Friday 6 December 2019

Interview with Abby Howard, author and artist of the Earth Before Us series

Following on from last months' review of Luis Rey's Extreme Dinosaurs Part 2, this month we're spotlighting another palaeoart-heavy book - or rather, books - by comic author and illustrator Abby Howard: the Earth Before Us series. This trilogy of educational graphic novels has been published over the last three years, beginning with the Mesozoic-focused Dinosaur Empire! in 2017, then the Palaeozoic Ocean Renegades! in 2018, and finally the Cenozoic Mammal Takeover! earlier this year. It's no exaggeration to say that I can't think of enough nice things to say about these books: they are genuinely some of the best child-focused palaeo outreach I've ever seen. I've actually had to buy two copies of all three, as my first set - which was meant as a present for my nephew - didn't quite avoid assimilation into my library. If being moved to steal from children is not a recommendation for Earth Before Us as a Christmas gift, I don't know what is. 

What they're calling "the best trilogy since the original Star Wars films": Abby Howards' Earth Before Us series. Available now from Amulet Books (1st, 2nd and 3rd books) as well as good online book retailers.
To celebrate the completion of the Earth Before Us series a few months ago, I invited Abby for an interview here at the blog, and she has very kindly agreed and furnished me with images to show off the books. Abby's background saw her skirting close to academia with studies into evolutionary biology, but she took a left turn into the world of writing and illustrating comics. Abby has created the ongoing webcomic Junior Scientist Power Hour and The Last Halloween (as well as many more projects - see her online portfolio) and these are well worth your time (I'm still partway through The Last Halloween and mean to finish it soon). But before I hand the reigns of the blog over to her, I want to briefly outline why the Earth Before Us books are so terrific, and why they're a must-buy for any young palaeo fans in your life.

Each of the Earth Before Us books is an affordable (RRP £10.99/$15.99), well-produced hardback with a solid, durable feel, of about 130 pages long*. They feature the time-travelling adventures of two characters, school pupil Ronnie and her palaeontologist friend and mentor, Miss Lernin. Initially inspired to visit the Mesozoic to help pass a class exam on dinosaurs, Miss Lernin and Ronnie then travel to the Palaeozoic after visiting an aquarium (Ronnie is surprised at the antiquity of many invertebrate lineages) and the Cenozoic when Ronnie wants to see how ancient humans dealt with cold. These human plots are really narrative bookends and, instead, the pacing and story developments stem from the evolution of life throughout the Phanerozoic. Journeying rapidly through time and space, our characters visit different organisms and locations so that the books never become boring or repetitive, swapping intimate moments with small critters to double-page spreads packed with gigantic animals. There are no clunky narrative devices to move Miss Lernin and Ronnie around, either. Save for starting their journeys in time by climbing into various bins (of course), they otherwise instantaneously travel to wherever they need or want to be, and without fear of the consequences. It's a smart narrative device that reminds me of the 'Ship of the Imagination' used in the TV series Cosmos, focusing attention on what our protagonists have to say, and the worlds they encounter, rather than tying them to a tedious travelling mechanism. They periodically return to the Learning Centre, a tranquil location equipped with a whiteboard that's periodically visited to explain a major concept of biology or palaeontology, but otherwise Miss Lernin and Ronnie move through time and space with pace and fluidity.

*I learned when finishing this article that paperbacks are now also available, RRP. £6.99/$9.00 

This speed is not to say that Earth Before Us skimps on detail, however - far from it. These books are dense, with heaps of information and depictions of extinct organisms, landscapes and climatic conditions. In the wrong hands, this could be overwhelming, or a barrel full of outdated data and misinformation. Neither fear is realised. Abby is terrific at distilling complex geological, evolutionary and anatomical information to words which are understandable to young people and lay audiences, all without dumbing down or patronising her readers. The interpretations she presents are accurate to modern science, and she takes time to explain why some ideas are superior to others or where gaps lie in our knowledge. The scientific concept is a major success of the books, and teachers, parents, exhibition designers and other authors looking for effective ways to teach natural history should pay close attention to her craft. Topics such as cladistics, extinction events, speciation, natural selection and so on have rarely seemed so graspable, and I can only see these books as a window into a wider world of learning for readers young and old.

