Sunday, January 29, 2017

LumaCon 3, Supervillains 0

The joke in that title never gets old. To me.

Local librarians threw the third annual LumaCon in the city of Petaluma, Calif. last Saturday. If LumaCon had a mission statement, it'd include bringing students interested in writing, art, and comics together with amateur and professional practitioners to talk shop. It's small (attendance about 2500), free, low-key, down-home, and about as charming as could be. I even sold a few books. It's my absolute favorite comics convention.

The people who organize LumaCon do it for the love of kids and comics. They treat their guests better than any convention I know of, providing a gift basket, a lounge generously stocked with snacks, and trusted sitters who are happy to watch your table while you meander or take a break. That last is a practical, generous service that other cons could emulate.

I love talking with kids who want to make comics. This year I noticed more shy ones than in the past. They'd come up to the table, silent and staring, with a parent who talked about how much their son or daughter loved to draw pictures and make up stories. A nice way to open them up a bit was to show some of my original drawings and then show them how those drawings look as published in one of my books. I remember being young and not knowing, for example, that most comic art is drawn larger than it appears in print. I tried to demystify the process a bit. Making comics is work, but it's not magic. A few kids really seemed to get that. Some maybe went home excited to try it themselves.

As I understand it, that's one of the points of LumaCon, which distinguishes it from all other cons I've attended.

My daughters came and hung out with me for most of the day, but I'm forbidden to post photographic proof. However, I did try to get around and take some pictures.

LumaCon is held in a local community center. This is how you know you've found the right place.

High school librarian Nathan Libecap, one of the head organizers, infused with as much energy and passion as if he'd been bitten by a radioactive spider. I don't get a lot of opportunities to wear that shirt.

I was seated next to my friend Jason Whiton, who hosts SpyVibe and has a terrific interest in, and knowledge of, mid-century mod/pop culture: The Prisoner, The Man from UNCLE, Dr. Who, cartoonist Mort Walker, and more. He's also a teacher. We talked all day. The Robot is a papercraft doll I engineered for my "Last Mechanical Monster" webcomic, intended as a sort of thank you prize for readers who made it to the end. I handed out little cards with a URL to the plans for anyone who wanted to try building it themselves. Give it a shot if you want

Two angles on the main Artists' Room, above and below, taken from a stage. Cartoonists Lex Fajardo and Paige Braddock are in the foreground of the photo above.

Turned around to get a picture of the Arts & Crafts action on that stage. Good creative energy. All day I saw kids running around with cardboard Captain America-style shields they'd made.
Vendors and booksellers crowded the entrance lobby.

The bake sale. How can you not love a convention that has a bake sale?

One of the highlights of my day was sitting across from, and getting to talk with, Izzy Ehnes. She does single-panel cartoons with a smart and dark POV. Fair or not, the best comparable I can think of is "The Far Side." Two years ago Izzy attended the first LumaCon, where her work was spotted by cartoonists Stephan Pastis and Nick Galifianakis. Stephan recommended her to Universal-UClick editor John Glynn, which is how her comic The Best Medicine ended up with a worldwide audience on See? It's just that easy.

I checked in with another talented young woman, my friend Erin, who cartoons under the name Sam Coaass. Erin and her mother showed up at every local comics-related event since she was in middle school, and now she's in community college as determined as ever.  No one can predict success but she has all the tools to achieve it.

Paige Braddock and Art Roche from the Schulz Studio. Paige does a children's series called "Stinky Cecil" as well as decidedly non-children's work like "Jane's World" and "The Martian Confederacy." Art has a new book coming out soon titled "The Knights of Boo'Gar"; I've seen early drafts and think it could do well with fifth graders who like puns about boogers. Which is all of them.

Lex Fajardo had kids and parents surrounding his "Kid Beowulf" booth all day. Long self-published, Kid B. is now being put out by publisher Andrews-McMeel, which has the potential to reach a much larger audience than Lex could on his own. Lex is very thoughtful about comics and works hard. I hope he's got a hit on his hands.

Said hello to Terrific Tom Beland (now I feel like Stan Lee handing out nicknames to the Marvel Bullpen in 1965). Tom has freelanced for Marvel Comics, Image and IDW, did a great book titled "True Story Swear to God," and recently published "Chicacabra." He's got a smooth, elegant, clean inking style I really admire. Beautiful artwork and perceptive writing.

