Thursday, February 26, 2009
Friday, February 20, 2009
For example, it would be very difficult for someone to care less about sports than I do and still produce testosterone, but there are a couple of sports columnists whose work always draws me in and makes me care about jai alai, curling, or something or someone I never knew existed five minutes before. When I see their pieces I read them, and they rarely let me down.
I'm a fan of the newspaper columnist Miss Manners, Judith Martin, not because I have a passion for fish forks, but because I think she's just a good writer, with a wry, dry, understated wit that I envy. Miss Manners is one sharp cookie; you can tell she'd think and write humiliating rings around you, if only she weren't too polite to do so.
The Pulitzer-winning film critic Roger Ebert falls into that category for me as well. Of course, I read his reviews when they're about movies I might want to see, but I also read them when they're not. Sometimes those are the best ones. Mr. Ebert says he judges a film not by what it's about, but how it's about it. In his view, there can be good kiddie flicks and bad kiddie flicks, good slasher films and bad slasher films (and, I suppose, good pornos and bad pornos). In all cases, he's looking for talent, craft, originality, ambition, style . . . and, I infer, some sense of a creative mind at work, solving problems and having fun. Personality.
Happily enough, that's how I approach him and other writers, too. It's almost irrelevant to me what they're writing about. If they do it well and right, they'll make me care and bring me along for the ride. Nobody reads Hemingway to pick up fishing tips.
A few years ago, Mr. Ebert took ill with thyroid cancer, which eventually caused the removal of his salivary glands and pieces of his jawbone. He nearly died and was disfigured by the surgery. As he describes his situation, his cancer is in check but he can no longer speak or eat. However, he can still write. In fact, in addition to continuing his film reviews, he's become a very prolific blogging essayist, and, though your tastes may not match mine, I have really enjoyed his pieces.
Some are as simple as an ode to a rice steamer. Again, the secret is not what it's about but how it's about it. On one level, it's a man sharing his favorite recipes. On another, it's a man writing about the experience of savoring food in a way he never will again. The reader doesn't have to know that going in, either; Mr. Ebert is a considerate enough writer that he provides everything you need. "To be sure, health problems now prevent me from eating," he writes. "That has not discouraged my cooking. Now cooking is an exercise more pure, freed of biological compulsion."
Some of Mr. Ebert's essays are about movies or travel, and they're good. Others are the melancholy reflections of a man who knows his days are numbered (as are everyone's, but his perhaps a smaller number than others'), has suffered and knows he will suffer more, and is determined to face it as squarely and unsentimentally as possible. They're very good.
In his latest post he remembers his late colleague Gene Siskel, but also suggests, I think, how he'd like to be remembered himself. In another post about his health problems, he writes, "I am so much a movie lover that I can imagine a certain (very small) pleasure in looking like the Phantom [of the Opera]. It is better than looking like the Elephant Man. I would describe my condition as falling about 17% of the way along a graph line between the handsome devil I was at the tender age of 27, and the thing that jumps out of that guy's intestines in 'Alien.'" Another looks hundreds of billions of years into the future, into a universe that's forgotten Shakespeare and language itself--not to mention the scribblings of a newspaperman named Ebert--and mulls over the idea of immortality, wondering what will happen to all the words. Yet another is one of the best meditations on the joys of being a reader that I can recall.
Tastes vary, and I know some people who don't hold much regard for Mr. Ebert as a critic or a writer, but I think this is just fantastic stuff. I look forward to every new essay. Even when they're just about rice steamers, they often move me. Not every piece at http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/ will sing for you, but I'll bet enough will to make a visit worth your time.
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Proofs for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? arrived yesterday, and I can't tell you how much I enjoy this part of the process. I think an apt analogy would be putting on a play: you write the script, build the sets, cast the characters, sew the costumes, block the movements, and now . . . it's the dress rehearsal. It's not opening night--that'll be when the actual book comes out--but it is your first chance to see all the pieces come together and really get a sense of whether the whole production is going to work.
