Sunday, October 6, 2019

Two Years On

In my new studio! Press Democrat photo by John Burgess.

My hometown newspaper, the Press Democrat, interviewed me for a special issue on how people are doing two years after the fire. They also asked me if I'd draw some new "Fire Story" pictures for them--they didn't specify what they wanted, left that entirely up to me. So I drew the three new pages shown online and printed in this morning's paper.

I like the article by Dan Taylor and I'm grateful for the coverage, really! Every column-inch of newspaper real estate is valuable, and they gave me four (!) pages. But when I saw how big they ran my artwork, I cringed. Most comics and illustration artwork is drawn larger than the size it'll be printed at because shrinking a drawing tightens it up and hides its flaws. The PD magnified them much LARGER than their 8 x 12 inch original size. I think they hold up all right, but Yeesh! Imagine a close-up of your face blown up to the size of a billboard, showing every pimple and pore.

Anyway . . . There are other stories about other people in this edition, too, and together they make a point I tried to make myself: there's such a wide variety of post-fire experience, from tragedy to triumph, that no single story captures them all. Most people are still muddling through, even two years on, dealing with frustrations and two-steps-forward-one-step-back as best we can. It's been hard.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Out of the Mountains

Last week I spent two days visiting Feather River College (go Golden Eagles!), which was both the best and worst professional experience of my life.

Feather River College is in Quincy, Calif., a beautiful Mayberry gem of a town in the Sierra Nevada. Nestled in a valley surrounded by forested mountains, it's got a four-block-long downtown of hundred-year-old buildings. Everyone in town seems to know everyone else, and goes out of their way to be friendly to strangers. I was even treated to a roof-rattling thunderstorm, my favorite kind of weather. Quincy is great.

Even the street lights make you feel welcome.

A stretch of downtown Quincy . . .

. . . where I found my name in lights! Well, my book's name. This is the local movie theater, which also doubles as an events center where I spoke on Thursday evening. It's a lovely Art Deco jewel, nothing fancy but lovingly saved and restored. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

The small two-year college invited me up because the instructors got together and chose A Fire Story as their "Book in Common" for the year, meaning all the students have to read it and some classroom activity will revolve around it. I talked to six different classes on Wednesday and Thursday, ranging from maybe 20 to 80 students each, then concluded Thursday night with a community lecture at the Art Deco movie theater/events center downtown that drew about 100.

I tried to tailor my talks for each class. For Environmental Studies, I touched on climate change and conflict at urban-wildlife boundaries (i.e., are there some places people just shouldn't be allowed to build houses?). For Creative Writing, I talked more about process, and how I approach writing fiction and nonfiction. My host, English professor Chris Connell, couldn't have made me feel more welcome. The students were engaged, the faculty is super-dedicated to their jobs and their kids, and I think the whole thing went wonderfully.

This is the drawing class I spoke to, with instructor Josh in the background, in just about the nicest student studio space I've seen. They're working on making their own comics with a six-panel grid I provided. Sometimes art students have the hardest time with these exercises because they think they need to draw "good," which only bogs them down. Quick and messy is the ticket!

One of the larger groups I lectured to. This was two or three classes combined, all watching KQED's animation of "A Fire Story," which gave me a chance to sneak to the back and take this photo.

Some of the Feather River College grounds, which surrounded a large grass quad and sprawled for quite a way in different directions. Beautiful campus!

The back side of the library, where I spoke a couple of times.

So what's the "worst" part?

When I got to town Tuesday night, I picked up a stomach bug or food poisoning or some damn thing, and spent the night curled on a tile floor driving the porcelain bus. Stomach cramps made it too painful to sleep, except maybe when I passed out with my head cradled on the loo. In the morning I got dressed and went to lecture to classes at 8, 9, and 10:30 a.m. To quote Captain Kirk in Star Trek 4, they weren't exactly catching me at my best.

I clued in the instructors in case I needed to make a dash for the door, but didn't bother the students with it. If any of them noticed me white-knuckling the lectern to keep from keeling over, they were nice enough not to say anything. I'd hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, hit the bathroom, barf, lecture, lather, rinse, repeat. I only had to bug out of one class for a minute, but it happened at a good time when I had the students working on drawing their own comics, so no harm done. By midafternoon I was looking up directions to the local hospital, because I knew if I couldn't even keep down water I was gonna need an IV pretty soon. Then I did my fourth lecture of the day.

Then I sat on my glasses and broke their frame. At that point, all I could do was laugh, and start watching the sky for falling frogs or meteors.


