by Caleb Goellner

'Howtoons': When Comics and Science Meet

Nick Dragotta is known for crafting comic books, but for the better part of the past decade he's also been inspiring future Makers illustrating the Howtoons webcomic. Created by Dragotta, his wife Ingrid Dragotta, Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen, Howtoons follows the sibling duo of Celine and Tucker as they adventure through blueprints that show kids how to build science-powered toys from household items. Ten years, hundreds of pages, a host of awards and even an appearance on The Martha Stewart Show later, Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction, a new 360-page print collection of the science experiment-based comics, has been published by Image Comics.

We asked Dragotta seven questions about science, comics and advice for new comic creators. Read on for his answers.

First things first, why comics?

Comics are the best. They are limitless in the ways you can present information. If we do our jobs well, comics can transcend language and reach the masses. It's a cheap medium; you only need pencil and paper, and what you create is limited only by your imagination. In terms of production we can do them quickly, and stay relevant. Kids are drawn to them, and we can grab their attention -- the challenge then becomes keeping it.

'Howtoons' is a merging of storytelling and directions so readers can take it at their own pace to digest the information we're presenting. I like the idea of 'Howtoons' being primer material for readers or educators. I'd like to think we provide good content that will introduce kids to all the different STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) concepts, and hopefully propel them toward a deeper learning of whatever inspires them. 

In the educational space, if kids made their own 'Howtoons' in the classroom they'll basically learn the scientific method: Gather materials, experiment with a project, refine it, and come up with your own conclusions. Then they can reassess it when they have to explain the project through the comic in a visual sense. There's a lot of thinking and work that goes into making a comic. Through the process kids may discover a passion they didn't even know they had for art, writing, science, engineering, etc. They can then collaborate with others, doing the parts that they like best.

What’s surprising about creating ‘Howtoons’?

There's a few design challenges. The first is the project. Can we make something simple and accessible? Safety can be an issue too. The best projects are the simplest ones, made from materials you already have in your home: The chap stick zoetrope, the soda bottle subs, etc. If the project is good the story usually writes itself. Next is 'How much educational material should go in vs. the [story's] entertainment aspects?' Again, [we] make primer material, good content for educators. Can we make these so entertaining that kids get inspired, not only to read the adventure but to want to go live or build [what they've just read about]?

Art-wise, it can be like putting a puzzle together balancing the visual storytelling with the directions. We try not to be didactic and fall into the step one, step two, type scenarios. You want to grab a reader, but at the same time present the information clearly. I said it earlier, comics are limitless in ways to present information, so it's always fun to explore that. 

What are the tools of your trade?

I draw in Manga Studio EX4, color in Photoshop and letter in Illustrator on my Cintiq 24HD Touch.

Who inspires you?

I'm all over the place with influences. I look at and take from everything. With 'Howtoons' I recently got infatuated with Akira Toriyama. The cover to 'Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction' is a Toriyama rip of the old 'Dragon Ball Z' covers. I love his work. Visually he tells a story so simply and directly with so much power and dynamics. His drawing carries so much weight, his children feel heroic, etc. There's a lot to learn there, always studying, inspired by so much great stuff.

You’re not locked into comics for kids. You also partner up with Jonathan Hickman for the more mature sci-fi western, East of West. What are the parallels between the two?

Everything with 'Howtoons' has to be much more planned out in its approach, otherwise you're constantly redrawing and correcting things. 'East of West' on the other hand is much more of a back-and-forth between Jonathan and me. He challenges me with an outline, I take that and do my thing. Drawing the story out, expanding, contracting, designing, really doing what I want based on his direction. Then he comes back in and has to put words to the pictures I drew. Jonathan describes it as jazz comics. It's pretty apt, in comparison to the corporate structure of comics making, where there is a heavy editorial direction on the scripts. I think our tastes align and instinctually we agree more times than not, so it works. I love doing 'East of West' because it's such a fun creative mash up. We really have no ego in how it's created. Dialogue gets rewritten and art gets changed right up until the moment it goes to print. We try to put out the most entertaining comic we can. It's fun.

You graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design. How did that influence your career?

My education was important to me because it got me out of South Jersey and introduced me to new things. I got to travel to Europe, was introduced to traditional art methods and art history, etc. At SCAD I made lifelong friends and met my wife. You don't really need art school for that, but it was the catalyst for me to start the journey. The art history background and techniques I learned have made me a better artist for sure, but college debt seems like such a huge burden now, I would never say going to art school is a must for anyone. Even with art school, I didn't work professionally until I was 28. No matter what your path, you have to put in the time and do the work. Comics are a small enough scene, and with the Internet, there's really no breaking in or big break. Just show up uninvited, and make good comics. People will notice.

Best part about ‘Howtoons’?

I think seeing when kids build the stuff. They usually improve upon it as well. That's the best.