Double page spread of Late Cretaceous South America from Dinosaur Empire! - note the swimming birds and fluffy baby Carnotaurus. I really like the sense of scale in these images: the human characters obviously help a lot in this regard, but the use of light and space does a lot of heavy lifting too. © Abby Howard.
As demonstrated by the accompanying images (kindly provided by Abby - many lack their speech bubbles so we can see the art more completely), the artwork in Earth Before Us is superb. Abby's illustrations are wonderfully clear, detailed, and characterful. On more than one occasion I found myself chuckling over the wordless reactions or expressions of the protagonists (see, for example, Miss Lernin's reaction to Ronnie riding a Tyrannosaurus, below). The fossil species are also well-executed, being thoroughly modern (lips and fibres abound on dinosaurs, animals are given generous amounts of soft-tissues etc.) and anatomically accurate enough to be recognisable to their fossil skeletons. The presence of human characters on every page gives a great sense of scale to the animals and, by using both in the animal's expressions and their interactions with Miss Lernin and Ronnie, Abby imbues heaps of character into her extinct subjects. It's clear that Abby sees extinct species as being animals, not monsters, adding another welcome contrast to so much child-focused palaeo content.

There's lots to like about the general tone of the Life Before Us series as well. They celebrate education and learning, and present knowledge and science as tools to solve problems. The arcs of each book involve Ronnie gaining greater knowledge and understanding of not just the past, but natural history and learning in general. Subjects that were once of no interest to her become fascinating, and in one book she's shown imparting her knowledge to others. The books are also not afraid of tackling difficult topics, such as climate change and our current biodiversity crisis. These are addressed in a frank, but also hopeful fashion, which is appropriate for younger audiences. I hope, as the books suggest, that these sections inspire children to ask more of adults as goes taking responsibility for these disasters.

Special attention must also be drawn to the main characters. Palaeontological outreach has a strong bias towards casting white men in prominent roles, and especially white men in wide-brimmed hats and field gear. As explained by Elsa Panciroli in an excellent 2017 article, this stereotyping of palaeontologists goes to the core of our profession. Like many sciences, palaeontology struggles with gender and ethnic diversity, and our lack of varied faces in outreach probably doesn't help this. It's very welcome, therefore, that the Earth Before Us books exclusively features two female protagonists, one of whom is black, and without a cowboy hat or rock hammer in sight. Miss Lernin even wears a dress throughout the second book, showing that you can have extensive knowledge about the history of life without wearing Gore-tex. Also noteworthy is that the books do not question the qualifications or intentions of its main characters either: there's no "but you're a lady?!?" revelation that Miss Lernin is the series' palaeontologist or whatever. The characters are simply allowed to be who they are without second-guessing. It seems strange to feel that this is such a big deal in 2019, but, times being what they are, I am very pleased to see Earth Before Us giving a much-needed injection of cultural, gender and ethnic diversity into mainstream palaeo media.

So, in sum, these are great books. The science and artwork are superb, they're both smart and funny, and they manage to make important points directly (climate change, extinctions) and subtly (gender and ethnic diversity). I can't recommend them highly enough, and even if your kids are a little too young to read them on their own, I think they'd be fantastic to read with them. But that's enough about what I think: let's see what Abby has to say about her work. All artwork shown here stems from Abby herself, and is reproduced with her permission.


MW. The Earth Before Us books are packed with personality and charm, and were clearly written by someone with a major passion for natural history. How much of your own interests do they reflect? Do you share Miss Lernin's enthusiasm for just about everything that walks, crawls or flies, or did you initially have interests in a few fossil groups, and branched out for this project?

AH: Thank you! I did start each book with favourites in mind, but as I spent more time thinking about and researching the creatures in the series, I came to love almost all of them. The script is basically word for word the way I fawn over wildlife. I'm insufferable at museums and zoos.

It seems that if someone spends enough time researching a plant or animal, it's easy to become enamoured with it, which is fortunate for folks like me who may have started a book series about ancient beasts while not being particularly passionate about things like ancient echinoderms. As it turns out, they were really weird and interesting and fun to draw! I was also not so keen on temnospondyls for some reason, despite now feeling like they have great horror potential. We don't take their modern relatives very seriously, since they're pretty cute and small, but I feel as if amphibians are some of the coldest, least discerning modern predators that'll swallow almost anything that moves near their mouths. It's cute when it's my axolotl trying to swallow my relatively gigantic human fingers, but if it were a 20-foot-long river monster trying to swallow my entire human body... anyway, as a horror fan, once I gave temnospondyls the time of day, they easily became a new favourite.

But there are some beasts that never wound up winning me over, namely trilobites. Don't get me wrong, I'd still cry tears of joy if I saw one in real life, but they're not exactly in my top ten. Or top fifty.

