David Shapiro and Christopher Herndon came to comics from two very different places. Shapiro has a science and teaching background and Herndon is best known for his work on the comic “Living with Zombies.” The two have collaborated in recent years on a series of educational comics for younger readers, most notably the “Terra Tempo” series, the second volume of which was just released.
The first volume of the series, “Terra Tempo: Ice Age Cataclysm,” introduced readers to the three main characters — twins Jenna and Caleb and their friend, Ari — and in the new volume, “The Four Corners of Time,” the trio travels back in time on the Colorado Plateau jumping across millions of years and learning the secrets behind how they’re able to travel through time.
CBR News spoke with Shapiro and Herndon to learn more about the recent release of “The Four Corners of Time,” the challenge of the research and execution of educational stories using the comic book medium and developing a model to get kids excited about learning through comics.
CBR News: David, Christoper — the two of you started working together in 2008. What are your backgrounds and how did you form your initial partnership to develop “Terra Tempo?”
David Shapiro: I came up with this idea in the summer of 2008 and brought on Erica Melville to help develop the story and then Erica and I found Christopher by placing an ad on craigslist. We interviewed a whole bunch of artists and Christopher had the best portfolio and his work seemed to match up with where I wanted to go with the story and then we began creating from there. My background is in natural history. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching young adults and adults. Writing-wise I was working on time travel stories for adults, but I’m the father of two children and watching their minds grow and develop, I was really inspired to write for kids.
Christopher Herndon: I’ve been drawing comic books for a while now. I was doing a series called “Living with Zombies” that turns ten years old this year. I was doing horror and spooky stuff, a little “Ninja Turtles” here and there, but I had a bit of a science background and I got in cahoots with David here. It was pretty interesting to me to use my powers for good. [Laughs] It seemed a little more worthwhile to me to entertain and bring science-based media to children and make it exciting and interesting for them. I saw a hole there that I thought we could fill.
What was the origin story for the series? How did you determine to use the Missoula Flood as a jumping-off point for the first volume of “Terra Tempo?”
Shapiro: The idea for the Missoula Flood story was really home-spun. It began with road trips that I would take with my two children, driving to Montana and Washington. Those two locations, though separate from each other, go through the heart of the flood path. I would tell stories about how the landscape was carved by these gigantic floods. I think it’s an amazing story that hasn’t been told enough. That was really the impetus for beginning the story regionally and with that time period. As we started making “Terra Tempo,” the idea of making it into a series and exploring natural history through the ages became very exciting. There are a lot of stories in the 600 million years of life of Earth, so after trips to the Southwest, the idea to take the story down there really took hold. It was as early as 2009 that I started developing ideas for how to take the story to Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado.
What’s the setup for “Terra Tempo?” How are the kids able to travel through time and survive throughout history?
Shapiro: We have the twins, Jenna and Caleb, and Caleb’s best buddy Ari, who is raised by a paleontologist and a geologist. Ari is the factoid brain of the bunch. Jenna’s the instigator. Caleb is the practical, survivalist kid, who’s got a lot of the know-how to keep them alive when they go time traveling. The twins are at their aunt and uncle’s house one long boring Sunday summer afternoon and they’re told to go find a game that’s in their uncle’s office. They’re curious kids and their uncle’s office has all sorts of interesting stuff in there. He’s a geologist as well as a professor at Portland State University. They start digging through his stuff and they find a journal that describes his time travel activities and rolled up next to the journal is his map, which is his time travel device. It’s a special map and it has to be used in a special way. It has to be placed in a formation of rocks that are aligned to the compass points and then there are chants that have to be said over the map to activate it. They try it. There’s a lot of skepticism that this method which we call acoustic time travel can actually work but they try it out and the three kids take the map to the special location that the journal indicates and they give a whirl and they end up in the Ice Age at the end of the Pleistocene.
How does that time travel mythology and backstory develop further in the second volume, “Terra Tempo: The Four Corners of Time?” Supposedly, it becomes much more central than in the first volume.
Herndon: Definitely. It teases a little bit in the first book and then the second book is very much about that.
