Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 19

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 19 (July 2).



Yeah, we really got that reaction from Mom's medical team. They couldn't believe her osteopath's incompetence. But we were making progress, zeroing in on a diagnosis and a plan.

I mentioned this a few months ago but will repeat it here: I was watching TV recently when I saw a face in a commercial that brought me to an abrupt stop. "Hey, I know her!" Given the commercial's subject matter, it only took me a moment to remember how.



That's her younger version caricatured in the comic above. She was a terrific doc then and it's good to see her still working hard and getting it done.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 18

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 18 (June 29).



From time to time, people ask if pages from Mom's Cancer are available as prints or posters. (No, sorry.) This is almost always the page they're interested in. We used this image for the cloth bags given to participants of the 2011 Graphic Medicine Conference in Chicago (with, as I recall, a kind donation from my publisher Abrams to help pay for the bags).


It depicts a long day at the hospital. The different colored backgrounds suggest that these exams are happening in a variety of times and places. Different tests, repeated tests, different docs and nurses. They also make a visually interesting checkerboard pattern.

The day and the page begin with recognizably drawn features: hands, feet, arms, legs. As the day goes on, the features become less concrete. Everything becomes an exhausting abstract mush. By the time Mom's given the final command to "feel," it's impossible for her to feel anything.

I'm surprised how strongly some people respond to this page. I think maybe I captured something many folks have felt but didn't quite know how to express.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bookmaking

No, not the gambling kind . . .

My wife Karen had one birthday gift request for me: she wanted a hard copy of my webcomic "The Last Mechanical Monster." She'd only read it in installments online, and wanted to sit down and enjoy it all together. What she had in mind was a print-out of the pages, maybe slipped into a little binder or report cover.

I ran with it.

First I printed all the pages on good heavy paper, the type you'd use for a resume. I wanted to print on both sides without any bleed-through.
I cut, scored and folded a piece of thick matte board to be the guts of the cover.

First attempt at binding the pages. The pages are clamped in a homemade press to keep them lined up and tight.  Many of the Internet bookbinding tutorials recommend using watered-down "Gorilla glue," which is meant for wood. Makes sense. The idea is that the glue soaks into the first quarter-inch of the pages and sticks them all together.
While that dried, I worked on the cover. I found a nice red cloth remnant, ironed it (can't remember the last time I used an iron), and spray-glued it to the folded matte board. Things I learned: using diluted Gorilla glue warps the matte but spray adhesive works great, it's best if the cloth isn't stretchy, and the cloth has to be thin so that you can glue it down flat to the back (i.e., the inside covers).
Flipped the cover over to glue down the fabric and apply the end papers, which are the light blue images of flying robots I used as a background for the webcomic.
That's about when I figured out that the glued spine probably wouldn't hold up long term. It was OK, but I could imagine pages popping out pretty easily. Initiated Plan B, which was to sew the pages together using the bookbinders' stitch. I was worried my drill press would tear up the pages when I drilled the holes, but it worked like a charm.

Next I glued the sewn pages into the cover, creating a little crimp along the spine so that the front and back covers would attach up to the sewing holes before bending out. Clamped and let that dry for a couple of days.
Last step: Drew a jaunty flying robot on the cover. Wrapped it up and gave it to Karen.

She sat right down and started reading the book last night, so I guess it's a success.

I know I didn't hew too closely to traditional bookbinding methods. A lot of this was "look at five things on the Internet and combine them into something that seems like it'll work." But I'm really happy with the result. It was fun! And it looks like a real book!

I could see getting addicted to a cool craft like this. I'm looking forward to trying it again sometime.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Pages 12 and 13

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Pages 12 and 13 (June 8 and 11).

This image of Mom as the character in the "Operation" board game often gets a strong reaction. It tends to be one of people's favorites or least favorites.

Occasionally people who haven't read a comic since "Little Dot" in 1966 accuse me of "making fun of my mother's illness," which couldn't be further from the truth--but I think this might be the sort of drawing that leads them to believe that. It does combine the deadly serious with the absurd, which was one of the points of Mom's Cancer. So much of the situation was absurd!

