Monday, April 13, 2015

Mom's Cancer on!

I've been waiting a long time to announce this....

Beginning next Monday, April 20, Mom's Cancer returns to the Internet on Universal Uclick's Free.

I'll parse that sentence: Universal is one of the largest press syndicates in the world, providing comics and columnists for newspapers worldwide. They're the syndicate of Garfield, Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes, Dear Abby, and my secret crush Miss Manners. Universal Uclick is their online arm, and is the bit of that arm (ulna?) that provides their comic strips online. Folks can set up an account to read all their favorite comics for free. They get a million visits per day.

That doesn't mean that a million people are going to read Mom's Cancer. Readers have to choose it from a list and add it to their subscriptions. I hope some will. We'll see. Even a few new readers I never would've had otherwise would be better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

This means a lot to me.

Mom's Cancer started as a free webcomic, on a primitive site I hosted myself. When I signed my book contract with Abrams, they quite reasonably asked me to take it down so my free version wouldn't compete with something they were going to ask people to pay for. I was happy to do that.

Time passed. Except for a few perennial sellers, the life of a book has an ebb and flow. If you're lucky, there's a small flurry of reviews and events when the book comes out (if you're not lucky, it's just another raindrop in the lake that nobody notices). It stays on the bookstore shelves a while, then it's pulled from the shelves to make room for new books.

(This was something about the book business I was shocked to learn: say a bookstore orders X copies of your book and sells them all. You, Joe Author, think "Great, now they'll order more copies!" But Bev Bookseller thinks "Great, now I have space to put all these new books!" Unless you're To Kill a Mockingbird, bookstores really don't want you hanging around.)

As Mom's Cancer slid into the tail end of that curve, I occasionally broached to Abrams the idea of putting it back online. One of the paradoxical discoveries of the new webcomic era is that readers actually will pay money for a collection of work they can read online for nothing, and I thought that might help boost sales for the print Mom's Cancer. But mostly, as the book became harder to find or order in stores, I wanted the story to stay available to people who might benefit from it.

Well, that broaching never went far until Universal's President and Editorial Director John Glynn contacted me out of the blue many months ago asking if I were interested in adding Mom's Cancer to Why, yes indeed, I was. Acutely! I talked to Abrams, Abrams and Universal talked to each other, lawyers got involved, somewhere deep in space a hydrogen nebula condensed into a star, and at last Mom's Cancer debuts on next week.

I think of this as Mom's Cancer's return home.

We'll post a page a week, so it'll take about two years to publish the whole book. We're trying to figure out ways to add notes, annotations, sketches, etc. without interrupting the flow of the story. I have some behind-the-scenes material, plus several years of perspective, that I think some readers will appreciate.

Thanks to John Glynn and Shena Wolf at Universal, and Charlie Kochman and Lindy Humphreys at Abrams. This part's going to sound sappy but it's sincere: all I want is for people who need the story to find it, and they made it happen.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Research vs. Writing

I liked this thought-provoking essay, "Mistaking Researching for Writing," by comic book writer Ron Marz. I'd recommend it for anyone working on a creative project and wondering whether they're doing so much research they'll never get around to writing, or so little research their writing will sound false and lack conviction.

Some money quotes:

"How much research is enough? After two decades of writing fiction, I've come to believe the answer is 'Enough to fool the audience into thinking you did a lot more research.'"


"No one wants a book report. They want a story."


"Depending too heavily upon research can be the death of imagination, or at least the submersion of it. One of the gifts of writing fiction is making it up. Revel in it."

You all know a writer who's spent months or years building a fictional world--drawing maps, diagramming family trees, classifying exotic flora and fauna--but never quite getting around to setting a story there. Maybe that writer is you. Research can become a bottomless pit if you let it.

It's an issue I've faced on all my projects to different extents.

On Mom's Cancer, most of the story was taken from my family's real lives. However, I also took a lot of notes as events happened, and researched a lot about cancers, treatments, prognoses, etc. (which of course I was doing anyway).

On Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, I researched my butt off. The book covers four decades of Space Age history that I was determined to get right. For each decade I pulled together facts, figures, reference images, and original source material totaling about 3000 pages worth for a 208-page book.

Always uppermost in my mind was the fact that (as Marz said) "nobody wants a book report." If I drew a lamp post in 1939 or a fallout shelter in 1955, you can be certain I had references for it. But I tried to never rub the reader's nose in it. Instead, I hoped the cumulative effect of a thousand unconscious correct details would lend the whole book some credibility and verisimilitude. A few folks have told me that's what they like about it.

I learned to resist the urge to include material just because I'd done a lot of research on it. Yeah, it took me three days to dig up that nugget, but if it doesn't contribute to the story it has to go.

I'm working on some new projects now that also demand pretty deep research, both historical and scientific. Again, my goal is to fold all of that in so it helps the story without drawing attention to itself. I badly want to get it right. I also want to get it done.

Sometimes I think that's where Melville went wrong with Moby-Dick. Dedicating three chapters to how sailors tie knots is just showing off. More seriously and recently, I've read a couple of epically long graphic novels that I think could have profitably been cut in half if their authors had been less interested in telling us all they'd learned and more interested in their stories.