I'll explain about proofs. After Designer Neil finished laying out the pages, he sent those files to the printer. They did their wizardry to create the films (or plates or hot lead or stone tablets or whatever, I don't really know these days) that get attached to big rotating drums in a press to imprint cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks onto sheets of paper to make a book. Proofs are their trial run of that process. For the first time, we get to see what the pages of the book will actually look like, printed on the actual paper we're going to use. The printer sent those proofs back to the publisher, who sent a duplicate set to me, for our inspection and approval. When we say "OK," they start printing.
As I review the proofs, I'm looking for several things:
1. Errors in content. I read the whole thing through very carefully. This is our very last chance to fix mistakes. Since repairs now cost time and money, you think hard about whether a mistake really needs to be fixed or is so minor you can let it go.
2. Print quality. I'm looking to be sure the colors came out like I expected--as I mentioned in my post on blacks, there can be a big difference between the appearance of something on a computer monitor and in print. I want to see fine lines reproduced accurately and without pixelization. I want to make sure the registration--that is, how the four colors of ink line up--is accurate. I'm also noting any little blips, flecks, blops, or spots I find. Some of those are inevitable imperfections of the printing process, but others are physical bits of crud on the films (like dust on a photo negative) that the printer can fix.
3. Paper quality. Different papers absorb inks differently. For example, imagine dripping a drop of ink onto a paper towel: it spreads all over the place. You would not want to print a book on paper-towel paper. In printing, a more absorbent paper can make grays darker and colors muddier than they'd appear on a less absorbent paper. Now, it's too late for us to change our paper order (I guess), but we could still revise the art to better work with the paper if necessary.
4. As I also mentioned before, we're trying a few "special effects" in WHTTWOT, including the use of more than one kind of paper. I'll give it one pass just to make sure that all turned out as expected.
Inspecting proofs takes some patience and care. As you can see above, I use a magnifying glass as well as a loupe, the little plastic lens on the right. One trick I learned is to do a pass with the pages turned upside down, so you don't get distracted by their content but can just look at them as physical objects. I'm marking anything I find with little orange tabs--just a few so far--and will compile a list for Editor Charlie and Designer Neil. They'll fix what needs fixin', and the presses will start rolling.
So how do I think my little dress rehearsal looks?
I cannot imagine being happier with what I've seen.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
That swell picture above shows an engineer inspecting the heat shield of an Orion space capsule, and unless you're really up on that stuff your reaction is probably "the who the what?!"
After just a few more flights, NASA will retire the Space Shuttle fleet. In fact, I read a recent article that said the space agency is looking for museums willing to take them off their hands (unfortunately, I think they're removing the engines first). I have no great love for the shuttle, which cost more than projected, flew less frequently than promised, and stranded humanity in low-Earth orbit for 40 years. And, incidentally, killed 14 people, although any means of getting humans into space involves enormous energy and advanced technology that carries big risk, so I don't really hold that against it. Still, putting the shuttles out to pasture distresses me because I remember when they were shiny and new, and that makes me feel tarnished and old. Plus, any spaceship is by definition cool.
The replacement program is called Constellation, which'll draw upon lessons learned from the shuttles, Apollo, etc. to produce spaceships with a decidedly retro look. For example, after Challenger and Columbia, NASA figured it's probably best to keep astronauts on top of the rocket so that anything that blows up or falls off during flight won't hit them. In fact, the new Orion capsule looks like nothing less than an oversized Apollo capsule. It'll launch atop a new Ares multi-stage rocket, and unfurl parachutes to land in the ocean just like Apollo did. And it'll need a big ol' heat shield to survive the inferno of re-entry, which is what's upside-down in that picture above.
What I didn't realize until I found this nice photo essay on Boston.com is how far along NASA is. They're testing engines, gathering and assembling components, building launch towers, and looking like they really mean it. They're talking about making an unmanned test flight as early as this July. In addition to the Orion crew module and Ares rocket, NASA is designing a lunar lander called Altair. These crazy kids just might pull it off!