I don't remember how I thought of using this iconography. I think I wanted to take a breath and summarize what Mom's condition was at this point. How to do that in a comic? You can't just list symptoms and treatments with words, you need a way to show them. Diagrams, x-rays? Somewhere in that train of thought, the board game came to me.

One thing I like about splitting the image into two pages is it naturally divides Mom's tumors, and therefore the treatments she received for them, between her head and her chest. Which is basically what happened: she had head doctors and chest doctors, and rarely did the twain meet.

In the first draft I posted online, I just drew the "Operation" character in its original style as a stand-in for Mom:



I never liked that solution--not least because I didn't want to get sued by Milton Bradley--but my problem was a simple one: I didn't want to draw my mother fat and naked! I don't know how long it took me to solve it by putting a medical dressing gown on her, but it was an embarrassingly long time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 11

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 11 (June 4). 


When I drew the picture of Mom modeling a swimsuit, I was relying on memories of photos I'd seen very briefly a long time before. Turns out my memory wasn't very good. Here are the actual pics of my Mom the model:


I could've sworn there was a beach ball.

What the heck, here are a couple more:


Beautiful! Classic Mid-Century Modern.

In case my asterisked footnote in the comic was too subtle, Mom worked as a model when she was 18 to 19. I was born shortly before she turned 20.

Having her papers and affairs in order was one of the best things Mom ever did for her family.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 10

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 10 (June 1). 

The panel of Mom drowning in a sea of medical jargon is one of the first and strongest (in my opinion) visual metaphors in Mom's Cancer. There'll be more later. A friend compared trying to absorb all the information rushing at you when you're suddenly seriously ill to drinking water from a fire hose. The ability to use this type of image is one of the reasons I decided comics was the right medium for telling my family's story.


I think this is a good example of how a picture conveys more meaning than a thousand words could. You look at that and you instantly get it. I don't need to use the words "drowning," "overwhelmed," or "terrified" at all. It's a type of communication comics do uniquely well.

Looking at this page today raises a couple of craft notes. First, I see I used the typeface "Comic Sans" for the words. Sorry about that. Back when I made this page I don't think it had acquired its infamous disrepute.

Second, I wasn't yet comfortable with digital art tools. Pasting those words into the background behind my hand-drawn figures would've been a 10-second cinch in Photoshop. Instead, I printed out the words on paper, cut out the shapes of the figures with an Xacto knife, and rubber-cemented them to the original art! It looks OK in print but the original is a gluey mess. What a maroon!

One nice surprise of reprinting Mom's Cancer on GoComics.com has been watching a little community of readers and commenters build. Some have been or are going through similar ordeals themselves. An unexpected hitch is that some readers who (very reasonably) don't know the history of Mom's Cancer seem to be under the impression the story is happening now. They offer me and my family advice. I don't want to ruin the story's immediacy by telling them "No need, it happened 10 years ago," nor interrupt the conversations to constantly correct people, but I don't want to give the wrong impression either. There's a fine line there I haven't figured out how to walk yet.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Last "Last Mechanical Monster"

An early sketch of the Inventor toting his box of old vacuum tubes to Lillian's repair shop.
I kept a notebook by my bed to capture ideas that came as I woke up. This was one.

Yesterday I posted the final page of my Last Mechanical Monster webcomic. I published two per week since November 2013 and am proud to say that in 170 pages I never missed a deadline.

However, I confess that the four-month backlog I began with evaporated to about two weeks' lead time at one point, until I fought back to being about a month ahead by the end. If I had advice for potential webcomic creators that'd be near the top: don't even start posting until you've got a big cushion built up, then don't let it slip away. One of the points of doing a webcomic is practicing professionalism. Pros hit deadlines.

I won't repeat what I wrote over at my webcomic's "Coda," which you can go read if you're interested. I will say that it's been an interesting, gratifying experience. The Last Mechanical Monster developed a nice little fan base that grew over time, as I'd hoped. A few noteworthy mentions on other sites brought surges of curious readers for a couple of days, some of whom seemed to stick around. Nothing spun the ol' visitor counter faster than a mention on Metafilter following the announcement of our Eisner Award nomination in April. Not even close. At times like that you really get a visceral, almost scary feel for the power of the Internet when roused from its slumber to focus its gaze on you.


It's like this.