In my experience, writing and research go together. Often, you don't realize what you need to know until you begin to write. In turn, research sometimes suggests directions you could take your story you may never have considered.

In the course of writing Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, it amazed me how often I needed some bit of information only to have it miraculously appear days later. Like, I'm writing about the most obscure incident or factoid imaginable, and BOOM the New York Times or NASA prints an article about it. I didn't even have to hunt for it; it found me! The same thing is happening on my new projects. The universe provides. It's almost eerie.

Do your research. Do your world building. Keep it in mind as you craft your story, but don't let it become the story. And if you story gets to a point that requires contradicting your research, and you think you can get away with it, err on the side of telling a good story. That doesn't mean you can say the first Moon landing happened in 1944 (unless you're doing a sci-fi Moon Nazi tale, then go for it!), but if you always thought your Realm of the Dragons was in the North and it suddenly makes more sense for your hero to find it in the South, make the change. It's not supposed to be a straitjacket.

"One of the gifts of writing fiction is making it up. Revel in it."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sittin' and Thinkin'

Karen and I enjoyed a pre-Anniversary getaway last weekend. I won't bore you with the details or a droning travelogue, but I did want to share one photo that I found particularly thought-provoking:

That's the tile in the floor of our hotel bathroom. As I had the opportunity to contemplate it, I got to thinking about that extra filler tile (marked in green in the photo below), and wondering how you'd lay out tiles to avoid that awkwardness. As a result, I figured out something that I imagine every professional tile layer learns their first day on the job, but it was news to me.

Or it's possible I totally knew this before, forgot it, and rediscovered it. That seems likely. Doesn't matter; forgetfulness keeps things fresh.

The square tiles are all the same size. Those on the inside of the pattern are turned 45 degrees from those on the outside (while others are cut in half or quarters to fill the gaps). They don't space out evenly because the diagonal of a square is (naturally) longer than the length of its sides. In fact, as we all remember from Pythagoras, they're wider by the length of their side times the square root of two.

Since the square root of two is an irrational number whose decimals never repeat or end, the straight and diagonal tiles can never come out exactly even. However, we craftsmen in the tile-laying trade know that a little extra grout covers a lot of sins. How close can we get?

Because the square root of 2 is about 1.414, the first obvious answer is that if you laid out 141 straight tiles next to 100 diagonal tiles, you'd be off by four-tenths (0.4) of a tile. Increasing the separation between each of the 100 straight tiles by only 0.004 of a tile--just a skosh--would fill in the difference.

But we can do better.

Reduce the fraction from 141.4/100 to 14.14/10. How's that look? Pretty good!

You're left with just a little piece of diagonal tile hanging over the edge--again, a pretty easy imbalance to fix simply by spreading out the 14 straight tiles a bit.

Now the thrill of discovery was making me light-headed. Could I do even better? Dare I try?!

Simplify 14.14/10 to 7.07/5. What have we got?

If anything, that's even better! It's . . . it's so elegant! So beautiful! I began to weep. Luckily I had two-ply nearby.

Now here's the part that blew my mind and convinced me this had to be a blog post. I counted how many tiles wide the actual bathroom was. Six. Six straight tiles wide, plus that filler tile. The poor blighters almost made it! But wait . . . There's that border of skinny tiles on the right. And the more I looked at that border, the more convinced I was that if they'd just omitted it, they could have laid a seventh tile and gone all the way:

NOOOOO! So close! They were headed for the end zone and fumbled on the 1-yard line!

Karen and I have been married long enough that she barely even rolled her eyes when she saw our photos uploading and asked why I'd taken a picture of tile. She muttered something about knowing what she was in for when she married me. And she married me anyway.

I'm a very lucky man.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Irwin Hasen

Aw. We lost another comics pioneer today, with the death of Irwin Hasen at nearly 97. He had a good run.

Mr. Hasen drew comic books almost as soon as the form existed, working on titles such as The Green Hornet, Green Lantern and The Flash beginning in 1940. He created the DC character Wildcat. After serving in World War II he returned to comic books, then began the work he may be best remembered for, the comic strip Dondi, in 1954.

I didn't know Mr. Hasen but I met him a few times, and he was always happy to share his wisdom and stories with anyone who asked. He was short, charmingly profane, and told great tales about the Depression Era gangsters and prostitutes he'd known growing up on the tough streets of New York City. Some of them might have been true.

Below is a blog post I wrote in July 2006, after running into Mr. Hasen at the San Diego Comic-Con. As I've mentioned elsewhere once or twice, being called an "S.O.B." by Irwin is a highlight of my comics career. He was one of the Golden Age greats. I'm sorry we've lost him but I'm glad we had him.

With Irwin Hasen at the Society of Illustrators in New York, 2006.
JULY 2006

I love the old guys.

The comics industry is famous for devouring its own. I know good, professional artists in their thirties forced out of the business for lack of work while thousands of eager teens line up with sketchbooks in hand ready to take their places. Short memories and fickle trends turn today's creative heroes into tomorrow's tired hacks. There's precious little appreciation or respect for the men and women who began and built the business--many of them still alive, some of them still working.

