Editor’s Note: This issue, we interview Tammi Heneveld and Nate Carroll, the creative team behind to webcomic “Corkboard of Curiosities” which is hosted on Tumblr. Click here to view their work.
What is Corkboard of Curiosities?
TAMMI: Corkboard of Curiosities is a webcomic about paleontology, natural history, and other science-related stuff.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
NATE: I’m currently a Paleontology PhD student studying at University of Southern California in Los Angeles. I went to Montana State University to earn my Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in the Earth Sciences. I’m also curator of the Carter County Museum in my hometown of Ekalaka, Montana.
TAMMI: I’m a freelance illustrator and designer living in Portland, Oregon, and I’m also the editorial assistant for the online and print magazine, The Great Discontent. I graduated from Montana State University in 2012 with a BFA in Graphic Design and worked at a series of creative agencies and studios before going full-time with TGD and as a freelancer earlier this year.
How did you come up with the idea for Corkboard of Curiosities?
TAMMI: This was something that we had been mulling around for a bit. Nate and I became friends back in college when we both worked as cartoonists and writers at our school newspaper, The MSU Exponent, and we had always talked about starting some kind of project together.
NATE: Since graduating, Tammi and I have worked on a few design projects together, specifically for the Carter County Museum. But we actually came up with the idea for the comic in September.
TAMMI: He and I approached each other about it right at the same time. I had been thinking about doing a children’s book or something, but I wanted a project that would force me to make personal work on a regular basis. Nate and I started talking and decided that a webcomic would be fun, cheap, and relatively simple to do each week.
NATE: I missed working with Tammi on a cartoonist level, and we’re both able to collaborate now like we did back in college. We’re both living in different cities now, so it has been a good way for us to catch up once a week and do something creative together.
TAMMI: We decided to call it Corkboard of Curiosities because back when we worked at the Exponent, we used to tack drawings and comics up on corkboards in the office to make our friends and coworkers laugh. This comic is our way of continuing that tradition.
Did you both have a long-standing interest in paleontology before starting this project?
NATE: Growing up, I was that kid who was really into dinosaurs, but I’m still that kid. That said, I don’t know if I would have become a paleontologist if I hadn’t grown up so close to the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. Paleontology was just so easy and accessible to me. I still would have become a scientist, but growing up in an environment that is such a hotbed for natural history had a big impact on my choosing paleontology.
TAMMI: Both of my parents were teachers, and my dad is super into geology, so I was constantly being taught about rocks and fossils and dinosaurs when I was little. Having an interest in science and learning was highly encouraged and celebrated in my family. I also became interested in dinosaurs because I was super into magic, mythology, and fantasy when I was younger—I still am—and dinosaurs were the closest things I had found to real-life dragons and other mythical beasts, which just blew my mind.
Your comics are hosted on Tumblr. Can you explain what that is for our readers who might not be familiar with it?
TAMMI: Essentially, Tumblr is a blogging platform with elements of social media that allows people to post text, images, videos, or other content to a blog that other bloggers can then follow. When someone posts something, they often attribute hashtags to it in order to make that particular content appear in listings when people search for that word. For example, we use hashtags like “paleontology” or “science” when we post our comics so that people can see our comics when they search for those words on Tumblr or, in some cases, the Internet in general. People who have their own blogs on Tumblr can then “like” one of our comics, or they can “reblog” it to their own blog, which their followers will then see and reblog, which creates a cycle of seeing and sharing across the Tumble-sphere. Or whatever. Maybe we should do a comic about Tumblr?
Tumblr seems like an effective way to reach new audiences. Do either of you have any favorite paleo-related blogs or sites that you would recommend?
TAMMI: Honestly, I don’t follow any paleo blogs or anything, which is part of the reason Nate and I started Corkboard. I had been looking for a funny comic about science and dinosaurs for a long time, but I couldn’t ever find one I liked, so I made my own.
NATE: Right. There are a lot of good paleo blogs out there, but most don’t create their own content.
How do you come up with ideas for each comic?
NATE: We receive some reader suggestions, but most of the ideas are topics I go over in the earth science class I teach. I take note of what concepts students are the most excited by or have difficulty learning, or ones I’ve had a tricky time teaching because there aren’t good visuals for it. So I’m kind of using the comics as a teaching tool.
Do you have overarching goals when selecting topics?
TAMMI: The overall goal of the comic is to teach people about the natural world in a fun, interesting way. I used to be so disappointed with my textbooks in school because they presented cool information in such a stale, unimaginative way—they might as well have been Chilton manuals.
NATE: I also remember textbooks being horrible when I was younger, and it made me—a kid who was already interested in those subjects—not want to care about it. Now, as a teacher’s assistant, it’s fun to have students who have gone through that same experience and show them that most scientific concepts are easily understandable at a basic level, and that they’re actually really cool.
