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 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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jack Kirby

I hadn't intended to write anything on the great comic book artist Jack Kirby, who would've been 97 today if he hadn't died in 1994 (I always find it odd when someone wishes a dead person a "happy birthday" as if they care--commemoration I understand, but celebration?). Then I came across enough other mentions of it that I thought I could muster a Facebook quip, then enough others that I thought I could make a post of it. And here it is.

Kirby represents a lot of things to the comics industry, and has come to represent more since his death. In his time, he was a dynamic storyteller whose style was unique and unmistakably his. Along with Stan Lee, Kirby built Marvel Comics in the 1960s. The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the Avengers: without Kirby, they'd have been very different or not existed at all (I pointedly omitted Spider-Man and Iron Man, whom Kirby had little to do with). Perhaps more importantly than the multitudes of characters he created, Kirby brought a grandeur and pop-art respectability to comics. He made them cool, even for adults.

That is not a trivial accomplishment.

In later years, Kirby became estranged from Lee and Marvel, and switched his allegiances to DC Comics, where he wrote and drew some of the strangest Superman and other stories ever told. Without a writing partner to rein him in (or stifle him), Kirby produced some pretty wild and crazy stuff--not all of which I'd call "good" but ALL of which was interesting, worthwhile and, again, uniquely, idiosyncratically Kirby. Questions of "plot," "story," "logic" and "characterization" fall by the wayside when you're being punched in the face by a four-color dynamo.

One of those weird Superman stories.

After his passing, Kirby became the quintessential "Comics Creator Done Wrong." Comics were a different business when Kirby got his start in the 1930s and '40s, and aren't celebrated for their enlightened labor policies even now. It goes without saying--and yet is still occasionally argued in court--that writers and artists like Kirby had no ownership of the characters they created. It's called "work for hire." There were no royalties or profit-sharing. Kirby's creations have made billions of dollars for movie studios and shareholders, millions of dollars for the actors hired to portray them, and comparative pennies for Kirby and his heirs.

Generally, I don't like judging people and practices of the past by the standards of the present (yes, horrified future citizens of the 22nd Century, I burned fossil fuel and ate meat!). Times were different. The business was different. Expecting a 1940 pulp-paper publishing house to live up to 21st-Century intellectual property ideals seems grossly unfair to me. STILL...a movie studio could slip 1% of Robert Downey Jr.'s paychecks to the Kirby family and set them up for life. S'all I'm sayin'.

Writer Mark Evanier, who worked as Kirby's assistant, often says that Jack saw it all coming: ideas from the comics spilling into other media, mainstream acceptance, movies and TV adopting the language and spectacular imagery of comics as soon as their technical capabilities caught up with the imaginary vistas one man could conjure with a pencil. None of the current success of superheroic entertainment would have surprised him.

Like a lot of comic book readers, I didn't like or get Kirby when I was a kid, being more impressed by the "realistic" illustrative styles of artists like John Buscema or Neal Adams. As often happens, as my sophistication as a comics consumer (and later, a comics creator) grew, so did my esteem for Kirby. His imagination was unparalleled, his output prodigious. His work is pure, distilled, iconographic comics ENERGY.

Comics journalist Tom Spurgeon posted a nice large gallery of Kirby artwork, which represents just a tiny fraction of his output. Rather than duplicate Tom's effort, I'll post one of my favorite Kirby pieces that doesn't have any superheroes in it at all. I saw this in the beautiful big book Kirby: King of Comics written by Evanier (and edited and published my my editor and publisher). I don't really know Mark but I've met and talked with him a few times, and when his book came out I told him there was one page in particular that really knocked my socks off. He knew exactly which one I meant without me saying another word.

It's a double-page spread from a story titled "Street Code" drawn in 1983. This is Kirby's pencil art, not yet inked for publication. The detail in this is incredible. Astounding. Even more impressive is how those details are composed so that the setting and all the action are perfectly clear. Areas of black and white guide the reader's eye around the page exactly as Kirby intended, taking in a dozen different dramas in this theater of the street. So much rich detail, from the prices of the fruit to the architecture of the tenements, yet there's nothing muddled about it.

There's also some typical Kirby wonkiness in this drawing. Kirby approached human anatomy as more of a suggestion, and his perspective could be very . . . impressionistic. For example, that car on the right is huge and the back of that horse-drawn ice wagon is nearly two stories tall. Those are not flaws that need to be fixed. Those are Kirby. When the rules get in the way of storytelling, the rules lose. Being "better drawn" would not make it a better comic.