Jason Whiton took this picture of me doing what I described at the start, showing a girl and her father my original drawings and explaining how they got turned into a book. A really sweet kid. That's librarian Nathan Libecap behind. The con staff did a smart thing in that they all wore orange capes, so if you had a problem or needed someone to watch your table for a few minutes, you could just grab an orange cape for help. 
LumaCon had some of the usual costume ("cosplay") fol-de-rol, most of it charmingly homespun.
These Star Wars guys were semi-pros who looked very sharp . . .

. . . but my favorite of the day was the cardboard starship Enterprise. Terrific.

A few "civilian" pals dropped by as well, including my friends Marion and Susan, and three great people I worked with long ago who conspired to gang up and surprise me. They succeeded! Jeran, Kim and Honora all remember when my daughters were born, so it was really special for me to reintroduce them all grown up.

Another nice moment: I was a short distance from my table talking to Tom Beland when I looked over and saw one of my girls urgently waving me back. I hustled over and found them talking with a distinguished older woman with two boys in tow. Turns out she was a very good friend of my mother's 40 years ago who had brought her grandsons to LumaCon, just happened to notice my name on the table, and had been quizzing my daughters with way more information about my family than anyone should rightly have. I remembered her and her husband very well--she was actually one of a few adults who respected my interest in comics when I was a teen--and we had a good time catching up. Another wonderful surprise.

All in all, LumaCon is about as sincere as Linus's pumpkin patch and as easy to love. This seems like an especially good time to promote creativity and literacy. I'll keep going as long as they'll have me.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

How I Made a Picture

I haven't done a "how to" post in a long time, but a few days ago I made a drawing that I was uncharacteristically happy with, and thought it'd be a good example of how I sometimes combine real ink-on-paper art with digital (Photoshop) manipulation to get the result I want.

As always, this isn't the right way or the only way, it's just one way I solved a particular problem. Your mileage may vary.

I think it helps to have some sort of Philosophy of Art, even if you don't call it that--some sense of how you like to do things. A Platonic Ideal. For example, my ideal comic would be one that's entirely hand drawn, hand lettered, and even hand colored right on the page. A comic crafted like that has integrity.

Now, I don't ever do that. For production and printing purposes, I letter and color in Photoshop. But I know some people who do, such as the great Carol Tyler. What you see in her books is exactly what she puts on the paper. I admire and envy that authenticity, and consider everything I do that isn't that a compromise that comes with a cost.

Your goal guides your process. I think Art should be as organic and analog as possible. Other artists have different philosophies. Many don't hesitate to do as much digital work as they can, up to 100 percent. I won't argue. It can look terrific. Whatever works. As the great cartoonist Wally Wood said:

Never draw what you can swipe.
Never swipe what you can trace.
Never trace what you can cut out and paste.
And never do any of that if you can hire somebody to do it for you.

One reason I'm happy with this drawing, which is for a future project I won't talk about that's set to follow another project I won't talk about, is that it took me several tries to crack it. I couldn't figure out my composition and point of view. Here's what I came up with:

Based on photos of a real place, it's a black-and-white two-page spread that'll be printed with the left half on one page and the right half on the facing page. I'm happy with it because the left page draws your eye to the word balloon and car, the right page draws your eye to its destination--the steps and doors behind the flagpole--and together they make an asymmetrical but balanced (I think) composition.

I did not want to spend two weeks drawing that. So I cheated.

First I drew this. You can see some of my blue penciling under my black ink lines:

Yeah, I drew all those rocks by hand; I'm not completely lazy. I also drew this:

Those four rectangles at the top of the drawing became groups of three or four windows of various widths and heights simply by squashing or stretching them in Photoshop:

Copy and paste and paste and paste and paste and paste:

Copy and paste that whole thing five times and BOOM, instant sprawling compound.

I drew the car separately because I don't like to draw cars:

One thing I kept in mind when drawing the car, and throughout the entire assembly, was keeping line weight consistent for the final drawing. I drew the car with a thicker line and less detail than I otherwise might have because I knew it would end up very small, and it still had to look like it belonged in the rest of the picture.

