Sunday, March 20, 2016

Willie & Joe & Me

Regular readers know I love the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that recovered Apollos 11 and 12, and is now a National Historic Landmark and museum in Alameda, Calif. where my daughter Laura works and my other daughter Robin volunteers from time to time.

Laura helped put together an exhibition on "Cartoons at War" inspired by the recent find of some letters in the archives between a sailor on the Hornet and famous cartoonist Milt Caniff in 1944. Caniff created the comic strips "Terry and the Pirates," and later "Steve Canyon," which both featured a lot of military action. Caniff wanted to get the details right so he regularly corresponded with soldiers and sailors. Full disclosure: I edited the exhibition's text panels for Laura, so I'm invested.

The museum staff asked me to give a talk about Cartoons at War, and I asked Corry Kanzenberg, curator of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, if she wanted to do it with me. I was astonished and delighted she agreed. Schulz was a machine gunner in Europe; he drew a lot of sketches while there, and his experience informed his later work in "Peanuts," particularly re: Snoopy and the Red Baron.

So we went and did that Saturday.

Laura, wearing a "Peanuts" hoodie to fit the day's theme, gave us a tour of her "Cartoons at War" exhibition. It's in a space designed for temporary rotating shows, and in fact closes today. Sorry if you missed it!
Wartime art from the Hornet's sister ship Bunker Hill (the Hornet was CV-12).
Disney designed more than 1200 military insignias and patches during the War, including one for the Hornet.
Corry and I are way up on the stage under the giant flag, projecting our slides on the screen at the right. The audience included a good-sized squad (or platoon or whatever) of recruits who spent the weekend training on the Hornet. Karen counted about 60 people in the audience, which I thought was a good turnout.
I presented first, while Corry sat beside me wondering if she'd make a terrible mistake. I gave a real quick history of comics up to World War 2, then, taking my cue from the exhibition, hit superhero comics, Bill Mauldin's "Willie & Joe," Dr. Seuss's political cartoons, Milt Caniff, Roy Crane's "Buz Sawyer," and more, all lavishly illustrated. 
Corry introducing the Schulz Museum. We were speaking on the Main Stage in the Hangar Deck, which extends far to the left and right. At the right side of the photo is a flight simulator ride for entertaining the kiddies. 
Corry's turn to talk. Her presentation was great. Then we talked to each other for five minutes, took a few questions (one boy just had to tell us how much he loved Snoopy), and were done after about 50 minutes.

Immediately afterward I went to a small classroom below decks to do a Girl Scout Comic Artists Badge Workshop for a troop of six scouts. One of their mothers works with Laura on the Hornet (Hi, Chris!) and has wanted to do the workshop for a while, so we figured we'd kill as many birds with as few stones as we could. Attendance at the earlier talk was part of their requirement for earning the badge. It was a great group of girls, lively and attentive in all the right parts. By the end of the workshop everyone knew how comics are made and had drawn a four-panel (at least--some girls did much more) comic strip.

Me up front guiding the troop through some cartooning skills, with Laura looking on from the gangway. Robin came too, but we didn't get photos of her. I really like this shot Karen took because it give a good sense of what it's like to be aboard this giant chutes-and-ladders maze of a ship.
The ship's store stocked my book. We sold and signed a few.
In the Hornet's Apollo Exhibit, inspecting the plastic case I underwrote to properly display these two Space Age artifacts that are, in my opinion, the jewels of the Hornet's collection. I explained the significance of those little wooden signs the first time I actually got to touch them

Any day I get to spend aboard the Hornet is a good day for me. Thanks to Heidi and the Hornet staff for inviting me, and huge thanks to Corry for driving all the way down from Santa Rosa to help me out. She was terrific!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Happy Birthday, Dumplins!

Twenty-eight years ago today, at around 3:40 and 3:42 a.m., I learned the true terror of the Ides of March.




Best day of my life.