I got some sleep Wednesday night, and in the morning started sipping (and retaining!) Gatorade and bought super glue to fix my glasses. Felt pretty fair for my two morning talks, and by the evening was fit enough to have a light dinner salad with some faculty. I think the evening community presentation went great.

Dinner before my community talk with (clockwise from me) English instructor Joan, English instructor Joe, counselor Monica, English instructor and my terrific host Chris Connell, and college president Kevin Trutna. I'm not eating any nachos.

The view from the back of the theater where, again, I took advantage of my animated video to sneak to the rear and get a photo.

I drove home Friday, and only learned later that an e. coli alert had been issued that day for the town of Quincy! Residents were advised to boil their drinking water . . . the same water I'd spent three days trying to hydrate myself with. I'm no Scotland Yard detectivist, but I think I'm seeing a pattern.

Just a couple of typical vistas on Highway 70 to and from Quincy.

On the Feather River. Couldn't be prettier.

In contrast, also on Highway 70, the remains of the Camp Fire stretched to the horizon.

This Quincy community was very near last year's devastating Camp Fire, which destroyed Paradise. You have to drive through those scorched, barren hills to get to Quincy, they see and live with it every day. In fact there was a big forest fire blazing just east of town when I arrived. Fire is uppermost in their minds. All of that made it a tremendous privilege and honor for me to come here and talk about A Fire Story with them, and I'm just glad I managed to pull myself together enough to do it.

On balance, the "best" far outweighed the "worst."

Friday, August 16, 2019

Book in Common

I'm planning a visit to Quincy, Calif. in the fall because Feather River College has chosen A Fire Story to be its "Book in Common" for the school year! That means it'll be a focal point for campus and community discussion, and basically everybody attending the small-but-mighty two-year institution tucked into the beautiful Sierra Nevada will read it.

Fire is uppermost in your mind if you live in California mountains. The 2018 Camp Fire, which sadly took the title of "Most Destructive Wildfire in California History" from ours, happened in the next county over. Also, the college plans to look at social and emotional issues: community, loss, how we decide what's important. So I'll get to spend a day or two there talking about all those things.

What an extraordinary honor! I will work hard to do a good job.

Sunday, August 11, 2019


The danger of admitting you've learned something new is exposing your original ignorance. "You didn't know that? EVERYone knows that, dummy!" Everybody's understanding of the world has gaps. I'm always delighted to fill one of mine.

I've been doing a lot of landscaping lately, for which I've carried dozens of 60-pound bags of sand, during which I've had time to study the bags' bilingual packaging and learn that the Spanish word for sand is "arena" (pronounced, in the Spanish fashion, "arrayna").

On Saturday, Karen and I visited her Aunt Marylou on California's Mendocino Coast near a town called Point Arena (pronounced, in the English fashion, "areena"). It occurred to me on the drive that a seaside town was more likely named after sand than a sports venue. Aunt Marylou and a quick look at Wikipedia confirmed it: Spanish-speaking sailors originally called the spot "Punta Arena." Sandy Point.

I was proud enough of that insight to share it with my daughters on Sunday. Robin and Laura, who studied classics and Latin for fun, replied, "You know the connection, don't you?"

No. No, I didn't.

Laura explained that Spanish "arena" and English "arena" share a Latin origin. The floors of ancient Roman amphitheaters such as the Colosseum were covered in a fine sand called "harena" that made it easier to mop up blood. Latin harena (sandy place of combat sport) = Spanish arena (sand) + English arena (place of combat sport).

Learning the connection between ancient bloodsport half a world away and a cute little town I had lunch in centuries later made me unusually happy.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

PBS NewsHour: A Fire Story

Here's my segment, with Judy Woodruff's intro.

Overnight, A Fire Story's sales ranking on shot from something like 58,000 to #175. Television is still an incredibly powerful medium.

Thanks again to the PBS NewsHour crew for their thoughtful work!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

PBS NewsHour: The Rest of the Story

[Newcomers, Welcome! If you'd like to read the original webcomic that I wrote and drew in the days following my home's destruction in California's 2017 wildfires, here's a link. My new graphic novel, A Fire Story, is available from Amazon or your local heroic independent bookseller. Thanks!]

Today, the PBS NewsHour aired a 6-minute feature segment on A Fire Story and me. National exposure on a program like that—by which I mean one watched by smart people most likely to read books—is a big deal!

Here’s how it happened.

