Monday, December 29, 2014

The Perils of Charlie


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

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

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


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


Son of a gun.

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

I fed him to a giant radioactive prairie dog.

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Deck Us All With Boston Charlie!

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

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


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


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


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


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

-Walt Kelly

Monday, December 8, 2014

More Scoutin' At The Schulz

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Writers Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark then added:

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

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

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