Friday, April 18, 2014

Mr. Comics Smarty-Pants

My cartoonist pal Mike Lynch drew a comic that must be shared. Some background:

In a blog post a few days ago, Mike wrote about a grocery store he frequents that has a quote by "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly painted on a wall ("Food for thought is no substitute for the real thing"). When Mike asked the clerks if they knew who Walt Kelly was, none of them did. He enlightened them. In the comments of that post, I imagined what those clerks might say to each other when they see Mike heading their way.

Today he turned my comment into a comic.

This is great, unexpected fun for me. As I told Mike, it's the perfect capper to a week that's already been unusually good. With Mike's permission, I'm proud to present our first collaboration: "Mr. Comics Smarty-Pants" with words by Fies and art by Lynch. I wonder if this is how Lee & Kirby or Siegel & Shuster got their starts.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Eisner Nominees are Announced

And darned if I'm not one of them.

My webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, has been nominated for the comics industry's Oscar, the Eisner Award. My category is Best Digital/Webcomic.

I have many strong simultaneous feelings about that, primarily gratitude. I'll sort out the rest and I'm sure have more to say later.

As I have in the past, I plan to keep my opinions of the other nominees and predictions of who I think will win to myself, at least until voting is over. That just seems like the high road. However, I want to mention a few details that leaped out at me:

Frank Cammuso's Otto's Backwards Day is up for Best Publication for Early Readers. I haven't seen the book but met Frank at my very first trip to the San Diego Comic-Con and the Eisner Awards in July 2005. He does first-rate work and, more important, he's one of the really good guys, so I was very happy to see him earn this recognition.

I was even more thrilled for Jason Walz, whose Homesick is nominated for Best Graphic Album-New. Jason contacted me before Homesick was published because it touches on some of the same themes as Mom's Cancer, and I gave him the best advice I had. I think his book is terrific and we've kept in touch. Homesick is Jason's first graphic novel; I don't have to work too hard to imagine the mix of shock and pride that comes with getting an Eisner nod for a debut work.

I met Sheila Keenan when she was an editor at my publisher Abrams. Now she and Nathan Fox have written Dogs of War, which is up for Best Publication for Teens. I honestly haven't seen the whole book but the excerpts and reviews have been wonderful, and Sheila deserves the honor. This is also her first graphic novel (she wrote, Fox drew).

Finally, Abrams and Editor Charlie are in the running for Best Publication Design and Best Comics-Related Book for The Art of Rube Goldberg by Jennifer George. It's a beautiful, respectful book highlighted by a paper-engineered cover that brings one of Goldberg's wacky machines to life. A treasure for fans of Goldberg or comics in general.

I hadn't planned to attend the San Diego Comic-Con this year (although I did take the precaution of getting a badge--anybody got a spare couch?). Now I'm rethinking that decision.

As I say, more later. For now, thanks to all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Darndest Thing

This may be a case of me learning something that everybody else already knows. But if it's news to me, maybe it'll be news to you, too.

Trolling through an antiques store Sunday, I found a book I hadn't seen before that struck me as the perfect synthesis/collision of mid-20th-Century pop media: 1957's Kids Say the Darndest Things by TV and radio personality Art Linkletter, with an introduction by Walt Disney and illustrations by Charles Schulz.

Disney and Schulz in the same book?!

I'm old enough to remember Linkletter, the affable, avuncular personality who made a living interviewing regular folks and wringing hilarious homespun insights and malaprops from them. Beginning in radio with "People Are Funny" in 1943, Linkletter soon found a gold mine in children, spinning the concept of "Kids Say the Darndest Things" into a TV show, a movie, and this first of several bestselling books. It was warm, corny, kind-hearted entertainment that in the '50s and '60s made Linkletter a star.

It's no surprise that Walt Disney introduced Linkletter's book. The men were friends and occasional business partners. Linkletter hosted the televised opening day of Disneyland just two years earlier, and for years Linkletter got a lucrative cut of every Kodak camera and roll of film sold at the Magic Kingdom.

