Not that Nathan Hale, Meet the Cartoonist.

Nathan Hale, no relation. USPS.
Nathan Hale, no relation. USPS.

Nathan Hale is a fitting name for a graphic novelist specializing in historical biographies. I ran into him at the American Library Association convention in San Francisco. I asked if he was named for the hero of the American Revolution. He wrote One Dead Spy, about that hero. “No, I am named for my grandfather,” he said. Grandpa Nathan, born in Star Valley, Wyo, might have been named for the hero, though.

Nathan Hale with Matt Phelan, two masters of the historical graphic novel.
Nathan Hale with Matt Phelan, two masters of the historical graphic novel.
Harriet Tubman bio © Nathan Hale
Harriet Tubman bio © Nathan Hale

Nathan’s latest work, The Underground Abductor, is a bio of Harriet Tubman. He is hoping  rumors that Tubman’s portrait might grace the ten-dollar bill come true, as it will boost sales.

Nathan studied illustration at Cornish College of Art in Seattle. For a time he specialized in natural history illustration. Now his historical graphic novels, published by Abrams, keep him at the drawing board. He has completed 5 in the ongoing series, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. Abrams has lesson plans linking his books to middle grade history curriculum.

All art © Nathan Hale
All art © Nathan Hale

Besides his full-time job as an illustrator, Nathan tours the country teaching cartooning to youngsters in his Cartoon Boot Camp. Just prior to the ALA convention he taught a Boot Camp in Santa Rosa California at the Charles Schulz Museum. I just checked their website, looks dreamy. They have an ice rink and a Warm Puppy Cafe. You can watch Charlie Brown specials all day long and meet professional cartoonists. Oddly enough, the Boot Camp experience went south for Nathan, his wife, and eight-year old daughter, Lucy. Nathan was stunned when a thief smashed the windows of their rental car with a sledgehammer and stole their luggage. They got some Peanuts’ T- shirts at the gift shop. Nathan’s wife presented him with a nifty T-shirt she had custom printed, see below.

Nathan Hale's meanest Amazon review  commemorative T-shirt.
Nathan Hale’s meanest 1-star Amazon review commemorative T-shirt.

It should be noted that the Hazardous Tales series has gotten many splendid reviews. Booklist, for example, on Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood, “Students bored to death by textbook descriptions of WWI battle maneuvers should be engaged by this entertaining, educational glimpse at world history.”

School Library Journal praises his recent work as “lively, rigorously researched, visually engaging stories.”

Big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale
Big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale

I asked if he had ever learned something from reader feedback. After some thought, Nathan opened Big Bad Ironclad! to show me the illustrated endpapers. The first edition, 2012, had a mistake on the map; he had incorrectly colored Kansas gray, putting it in the Confederacy. He got a letter from an upset Kansas librarian, then more from school children. He did an apology tour of Kansas schools. “I let the kids yell at me, throw popcorn,” he joked. He took responsibility for the mistake, said he had referenced a map drawn prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In January, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. His publisher, Abrams, has first-rate editors who check every sentence for historical accuracy. Nathan, however, never sent the editors the illustrated endpapers to proofread, just the interior pages. The map was fixed for the current edition, pictured below. Let that be a (history) lesson for us all.

1861 Map from big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale
1861 Map from big Bad Ironclad! © Nathan Hale

Nathan writes a blog, Space Station Nathan. He admits to being too busy to keep it updated. He works hard and deserves his success. The blog archives have some nifty stuff. Look for the illustrated guide to inviting Nathan Hale to visit your school.

Jeff Smith and Jeffrey Smith are both great illustrators.

Poster by Jeffrey Smith, 2011

There are at least 2 great illustrators named Jeff Smith. One is a Pennsylvania-born cartoonist who moved to Ohio and started cartooning for the Ohio State Lantern. In 1991, Smith self-published a small black and white comic book called Bone. Bone went platinum, with such a fanatic following that it was picked up by major publishers, and has since sold millions of copies. I know the other Jeff Smith.

Bone cover, artwork © 2011 Jeff Smith

By the way, Columbus, Ohio is fertile ground for cartoonists. The brick Victorian home of James Thurber, the New Yorker cartoonist best known for his short stories, is worth a visit. Milt Caniff, who drew the aviation adventure strip Steve Canyon lived in Columbus. Caniff’s original artwork, along with that of many others, is housed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on Ohio State’s campus.

Cover for a Smokey Stover comic, courtesy of Wikpedia

Years ago, I visited the Cartoon Library and Museum. I was told there was no public exhibition at that time and the collection was only open to comics scholars. I said I was scholar with a specialization in screwball comics. (If you are ever challenged about your comic scholarship, this response works wonders. I was a college dropout at the time.) The librarian gave me a pair of white gloves and opened up a flat file. I was permitted to hold original art from Bill Holman’s Smokey Stover. It was just india ink on bristol board, but Wowie-Zowie, the ink was in all the right places. I was in screwball scholarship heaven.