Happy Birthday, punks. See you tonight!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

I Got No Strings On Me

Last Mechanical Monster reader Richard B. sent me these photos of a terrific Robot marionette he built for his grandson (strings not yet attached), and gave me permission to share them. Great design, I'd love to see it in action. Thanks, Richard!



Sunday, February 21, 2016

Book Review: Move to Fire



Mike Harkins is a friend whom I met years ago when we were both freelance writers for a regional magazine. I like and respect him, and though I carried that bias into my reading of his book Move to Fire, if I didn't think it was genuinely good I simply never would have mentioned it. It's good.

Move to Fire (322 pages) is an impressive work of investigative journalism that Harkins spent years pulling together. It's the story of Brandon Maxfield, a 7-year-old boy shot through the spine and paralyzed for life when a semiautomatic handgun accidentally discharged as a family friend tried to unload it. Brandon and his family sued the gunmaker for manufacturing a defective product, and, years later, tried to buy the company at a bankruptcy auction so they could melt down its inventory of 20,000 cheap junk guns.

The case made national news. I remember it, and I remember thinking the same thing many people did: How could you argue that a gun was defective because it fired a bullet when the trigger was pulled, even if accidentally? Isn't that what a gun is supposed to do? In fact, wouldn't a gun be defective if it didn't fire when you pulled the trigger?

Harkins patiently, methodically explains why I was wrong.

As originally designed, the Bryco Model 38 was intended to be unloaded with the safety in the "safe" position, so that someone couldn't possibly fire it while unloading it. However, when that procedure was followed, the gun jammed. Rather than make an inexpensive fix to prevent jamming, gunmaker Bruce Jennings rewrote the instruction manual so that someone unloading the gun would first have to move the safety to "fire." At the very moment a user was trying to disarm the weapon, it was most vulnerable to an accidental slip of a finger to the trigger.

It would be like Ford building a new car with the brake and gas pedals reversed, then saying it wasn't their fault that people were careless enough to drive over cliffs.

The hero of the book is attorney Richard Ruggieri, who began his career working for defendants in insurance cases, representing companies against plaintiffs stricken with asbestos-related cancer. After several successful years he switched sides, partly driven by his conscience after badgering too many witnesses on their deathbeds, and his intimate knowledge of the Dark Side made him an invaluable Jedi Knight to Brandon's family. He knew all the tricks Jennings and his lawyers would use to hide their assets and evade responsibility, and dogged them relentlessly.

Favorable laws make it tough enough to win cases against gunmakers. Ruggieri's job was made magnitudes harder when the handgun that shot Brandon couldn't be found, having been lost by an earlier attorney in the case. Now he had to prove not just that one particular weapon was defective, but that the entire model line was.

The book is structured like a legal thriller, so that by the time it reaches its climactic three-part trial we know the heroes and villains and understand the stakes. Harkins draws the later chapters directly from the trial transcript, selecting passages that build on and pay off the groundwork he laid earlier.

The suspense is compelling. Harkins plays fair. Ruggieri's case has holes--not least the missing weapon--and some of his opponents' arguments are convincing. Move to Fire isn't an anti-gun screed. I found it an engrossing, well-built narrative that pulled me through, page by page. It's naturally structured like a three-act drama and ought to be a movie (in fact I believe Harkins is developing a screenplay).

Published via an Indiegogo campaign I was happy to support, Move to Fire has some flaws characteristic of self-published works, including a few typos and inconsistent usage and style. I wish a good copy editor had given it a final scrubbing before it went to press. I know first-hand how a second set of eyes can catch mistakes that the people immersed in making a book have overlooked for months.

[EDITED TO ADD: Mike tells me my copy is a first edition, and that many errors were subsequently found and fixed. Since I haven't seen newer editions I'll let my point stand as a reflection of my reading experience, with the understanding that it may be moot.]

Harkins knows these deep woods so well, and is so eager to guide readers through them, that I sometimes felt he didn't look back as often as he should have to be sure everyone was still following. Which is to say, a couple of times I got lost.