I've mentioned how I originally met Irwin Hasen in February at my book launch party at the Society of Illustrators in New York. I saw him again the next day at the New York Comic-Con, selling prints of the old DC characters he drew plus originals from his long-running comic strip "Dondi." I only took the time to greet him briefly, and left New York regretting that I'd let an opportunity slip through my fingers.

Last Thursday I saw Mr. Hasen again, set up in Comic-Con's Artists Alley. No one was at his table; in fact, I had to elbow my way through a line of fans queued up to meet the Hot Young Artist at the table next door to get to him. I reintroduced myself and we had a nice conversation.

I looked over his table and saw only prints. No originals.

"Oh, I remember you had some Dondi originals in New York," I said, disappointed. "I was really hoping to see them."

Mr. Hasen gave me a conspiratorial nod, pulled a portfolio from under the table, and slid out a dozen "Dondi" strips. We continued to talk as I flipped through them, figuring out which one I wanted to buy. At last I chose my prize.

"You've got a good eye, you S.O.B.," said Mr. Hasen, eyes twinkling. "You picked the best one."

My original "Dondi" strip from 1968 is huge, nearly two feet wide. No contemporary artist I know of works that large, mostly because the shrinking space newspapers devote to comic strips these days doesn't allow for the kind of detail Mr. Hasen drew, as in Panel 1 below.

They don't make 'em like that anymore.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's a very good profile of Mr. Hasen the New York Times did in 2011. Recommended reading.

EDITED TO ADD MORE: Mark Evanier posted this trailer for a documentary about Mr. Hasen. I haven't seen the film, but this trailer gives you a good sense of the gentleman and what it was like to talk to him for even a few minutes. I don't think they make characters like him anymore.

AND here is his obit in the New York Times.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Undiscovered Country

Today Leonard Nimoy died. He was 83 and had been ill, so it wasn't a surprise but still a stab in the heart.

I thought about writing about how much his work meant to me--and of course by "his work" I don't mean the hundreds of roles he played over his six-decade career but only one of them. Then I realized I already did it. In 2006, the San Diego Comic-Con celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Star Trek" by inviting essays on the subject for its souvenir book. I wrote one and they printed it.

It's all still true except for the part about me being 45 years old.

The Ages of Man: An Appreciation of “Star Trek”

I am 45 years old: old enough to claim Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) cred. I was there when Earth’s molten crust cooled, simple molecules linked to form complex proteins, and my family bought its first color television in time for me to feel the electric primary colors of “Star Trek” burn from ember-orange vacuum tubes through my retinas into my brain.

After 40 years, the thematic depth of the McCoy-Spock-Kirk trio has been well plumbed and hardly bears repeating. McCoy is emotion, Spock is reason, and Kirk is the balance between emotion and reason that draws on both to inform decisive action. Id, ego, superego. However, as I age, I’ve been surprised to find I gain new appreciation for these three characters as my understanding of them evolves. Their velour-bloused TOS incarnations haven’t changed since 1969. But I have.

When I was a child and teen, Leonard Nimoy's Spock was It: the apotheosis of alienated intelligence. His tools were logic, quiet confidence, and bone-dry wit. He defeated his enemies with brainpower. His weapons were numbers and words. Yet beneath that cool facade roiled overpowering emotions and superhuman strength barely contained. On the rare occasions Spock lost control, the results were unpredictable and frightening.

Adolescence never had a better metaphor.

Spock was important to me. He valued things I valued—reason, science, knowledge—and wasn’t embarrassed by it. I had a temper as a child; watching Spock struggle to maintain his self-control helped me tame it. He taught me grace under pressure. When a junior high bully twice my size picked me up and threatened to drench me under an overflowing rainspout, I replied with cold Nimoyan indifference, “I would actually prefer it if you didn’t,” and he released me with a laugh and enough respect to never bother me again. Being cool worked.

Spock was about restraint, temperance, placid courage, and the triumph of the intellect. He guided me through many rough passages as I matured, and got me safely to the other side.

Where I was met by James T. Kirk.

It’s always been easy to mock the flamboyant Kirk, yet I believe—in all sincerity and without a trace of condescending sarcasm—that Captain Kirk is one of the great characters of twentieth-century American fiction. Kirk was twentieth-century America, or at least the best of how twentieth-century America saw itself: bold, confident, powerful, ambitious, thoughtful, resourceful, loyal, compassionate. Had a twinkle in his eye. Did all right with the ladies. Always found a way to win. Shatner made him that.

For the past couple of decades, Kirk has gotten a bad rap as a trigger-happy gunslinger. Slander! Not this man who agonized over decisions that sent crewmen to their deaths. Who knew Shakespeare and quoted Masefield. Who once had a Gorn by the throat (felled by a cannon Kirk fashioned from dirt and twigs, and I’d like to see you try it) and showed the impressively advanced trait of mercy.

Spock may have been superhumanly smart and strong but, like an adolescent, he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. Kirk knew who he was, what he was doing, and why he was doing it. He was a man.