The Last Mechanical Monster was a story I wanted to tell, struggled a few years figuring out how to tell (you may recall my tale about drawing 110 pages of it before deciding I didn't like that version and starting over from scratch), and then sat down and did it. Sitting down and doing it is where a lot of creative people get hung up, but there's no short cut or substitute. Ideas and good intentions are useless if you don't execute. One day you've got to turn a blank sheet of paper into Page 1. That's very hard to do!

It's been great. Meanwhile, I'm knee-deep in a new project I've never discussed publicly, but which my editor and I think would make a terrific book. More on that when appropriate. I've got one or two other potential projects lined up behind that one. There's also a possibility that The Last Mechanical Monster will be published in full color, but no contracts have been signed so that's all I can say about that. Too many ideas, not enough time.

Thanks to my Last Mechanical Monster readers. Thanks to two different panels of Eisner Award judges who thought it worth nominating for Best Digital Comic two years in a row. Thanks to the folks who reviewed, mentioned, or linked to my comic, it made a big difference. From my perspective the whole project couldn't have gone better, and I appreciate it.



Monday, May 25, 2015

A Fair Plate

Readers of Whatever Happen to the World of Tomorrow may recall that I began the book with the 1939 New York World's Fair, which (I argued) first presented a common vision of a technologically sophisticated future to millions of people. So Karen and I were shopping at an antiques store today when she asked, "What year was your fair?"

"1939," I replied.

"Oh . . . this has the pyramid and the sphere on it, but it says 1940."

"Hold on."



She'd found this beautiful plate from the fair highlighting the event's signature Trylon (tall pyramid) and Perisphere (sphere), and five of its great show buildings. Though the fair began in 1939 it ran until 1940. The plate's back has a sticker saying it was made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration, which was one of the Fair's big themes.

Look at those colors! That Art Deco styling! It's a gem.

eBay tells me I got a really good deal on it. It'll go on my wall and always remind me of three things I love: the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, my graphic novel, and my sharp-eyed wife.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 5

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they're posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 5 (May 14). 

From a storytelling point of view, the game board metaphor does a couple of things.

It compresses time and delivers a lot of exposition. If I'd wanted to, I could have expanded any one of these "game squares" into a page or more of comic, but because a lot of the activity didn't directly involve Mom I wanted to get through it quickly.

It also stresses the role that random chance played in the quality of treatment Mom received. She ended up with very good care but could very easily not have. Remember, the osteopath at upper left was a quack . . . I mean, a giant duck. If Mom made any missteps at all, it was relying too much and too long on an incompetent primary care physician who (in my opinion) didn't know the first thing about cancer. I don't know if it made any difference.

This element of chance comes up again in the story. I thought it was a strong enough theme or motif that when it came time to design end papers for the print version of Mom's Cancer, I drew a token and a die (double meaning intended) pattern. Life is  a crapshoot.

The end paper pattern for the Mom's Cancer book, inspired by Page 5.

Starting today, Mom's Cancer will appear on GoComics.com twice a week instead of once. A week between pages was just too long, I thought (and some readers agreed with me). I'll see if  twice per week helps the pacing. I could post a new page every day, but would be done with the entire story in a few months! Happily, GoComics seems to be up for any way I want to do it, so we'll give it a try. Let me know what you think.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 4

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they are posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 4 (May 11). 

Now I have to tell you about the Duck.

My original conceit for Mom's Cancer was that my family would look like people but everyone else would be depicted as animals or objects that somehow symbolized their personalities, as in Alice in Wonderland or Animal Farm. I first drew Mom's osteopath as a duck because she was . . . a quack. (Necessary disclaimer: I'm not insulting osteopathy in general; I'm sure there are some good osteopaths doing good work. Mom's was not one of them.)

Original on the left, published version on the right.
This was also one of the early pages where I had to
redraw Mom, as I described in my notes on Page 1.

The problem was that there weren't many other characters in the story, and my high-concept symbolism didn't seem appropriate for the next one. Or the next. After a while, the osteopath was the only non-human character in the whole thing, and people reading it for the first time online began to ask, "Uh, what's up with the giant duck?"