The book has a lot of technical detail about handguns: firing pins, slides, triggers, dual magazines, safeties that move up and down instead of side to side. Those details are important; the gun is practically a character itself. I would have appreciated one clear photo or diagram of it to help me understand how it worked, as well as how it failed to work.

These are nits and quibbles that don't detract from my admiration of the book. Whatever polishing it might benefit from wouldn't change its fundamental quality and accomplishments. Move to Fire is a passion project by a writer who knows how to mine facts, build characters, and use them to tell a terrific story. The fact that this writer had to mount an Indiegogo campaign to publish the sort of long-form journalism that magazines used to be proud to print is an indictment of how the field has fallen. Still, without modern crowd-financing the story might never have been told at all. I'm grateful it was.

The recent recipient of a prestigious starred review from Publisher's Weekly, Move to Fire is available on Amazon.


Friday, February 19, 2016

World's Fair Greetings!


Friends and long-time readers know of my love for both the 1939 New York World's Fair, which I featured in my book Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, and old-fashioned red-blue 3-D images (called "anaglyphs"). Here, now, in this very post, those worlds collide.

I like visiting antiques shops in other parts of the country. Our local shops are fine, but different places have their own regional flavors. I also think the vintage pickings aren't as good here in California as they are elsewhere because we're a state of emigrants who left all their old stuff behind when they moved out here.

So while in Ann Arbor, Michigan a couple of days ago (see my previous post!) I browsed a shop and discovered a treasure: a pack of 3-D "Stereovue" souvenir cards from the Fair. Each card is the size of a small postcard, in a cardboard pack meant to be mailed home. Here's the front cover:



And here are several of the cards. I'm posting them large so you can look at them with your own red-blue glasses (everybody should have a pair!). Clicking on the images should make them much larger.











In all my research on the 1939 World's Fair, I hadn't seen these 3-D cards before. In fact, I was surprised to see the red-blue anaglyph technology at all--I thought it hadn't been invented until the 1950s. A good 2011 book by Craig Yoe and Joe Kubert, Amazing 3-D Comics, described Kubert developing it for comic books beginning in 1952. Kubert wrote that he'd seen publications using red-blue 3-D pictures serving in Germany in 1950-51. Obviously it had been around at least a decade before then. I wonder if the Fair was one of its earliest uses?

These are beautiful little gems in near-mint condition from 77 years ago. The cards don't look like they were ever touched, and I can't believe the plastic lenses of the enclosed viewer survived without cracking, What a tremendous find! If anybody wants to see more, let me know and I'll fire up the scanner.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

Go (Quick Web Search) Wolverines!

Not a Wolverine.

Honestly, I was about 96% sure that University of Michigan students are Wolverines, but since I haven't cared about college sports since I was in college, I thought I'd better double-check.

I got home late last night from an exhilarating and exhausting trip to the University of Michigan, where I gave three different talks in two days. I think everything went very well. Unless my hosts were lying, so did they. I've never been to Ann Arbor and found that it lived up to its reputation as the quintessential Midwestern college town. I had some time to do my favorite thing in new places: wander aimlessly. Even better, I got to do it through light snow flurries, which is an exotic treat for me (not so much for others who don't live in coastal California, I know).

I did not make it to Zingerman's Deli, which a couple of people told me I must. Now I have a reason to go back.

Several months ago, professor Alex Stern asked if I'd be interested in talking about Mom's Cancer with her class on Health, Biology and Society. Indeed I was, and since I was flying two-thirds of the way across the country I encouraged her to find as much work for me to do while there as she could. I was subsequently booked to speak at the Ann Arbor District Library the evening after the class, and talk with honors students at a luncheon the next day.

Three different audiences with three different talks, and not really one I could pull off the shelf (I do have a couple of standard stump speeches but they didn't fit the bill). I'm not afraid of public speaking but I was a little nervous taking three untested talks for their first spins around the track the day of the big race.