Shapiro: In the development of things, Chris, Erica and I knew that we wanted to throw the time travel things out there in book one. It’s just dropped on the reader that there’s the magic map that allows the user to open portals and travel through time. Book one’s map has a limited range. It can only go 26,000 years into the past and we wanted to take this idea of the time maps and the map makers and the group behind it and expand upon it in book two because there’s so much there about where did the maps come from and what were they used for and what is their status? Are they all private material or is there tension around the ownership as they would be. Especially in book two, the maps become a revealer of resources because they cover 500 million years of history. There’s a lot of room for the formation of oil and gas and the locations of jewels and precious minerals and dinosaur bones as well so in book two we really took the idea of these maps and expanded on it.
Chris, how much research goes into the book? As the artist, it seems like it might be a challenge to draw all these historical places and figures that David comes up with over a 450 million year period.
Herndon: [Laughs] I have to do a lot of research. I don’t like to look at other people’s specific depictions of animals because I don’t really want to be influenced by their take on them. I read a lot of papers and things like that with descriptions of them. I look at a lot of fossils whether it’s on the internet or going to museums and actually drawing the fossils. Lots of research goes into how they look and the choices I made for how they look they way they did all have reasoning behind it. Most of it’s just drawn from fossils. Doing this project we’ve developed relationships with paleontologists and they’re extremely helpful and excited to be a part of it. I’ll have them look at the animals and make sure they look all right and when they check it off, we’ll move on. They’re very helpful at making sure that everyone looks as close to what we know about the science today. But that changes so often. We were almost done with the second book and something changed on all the wrists on the terrapods so I had to go back and change all their hands. So it’s pretty exciting when that stuff changes so quickly.
I would imagine that landscapes are especially a challenge.
Herndon: Actually, I would argue that we have a lot of information on that. We have modern day analogues that I can look at. They’re not in the same locations but they’re still sort of similar environments. Granted there are certain plants that aren’t around anymore or certain plants, which weren’t around then.
Shapiro: That’s a big part of my job. Finding the research and then passing that on to Chris so that we can recreate the habitats and I’m a stickler for habitat recreation.
Chris, there are lots of light touches in the art, like Jenna’s scarf and its length and shape. There’s also a great two-page explanation of the Great Dying in the Permian period. Is that in the script that David writes or is that you?
Herndon: That’s probably all me.
Shapiro: That’s Chris making the Great Dying interesting. [Laughs] How do we make this relevant for eleven year olds?
Herndon: I was like, “Let’s make a fun cartoon.” David’s really easy to work with in that way. Because we have this heavy information, we tend to figure out how do we make this as easily digestible as possible.
Shapiro: Chris has a real talent for making it fun. A lot of my research comes across as very heady and this is why I don’t write novels for kids because it would be extremely boring. [Laughs] He’s able to take this information and make it fun for people of all ages. I do presentations for kids at schools and they get so much enjoyment out of it. That was the whole point to make these topics enjoyable, so that earth science isn’t some cumbersome heavy topic. It’s approachable and fun for kids.
Is that your biggest challenge — trying to balance conveying the information and finding the right way to convey it for kids?
Shapiro: Oh yeah definitely. We try to have it come out organically in the dialogue but there are still some info dumps in there. You don’t want to dumb it down. You don’t want to over-sensationalize it. You don’t want it to be boring and you want it to look cool. It’s a balancing act but I think Chris does a really good job of that.
Herndon: We do make artistic choices. There were quite a few of the Missoula Flood researchers thought my ice dam looked too much like a man-made dam. But that was a choice we made on purpose because a real glacial dam just looks like miles and miles of ice.
Shapiro: We did compromise by putting two pages of ice in the book.
Herndon: [Laughs] Right. But to better convey the idea that this was a plug of ice and behind it was water and in front of it there was no water I did make it more like a man made dam. That way it was just easier for the kids to grasp that information. They have a modern day analogue and they can see, oh, okay, I know what that is. Rather than a big glob of ice that looks like some big glacier-y thing. [Laughs] There are times like that where we take a bit of license but I think that helps the greater good of getting the point across rather than hurt it.
As you say it’s important to convey that idea so that kids can understand what it means.