Linklettter and Disney on live TV on Disneyland's
opening day, July 17, 1955.

The wild card is Schulz. Peanuts had debuted in October 1950, so was probably not yet seven years old when Linkletter's book came out in 1957. Schulz also illustrated a sequel in 1961. Peanuts and Schulz weren't yet the phenomenon they would become but were clearly on their way. It seems to me that this project must have hit a real sweet spot in Schulz's career: much earlier and he wouldn't have been high-profile enough to be offered the job; much later and he would have been too big and busy to accept.

By my quick count, Schulz drew about four dozen spot illustrations for the book. His rendering of Linkletter for the dust jacket is about the only time I can recall him ever doing caricature. The charming drawings are mostly direct illustrations of the text. For example, one kid told Linkletter, "I once had a dog, but he got married and moved to Oakland," and Schulz drew this:

A sort-of-Snoopy drives his new bride to the East Bay

More examples, chosen because I found them particularly neat or interesting:

Gregory wanted to sell his sister for half price.
I thought this was a funny physics-defying gag.
This one reminded me of Schulz's first professional sale to the
"Saturday Evening Post," which was a cartoon of a boy sitting on
a chair and ottoman much too large for him.
One of the advantages of a large family is that
"everybody has somebody else they can boss."
This girl wanted to "be King of the United States and have
two special maids: the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus."
A boy with a bad haircut blamed it on his grandpa, who was
a better carpenter than barber.
Familiar . . . very familiar.
Another caricature of Linkletter (holding a microphone), one
of a small number of adults Schulz drew during his career.
I just thought this was a neat graphic.
Some of the neurosis and angst Schulz was known for
are on display here.
I found this smart and kind of weird, with the fish jumping
up and out at right angles.

I've seen examples of Schulz's early magazine cartoons and his short-lived sports-themed comic strip It's Only a Game, but missed this Linkletter work entirely. This link between one of the greatest cartoonists, one of the most successful movie producers, and one of the most beloved media personalities of the 20th Century kind of makes me see all of them in a different light, and finding new Schulz art I never knew existed feels like discovering a lost Beatles song. Best $10 I've spent in a long time.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Modeling a Monster

The six long-time readers of this blog know that I like using and making models for my comics work. In the case of the Art Deco rocket I built for WHTTWOT, I actually managed to infiltrate photos of the model into the book itself. That was a lot of fun.

 For my ongoing webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, I likewise built my own Mechanical Monster.

It stands about 17 inches (43 cm) tall and began life as a 4-by-4 and assorted wood scraps in my garage, including a couple of pieces left over from the rocket. It turns at the neck, waist and shoulders, but not at the hips, knees or elbows. Its antennas are toothpicks, its eye a marble, and its claws are molded from Sculpey.

I textured its surface before painting because, in my original abandoned draft, the Last Mechanical Monster had spent some years exposed to the elements, so I wanted its steel surface to show some corrosion. 

It's not a rigidly faithful model. My Robot's neck/collar is too large and thick, its spherical hands are too small, the shoulders are all wrong--limitations imposed by the materials available and my limited time and skill. Yet it still serves an important function as a handy reference, especially for proportion. Its hips are as broad as its shoulders, its elbows fall at the waist, its hands reach nearly to its knees. I don't really pose and copy it, but while I draw I can glance up and make sure I'm still, as the cartoonists and animators say, "on model."

As I work on The Last Mechanical Monster, I reap the benefits of the original Fleischer animators' excellent design work. For the most part the Robot is dead easy to draw--all rectangles and cylinders--as you'd expect for a character intended to be hand-drawn on hundreds of animation cels for a cartoon. Sometimes I get a sense of communicating with them through the decades, like "I see what you guys did there, very clever!" 

One of my challenges in drawing the Robot is resisting the urge to make it too big. The shorthand description of the Fleischer cartoon is "Superman fights giant robots." Even the "Superman Wiki" entry lists their height as 30 feet. But they're not really that giant. The Fleischer cartoon is inconsistent, but I based my estimate of the Robots' size on two data points: Superman flat-footed (not jumping or flying) punches them in the chest, and Lois Lane climbs into one's cargo hold by standing on a chair.

