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Tools of Mass Construction: Nick Dragotta Discusses Howtoons

Howtoons: Tools of Mass ConstructionSome comics aim to simply entertain, but some – like the instructional comic strip Howtoons – seek to educate and inspire.

Created by artist Nick Dragotta and scientists Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen, Howtoons featured siblings Celine and Tucker, who would build various devices using household materials, from soda bottle submarines to zoetropes to a room-sized camera obscura. Each strip would not only offer instructions, but would explain the scientific principles that made the device work.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the comic's debut, Image Comics has collected many of the projects in Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction ($14.99, 978-1-63215-101-8), which features remastered strips along with new material from the series creators.

In addition to publishing the strips, Image is releasing a new Howtoons series, Howtoons: [Re]Ignition, by writer Fred Van Lente and artist Tom Fowler. [Re]Ignition sends Celine and Tucker into the future, where they must use their building skills to navigate a strange, energy-depleted world. The collected edition of Howtoons: [Re]Ignition is scheduled for release in November 2014.

BookShelf interviewed Dragotta via email about reviving Howtoons, the joy of creating, and being part of the maker scene.

What inspired you to create Howtoons? How did you come to work with Saul Griffith and Joost Bonsen?

Saul and Joost originally conceived the idea of Howtoons out of a workshop at MIT called MITERS way back in 2004. Howtoons at its core is meant to inspire kids to do and think. Can we learn through play? I came in when the project started to move beyond the maker sessions with kids, and started to move into how the message can be disseminated. Saul and Joost put an ad out for illustrator, and I answered. Since I joined in 2004 we never stopped, and this new book Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction celebrates our 10 year history.

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Where did you find all of the projects? Were these things you had tried before?

The projects can come from anywhere. Most of it has all been done before. What we can do is refine, simplify, and deliver the material in a new way. Originally, we made the soda bottle sub using a computer fan as the propeller. Saul said why not cut the end off another soda bottle, carve it into a propeller and use that. Much easier than ripping out a computer's cooling fan. Another example is the zoetrope. That was a happy accident. Originally the spinning device was conceived to be a bike wheel or record player.  In drawing it, I felt it was too much. Out of dumb luck I sat a CD on an open chapstick canister, and who knew it makes a perfect axle. The best Howtoons are simple, made with materials that are readily available. Most projects can be built with materials that most households already have.

When you started working on Howtoons, was it a challenge to incorporate the instructions for the projects into a visual narrative structure? Had you had any prior examples to draw upon?

It can be a design challenge for sure, but all comics are. How can we convey an idea and have it be read and understood as quickly as possible. On top of that we're primarily designing for kids and trying to appeal to them. In the end, I think the actual projects themselves dictate the design and even story.

I went to vocational school as a draftsman and worked in a chemical glassware factory when I was teenager, I was on work release and kind skipped high school. My job was to draw blueprints for the blowers. I think that helped in thinking about the step-by-step and process of making things. My dad's a boat builder and my mom is a nurse. Our family always had a strong DIY ethic. I was building skateboard ramps and stepping on nails for as long as I can remember.      

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You've re-launched Howtoowns with the [Re]Ignition comic. Why did you decide to bring Howtoons back now?

2014 is our 10th Anniversary and we wanted to do something special. It's also a project that we believe in and want to get into kids' hands. I now have two children of my own and I can already see the influence new technology is going to have on my children. I want to get them off the couch and interacting with the real world.

As for [RE]Ignition, it's always been a dream to see what other creators would bring to the Howtoons universe. It's exciting to see how Fred Van Lente and Tom Fowler are growing and evolving the work. I'd like to see more creators get involved and build up a huge library of Howtoons.

The Tools of Mass Construction book also has contributions by Jeff Parker, Sandy Jarrell, Warren Simons, Meredith McClaren, and Marz Jr.  

But none of this would have happened it wasn't for Image Comics and Eric Stephenson. Out of the blue he emailed me and asked why we weren't publishing it. The man has vision, and what better company for a DIY comic.

How did Fred Van Lente and Tom Fowler get involved? Was it difficult to hand off the project to a different team?

We asked. It's something Fred, Tom, and I have talked about in some form another for some time. With the success of East of West[Dragotta's ongoing series with writer Jonathan Hickman - ed.], I've had to pull back a bit on drawing Howtoons and it was easy to hand it over to these guys. Their work is incredible, and they are elevating the project and growing the HT universe in new ways.  [RE]Ignition is really the next evolution of Howtoons. It's the first time we'll be doing a story this large. It's a five-issue miniseries all about the topic of energy literacy. Fred and Tom have really crafted a very engaging and entertaining story first. It's epic.

The Howtoons team was recently involved with the first White House Maker Faire. How did you get involved with that? How did it feel to be part of such a big event?

That would be Saul. Aside from writing Howtoons he founded Other Lab, a research and development company.  Working alongside a bunch of really talented folks they create all kinds of new technologies from low-cost CNC machines (computer-controlled cutting machines), to solar energy, to soft robotics, to electrical bikes, to educational comics, etc. He's our generation's Tony Stark.  

I think Saul is exactly the type of Maker the White House wants to promote, and it was an honor having our work seen and represented there.

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The Howtoons strips were featured in issues of Make Magazine. Do you consider yourself part of the Maker scene/movement?

Absolutely. We all pretty much started around the same time along with Instructables, and have been featured in Make Magazine since its first issue. I think the appeal has been there for quite some time and it's in our nature to want to tinker with things. I'm drawn to making comics and telling stories, Saul is drawn to engineering and inventing new technologies. For me, there's nothing more gratifying than making something new.  

Why do you think there's such a big appeal to DIY aesthetics/projects currently?

I think the current appeal comes with the advent of 3D printing. The technology is getting cheap enough and to the point where we'll be able to make anything, and what we make will only be limited by our imaginations.

Besides cool projects, what is it you’d like readers to take away from Howtoons?

I hope we inspire kids to do! Experimentation is good. Don't have any fear of the physical world. Success can be great, but also revel and learn from those failures on that road to success. Don't just read these adventures, go live them!