I think it worked out.

My hosts and instructors of the Health, Biology and Society course, Laura Olsen and Alex Stern. The class is a fascinating interdisciplinary thing pulling together material and students from science and humanities to focus on the socio-economics of cancer. By the time I got there, all the students had read Mom's Cancer and were frighteningly well prepared.
About 80 students take the class. Big group! Before I shot this photo I said, "Anybody who doesn't want to be on Facebook look away," so students whose faces you can't see obviously have something to hide. After the class I signed a lot of books and had some great one-on-one conversations. The future is in good hands.

Alex said the students are used to collaborating on worksheets and projects in their table groups (which they've all wittily named), so I suggested we could do jam comics, in which everyone draws the first panel of a comic and then passes it on for someone to draw the next, and so on. It's a great improvisational storytelling exercise whose success depends on the participants' willingness to play along and have fun. These guys were terrific.

Weather was crisp but not unbearably cold, with an inch of dry icy show on the ground and occasional flakes drifting through the sky. The campus is home to roving gangs of squirrels that are fluffier, fatter and browner than those I'm used to, and nearly tame thanks to food handouts from big-hearted students. The squirrel at the top of this post was literally begging at my feet.

They put me up at the Michigan League, which looks like a typical student activity center (cafe, study areas, meeting rooms) except it has a hotel hidden on its fourth floor. Weird but nice. I remarked to someone that one of my favorite things to see while traveling is bricks. We don't have brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906. 
Wandering Ann Arbor. Look at all the bricks!

If your college town doesn't have an old movie theater converted to showing obscure arthouse films and Oscar shorts, you're going to the wrong college.
Some of the people who dropped by the Ann Arbor District Library that evening. The girl at center in the salmon-colored shirt next to Alex Stern is her daughter Sofia, who is a budding graphic novelist, likes plain cheese pizza, and is my new best friend, not least because knowing me puts her only one degree of separation away from her hero Raina Telgemeier. 

Jim Ottaviani is the writer of science-themed nonfiction comics. His subjects have included physicists Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, Quantum Theory, the Moon Race, Jane Goodall, and Alan Turing. Jim and I are Facebook friends but had never met, and I didn't even know he lived in Ann Arbor until he told me he'd try to make my talk. And he did!

In addition to Jim, two other creators whose work I know and appreciate showed up completely out of the blue. Jerzy Drozd teaches comics, makes webcomics and podcasts, and with Ernie Colon illustrated a graphic adaptation of the Warren Commission Report (published by Abrams ComicArts!). His wife Anne Drozd, in addition to being his collaborator on several projects, is also on the library staff and introduced my talk.

I expected Jim to show and was excited enough about that, but to get Anne and Jerzy at the same time was like Christmas morning.

With Jerzy and Anne.
Enjoying adult beverages after the library talk with Jim, Jim's wife Kat, Anne and Jerzy. It turns out we've all worked with my pal and editor Charlie Kochman at Abrams, and so traded much intelligence and strategy.
Heh heh heh.

Wednesday morning I had some wander time before lunch with about 15 or 20 honors students. This was a less formal setting and I aimed to say more than I usually would about the history of comics as an artistic and literary medium (the Art of the People!) still working to gain respect. Hope I made a good case. I had an especially nice pre-lunch conversation with philosopher and honors program advisor Henry Dyson.

The luncheon set-up. I sat in a comfy chair up front while students grabbed a plate of food (good stuff!) and ate while we talked.

After lunch I went downstairs to a car waiting at the door to whisk me to the airport, where after about seven hours on two planes (separated by a rice bowl dinner at LAX) and another hour and a half dodging fender-benders on a rainy drive home, I oozed into bed dreaming of snow-blown bricks and hungry squirrels.

