Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Richard Thompson, Cartoonists' Cartoonist

I didn't have a spare 21 minutes this morning to spend watching this profile of Richard Thompson, the creator of what I once called "The Best Comic Strip Being Drawn Today." But I did anyway. It's a terrific overview of his work and an honest, unsentimental glimpse of what Parkinson's Disease has robbed him (and us) of.

The film calls him a "cartoonists' cartoonist," which I've always thought was a sort of slippery phrase in any context (Comedians' comedian? Writers' writer? Surgeons' surgeon?). What does that mean? In this case, it means to me that Richard does things I wish I could do, as well as things I don't understand how anyone could do. He's the very model of "working hard to make it look easy." The film touches on him doing 17 drafts of a cartoon that looks like it was scribbled out in two minutes. I am agape.

Asking for 21 minutes of anybody's time is asking a lot, but this was worth mine.

The Art of Richard Thompson from GVI on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Chair Man of the Board

This is a post about a board.

I've used the same art board for about 30 years. Instead of one of those nifty tilting drafting tables (which I'd love but have no room for), I rest the board on my lap to draw on. This page from Mom's Cancer shows me and my board in action.

Art boards are made of light, soft wood so you can stick tacks into them. They're meant to take some abuse. Ink, paint, tape and glue are scars that an art board wears proudly. Early on, I smartly decided to use one side of the board for drawing and painting, and the other side for cutting paper with an X-Acto blade. The front stayed smooth while the back got scored and sliced. That worked fine for a long time, until the cutting side became so lumpy and choppy I couldn't even cut a straight line on it anymore.

So yesterday I cemented a cutting mat to the back. I inherited the green plastic mat from my Mom, who used it for sewing, and I hadn't done much with it since. Time to put it to work.

Since the cutting mat was larger than the board, I had to trim it to size. Turns out that's really tough to do! I mean, I realize the entire point of a cutting mat is that it's hard to cut, but I hacked at this thing with a utility knife for an hour and hardly dented it! If anybody ever pulls a gun on me I'm grabbing this mat, because I'm pretty sure it could stop a bullet. I ended up cutting it with a jigsaw.

I expect this board upgrade to be good for another 30 years.

Artists aren't supposed to fetishize their tools--imbue them with so much power that they're afraid to change them or even use them at all. I had an art teacher in college who took a pair of scissors to a new, expensive brush just to make the point that the tools exist to serve you, not vice versa.

But man, this board and I have some history. Although it came from an art supply store rather than the Lady of the Lake, it nonetheless feels a bit like my Excalibur. An artist's board is personal.

I've had the privilege of sitting at the drawing board of Charles Schulz--not the board that's exhibited at his museum, but a second board he used at home. I hardly have a mystical bone in my body, but it's impossible (impossible!) to sit at that board and not feel the creative mojo emanating from it. You can see the ghosts of art and letters carved into the soft wood as Schulz's nibs bore down through his paper.

I mean that literally--you can read words Schulz wrote.

Several years ago, Karen and I went to the estate sale of a watercolorist and printmaker who lived in our neighborhood. I never met her before she died, but when I saw her drawing boards tossed into the garage as "scrap lumber," I knew I owed it to her to save them. I paid a couple of bucks and took them home, and use them from time to time even though she warped them. My nod to her.

I fetishize a little.

Monday, November 10, 2014


Mike Lynch is a pal as well as a cartoonist whose career I admire and learn what I can from. He's one of a shrinking number of single-panel magazine cartoonists who actually make a living at it. Don't stare too hard at the mythical creature or you may frighten it away.

A couple of years ago, Mike and three cartoonist friends self-published a little zine called Raconteur as an outlet for longer four-page pieces. As the zine's mission statement reads, it's "a collection of true stories written and illustrated by cartoonists who usually specialize in other formats." Very sadly, one of the original Raconteurs, Jeff Pert, died suddenly (at age 55!) last year. A few months ago, Mike asked me if I wanted to be a Raconteur.

When Dorothy Parker asks if you want to join her for lunch at the Algonquin, you don't think twice.