Of course, part of being a man is that you quit looking to fictional role models to show you how to be one. Unlike Spock in my youth, I can’t pinpoint aspects of my adult life consciously patterned after Kirk, unless you count his purposeful stride as he leaves the Enterprise’s chapel headed for the bridge at the end of “Balance of Terror.” Sometimes I walk like that. I like to think I’ve internalized some of his courage and cleverness, but until I actually have to face down a rock-melting Horta or drive a computer mad with illogic, how would I know? Nevertheless, if anyone had asked me between the ages of 20 and 40 to name the best character in the “Star Trek” canon, I would have said Kirk.

Perhaps I still would. But when I watch TOS lately I find myself powerfully drawn to Leonard McCoy and the understated performance of DeForest Kelley. I never cared for Bones when I was younger. He was a few years older than Kirk and a few watts dimmer than Spock. Distrustful of technology and contemptuous of trivial rules. Cranky. Jaded. Jowly. Maybe a little weary.

Maybe I’m beginning to relate.

McCoy trusted the ship to Kirk and Spock while he calmly commanded Sickbay, comfortable in his mastery, as much a man of science in his element as Spock was in his. If you needed someone to brew a telekinesis serum or reinstall a brain, there was no one better in the galaxy. He faced down a scalpel-wielding Khan and, in my favorite McCoy moment, knocked out Kirk and Spock to take their places in an alien torture chamber. McCoy had paid his dues and didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. Despite his occasional bluster, he was probably the most laid-back person on the ship.

Until recently, I might not have recognized the quiet heroism of a mature adult who could be counted on to keep his cool and do the right thing. By now I’ve seen enough of the opposite in the real world to treasure those qualities wherever I find them.

Smart and Stylish
TOS was a sophisticated program for sophisticated viewers, and even before I finish typing this sentence I imagine scoffers pointing to its sometimes laughable effects and props, day-glo sets and costumes, outdated sexism, and overwrought melodramas with ham-handed morals.


On the other hand, audiences in the 1960s didn’t need to have everything spelled out for them. They understood the art of allegory in ways that seem to escape modern viewers. TOS charmers like “A Piece of the Action” or “Bread and Circuses” would be impossible in later decades because more modern audiences, blinded by literalism, know for a fact that when we eventually travel the galaxy we will not find strange new worlds populated by Chicago gangsters or twentieth-century Romans.

Guess what: we won’t find pointy-eared Vulcans or blue-skinned Andorians, either. Guess what again: people knew that in the '60s, too.

Nor would modern audiences accept such highly stylized episodes as “The Empath” or “Spectre of the Gun” that deliberately screamed out, “This is a make-believe story filmed on a soundstage for your entertainment!” Today we applaud ourselves for seeing the mirrors and wires that sustain the illusion, not realizing that perhaps the greater skill lies in ignoring them. We’re not holding up our end of the artist-audience bargain.

(A similar erosion of sophistication killed the movie musical, I think. Audiences of the 1930s, '40s and '50s knew as well as we do that overjoyed or heartbroken people don’t actually break into song and dance. They were just able to wrap their minds around it. We apparently cannot, and more’s the pity for us.)

TOS was a smart, stylish program of its time. The fact that many viewers and fans moved on to newer, flashier, darker, or grittier Trek incarnations that abandoned metaphor and humor, and felt compelled to actually explain why everyone in the galaxy spoke English and looked like an L.A. starlet, reflects worse on them than on the original “Star Trek.” If you’d rather watch an hour explaining how Klingons got bumpy foreheads than exploring why a half-black half-white man hates a half-white half-black man, I won’t argue. Everyone’s entitled to their taste and opinion. We can both call ourselves “Star Trek” fans, even if it turns out we don’t have all that much to talk about.

But you may be surprised to discover which Treks grow on you—and with you—in the long run.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dr. Gibbs

Watching TV recently, I saw a face in a commercial that brought my brain to a needle-scratching stop:

"Wait a second, I know her!"

Given the commercial's subject matter, it didn't take me long to figure out how I knew her. Here's the ad:

And here's what she looked like 10 years ago when I drew her in Mom's Cancer.

What, you thought I made those people up?

One of my mother's physicians is still out there getting it done. She's a great doc and I think that's terrific.

Weird to just have her pop up on my TV screen, though.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


I'm spending some time this weekend developing a new hand-lettered font for upcoming comics projects. I'm happy with how it's turning out and wanted to show it off.

I've talked about lettering before, explaining how I hand-lettered all the pages of Mom's Cancer directly on the original art, the way God intended, but learned that it made it very difficult to edit and prepare foreign-language editions (which is a nice problem to have). For Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow I sampled letters from Mom's Cancer and used them to build a computer font using a program called Font Creator.

Now, there are websites that'll turn your handwriting into a computer font for free--you just print your letters on a template, upload it to them, and download your font a minute later--and I initially tried one of them. The quality wasn't good enough. A lot goes into making a real font, including how the letters are spaced (kerning, leading) and all work together. I needed more horsepower, and Font Creator had it.

So for the past several years I've used a computer font I created based on my original hand lettering, and it works swell. There are some trade-offs, including a loss of hand-crafted authenticity that I regret, but the benefits are just too great. Editing is a snap; I can change or delete text without having to redraw an entire page. When it comes time for non-English editions, I simply delete all the text (if you know Photoshop, it's on its own layer) and send them wordless files. There's no going back to the old ways for me.

