It’s hard to forget January 28, 1986. Well, not the whole day, but the shocking news. I was a teenager, living overseas without a tv (before internet!) but word of the Challenger disaster spread quickly even to my home on the campus of the American School in Kinshasa, Zaire. I had long been a space fan, from my early memory of watching a moon walk (late Apollo) on a grainy black and white tv in my grandparents’ flower shop in Detroit, to Viking, Voyager, the fun fictions of Star Trek and Star Wars, and the Space Shuttle. Space exploration had its dangers, but it was always a noble adventure that ended well in my mind. Until, that day, when it didn’t.
When my media specialist handed me Pranas T. Naujokaitis‘ new historical graphic novel for kids, The Challenger Disaster: Tragedy in the Skies (First Second, 2020) I was immediately hooked. Although it’s a heavy topic, Pranas pulls us in by setting the story amongst a normal group of kids in the future who go to school in space (not unlike Beep and Bob’s Astro Elementary!) and delivers an engaging and sensitive look at that fateful event in exploration history. I caught up with Pranas to learn more:
Me: How did you get into creating comics?
Pranas: I’ve been drawing my whole life. Any scrap of paper I could get a hold of I’d scribble on. I never knew you could make a career out of drawing though. As a kid I actually wanted to be an actor AND a paleontologist when I grew up (yes, this dream brought to you by being eight when Jurassic Park came out).
Then I saw Star Wars on the big screen. It was early 1997 and the Special Editions had just come out and my little eleven-year old mind was blown. As soon as the Death Star blew up I knew I wanted to do THIS. Tell stories.
At first I wanted to make movies, but that quickly turned into comics when I started drawing comic strips about me and my friends at the time. And the types of comics I wanted to make changed as I grew, got exposed to new things, and kept practicing my craft. First newspaper comic strips, then mainstream superhero stuff, and then in college (where I actually majored in Sequential Art aka the fancy way of saying ‘comics’) I was exposed to so many new and different types of comics and I turned to making indie, journal comics, and minicomics. And post-college my career has naturally transitioned to more all-age comics.
I can’t see myself doing anything else. And honestly after this long, don’t even know if I know how to do anything else!
What inspired you to write about one of the sadder moments in space history?
I crossed paths with my amazing (and patient) editor Dave Roman at a comic show in Denver a few years back and he approached me about a new line of books FirstSecond was putting together, History Comics, a sister series to the already established Science Comics line. He already had a list of topics they wanted to do and Challenger was on that list. He gave me a few weeks to think it over and get back to him if interested.
At first I was going to pick something other than Challenger. I mean, everything on the list he proposed was a historical tragedy/disaster, but they all happened a long, long time ago. Everyone involved with those stories are long, long dead. I feel that makes it so much easier to write/draw when it happened that long ago. But Challenger was so recent. A lot of the people involved with it are still alive. The families and children of the Challenger Seven are still alive. Even though I was only three months old, even I was alive for this! It was just all so recent and terrible.
Oh, AND the comic had to be geared towards kids.
But the more I sat on it, the more I got the itch to tackle Challenger. I became obsessed with figuring out a way to tackle something so recent while still being respectful AND making it palatable to kids. I wanted to tell and honor the story of the Challenger crew but also get the message across that humankind should keep exploring even when horrible setbacks occur.
At first I asked Dave if I could just write the script and someone else draw (drawing technical spacecraft is not my specialty) but the more research I did the more I got attached to the story and to the crew and just bit the bullet and asked if I could also draw it as well.
I will say I’m so happy with the final product (shoutout to everyone at FirstSecond and my amazing colorist Cassie Hart) but it did take a huge toll on me. All the research, crafting the story, the writing, then drawing. Working on this project, getting attached to the crew members and then half way though the book, the explosion. I kept trying to put it off but it’s inevitable. You know it’s coming but you hope maybe, just maybe, this time history might change. But history doesn’t work that way. So it was tough.