So Raconteur #5 is out and I'm in it. Also in it are Mike, New Yorker-and-other-places cartoonist John Klossner, cartoonist/illustrator Brian Moore, and syndicated cartoonist ("Off the Mark") Mark Parisi. That five--not four but five!--cartoonists for the price of . . . well, I don't really know what the going price of cartoonists is these days, but we don't come cheap, even by the pound.

If you're interested in five little slice-of-life stories, I'd be very happy to sign and send you a copy for $5. Honestly, that's probably asking a lot for a slim 20-page comic, but they're professionally printed (color cover, black-and-white guts), the stories are good, and I'm proud to be in it. Also, postage is included, so that knocks like a buck off the real price right there (I'm only mailing in the U.S. and Canada; sorry, but elsewhere's too much trouble). I'm not looking to get rich, just cover my share of the production costs.

Here's a teaser of my four-page story about a little project my daughters and I did, with the Paypal ordering button right below. Hope you'll check it out! If not, we can still be friends.

Raconteur No. 5

Monday, November 3, 2014

Scoutin' at the Schulz

(that post title is sung to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz"....)

I had a good day teaching a three-hour workshop for Girl Scouts earning their Comic Artist badges at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center on Saturday. My wife Karen, who stayed involved in Girl Scouts after she led our daughters' troop for 12 years, came along as my invaluable girl wrangler. The 25 workshoppers were Cadettes in sixth through eighth grades, some of whom had traveled a couple of hours to be there.

(Two "By the Ways": As I was reminded and will explain, there's a big difference between girls in the sixth and eighth grades. Also, the Girl Scout national organization's website is so chaotic that just now I couldn't find the answer to a basic question like "how old are Cadette Girl Scouts?" and had to look it up on Wikipedia instead.)

To earn the badge, Scouts must complete five tasks:
1. Delve into the world of comics
2. Choose a story to tell
3. Draw it out
4. Frame it in four panels
5. Add the words.

To that list I added a Number 6: Have a snack break.

The first thing I told the Scouts is that the Badge Authorities had gotten it wrong and I was going to teach them the right way to make comics. You don't "add the words" after you "draw it out": the words go first.

One way the Scouts could satisfy Task 1 was visiting with a comic artist. Since they were talking to me, that may have sufficed. However, I also gave them a quick survey of the history of comics, from Ben Franklin's "Join or Die" through 19th Century newspapers to 1938 Superman to 1960s Underground to graphic novels in the 2000s (with an obvious nod to a half century of Schulz).

And tied it all together with a neat bow on top.

I taught them the terminology for the parts of a comic: panel, balloon, border, gutter, etc. We talked about expressions, and how beginning with a basic face--two eyes and a nose--and just adding eyebrows and a mouth in different shapes and positions can communicate a wide variety of emotions. I had the Scouts do that themselves: I provided a blank face and they tried out different expressions. Throughout the day, I shared the results of willing Scouts with the rest of the group via the camera in my notebook computer.

Trying out some expressions, communicating some emotions.
How we shared: I'm holding this Scout's work in front of
my laptop's camera while she tells her story on the monitor.

I taught them to make comics the traditional way, sketching in pencil first then going over it in ink, but I also explained that that method developed during the early days of newspaper print and wasn't really necessary for the Web or modern media. If they want to make comics with paint or collage, more power to them. However, I specifically stuck with black-and-white pencil-and-ink for two reasons: it's the simplest, and after the workshop they could tour the Schulz Museum and see that Mr. Schulz made his comics the exact same way they had.

Pencil, then ink. The words go first.

One exercise I call "And then what happened?" I draw a man walking along a street and ask the Scouts, "and then what happened?" This usually gets an enthusiastic response. I draw whatever they tell me. "A rock fell on his head!" "He looked up and saw a dump truck full of rocks above him!" "He woke up and it was all a dream but he still had a lump on his head!"

Another exercise I stole from my friend Mita Mahato, who gave a workshop on zine-making at the latest Graphic Medicine conference I attended. First, we origamied a sheet of paper into an eight-page booklet. Then we did a jam comic, where one person starts a story based on my prompt, then passes it to her right for the next person to draw the next page, and so on until all the pages are full. It's an improvisational "And then what happened?" exercise meant to be quick and sloppy. It worked wonderfully.