I didn't draw all the trees. I actually really love inking pine trees with a brush--it's meditative--but not that many. Instead, I drew 20 trees and clumps of trees, then manipulated them to look like more. Copy and paste those variations, trying not to put two duplicates next to each other, and you've got a forest.

The top row are the only trees I actually drew. The rest I tweaked in Photoshop.

So here are the buildings and car pieced together, followed by the trees on a separate Photoshop layer (think of it as a transparency), which makes it a lot easier to color the ground "behind" them:

Put 'em all together, add some grays and words, and easy-peasy.

I don't expect to rely on so much digital tomfoolery for the rest of the project. I still aim to render as much by hand as possible. But because this two-page spread is an important establishing shot that shows the reader where they are and sets the stage for the entire story, I needed this level of detail and grand scale. After laying that foundation, I can relax a bit.

Maybe someone else could do a drawing like that completely freehand but I can't, at least in the time I had to spend on it. So I did what works, with no apologies. It looks exactly like I wanted it to. That's the goal that guided my process.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Blue Highways

I'm reading Blue Highways, a gift from my friend Marion, in a way author William Least Heat-Moon never intended and probably couldn't have foreseen. Blue Highways is Heat-Moon's travelogue of his three-month loop through the backroads--the map's blue highways--of the United States in 1978. It was a bestseller at the time, and a book I always knew about and wanted to read but never quite got to. Now I have.

Blue Highways is partly an elegy to a then-vanishing America, where people lived as they had fifty years before. Heat-Moon didn't have to wander far off the interstate to find folks living in tarpaper shacks with no plumbing, drinking free spring water that bubbled up from half a mile underground and eating whatever they could catch from the local pond. The book has one foot in the then-now and another in the past.

Reading it today, nearly forty years after Heat-Moon's odyssey, piles another time shift on top. Now I can follow his route on Google Maps, and use Street View to tour the towns he traveled through. I can Google the businesses he patronized and the people he met. Some of them turn up. Heat-Moon didn't know how all the stories he told would turn out; now, I can look up the endings of at least a few.

Not surprisingly, most of Heat-Moon's America from fifty-years-before-1978 appears to be gone. A little more surprisingly, so does a lot of his America from 1978. It wasn't that long ago. I was there. Blue Highways did (unintended?) double duty, documenting both its past and its present before they both passed into its future--where I can ride along with Heat-Moon on a computer that's about the same size and weight as the paperback edition I'm reading.

It's a trip.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pogo & His Pals

Golly, I haven't blogged in a couple of months. I may have run out of things to say, or outgrown the conceit that anyone cares. My intentions are good. Maybe next year.

However, I can't let this year pass without posting a bit of whimsy that's been a tradition on my blog every Christmas Eve since way back in aught-five: "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly's timeless carol, "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie." You know the tune. After that, for the first time ever, I've added a bonus cartoon by "Polly and Her Pals" cartoonist Cliff Sterrett, who in my opinion is the greatest underappreciated cartoonist you've never heard of from the first half of the 20th Century. I love Sterrett. This'll suggest why.

All my best for today, tomorrow, and the New Year. Thanks for reading.


Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!

Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,

Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!

Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!

Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Fellow Super-Americans

The "What Would Clark Kent Do?" filter works surprisingly well. Here's a partial list of things I'm pretty sure he wouldn't do:

Make fun of fat women.
Make fun of ugly women.
Make fun of menstruation.
Make fun of the disabled.
Insult POWs.
Insult the parents of dead soldiers.
Extort his allies ("Eh, nice country you got here, be a shame if somethin' happened to it.")
Go into business with General Zod.
Praise the way General Zod handles the press and dissidents.
Suggest that General Zod could maybe help him get rid of his enemies.
Lie; then when confronted with that lie, double down or deny.
When caught bullying, retort "Can't you take a joke?"
Blame his failures on everyone but himself.
Appeal to people's worst instincts instead of their best.

Really, the list is practically endless. I keep waiting for a modern-day Joseph Welch versus Joe McCarthy moment, but I'm not sure we have it in us anymore. Decency is too old-fashioned.

I don't expect to change anyone's mind, and I'm breaking my rule about not doing politics online. Might regret it; don't care. I had to stand up and be counted. Clark would.