And the horribleness of the disaster is why I made it a goal to end the book on a very hopeful and positive note. I wanted to rip you heart out, make you cry, but then lift you up. Let you know it is oh-so-human to keep exploring the unknown. And when setbacks happen (and they sadly do and will) to honor those who sacrificed everything you have to dust yourself off and keep reaching towards the stars.
So even though this was all so sad there is good that came from it.
Would you go into space yourself if you had a chance?
Oh heck yeah! It’s still dangerous and anything could go wrong, but I do think we are getting closer and closer to the age of space tourism. Will I ever be able to afford it in my lifetime? Probably not. But if given a free ticket, and it’s proven to be as safe as can be, I for sure would be on that first rocket (or space elevator).
While probably not in my lifetime, I do think humanity will get to the point when space travel is as routine as getting on an airplane is today. Gotta catch that 3PM rocket from Earth to my business meeting on the Moon. And if that does happen we’ll have people like the Challenger Seven to thank for that, for helping to pave the way for us all.
I also wrote about a space school in the future, and love that your characters study aboard the Space Station Sagan. Do you think students may attend classes amongst the stars someday?
I hope so! I was always fascinated by how in Star Trek: The Next Generation the Enterprise had whole families living on the ship, complete with teachers and classrooms for the kids. They would even take field trips! It was all so routine. Now, it was probably illogical to have children onboard a spaceship that is essentially a battle cruiser that sees its fair share of space battles and is going into red alert every other episode, but still, it’s the future I wanted to see. And hopefully when humanity gets to the point we won’t be having space shootouts with Romulans or the Borg.
And unless we actually figure out a way to overcome the speed of light, space travel, especially deep space, will take sooooo long. Whole generations even! So it only makes sense to have classrooms for those kids who might spend their whole lives living on a deep space ship.
Whether you are on Earth or in space, kids still have to learn and go to school!
What are you working on now?
Some secret stuff I can’t go into right now that is in the works, fingers crossed. But I’m taking a break from space for a little bit. Just with drawing the space shuttle and its innards over and over again…oof! I’m so glad I did it but it was a challenge and hard on my wrist. But if the next project pans out it’s going to be fun and think anyone who enjoyed this book will also enjoy it.
Also going to take the time between book projects to work on a webcomic idea that’s been building dust. A post-apocalyptic mutant comedy geared towards older audiences as a release for all my anxiety about politics, nuclear war, pandemics, and being a millennial. You know, fun stuff. 😛
Also want to take this time to try to pump out a few more minicomic projects so I’ll be ready with new work on my table once it’s finally safe to hold in-person comic shows and conventions again. I miss comic shows…
Me too! Any advice for kids who are working on comics of their own?
Practice drawing and writing everyday and keep a sketchbook. But know this when you start out: Your stuff will NOT be good…AND THAT IS OKAY! Making comics is a skill and like all skills it takes time and practice to get good at it. Any artist you like right now? They were not good the first time they picked up a pencil or guitar or camera. If fact, they probably stunk! But they didn’t give up, kept working, and over time they slowly got better and better and better. And I know, it’s hard to not be instantly good at something and so easy to give up. But that is what separates the greats from everyone else: they stick with it. You should too! This doesn’t just apply to comics but ALL skills. It is a cliche, but practice DOES make perfect.
Comics can be ANYTHING. Any genre, any story, any setting, any character, anything. Only limits are your drawing skills and imagination. They can be comics about you, comics about superheroes, about space, romance, funny, sad, scary, all of these things and MORE! That’s one of the great things about comics, they can be whatever you want them to be. That blank page in front of you has the potential to become anything.
And finally, tell YOUR story and the story that YOU want to tell. It’s okay to be influenced by or have similar stories to others, but you are a unique person with a unique life and unique point of view. Let that point of view and life experience come through when telling a story. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, put yourself in it. Comics, art, and the world are all better when we have many different voices contributing to it.
So well said, Pranas! Thank you so much for answering my questions and illuminating your process!
LEARN MORE about Pranas and his work at www.ghostcarpress.com.
And find him at @pranas on Twitter and @ghostcarpress on Instagram.
His cool self portrait as an artstronaut (artstronaut, get it? Artist + Astronaut…)