Exhibits A and B, your honor.

Making some assumptions about Superman's and Lois's heights, I figured the Mechanical Monsters couldn't have been more than 11 or 12 feet tall, max. In my webcomic I've gone to some effort to establish that scale. For example, when the Robot and Inventor stand side by side, the Inventor comes up to about the Robot's hip. I've shown the Inventor sitting on the Robot's head like a stool. Still, if I'm not attentive, I'll invariably draw the Robot larger than it ought to be. The model helps me keep that straight, too.

"Getting it right" is a slippery business in a comic fantasy adventure, especially when the source material itself wasn't a slave to consistency. I don't know if I put more or less effort into it than another writer/cartoonist would, but this is the kind of detail I have to work out for myself before I can play in this world. Building a model makes it a bit more real for me.

I recently saw this old-style Superman doll in the store
and couldn't pass it up even though the scale is all wrong.
Now that's a giant robot!
Plus it looks really cool sitting atop my desk next to the rocket ship.

Friday, March 28, 2014


We returned home late last night from a vacation that, per my policy of not inviting criminals to rob my home, I didn't mention publicly until it was over. Too late now, criminals.

Karen and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this week. I'm reluctant to say that. When I was a kid I knew people who'd been married for 30 years and they were all old. You tell people you've been married 30 years and their eyes light up and twinkle like they've just seen a yawning baby panda. Sometimes they applaud. I hate that. Don't patronize us. We're not cute.

Though sometimes we are totally adorable.

I might as well own it.

For our honeymoon in '84 we drove down the California coast into Baja, a trip that included a stop at Disneyland. Last week we went back there again.

Long-time readers already know I love Disneyland. I'm old enough (married 30 years!) to not care how you feel about that. Grown-up Brian can nod along with criticism of Disney as a corporate cultural hegemon spooning pap to generations of  bourgeois rubes, but when I walk through that gate I'm 9-year-old Brian who spent every Sunday watching Uncle Walt's World of Color on a black-and-white TV in South Dakota. That's worth something to me.

Also, unlike most of the rest of the world I'm familiar with, Disney often lives up to its own Guest Experience standards. Many times this week, staff went far above and beyond to make our visit a better one. I like to encourage that wherever I find it.

As a fun side project, I brought along a print-out of photos we took on our honeymoon with the goal of recreating them. Our daughters, who went with us this week, suggested we do the same with photos of their first visit, which was in 1992 when they were 4. We didn't spend a lot of time on this; things move fast in the Magic Kingdom, there's usually someone waiting to pass through the space you're occupying. It is cool and eerie to think, "This is exactly where you and I stood three decades ago." It's also fun to see how much/little both the park and we have changed.

In both 1984 and 2014, I tried to pull the sword from the stone to assume my rightful role as king. The fact that I'm sitting here typing blog posts instead of issuing edicts answers as to whether I succeeded. (I also just noticed that I crossed my hands wrong. Oh well. No do-overs.)
A magnificent edifice both then and now. The castle's not bad, either.
We wondered if that tree on the left is the exact same one.
Small world. We didn't have many honeymoon photos with both Karen and me in them,
the selfie having not been invented until 2005.
The low wall Karen leaned on in 1984 is still there, but it was part of the queue for a "Meet the Frozen Princesses" thing and we didn't want to stand in line for two hours just to get this shot. So we stood two feet to the side.
I'm proud of this shot. The location wasn't easy to find (a quiet little nook near It's a Small World)
and we took a minute to try to line it up right. 
This was also a good shot to get. We explained our mission to Mickey and his human aide, and both went out of their way to make it fun for us. Also, Mickey has evidently grown at least a foot over the past three decades. Bet you hadn't noticed!
Accelerating the DeLorean to 88 mph and zooming ahead to 1992, here are my daughters Laura and Robin with the passage of 22 years.
The girls were good sports. They had better things to do than humor their old man, but did their best.
In return, I promised not to embarrass them. I lied.
Growing up as my daughters had absolutely nothing to do with their choice of sweatshirts in 2014. Nothing.
Finally, going back to 1984 for a photo of me because it's a segue to a quiz.
Q: Aside from my gray hair and thicker midsection, what differences do you notice in these photos?

