Comics panel, however…this is my first time giving a talk like this and it’s an important one. Essentially, it’s the justification behind why we’re doing these books, so I’m taking a bit of time to prepare some talking points and the one main point I keep coming back to as to why these books are important is that they put history into context.

I think it’s safe to say that the majority of us went to some history museum as kids. We might have went as part of a school trip, with our parents, or an older sibling and when we first got there we probably walked through the halls and read a placard or two about some artifact (or, if we were really young, we got the abridged version of the placard from our chaperone) and it was all well and good but the displays that really excited us were the dioramas. The dioramas were our entryways into learning about history - we would see an exhibit that had a handful of cavemen going up against a Wooly Mammoth  and we would appreciate the size difference, the danger of the hunt, and the methods these early humans used to trap and kill their prey. Once we had that context, we became interested in the details - the evolution of the spear and the cleaning and cooking of the meat. How we eventually moved towards a more sustainable model that including farming and building communities.

In other words, once we saw the big picture, our minds were ready to learn about the minutia. 

You get that same experience with comic books. In Colonial Comics, we don’t have a story about cavemen hunting Wooly Mammoths, but we do have a story about whalers going up against a sperm whale. And you see the small boat with a handful of crew going up against a massive whale and you appreciate the scope of it, and from there you focus on the minutia. You start to learn that the whaling crews were much more ethnically diverse than other populations at the time. That they operated autonomously from big-picture politics and revolutions. Extending beyond the one hunt in the book, you go out on your own and start to learn about how the whale population was substantially reduced by the desire for sperm whale oil. The comic book is the hook, a little taste of something to get you interested, but it scales up . A story about a troublesome pig that keeps eating Native American crops scales up to a larger discussion on free-range animal husbandry, the perception of farming vs. hunting in colonist and Native American cultures, and the eventual wars over the shrinking plots of Native American lands. 

Comics, by themselves, don’t have to be text books. They have to be fun and tell interesting stories and make people want to learn the details.

You may not realize this, but you’ve been reading non-fiction comics your entire life and you probably loved them. I know I did. When I was first learning about American History, my social studies teacher would talk to us about the Revolutionary War and use our text books as a guide. We’d turn to a particular page and there would be a map. And on this map would be a bunch of dashed lines showing troop movements and battle sites for a particular campaign.

That would be the point where I stopped listening to my teacher for a moment so that I could study the map. I’d follow the dashed line to one battle site by a bridge and then the two forces would move to some river bank and then one force would move to take control of a ridge where the final battle was fought. And after studying the map, I would have the context I need for the continuing discussion.

Those battle maps were rudimentary comic strips. There was an inherent narrative in the map, a sequence of events that told a story. The story, as presented, had subtext to it - this bridge was important. One army really needed to take this bridge. The ridge gave this other army the high ground necessary to finish the battle.

The map gave an overview of the story, and once I had that overview I was ready for the details.

Comics are a great way to get people interested in the whole story, just like dioramas at museums and maps in history books. They don’t have to tell the whole story, but you can section off the beginning and the end of a particular piece of a bigger story, structure a narrative around those two points, and then build panels, tiny illustrated dioramas, that show you who was involved, what their environment looked like, what they wore, what they said, and why it mattered to this one moment of this one story which is part of a bigger story. 

If Colonial Comics simply entertains a bunch of people, it did its job as a piece of pop culture. If it gets people interested in some particular facet of history, it did its job as history book. If it does both, however, it did its job as a comic book.

We’re making comics, here - and good comics serve as entertainment and escapism. A lot of readers escape to a world of superheroes and space operas and want to know more about those worlds. We hope our comics inspire readers to escape to the past and that they’re inspired to know more about that world.

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 will be released in October from Fulcrum Books. You can pre-order it on Amazon now.

Colonial Comics swag for MICE. All this plus a book!

Colonial Comics MICE Takeover

Well, folks, Colonial Comics, New England 1620-1750 makes its grand debut at MICE 2014. This isn’t just a grand debut for you all, this is also a grand debut for me. I saw the pre-proof version of the book but that was the last I saw of it. Fulcrum made some final edits, those edits were sent to the printer, and now a drop shipment is being sent directly to MICE. When I get to the show on Saturday, it will be the first time I’m seeing the book. But there’s a lot going on, so let’s get these things down.

Saturday, October 4th

9AM - My flight lands in Boston.

9:55AM- My cab pulls up to Lesley University Hall. I go directly to the Fulcrum Publishing table (D15) and you get to see a grown man kissing a book. 

