Lee Nielsen, an Edmonton-based illustrator, designer and artist, has been learning a lot about American history, aviation history and even dinosaurs of late. Luckily, his crash course is coming courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as he follows four children on field trips to places such as the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum or National Museum of Natural History – with a bit of a detour through space and time.
Nielsen isn’t some Doc Brown stand-in or Bill & Ted wannabe; he hasn’t built a time machine or stumbled upon a time-travelling telephone booth. No, Nielsen is on this outlandish journey as the artist contracted to illustrate a new trilogy of educational comic books developed by the Smithsonian, geared for children nine to 12 years old.
For the last six months, Nielsen has crafted the look and feel of the images that bring to life the comic book scripts by New York Times bestselling author Steve Hockensmith and television producer and writer Chris Kientz. For him, it’s a dream job if only because, as he puts it, “comics are fun.”
The first part of the series, The Wrong Wrights (Secret Smithsonian Adventures) makes its way to bookstores on Feb. 16, and follows the four child characters to the National Air and Space Museum, where they see firsthand man’s treasured history of flight. But their adventure takes a wild turn when they discover that exhibits such as the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and even the Wright Brothers’ 1903 flyer no longer exist and have been replaced with a smattering of balloons and blimps. What follows is a time-travel mystery-adventure laced with airplanes, heroes and dastardly villains.
“I’m learning American history and aviation history as I go,” says Nielsen. “So everything in the books – from characters to places – is based on historical facts. All the things have to be accurate.”
If that means poring over reference materials for every illustration, says Nielsen, so be it. Half the fun (and challenge) of the job stems from ensuring that every artistic detail is time-period correct. “One of the funniest things is that a character in the first book steals a timing chain from the engine of the Wright Brothers airplane [to sabotage it] and I had to know the right engine, the right model and the correct location of that timing chain. So that took a bit of research.”
But even with the book’s release in February, Nielsen still has more work cut out for him. The third issue follows the cast of characters through the National Portrait Gallery, and the second, much to Nielsen’s delight, offers a glimpse into the National Museum of Natural History, which includes exhibits on prehistoric life. “I get to draw dinosaurs,” says Nielsen. “See? Comics are fun.”