Here's the above comic laid out in two pages, which I wasn't sure would be readable at blog size. Click to embiggen. Thanks for your indulgence.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Grand Delusion

Over the weekend, Karen and I saw and really enjoyed "Florence Foster Jenkins." Based on an actual woman who's been called the World's Worst Singer, the film stars Meryl Streep, who may deserve an Oscar for her performance as Florence; Hugh Grant, who Hugh-Grants his way through a good performance as Florence's morally ambiguous husband (I think the film answers the question of whether he truly loves Florence but you may disagree); and Simon Helberg, "The Big Bang Theory's" Wolowitz, who gives a master class in reactive acting as Florence's horrified new accompanist.

Madame Florence was a wealthy woman in pre-War New York City whose patronage of the musical arts made her a pillar of high society. But merely supporting the arts wasn't enough for her. She wanted to sing, first at exclusive performances at the Verdi Club she founded to showcase her talents, then eventually at Carnegie Hall.

No one ever doubted Madame Florence's passion for music, just her ability to do it. She became a hit by being terrible, and according to the film and some profiles I've read, most people played along, complimenting and applauding as if she were terrific. Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso were fans. There's debate about how self-aware Florence was. Streep plays her as completely deluded and clueless until she gets an honest devastating review; some contemporaries said she was in on the joke.

I thought the movie was very good and, like all good movies, inspired a lot of thinking as I left the theater. For example, about Emperor Norton.

Norton the First, Pepper the Last
Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849, and ten years later proclaimed himself "Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico." He ordered the U.S. Army to disband Congress, and commanded that a suspension bridge be built between San Francisco and Oakland. He may have also imposed a $25 fine on anyone caught using the word "Frisco."

Norton I
And the entire city of San Francisco played along.

Norton wore a flashy uniform given to him by Army officers at the Presidio. When that uniform wore out, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors requisitioned him a new one. Penniless, he printed his own currency, which was accepted by restaurants and merchants. Passersby bowed to him. Theaters left a balcony seat open for him. He once broke up an anti-Chinese-immigrant riot by standing between two mobs and reciting The Lord's Prayer.

Norton was arrested once, in 1867, by a cop who thought he was insane and ought to be committed. Citizens and newspapers rose up in outrage. The Daily Alta editorialized that the Emperor "has never shed blood, has robbed no one, and despoiled no country...which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for anyone else in the king line." The police chief released him with a formal apology, and afterward police officers saluted Norton whenever they passed him on the street.

Norton died in 1880, as beloved an emperor as the United States and Mexico ever had. His suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland was eventually built in 1936. Although it's called the Bay Bridge, there is still today a popular campaign to rechristen it the Emperor Norton Bridge.

This train of thought, from Madame Florence to Emperor Norton, inevitably brought me around to Pepper.

Unless you grew up in my hometown you've never heard of Pepper, but you may have had a Pepper in your hometown. For 50 years Pepper Garcia Dardon was our local eccentric who fancied herself the town marshal, backed up by a tin badge the local cops gave her in the early 1960s. Her beat was downtown, where she directed traffic, collected 50-cent fines from jaywalkers, yodeled on supermarket microphones, and shoplifted penny candy to hand out to children. Pepper ran errands for merchants and sold fundraising tickets for the Kiwanis--no one dared decline. Sometimes, according to a 2005 profile by local historian Gaye LeBaron, Pepper ordered pizzas delivered to the police station to thank her boys in blue, but never bothered to pay for them.

I often saw Pepper around town but only had one direct run-in with her. I was probably 17 or 18, coming out of a store and heading to my car in the parking lot, when Pepper accosted me. "I need to go north. Which way are you going?" I was in fact headed north, but not wanting to provide a taxi that day, I stammered out, "Uh...south. Downtown." "That's exactly where I'm going too!" she said brightly. "Let's go!" Three miles later, I dropped her off downtown and turned around, completely outmaneuvered by the town marshal.

Pepper died in 1992, complaining that people weren't as friendly as they used to be. She was right. Do we have a Florence Foster Jenkins, Emperor Norton, or Pepper anymore? Could we? Should we?

There's some condescension in playing along, smirking knowingly behind their backs. Some might say we're not doing the deluded any favors by indulging them. But, as the Daily Alta argued, if they're not doing any harm then what's the harm? Who's to say a little collective compassionate fantasy isn't better than harsh reality? Would you tell Madame Florence she couldn't sing, tell Norton the First he wasn't emperor of anything, tell Pepper she had no authority to harass jaywalkers?