10:01AM - The first copy of the book is sold. I hand this lucky person a signed copy of the book along with a piece of paper that highlights the 12 contributors that will be present at MICE:

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I tell this wonderful person that the first three people to show me all twelve signatures will get a prize. I sign the book and my right-hand-man Charlie Fetherolf signs it, as well. Joel Gill is at table D14 and he signs it, too. The owner of the book then runs off and gets the low-hanging fruit, visiting the tables of E.J. Barnes (B7), Dan Mazur (D11), Josh O’Neil (A22), Sarah Winifred Searle (A35), and Alexander Danner (D12) to collect 5 more of the 12 signatures, bringing the total to 8. Then comes the hard part. Where is John Bell? He’s not here yet. Where’s Ellen Crenshaw and Matt Boehm? They’re not here yet, either. A. David Lewis is taking care of his newborn. Getting all twelve signatures will be a challenge…

10:02AM-11:29AM - I continue to sell books. I give out origami Mayflowers, Colonial Comics-branded tea bags, Colonial Characters trading cards, and tax stamp stickers. I try to get a picture of every person who purchases a copy so that I can thank them later.

11:30AM-12:30PM - I’m on the History in Comics panel, moderated by Colonial Comics contributor and assistant editor John Bell. I have E.J. Barnes and Ellen Crenshaw with me (Eleri Harris and Dave Ortega are on the panel as well). I call out Matt Boehm in the audience. If you haven’t gotten them yet, there are three more signatures for the taking. If only you can find A. David Lewis…

12:30-3:59PM I’m back at the Fulcrum Publishing table (D15) - signing copies and telling you how much I love you. Meanwhile…

1-2PM - Colonial Comics contributor Alexander Danner moderates the panel Developing the Graphic Novel with Raina Telgemeier, Emily Carroll, and Paul Hornschmeier. How often do you get to see a panel featuring two amazing cartoonists whose names end in -eier? Only at MICE.

3:30-4:30PM - Colonial Comics contributor Alexander Danner leads the Writing Comics workshop. His script was amazing - if you miss this workshop, you miss one of the best reasons to be at the show. Except! Conflict of interest! Because…

4PM-5PM - I will be on the Letters From the Editor panel with Chris Duffy, moderated by Zack Giallongo. I will tell you how to handle writers like Alexander Danner and how to become a writer like Alexander Danner so which one do you go to? The answer is simple - you go to both, somehow. 

5PM and on - Selling books and socializing. Pitch me a story!

Sunday, October 6th

I will be selling books and signing books and telling you I love you. Then!

1PM-2PM - Go check out Colonial Comics contributor Josh O’Neil hang out with Box Brown in the Marketing for Self-Publishing and Micro-Press panel moderated by Colonial Comics contributor Dan Mazur. What do you call a panel where 2/3rds of the contributors are Colonial Comics contributors? You call it a Good Panel (TM). Or…

1PM-2PM - I’ll be paneling with Cathy Leamy and Colonial Comics contributor Joel Gill at Teaching With Comics as part of the Comics in the Classroom Symposium

2PM and on - Signing and selling books, if I have any left. Pitch me a story!

And that will be it. At some point Sunday evening I will begin to glow. I don’t know when/if the glow will go away, but I will consult my doctor about it after five days of continuous glowing.

Soon…

The 12th story in Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 focuses on King Philip’s War…sort of. The story actually takes place years after King Philip’s War, when Benjamin Church (who originally lead forces against King Philip’s army) was brought out of retirement to fight Anawan, who was continuing King Philip’s fight against the English settlements. The story was written by Nate DiMeo (The Memory Palace) and illustrated by Mal Jones (District Comics).

The story itself is beautiful and heartbreaking. Two old soldiers with a level of respect for one another who simply couldn’t give up the fight. Nate handed off the script and it was full of these wonderful set-pieces - tremendous battles fought in the woods making way for quite moments between the two principals. Mal agreed to do the art and we met one evening at BonChon Chicken to go over his approach. Over a plate of fried chicken we reviewed the script while Mal sketched the tumbnails.

The thumbs that he skeched that day were great, and the execution of those thumbs were even better. Spot colors, dynamic lettering - a fantastic two-page spread that summarized the war against King Philip. 

As mentioned, the final piece was beautiful and heartbreaking. The last page of the story gives me chills, which is what you want from a story that’s essentially about how everything went wrong. 

One additional thing to come out of this story and how it came to be - it was the first meeting of Chicken Club, before Chicken Club was a thing. 

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 will be released in October from Fulcrum Books. You can pre-order it on Amazon now.

Previous Design Posts:

Previous Story Posts:

The eleventh story in the book is “Sui Generis, A Short Introduction to Ezekiel Cheever,” written by Christina Rice (Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, My Little Pony: Friends Forever), illustrated by Steve Harrison, and lettered by Jason Hanley. The story is about Ezekiel Cheever, one of the first headmasters of the Boston Latin School, the oldest and longest running public school in America. The title is a play on Ezekiel Cheever’s book, Accidence, A Short Introduction to the Latin Tongue which is considered to be the first school book printed in America, with Sui Generis being a Latin phrase meaning “Unique In Its Characteristics.”

To say Ekekiel Cheever was unique in his characteristics is an understatement, but there really isn’t a term in Latin or English to accurately describe the man. Sui Generis will have to do.