A couple of Scouts working on their jam comics. You can also see that I brought along some age-appropriate comics for them to read as examples of the form, including a new series called "Lumberjanes" and my friend Otis Frampton's "Oddly Normal."

Finally, they had to apply everything we'd talked about by writing and drawing their own four-panel comics, which volunteers shared with the group (as they had their jam comics). I found features to point out and compliment in all of them. They made some good comics! Mission accomplished!

That's also when I was sharply reminded of the difference between the sixth and eighth grades. In particular, there was a little group of older girls whose stories all involved characters flirting and making out, and one whose four-panel comic ended with a decapitation. As they shared their stories with the group, I expressed mild mock dismay--"Oh, I hope this story isn't going where I think it's going. OH NO!"--keeping in mind there were also 10-year-olds in the room and, by the way, I'm sort of representing the clean-cut Schulz Museum. I wasn't trying to smother anybody's creativity, but at the same time wanted to keep it G-rated.

Well, those girls got their revenge. Reading through the workshop evaluations later, I received four in a row that rated their instructor as "poor" and said the museum needed to hire somebody less "sexist" who realized Girl Scouts could create stories about romance and death, too.


I want to be liked as much as anybody, and that stung a little. I actually took a moment for self-reflection: was I sexist? My wife didn't think so. "That's just how they are at that age," said Karen. I think I'd've reacted the same if they'd all been boys. If any of them had said anything during the workshop, I'd have encouraged them to tell any type of story they wanted to later, and let their freak flags fly. That's what comics are about (a point I'd made when discussing Underground Comics)! Just not on my time.

Those mean girls won't get me down! *sniff*

And they didn't.

Many thanks to the Schulz Museum for asking me to do the workshop, especially Education Director Jessica Ruskin. Thanks to the two troop moms who stayed and were a big help, and especially thanks to all the Scouts, who were really terrific and fun to work with, even the mean girls in the corner. I'm supposed to teach another Cadette workshop in December, which I hope Jessica lets me do despite my bad reviews.

Afterward, some of the troops asked to pose for photos with me and their completed comics (faces are blurred because I didn't get permission to show them). I love that Schulz quote on the wall of the museum's Education Room and will take any opportunity to pose under it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reviews and Criticism

Sarah Hunter, who writes a "Webcomics Wednesday" blog for The Booklist Reader, posted a very nice write-up of The Last Mechanical Monster yesterday. She calls it "playful, nostalgic and heartwarming," which are three words I like. Thanks to Sarah.

My webcomic got another review back in July that I think I mentioned elsewhere but not here. Larry Cruz of Comic Book Resources' "Robot 6" came up with a subtitle for his review I really liked: "No Country for Old Villains." Larry picked up on some things I was very happy to see somebody "get" but also missed a couple of details, which suggests I could make them clearer. That's one reason I'm publishing the story as a webcomic: to get readers' feedback on what works and what doesn't. Overall, a nicely positive review.

Also, while I'm on the topic, the immensely respected Cory Doctorow posted a review of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow on the immensely popular BoingBoing.net back in August. This one's a keeper. In my favorite sentence, Doctorow writes that "Fies is going further and longer here, taking a core sample of the Gernsback Continuaa, the futures that shaped our past." (Hugo Gernsback was a writer, editor and publisher very influential in mid-Century science fiction. The Hugo Award is named for him.)

A few thoughts on reviews and being reviewed . . .

It's true what they say: you'll forget 100 good reviews but one bad one will haunt you for years. Whenever I sit down to draw, I still hear in the back of my mind the voice of one reviewer 10 years ago who thought Mom's Cancer was poorly drawn. I will try to prove him wrong forever.

Sometimes I know a review is coming but usually I don't. Sarah contacted me to ask permission to use images from The Last Mechanical Monster to illustrate her Booklist Reader review. My understanding of copyright law is that's not necessary--Fair Use allows the use of excerpts for the purposes of criticism--but I always appreciate being asked. It seems polite and professional. However, I'm not offended when I'm not asked.

