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 (Spyvibe.com), 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 heard of Raina and 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.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Richard Thompson, Cartoonists' Cartoonist

I didn't have a spare 21 minutes this morning to spend watching this profile of Richard Thompson, the creator of what I once called "The Best Comic Strip Being Drawn Today." But I did anyway. It's a terrific overview of his work and an honest, unsentimental glimpse of what Parkinson's Disease has robbed him (and us) of.

The film calls him a "cartoonists' cartoonist," which I've always thought was a sort of slippery phrase in any context (Comedians' comedian? Writers' writer? Surgeons' surgeon?). What does that mean? In this case, it means to me that Richard does things I wish I could do, as well as things I don't understand how anyone could do. He's the very model of "working hard to make it look easy." The film touches on him doing 17 drafts of a cartoon that looks like it was scribbled out in two minutes. I am agape.

Asking for 21 minutes of anybody's time is asking a lot, but this was worth mine.



The Art of Richard Thompson from GVI on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Chair Man of the Board

This is a post about a board.


I've used the same art board for about 30 years. Instead of one of those nifty tilting drafting tables (which I'd love but have no room for), I rest the board on my lap to draw on. This page from Mom's Cancer shows me and my board in action.



Art boards are made of light, soft wood so you can stick tacks into them. They're meant to take some abuse. Ink, paint, tape and glue are scars that an art board wears proudly. Early on, I smartly decided to use one side of the board for drawing and painting, and the other side for cutting paper with an X-Acto blade. The front stayed smooth while the back got scored and sliced. That worked fine for a long time, until the cutting side became so lumpy and choppy I couldn't even cut a straight line on it anymore.

So yesterday I cemented a cutting mat to the back. I inherited the green plastic mat from my Mom, who used it for sewing, and I hadn't done much with it since. Time to put it to work.



Since the cutting mat was larger than the board, I had to trim it to size. Turns out that's really tough to do! I mean, I realize the entire point of a cutting mat is that it's hard to cut, but I hacked at this thing with a utility knife for an hour and hardly dented it! If anybody ever pulls a gun on me I'm grabbing this mat, because I'm pretty sure it could stop a bullet. I ended up cutting it with a jigsaw.

I expect this board upgrade to be good for another 30 years.

Artists aren't supposed to fetishize their tools--imbue them with so much power that they're afraid to change them or even use them at all. I had an art teacher in college who took a pair of scissors to a new, expensive brush just to make the point that the tools exist to serve you, not vice versa.

But man, this board and I have some history. Although it came from an art supply store rather than the Lady of the Lake, it nonetheless feels a bit like my Excalibur. An artist's board is personal.

I've had the privilege of sitting at the drawing board of Charles Schulz--not the board that's exhibited at his museum, but a second board he used at home. I hardly have a mystical bone in my body, but it's impossible (impossible!) to sit at that board and not feel the creative mojo emanating from it. You can see the ghosts of art and letters carved into the soft wood as Schulz's nibs bore down through his paper.

I mean that literally--you can read words Schulz wrote.

Several years ago, Karen and I went to the estate sale of a watercolorist and printmaker who lived in our neighborhood. I never met her before she died, but when I saw her drawing boards tossed into the garage as "scrap lumber," I knew I owed it to her to save them. I paid a couple of bucks and took them home, and use them from time to time even though she warped them. My nod to her.

I fetishize a little.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Raconteuring


Mike Lynch is a pal as well as a cartoonist whose career I admire and learn what I can from. He's one of a shrinking number of single-panel magazine cartoonists who actually make a living at it. Don't stare too hard at the mythical creature or you may frighten it away.

A couple of years ago, Mike and three cartoonist friends self-published a little zine called Raconteur as an outlet for longer four-page pieces. As the zine's mission statement reads, it's "a collection of true stories written and illustrated by cartoonists who usually specialize in other formats." Very sadly, one of the original Raconteurs, Jeff Pert, died suddenly (at age 55!) last year. A few months ago, Mike asked me if I wanted to be a Raconteur.

When Dorothy Parker asks if you want to join her for lunch at the Algonquin, you don't think twice.

So Raconteur #5 is out and I'm in it. Also in it are Mike, New Yorker-and-other-places cartoonist John Klossner, cartoonist/illustrator Brian Moore, and syndicated cartoonist ("Off the Mark") Mark Parisi. That five--not four but five!--cartoonists for the price of . . . well, I don't really know what the going price of cartoonists is these days, but we don't come cheap, even by the pound.

If you're interested in five little slice-of-life stories, I'd be very happy to sign and send you a copy for $5. Honestly, that's probably asking a lot for a slim 20-page comic, but they're professionally printed (color cover, black-and-white guts), the stories are good, and I'm proud to be in it. Also, postage is included, so that knocks like a buck off the real price right there (I'm only mailing in the U.S. and Canada; sorry, but elsewhere's too much trouble). I'm not looking to get rich, just cover my share of the production costs.

Here's a teaser of my four-page story about a little project my daughters and I did, with the Paypal ordering button right below. Hope you'll check it out! If not, we can still be friends.



Raconteur No. 5




Monday, November 3, 2014

Scoutin' at the Schulz


(that post title is sung to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz"....)