It turns out that lots of extinct animals are surprisingly happy to be petted: here's the proof. Ronnie's responses to certain animals are not always as gushing as Miss Lernin's, but several species - and not always those you'd expect - score very high cute points. I expect Mesozoic crocodyliforms to be every kid's favourite fossil animals after reading these books. Excerpt from Ocean Renegades, © Abby Howard.
You have a background in comics and writing, as well as a huge passion for horror films - where does prehistory fit into this? How often have extinct animals featured in your projects, illustrated or otherwise?

I think these things feed into each other more than one would expect, especially when it comes to worldbuilding and creature design. Knowing how the world came to be is, in my opinion, the best way to know how to build a new one, and that goes for building creatures and monsters, as well. Even if you're creating something humanoid! I'm constantly using my database of weird critters that exist or have existed to make my designs more interesting. Grounding your design in reality, while it may seem counter-intuitive when trying to create something otherworldly, has proven to be really effective for me.

Well, that and looking up gross corpses. Those are my two types of monsters: critters and corpses.
As for examples of how prehistory has bled into my other work, I'm currently working on a book of short horror comics set to be published next year, and one of the stories features a nessie-esque lake monster that's a mashup of an alligator, a marine iguana, and of course, a plesiosaur. The recent research on the body shape of plesiosaurs has, I think, finally made them look more like believable living creatures, and I leaned heavily on their new meaty shape for the silhouette of the monster in the story.

A busy scene from Ocean Renegades. Despite Abby's horror leanings, this is about as 'monsterised' as the Earth Before Us restorations get, which is terrific. We get the sense that these animals are dangerous carnivores, but not that they are ravenous killing machines. © Abby Howard.

Child-orientated palaeo education often seems less concerned with learning and knowledge than simply using dinosaurs as kid-friendly entertainment. The Earth Before Us series, in contrast, is smart and educational while also being entertaining and approachable. Indeed, the content and clarity of your books makes them great for anyone to read, not just kids. Can you tell us what inspired you to write them, and how you see them in the context of other child-focused palaeo outreach?

Honestly, this may be a little petty, but I was unsatisfied with a lot of the dinosaur books I was seeing. Even beyond the books that are outright inaccurate, I hadn't seen any that went far enough in their explanations to satisfy what I thought could be done with the genre. I wanted something that showed these creatures in their natural habitat, surrounded by diverse animal life and at least one human for scale. That last part was important to me-- I felt it would contextualize the size of ancient beasts in a way that simply throwing out lengths and weights can never do. You can tell me the height of a T. rex til the cows come home, but unless I see a human standing next to it, it won't stick with me. Though I'd be lying if I said I didn't also love drawing myself next to all my favourite extinct creatures.

I had also seen a lot of books that tackled the "what if the information in the book is obsolete in the next few years" issue by simply not embracing any current research at all, and just giving nods to the by now widely-accepted fact that certain dinosaurs had feathers (while still drawing them as skeletal monsters with huge teeth and claws and maybe a couple feathers sticking out of their heads). That was so frustrating, especially since it could be turned into a useful teaching moment about scientific theories and perhaps lead to fewer adults becoming horrifically incensed when palaeontologists dare add anything to dinosaur models. So I wanted to make a book that was as up-to-date as I could, and didn't worry about whether it'd all be obsolete in a few years. And it sort of is-- my T. rex is far too fluffy! The naked skin samples were found the year after the first book was published. But I don't beat myself up about it, because it's better to take risks than to perpetuate ever-more-outdated perceptions.

A double-page spread of the glorious late Eocene from Mammal Takeover. The unobtrusive labelling adds a layer of additional information to every page, and gives the opportunity to learn about species not being directly discussed by the main characters. © Abby Howard.

I'm curious how you approached the Palaeozoic-focused Ocean Renegades and Cenozoic-focused Mammal Takeover, given that they lack audience-pleasing (and thus bookselling) non-avian dinosaurs. How did the general lack of A-list fossil species in the Palaeozoic and Cenozoic affect the creation of these books? Were you ever tempted to tell your story in one volume to get around this issue, or did you always envisage a comic trilogy?

I was surprised at how easy they were to sell to the publisher, and I'm so glad they decided to take a chance with the series. I'd originally planned to do one book (just about the Mesozoic), but they offered me three so I felt it would be a good idea to go ahead and cover everything that's ever lived, if I could. And since the first book was pitched as a deep dive into the Mesozoic, specifically focusing on creatures that don't usually get the spotlight, writing follow-up books about even more obscure creatures was an easy sell! I feel incredibly fortunate to have had very understanding editors who didn't push back when I wanted two-page spreads about early annelids and echinoderms, bless their hearts.

I also think in some ways the fact that I highlighted so many different animals was itself marketable. Kids love illustrations with a lot going on and lists of facts, and my books definitely have those things. I wrote these books for the encyclopedia-reading kid I used to be, and as it turns out, there are a lot of kids who are looking for books like these.