I find this very interesting and exciting stuff. I don't have quite the dewey-eyed idealism I did when I was a kid, and I'm not really sure that people need to be in space at all. Almost everything humans can do in space, machines can do better--except actually live there, and while colonization for its own sake is good enough reason for me, I don't know how it'd sell to all the other taxpayers. Still, NASA's funding is such a tiny slice of the Federal budget that, on balance and in terms of bang for our buck, I think manned spaceflight is worth it.
The cost of the entire Apollo Program, adjusted for inflation, was about $150 billion. For the nearly $800 billion Congress and the president just poured down a rat hole (sorry, committed to stimulating our economy), we could've had five of 'em. I know where I'd rather put my money.
The Ares I (left) and Ares V launch vehicles,
coming soon to a planet near you
Saturday, February 14, 2009
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The NYCC holds a special place in my heart because it's where we debuted Mom's Cancer three years ago. Abrams hosted a launch party for my book and a few others coming out at the same time, and my wife Karen and I flew out for a very action-packed and heady couple of days. The party was held at the Society of Illustrators building, a three-story clubhouse crammed with original art by the best commercial artists of the past century. My sisters, always ready to travel and party, also flew out and had the fun but odd experience of meeting people who only knew them as characters in a book. On top of all that, it was Karen's first trip to New York City, so we had a great time playing tourists.
That 2006 NYCC was also where Editor Charlie discovered Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which has since produced three books that fight each other to claim the top of the bestseller lists, with something like 11 million sold to date. That's huuuuge. I don't think I met Jeff that day, but I remember Charlie excitedly shoving Jeff's thick packet of photocopied pages into my hands. He knew he'd found something really good, while I honestly didn't quite get it, a fact that Charlie never lets me forget. Despite my grave misjudgment, I can still proudly claim to have witnessed the moment of Wimpy Kid's publishing Genesis.
Chip Kidd holds a special place in my heart as well, because he was responsible for one of the coolest evenings of my life. In 2006, Mom's Cancer was nominated for a Quill Award as best graphic novel. The Quills were an attempt to create a high-profile, glamorous, star-studded, televised EVENT for the world of books, with winners determined by votes from the reading public. I think they were aiming for something like the People's Choice Awards. They missed. The Quills lasted three years before lack of funds, interest, or respect did them in. But for one night in October 2006, I flew to New York, put on a tuxedo, and walked with Editor Charlie up the red carpet and past the television cameras into the American Museum of Natural History, and it was thrilling.
Mom's Cancer lost (to Naruto; stupid popular vote...). However, any disappointment I might've felt was completely ameliorated by Chip, a friend of Charlie's who was at the Quills to present an award, and who invited us over to his Upper East Side apartment afterward. We were met by Charlie's girlfriend Rachel and Chip's partner Sandy, and sat on Chip's balcony sipping rum (Charlie and I still in our tuxes, Chip stripped down to t-shirt and boxers) and bitching cattily about the Quills, comics, publishing, opera, and everything else. Every once in a while I'd look out at Manhattan's lights blazing around me and remind myself to remember what this was like--which got harder as the rum bottle got emptier. It was much more than fair compensation for not receiving a lucite trophy that night.
Friday, February 6, 2009
I mentioned this book a while ago and knew Mom's Cancer would be included--I even got an early look at the review--but didn't realize until I just cracked the cover that it was a "Sixty Best" list. Of course that's just one person's opinion, but when that person is Danny Fingeroth, a writer and editor with a couple decades of experience in the comics business, I'll take it. As a bonus, through the caprice of alphabetization, Mom's Cancer falls immediately after Art Spiegelman's Maus. Nice neighborhood.
The write-up on Mom's Cancer covers a little more than two pages, including a one-page excerpt from the book. Here are the last two lines: Not a loud, in-your-face melodrama, Mom's Cancer is a tale of subtleties, one full of small joys and sorrows, victories and defeats. It's one of those stories that stays with you long after you've read the last page.
