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Abby Howard on ‘Mammal Takeover’ and her ‘Earth Before Us’ trilogy

When we first met fifth-grader Ronnie, she was disappointed with her score on a dinosaur quiz. Her eccentric neighbor Miss Lernin stepped in to help, using “science magic” to transport Ronnie back to dinosaur times to see the evolution of these magnificent animals and their world firsthand, essentially offering Ronnie—and readers—a guided history of the Mesozoic Era. That was in cartoonist Abby Howard’s 2017 Dinosaur Empire. In 2018, Miss Lernin found Ronnie in an aquarium, and they met the many forms of bizarre life in the Paleozoic Era in Ocean Renegades.

And now, with the release of Mammal Takeover, in which Ronnie and Miss Lernin explore the Cenozoic Era, Howard has completed her Earth Before Us trilogy, an ambitious project that covers life on Earth from its very beginnings right up until today. That’s a lot of information, but in a trio of fleet, fast-moving volumes Howard has managed to cover it all in rather exacting detail while also presenting all that heady subject matter as something of a character comedy.

Miss Lernin not only knows all about evolution, biology, geology, and related disciplines, she’s a wild-eyed, sometimes crazy-seeming fan of these sciences, while the more cynical, skeptical Ronnie plays the dual of role of a sort of brake on Miss Lernin as well as a blank-ish slate ready to receive information from her. 

With Earth Before Us now complete, and reviews of Dinosaur Empire and Ocean Renegades already on the site, it seemed like a good time to get in touch with Howard and ask her how she tackled such a daunting project.

In the course of three books released in just three years, you’ve covered the entire history of life on planet Earth. At the risk of understating it, that is a lot of ground to cover in so little time. Can you tell us a little bit about your planning process for the books? For example, how you decided to organize the time periods, why you went in the order you did, and how you went about turning the books into stories, rather than just listing and illustrating all the animals in each time period?

Getting from a random list of animals to a somewhat cohesive journey for the characters was quite the process. I usually started with a core list of animals or important events I wanted to cover, like T. rex, a particularly cute amphibian, or the earliest known birds. I’d divide these key animals/events by time period and location, and from there, I was able to start the lengthy process of adding additional animals that lived in the same areas at the same time.

Wikipedia was a surprisingly helpful tool for this, since it has a great database of fossils. It’s always good to double-check what you learn on Wikipedia, but I found it to be a great starting point for compiling big lists of animals!

After all that, I’d wind up with the book’s “skeleton”, which could be shifted to make sense as a journey, paying particular attention to how the characters would transition from one area to the next. For instance, having Ronnie and Miss Lernin travel from the shore where they marveled at pterosaurs to an underwater scene—transitions that make sense for the reader. From there, I would add the dialogue, which was usually the easy part since I love to gush about ancient beasts.

What kind of research went into your work on these books? I understand you majored in biology with a special interest in evolution and have long been interested in this subject matter, but even the designs, posing and rendering of the animals seems like it would involve not only a lot of background, but also a lot of decisions, in terms of what color your dinosaurs’ feathers are, or what the coats of various extinct cats would look like and so on.

There was soooo much research, at each stage of the process. From compiling the lists, to sketching them, to choosing their coloration. I went into the books with some level of understanding of what I wanted to talk about and which animals I wanted to focus on, but I learned so much more while doing research for these books, and I’m still far from knowing everything there is to know.

Figuring out how to draw these ancient animals was tricky, since no one can know what they looked like with certainty. Almost everything we have is an educated guess, which is kind of exciting but also means the size and appearance of a lot of these ancient animals is hotly debated in the paleo community. There are usually multiple theories to choose between when recreating them, and I’d have to do additional research to figure out which theory to go with.

After you get the basic details down, you can flesh them out using modern animals as a comparison, from muscle anatomy to skin details to fur color. I tend to use a mishmash of animal references for each creature—modern relatives for anatomy, animals that share its niche for coloration and animals that superficially resemble them for little details like scale patterns or face structure.

It’s also important to know what animals can produce what colors! For instance, mammals are pretty limited in fur color. They’re basically all shades of brown, sometimes leaning towards bright red or yellow, but never especially vibrant compared to birds or lizards. You don’t find any naturally green or blue mammals, and using those colors for an ancient relative would take away from the realism and make them seem fake.

And just because some modern relatives of ancient beasts are colorful, like parrots, I made sure to take the niche into account when choosing colors above all else! Velociraptors are related to birds, and some birds can be pink or green or blue, so some folks are tempted make some very colorful decisions. But a velociraptor is a ground-dwelling desert predator, so it would probably look more like a cheetah or mountain lion so it could blend into its background more effectively. That doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to have fun with color, but when writing a book that’s meant to be educational, it’s usually best to be at least a little realistic!

Was it at all challenging for you to arrive at what you felt was the proper style or level of detail for the animals in the books? Your human beings are quite cartoony and have a rather loose design, while the animals are all very realistic looking…but not so realistic that they look out-of-place sharing a panel with Ronnie and Miss Lernin.

Fortunately, I was limited in both time and level of detail that was known about most of the animals in the series, so I didn’t have to worry about making sure my animals were simple and cartoony, they just came out that way.

If I were illustrating modern animals, I would have more reference photos to draw from, so it may have been a little different. But since I was making up so much of what they looked like, the style of the animals wound up melding fairly well with the style of the main characters. Except for when said characters encountered humans at the end of Mammal Takeover. That looked a little weird, ha ha.

I’ve been fascinated with the expressions on some of the animals’ faces, and the way they interact with one another or react to the humans in the backgrounds of the panels. How do you go about constructing the pages where, for example, a two-page spread will feature a dozen or more different animals who all have to essentially “act natural”…?