This trip was a nice career highlight for me. Thanks to Alex and Laura for making it happen (and for teaching my book!); Jim, Kat, Jerzy and Anne for talking shop; Sofia for drawing me a picture; and the students for being good people and good sports. Great school and town! Someday I'll be back for Zingerman's.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

LumaCon 2

That cartoon always works.

LumaCon 2--the second annual comics convention put on by local librarians for kids and families in the town of Petaluma, Calif.--is over, although I'm sure there are still librarians folding up tables and sweeping up napkins as I type. The con aims to get students and fans in the same room with comics pros, often sitting side by side. I think they fulfill their mission spectacularly.

Last year's LumaCon was popular enough that they moved to a bigger site for this year's, with actual separate rooms for activities and panels. The fear was that scaling up would ruin the charm. They needn't have worried. Any con that has a bake sale, a costume parade, and a Lego room is doing everything right in my book.

As an invited guest I sold some books at a table and took part in a panel on "Comics as Literature." They gave me a gift basket. Nobody's ever given me a gift basket to come to their con before.

My gift basket included cuff links. I'm still trying to figure that out. But they're cool!

LumaCon was also free! I told organizer Nathan Libecap I thought that was insane, and he explained that they couldn't charge admission because library blah-blah school district blargy-blargh. There's some good reason. It's still insane.

The bulk of the floor space was occupied by Artists' Alley. The building lobby hosted bookstores, comic book sellers, and toy vendors. Culinary arts students served teriyaki and sushi. Side rooms hosted Magic card tournaments, craft tables, Legos, and quiet spaces for students and pros to talk. There were plenty of costumed folks, though I didn't think to take any good photos of them. Late in the day, organizers announced that 2400 people had attended. That felt like a good number.

For me, selling books is secondary to seeing my local cartooning friends and meeting new people interested in comics. One story that sums up my LumaCon experience: a father and grandfather brought their autistic boy, I'd guess about 14, to show people his drawings. At the previous LumaCon they'd bought him a book on "How to Draw Dragonball Z," and for the past year he'd meticulously mimicked those manga lessons, but also done some original work in his own style. We all talked for several minutes--the boy not so much talking as shoving one drawing after another at me from a manila folder. I gently critiqued and encouraged. Afterward, Dad took me aside and explained that they had feared his son would never talk, until they figured out that comics unlocked his mind. The boy could say that Superman's cape is red. Reading and drawing comics changed his life.

By the way, my wife Karen and daughters Robin and Laura came and were a big help manning my table, but I'm forbidden to show photographic proof. I also wish I'd had more time to talk to several personal friends who dropped by to say "Hi," but it was great to see them. Thanks especially to our friend Marion, who sent us some of her own photos.


The south and north sides of Artists' Alley. I was smack in the middle. Cafe and bake sale are to the right rear of the bottom photo. In the foreground right is a little drawing/coloring table.
I met syndicated cartoonist Brian Crane, creator of the comic strip "Pickles." He and his wife drove from Reno through the Sierra Nevadas just for LumaCon, and had to leave for home early to not end up like the Donner Party.
Writer, editor, teacher, and my pal Jason Whiton always stocks the most interesting table.
I'm in the center of this photo, so absorbed talking with Jason on the right that I totally missed I was being stalked by Little Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." Truly, a pink nightmare.
Schulz Studio pals Art Roche and Paige Braddock ("Jane's World," "Stinky Cecil") with Paige's wife Evelyn, who thought she had successfully leaned out of the shot.
Another Schulz Studio pal, Lex Fajardo, flogged his great multi-volume "Kid Beowulf" series.
Lex and I also did a panel together at midday.
This is a talented young artist I first met when she was a little girl. She works under the pen name Sam Coaass but to me she's Erin. If drive and determination are worth anything, she'll do very well.
Cartoonist Tom Beland ("True Story Swear to God," Marvel), me, Lex, and moderator Nathan Libecap doing our panel on "Comics as Literature." I think it went well.
These are the expressions Karen got when she told us to "look thoughtful." Lex is better at thinking deep thoughts than I am.

