Scott Magoon has created more than 30 picture books to date, from writing and illustrating titles including Breathe and The Boy Who Cried Bigfoot to illustrating work by Ame Dyckman, Alice Weaver Flaherty, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, among others. The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn marks a departure from the picture-book format. This 160-page comic, with a sequel on the way, features a team of formerly vanished and newly “de-extincted” creatures on a mission. Woolly mammoth Lug, sabertooth tiger Scratch, a Collins’s poison frog named Quito, and passenger pigeon Martie answer to human mastermind Dr. Z, who genetically engineers them back into existence and sends them to Siberia to retrieve a hunk of keratin from a fossilized Siberian Unicorn, a kind of prehistoric rhino. Can Dr. Z be trusted? Will the adventurers find the horn? Besides being an action-adventure jaunt, The Extincts offers an environmental message. In his original book proposal, Magoon included a sustainability wish list, and Amulet/Abrams is printing the book in soy inks on FSC-certified paper. Magoon spoke with PW about megafauna, methane, and how fiction addresses climate change and conservation.

You’re working in graphic narrative for the first time. How does writing comics differ from creating picture books?

I’ve loved it. It has been a welcome change in that I am able to build a much larger story arc, a much longer character arc. The opportunity to build the story around a character is present in picture books, but in graphic narrative we have so much more space to spread our wings.

I was a picture book and graphic designer at Candlewick and HMH, so what you’re seeing here is a combination of my past lives coming together into one. It’s been gratifying to draw upon that experience, which helped me put the pieces of this puzzle together: will this word balloon fit, can I work within this page count? And the tools have come so far in the past five years. I was just telling the students at a virtual school visit that anyone can pick the tools up and start drawing on a screen. The barrier to entry is so low—there is a cost, yes, but we have legit drawing tools now, similar to real-world tools, and they’re only going to get less expensive.

What other books and media inspired this action-adventure comic?

It’s got a bit of Mission Impossible, The A-Team, G.I. Joe, maybe some Johnny Quest, maybe a little Tintin. You mention these old-time characters, and one way or another they’ve offended someone in the past. But I think they meant well.

Other than the Ice Age movies, creators seem to have a hard time telling stories of prehistory. How did you decide to bring four de-extincted specimens into the present day?

I knew I definitely wanted to do an environmental book, something that was going to be able to address my concerns about climate change and species extinction. I picked a couple of creatures that would look great together visually, from the small to the large. Just as I was dreaming up this book, I was on a ferry on my way to Victoria [B.C.], and in the gift shop there was a book about de-extincting a woolly mammoth, Rise of the Necrofauna by Britt Wray. I took this as a sign I should keep these animals in the story.

In the book’s back matter, “The Extinctiary,” you profile bygone species and describe the science and ethics of the fictional Dr. Z’s experiment. How did your research inform the story?

I wanted to have good factual matter in the back, especially with such fictional characters as talking animals. And it’s so interesting to think about implications for bringing back these creatures. For instance, the woolly mammoth’s habitat doesn’t really exist anymore to support that kind of a creature, and as cool as it would be to see, it would not be fair to them, to us, or to the other creatures still extant. Climate, food chain, all of these factors—the world has changed a great deal since these creatures went out.

It's so interesting to think about implications for bringing back these creatures.

Dr. Z, he’s sort of our guy who doesn’t get it. He wants to bring them back, make money off of patents, exploit these creatures. I’m of the mind we should try to protect and preserve the endangered creatures we have.

Could you talk about how fiction meets fact in key scenes of The Extincts, for instance when “tusk hunters” dig into thawing permafrost at the Batagaika Pit, a massive crater in Siberia?

It was important to me to get the effects of climate change into the story. Batagaika Pit, and megaslumps like it, are climate change drivers. As they collapse, they release methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Batagaika Pit is a great place for scientists to study all kinds of things, like the remains of preserved megafauna, yet it comes at such a horrible cost. That’s why I had hoses being used in The Extincts as they blast away at melting permafrost to get at those tusks.

Every character also comes from a different ecosystem and part of the world, and I wanted them to collide with each other in different ways. When they first arrive in Siberia, Quito [the poison frog] is freezing because he’s used to the jungle, but Lug [the mammoth] is right at home. One is suffering, and the other is comfortable.

With such a strong environmental component, how did you develop the characters and their relationships?

It was definitely a weaving. The heart of the book is Scratch, the sabertooth tiger, and his journey of taking his teammates for granted and putting trust in Dr. Z. I also wanted to develop each animal’s archetypal persona. Martie, the passenger pigeon, is physically smaller, and the only female [at first], and she is always trying to assert herself because she doesn’t want to be quote/unquote “pigeonholed.” She is headstrong, butting heads with Scratch.

Each book focuses on a team member, and since Book One is about Scratch, Book Two [scheduled for 2023] will be Lug’s. It’s about wildfires, and about how Lug is trying to make up for tragic mistakes he’s made in his past. The team takes a turn he doesn’t agree with, and he leaves them. He goes to California, where he meets smoke jumpers, hotshots, and they start to battle a blaze in the wilds. He finds his way to Griffith Observatory in L.A., and there’s a scene at La Brea Tar Pits that is pretty neat.

What is up next for you?

I’m working on a couple of picture books at the moment. With Clarion, I’m illustrating Unflappable by Matt Ward, a book about the “power of yet,” about birds that are unable to fly yet and about all kinds of ways of flying. It’s been fun drawing like that again. And I have another book coming up with Viking, Rocket Ship Solo Trip by Chiara Beth Colombi. As for The Extincts, we’ll see how these two do. I’ll be hitting the road, in person—there’s an events link on my site—for a pretty great cross-country tour. I’ve been returning to school visits, and it’s so awesome seeing readers again.

The Extincts: Quest for the Unicorn Horn by Scott Magoon. Abrams/Amulet, $24.99 Mar. 29 ISBN 978-1-4197-5251-3