Thank you! It was a very complicated process, especially since I also had to ensure the speech bubbles would flow well on the page, and I can’t say there was much of a process since each spread was fairly different. I suppose I started a lot of the spreads by drawing the largest animals, then drawing the smaller animals around the edges, and lastly adding “flavor” animals in the background. This would mean birds, turtles and any animals that didn’t require much discussion from the main characters. I wanted to make sure each page had a ton of interesting things and cute little interactions to pore over, since that’s something I always loved in kid’s books.

Of the three broad eras you covered, is there one you preferred drawing the creatures of over the others, or was one more fun to research or write than the others?

Ocean Renegades was definitely the most fun to research. I didn’t know as much about the Paleozoic as I did about the other eras, and everything was so weird back then, it was fun to learn about creatures that were wildly different than those we have today. And above all, I was excited to be able to make an accessible book about them, since I don’t think I’ve seen very many, if any, kids’ books about Paleozoic critters.

As for which was more fun to draw, that’d have to be Dinosaur Empire. Dinosaurs and pterosaurs and marine reptiles are all so delightful, it was a rewarding experience!

Mammal Takeover is interesting in that, as you mentioned earlier, it covers the part where human beings finally enter the history of life on earth. Over the decades and centuries, there has been a lot of controversy regarding human evolution, humanity’s responsibility for the extinction of various kind of Cenozoic megafauna and of how our concepts of race play into places of origin. Did you approach the sections on early humans more gingerly, or feel any pressure in writing, designing and drawing these sections versus the earlier sections?

Oh yes, absolutely. As someone who’s only ever paid much attention to very, very ancient animals, I was starting from square one on research, and there is so much misinformation out there regarding human evolution. Theories of human evolution and early human culture are so often influenced by deeply held racist, sexist, and homophobic biases, it’s sometimes difficult to know what sources are trustworthy and up-to-date. And beyond that, it’s such a popular topic, I wanted to be certain every detail of their appearance was as accurate as possible so as not to upset folks who know more about these things than I do, and to make that information accessible to a wider audience.

I also wanted to make sure I didn’t introduce any new opportunities for people to take the information from the book and use it to justify bigotry, particularly in regards to Homo sapiens interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans. Any little difference between humans in various regions could be used to back up claims that a particular group is better or more evolved than others, but that’s never true. Homo sapiens are all very closely related, no group is inherently better than another!

Fortunately, I have a friend from my university days, Sam Easy, who studies anthropology and human evolution professionally. She gave me an incredible amount of resources and much-needed advice throughout the production of the book, and the human evolution section is much better for it.

In the last dozen or so pages, you take us right up to the present day and lay out the factors that are endangering so many of the animal species we currently share the planet with, and how we’re actually kinda sorta in the midst of the sort of major extinction event that we’ve seen repeatedly in Earth’s past. Obviously, it’s important for kids not to get so freaked out by climate change that they become hopeless or paralyzed, but, as an adult, how freaked out are you that we seem to be in the midst of a sixth extinction? How did you decide on your approach to the subject in the book?

I am quite freaked out, unfortunately. Though I also feel like we can pull through. I do wish more people were working towards solutions rather than actively fighting against them, but I try not to catastrophize about it, as that can so easily lead to paralyzing fear and that won’t help anyone!

I will say, though, it was hard to write about it for a younger audience. I remember the intense guilt and fear I felt as a kid when I was told to do little things to help out, like turn off the water while brushing my teeth or turn off the lights if I didn’t need them. I felt like my every wasteful moment was killing a tree or an animal, and I should do everything in my power to personally stop the destruction of the environment.

I remember my sister and I sending letters to a local politician pleading with them not to tear down a huge wooded area near our house because I was terrified of deforestation. I never got a response, and they tore down the wooded area, and every time we passed by the business complex that was built in its place I was reminded of the futility of my actions. I couldn’t make a difference. I don’t want the next generation to feel like that.

It’s so easy to feel like your individual choices don’t make an impact, but that’s no reason to stop making choices that could help. However, we should also be furious with the corporations and officials for doing such a terrible job, when they could make a huge impact if they wanted to. Just because someone is out there burning down entire forests doesn’t mean planting a tree won’t make a difference at all—it’s still one more tree, y’now?

Anyway, I hope I did a good job with that section and didn’t just wind up handing down that same guilt and fear to a new set of kids!

I didn’t notice while reading the first two books, but having now spent some time following you on Twitter, I notice there’s quite a resemblance between Miss Lernin and the way you draw yourself. How much do you and Miss Lernin have in common?

Indeed, she is my extremely-thinly-veiled self-insert. I wanted to draw myself next to dinosaurs, what can I say!

As for what we have in common, I’d say we had the same major in university, but she was probably much better at school than I was. And she can afford a house in a cute neighborhood, so she must be doing pretty well for herself in whatever mysterious science-magic career she found herself in.

And speaking of Twitter, your cat Spoons appears there now and then. When you draw the mammals of the holocene, I noticed the house cat that appears as a representative among the carnivora looks…familiar.

Hmm… is that so…. must be mere coincidence, I would never shamelessly include my beautiful and perfect cat in my book.

As I said, you seem to have covered the entirety of life history in these three books, which makes a fourth hard to imagine. So is this the last we’ve seen of Ronnie and Miss Lernin…?

Alas, these three books are all there’ll be of Earth Before Us! This is honestly all the science I know. Space is scary, chemistry is not my strong suit, and any science that involves too much math is beyond me.

Finally, is Ronnie right to be suspicious of birds?

While I personally love birds, I can understand why Ronnie would be wary. They have the furious eyes of a dinosaur, and if they were just a little bigger, would not hesitate to end us. But I’m okay with that, and so I love them. Pigeons especially—I think they’re super cute.

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J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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