A: Strollers.

A plague, an infestation, a blight. Strollers.

Of course parents have always had strollers, but a modern stroller isn't the flimsy collapsible aluminum-and-cloth contraption of the past. Now they're SUV strollers, with mag wheels and environmental controls and cup holders. Their greater bulk seems to foster a greater sense of entitlement, as moms and dads bulldoze through mobs and beach their rolling behemoths wherever they want.

I'm gonna say this with all sympathy and compassion, as a man who's pushed a double-wide stroller through many a park and mall myself: leave them home. If your child needs a stroller to navigate Disneyland, they're too young for Disneyland. They won't remember any of it and are too small for most of the rides. All they'll see are knees and butts, and they'll be overloaded and howling by noon. Bunk the baby with grandma; you'll both have a much better time.

Another big difference between then and now: iPhones. Even in our last visit to Disneyland a few years ago, I hadn't noticed so many people entertaining themselves and their families electronically while waiting in long lines. Karen's phone had an app that listed the wait times for every ride and restaurant in the park. It's revolutionary.

In particular, we saw dozens of people playing this game in which one person holds the phone to their forehead with a name or phrase on its display (e.g., "Mickey Mouse") while the players give them clues to who or what they are. I get the game; I just don't get the forehead. Wouldn't it work the same if you just held it in front of you? (BTW, I'm only posting this photo of strangers on vacation because none of their faces really show. I'm a good citizen.)

Disney is heavily promoting toys and accessories from two particular movies right now. My daughter Laura doubted that Captain America would appreciate the irony of being displayed on the same shelf as "Frozen."

Huge crowds. If I knew 30 years ago what I know now, I don't know if I'd have gotten married during the popular spring break season. The weather wasn't great: gray and cool our entire visit, and it rained us out of the park our last night. We only saw clear sunny skies on our way out of town. But neither my wedding date nor the weather are Disneyland's fault, and we had a very good time regardless.

Thirty years. It sounds like a long time but doesn't feel like it.

It's all right.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Noiseless Cartooning In Technicolor!

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane has done a magnificent thing, made even better by his letting me share it.

Way back in the 20th Century, Jim majored in Radio, Film & TV Production. More recently he's been fiddling with Adobe After Effects, which puts the power of Industrial Light & Magic on your desktop. A few days ago he applied his light and magic to my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster, and produced this:

For comparison, watch the first 50 seconds of this:

(The reference to "Noiseless Cartooning" corresponds to a credit for "Noiseless Recording" in the original, although I do draw as stealthily and lethally as a ninja, so it fits.)

That's funny and thoughtful. Also pretty darned good effects rendering, I think!

I'll append Jim's clip to the next installment of The Last Mechanical Monster, to be posted on Tuesday, but wanted to debut it here today. Thanks again, Jim!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Ides of March is My Favorite Holiday

There was a scene on the TV show "Modern Family" in which the pregnant Gloria complained about being tired.

"You just woke up, how are you tired?" asked her husband, Jay.

"Maybe because I'm turning food into a human!" snapped Gloria.

I thought that was hilarious; I'd never heard it put like that before and it's exactly right. Turning food into a human. No chemistry lab or industrial plant on Earth can do it, yet it happens every day.

That's amazing! Alchemy! Transmutation! Everybody should be going up to pregnant women all day long and shouting, "You are doing the most incredible thing in the universe!"

Twice as impressive? Turning food into two humans. I've seen it myself. Twenty-six years ago, in fact.

Best day of my life and second-best isn't even close.

Happy Birthday, Girls. See you home for dinner!

This plus even MORE food equals....
....this. Amazing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

More Twain

Still reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. It goes down best in bite-sized chunks.