TAMMI: Exactly. The times when I learned something that actually stuck with me were the times something was presented in an engaging visual or kinesthetic way. That’s just how I learn. I remember being taught about photosynthesis in the fourth grade, and I got that concept down pat because my teacher drew out a bunch of interesting, colorful diagrams on the chalkboard to explain the whole process. I thought, “Finally! Someone isn’t just saying words at my face for 45 minutes.” I’ve found that I haven’t grown out of needing that extra context for more abstract subjects like math or science.
NATE: I don’t think anybody grows out of that! The stupid cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words is absolutely true. A big hangup for a lot of people is all the jargon. Scientists have to learn that, but in reality, you don’t need to know the technical terms to understand something.
Do you have a particular audience in mind when developing the comics?
TAMMI: We do, which is why there’s no swearing or generally offensive content in the comic. I’m comfortable with swearing and crude humor, so I thought about taking the comic in that direction at first. But Nate and I wanted it to be accessible to a wide range of people, so we decided to keep it fairly clean.
NATE: The over-the-top, […] style is definitely fun for a certain group of people, but it can be alienating to others. If people want vulgarity, then they can grab a beer with us and have us explain these concepts one on one. (laughing)
TAMMI: When I write copy for panels, I’m thinking primarily about myself and my friends who want to read something cheeky and a little bit absurdist. At the same time, I’m thinking about my little cousins who might be sitting and reading the comics with their parents: will the concepts be easily understood by the kids while still being entertaining for the adults, too? If not, then I rewrite until it is.
NATE: Yeah, if we can’t get an idea across to a 9-year-old, then we’re not explaining it correctly. It’s not on them, it’s on us.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing those who want to teach others about paleontology—both in formal settings, such as school, and informal settings, such as museums?
NATE: Part of it is having the right visuals. That is really helpful for any of those conversations.
TAMMI: Nate and I bring together aspects of the different industries we operate within in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts. I come from the design and art world, where there’s a heavy emphasis on visuals and aesthetics, but the content itself can sometimes be poorly written or inconsequential. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the scientific community that Nate comes from, where everything is rich in content, but a lot of it is presented in such a dry or visually unappealing way that it can’t draw or hold anyone’s attention.
NATE: Exactly. It’s a shame to see good, solid science fall flat simply because it was poorly presented to people, but that’s just how human beings are wired. Our goal with the comic is to combine the strengths of both our fields to present interesting content in an interesting way.
TAMMI: Basically, Nate is a scientist with good taste, and I’m an artist who’s interested in science, so we complete each other.
How long does it typically take to complete a comic? What is your process like?
TAMMI: Honestly, the biggest surprise I’ve had with this project is how long it takes us to make a single comic.
NATE: Yeah, I can see now why most people don’t do this. (laughing) The typical workflow starts with us choosing a topic to cover, which I then break into bite-sized pieces and storyboard out. That can take a few hours.
TAMMI: Once Nate sends me his storyboards with notes, I comb through them to refine and rearrange everything so that it flows well and write the panel copy. That alone can take four or five hours, especially if it’s pretty content-heavy.
Afterwards, I lightly draw everything out in pencil, which can take two or three hours. I take pictures of the pencils and email them to Nate so he can make sure everything I drew is accurate. Once I get the okay from him, I start the inking process. Inking is usually pretty quick because it’s just tracing, so that only takes about an hour or two. When I finish, I scan the inked pages into Photoshop, clean them up, rearrange elements as needed, and color. There are anywhere from 8 to 12 panels per comic, and they’ve been getting longer as we go along, so that stage takes the longest—about four or five hours.
Throughout that whole process, I’m sending Nate panels to proof. So if I finish inking and coloring something, show it to him, and he says it’s incorrect, then I have to completely redo it. (laughing)
NATE: I feel really bad when that happens. (laughing) We’re also coordinating around our regular lives and work schedules, too, which can lengthen the process. I’ve been able to work the comic into my regular schedule, though: for instance, a lot of my social time is spent with other scientists, many of whom know more about certain topics than I do, so it’s nice to go out for beers with them and bring printouts of panels they can give me feedback on.
TAMMI: The moment Nate says yes to all of the finalized panels is the happiest moment for me. (laughing) I’ll publish the comic on our site, post everything to social media, and then start working on the next one.
What is the easiest and most difficult part of creating the comic?
NATE: I don’t know if there is an easy part. (laughing)
TAMMI: The most difficult part is just plain doing it, and it can be tedious at times. When I’m drawing, I think, “Ugh, Nate’s going to get on me about this if it has three toes instead of four,” so a lot of my time is spent Googling dinosaur anatomy. He fact-checks everything before we publish it, so if he’s in the middle of a lecture or something, I wait for him to confirm three toes or four before I finish a panel.
Nate, what are you studying at USC? And what is your “dream job” or long-term goal with respect to paleontology?
NATE: I am currently studying bird feathers, but I think the technical term for it is ptilology, even though nobody really calls it that. For my dream job, I would love to be a professor or curator. Right now I’m a teaching assistant and a curator for the Carter County Museum, and they’re both pretty sweet gigs.
Check out Corkboard of Curiosities
Read about Nate’s hopes for the amber he finds in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana here