Friday, August 16, 2019

Book in Common

I'm planning a visit to Quincy, Calif. in the fall because Feather River College has chosen A Fire Story to be its "Book in Common" for the school year! That means it'll be a focal point for campus and community discussion, and basically everybody attending the small-but-mighty two-year institution tucked into the beautiful Sierra Nevada will read it.

Fire is uppermost in your mind if you live in California mountains. The 2018 Camp Fire, which sadly took the title of "Most Destructive Wildfire in California History" from ours, happened in the next county over. Also, the college plans to look at social and emotional issues: community, loss, how we decide what's important. So I'll get to spend a day or two there talking about all those things.

What an extraordinary honor! I will work hard to do a good job.

Sunday, August 11, 2019


The danger of admitting you've learned something new is exposing your original ignorance. "You didn't know that? EVERYone knows that, dummy!" Everybody's understanding of the world has gaps. I'm always delighted to fill one of mine.

I've been doing a lot of landscaping lately, for which I've carried dozens of 60-pound bags of sand, during which I've had time to study the bags' bilingual packaging and learn that the Spanish word for sand is "arena" (pronounced, in the Spanish fashion, "arrayna").

On Saturday, Karen and I visited her Aunt Marylou on California's Mendocino Coast near a town called Point Arena (pronounced, in the English fashion, "areena"). It occurred to me on the drive that a seaside town was more likely named after sand than a sports venue. Aunt Marylou and a quick look at Wikipedia confirmed it: Spanish-speaking sailors originally called the spot "Punta Arena." Sandy Point.

I was proud enough of that insight to share it with my daughters on Sunday. Robin and Laura, who studied classics and Latin for fun, replied, "You know the connection, don't you?"

No. No, I didn't.

Laura explained that Spanish "arena" and English "arena" share a Latin origin. The floors of ancient Roman amphitheaters such as the Colosseum were covered in a fine sand called "harena" that made it easier to mop up blood. Latin harena (sandy place of combat sport) = Spanish arena (sand) + English arena (place of combat sport).

Learning the connection between ancient bloodsport half a world away and a cute little town I had lunch in centuries later made me unusually happy.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

PBS NewsHour: A Fire Story

Here's my segment, with Judy Woodruff's intro.

Overnight, A Fire Story's sales ranking on shot from something like 58,000 to #175. Television is still an incredibly powerful medium.

Thanks again to the PBS NewsHour crew for their thoughtful work!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

PBS NewsHour: The Rest of the Story

[Newcomers, Welcome! If you'd like to read the original webcomic that I wrote and drew in the days following my home's destruction in California's 2017 wildfires, here's a link. My new graphic novel, A Fire Story, is available from Amazon or your local heroic independent bookseller. Thanks!]

Today, the PBS NewsHour aired a 6-minute feature segment on A Fire Story and me. National exposure on a program like that—by which I mean one watched by smart people most likely to read books—is a big deal!

Here’s how it happened.

Back in March, I got a call from Summerlea Kashar, executive director of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. She’d been contacted by a NewsHour producer who’d read about CAM’s exhibition of my Fire Story artwork and wanted to drop by the museum to shoot some footage. And, by the way, did Summerlea know how to reach me, and did she think I’d be interested in having the NewsHour come to my house to do an interview?

Yes. Yes I was.

I began corresponding with NewsHour producer Kira Wakeam and liked her right away. I felt I was in good hands. Viewers probably assume that the on-camera reporter has the most important job, and it is important, but often it’s an anonymous producer who talks to the sources, does the research, and shapes the story before the reporter even shows up.

The NewsHour crew wanted to meet on March 26 and 27—coincidentally, the exact dates Karen and I were moving into our newly rebuilt house. For the TV people, this was a tremendous stroke of good fortune. Our return home, a year and a half after California's largest-ever wildfire destroyed our neighborhood, gave them a dramatic hook to build a story around. For Karen and me, it would be a tremendous pain. We were really truly moving! At its best, moving is hard and exhausting and awful. We’d be doing it while hosting a camera crew.

I told Kira that sounded fantastic. Karen gave me the stink-eye.

Planning was complicated by the fact that I was doing a book signing in Portland, Oregon on March 25, and wasn’t due to arrive home until late on March 26. Some quick reservation juggling by Abrams Publicist Maya, and I was awake in Portland at 4 a.m. to catch a flight that would get me home by mid-morning. So you can imagine how fresh I felt when Kira knocked on my door at noon with correspondent John Yang, cameraman Jason, and co-producer Other Jason.

Here’s the picture: the house is torn up. The garage is a Jenga-jumble of packed boxes ready to be moved the next day. Most of the rooms are empty except the small bedroom I use as an office, which we leave untouched because Kira wants footage of where I write and draw. Karen’s being a really good sport because I’ve just been gone for two days while she packed, and now I show up with four strangers unloading enough video equipment to televise a Super Bowl game.

Jason and John get my makeshift studio ready for its close-up.
Showing John the notebook in which I drew my original “Fire Story”
webcomic, with the pens and highlighters I used.

All the indoor interview footage, plus the bit where Karen and I moved two boxes of pots and pans, was shot the afternoon of March 26. Then Kira, John, Jason and Other Jason went to their hotel, and Karen and I packed up my office and cleaned out the house. It was a long night! Next morning, the moving crew and camera crew showed up at about the same time, so while Karen supervised the movers I galavanted off to shoot all the outdoor footage, making sure to wear the same clothes I had the day before so the shots would match.

Let me emphasize what a really good sport Karen was.

Jason, John, Other Jason and Kira shooting an introduction outdoors.
For segments in which John and I drove around, I had a GoPro camera mounted on my side window and cameraman Jason in the back seat, as you might expect. But what you couldn’t know is that I also had producer Kira in my trunk, directing the action by watching the camera feed on her phone. Ah, the glamour of big-time TV!

A couple of hours later, the PBS NewsHour crew was on to another Bay Area assignment before returning to Washington DC, and I was in my new house sorting and schlepping boxes into their proper rooms.

Why the three-month delay between shooting and broadcast? No idea. Kira originally thought it’d air in early April, and I know they had it ready a long time ago. But it’s obviously the type of timeless story that can sit on the shelf until your hour-long newscast has a 6-minute hole to fill, and I guess today was that day.

I think the televised piece turned out great. I was apprehensive; I trusted Kira and knew what footage they’d shot, but the trick is how it’s edited to tell a story. They told our story well. The NewsHour folks all impressed me as kind and sensitive people, which wasn’t necessarily what I expected from a national news crew. They could have easily been cynical and arrogant instead of terrific.

Of course, my publisher Abrams and I hope that a lot of people watched the program and said, “Wow, I’ve got to buy that book!” It could be a game-changer for us; it could also be a damp fizzle. I don't try to predict such things anymore. But I very much appreciate Kira discovering A Fire Story and reaching out to see if I wanted to talk about it. Regardless of outcome, the answer to that question is almost always “Yes.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Denver Pop Culture Con

I had a nice weekend as a guest of the Denver Pop Culture Con, doing five panels while scouting the sales floor, going to other people's panels, watching good books win pretty trophies, peeking at TV and movie stars, getting lost, and walking around one of my favorite American cities. I reunited with some friends and made some new ones.

Denver Pop Culture Con is produced by the non-profit Pop Culture Classroom, which gives it a different feel than other conventions I've been to. In addition to the usual superhero, video game, and pop culture fol-de-rol, it focuses on being family-friendly with an undercurrent of education: creative workshops for kids, using comics in the classroom, more than the usual share of teachers and librarians.

The Con staff was always friendly and eager to help. The Con itself presented some challenges. Signage was poor; I spent all day Friday looking for something that was listed in the program but gave me no other clues where to find it. People who wanted to attend my panels had to leave the exhibition hall, take an escalator down one floor, walk about 40 yards, take another escalator down, then peek down hallways until they found the right room. I think that kept panel attendance low. My most popular panel was one I did on the enduring popularity of "Peanuts" with Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin, Schulz Museum Archivist Sarah Breaux, and comics historian R.C. Harvey, which drew about three dozen people. But another panel I did had six people; a friend moderated a panel that only had one. There was some confusion and miscommunication attributed to key organizers leaving just before the Con, including the person who invited me.

Still, it's a poor, ungrateful guest who criticizes his hosts. Some of my beefs, such as the Convention Center layout, were out of their hands. Overall I had a terrific time with nice people who all seemed very happy to be there. It's a good event with a unique mission and flavor.


The Denver Convention Center is hard to miss: just look for the gigantic blue bear peering in the window.
Thousands of people waited for the doors to open on Saturday, by far the busiest day. Despite crowds that reportedly exceeded 100,000, the space was large enough that there was (usually) room to walk and breathe, and even some quiet corners to sit and rest.

A typical row of the main exhibition floor. This was on Friday; Saturday was more crowded, but the wide spacing between booths kept things mostly navigable.
A connected room the size of an airplane hangar was set aside for celebrity autographs. Lines were sometimes long, but also occasionally astonishingly short, and this vast space never filled up. Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones, George "Sulu" Takei, Cary "Princess Bride" Elwes, Catherine "Dr. Who" Tate, Dave "Drax" Bautista, Claudia "Babylon 5" Christian, and many others took their turns in the boxes. I enjoyed seeing Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd and Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson sitting peaceably next to each other. Photography was forbidden here--I got scolded for taking this one--because that's how the stars make their money. I didn't pay to say Hello to anyone famous but enjoyed breathing the same air.
Unfortunately, the entire nation of Canada was a no-show.

Saw some old friends, made some new ones, and just said "Howdy" to a few folks.

The first person I ran into as I walked into the Con was Tom Racine, podcaster extraordinaire, who moderated three or four panels. I went to a couple of them; Tom was about as prepared, professional, and nimble on his feet as a moderator could be. During a break we recorded an interview for a future episode of his Tall Tale Radio podcast, which is the best on the Net.
I met comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey last September in Sacramento, and we reconnected in Denver to sit together on a panel about the enduring popularity of "Peanuts." Bob is a knowledgeable, delightful man who only plays a curmudgeon online. I bought that Accidental Ambassador Gordo book in front of him, which Bob wrote with one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Gus Arriola.

I found syndicated cartoonist and best-selling author Terri Libenson! Now we’re friends in real life, not just Facebook. She did a charming “workshop” for a couple dozen young fans of her books.
Terri at work, teaching the kids how she draws her characters.
Peter Bagge is an independent comics great, coming out of an underground tradition to today focus on biographies of people other writer/artist/publishers might not touch. I bought Credo, his bio of Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter-editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder and a fine writer, editor, and social agitator in her own right, and joked that he and I might be the only two people in the building who knew who she was. Peter and I did a panel together, followed by a long, quality conversation that I really enjoyed. The next morning we happened to hit our hotel's breakfast buffet at the same time and had another short talk. He's a very nice and gracious guy. I'm still a bit dazzled.
Brigid Alverson is a respected comics journalist who moderated one of the panels I was on. We've corresponded and spoken by phone several times over the past 15 years or so, including a recent interview about A Fire Story, but never met in person until now. Turns out we're kind of kindred souls, about the same age with backgrounds in physics and journalism. Love her.
I first met Nathan Hale, best-selling author of historical comics for kids, a few years ago. We reconnected in Denver for two panels, the second on "Comics in the Curriculum." He's a dynamic, polished, entertaining speaker who took charge of the panel in the very best way, since it was my fifth panel and I was kinda out of gas anyway. Happy to let him take the lead.
A selfie of that panel underway, moderated by Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin. One of my favorite moments of the Con happened here: Jessica was introducing us, and when she said, "To my left is Nathan Hale--" there was an audible gasp in the audience from a teacher who didn't know he'd be there, had no idea what he looked like, but was thrilled to be in the room with him. In some circles, he's a superstar.

My brief encounter with Neal Adams gets its own paragraph. Mr. Adams is an all-time great artist in both superhero comic books and newspaper comic strips. I've loved his work all my life. He’s been at every con I’ve attended, manning his giant expensive end-cap booth, and I’ve always been too intimidated to approach him. Mr. Adams has a reputation for not suffering fools, and I was certain that if we ever met, I'd prove myself a perfect fool. But this time I figured What the Hell.

That's Mr. Adams in the tan jacket, dwarfed by his enormous booth.

"Mr. Adams," I said, "I just wanted to say thanks. Your work was important to me and has been a big inspiration."

"How?" he asked.

"Well . . . you set a very high standard and showed me just how good comic art could be."

Mr. Adams leveled his gaze. "But what did I inspire you to do?"

Ah. This was a test.

"Well," I said, "I've published three graphic novels and won an Eisner Award . . ."

Mr. Adams's eyes lit up and he smiled.

"Well then," he said, "thank you!"

Handshake, and I was out of there so fast I left little cartoon dust clouds in my wake.


Some comics purists don't like people who dress up as characters and go to conventions. They think it detracts from the "true meaning" of the event, and clogs the aisles with people who are there to be seen rather than buy their stuff. I think those purists should lighten up. Cosplayers add creativity, fun and color to a convention. Their fandom is just as pure and true as anyone else's, and comics aren't a zero-sum game. It's a big pie; there's plenty for everyone.

Some of these costume references are pretty obscure. The deeper the dive the better. Not everyone will get it, but if someone does, you've made their day.

I did have fun storming the castle.
Queen Amidala braving a dangerous mission. Truly! Would you risk an escalator in that dress?
Avengers Assemble! The fellow on the left exemplifies the most popular cosplay I saw at the Con, as every guy with a beard, belly, and ratty bathrobe--honestly, not a trivial proportion of comics fans--realized he could be Thor in "Avengers: Endgame."
Loved this groovy gang.
My favorite of the Con, and maybe my favorite cosplay of all time. Somebody close that door.

A Note About Originality

I don't know if it was just Denver or a general trend in comics conventions, but I saw a lot of something I really dislike: giant walls of prints published by people who have no right to the intellectual property they're ripping off.

Not to pick on this guy, but, like, this guy. He's a good enough artist--his technique is fine and the character likenesses are good--but if he got permission from Marvel, DC, Paramount, the CW, the BBC, etc. to sell prints of these characters, I'll eat them all.

Fine-tuning my outrage: I think true fan art is terrific. A kid who loves Iron Man and draws up little pictures, stickers and stuff to sell for a buck a piece is technically violating copyright but should be left alone. They're expressing their passion for the character. I like passion.

Likewise, comics professionals who've made a living drawing these characters should get a pass. Neal Adams defined the look of Batman in the 1970s and for generations to follow. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Adams can draw and sell all the Batmen he wants.

That's not what's going on here. These print peddlers are big commercial operations. They're not in it for the love of characters or stories, they're in it because the prints sell. And unlike fandom, booth space at conventions is a zero-sum game. There's only so much real estate. These big guys crowd out others doing original art with characters and stories they actually created.

It's hard to feel sorry for giant corporations that own Superman and Indiana Jones. That doesn't make violating their copyright OK. I don't think these print emporiums are good for comics, conventions, creators or fans, and I'd really like to see cons crack down on them, maybe with a little encouragement from the true copyright holders and their scary lawyers. Make room for new creative voices producing original material. That's the real life-blood of the industry and art form.

Off my soap box now . . .


Denver is my platonic ideal of a medium-large American city. It's walkable, clean, artsy, vital. Beautiful surroundings. My only complaint is that the airport is about 45 minutes away--seems like it's halfway to Kansas. Otherwise, it's a terrific town. I spent quite a few hours just walking around downtown, and only wish I'd had more time.

This great Midwestern bookstore had a few copies of A Fire Story, and was happy to have me sign them.

Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom, Denver Pop Culture Con, all the organizers and volunteers who were nice to me and got me to where I needed to go, my old and new friends, and everyone who made it a great weekend and event for me. I'd go back anytime.

Monday, June 3, 2019

I Can See My House From Here!

I'm home from a good weekend at the Denver Pop Culture Con, where I did five (!) panels, spent time with friends, met some cool people, and had a great time. As soon as I upload some photos, I'll share here.

Meanwhile, I have a much better story that needs a little wind-up.

Ross Franquemont became a friend via other Facebook friends in the way we do these days, which is to say I've never met any of these people in real life but still feel close. Until he recently retired from a 20-year USAF career, Ross flew the U-2 spy plane, which is still in service and I believe still holds some flight records despite being developed in 1957.

This weekend Ross was in Denver training for his new job as a commercial airline pilot, saw that I was in town for Pop Culture Con, and messaged me asking if we could meet. Then he sent me some photos. And I figured that if a guy likes your book enough to take it up 68,000 feet (not quite the edge of space, but high enough to see the horizon curve) on his very last U-2 flight, and has the thoughtfulness to photograph it while flying over your actual house on the distant planet below, the least you can do is buy him a beer.

