Nathan Hale is the creator of the new series Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales from Amulet Books. It’s a fun graphic novel approach to true stories from the United States told from the point of view of Nathan Hale – the real life spy – who has been given the gift of insight into the country’s history right before being hung as a spy. He’s joined on his journey by a comical hangman who was about to hang Nathan Hale, as well as a stoic British Provost who was to witness the hanging. In order to prevent himself from being hung in the gallows, he must regale the two men with true tales from America’s history. The first two volumes – One Dead Spy and Big Bad Ironclad were published in August 2012.
Nathan Hale spent some time with us discussing his new series. Here is part of of our interview.
So Nathan, with a name like Nathan Hale – were you always fascinated about your famous namesake?
Yes, but it wasn’t until writing One Dead Spy that I really dug in and researched him. There was a lot I didn’t know about! His story is fascinating–and sad, really, he was cut out for great things, unfortunately, spying wasn’t one of them.
Did you ever imagine that you’d be telling stories about America’s history with the Nathan Hale?
THE Nathan Hale narrator appeared organically. I had signed the contracts for two historical graphic novels at Amulet. My editor wanted to know what we were going to do to tie the books together as a series. I had just assumed they’d each be standalone books. We talked about a narrator to introduce each story. I drew up plans for several different narrator concepts. The one we were closest to was an eagle–the statue eagle that sits on the top of the flagpole. He would be this cranky old eagle who had seen it all. Then one day, when my editor and I were discussing the eagle on the phone, the Nathan Hale idea hit me–I thought it might be too weird, and sort of egotistical (hey, let’s name the series after a guy with MY SAME NAME!) but I pitched it anyway. They really liked it.
The Hangman and the British Provost are great counterpoints to Nathan Hale’s history-bending adventure. Can you tell us a little more about how they came about and their roles in the series?
Once we had established the Nathan Hale narrator, everything else fell into place. Nathan Hale tells his stories to prolong his execution, the Hangman is very childlike and gets wrapped up in the stories. He is goofy and asks lots of simple questions–he’s the comedic relief. The Provost is cynical, and doubts many of Hale’s stranger stories, he demands proof and explanations. After having the three of them narrate, I can’t imagine the books without them. They really ARE the series. The folks at Amulet had the right idea!
The first two books – One Dead Spy and Big Bad Ironclad – are chockfull of facts, famous individuals from American history, and a heaping mix of humor. Was it hard finding that right balance being entertaining and also historically accurate?
Not really, the history is SO interesting–the best parts come straight out of the research. I just provide a little extra commentary. For example, on page 38 of One Dead Spy , Nathan Hale sees a cow get blown up in an artillery barrage. I didn’t make that up, that is written in Hale’s journal. And NONE of Will Cushing’s pranks are made up–those adventures and crazy stunts are all recorded historical facts. The more facts and tidbits I can find, the more entertaining the final product ends up being.
I loved how many times the characters break the fourth wall and speak to the reader such as One Dead Spy page 18, panel 5. As a writer it’s extremely difficult to do and do it well. Did you have a lot of fun doing that throughout the volumes?
I try to keep things as fun as possible with the narration, considering how bleak the situation is. I mean, they are going to HANG the main narrator. Breaking the fourth wall defuses that a little bit. My editor is very careful about not letting me go too far with the wall-breaking meta-stuff. She’s got it tuned just right.
Each of the two books so far use a particular color scheme – grey and another color. One Dead Spy is grey with red tones and Big Bad Ironclad is grey with blue tones. Any significance to these particular color patterns such as blue to signify water and red to signify blood?
Ooh! I didn’t think of blood and water–that’s a great interpretation–and much more artistic than my original reasons. For those two books, I chose the colors that would best differentiate the uniforms. Red for the British Redcoats in One Dead Spy , blue for the Union soldiers in Big Bad Ironclad. I don’t want anyone getting confused about who’s fighting who.
How many volumes are you planning to tell in this series?
As many as I can. There are SO many great stories in US history. I’d love to do a huge, shelf-filling series, like Magic Tree House sized! What are they on, 48, 49? I want to do that!
Some historical figures I wasn’t familiar with such as William Cushing in Big Bad Ironclad but I was fascinated about his amazingly true adventures. Was it hard to pick and choose what major historical figures to include in both volumes?
Will Cushing is crazy fun. I came across a tiny sidebar about him in one of the Time Life Civil War Illustrated volumes. He seemed pretty fascinating. I looked for more books on him and was stunned to see there were only three or four books on him–and none for children. I was deep in research one night when I discovered he had been at the Battle of Hampton Roads–I shouted so loud I woke my wife up. It was so exciting to find that one tidbit that tied the whole book together. When doing the research, I follow the fun characters to see where they go.
Did you have to channel your inner 5th grader for having the Hangman say things like “You mean you can go poop underwater?”
Oh yeah. The Hangman is my inner 5th grader personified.
The works you have cited for each volume is astounding. So you didn’t really use babies to do the research?
Okay, so if you haven’t read the series, I introduce a team of Research Babies at the end of the book. They get their own comic version of a bibliography. The babies serve two purposes. First, they add to the goofy cast of narrators, second. they get to take the heat if I get any facts wrong. I get to meta-blame the babies. I feel a little like a baby doing all this research–I’m not a professional historian, I’m a comic book artist! I’m bound to get something wrong sooner or later. Although Amulet does provide an excellent fact checker, he goes over everything very carefully to make sure we get everything right. The Research Babies were a late addition to the series. But they’ve turned out to be a lot of fun.