Nobody gave me an author's handbook when I started out, but my sense is that it's not cool to ask whether the review is good before granting permission to reprint an excerpt. "You didn't like my story? Then tough noogies!" I think you need to be a good sport. Especially in comics, which is a pretty small industry with a tiny number of respectable reviewers.

I learned the hard way to never respond publicly to a review. "The hard way" means that a long time ago I tried to defend myself online and only came off sounding whiny, even to me. Once in a while I'll see an author show up in the comments thread of a review, and instantly know two things: they're young (or nuts), and it's not going to end well. I haven't been wrong yet. It's wince-inducing.

Best to pretend that you never saw it. However, I do sometimes privately contact writers of especially thoughtful reviews to let them know I appreciated it, and writers of tough-but-fair reviews to say "Sorry this one didn't work for you, hope I can catch you next time." And I mean it.

I tend to skim my reviews rather than read them closely. It's too emotionally taxing. All I want to know is "good" or "bad." It's always gratifying to discover that a reader related to a theme or got a point I was trying to make. Anything else just twists my knickers.

I think more creators see more reviews of their work than you'd expect. I know professional cartoonists who stalk the most obscure backwoods of the Internet hunting for comments, and everybody's got a "Google Alert" set up for their name and comic title. I also learned that the hard way, after making fun of a comic strip only to get an e-mail from its creator. Gulp. Luckily he was very gracious, but since then I've been careful to only post statements I can stand behind. If I wouldn't say something to somebody's face, I don't say it online.

I admit I'm ambivalent about the whole matter of criticism. It's necessary . . . I guess. A good critic can put a work in context, analyze it intelligently, and illuminate it in ways readers might otherwise miss. They can promote the worthy and rebuke the worthless. When I'm in a bad mood, critics are a low form of parasite who'd have nothing to do if creators weren't putting their heads on the chopping block every day, begging for their mercy or at least a quick sharp blade. Some appreciation would be nice.

The knee-jerk response to criticism is, "Yeah, if you think it's so easy, why don't you do it?" That's wrong. I don't have to be able to shoot a movie or play professional baseball to have an opinion on whether someone else is doing it well or poorly. Otherwise, nobody could ever criticize anything! My opinion may be more or less informed--most five-year-olds aren't equipped to critique a gourmet restaurant--but I have every right to express it. It's up to my consumers to figure out whether I know what I'm talking about.

Still. Still still still. It's so hard to create anything--even something terrible--and so easy to sit on the sidelines sniping. Nobody sets out to do bad work, and releasing it into the world is asking for a kick to the heart. I think too few critics understand the power they hold and the harm they can do.

You wouldn't know it from this blog or Facebook, but I have pretty strong private opinions about books, movies, comics, etc. There's a lot I don't like. Sticking to comics, there's work I think is artless, unskilled, amateurish, puerile, stupid, and corrosive to the mind and body. I could name a dozen comics creators whose careers I find completely inexplicable; I literally can't fathom why anybody likes their stuff.

But somebody does. That's why the worst I'll ever say about something is, "It's not for me." It may be for stupid people with no taste but . . .

It's not for me.

I also realize I'm probably off base about some art and artists. My judgment's not infallible. There's work that nearly everybody but me thinks is excellent. There's work that even I agree is excellent, but for some reason I just don't enjoy.

It's not for me.

That doesn't give me license to stick it to 'em.

My favorite take on criticism is from filmmaker Orson Welles who, when asked by a critic to explain his work, said "I'm the bird. You're the ornithologist."

Now, ornithology is a worthwhile scientific field in which smart people do important work. But what does a bird care about how an ornithologist observes it, classifies it, documents it? What would ornithology be without birds to study?

Nothing, and nothing.

I try to be the best bird I can be, and leave the ornithology to the ornithologists.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Halfway Game: 2014 Edition

Due to popular demand, this blog regularly features "The Halfway Game!"

The "popular demand" part is a lie, and the last time we played was in 2011.


The game works like this: think of some event in the past, and then count back twice that number of years to see what the event was halfway to. For best effect, the two events should have some thematic connection. When it goes right, the Halfway Game gives you a startling perspective on the passage of time and appreciation for history. When it goes horribly wrong, you just feel old.