Jack Kirby was a comics giant who needs to be remembered and appreciated. I guess his birthday is a good day to do that.

Photo by Greg Preson, I'm informed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Tale of Two Pages

I was working on my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, and found some forgotten files that I thought might make a good, quick, process post. Some folks enjoy my occasional looks at how I make comics (always with the caveat that my way isn't the only way or right way, it's just mine). Here's some behind-the-scenes on two pages of my webcomic, Pages 82 and 83.

Page 82. For some reason, I kept a scan of my blue-line artwork for this page, which I don't normally save. I'll explain. Comics are traditionally drawn on paper with pencil, then gone over with black India ink to make the lines sharp and clear for reproduction.

(This all assumes that the modern cartoonist isn't working totally digitally, which many are. I'm a dinosaur.)

Conventional graphite pencils--such as the good ol' No. 2--are fine for penciling and many cartoonists use them. However, after being inked, those pencil lines need to be erased.

I don't like to erase; it takes time, dulls the black lines, and risks smudging the art or damaging the paper.

Instead, I use blue pencil. It's a habit I picked up in the days, decades past, when light blue was used in printing and publishing because it didn't show up in photostats and photocopies. The pencil lines essentially turned invisible, leaving only the black inked lines. It still kinda works like that, except now I delete the blue lines in Photoshop.

So here's my blue-line pencils for Page 82, with the borders already ruled in black. In this scan I've increased contrast to make the blue lines dark enough to see. In real life, they're very light.

As I've gained experience and confidence, my penciled art has gotten more spontaneous and loose. I try not to overthink it. It's "swoopy." If I were penciling for someone else to ink later (as is common in comic book production), I'd add more detail and work "tighter." But since I'm a one-man show, I trust myself to remember what I intended and choose the best line to ink among the three or four penciled lines I might draw.

I also mention something every time I describe my process because it's very important: the words go first. In the old days that was literally true: the text was lettered onto the board before anything else was inked. These days I letter digitally, so it happens last. But when I'm sketching the page I still place the words first, and leave plenty of space for where I know they'll go. On this particular page, the words are all captions narrating a flashback, so placement was easy. It's more important with dialog in word balloons, which have to be carefully placed to guide and pull the reader through the page.

Also notice the center panel, which has a note that reads, "House of Jewels. Copy Fleischer?" I hadn't yet decided how to draw that panel, and ended up digitally manipulating a screen capture from the 1941 Fleischer "Superman" film that my webcomic used as a launching point.

Unfortunately, I didn't save any interim steps, but here's the final Page 82 as it appeared in the webcomic:

A word about lettering: I do it digitally now. I didn't used to; Mom's Cancer is all hand-lettered right on the original artwork, just as it appears in the book. In fact, it's that experience that converted me to digital. Hand lettering is very hard to edit--you have to rewrite it and try to take up the same amount of space. It's hard to lengthen or shorten. When it comes time to translate a comic into foreign languages, you have to go through and delete the text from each individual word balloon and caption so it can be replaced. Far easier--far, far easier--to edit at the speed of typing, lengthen or shorten at will, and delete at the touch of a keystroke. The lettering is still mine. I sampled letters from Mom's Cancer to create my own font/typeface. I wrote a much more detailed blog post about that process a few years ago.

Page 83. I don't have any early drafts of Page 83 to share, but there's still some stuff I can talk about. First, here's the page:

Our point of view is very near ground level, which is a dramatic perspective that has to be handled carefully. The bottom or base of every object in the drawing is in a narrow band near the bottom of the page. A little girl, a giant robot, an adult woman, two cars, a couple of skyscrapers: if you're off by even a hair, the girl could look like a giant or the skyscrapers look like dollhouses.

Perspective helps define the space. The diagram below shows a Horizon Line (pink), which is the key to perspective. I deliberately placed the Horizon Line to be at the little girl's eye level (even though we can't see her eyes) to strengthen the idea that we see what she sees. This drawing has three Vanishing Points, which is atypical for me--usually two Vanishing Points are adequate, but this dramatic angle demanded the third. Two of the Vanishing Points are on the Horizon Line, and the angles of the skyscrapers point to them (blue and green lines). The third Vanishing Point is in mid-air above the Robot's head (orange lines) because we're on the ground looking up at it.