Clang! Dang! Clang! I digress. The other Jeffrey Smith is a friend of mine. Here is an invitation from the Society of Illustrators to see his work. Go ahead. Click on it. You are invited, too. January 5, 2012. I know, it costs $20, but this is your chance to get into the exclusive Members’ Hall of Fame and the Society of Illustrators lays out a nice spread. Smith is illustrator of Shadow Nights: The Secret War Against Hitler. He will discuss the project including his research trip to Paris to visit the places where Churchill’s Special Ops Unit fought their secret war against the Nazis.

Shadow Nights is part of a new series called Pulp History from Simon and Schuster, which looks to be a fascinating mix of  history and edgy graphics. There is another volume, Devil Dog, illustrated by legendary underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez.

Shadow Nights Illustration © 2011 Jeffrey Smith

This other Jeff (as I call him) Smith and I were classmates at the School of Visual Arts. He teaches at Art Center of Design in Pasadena. He studied with illustrators Phil Hayes and James McMullan, both outstanding watercolorists. The work he has done for Pulp History shows their influences. Stylistically, this new work also reminds me of my old thesis advisor, Julian Allen. Jeff’s illustrations have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and G.Q. He deserves his success. I hope to make it into the big city next week to celebrate his Shadow Knights exhibition.

Incoming!! Chris Dacre: WAR is FUN!

Chris Dacre (rhymes with baker) is the winner of the 2011 Sharadin Gallery Installation Residency at Kutztown University. The residency, which comes with a $10,000 budget, attracted over 150 proposals from all corners of the world.  I visited Dacre’s website to learn about his artwork. Most recently living in New Mexico, he has a BFA in Graphic Design and MFA in Printmaking. An Air Force veteran, his recent work is about how we think about (or avoid thinking about) war. His upcoming Kutztown project is called “War is Fun.” I emailed him a few questions.

Wall Graphic "War Is Fun" installation © 2007 Chris Dacre

Ever do any illustration?

“I learned to draw by copying cartoons out of the paper when I was young and after I enlisted in the Air Force I picked up a copy of ‘Cartooning the Head and Figure’ by Jack Hamm and would use that as my primary reference tool while I was sitting at work trying to stay awake. So I guess the answer is yes and no.”

Why is there suddenly new enthusiasm for printmaking? (when lots of colleges seem to be shutting down their printmaking studios to make way for new media.)

“Hmmm. I believe Drive By Press, that Joseph Velazquez started, has brought more awareness to the medium by taking it across the country and introducing a wide variety of students to some really cool artwork. I think that was an important breath of fresh air that this medium has been waiting for… In the past -in my opinion- a majority of printmakers were making really serious, dark imagery and, of course there is still a lot of that around but Drive By Press has shown that it can be quite a fun medium without all the stuffiness that used to be associated with it.

I went to Southern Graphics this year in Philly after taking a 3-year hiatus and was surprised at the amount of people who attended that conference. It’s great to see that there is a real enthusiasm for a medium that I love.”

"Twice Removed" Chris Dacre inspecting a Bunker, © 2010

Any particular artists you found influential? I thought of Red Groom’s Ruckus Manhattan looking at your installation images.

“I do love Red Grooms and recently bought a copy of his book that is basically a retrospective of his work. After I finished my undergraduate degree in Birmingham, Alabama, I was asked if I would be interested in being an assistant to the Chicago-based artist, DZINE. That was probably one of the best things I could have done for myself. I basically helped him paint this huge painting in the gallery but what was so important was that it was my first real exposure to a “real” artist- who just happens to be blowing up lately. Chris Burden is also someone I looked at lately- I love the way that he seems to just go for it and push the limits. But the first influential artist that really opened my eyes and made me see that you can really push the boundaries is Jonathon Borofsky- in graduate school I found an article that talked about an installation that he put up in LA in the mid-80’s and it was a room that was just crammed with stuff- it may have been his retrospective, I’m not sure, but it made me see that ‘hey, I can do that as well’. Oh, and of course- Chuck Jones- probably the very first artist I looked at who drew my favorite cartoon character- Bugs Bunny.”

Installation with Sculpture, Prints, and Bunker. © 2010 by Chris Dacre

Any advice for young, college age, artists?

“I guess the best advice I can give- well maybe two bits of advice- the first being something that DZINE told me was that you need to learn about the history of artists by reading their biographies, looking at contemporary art publications and by watching movies/shows like ART21. At first when he told me this I was like “yeah, yeah, whatever” but then I realized he was right. Look at other artists and learn from them- when you get out in the art world these people will be your competition.

And the other bit of advice I can give is to make work for nobody but yourself because you have to…the work is what is most important, everything else will follow with a little bit of patience.”

Chris Dacre is looking for a few student volunteers to help him install “War is Fun.”  If you have some time, roughly between Jan. 12 and 18, contact Gallery Director Karen Stanford,, or drop by the gallery and meet the artist.

UPDATE: 2/21/11 :  The Reading Eagle wrote a thoughtful review of the exhibition here.