Back in March, I got a call from Summerlea Kashar, executive director of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. She’d been contacted by a NewsHour producer who’d read about CAM’s exhibition of my Fire Story artwork and wanted to drop by the museum to shoot some footage. And, by the way, did Summerlea know how to reach me, and did she think I’d be interested in having the NewsHour come to my house to do an interview?

Yes. Yes I was.

I began corresponding with NewsHour producer Kira Wakeam and liked her right away. I felt I was in good hands. Viewers probably assume that the on-camera reporter has the most important job, and it is important, but often it’s an anonymous producer who talks to the sources, does the research, and shapes the story before the reporter even shows up.

The NewsHour crew wanted to meet on March 26 and 27—coincidentally, the exact dates Karen and I were moving into our newly rebuilt house. For the TV people, this was a tremendous stroke of good fortune. Our return home, a year and a half after California's largest-ever wildfire destroyed our neighborhood, gave them a dramatic hook to build a story around. For Karen and me, it would be a tremendous pain. We were really truly moving! At its best, moving is hard and exhausting and awful. We’d be doing it while hosting a camera crew.

I told Kira that sounded fantastic. Karen gave me the stink-eye.

Planning was complicated by the fact that I was doing a book signing in Portland, Oregon on March 25, and wasn’t due to arrive home until late on March 26. Some quick reservation juggling by Abrams Publicist Maya, and I was awake in Portland at 4 a.m. to catch a flight that would get me home by mid-morning. So you can imagine how fresh I felt when Kira knocked on my door at noon with correspondent John Yang, cameraman Jason, and co-producer Other Jason.

Here’s the picture: the house is torn up. The garage is a Jenga-jumble of packed boxes ready to be moved the next day. Most of the rooms are empty except the small bedroom I use as an office, which we leave untouched because Kira wants footage of where I write and draw. Karen’s being a really good sport because I’ve just been gone for two days while she packed, and now I show up with four strangers unloading enough video equipment to televise a Super Bowl game.

Jason and John get my makeshift studio ready for its close-up.
Showing John the notebook in which I drew my original “Fire Story”
webcomic, with the pens and highlighters I used.

All the indoor interview footage, plus the bit where Karen and I moved two boxes of pots and pans, was shot the afternoon of March 26. Then Kira, John, Jason and Other Jason went to their hotel, and Karen and I packed up my office and cleaned out the house. It was a long night! Next morning, the moving crew and camera crew showed up at about the same time, so while Karen supervised the movers I galavanted off to shoot all the outdoor footage, making sure to wear the same clothes I had the day before so the shots would match.

Let me emphasize what a really good sport Karen was.

Jason, John, Other Jason and Kira shooting an introduction outdoors.
For segments in which John and I drove around, I had a GoPro camera mounted on my side window and cameraman Jason in the back seat, as you might expect. But what you couldn’t know is that I also had producer Kira in my trunk, directing the action by watching the camera feed on her phone. Ah, the glamour of big-time TV!

A couple of hours later, the PBS NewsHour crew was on to another Bay Area assignment before returning to Washington DC, and I was in my new house sorting and schlepping boxes into their proper rooms.

Why the three-month delay between shooting and broadcast? No idea. Kira originally thought it’d air in early April, and I know they had it ready a long time ago. But it’s obviously the type of timeless story that can sit on the shelf until your hour-long newscast has a 6-minute hole to fill, and I guess today was that day.

I think the televised piece turned out great. I was apprehensive; I trusted Kira and knew what footage they’d shot, but the trick is how it’s edited to tell a story. They told our story well. The NewsHour folks all impressed me as kind and sensitive people, which wasn’t necessarily what I expected from a national news crew. They could have easily been cynical and arrogant instead of terrific.

Of course, my publisher Abrams and I hope that a lot of people watched the program and said, “Wow, I’ve got to buy that book!” It could be a game-changer for us; it could also be a damp fizzle. I don't try to predict such things anymore. But I very much appreciate Kira discovering A Fire Story and reaching out to see if I wanted to talk about it. Regardless of outcome, the answer to that question is almost always “Yes.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Denver Pop Culture Con

I had a nice weekend as a guest of the Denver Pop Culture Con, doing five panels while scouting the sales floor, going to other people's panels, watching good books win pretty trophies, peeking at TV and movie stars, getting lost, and walking around one of my favorite American cities. I reunited with some friends and made some new ones.