[This particular drawing is complicated by the fact that the two buildings sit at an angle to each other, rather than parallel or perpendicular, so each building actually has two Vanishing Points on the Horizon Line, for a total of five in this drawing. But that's over the top. Never mind.]

When I'm drawing, I define the Horizon Line and Vanishing Points by drawing a sort of grid. I don't have an example of how I did it for Page 83, but here's a page I did for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow showing all the perspective grid lines:

Also three-point perspective, this time looking down. All these lines were originally light blue.

I've learned that whenever I'm having trouble with a drawing--it's just not working or I can't figure out how to make it look right--that about half the time, I haven't defined my Horizon Line and Vanishing Points. Get them right and everything else falls into place.

Page 83 also showcases a weakness of mine that I might as well be honest about: cars. I already came clean about how poorly I draw automobiles in a blog post a few years ago when I was making WHTTWOT. Every high school art class has one student, usually a boy, who excels at drawing squealing hot rods belching fire from their shiny chrome pipes. I was not that boy. Cars are hard because they have a lot of complex curves and everyone is very familiar with them, so if the proportions aren't right they instantly perceive it. So I cheat.

In this case, I took snapshots of a model 1939 Chevy from an appropriate low angle. This is one of the same models I used in the chapter of WHTTWOT set in 1945.

I then used Photoshop to convert those snapshots to a light blue "duotone" (50% cyan) and print them onto a piece of heavy paper.

Next step: trace the photos. There's more thought and skill involved in this step than you might think. I used the same brush I use on everything else, keeping in mind that I'd be shrinking the cars to a very small size in the final art. Consequently, I drew with a thicker line than I otherwise would've, and left out a lot of detail. It didn't matter if the line was a little shaky: it wouldn't show when reduced, and to the extent it did show, it'd just make them look as if they were drawn by hand rather than a machine.

Then I scanned the drawings into Photoshop and made the blue disappear . . .

. . . and inserted the cars into the final drawing. Notice that I flopped one of them so it's headed into the composition rather than out of it.

I think that process probably sounds more complicated and time consuming than it is. I'm not proud that I need to resort to it, but it's the fastest way for me to get the results I want. I can live with it.

That didn't turn out to be as quick a post as I thought.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Something More Pleasant?

I just finished Roz Chast's graphic novel Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There are words I don't like to use because they only appear in stuffy book reviews: "unflinching," "carefully observed," "towering achievement." But what a book.

Chast writes and draws about shepherding her neurotic, difficult parents through the end of their lives in a way that'll make you both love and hate them, and want to give Chast a hug. The highest compliment I can give Chast is that she's honest, particularly about herself. Her book is (I can't think of another way to say it) an unflinching, carefully observed, towering achievement.

My friends in Graphic Medicine should pay attention, it's a big contribution to the field.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Back to Blair

For my birthday a few months ago, my daughters gave me a certificate good for one free admission to the Mary Blair exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, because they're that cool. Since the show closes in just a few weeks, I cashed in my certificate yesterday. Karen and I and the girls had a great time.

Museum Pro Tip: If you're a member of any museum, check to see if that entitles you to free admission or discounts to other museums. Many have such arrangements, in particular through the North American Reciprocal Museum program, which networks almost 700 (!) of them. In our case, because I have a family membership to the Charles Schulz Museum, we got into the Disney Family Museum free and only had to pay an extra five bucks a head for the special Blair exhibit (which my girls didn't know on my birthday but didn't mind taking advantage of). My Schulz membership paid for itself in one visit. Deal!

Mary Blair was an artist who did much of her work for Walt Disney over several decades, but also did art for Little Golden Books, greeting cards, and non-Disney films. She was a concept artist for Disney movies such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella, and designed tile murals for Tomorrowland and Disney World's Contemporary Resort. Her best-known project is probably Disneyland's "It's a Small World" attraction which, as I wrote in an appreciation of Blair in 2011, whether you love or hate it, you have to admit she designed the heck out of.

As I also wrote in that 2011 blog post, I didn't used to like her style. I thought it was simple and sentimental. It wasn't until later, when I began to think seriously about art and comics, and to do my own professional work, that I got what she was doing. Her geometrical, flat, almost cubist style was deceptively sophisticated, and her sense of color was masterful. Walt Disney said she understood color better than anyone who ever worked for him. She achieved my cartooning ideal: distilling a subject to its simplest essence, so that a single brushstroke could capture a character or tell an entire story. You have to work really hard to make it look easy, and Blair was one of the best.

