Scott Magoon has created over 30 picture books to date, writing and illustrating titles including To breathe and The boy who cried Bigfoot to illustrate the work of Ame Dyckman, Alice Weaver Flaherty and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, among others. The Extincts: Unicorn Horn Quest marks a break with the picture book format. This 160-page comic, with a sequel on the way, features a team of once extinct and newly “disextinct” creatures on a mission. The woolly mammoth Lug, the saber-toothed tiger Scratch, a Collins poison frog named Quito, and the carrier pigeon Martie respond to human brain Dr. Z, who genetically reconstructs them and sends them to Siberia to retrieve a piece of keratin from a fossilized Siberian unicorn, a kind of prehistoric rhinoceros. Can we trust Dr. Z? Will the adventurers find the horn? Besides being an action-adventure getaway, The missing offers an environmental message. In their original book proposal, Magoon included a sustainability wish list, and Amulet/Abrams prints the book with soy inks on FSC-certified paper. Magoon spoke with PW about megafauna, methane, and how fiction approaches climate change and conservation.
You are working in graphic storytelling for the first time. How is writing comics different from making picture books?
I loved. It’s been a welcome change in that I’m able to build a much larger story arc, a much longer character arc. The ability to build the story around a character is present in picture books, but in graphic storytelling we have so much more room to spread our wings.
I was a picture book and graphic designer at Candlewick and HMH, so what you see here is a combination of my past lives rolled into one. It has been gratifying to draw on this experience, which has helped me put the pieces of this puzzle together: will this word balloon fit, can I work in this account page? And the tools have come so far in the past five years. I was just telling students on a virtual school visit that anyone can pick up the tools and start drawing on a screen. The barrier to entry is so low – there is a cost, yes, but we now have legitimate drawing tools, similar to real-world tools, and they will only get cheaper.
What other books and media inspired this action-adventure comic?
there is a little Impossible mission, The A-team, G.I. Joemaybe some Johnny Quest, maybe a little Tintin. You mention these ancient characters and somehow they offended someone in the past. But I think they meant well.
Other than the Ice Age movies, creators seem to struggle to tell prehistoric stories. How did you decide to bring four extinct specimens to the present day?
I knew I absolutely wanted to do a book about the environment, something that would address my concerns about climate change and species extinction. I picked out a few creatures that would go well together visually, from small to large. Just when I was dreaming about this book, I was on a ferry en route to Victoria. [B.C.]and in the gift shop there was a book about the extinction of a woolly mammoth, Rise of the necrofauna by Britt Wray. I took that as a sign that I should keep these animals in the story.
In the background to the book, “The Extinctiary,” you profile extinct species and describe the science and ethics of Dr. Z’s fictional experiment. How has your research informed history?
I wanted to have good factual material in the back, especially with fictional characters such as talking animals. And it’s so interesting to think about the implications of the return of these creatures. For example, the Woolly Mammoth’s habitat doesn’t really exist anymore to support this kind of creature, and as cool as it is to see, it wouldn’t be fair to them, to us, or to other creatures still in existence. The climate, the food chain, all these factors, the world has changed a lot since these creatures disappeared.
Dr. Z is kind of our guy who doesn’t understand. He wants to bring them back, make money from the patents, exploit these creatures. I am of the opinion that we should try to protect and preserve the endangered creatures that we have.
Could you tell us about the meeting between fiction and reality in the key scenes of The missingfor example when “tusk hunters” dig into the melting permafrost at the Batagaika Trench, a massive crater in Siberia?
It was important for me to incorporate the effects of climate change into the story. Batagaika Pit, and megacollapses like this, are drivers of climate change. As they collapse, they release methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Batagaika Pit is a great place for scientists to study all sorts of things, like the remains of preserved megafauna, but it comes at such a horrific cost. That’s why I had pipes used in The missing as they melt the permafrost to reach these defences.
Each character also comes from a different ecosystem and part of the world, and I wanted them to collide in different ways. Upon their arrival in Siberia, Quito [the poison frog] freezes because he is used to the jungle, but Lug [the mammoth] is right at home. One suffers and the other is comfortable.
With such a strong environmental component, how did you develop the characters and their relationships?
It was definitely a weaving. The heart of the book is Scratch, the saber-toothed tiger, and his journey of taking his teammates for granted and trusting Dr. Z. I also wanted to develop each animal’s archetypal personality. Martie, the passenger pigeon, is physically smaller and the only female [at first], and she’s still trying to assert herself because she doesn’t want to be quote-unquote “sucked in.” She is stubborn and clashes with Scratch.
Each book focuses on one team member, and since book one is about Scratch, book two [scheduled for 2023] will be that of Lug. It’s about forest fires and how Lug tries to make up for the tragic mistakes he made in his past. The team takes a turn he disagrees with and he leaves them. He travels to California, where he encounters smoke jumpers, hotshots, and they begin to fight a wildfire. It finds its way to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and there’s a scene at La Brea Tar Pits that’s pretty neat.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few picture books right now. With Clarion, I illustrate Imperturbable by Matt Ward, a book about the “power of the moment”, about flightless birds again and all kinds of ways to fly. It was fun to draw like that again. And I have another book coming with Viking, Solo rocket trip by Chiara Beth Colombi. As for The missing, we’ll see how these two do. I’m going to hit the road, in person – there’s an events link on my site – for a really good tour across the country. I went back to school visits, and it’s so great to see readers again.
The Extincts: Unicorn Horn Quest by Scott Magon. Abrams/Amulet, $24.99 Mar 29 ISBN 978-1-4197-5251-3