Denver Pop Culture Con is produced by the non-profit Pop Culture Classroom, which gives it a different feel than other conventions I've been to. In addition to the usual superhero, video game, and pop culture fol-de-rol, it focuses on being family-friendly with an undercurrent of education: creative workshops for kids, using comics in the classroom, more than the usual share of teachers and librarians.

The Con staff was always friendly and eager to help. The Con itself presented some challenges. Signage was poor; I spent all day Friday looking for something that was listed in the program but gave me no other clues where to find it. People who wanted to attend my panels had to leave the exhibition hall, take an escalator down one floor, walk about 40 yards, take another escalator down, then peek down hallways until they found the right room. I think that kept panel attendance low. My most popular panel was one I did on the enduring popularity of "Peanuts" with Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin, Schulz Museum Archivist Sarah Breaux, and comics historian R.C. Harvey, which drew about three dozen people. But another panel I did had six people; a friend moderated a panel that only had one. There was some confusion and miscommunication attributed to key organizers leaving just before the Con, including the person who invited me.

Still, it's a poor, ungrateful guest who criticizes his hosts. Some of my beefs, such as the Convention Center layout, were out of their hands. Overall I had a terrific time with nice people who all seemed very happy to be there. It's a good event with a unique mission and flavor.


The Denver Convention Center is hard to miss: just look for the gigantic blue bear peering in the window.
Thousands of people waited for the doors to open on Saturday, by far the busiest day. Despite crowds that reportedly exceeded 100,000, the space was large enough that there was (usually) room to walk and breathe, and even some quiet corners to sit and rest.

A typical row of the main exhibition floor. This was on Friday; Saturday was more crowded, but the wide spacing between booths kept things mostly navigable.
A connected room the size of an airplane hangar was set aside for celebrity autographs. Lines were sometimes long, but also occasionally astonishingly short, and this vast space never filled up. Sam "Flash Gordon" Jones, George "Sulu" Takei, Cary "Princess Bride" Elwes, Catherine "Dr. Who" Tate, Dave "Drax" Bautista, Claudia "Babylon 5" Christian, and many others took their turns in the boxes. I enjoyed seeing Christopher "Doc Brown" Lloyd and Tom "Biff Tannen" Wilson sitting peaceably next to each other. Photography was forbidden here--I got scolded for taking this one--because that's how the stars make their money. I didn't pay to say Hello to anyone famous but enjoyed breathing the same air.
Unfortunately, the entire nation of Canada was a no-show.

Saw some old friends, made some new ones, and just said "Howdy" to a few folks.

The first person I ran into as I walked into the Con was Tom Racine, podcaster extraordinaire, who moderated three or four panels. I went to a couple of them; Tom was about as prepared, professional, and nimble on his feet as a moderator could be. During a break we recorded an interview for a future episode of his Tall Tale Radio podcast, which is the best on the Net.
I met comics critic and historian R.C. Harvey last September in Sacramento, and we reconnected in Denver to sit together on a panel about the enduring popularity of "Peanuts." Bob is a knowledgeable, delightful man who only plays a curmudgeon online. I bought that Accidental Ambassador Gordo book in front of him, which Bob wrote with one of my all-time favorite cartoonists, Gus Arriola.

I found syndicated cartoonist and best-selling author Terri Libenson! Now we’re friends in real life, not just Facebook. She did a charming “workshop” for a couple dozen young fans of her books.
Terri at work, teaching the kids how she draws her characters.
Peter Bagge is an independent comics great, coming out of an underground tradition to today focus on biographies of people other writer/artist/publishers might not touch. I bought Credo, his bio of Rose Wilder Lane, the daughter-editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder and a fine writer, editor, and social agitator in her own right, and joked that he and I might be the only two people in the building who knew who she was. Peter and I did a panel together, followed by a long, quality conversation that I really enjoyed. The next morning we happened to hit our hotel's breakfast buffet at the same time and had another short talk. He's a very nice and gracious guy. I'm still a bit dazzled.
Brigid Alverson is a respected comics journalist who moderated one of the panels I was on. We've corresponded and spoken by phone several times over the past 15 years or so, including a recent interview about A Fire Story, but never met in person until now. Turns out we're kind of kindred souls, about the same age with backgrounds in physics and journalism. Love her.
I first met Nathan Hale, best-selling author of historical comics for kids, a few years ago. We reconnected in Denver for two panels, the second on "Comics in the Curriculum." He's a dynamic, polished, entertaining speaker who took charge of the panel in the very best way, since it was my fifth panel and I was kinda out of gas anyway. Happy to let him take the lead.
A selfie of that panel underway, moderated by Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin. One of my favorite moments of the Con happened here: Jessica was introducing us, and when she said, "To my left is Nathan Hale--" there was an audible gasp in the audience from a teacher who didn't know he'd be there, had no idea what he looked like, but was thrilled to be in the room with him. In some circles, he's a superstar.