However, traditional comic book lettering, including mine, is all upper-case capital letters. Now I need lower case, partly because some projects I'm working on will be text-heavy and it's hard to read paragraphs of upper-case narrative. IT LOOKS LIKE SOMEBODY'S SHOUTING AT YOU ALL THE TIME! I still wanted a font that looked handcrafted and was legitimately mine, but easier on the eyes.

Meet Brian Comix LC 2015:

It needs some tweaking but I'm pretty pleased with it. Hope you get to see it in something soon.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Film Studies

I recently read a piece online about a young graphic novelist whose book, according to the article, "is being made into a movie." The excited creator talked about the screenwriting process and casting decisions--which stars they imagined playing which roles--and it went on like that for a while until deep in the article, when we learn that the creator's big break had been getting their story optioned.

Oh. Ohhhh. Poor kid.

An option means that you give a movie or TV studio the right to develop a film or show based on your work for some length of time, maybe a couple of years. Ideally they pay you some money for it, but it's not a deal or a commitment. It's just your promise not to sell your idea to anybody else while they think about it. I probably know a dozen writers, cartoonists and graphic novelists who've had their stories optioned (and I hardly know anybody). Fewer than one in a hundred will ever get made.

One friend has had the same project optioned by three different movie studios in succession, with nothing to show for it. Another friend had Will Smith sniffing around his comic because Smith wanted something for one of his kids to star in, until the kid got too old to play the character. An option sounds real neat but, from what I've seen, at a certain level in the business it's kind of routine and usually disappointing.

So going to the press super-excited about your option is a little embarrassing. Understandable--who wouldn't start drafting their Oscars speech?--but embarrassing.

I know a few people whose movies actually got made. Michael Fry, who's an Internet acquaintance, co-created the comic strip "Over the Hedge," which became an animated film from Dreamworks in 2006. Phoebe Gloeckner's "Diary of a Teenage Girl" just debuted to rave reviews at the Sundance festival. And of course Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" has done pretty well. (I guess I also know some of the Schulz Studio people, but "Peanuts" doesn't count.)

Jeff is the exception that proves another rule of getting your stuff made into a movie, which is that creators are often disappointed to discover they have no say in what happens to their creation and are unlikely to become rich and famous. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a studio buys the rights for a relatively modest sum, hires its own writers, and cuts the creator out of the picture. If you want your movie to get made, that's the deal you sign. I'm always surprised by how many creators say they're OK with that. But Jeff is in the 1% who insisted on significant participation in the filmmaking and got it. He's credited as a producer and spends a lot of time hands-on on set. He had the leverage to say "my way or the highway"; not many other people do.

I am not at "a certain level in the business," just a kid with my nose pressed against the glass.

Several years ago an independent movie producer contacted me about optioning Mom's Cancer. He was a real nice guy but had no money to offer, and as we talked I didn't get a feeling he really knew what to do with the story. Also, at the time, Mom's Cancer was getting some press, and Kid Sis had her own circle of independent filmmaking friends in Hollywood whom we thought might be interested. So because I wanted to leave my options (heh!) open and not tie up the rights with no benefit to me, I declined. And that was my only nibble.

The year Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow was nominated for some awards, a scout for 20th Century Fox e-mailed and asked to meet with me at the San Diego Comic-Con. Here's one thing you may not know about me: I am the world's worst negotiator. I replied along the lines of, "Geez, I don't see why you'd be interested, it barely has a plot."

Nevertheless, we had our meeting, and the scout was so excited he got me excited. I began to see the movie in my head. I still couldn't imagine how anyone could film my book, but I could envision a movie-about-being-a-movie in the same way WHTTWOT was a comic-about-being-a-comic. Sort of a meta-movie about Space Age history with scenes featuring my Cap Crater character done in the styles of science fiction directors like Fritz Lang, George Pal and Stanley Kubrick. It would be brilliant! In the back of my head, I started working on my Oscars speech.

A couple of weeks later, the scout sent me a brief e-mail. Fox was going to pass because, it turned out, my book barely had a plot.

Who knew?

As I've matured in the comics world, I've learned the importance of keeping a level head. Don't be crushed by the lows, don't get too elated by the highs. Some things that seem like big opportunities aren't, and other things that seem like small potatoes turn into something good. Best just to roll with it, say "yes" to a lot, and see what happens. Still. It hardly ever hurts to dream.

In a world where Christopher Plummer IS Sparky the Inventor, my Oscars speech is ready.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

LumaCon I

I had a swell time today as a guest of the first annual LumaCon held in Petaluma, Calif. (hence the "luma"), a comics convention organized by high school librarians aimed at kids and families. The idea was to sit local kids side by side with comics pros to get a look at the art, craft and business of storytelling. 

When one of the organizers contacted me last October, I thought it sounded like a cute idea and signed on. Honestly, I didn't expect much, and wouldn't have been shocked if the whole thing had fizzled out. As time passed I saw the guest list grow; LumaCon got commitments from pretty much everybody north of San Francisco who'd ever picked up an inkpen. I was impressed. In the past couple of weeks the press got wind, and every conversation I had with anybody involved in local comics (which admittedly wasn't a lot) touched on it. I still didn't know quite what to make of it, but I was beginning to think it might be big.