In earlier posts about both Volume 1 and Volume 2, I complained that Twain's novel method of writing his autobiography--dictating whatever stories happened to pop into his head depending on that day's news, a letter from a friend, or a long-buried memory--gave a great sense of immediacy but didn't lend itself to introspection. Reading the book feels wonderfully like sitting on the porch listening to Clemens spin yarns and gripe, but doesn't dig into what he really thought about the Great Questions. Back in March 2011, deep into Volume 1, I wrote that "Readers wanting Twain to declare his true opinions on race, religion, and so on may be disappointed. He never really tackles a big topic and says, 'Here is what I think about that and why.' Did Twain believe in God? I don't know and he doesn't say."

Well, in Volume 2 (dictations of June 1906) Twain lets God have it with both barrels.

He's got no use for the capricious fire-and-brimstone Old Testament God but, maybe surprisingly, even less regard for the gentler New Testament God, whom he considers a hypocrite who was maliciously stingy with his miracles. How good and merciful could God really be if the millions of people who'd never heard Jesus's Good Word or were born before his time could never, according to the theology of Twain's day, get into Heaven? What kind of raw deal is that? At least you knew where you stood with the old angry God.

Twain also draws a line of critique from the contemporary work of Charles Darwin, but not the obvious one. Rather, Twain embraces Darwin's insight that natural selection is built on death: terrible, cruel, bloody death. "The spider was so contrived that she would not eat grass, but must catch flies, and such things, and inflict a slow and horrible death upon them, unaware that her turn would come next. The wasp was so contrived that he would also decline grass and stab the spider, not conferring upon her a swift and merciful death, but merely half paralysing her, then ramming her down into the wasp den, there to live and suffer for days, while the wasp babies should chew her legs off at their leisure. In turn there was a murderer provided for the wasp, and another murderer for the wasp's murderer, and so on throughout the whole scheme of living creatures in the earth . . . . The ten-thousandfold law of punishment is rigorously enforced against every creature, man included." Where, wonders Twain, is the merciful good in such sadism?

Nor is he much convinced of virgin birth or Heaven, considering the testimony hearsay of the flimsiest kind. "If we should find, somewhere, an ancient book in which a dozen unknown men professed to tell all about a blooming and beautiful tropical paradise secreted in an inaccessible valley in the centre of the eternal icebergs which constitute the Antarctic continent--not claiming that they had seen it themselves, bu had acquired an intimate knowledge of it through a revelation from God--no Geographical Society in the earth would take any stock in that book."

Yet for all his criticism, Twain never declared himself an atheist. That seemed to be a bridge too far for him, and he spoke well of faith in other contexts. I infer that Twain probably believed in an Almighty Creator, he just didn't think that any of the world's religions had a very good handle on Him (I'm reading between the lines; other readers may reach different conclusions). Nor did Twain have a high opinion of His work.

"In His destitution of one and all of the qualities which could grace a God and invite respect for Him, and reverence, and worship, the real God, the genuine God, the Maker of the mighty universe, is just like all the other gods in the list. He proves, every day, that He takes no interest in man, nor in the other animals, further than to torture then, slay them, and get out of this pastime such entertainment as it may afford--and do what he can to not get weary of the eternal and changeless monotony of it."

Fin de Siecle
One unexpected reward I'm getting from reading Twain's autobiography is much greater insight and respect for his literary successors. The autobiographical excerpts above are from 1906. They are complex, ornate sentences that sound stiffly old-fashioned to our 21st Century ears. They take effort to follow. Keep in mind that Twain's autobiography was dictated and faithfully transcribed by his secretary. That's how he spoke.

Not 20 years later, along came writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Woolf, who read as very modern. Sentences are direct, descriptions are spare, dialog sounds like how people actually speak. It's like the difference between Dutch Old Masters and Picasso.

I'm no literary historian, but the shift from 19th to 20th Century style must have been seismic for both readers and writers. I get why Hemingway et al were a big deal in a way I didn't before. To put it in more modern pop culture terms: nobody too young to have seen "Star Wars" in 1977 can really appreciate how it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. It influenced everything that followed, which they grew up immersed in. I've heard people criticize "Citizen Kane" or Hitchcock films for being "too cliche," not understanding that Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock pioneered those narrative and cinematic techniques that only became cliche after everyone copied them.

