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Behind the Scenes of Action Presidents

The ACTION PRESIDENTS graphic novel series by Fred Van Lente and myself were published by HarperCollins in June 2020! There are four books in the series: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy.

Making a single graphic novel takes a lot of time.

Making FOUR of them takes a LOT longer!

WAAAY back in 2010 or so, Fred conceived ACTION PRESIDENTS as a follow-up to our previous non-fiction comic book series, ACTION PHILOSOPHERS and THE COMIC BOOK HISTORY OF COMICS. In the middle of development we were invited by our buddy Josh Elder to contribute to a revolutionary all-comics textbook called Reading With Pictures. We thought it would be the perfect place to premiere Action Presidents with the first (and some say best) US President: George Washington!

As you can see, the art and storytelling were a lot different - originally we thought we'd self-publish Action Presidents as an ongoing single issue comic book series, where we'd do a 20 page comic for each President and the Reading With Pictures contribution was the pilot first issue. It went over pretty well, although ONE panel had to be censored - seems like comical alcoholism wasn't acceptable humor for a school textbook:

Later, Fred and I printed up 1000 copies single issue version to give away at comic conventions and generate some buzz for the planned series:

I still have hundreds of copies of this in storage. Some lunatic tried to sell one on eBay for $80! Crazy.

Fred wrote a second issue script (John Adams) but before we could commit to self-publishing the series HarperCollins approached us to turn it into a series of graphic novels, just as I was starting the art for issue #2.

thumbnail layouts for the "lost" Action Presidents single issue: John Adams! And now you know how lazy I am drawing thumbnails, since no one else will see them except me.

At one point in the development we thought we were going to make one giant book and I did sketches of all the ones in the book outline - Teddy and JFK looked pretty different:

Here's a few sketch requests I did for people around the same time:

Pretty soon we started producing the books themselves. As Fred was writing and revising scripts I started sketching out the various characters:

When I started drawing the comics themselves, one of the most important things I had to do was keep the looks of the characters consistent throughout the entire book! I made a collage of character designs that I used as my laptop's desktop background image so I'd always have it handy:

(I had character reference collages for each book - but I could only find the George Washington ones for this blog post)

And then when it came time to color the books, I made a single file with color palettes of all the most-seen characters, which saved a ton of time:

Cover sketches were a whole huge project by themselves - HarperCollins designers Joe Merkel and Erica De Chavez tag-teamed the title and trade dress and did a super job evoking the punk-rock D.I.Y. spirit of our "all true but funny" approach to comic book storytelling with distressed title fonts, overlapping patterns and liberal use of black inks. The whole team agreed that each cover image should just be a simple action shot of the President but even then we went through a ton of revisions and refinements. Here's just a handful of sketches from books 1-3:

JFK was the hardest to decide on so he had the most sketches! And he ended up being the only president who got a background image:

I did new art for the front covers and we used poses from the interior pages for the back covers:

Erica took the raw art and worked her design magic on them, revising the composition, colors and adding text - and we had our covers!

The "Real History! Fake Jokes!" call-out is a pitch line that Fred came up with to grab folk's attention at comic conventions since our earliest days making Action Philosophers - when it came up in a marketing meeting everyone agreed to make it the cover tagline.

All four Action Presidents books were released in paperback and hardcover in June, 2020 Fred and I worked really hard on them, and we couldn't have done it without the tireless help and support from our behind-the-scenes team: Aaron Polk (co-colorist/flatter on Teddy Roosevelt), Alice Ito (flatter on Washington & JFK), Stephen Mayer (flatter on Lincoln), our tireless book agent Jason Yarn, HarperCollins' art director Joe Merkel, our terrific book editor David Linker and the ever-supportive Erica De Chavez who went above-and-beyond her duties as Senior Designer during production to keep everything running smoothly and shepherding all four books across the finish line.

Thank you all - now go get those books or else there won't be an Action Presidents #5!!!


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