What it was was charming, and the most positive experience I've had at a comic con in a long time. Small, simple, low-key, unpretentious. One old comics hand told me it reminded him of the San Diego Comic-Con when it started in the '70s. The whole thing fit into one large round room at a fairgrounds, with a raised platform for panels and speakers, an Artists' Alley, a hands-on craft zone, LARPing (live-action role playing) outdoors, and a bake sale.

I've never been to a convention with a bake sale before.

No idea how many people came but the sign on the wall said the room held 907, and it was full. I did a morning panel titled "Doing What You Love: Artists' Stories" with Paige Braddock (Schulz Studio, Jane's World, Stinky Cecil) and Michael Stribling (art director for LeapFrog games and toys). The sound system fritzed but we did fine passing around one working mic.

Then I manned a table for a while. I have nothing to sell, but I brought my books and pages of my original artwork for people to look at, and had terrific conversations with probably a dozen or more kids (and their sometimes befuddled parents and grandparents) about my work and theirs. I saw pages of comics by a 10-year-old boy that astonished me with their Chris-Ware-like sophistication and met a 14-year-old girl whose Photoshop skills crush mine. I'm on the tail end of a bad cold so my voice sounded like a saw blade on a chalkboard before I lost it completely, but nobody minded.

My daughters, who are convention tabling veterans of their own, noticed the same thing I did: people approached with genuine interest, in contrast to the thousand-yard stare you typically see. They really wanted to talk about comics! A few of the kids seemed thrilled to realize they weren't freaks or weirdos. Some of their parents and grandparents seemed relieved as well. ("Oh, so this is a real thing that grown-ups actually get paid to do?")

I had a few minutes with comics-related friends, including Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Lex Fajardo (Kid Beowulf), Jason Whiton (, Justin Thompson (Mythtickle), Art Roche (Schulz Studio), Jessica Ruskin (Schulz Museum), and Paige and her wife Evelyn. Some personal friends showed as well (Marion and Susan!). Also, as I relate in a photo caption below, I became reacquainted with someone I haven't seen in about 35 years, which was a highlight of the day for me.

I can't speak for attendees--their experience may have been very different--but from my perspective LumaCon hit the sweet spot it was aiming for. I've never been to a con like it. The room was small but there was plenty to do. The vibe was totally positive. These small-town kids got together to put on a show in the barn, and darned if it wasn't a fine one.

A panel with (L to R) Michael Stribling, Paige Braddock, me, and moderator Nathan Libecap, a high school librarian and one of the con organizers. As we began, Paige leaned over and whispered, "We're all wearing black." I replied, "That's because we're artists."
A view of the panel audience area from the stage. That's my daughters Laura and Robin, and their friend Caitlin, at lower right. The sides of this area were open so that many more people stood off to the left and right. It doesn't look like a lot of folks, and frankly it wasn't, but I've done panels at San Diego Comic-Con that drew fewer.
Personing my half-table with my daughter Robin (photo by Laura).
In Artists' Alley with Jason Whiton and Lex Fajardo (still early, not everybody had set up yet).
A good overview of the large round room, with some sort of winged creature enchanting a Wonder Girl at left (that's Jason Whiton photobombing me at dead center, and I just noticed Art Roche peeking between the creature's wings).
The convention floor included a craft area where kids could make their own art and comics. The panel stage is behind the partitions to the right.
This is Brian Crist. When I was 13 years old, he opened a comic book store in what was then the seedy end of downtown. Many Saturdays I pedaled my bike three or four miles, bought a sandwich at a downtown deli, and went to his shop to browse through his stacks, ogle the original comic art on the wall, and buy new and back issues of "The Avengers." His store was a welcoming oasis to a kid who loved comics and didn't know anybody else who did, and I was a regular customer until I left for college--about the time, I believe, that he was priced out of his rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.  A few months ago we reconnected via a Facebook group dedicated to local history, when somebody in the group asked if anyone remembered his shop and I replied with pretty much what I just wrote. Brian saw that post and responded. Today we met for the first time in 35 or so years. I don't think he remembers "the Avengers kid" but he made a big difference in my life and it meant a lot to me to tell him so. Sometimes life gives you a chance to get it right.
What it's all about (photo by Robin).

Edited to Add: We made the local paper Sunday morning. It's a good article even though (or because) I'm not in it. One correction: Brent Anderson (Astro City) was scheduled to appear but was sick and couldn't make it. They've got some good photos, too.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Perils of Charlie

Even being one of the most rational, least superstitious people I know, once in a while I find a coincidence so improbable it brings me up short. The latest involves the comic book above: Superman The Man of Steel #44, cover date May 1995.

Karen and I were trolling through an antiques shop on Sunday when I came across a stack of comic books with that issue sitting atop it. Now, you might think that I, being a comics and cartooning kinda guy, would be all over old comic books. Not at all. First, 1995 isn't old. Also, I already have all the comic books I want, and haven't had much interest in mainstream superhero comics in 25 years. I keep up with what's going on through the comics press (yes, there's a comics press), but actually thumbing through a Superman comic book? Haven't done it in years.