For example:

Pixar's "The Incredibles" (2004) is about halfway to "Toy Story" (1995). Likewise, Disney's "Little Mermaid" (1989) is halfway to "Mary Poppins" (1964).

The start of Bill Clinton's presidency (1993) is halfway to the end of Richard Nixon's first term (1972).

Video games Doom and Myst (1993) are halfway to Pong (1972). Likewise, Grand Theft Auto (1997) is halfway to Missile Command and Pac-Man (1980).

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), the final Star Trek movie with the full original cast, is halfway to Star Trek's final season on TV (1968-69).

The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) is nearly halfway to John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech (1963).

Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, visited by Kennedy
in 1963 and millions of Germans in 1989.

In a few months, Marty McFly's first time-travel trip (1985) will be halfway to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance where his parents met (1955).

"Star Wars" (1977) is almost halfway to "The Wizard of Oz" (1939).

The TV miniseries "Roots" (1977) is halfway to the first commercial TV broadcast (1940). So are "Three's Company" and "The Love Boat."

Marvel Comics' "Howard the Duck" (1976) is halfway to the first Superman comic book (1938).

Mariner 9, the first space probe to successfully orbit another planet (Mars, 1972), is halfway to Clyde Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto (1930).

The first lunar landing (1969) is halfway to the first airplane circumnavigation of the world (U.S. Army, 1924).

One of these craft was the first to fly around the world (1924);
the other craft was the first to land on the Moon (1969)

The 1964 New York World's Fair is halfway to the beginning of World War I (1914), and the beginning of World War I is halfway to the writing of the Star Spangled Banner (1814) (hat tip to Jim O'Kane!).

Barack Obama's birthday (1961) is halfway to Lyndon Johnson's birthday (1908).

Ray Bradbury's birthday (1920) is halfway to the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (1826).

The first commercial blues recording, "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds (1920), is halfway to Beethoven's final composition (String Quartet No. 16, 1826).

Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" (1916) is halfway to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818).

Jesus Christ is halfway to the estimated completion of Stonehenge.

Finally, my birthday (1960) is halfway to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, the first radio broadcast, the discovery of the existence of vitamins, and the Great San Francisco Earthquake (1906). This is where things go horribly wrong.

Sigh. I hate this game.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Wish They Could'a Seen It

I'd apologize for not blogging in nearly a month if I had a sense anybody dropped by regularly only to go away disappointed by lack of new content. The way it seems to work these days is I blog, I tell everyone on Facebook I blogged, they come to read it, then they comment about it on Facebook. In fact, Facebook absorbs a lot of the nibbles and dribbles I once would have posted here. But I still enjoy this outlet for longer and longer-lasting pieces, and know from experience that my blogging output naturally ebbs and flows.

Also, not everybody uses Faceboook.

In point of fact, this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane about pioneering rocket scientist Robert Goddard, who invented in obscurity and dreamed of spaceflight decades before anyone else shared his vision. He was born in 1882, patented multi-stage and liquid-fueled rockets in 1914, launched many test flights in the Twenties and Thirties, and died in 1945. I told Jim I wished he'd lived to see the first Moon landing in July 1969. He would've been 86 years old.

So that's today's game: What do you wish you could show somebody from the past? 

Rules: Let's make it easy and say "no family." Everybody wants their dead grandparents to meet their great-grandchildren. Maybe no religion: let's not pop Jesus or Mohammed in a time machine and show them how messed up/wonderful their modern followers are. Also, maybe no Ben Franklin. For some reason, storytellers love to bring Franklin into the modern world and amaze him with our technological marvels. (In fact, I still intend to write a short story about researchers who pluck Franklin from the past only to find him completely unimpressed and pissed because they're the 59th group of time travelers who've done the same thing and he just wants to be left alone. So don't steal that idea.)


I wish I could show Robert Goddard the Apollo XI Moon landing.

I wish I could show Isaac Newton a pocket calculator.

I wish I could show Thomas Jefferson a topographical map of North America.

I wish I could show Walt Disney "Toy Story."

I wish I could show Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace an iPad.

I wish I could show Mark Twain a gigantic pallet of his autobiography for sale at Costco.