I approached Christina to do a story for the book early on. She’s the wife of long-time friend in comics Josh Fialkov. Christina is a librarian living in Los Angeles and a phenomenal writer and researcher, so I originally asked her if she’d like to do a story on the history of Boston Public Library. Being a phenomenal researcher, it took her all of two seconds to tell me that a story about the Boston Public Library would not fit within the timeline of the book and that she should do something on the history of public education in New England. And, with that, she came across Ezekiel Cheever, a man who spent over seventy years teaching in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the celebrated school master of the oldest public school, and the author of the first school text book printed in America.

Steve Harrison did a great job with her script, pulling back some of the dialog and cutting down some of the panels to deliver a much more subtle story that captures decades of Cheever’s life over the course of several pages while also touching up upon his legacy and importance to the Boston public school system.

Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750 will be released in October from Fulcrum Books. You can pre-order it on Amazon now.

Previous Design Posts:

Previous Story Posts:

Colonial Comics volumes II and III are now open for submissions.

The first volume of Colonial Comics focused on little-known stories of colonial New England between the years 1620 and 1750. The book featured a collection of historians, writers, and illustrators telling stories of female business owners, slaves, Native Americans, Jewish settlers, and more. With the next two volumes, we’re opening it up for some new writers and artists who want to work with us to tell the stories that tend to get passed over by the history books. If you’re interested in contributing, please read the full post and then start sending some emails to Jason Rodriguez at colonialcomics@gmail.com.

Who Can Contribute?

Anyone! Seriously, no comics experience required as long as you have a good story. In the first volume we had a good mix of published comics writers and illustrators, first time comics writers, and first time writers. Depending on your situation, we’ll pair you up with an editor and/or a writer and/or an illustrator who can best help you adapt the story into comics. In these books, content is king…and if you come to us with a story that we need to have in the book, we’ll do whatever we can to make sure you’re the one to tell it. 

What Kind of Stories are you Looking For?

For the second book, we’re focusing on New England from 1750-1776. The book will end with the Shot Heard Round the World and the start of the American Revolution. We would like to have stories about how the revolutionary spirit trickled down to the everyday people. So any stories that don’t feature the usual people we associate with the Revolutionary period (Franklin, Jefferson, Revere etc) will be seriously considered. If you do want to focus on a well-known person, you should tell a story that goes beyond the standard biography. For example, Alexander Danner pitched a story about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson having a discussion about germs which is a perfect fit for the book. There’s a revolutionary history aspect to it (they were on their way to a continental congress…which actually could make it a better fit for the third book) and a more off-the-beaten-path revolutionary aspect to it (recent advances in microbiology).This book will be released in Fall 2015 and completed (illustrated and lettered) stories will be due in March 2015. Stories should be no less than five but no greater than 15 pages long. The ideal length is 11 pages and we’re aiming to have 20 stories in this volume.

The third book currently focuses on the Mid-Atlantic region between the years 1606 and 1776. We’re currently just looking for interesting stories, and there’s no overarching theme for this book yet. With the New England book, we eventually saw enough of a divide in the subject matter to split it into two books. With the Mid-Atlantic books, we Virginia and Pennsylvania would be a safe bet. If they catch our attention, we’ll put them on the list. This book is aiming for a Summer 2016 release, with stories competed (illustrated and lettered) by December 2015.

What If I Just Want to Illustrate Someone Else’s Story?

Send us samples of your work and an idea of the type of story you’d like to work on (action, mystery, talking heads, etc). It’s really that easy. We’re always looking for new artists, colorists, and letterers.

Do I Get Paid?

Yes, all writers and illustrators will receive a small advance against royalties. Fulcrum has a long history of selling non-fiction books and a aggressive marketing plan to go along with it. Spot illustrators, colorists, and letterers receive page rates up-front and will get additional money from the Work For Hire bonus pool in the event the book sells well. 

Do I Own The Story?

Yes. Everyone retains copyright on their work but grants the book publishing rights. If we don’t decide to use your story we won’t assign it to someone else.  If we do decide to work with you we’ll talk you through the agreement, advances, royalties, copyright, etc. 

How Do I Know If My Story Is Original?

We will keep an active story list so you can see what stories are in development. Occasionally, there may be a story up there with no one assigned to it. This will be the case if I discover a story and don’t have anyone working it yet. You can try to pitch that story, but keep in mind I’m most likely actively looking for someone to take it. 

Please note that even if a story is in development, it does not mean that it will make it into the final book. Our aim is to have between 20 and 24 stories in each book. 

I’m Ready! How Do I Submit?

Send an email to colonialcomics@gmail.com and let me know who you are and how you’d like to contribute. If you have any samples of previous work send them along. If you’re not sure what you want to do yet but just want to put yourself on my radar and say “hi,” go right ahead. Better to know you now and the type of story you’re interested in, in case something comes up. 

And that’s that! Hope to hear from you all.

Jason Rodriguez

Editor, Colonial Comics