But something about that cover grabbed me, and after circling around the vendor's stall I came back to it, picked it up, and opened it. My loud guffaw echoed through the large shop.

I could have randomly picked up any one of a million comic books and not found someone I know, and whose caricature I instantly recognized, on Page 1. 

Son of a gun.

Before Charlie Kochman was my book editor and friend, he worked for MAD Magazine and DC Comics, where Superman writer Louise Simonson and artist Jon Bogdanove thought enough of him to put him in their book. Not just for a one-off cameo, either! Superman took four pages to save Charlie from a bomb planted in his office (click any of these images to see them larger).

Let's break it down. In 1995, a friend of Charlie's puts him in a comic book that nearly 20 years later is sitting on top of a pile that I happen to notice for no particular reason and randomly open to the page he's on.

I can't . . . I don't even . . . I mean, what are the ODDS?

Not that this sort of thing is unusual for Charlie. He's got a lot of friends in comics who seem to take twisted glee in torturing him. I don't have a compendium of examples--maybe he does--but a favorite I have handy is the graphic novel Kingdom Come, a "what if" alternative future story featuring Superman, Batman and the Justice League, written by Mark Waid and beautifully rendered by Alex Ross. 

We first meet Charlie aboard a tram being threatened by a supervillain:

Circled in blue, with a panicky look that I've also seen on his face near deadline.

A couple of pages later, we see Charlie's not doing too well, having been gut-shot in the crossfire:

However, by the end of the story he's made a remarkable recovery, sitting in a superhero-themed diner next to a table where an aged Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince are enjoying lunch:

Although I'd never seen that issue of Superman, I knew some of Charlie's literary legacy when I did Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and I wanted to add to it. Mine was not the best-drawn doom Charlie had ever faced, but I like to think it was the most original. 

I fed him to a giant radioactive prairie dog.

BTW, I still think "furious buck-toothed justice" is one of the best things I ever wrote.

Bear in mind, that's how I treat people I like.

Some days you wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, and go out to browse through an antiques store never suspecting that you'll run into a good friend 3000 miles and 20 years from home . . . AND find out he's a close personal friend of Superman's, which enormously increases my ranking in the "Six Degrees of Separation" game. I appreciate it, pal, and look forward to tormenting you again in the future.

This picture's several years old but we both look so sharp and handsome I had to use it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Deck Us All With Boston Charlie!

Christmas Eve! Time to dip a glass into the punch bowl of whimsy that this blog has mixed up a big batch of every year since 2005 (and I'm glad that sentence is over because my metaphor had about run out of gas). All my best to everyone in 2015, thanks for reading my stuff. Now raise your voices in joyous revelry as we all sing: 

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby Lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker n' too-da-loo!
Hunky Dory's pop is lolly
gaggin' on the wagon,
Willy, folly go through!

Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloup, 'lope with you!
Chollie's collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarum bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an' polly voo!
Chilly Filly's name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly's jolly chilly view halloo!

-Walt Kelly

Monday, December 8, 2014

More Scoutin' At The Schulz

A month ago I posted about leading a three-hour cartooning workshop at the Charles Schulz Museum for Girl Scouts earning their "Comics Artist" badges. Yesterday, I did it again. It went great! Even better than last time.

First, how cool is it that Girl Scouts even offers a "Comics Artist" badge?

As before, Karen accompanied me, providing invaluable years of experience as a Girl Scout leader and wrangler. I couldn't do it without her. This was a terrific group of 22 Cadette Scouts, ages 10 to 13 or so, generally enthusiastic and not yet too cool to show it.

We had one technical hiccup. For some reason my computer and the Schulz Education Room's AV system decided not to talk to each other, though they'd gotten along fine in November. The museum's Education Director Jessica Ruskin saved my PowerPoint presentation by bringing in another laptop that worked (I always bring a backup thumb drive). However, I also like to share willing participants' work by showing it to everyone via my laptop's webcam, and that wasn't going to happen. I had to vamp. With Karen's help I pretty much pulled it off, though not without some frantic tap dancing I'll describe later.

Some of the Scouts had traveled a couple of hours just for the workshop. Everybody seemed happy to be there. They all did their best, and a few produced genuinely excellent comics for their ages. Evaluations at the end were all positive. Good group, good event!

Here are some photos that Karen took. Unfortunately I can't show my favorites because the girls' faces are too identifiable and I don't have permission to use them. Trust me: they're pretty adorable.

A good overview of how the room is set up. I can show slides on the TV behind me, and draw on the white board to its left. Part of the badge requirements include learning about the history of comics; that's the first "Peanuts" comic on the monitor (stretched horizontally because I had to switch computers, I think).

One of the workshop exercises is on "Expressions," making the point that very simple lines can portray a wide variety of emotions. I gave the girls a sheet of nearly blank faces (I provided the eyes and nose, they provided the eyebrows, mouth, and other features)) to practice on. Then I asked volunteers to come up and draw expressions on blank faces I put on the board. This was one of my tech-failure improvisations (at Karen's suggestion); it worked so well I'm going to do it like this from now on.