So I did.

When Ross said he shot the photo while flying over my house, I thought maybe he meant somewhere in the general vicinity. That would have been neat enough. But when we met, Ross pointed out some ground features in the photo above and told me what he thought they were....
...and after checking with Google Earth, I confirmed that he was absolutely right. My house is actually in this photo! If my mind weren't completely blown right now, it still wouldn't be able to come up with words to express how cool I think this is or much this means to me.

This is the closest I will ever get to being an astronaut.

Thanks Ross, for a gift that will look AMAZING on my new studio wall!

For more of Ross's beautiful U-2 photos, visit Extreme Ross Photography, especially the Gallery labeled "U-2 High Flight Photos."

Ross with spacesuit and helmet...

...and without. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019


In addition to being a leading author, editor and cultural idea-person, Cory Doctorow is a good egg. I'm not saying that just because he's posted a terrific review of "A Fire Story" to, which included phrases like "a deeply moving, beautiful book" and "a touchstone book," but because he's a man of his word.

I ran into Cory a few weeks ago at the L.A. Times Book Festival and began a nice, brief conversation by thanking him for one of the most thoughtful reviews my book "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow" ever got. As I left, I handed him a postcard advertising "A Fire Story," and he said he'd check it out. I wouldn't have blamed him if he hadn't. "I'll check it out" is social grease for slipping away on friendly terms; I don't check out everything I say I will, and don't expect anyone else to either. But Cory did, then followed up with a review he knew would direct a lot of eyeballs to my book. It means a lot.

At the L.A. Times Book Festival with Cory Doctorow.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019


Here's a 41-minute podcast I did with Nathan Evans for Popzara, which is "a bazaar of pop culture and commentary spanning the worlds of entertainment and technology." Some of our discussion will sound familiar to those who've been paying close attention (and why would you?), but he also covered some territory I've never been asked about before.

Thanks, Popzara!

Monday, April 15, 2019

L.A. Times Festival of Books

I got home from the L.A. Times Festival of Books very late last night. It was a good, successful event and weekend, helped considerably by my sisters Elisabeth and Brenda, who pointed me to Los Angeles gems I never would have found on my own. The festival itself is huge; mid-Sunday I was still discovering new nooks I hadn't visited. They say 100,000 people attend but it never felt that crowded. Beautiful weather. Lots of good conversations with people who love books.

Nice theming throughout.

A representative stretch of the L.A. Times Festival of Books. There were a dozen boulevards like this lined with tents--mostly small publishers or even self-published authors, but also a few big companies. Not a bad showing by comics folks: DC, Marvel, and Oni Press sent small delegations and, again, there were a lot of small-press comics.

The L.A. Times printed a 28-page program that listed speakers, events, schedules, maps. I took up a big chunk of page 16.

The band showed up Sunday morning. Very entertaining.

Weekend highlight: I met writer Cory Doctorow! Cory wrote a really nice review of "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" a few years ago, and his love of retro-futurism is right up my alley. I'd planned to attend a talk he was giving Sunday afternoon in hopes of just getting a chance to say "Hi." Instead, I found him doing a spontaneous, unannounced booksigning Sunday morning, and we got to have a real conversation. And then I bought his latest book.

The panel I was there to do, "Earth, Air, Fire, Water--the Environment in Crisis" (I was "fire"), went great. The other panelists and I got on very well, and I think we hit a good balance of dread and hope. When I scouted out our panel's venue on Saturday, I was worried because it was a long distance from the rest of the festival action. I thought we'd be lucky to draw a dozen people. Instead we got about 150! The booksigning after was fine; they sold all their copies of "A Fire Story," which wasn't many--maybe 15 or 20?--but I was happy with that.

The lecture hall where my panel was held. This was early, when people were still trickling in. We got about 150 (that's what I do while other panelists are talking--count heads).

Before we began: our moderator Alan Zarembo of the L.A. Times and panelists, each of whose books represented one quarter of earth, air, fire and water. (NOT Earth, Wind and Fire--they're totally different people.)

All of the panelists' books for sale near the booksigning tent. A lot of the "Fire Story" copies were already gone.

Probably the best time I've ever had in L.A.! (Anaheim is arguably not L.A.)