I had a good day teaching a three-hour workshop for Girl Scouts earning their Comic Artist badges at the Charles M. Schulz Museum & Research Center on Saturday. My wife Karen, who stayed involved in Girl Scouts after she led our daughters' troop for 12 years, came along as my invaluable girl wrangler. The 25 workshoppers were Cadettes in sixth through eighth grades, some of whom had traveled a couple of hours to be there.

(Two "By the Ways": As I was reminded and will explain, there's a big difference between girls in the sixth and eighth grades. Also, the Girl Scout national organization's website is so chaotic that just now I couldn't find the answer to a basic question like "how old are Cadette Girl Scouts?" and had to look it up on Wikipedia instead.)

To earn the badge, Scouts must complete five tasks:
1. Delve into the world of comics
2. Choose a story to tell
3. Draw it out
4. Frame it in four panels
5. Add the words.

To that list I added a Number 6: Have a snack break.


The first thing I told the Scouts is that the Badge Authorities had gotten it wrong and I was going to teach them the right way to make comics. You don't "add the words" after you "draw it out": the words go first.

One way the Scouts could satisfy Task 1 was visiting with a comic artist. Since they were talking to me, that may have sufficed. However, I also gave them a quick survey of the history of comics, from Ben Franklin's "Join or Die" through 19th Century newspapers to 1938 Superman to 1960s Underground to graphic novels in the 2000s (with an obvious nod to a half century of Schulz).

And tied it all together with a neat bow on top.

I taught them the terminology for the parts of a comic: panel, balloon, border, gutter, etc. We talked about expressions, and how beginning with a basic face--two eyes and a nose--and just adding eyebrows and a mouth in different shapes and positions can communicate a wide variety of emotions. I had the Scouts do that themselves: I provided a blank face and they tried out different expressions. Throughout the day, I shared the results of willing Scouts with the rest of the group via the camera in my notebook computer.

Trying out some expressions, communicating some emotions.
How we shared: I'm holding this Scout's work in front of
my laptop's camera while she tells her story on the monitor.

I taught them to make comics the traditional way, sketching in pencil first then going over it in ink, but I also explained that that method developed during the early days of newspaper print and wasn't really necessary for the Web or modern media. If they want to make comics with paint or collage, more power to them. However, I specifically stuck with black-and-white pencil-and-ink for two reasons: it's the simplest, and after the workshop they could tour the Schulz Museum and see that Mr. Schulz made his comics the exact same way they had.

Pencil, then ink. The words go first.

One exercise I call "And then what happened?" I draw a man walking along a street and ask the Scouts, "and then what happened?" This usually gets an enthusiastic response. I draw whatever they tell me. "A rock fell on his head!" "He looked up and saw a dump truck full of rocks above him!" "He woke up and it was all a dream but he still had a lump on his head!"

Another exercise I stole from my friend Mita Mahato, who gave a workshop on zine-making at the latest Graphic Medicine conference I attended. First, we origamied a sheet of paper into an eight-page booklet. Then we did a jam comic, where one person starts a story based on my prompt, then passes it to her right for the next person to draw the next page, and so on until all the pages are full. It's an improvisational "And then what happened?" exercise meant to be quick and sloppy. It worked wonderfully.

A couple of Scouts working on their jam comics. You can also see that I brought along some age-appropriate comics for them to read as examples of the form, including a new series called "Lumberjanes" and my friend Otis Frampton's "Oddly Normal."

Finally, they had to apply everything we'd talked about by writing and drawing their own four-panel comics, which volunteers shared with the group (as they had their jam comics). I found features to point out and compliment in all of them. They made some good comics! Mission accomplished!

That's also when I was sharply reminded of the difference between the sixth and eighth grades. In particular, there was a little group of older girls whose stories all involved characters flirting and making out, and one whose four-panel comic ended with a decapitation. As they shared their stories with the group, I expressed mild mock dismay--"Oh, I hope this story isn't going where I think it's going. OH NO!"--keeping in mind there were also 10-year-olds in the room and, by the way, I'm sort of representing the clean-cut Schulz Museum. I wasn't trying to smother anybody's creativity, but at the same time wanted to keep it G-rated.

Well, those girls got their revenge. Reading through the workshop evaluations later, I received four in a row that rated their instructor as "poor" and said the museum needed to hire somebody less "sexist" who realized Girl Scouts could create stories about romance and death, too.

Sigh.

I want to be liked as much as anybody, and that stung a little. I actually took a moment for self-reflection: was I sexist? My wife didn't think so. "That's just how they are at that age," said Karen. I think I'd've reacted the same if they'd all been boys. If any of them had said anything during the workshop, I'd have encouraged them to tell any type of story they wanted to later, and let their freak flags fly. That's what comics are about (a point I'd made when discussing Underground Comics)! Just not on my time.

Those mean girls won't get me down! *sniff*

And they didn't.

Many thanks to the Schulz Museum for asking me to do the workshop, especially Education Director Jessica Ruskin. Thanks to the two troop moms who stayed and were a big help, and especially thanks to all the Scouts, who were really terrific and fun to work with, even the mean girls in the corner. I'm supposed to teach another Cadette workshop in December, which I hope Jessica lets me do despite my bad reviews.

Afterward, some of the troops asked to pose for photos with me and their completed comics (faces are blurred because I didn't get permission to show them). I love that Schulz quote on the wall of the museum's Education Room and will take any opportunity to pose under it.

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 BoingBoing.net 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.

Nevertheless.

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.