An activity I learned in a workshop I took from my friend Mita Mahato: the girls origamied a sheet of paper into an eight-page booklet and did a Jam Comic, where each Scout had three minutes to draw one page then pass it to her right for the next Scout to continue the story. I've done this a few times and it's foolproof for all ages: the time limit demands spontaneity and keeps anyone from fussing over their work, and the stories usually turn out pretty fun and goofy. (The girl in pink is drawing on top of a page from the packet I made up showing how cartoonists pencil and ink.)

To complete the badge requirements, each Scout had to draw a four-panel comic applying what she'd learned. Color wasn't required, but if they had time some of the girls went for it. This Scout was good.

This was the most thoughtful comic I saw yesterday. I could imagine her making some very interesting comics in a few years.

One of the day's better artists--very clean, clear action, nice economy of line and style. Again, someone who might have a future in comics if she wants one.

So toward the end the Scouts had all drawn their four-panel comics and I had 20 minutes to kill. Normally, I'd ask volunteers to share their comics via my webcam, but that was out. I was at a loss. Karen said, "Why don't you draw?" So I took to the white board and did an impromptu art lesson, talking about how to draw faces (eyes halfway down the head, nose halfway below the eyes, etc.) and building up figures from simple shapes. Then Karen (bless her) started taking requests: How about a superhero? "Batman! Wonder Woman!" (Do kids today even know who Wonder Woman is? I guess so!)

Dance, monkey, dance. Not my best work (it's hard to focus on a whole figure when drawing big on a board) but the Scouts enjoyed it. I did too. The cylindrical "cans" by Batman's leg show how I'm thinking of his thigh coming toward the viewer and his calf receding away.

Finally, I told this story on Facebook and it's a highlight of the event for me. In my "history of comics" talk I mentioned some successful women cartoonists of different eras, and cited Raina Telgemeier--author of the bestselling graphic novels Smile, Drama, and Sisters--as an example of a modern woman cartoonist. The Scouts murmured in recognition; they'd read her books. Then when I said I knew Raina, they gasped.

After the workshop, a Scout named Sabrina came up and very sincerely and seriously wanted me to say hello to Raina on her behalf because Raina's her hero. I promised I would. When I got home, I posted this story on Facebook and tagged Raina. Sabrina, if you ever see this, Raina said "Hi Sabrina!" back.

One of my best reviews ever. Think I'll add it to my press kit.

Thanks to the Schulz Museum, Jessica, curator Corry Kanzenberg, and the Scouts. It's no fun if you don't get a good group willing to share and play along, and these girls were great.

EDITED TO ADD: I want to show off this drawing one of the Scouts made for me (she signed it but I cropped out her name). It says "Thanks for teaching me to draw!" I think she already had considerable skills coming in, but appreciate the thought a lot.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writers Write

I'm getting some new traffic from a post on TV and comics writer Mark Evanier's extremely popular blog.

Mark, whom I've met a few times and share an editor/publisher with but don't really know, recently wrote a post about the practical importance of getting paid for one's creative work. In that post, he suggested that underemployed artists get a job in a related field that uses the same skills, and used the example of a screenwriter working as a tech writer.

In a follow-up post, a tech writer friend of Mark's replied that his job required a completely different skill set that not just anybody could stumble into and master. He sounded a bit insulted that tech writing might be seen as slumming for screenwriters.

I sent Mark a note, which he posted today, that I thought acknowledged both points:

Just writing to lend you some support on the idea that any writing is good writing. I started my working life as a newspaper reporter, put in more than 15 years as a science writer, and have produced a couple of graphic novels and webcomics. I find a lot of overlap. 

Writing almost anything every day gives you a facility and confidence with language that you wouldn't gain otherwise. You learn what works and what doesn't, how to prod a reaction from a reader, and the incredible importance of clarity. One of the most valuable writing jobs I had was also one of the worst writing jobs I had: covering a season of high school basketball for a local newspaper. Since every high school basketball game is pretty much like any other, by the 15th or 20th I was really working hard to make my stories interesting for both me and my readers. It was a great exercise. 

Even a "just the facts" news article or scientific paper needs to be structured and crafted to make its point effectively. I really look at everything I write as a form of journalism. The only difference is that when I'm writing fiction, I'm reporting on events and characters that don't actually exist. But it feels like the same process in my brain. 

Writers need to write, and should write however they can. 

Mark then added:

Yeah, I'm a big believer in the philosophy, "You want to be a writer? Then write something." Over the years, I haven't had a lot of patience with people who ask if I can help them get a writing job…and when they get the job is when they intend to start writing. Writers need to be wary of writing for free or for bad pay…but there's nothing wrong with writing for yourself for free. In fact, you need to do that so you don't limit your writing to just what people are willing to pay you for at the moment. Or so you're still writing when they don't. 

I wish I'd added one clause to my e-mail: "Writing almost anything every day, especially on deadline and for pay, gives you a facility and confidence with language that you wouldn't gain otherwise." I don't know if writers sitting in their garrets (why is it always a garret?) agonizing over the Great American Novel year after year are doing themselves any good.

"Step One: Write" is indeed the most important step, and one that surprisingly many "writers" never quite get around to. However, I think "Step Two: Get It Out" is just as important. Nobody learns anything from a manuscript in a drawer. Writers need readers. Even if it's just a post on a blog.