Your depictions of fossil animals are very modern: there is fluff and fuzz on your dinosaurs, most animals are lipped, and all they sport generous amounts of soft-tissue. At the same time, the reconstructions are necessarily stylised to some extent, to fit the comic world you've created. Can you take us through how you created your fossil animals? Where did you find the compromise between your own style and following fossil data?

The compromise was mostly made for me based on the limitations of my own style! The way the creatures are drawn was often was as good as I could get them with my current skillset and the looming deadlines. I would start with the best material I could find for the particular critter-- for this, I thank both you and Scott Hartman (of skeletal drawing) for the paleoart resources you provide. I also thank all the people who take pictures of fossils in museums that are too far away for me to visit and put them online, though I wish more of them would include a photo of a plaque saying what animal it actually is. And like any paleo-artist, from there I used slightly similar modern animals for soft tissue anatomy reference, which helps the drawing look more like something that could be alive. From there, the stylization was up to how well I could translate the reference material into shapes that didn't look awful, haha.

I think the hardest part was fitting so many animals on each page. That wound up setting limitations as well, since I had to make sure the animals weren't blocking each other too much but were also interacting in an engaging way.

The plump plesiosaurians of Dinosaur Empire! These animals are not stylised to look this way: there is good fossil evidence that Mesozoic marine reptiles were covered in thick, fatty tissues, just like living secondarily aquatic tetrapods. It's good to see these discoveries being reflected in modern books. © Abby Howard.

The lack of fighting and violence in these books is a breath of fresh air. Even Tyrannosaurus, which by unspoken Laws of Palaeo Media should be shouting and stomping its way around the Late Cretaceous, is depicted more like a lazy cat. While the images and text don't downplay the fact that many extinct animals were probably dangerous, and we see several predatory acts, you demonstrate prehistory with nuance: fossil animals can also be cute, majestic, nurturing and amusing, as well as aggressive. Was this a deliberate response to all the aggressive behaviours featured in palaeo-themed books aimed at children?

Absolutely! I feel like the emphasis on violence in paleoart is super boring, especially in the way it makes people feel like ancient beasts are movie monsters rather than actual animals, and that if they aren't scary they're dumb and lame. I'm a big proponent for paleo media that depicts ancient beasts as normal animals with a normal level of aggression, and can't help but roll my eyes when a narrative focuses on The Hunt or culminates in a big fight between toothy, scaly monsters.

Though I do like when nontraditional predatory behaviour is depicted-- when I was young I saw a documentary that featured spinosaurus hunting for fish and LOVED it because it wasn't just some big monster fight. It felt so much more like an animal just trying to live. This goes for scavenging, as well. I always found the "debate" about whether large predators like T. rex were active hunters or scavengers to be so pointless. As if any self-respecting predator would pass up a perfectly good rotting carcass. That's a free meal!

But my personal favourite media is always the stuff that emphasizes the quiet moments-- a creature wandering through a rainy forest with the bellows of a far-off beast in the background, napping in the shade on a hot day, chasing bugs, taking care of its babies. I go nuts for that stuff. My kingdom for a documentary with no narration that follows a dinosaur through its daily life.

The Dinosaur Empire! take on Tyrannosaurus. This mighty beast is roused from its slumber having sensed human prey, rises to its feet, opens its mouth and... yawns. Note the crushed ferns where it's been lying down: this Tyrannosaurus evidently enjoys a good snooze. © Abby Howard.
I want to talk to you about the protagonists of Earth Before Us, Ronnie and Miss Lernin. Palaeo media still largely depicts palaeontologists as rugged, Indiana Jones-esque men, and young dinosaur fans tend to be boys. You've turned this on its head by featuring a young black girl and a female palaeontologist who - holy cow - doesn't even wear field gear! How do you see Ronnie and Miss Lernin in context of wider conversations about stereotyping scientists, and the growing call for more diverse voices in science and education?