Shapiro: An eleven year old will become a fifteen year old and at that point if they want to read the books that are out there that were the research base for our story development, those are very easily found in libraries and bookstores. Then they can go, well, it wasn’t really a dam it was a field of ice and then have their own mental image of what a field of ice twenty miles wide and forty miles deep looks like.
When you started working on these books, was there a model for what you’re trying to do?
Shapiro: Not really. There wasn’t so much of a model from my end. Just the idea of taking the information and turning it into a comic that was fun and engaging. We were kinda making it up as we went along.
Herndon: There definitely was for me. Like I said, I was doing horror comics and adult comics and I changed my style drastically for the first one. I’d never had to do cute before. [Laughs] That was interesting. I have plenty of influences from “Dinotopia” as a child, Mark Schultz, William Stout. But William Stout has his information books and Schultz has Xenozoic and so they were either educational or narrative, but they weren’t both. There’s some stuff out there but that’s what I looked at.
Shapiro: I spent a lot of time watching “Avatar,” the Nickelodeon series. It was influential in terms of how to take a story and just run with it over a very long period of time. You can learn things by watching “Avatar,” but I was watching it with an eye on younger kids involved in an older kids adventure. That aspect came from the series.
You included a real historical figure in the book, Everett Ruess. Who was he was and why did you include him in the book?
Shapiro: Everett was a poet, artist, wanderer and adventurer. He lived during the thirties. He took off on his own adventure. He was born in L.A., went to the Canyonlands of Utah and spent a lot of time just wandering around in the canyons writing poems, making pieces of art. He’s a very romantic figure. He just disappeared. They never found his body and evidence about where he went and what happened to him is pretty scant so there was a lot of room there for what happened to Everett Ruess. I always liked his character. He is a big part of the natural history of the Southwest U.S. and his legend continues to live on.
It was funny because during the time of creating the story National Geographic Adventure was running with this story that they had found the body. They really wanted to crack the story but it turns out that it wasn’t his body. We were worried that the case was finally going to be solved, but it’s still not solved so having him go off into the time travelers world still works. That’s our tip of the hat to Everett. He’s a cool figure.
You mentioned that you’re working on the third book now. What can readers expect from the third installment of “Terra Tempo?”
Herndon: I’m pretty excited about this one. The cast is a lot bigger. There’s everyone we met in the second book and there’s a little more espionage. The animals we’re addressing are the mammals.
Shapiro: There’s a number of geologic eras of just crazy animals — gigantic boars and little deer and horses the size of dogs and there’s a lot of life that has come and gone in the 65 million years since the dinosaurs so we’ve framed this segment against the academy that the kids get invited to at the end of Book Two. There they hone their time traveling skills, they’re in this larger network of time travelers who are trying to develop their earth science skills as well and understandings the geological mechanisms behind the changes that have gone on over hundreds of millions of years. The tension exists in that the kids are no longer being chased old west style, guns a blazing, they’re being recruited for working in the different industries that their knowledge can take them to.
Is there anything else coming down the line in the future for you two?
Herndon: I don’t have time for anything else. I’m up to my eyeballs in all sorts of crazy mammals.
Shapiro: In the interim we were able to do a cute kids book about the history of tools called “Tool Time Twist” and that’s a nice picture book kids reader that takes them through the development of tools from pre-human hand axes to the modern age and the multi tool.
Herndon: I’ll be at Heroes and Stumptown, Big Wow, quite a few comic conventions selling dinosaur art and related paleo art stuff. As well as a few monsters and things like that.
I hear zombies are big right now.
Shapiro: I think Chris should do a zombie dino project on the side. [laughs] And they can wear fezzes.
Herndon: [laughs] I’ve done zombies. I don’t know if I’m going to revisit zombies. I think we did all we had to say about zombies. The “Living with Zombies” ten year anniversary book should be out this year. We’re looking to do it this summer.
Do you have any last thoughts about the book?
Shapiro: I think it’s a great book for curious young minds who want an adventure and to explore everything from dinosaurs to trilobites to the mammals of the world. We’re trying to create a little museum in a three book series and I think the time is right for that.
“Terra Tempo: The Four Corners of Time” is available now.