On the origins of Founding Monsters
Dr. Bernard K. Means
In pre-pandemic times, I gave regular public talks in and around campus about our work in the Virtual Curation Laboratory 3D scanning and 3D printing archaeological discoveries, historical objects, and various fossils, including dinosaurs and Ice Age mammals. Maggie and I met at one of these talks and she expressed interest in our work. Later, as part of a class tour, Maggie visited our lab space and asked if she could volunteer. I, of course, said yes. Maggie began volunteering by painting 3D printed replicas of mastodon bones and we talked about their significance. We also talked about our mutual fascination with sequential storytelling through graphics, e.g. comic books. Somehow, we hatched the idea of creating a comic book about the Founding Fathers’ obsession with the fossils of mastodons, mammoths, and giant ground sloths and what this meant for the early history of the United States of America. The goal was to create a graphic narrative that would take a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) approach and would be suitable for teaching about history and fossils on a K-12 level. We spent the summer months working on the rich and complex story, deciding what elements definitely needed to be included to tell this story. Maggie then wrote a script that I find very intelligent, quite funny, and does exactly what I wanted to see in this comic book. It was also great to participate in the entire creative process, as I watched Maggie transform her rough sketches into very polished art. This is Maggie’s first full-length comic book and I know it won’t be the last!
Maggie Colangelo and Bernard Means
The Founding Monsters comic book was created as a science-friendly graphical storytelling framework that tells the story of the Founding Fathers and their obsession with prehistoric megafauna, especially mastodons and giant ground sloths. Founding Monsters combines sequential art (e.g. comic book style) with historical and scientific data. The first mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossils were found in New York in the early 18th century. Later in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson was sent fossils from what is now West Virginia for what were eventually identified as bones from a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni). The founding fathers, including not only Jefferson, but also Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, saw these and other isolated bones discovered in Kentucky, New York, and Virginia as critical to countering a notion that simply being in the Americas physically affected its inhabitants—animals, plants, and people—causing them to degenerate relative to their Old World counterparts. Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington all owned the fossils of Ice Age megafauna. Some of Jefferson’s mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were collected by William Clark from Big Bone Lick at Jefferson’s request and these are preserved at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. While the fate of Washington’s mastodon fossils is unclear, a mastodon molar belonging to Franklin was found in property he owned in Philadelphia. However, even as more mastodon and giant ground sloth fossils were uncovered, they were not seen as a compelling counterpoint to the notion of American degeneracy—a complete or at least nearly complete skeleton was needed. In 1799, bones from a mastodon skeleton were discovered on a farm in Orange County, New York that elicited great interest from Jefferson and his compatriots, including Charles Willson Peale, a famous painter and owner of the first public museum in the U.S. In 1801, Peale traveled to New York to purchase the mastodon bones found two years earlier and the right to excavate more bones. As part of America’s first scientific excavation, he developed an ingenious pumping system consisting of a human-powered wooden wheel to remove water from his excavation areas, famously portrayed in his 1806 to 1808 painting Exhumation of the Mastodon. Peale recovered enough bones to reconstruct two mastodons, one of which was one of the first reconstructed fossil animals and displayed it in his museum in Philadelphia beginning on Christmas Eve in 1801.