My brief encounter with Neal Adams gets its own paragraph. Mr. Adams is an all-time great artist in both superhero comic books and newspaper comic strips. I've loved his work all my life. He’s been at every con I’ve attended, manning his giant expensive end-cap booth, and I’ve always been too intimidated to approach him. Mr. Adams has a reputation for not suffering fools, and I was certain that if we ever met, I'd prove myself a perfect fool. But this time I figured What the Hell.

That's Mr. Adams in the tan jacket, dwarfed by his enormous booth.

"Mr. Adams," I said, "I just wanted to say thanks. Your work was important to me and has been a big inspiration."

"How?" he asked.

"Well . . . you set a very high standard and showed me just how good comic art could be."

Mr. Adams leveled his gaze. "But what did I inspire you to do?"

Ah. This was a test.

"Well," I said, "I've published three graphic novels and won an Eisner Award . . ."

Mr. Adams's eyes lit up and he smiled.

"Well then," he said, "thank you!"

Handshake, and I was out of there so fast I left little cartoon dust clouds in my wake.


Some comics purists don't like people who dress up as characters and go to conventions. They think it detracts from the "true meaning" of the event, and clogs the aisles with people who are there to be seen rather than buy their stuff. I think those purists should lighten up. Cosplayers add creativity, fun and color to a convention. Their fandom is just as pure and true as anyone else's, and comics aren't a zero-sum game. It's a big pie; there's plenty for everyone.

Some of these costume references are pretty obscure. The deeper the dive the better. Not everyone will get it, but if someone does, you've made their day.

I did have fun storming the castle.
Queen Amidala braving a dangerous mission. Truly! Would you risk an escalator in that dress?
Avengers Assemble! The fellow on the left exemplifies the most popular cosplay I saw at the Con, as every guy with a beard, belly, and ratty bathrobe--honestly, not a trivial proportion of comics fans--realized he could be Thor in "Avengers: Endgame."
Loved this groovy gang.
My favorite of the Con, and maybe my favorite cosplay of all time. Somebody close that door.

A Note About Originality

I don't know if it was just Denver or a general trend in comics conventions, but I saw a lot of something I really dislike: giant walls of prints published by people who have no right to the intellectual property they're ripping off.

Not to pick on this guy, but, like, this guy. He's a good enough artist--his technique is fine and the character likenesses are good--but if he got permission from Marvel, DC, Paramount, the CW, the BBC, etc. to sell prints of these characters, I'll eat them all.

Fine-tuning my outrage: I think true fan art is terrific. A kid who loves Iron Man and draws up little pictures, stickers and stuff to sell for a buck a piece is technically violating copyright but should be left alone. They're expressing their passion for the character. I like passion.

Likewise, comics professionals who've made a living drawing these characters should get a pass. Neal Adams defined the look of Batman in the 1970s and for generations to follow. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Adams can draw and sell all the Batmen he wants.

That's not what's going on here. These print peddlers are big commercial operations. They're not in it for the love of characters or stories, they're in it because the prints sell. And unlike fandom, booth space at conventions is a zero-sum game. There's only so much real estate. These big guys crowd out others doing original art with characters and stories they actually created.

It's hard to feel sorry for giant corporations that own Superman and Indiana Jones. That doesn't make violating their copyright OK. I don't think these print emporiums are good for comics, conventions, creators or fans, and I'd really like to see cons crack down on them, maybe with a little encouragement from the true copyright holders and their scary lawyers. Make room for new creative voices producing original material. That's the real life-blood of the industry and art form.

Off my soap box now . . .


Denver is my platonic ideal of a medium-large American city. It's walkable, clean, artsy, vital. Beautiful surroundings. My only complaint is that the airport is about 45 minutes away--seems like it's halfway to Kansas. Otherwise, it's a terrific town. I spent quite a few hours just walking around downtown, and only wish I'd had more time.

This great Midwestern bookstore had a few copies of A Fire Story, and was happy to have me sign them.

Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom, Denver Pop Culture Con, all the organizers and volunteers who were nice to me and got me to where I needed to go, my old and new friends, and everyone who made it a great weekend and event for me. I'd go back anytime.