I don't mean to oversell it. After all, LumaCon is just a little comics convention, but I find it uniquely fun and satisfying. It's small, intimate, charming, low-key. The opportunity to mix with people who are just there because they love comics is rarer than you'd think. The people organizing it are motivated solely by their love of the medium and their students (they'd better be, because they're evidently forbidden to make a dime on it). They treat their guests right (cuff links!).

I told a couple of them that, like Linus's pumpkin patch, LumaCon is the most sincere comics convention I know. Still is.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

LumaCon and More Upcoming

As the song goes, "I've been one poor correspondent." I'm busy working on secret-for-the-time-being projects that might turn into books. I find that Facebook is a good home for little bits of news or comment that I once would have blogged about (which is no good to anyone who isn't my Facebook friend, I know). Also, I kind of feel that after 10 years of blogging I've said a lot of what I've got to say.

Still, the Fies Files haven't been abandoned, and I can imagine business will pick up here in a few weeks or months when I can talk about the projects I can't talk about.

Just wanted to mention now that I'll be at this Saturday's "LumaCon" comics convention in Petaluma, Calif. I'll be holding down a table diffidently selling my books, and also taking part in a panel at 1 p.m. The con is Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., click that link for details.

I went to the first-ever LumaCon last year and had a terrific time. One of my best convention experiences ever, no kidding. It's organized by librarians with the purpose of bringing kids together with creators, and I found the whole thing low-key, small-town, and very sincere. Here's a blog post I wrote about it. This year's is in a larger facility. It's also free! I don't know how they do that. Seems to me they oughtta at least charge a couple bucks a head just so people'd appreciate the effort that goes into it.

In mid-February I've been invited to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I'll be talking to a class on Health & Society that's reading Mom's Cancer, then speaking at the Ann Arbor District Library that evening. I'm in town one day only: Tuesday, February 16. More details on that later.

If there's anywhere more fun than Michigan in February, I can't imagine it.

Otherwise, all is well. Hope the same is true for you.

My favorite photo from last year's LumaCon, which captured the feel of the event for me.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Nora's Freezin' On The Trolley

Here's a morsel of whimsy that's become a Christmas tradition around these parts. Sing along; you know the tune (I'm not sure about all the scat singing in the middle, but it's the best version I found). All my best wishes to y'all.




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!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Mapping

"The dirty secret of comics is that a lot of it involves copy fitting."--Justin Green


Book maps are on my mind these days. They're production tools that publishers, and some authors, use when plotting out how a book will go together. Maybe you could adapt the idea to your own projects.

As with all my process posts, this is only one way to make the sausage. It's not the only or best way; it's just mine.

You'd think the graphic novelist's responsibility would be writing the words, drawing the pictures, and telling the best story they could. But in fact, the form shapes the content (only in print; online, none of these rules apply, which is one of the liberating things about it). Other things the graphic novelist needs to consider:

--Chapters should begin on right (odd-numbered) pages and end on left (even-numbered) pages, which means all chapters have an even number of pages.

--Two-page spreads need to span an even- and odd-numbered pair of pages.

--The number of pages in a book should ideally be divisible by 16, or at least 8, because those are the number of pages in a signature or half-signature (a "signature" being a bundle of sheets of paper used in the book-binding process). Mom's Cancer is 128 pages (16 x 8); Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is 208 pages (16 x 13). The page count of any book you've ever read is some multiple of 4 because that's how they're made.

Mom's Cancer was a publishing production challenge because I created it as a webcomic with no regard for any of this stuff. Different pages are in black-and-white (b&w) or color depending on whether I thought it was right for the story. However, for print, it would have been really nice if the b&w and color portions had broken down neatly into signatures or half-signatures--for example, if the first 8 pages were color, the next 16 were b&w, the following 16 were color, etc. Being able to print a signature in b&w instead of full color drops its printing costs by about three-fourths. That's why, in a lot of books, you'll see a bunch of color illustrations all gathered together in the middle while the rest of the book is b&w. Those color pages are their own signature printed separately from the others. Spreading them throughout the book would have cost a lot more money.