I wouldn't have the heart.

Here's Where I Stretch the Theme Too Far
Sometimes when striving writers and artists are being deep and honest, they ask each other how they're supposed to tell whether they're any good. How do you know if you're truly talented and ought to keep trying until you get one good break, or if you're a tone-deaf Florence Foster Jenkins? Winners never quit, but neither do a lot of folks who really should.

Sometimes they ask me what I think. It's a very tough question. I don't trust my own judgment enough to flat out tell anyone to quit and go home. I'm not in the spirit-crushing business. Besides, lots of people whose careers completely mystify me are doing a lot better than I am. What do I know?

I wouldn't have the heart.

I try to read the audience. Nine out of ten people who say "Don't be afraid to tell me what you really think" don't want to know what you really think. They just want to hear that they're great. Anything less than that and their defenses go up and their excuses come out. The other one out of ten is genuinely interested in feedback and trying to learn from it. I think of them as the pros, even if they've never sold anything (yet). It's not necessarily related to age or experience. I've seen 15-year-olds take constructive criticism better than 35-year-olds.

The best advice I've come up with (and I don't think it's great) is to look for external signs of progress. "External" means someone other than your mom or spouse or best friend telling you you're a genius. Someone like an editor. Notice I'm not saying "money," although getting paid is the only sure-fire unambiguous compliment. But if you're doing your best work and getting it in front of people who have the potential to someday pay for it, I have some faith that if you're any good they'll eventually notice. Maybe a note of encouragement along with the customary rejection, or a suggestion for something different you might try next time. Build on that.

Try not to be Florence Foster Jenkins.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #15

From Volume 3 of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, today's subject: Lilian Aldrich, the wife of writer and Clemens acquaintance Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

"A strange and vanity-devoured, detestable woman! I do not believe I could ever learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight."

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Richard Thompson

Cartoonist Richard Thompson died yesterday from Parkinson's disease at age 58. Michael Cavna wrote a good obit in the Washington Post, for which Richard did a lot of work. Richard was also the genius behind the comic strip Cul de Sac, which, when it retired in 2012 because Parkinson's had made it too difficult for Richard to draw, I called the best comic strip of the 21st Century. So far, it still is.

Unlike most people, I don't throw around the word "genius" lightly. To me it means something beyond "extremely smart and talented." More like "sprung full-blown from the brow of Zeus," doing things I don't even understand how any human could do. Richard did that.

The past couple of weeks I've been writing the Comic Strip of the Day blog while its founder, Mike Peterson, recovered from surgery. Mike came back yesterday, and for my final two posts on Monday and Tuesday I republished the testimonial I posted here when Cul de Sac closed up shop. I won't re-repost it again, but here's Part 1 and Part 2. Richard died on Wednesday.

The timing was coincidental but providential. I'd heard from people close to Richard that he was in very bad shape but didn't know he was near death. I reposted that piece partly because I wanted people to think good thoughts about him, and hoped he might see it and it would make him happy. Monday's Part 1 post got a Facebook "Like" in his name. He obviously didn't push the button but someone near him did, so I'm grateful for that.

I never met Richard but we exchanged some messages over the years. He was the same with me as he was with everyone: kind, funny, generous with his time and praise. I live 3000 miles away but always hoped I'd have a chance to take him up on the cup of coffee he promised, and I don't even drink coffee. I'm pretty heartsick and gutted by his loss.

Chris Sparks started Team Cul de Sac to raise money for Parkinson's disease research in Richard's name. I contributed a drawing to a tribute book published a couple of years ago, and the group is still active at comics conventions and online, doing good work with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Check them out.

I recommend two good books: The Complete Cul de Sac, which collects all of the strips in Cul de Sac's five-year run, and the Art of Richard Thompson, which, if you're an artist, will either inspire you to work harder or give up.

In addition, Picture This Press will soon release two books as part of its Richard Thompson Library: The Incompleat Art of Why Things Are, collecting Richard's illustrations for Joel Achenbach's column in the Washington Post, and Compleating Cul de Sac. 

If you're curious what a genius looks like, watch this video. I'll miss having him in the world.