First Second Books consistently puts out some of the most original graphic novels. And with the Science Comics line, they’ve really ramped up the geekiness quotient. The first few books in the series covered dinosaurs, coral reefs, volcanoes, and bats. And next up? We get books dedicated to plagues and flying machines! Each has been phenomenal… and educational… and fun!
Flying Machines is a bit of a departure for the series as it’s the first title to not focus on earth science or biology. The book traces the history of the Wright Brothers’ quest to become the first humans to fly, and it covers quite a bit of aviation history—and of course the science behind it all.
We had a chance to catch up with author and illustrator Alison Wilgus and Molly Brooks to chat about the book and how it came to be…
GeekDad: One of the cool aspects of the Science Comics lineup is that each book, for the most part, is a different creative team. How did the two of you get connected to Flying Machines: How the Wright Brothers Soared?
Alison Wilgus: When the folks at First Second were first putting together the bones of the Science Comics series, I was already working with them on a nonfiction book about Mars and human spaceflight. And one day, I got a call from Calista Brill asking me if I had any interest in writing the script for a comic biography of the Wright Brothers. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the Wrights, or aviation history, or how airplanes work. But I love First Second as a publisher and I apparently also love a challenge, and pretty much immediately said “yes.”
Molly Brooks: This is the first graphic novel I’ve illustrated! I’d been sending Calista at First Second my promo cards and mini-comics for a couple years. When they were looking for an illustrator for this project, they invited me to do some test pages of a really fiddly, technical sequence involving a pulley system. I had a lot of fun with the pages, and they were really nice about it but decided to go with another artist. A few months later, they got back in touch and said the job was mine after all, if I was still interested. I had never met Alison before, but we had some friends in common who spoke really highly of her and she was a total joy to work with. I was really nervous about doing my first book, and she was really kind and supportive at every turn.
GeekDad: What’s the process like for the line? Do you pitch a topic, or does First Second already know the topics they want to publish and then seek out the best author and illustrator for each book?
Wilgus: Flying Machines was part of the first round of the Science Comics series, so we were all still figuring out what we wanted them to look like when I got started. Pretty soon after that first phone call, Calista and the series editor, Casey Gonzalez, decided that they wanted the book to be about flying machines more generally instead of just the Wright Brothers. I was excited about the aviation history angle and wanted to talk about the physics of flight through the lens of those early innovators and their machines. Previous versions of the script reached all the way back to the invention of hot-air ballooning, and included a much larger cast, but we all agreed that it felt too crowded and disjointed. Deciding to re-focus the book around the Wrights and their contemporaries helped a great deal, but adding in Katharine Wright as a narrator was what finally got all the pieces to really click into place.
As for finding an illustrator—I was just along for the ride! The First Second editorial team did an excellent job of matchmaking, and when they asked me my opinion of Molly’s sample pages I wrote two paragraphs about how much I loved her attention to detail, her ability to visually communicate complicated concepts and mechanisms, and the amount of independent research she’d obviously done in addition to the reference I’d put together. I feel very VERY lucky to have been able to work with her on this book!
GeekDad: Do you have a specific background in engineering or aviation that made you particularly well suited to this book, or was there a lot of research involved?
Wilgus: I went into this with a fair amount of knowledge about spaceflight but I knew next-to-nothing about airplanes or aviation history. And honestly, most of what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong! I had to start from scratch—lots of reading, a visit to the Smithsonian, and many afternoons at the New York Public Library.
Brooks: So much research! I knew very little about airplanes, the Wright brothers, or turn-of-the-century American daily life, so I spent the entire project extremely uptight about the possibility of accidentally lying to children. I collected thousands of reference images, and used photos and videos available online to construct 3D models of the Wright’s living room and the other sets. I probably went a little overboard, but Ali did such a thorough job on the script that I wanted to do it justice with the illustrations. It was really important to me that everything be as accurate as possible. Just as an example, when Wilbur went to Europe to try to sell their flying machine he traveled on a ship called the Campania. I spent a couple hours scrolling through steamship nerdery online so that I could draw him standing in a second class cabin and sitting in the second class smoking lounge from that actual ship, not something generic. I was able to find photographs, diagrams, or even modern working replicas of most of the flying machines mentioned in the book, and I tried to design the pages so that where I couldn’t find detailed information, I was omitting details rather than making things up. I’m sure there are still plenty of errors, but I definitely did the best I could to keep them to a minimum.
The one place I didn’t worry at all about accuracy was with color—I knew if I tried to be true to life while relying on black and white photography I’d drive myself completely nuts, so instead I went with a stylized blue/sepia palette.