Later, when we began thinking about editing for print, I hinted online that I might change her into a human. Fans of the Duck who'd understood my intent in the first place erupted in outrage (i.e., politely voiced mild disagreement). I think I made the right decision, but I gave Mom's duck--er, doc--a little lapel pin as a nod to her history and her champions.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 3

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they are posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 3 (May 4). 

There's a convention that comics characters wear the same clothes all the time--Charlie Brown's striped shirt, Clark Kent's blue suit. The "pro" of this convention is that it keeps the characters recognizable: once the reader gets used to seeing the characters dressed in a particular way, they don't have to stop and figure out who they are when they show up later. A uniform helps identify them. The "con" is that it's unrealistic. Cartoonists beginning a long project need to think about which way they want to go. In Mom's Cancer the characters wear the same clothes most of the time; when they change clothes late in the story, it helps signal the reader that time has passed.

I admit I didn't put a lot of thought into my own pants and polo shirt ensemble when I began Mom's Cancer. I don't even wear polo shirts that often! However, I dressed Mom in a striped long-sleeve shirt because I knew the stripes would be graphically interesting and draw the eye to her, the story's protagonist. I wanted Mom to be the center of attention whenever she appeared.

Similarly, I gave Kid Sis a sweater with a big floppy collar to emphasize the slenderness of her neck. In cartooning shorthand, skinny necks = youth, and thick necks = age. Nurse Sis and I are older than Kid Sis, so we have thicker necks and rounder curves (and Mom, even older, has hardly any neck at all!).

Me: thick neck, round chin, high hairline, and a wrinkle or bag under one eye.
That all helps make me look older than....
Kid Sis, who has a thin neck, sharp chin, perky nose, unlined face, and alert eyes.


These are some of the things I think about when designing characters.

By the way, my college friend Tina recently told me that she remembers me sitting slouched exactly as I've drawn myself in today's page of Mom's Cancer (Page 3). So I got that right.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mom's Cancer Notes: Page 2

I'm annotating individual pages from my book Mom's Cancer as they are posted on GoComics.com. These are my notes on Page 2 (April 27). 

In answer to a question already posted on the GoComics.com page, Nurse Sis is my sister, and she's a registered nurse. You'll get to know the characters pretty well.

I think this page is a fair representation of the conversation Nurse Sis and I had that night. It was about this one-sided. I didn't quite know what to make of Mom's episode or how seriously to take it. We didn't realize it was just the start.

I was watching TV when my sister called, though I didn't remember exactly what. When it came time to portray it the comic, I wanted to draw myself watching some program I'd actually watch that would also say something about the "Brian" character.

I settled on the "Powerpuff Girls," which a clever cartoon series my daughters and I enjoyed together, and wouldn't have been out of character for me to enjoy by myself, either. I chose that particular image because I own it--that is to say, I bought the transparent layered cels the animators drew and painted to make that particular scene. They're framed and hanging on my wall. 


I'll let you conclude what that says about me.

By the way, owning the animation cels doesn't convey any particular right to reproduce them. The Powerpuff Girls are copyrighted and I respect other people's intellectual property as I'd hope they'd respect mine. But Fair Use allows the use of copyrighted material in transformative works of art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, etc.) and I was pretty sure that reproducing one frame of a cartoon in tiny black and white to reveal something about a character in a graphic novel about cancer was transformative enough to pass.

Just wanted you to know I gave that some thought . . .


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Last Mechanical Monster" an Eisner Nominee!

For the second year, "The Last Mechanical Monster" has been nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Webcomic!

Woot!

For those unfamiliar, the Eisners are sort of the Oscars or Emmys of comics. A panel of industry experts nominates comics in several categories, which are then voted on by comics professionals. Handsome trophies with spinny globes are awarded during a banquet at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July.

This honor is unexpected. Each year's Eisner judging panel comprises completely different people, and I had no reason to hope that this year's panel would feel the same about my work as last year's did. Especially since the world of webcomics is so large and diverse. To be picked out of that enormous field of talent by people who know and love comics means a lot.

As always, I'll hold any thoughts on the competition or my odds of winning until the voting period expires. That just seems sporting.

Meanwhile, all my thanks to the Eisner judges and any new readers they've brought my way. If you're a reader I hope you enjoy the story, and if you're eligible to vote in the Eisner Awards I'd appreciate your consideration.