It's very difficult to put yourself in a pre-Lucas, pre-Welles, or pre-Hitchcock state of mind and see them fresh. But I begin to feel that reading Twain has put me in a pre-20th-Century-literature state of mind that deepens my understanding of the great changes to come. The 1920s must've come as a hell of a shock to a lot of book lovers.

Insult of the Day #12
I can't leave a post on Twain without providing the next in a series of Mark Twain Insults of the Day. Today's target: humanity.

There are many pretty and winning things about the human race. It is perhaps the poorest of all the inventions of the gods, but it has never suspected it once. There is nothing prettier than its naive and complacent appreciation of itself. It comes out frankly and proclaims, without bashfulness, or any sign of a blush, that it is the noblest work of God. It has had a billion opportunities to know better, but all signs fail with this ass. I could say harsh things about it, but I cannot bring myself to do it--it is like hitting a child.

Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of Brainiacs

I don't have time to write this well but wanted to capture it before it wriggled away:

Historically, smart characters have had a hard time of it in fiction. Bespectacled dreamers in white lab coats, heads in the clouds, often the first to be killed by the alien or germ du jour. Sometimes insane. Typically good only for providing exposition before the real men of action take over and blow the threat to smithereens.

"What does it want from us, Doctor?"

"It's no doubt here in peace, probably more scared of us than we are of it."


"It vaporized Poindexter! Fire at will!"

Growing up a nerdy science-oriented kid, positive role models of brainy characters who were actually cool--perhaps even heroic!--were scarce. Wherever they appeared, they instantly became my favorite characters in the cast. A couple of recent deaths reminded me of some brainiacs done proud.

Harold Ramis died today. An accomplished comic, actor and director, he'll always have a sublet in my heart as Egon Spengler, the smartest Ghostbuster. The only non-fraudulent scientist on the team, Egon understood the danger of crossing the streams (giving me my favorite bon mot suitable for nearly all occasions, "Important safety tip, thanks Egon!") and, frozen in fear before a giant marshmallow man, still had the presence of mind to explain that he was "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought." Egon's so smart, that's how he speaks in a blind panic. In a cast of more colorful characters and flashier actors, Ramis's Egon was all dry understated reaction.

One of my favorite moments in the film is Ramis being completely silent.

I don't mean to minimize Ramis's life and career, and today's very real loss to those who knew him, by focusing on one role, but Egon Spengler provided services to science and culture beyond the part he played in "Ghostbusters."

As did Russell Johnson as the Professor in "Gilligan's Island." I'm serious, as were astronomer Phil Plait and other real-life professors who eulogized him upon his death in January at 89.

As a former chemist, the only serious technical error I see
the Professor making here is his choice of lab assistant.

The program was a comedic farce, but Johnson played the thankless role of the castaways' straight man with dignity. Everybody got to be zany but the Professor, but that's all right; he was a rock you could count on to keep his head while everyone else lost theirs. He was also the most handsome and virile man on the island. That's not a trivial point. The Professor was probably the hunkiest scientist in popular fiction until at least MacGyver.

Unless you count Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock, whose sex appeal was legendary. In fact, writer Isaac Asimov shrewdly anticipated this entire blog post in 1967 when he wrote an article for TV Guide titled "Mr. Spock is Dreamy" in which he concluded, "Women think being smart is sexy!" Quick clarification: unlike the gentlemen above, Mr. Nimoy is not dead. However, he has been in the health-related news lately, which is how ideas get connected in my brain and turned into blog posts.

So smart he built a computer in 1930 out of stone knives and bearskins.
Also dreamy, probably to Shatner's chagrin.