I'm very glad I was able to contribute my little piece to help change the public perception of who is interested in and pursues this sort of work. I want kids to take for granted that yes, of course women and people of colour can be palaeontologists. I want it to be a given, and I hope seeing characters like mine can help.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a natural history program that was led by both men and women, and the undergrads I took classes with were majority women. However, it's still the case that many femme folks don't feel comfortable pursuing higher degrees in their field after graduating. I'm sure a large part of this is the competition in these fields-- most people in general won't pursue a higher degree. But there's definitely a discomfort when you're applying for positions and the people you'd be working with clearly think less of you and think you aren't as capable. A friend of mine applied for field research positions after she graduated, and one of the interviewers wound up telling her that she wouldn't be able to "spend a lot of time in the mornings doing her hair and makeup". As if her merely being a woman meant she did those things, took a lot of time each day even while camping in the desert to do those things, and that it would be a great detriment to her career to want to do those things. The fact that this was something the interviewer felt needed to be brought up just because she was a woman speaks volumes about how he perceives women, and how he clearly doesn't think they could be prepared for field work, despite the fact that my friend had field experience. I know I wouldn't want to work with that person. And if every person you encounter is like that, of course you might decide not to pursue that career.

I will say, however, that I left the program not because I felt uncomfortable being a girl in STEM, but because I was a terrible student, haha. I make a much better cartoonist.

Mammal Takeover devotes several pages to discussing human-led environmental crises, a circumstance paralleling a book I've just finished on the history of life. To me, humanity's major and lasting environmental impacts feel like an essential part of the story of life on Earth, and omitting them feels somehow complicit and accepting of our deepening environmental crisis. Did you have similar thoughts working on Earth Before Us? And how do you sell issues like conservation, the politics of climate change etc. to young audiences?

Those were very difficult and depressing pages to work on, but definitely necessary. Not only because it's a subject that needs to be discussed at every opportunity, but because it's a huge part of the world we're living in today. I couldn't just leave it at "and then all the modern animals evolved and we all lived happily ever after" when the presence of humans is causing the sixth mass extinction.

One of the gutsiest parts of the series is the closing segment of Mammal Takeover, where Ronnie asks Miss Lernin about the sixth great mass extinction and the role humans are playing in it. As demonstrated by this page, the tone struck here is frank, but also hopeful and empowering. © Abby Howard.

Writing about climate change for kids was no small task, and I hope I did a better job than the media I grew up with. I've always had a disdain for the way climate change is discussed with kids-- there always seems to be an emphasis put on personal accountability, which for me mostly led to anxiety and hopelessness. I would stress about leaving the water running or driving places instead of walking, meanwhile corporations I have zero control over are out there tearing down forests and ripping holes in the ozone layer. I didn't really want to put in any of those "here's how you can help" tips to avoid doing that same thing to the next generation, but when the time came to write that section, I didn't want to just say "oh yeah, rich people are just wrecking the earth and there isn't really anything you can do except beg your parents to vote for people who say they'll do something about it, which is also not a guarantee that something will be done about it". So I did wind up putting in some little tips, because otherwise it would have been a pretty dismal chapter. Plus, I do think there's no harm in doing these seemingly small things to help out in whatever way you can. You don't have to be perfect, but as I said in the book, if those folks are gonna keep ruining the environment no matter what you do, you might as well go ahead and plant that tree or get those LED lightbulbs or go vegan. Because if so many people wind up doing these things that being a little environmentally-conscious becomes the norm, that's still a net positive!

Do you have any future plans for the Earth Before Us series? I can see this readily lending itself to museum exhibitions, TV shows and toys. Will we at least get more books with these characters? "Miss Lernin and Ronnie...IN SPAAACE"?

Alas, these are the only three books I had planned! I don't know anything about any other subjects. Especially space, which I don't think I'd ever be able to make anything but horror comics about. Space is scary! No one should be up in it!

A TV show would be an interesting idea, though, and extremely fun to write. I may have to keep that in mind...

Finally, where are the best places to keep up with your work online, and how can we support you creating more art, comics and books?

The best place is probably my twitter, where I'm most active: @abbyhoward. I also have a website where I post links to my webcomics and various books: You can support me on Patreon to help me keep making comics forever: And I also have an online store!


Thanks to Abby for giving her time to answer my questions, I hope you found her insights into this awesome series as enjoyable to read as I did. There's still time to grab Dinosaur Empire!Ocean Renegades! and Mammal Takeover! as Christmas gifts: steer your browsers towards those links (or the book store of your choice) and grab them before it's too late!

Enjoy monthly insights into palaeoart, fossil animal biology and occasional reviews of palaeo media? Support this blog for $1 a month and get free stuff!

This blog is sponsored through Patreon, the site where you can help online content creators make a living. If you enjoy my content, please consider donating $1 a month to help fund my work. $1 might seem a meaningless amount, but if every reader pitched that amount I could work on these articles and their artwork full time. In return, you'll get access to my exclusive Patreon content: regular updates on upcoming books, papers, painting and exhibitions. Plus, you get free stuff - prints, high-quality images for printing, books, competitions - as my way of thanking you for your support. As always, huge thanks to everyone who already sponsors my work!