GeekDad: The Science Comics books have been an incredible addition to kids’ bookshelves, and the topics have been all over the place, which is nice. Flying Machines, though, is the first title to stray from the worlds of biology and earth science. Why do you think this is a good place to start exploring engineering and technology?
Wilgus: Flying Machines spends some time explaining the physics of flight, but for the most part it’s a book about innovation and the scientific method—all the work that was involved in solving the engineering problem of building a practical airplane. In general, people like to push the narrative of the singular genius working alone in their garage and then emerging one day with an invention that changes the world, but in reality it doesn’t work like that at all! When Wilbur Wright got serious about the Flying Machine problem, the first thing he did was write to the Smithsonian Institute and request a reading list, so that he could learn about all of the research and experimentation that had already been done. Before the Wrights built their first glider, they had read all about the work of men like Octave Chanute, Sir George Cayley, and the Lilienthal brothers. And even as the Wrights were starting their experiments, many other people were doing the same thing across the globe. I wanted to show readers that innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum—every scientist and engineer is a part of a community, all learning from each other and from the people who came before them. And the history of early aviation turned out to be a particularly great narrative for getting those ideas across.
GeekDad: What kinds of things do you cover in the book? What can we expect to see?
Wilgus: Flying Machines opens with Wilbur, Orville, and Katharine as children, and then follows them all the way up through their historic public demonstrations of the completed Wright Flyer in Europe. Then it skips ahead to after World War I, and introduces Sir Frank Whittle, a British officer and pilot who invented the turbojet engine. Along the way, our narrator Katharine introduces a growing cast of aviators, and interviews a few key players about their machines—how they were designed and put together, and the physics of why they work.
GeekDad: I have to imagine that drawing a coral reef or a volcano (both previous Science Comics titles) is a little forgiving, since they can be relatively generic. However, it’s probably a bit more stressful when you’re drawing something specific, such as the Wright Flyer, since there’s not a lot of leeway in how it can look. Were there any unexpected challenges you faced in the book, artistically?
Wilgus: I’m going to leave this one mostly to Molly, as I didn’t have to draw a single airplane for this book. But I will say that finding reliable information about some of these early aircraft was surprisingly difficult, particularly in cases where there aren’t any good photographs. The Wrights and their peers were often very secretive, and some details have been entirely lost to history.
Brooks: Through the whole project, I kept stumbling on things that I thought I understood pretty well until I tried to actually draw them—everything from basic physics and mechanical diagrams (“Wait, how DOES a propeller work? Where does this arrow need to go?”) to historical details (“Okay, in this scene they’re working in their bicycle shop. Wait, what did bicycles even look like in 1899? Which bicycle shop were they in at that point? Are there any photos of the interior?”) In retrospect, a lot of that probably didn’t matter, but I knew so little about most of the topics the book covered that I couldn’t be sure what details were important and what weren’t. My thinking was: if I’m going to carefully diagram the evolving functionality of the Wright Flyer’s wing-warping system from one model to the next, they may as well be wearing the right hats as well.
GeekDad: Do you have a favorite flying machine? Were there any interesting ones that you discovered through the process of making this book?
Wilgus: I think my personal favorite is the terrible knock-off of a “Wright-type” glider that was commissioned by Ernest Archdeacon in 1903. He told everyone it was a perfect copy, but he got most of the important details wrong—the size and shape of the wings, the control mechanisms, everything was kind of a mess. So of course it didn’t work! But he managed to get a photograph of it in the air before it crashed back down again, and printed commemorative cards. Honestly, it’s not super surprising the Wrights became so secretive, their competitors were DYING to recreate their machines and brag about the results.
Another machine that I love, but which was ultimately cut in edits, was built by Sir Hiram Maxim in 1894. Maxim came from a school that thought powerful engines were the key to solving the flying machine problem, rather than imitating birds, and his machine was this enormous beast of a thing—40 feet long, 110 feet wide, two 17-foot propellers powered by a pair of huge 360 hp steam engines. It weighed 3.5 tons! When they tested the thing it lifted just far enough off of the ground to crash back down and destroy the track it was running on. (For comparison, the first Wright Flyer was 40 feet wide and weighed just over 600 lbs.)
Brooks: I really liked Santos-Dumont’s 14-bis. It’s just so awkward-looking. It’s backwards to what modern eyes expect, with a long goose-neck in the front and the pilot standing in a little basket between the wings in the rear. I found video of a modern replica in action, and it’s just such a bizarre solution to the problem. “Box kites work pretty well! What if I make THE WHOLE THING OUT OF BOX KITES?” In general, it’s fascinating how many different angles different people used to tackle the problem of powered flight, and how many weird shapes it took. Santos-Dumont’s approach was totally different from the Wrights’, but he DID achieve a working flying machine around the same time they did.