The Rough Guide also has chapters on the history of graphic novels, iconic creators, manga, adaptations of graphic novels in other media, other informational resources, and even an original graphic novel by Fingeroth and Roger Langridge. It's nicely done, and much appreciated. Thanks to Mr. Fingeroth, editor Ruth Tidball, and all involved. Very cool.
Monday, February 2, 2009
I've posted before about how full-color pictures are typically printed using four colors of ink: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). If you've got an inkjet printer, same deal. The first three colored inks are transparent, so that printing cyan atop yellow produces green, for example. Black ink is . . . oh, I don't know . . . not quite transparent but definitely not opaque. Semi-transparent? The key is that, although black covers better than the other inks, it doesn't cover totally. You can't just paint an area black and expect it to cover everything underneath.
I don't think I'm giving away anything about a book titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow by revealing that some of it deals with outer space. Now, on my computer monitor, when I color an area with 100% black, it looks as black as the inkiest ink puddle at the bottom of an ink mine on Planet Ink. But when I hand off those digital files to Designer Neil, he can push a button ("overprint preview" in Adobe InDesign) to approximate what they'll look like when reproduced with actual ink on paper. The result: something that appears solid black on screen comes out kind of charcoal gray in print.
Okay, I knew that. Learned it on Mom's Cancer. Black by itself doesn't cover as well as you'd like or expect. To help black ink look really black, you need to fortify it with other colors to make what's called a "rich black." It's like laying down a primer coat when painting a wall at home. As shown below, different color combinations yield different tints of black.
You might be tempted to mix all the colors with black--100% black plus 100% cyan plus 100% magenta plus 100% yellow--but that would be a gloppy mistake. You need to remember you're working with liquid inks on absorbent paper. Reality trumps theory. No one wants an ink slick.
What I didn't really have a handle on until Neil and I started talking was how those different tints of black would look together. For example, below is a panel with black and black on black: the shaded side of the Earth and the shaded side of the Moon on the blackness of space behind them. My goal was to make those three blacks very subtly different. To that end, the blackness of space has some cyan and magenta mixed into it, the blackness of Earth has a bit more cyan (hard to tell in this low-res image), while the blackness of the Moon has a greyish earthtone.
It took some effort to get the tones of those blacks to balance. If they're too different, the different elements can either wash out or become too prominent. For example, in my first try, the star background was too gray and the planets looked like stickers stuck on a piece of faded construction paper. I'm pretty happy with the look I achieved above.
Anyway, that's what I did today: went through the entire book looking at every big patch of black to decide if it needed other colors mixed with it (not all did), what those colors should be, and how they worked with other blacks, grays, and colors around them.
While I'm on the subject, I'll talk about grays. There are a couple of ways to skin that particular cat, and it helps to have a sense of how they'll each look in print. One way is to use only black ink printed in tiny dots of various sizes to give the illusion of different shades of gray, as in a black-and-white newspaper photo. The other is to mix cyan, magenta, and yellow inks (plus black for darker tones) to produce a gray.
In the image below, the top left square and top right square look like the same color of gray. They're not. The close-up views below show that the left gray box is composed of little black dots, while the right gray box is composed of overlapping cyan, magenta and yellow dots.
While the grays look interchangeable on a computer monitor, they give you different effects in print. A black-only gray is colder and crisper, while a cyan-magenta-yellow gray is warmer and softer. It's a hard difference to describe but can be quite apparent on the page, especially when two different types of gray are next to each other. I had some trouble with that in Mom's Cancer, and tried to turn it to my advantage in WHTTWOT as a subtle effect I could deliberately wield where I wanted.
We'll see how it all works in actual print, and if it was worth the effort.
I understand Neil has already transmitted some final files to the printer. We'll still have opportunities to make changes to the proofs if needed, but the book is essentially locked down now. A milestone achieved.