“America's Founding Monsters,” written and illustrated by Virginia Commonwealth University student Maggie Colangelo, is a fun take on Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and George Washington — and their obsessed with prehistoric megafauna. (Courtesy of Maggie Colangelo)

‘Founding Monsters:’ A VCU student’s comic book tells the story of the Founding Fathers’ obsession with giant Ice Age animals

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Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and George Washington were obsessed with the prehistoric megafauna — mastodons, mammoths and giant ground sloths — that roamed North America during the Ice Age. Their fascination is the subject of a forthcoming comic book, “Founding Monsters,” written and illustrated by Virginia Commonwealth University student Maggie Colangelo.

“It shakes up this period of history [the American Revolution] that has been beaten to death. The more I learned about it, the more interesting and ridiculous the story became,” said Colangelo, a junior double majoring in communication arts in the School of the Arts and environmental studies. “[It] shows a different side of the American Revolution that not many people know about.”

Maggie Colangelo holding a page from a comic book.
Colangelo with a page from her comic book. (Courtesy of Maggie Colangelo)

The project grew out of the research of Bernard Means, Ph.D., a professor in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences and director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory, which creates 3D digital models of historical, archaeological and paleontological objects used for teaching, research and public outreach. Means has been working on a project funded by a VCU Seed Award and a VCU Humanities Research Center travel grant to 3D scan mastodon, giant ground sloth and other fossils that belonged to Jefferson, Franklin and Charles Willson Peale.

Colangelo volunteered in Means’ lab last year, and was fascinated by the stories of how the Founding Fathers were so intrigued by the fossils of giant Ice Age mammals that were being discovered in the 18th and early 19th centuries in New York, Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere in the New World.

“Being around so many people who are all passionate about anthropology rubs off. Every time a new artifact was scanned and I heard about its story, I got sucked in a little more,” Colangelo said. “It didn’t hurt that Dr. Means and I both love comics and had talked about it a couple times while at the lab. When he proposed an idea that combined comics with paleontology and archaeology, I was all in.”

Colangelo received a VCU Fellowship for Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry to pursue her project, “America's Founding Monsters: A Graphical Approach,” with Means serving as her adviser. The idea was to create a science-friendly graphical storytelling framework that tells the story of the Founding Fathers and their obsession with prehistoric megafauna, combining sequential art with historical and scientific data.'

With a target audience of K-12 students, the comic aims to bring together history, art and paleontology in a science, technology, engineering, art and math-friendly approach. Colangelo is working on the comic’s final step — inking — and hopes to make it available early next year as a digital comic that can be read online or printed at home.

Page of a comic book.
A page from "America's Founding Monsters: A Graphical Approach.” (Courtesy of Maggie Colangelo)

“Maggie has a great voice, sense of design and layout, and the style is exactly what I wanted —something friendly and accessible to all ages, but especially for K-12 students,” Means said. “This is an audience that is often overlooked when we try and communicate our research.”

As part of the comic, Colangelo created illustrations based off 3D scanned historic fossils. The project also includes links to digital models of the fossils that students can download for 3D printing or to analyze on any computer screen.

Over the summer, Colangelo and Means met via Zoom each week to discuss what elements of the history of the Founding Fathers’ interest in megafauna would work best in comic form.

“Maggie wrote the script for the comic book, and I gave input as needed, but she took the lead on this work, drawing in part from an article that I am working on regarding this same subject,” Means said.“Maggie and I then discussed what should be on each page of the comic and she sketched every page.”

Resources associated with ‘Founding Monsters

The “Founding Monsters” comic was partly inspired from research conducted by Bernard K. Means, Ph.D., regarding fossils that once belonged to some notable early American figures: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Willson Peale. Some of these fossils were 3D scanned at The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and Independence National Historical Park, both in Philadelphia, and at the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore. Learn more about the 3D models of some of the fossils used in the comic book on the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s Sketchfab page. Some of these models are freely downloadable. If you have a 3D printer, you can download Franklin’s mastodon tooth and paint it using this guide.

There are also coloring pages you can freely download for a few of the fossils:

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University — Thomas Jefferson fossils

-        Megalonyx claw that belonged to Jefferson (VCU_3D_5211)

-        Second megalonyx claw that belonged to Jefferson (VCU_3D_5212)

Independence National Historical Park — Ben Franklin fossil: Franklin court mastodon tooth (VCU_3D_2195) 

Maryland Center for History and Culture — Charles Willson Peale fossil: Mastodon femur fragment recovered in New York state by Peale in 1801 (VCU_3D_5004).

If you want to make your own 3D copy and do not have a 3D printer, you can make a cardboard replica of the mastodon molar that belonged to Franklin (VCU_3D_2195).

This semester, Colangelo has been working in the lab for a few hours most days, allowing them to collaborate in person and to review the illustrated pages on a big screen, where she has received feedback on the art and script from other VCU students.

“I have made a few zines in the past, but this is by far the longest ‘true’ comic I’ve ever made,” Colangelo said. “It was definitely intimidating to think about when we were writing the script. I’ve loved reading comics and drawing for such a long time, it’s surprising that I only started making comics now. It’s certainly a lengthy process, but seeing it start to come together is absolutely worth it. I am interested in pursuing comics professionally, and working on the ‘Founding Monsters’ comic has really helped me understand what that might be like as a career choice.”

Means added that the comic arrives at a time when it’s more important than ever to spark interest in science and history among young people.

“SciComm, or science communication, is something I consider to be very important, as we are fighting anti-science forces and we need to reach people at a young age,” Means said. “I think a comic book that combines people students will know, such as Jefferson, Washington and Franklin, will get them to think about subjects they likely know little about: Ice Age animals and the role their fossils played in early American history.”