I wish I could show all the Allied soldiers who died fighting in World War II that the good guys won (we always forget that, at the time, nobody knew how it was going to turn out).

I wish I could show 20-year-old me 50-year-old me (not sure if I'd be impressed or horrified--probably both).

What've you got?
Here's something on the theme: I'm not a fan of "Dr Who" (don't ask me why; it's the sort of thing that should appeal to me greatly but just doesn't), but in one episode The Doctor and his Companion Amy take Vincent Van Gogh to see his paintings in the modern Musee d'Orsay. I think it captures the great appeal of the idea while bringing a tear to your eye. Mine, anyway. Wouldn't it be nice if the universe were at least this compassionate and just?

Sorry about the commercial.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Throwback Friday

"Throwback Thursday" (TBT) is the day when Facebook folk post old photos of themselves. I haven't done it before, but seeing a friend's TBT yesterday inspired me to do it myself, just a day late.

On the bulletin board beside my desk, I keep a little photo gallery of myself at various jobs I've had. It's a nice reminder of places I've been and a tragic reminder of the predations of time. This morning I took down a few and scanned them, put 'em on Facebook, and put 'em here as well. Snapshots of a life.

A young reporter working city beat at a small daily newspaper, age 24 or 25. This was the newsroom: editors sat down at the end. Composing was through a door to the right, photography in a broom closet past composing, sports to the right, and the presses in a warehouse out back. A big advantage of working at a small paper was getting opportunities to try everything, including some graphics skills (photostats, color separations, pre-press) that came in handy later.
After I'd done a few years of journalism, we moved and I found work as an environmental chemist, analyzing samples for heavy metals (lead, arsenic, mercury, a lot of the periodic table). I'm around 27 or 28 in this photo. Those instruments are antiques now; the one on the right used a strip chart recorder! I met a lot of good people here, some who are still friends. Also continued freelance writing and cartooning through all these years.
Still a chemist, here at a different lab with slightly better equipment, though still a Model T by 21st Century standards. My t-shirt reads "Heavy Metal" and has pictures of solid tin, copper, iron, etc. because that was my analytical specialty and also the level of my wit. I'm 35 or so. Evidently my hair was going for the Egon Spengler look, but at least it's still brown!

I left my chemistry career to be a science writer, first for a small firm and then striking out on my own. I've been a freelance writer/science writer/cartoonist for about 15 years now, and can't imagine going to work for someone else again. It's not an easy lifestyle to achieve or maintain, but once I managed it I was never going back!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Drinking & Drawing in Baltimore

. . . sadly, without me.

The Baltimore Comic Con is this weekend, and since I'm on the other side of the continent and not wealthy, I'm not going. However, as part of the festivities, cartoonist Joe Sutliff--whom I met at the June Comics & Medicine Conference in, yes, Baltimore--is organizing a "Drink & Draw" event, where art will be sold to raise funds for Team Cul de Sac, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Parkinson's Disease Research. Parkinson's research is a cause that many cartoonists have taken on as their own since one of our own, "Cul de Sac" creator Richard Thompson, had to retire his excellent strip because of it.

Several days ago Joe asked if I could donate something to the cause, and after asking Joe's opinion on subject matter I put ink to paper. Since it arrived safely in Joe's mailbox yesterday, I thought I'd share:

This is the first authorized mash-up of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow and The Last Mechanical Monster. Probably the only mash-up. Although they really go well together, don't they? As I drew it, I was surprised how naturally these two projects of mine fit. Knowing me as well as I do, I probably shouldn't have been.

Who's going to win this Battle of Brian's Books? The Robot's very strong, but never underestimate the destructive power of a teenager.

Some of my light blue penciling shows in this scan. I don't even try to hide or erase it. For me, a big part of the fun of owning original comic art is seeing all the work and process that goes into it. I expect a lot of folks attending a comics convention might feel the same. If you want to own it, go have a beer or soda pop with Joe.

Best of luck to Joe, the Drink & Draw, and everyone attending the Baltimore Comic Con without me. Especially all you Harvey Award nominees (like my friend and editor Charlie Kochman!). I hope it's a blast.