A watercolor study for Dumbo. A lot of these photos show glass reflections in them, hard to avoid.

One of Blair's more iconic images. This work was pretty large but many of them are surprisingly small.

Another iconic Blair graphic, from Alice in Wonderland.

This was probably my favorite piece in the exhibition, so I'm posting it extra large; it really knocked my socks off. From Cinderella. There's light blue glow from the Moon on the treetops (funny how you know those looming blue blobs are a forest even though they look nothing like a forest) and the magical white pumpkin carriage whose coach lamp lights up the back of the horses' necks as well as the ground below and the tree trunks alongside. That swoop of white that goes from the tree trunks to the carriage to the ground pulls your eye right to the focal point of the composition. There's a lot of goodness going on here.

Three concept art pieces from Peter Pan.
A close-up of the top painting above, found online. These are examples of the smaller pieces I mentioned, maybe 5 x 7 or 6 x 8 inches or so. Many had four pinholes in the corners, from (I presume) when they were mounted on corkboards at the Disney studios during film production for the animators to study.
Another Peter Pan. Again, look at the light on the sails, illuminated from unseen lamps on the ship's deck. Makes you want to peek around the rock and see what's going on. Also the sparkling stars in the glowing water that don't reflect any stars we see in the sky, giving the scene a weird magical quality.
A cool Christmas card design.

The Disney Family Museum exhibition gives a good survey of her career, from early student work to her late efforts. It's interesting to see her style evolve from good but unexceptional watercolor illustrations to some point in her mid- to late-twenties when you say, "There she is!" Mary Blair wasn't born with her trademark style, she created it. I imagine her thinking "Wow, this really works!" and building it brick by brick.

A watercolor by young Mary as an art student.
An overview of the Blair exhibition space, which covers two floors. Color!

It's depressing and humbling to realize she was a better artist at 25 than I'll ever be. That's the risk you take going to museums.

I also came away with a feeling I remember having after seeing a show of director/animator Tim Burton's work at the New York Museum of Modern Art: awe for how prolific she was. Like Burton, Blair must've gotten up every morning and created three amazing things before breakfast. Paintings, sculptures, textiles, tiles. Both artists made me feel incredibly lazy.

In addition, the Blair exhibition inspired me to get back to color--real color, not Photoshop color. For years I've focused on black ink on white paper, and I love black ink on white paper, but seeing her pieces made me feel like a man in the desert who didn't realize he hadn't had a drop of water in a long time. No promises, but I'd like to take up watercolors again, or perhaps even give gouache--my least favorite medium and Blair's best--another try (shudder). I'm unlikely to share the results but I think it'd do me some good.

So I got a lot out of the Blair exhibition and, even if you're not a wannabe artist like me, I recommend it. It's only at the Disney Family Museum until Sept. 7. Go spend the day at the Presidio, enjoy some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge on Earth, hike down to Fort Point under the bridge, say "Hey, this is where Jimmy Stewart pulled Kim Novak out of the Bay in 'Vertigo'," have a good day.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Snoopy, Bingo, Doolittle and Me

The Charles M. Schulz Museum celebrated its 12th anniversary with free admission and ice cream cake last night. Had a nice low-key time talking with museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin and two people I'm proud to know a little, Brian Narelle and his wife Robin Goodrow.

Brian is a cartoonist/writer/actor who uses comics therapeutically (I need to hook him up with Graphic Medicine...). In his younger days he was one of the stars of the cult classic sci-fi film "Dark Star" playing Lt. Doolittle, directed by a young up-and-comer named John Carpenter.

Brian drew dozens of sketches for kids, and had a line all evening long.
Lt. Doolittle (on left) looks very concerned. If you haven't seen "Dark Star" I recommend it: low budget, smart, weird, and very darkly funny.

If you were a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 80s and 90s, you may remember Robin as the star of the TV program "Buster and Me." More recently she did a program called "Bingo and Molly." Lots of puppetry and positive messages, very sweet.

At arm's length with Robin.
This was Robin a few years ago, with a great ape named Vanilla. As I posted this photo, it occurred to me that Vanilla is pawing her almost exactly as I am in our selfie, just mirror-imaged. 

Between them they've got some Emmy Awards, and they're two of the kinder and gentler people I know. They also knew Robin Williams, so I spent a few minutes talking with Robin about him. Brian was too busy drawing cartoons for museum visitors; he had a line all evening, so I just had a moment to say Hi to him.

Nice people, nice place.