Editor Charlie and I wrestled with recoloring or reorganizing Mom's Cancer to make the signatures work out. We couldn't; my use of color was too scattered and integral to the storytelling. Charlie finally made the tough, expensive call to print the whole book in full color even though most of it was b&w! He could have insisted that Mom's Cancer be entirely b&w and I probably would have agreed, but he was a mensch who did the right thing and that's one of the reasons I love him.

World of Tomorrow was a different challenge. If you've read it, you'll recall that I created fake "old comic books" inserted into the book to show the comics my character Buddy read in different decades. They were printed on different paper stock (the cheapest pulp we could find) than the rest of the book. Three of the inserts were 8 pages and one was 16 pages, and now you know why.

In addition to being half or full signatures themselves, they had to fall between other signatures. That meant that, for example, the first fake comic book had to follow Page 32 (16 x 2). No matter what else was happening in the story, the action had to break on Page 32.

That's hard to keep track of. You'd almost need some sort of  . . . map.

Here's what my book map looked like. In addition to tallying signatures and page counts, I also used it to manage my work flow.

My book map in an Excel spreadsheet. The left column is the signature count, where I kept track of  how many pages were in each half- or full-signature. The colored bars indicate chapters: blue is the front matter, orange/tan is Chapter 1, yellow is the first fake comic book insert (note that it follows Page 32, after which I restarted my signature count), followed by the remainder of Chapter 1 then the beginning of Chapter 2 in gray. Other columns provided a brief description to remind me what's on the page and check boxes to track my progress on each page. The final four columns tell me which pages I assigned to my Photoshop coloring assistants.

At the same time, unknown to me, Editor Charlie had made his own book map. It's laid out differently to give him information he needs, and it's interesting to compare and contrast.


Charlie's book map, also in Excel. The gray pages are front matter, followed by Chapter 1 in yellow, the comic book insert in orange, and Chapter 2 in blue. Again, notice that the orange insert falls after Page 32. One nice feature of Charlie's map is it clearly shows Chapters 1 and 2 beginning on right-hand pages (pp. 7 and 47). Charlie also called out the front and back covers of the fake comic book (pp. 31, 32, 41, 42) but, in fact, they were printed on the same paper as the signatures before and after the inserts so no special attention was required. 

I think book maps are particularly useful for graphic novelists because each page is a discrete unit that has to fit with all the others. In a regular text novel, a writer or editor can add or subtract words, paragraphs or even chapters without doing much damage; in a graphic novel, adding or deleting one page tips over a chain of dominoes that clatters through the entire book.

Book maps are on my mind because I'm making a new one for a new book I'm not talking about until contracts are signed. If all goes as planned, it'll be full color throughout (so that won't be a problem) and will also have a few "special features" that'll need to go between signatures. With a first draft almost done, it's time to see how it fits into the mold while it's still flexible enough to reshape.

. . .

Cartoonist Justin Green delivered the quip at the top of this post during his lecture at the 2015 Comics & Medicine Conference in Riverside, Calif. I think I was the only person in the audience who guffawed because I found it very funny and true.

Readers think writers and artists draw their words and images from the deepest wells of artistic self-expression. Well . . . ideally. But, at least in comics, more often than you'd think, I replace one word with another just because I'm out of space and it's shorter. I'll add or delete panels so the next chapter begins on an odd-numbered page. I'll tear up a story and reorganize it to put a signature break where I need it. Sometimes all you're trying to do is make the copy fit.

There's a nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship to publishing that I imagine some creators find frustrating but I really enjoy. It's like haiku: do whatever you want as long as it fits the structure. I like the constraints, especially the part where if you handle them right the reader never realizes they were there.