Spock brought to the party his prodigious intellect, great physical strength and, most importantly, coolness. As I write this, I think that's the chain linking the Professor, Spock and Spengler: cool. (If this essay had been better written, I would've set up that insight from the start instead of discovering it at the end.) Observant. Analytical. Rational. Spock channeled his frightening, deeply buried passions into intellect--surely the greatest metaphor for adolescent angst in mid-20th Century pop culture. Nimoy has often said that the number of actual scientists and astronauts he meets who say they owe their careers to him is enormous. Though I'm not a scientist or astronaut, I'd say I'm one of them.

"Ghostbusters," "Gilligan's Island" and "Star Trek" were not real science. Far from it. But brainy heroic characters like these make a difference, especially when they hit you young. They matter, in ways that deserve to be taken seriously. The twig is bent.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Gentleman and a Scholar

This looks a lot like the 2012 softcover edition of WHTTWOT until you notice the red logo at the bottom . . . .

As I may have written here before, having WHTTWOT become an actual schoolbook is just about the best outcome I could've ever imagined for it. Like, beyond. I understand that it will be available through the regular book club we all remember from our childhoods, but that Scholastic's primary interest is using it in its Nonfiction Focus Program.

I don't know a lot about that program or how it works. What I gather is that Scholastic has put together several levels of books grouped by subject and complexity, ranging from Levels A to Z. A teacher or school would purchase a level as a package and get multiple copies of ten or so books that go together and support the curriculum. WHTTWOT is in Level Y in which "books feature similar themes to previous level (increasingly mature themes), with more explicit detail; requires critical reading skills to evaluate the quality and objectivity of the text." So it's for the smart kids.

Thanks to Scholastic, and Editor Charlie and Elisa Garcia at Abrams, for helping my book find new life that exceeded my imagination.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Evening Star

Just wanted to share this lovely photo I found of the Evening Star following the setting Sun down behind a distant dusky mountain range. The star's about halfway up the sky, one-third of the way from the left side. See it?

I expect you're thinking that's a pretty picture but nothing remarkable. You've probably seen a thousand sunsets like that yourself.

How mischievous of me not to mention that this sunset took place on Mars, and the Evening Star is us, photographed by the Curiosity rover.

Because Earth is closer to the Sun than Mars, Earth is an evening and morning star there, just as Venus and Mercury are to us. A Martian would never see the Earth directly overhead at midnight.

What elevates this photo beyond "Gee whiz!" all the way up to "Holy moley that's one of the best space photos I've ever seen!" is that if you download the full-resolution version here and take a real close look, you can see a simple truth we take for granted: we live on a double planet. This picture doesn't just capture the Earth, it shows our Moon.

Doing some quick math, I'm pretty sure you'd be able to see both with the naked eye. Earth had a magnitude of -1 (comparable to an extremely bright star like Sirius, or Venus or Jupiter from Earth) while the Moon's magnitude was about +2.7, same as a mediumish-bright star. (The magnitude scale is weird; it's both backwards and logarithmic. Negative numbers are brighter than positive numbers, and the limit of the naked eye is about Mag +6). The apparent separation of the Earth and Moon when this photo was taken was about as large as it gets, say 380,000 km, and JPL says we were 160 million km away, making the separation as seen from Mars about 8 arc-minutes. A full Moon as seen from Earth is about 30 arc-minutes across, so the Earth-Moon pair as seen from Mars is separated by a distance about equal to one-fourth the diameter of the Moon.

By way of comparison, the famous star pair Alcor and Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper are about 12 arc-minutes apart, and Mizar's magnitude (+2.2) is similar to the Moon's in this photo. Alcor-Mizar are not difficult to see. Also keep in mind that the Earth and Mars are relatively far apart right now. Sometimes that 160 million km shrinks to one-third that distance.

Easy peasy!

Imagine what ancient Martian astronomers would have made of us, watching this pair of stars--the piercing blue one among the brightest objects in their sky--circle each other every 26½ days (Martian days just are a little longer than Earth days). Imagine the mythology they'd create to explain us. We'd be gods to them; maybe a parent and child? We would be the most awesome and mysterious thing in their heavens.

This is a view humans will get to enjoy someday. I envy them.