Friday, September 11, 2020

Flashback Friday!

Flashback Friday! Karen was cleaning out her office when she found this notepad in the bottom of a box. It's from my days as a newspaper reporter for a small California daily. The first two pages look like notes from a City Council meeting about allocating $292,398 to build a transit garage. The next several pages look like notes Karen took while she was in training to be an entry-level social worker. I imagine I handed it to her when she was heading to work and didn't have anything to write on.

It's circa 1985. Today, Karen is preparing to retire from her 35-year career in social services, capped by leading a department with 900 people and a budget of $300 million. I've written a lot more stuff and had a few books published. This notepad is a physical artifact of when we'd barely started on those paths together. It kind of symbolizes . . . everything.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Pop Culture Classroom Summer Book Club

 A couple of days ago, I did a live web thingy with the Pop Culture Classroom, the nice people who are affiliated with the Denver Pop Culture Con and gave A Fire Story the prestigious Excellence in Graphic Literature Award for Best Adult Nonfiction. What I most appreciate about Pop Culture Classroom is its focus on using graphic novels in libraries and classrooms. They're almost unique in that respect.

If you watch, it's almost exactly an hour; skip over the opening 5 minute countdown. I opened with a presentation about how I made "A Fire Story," from the photos and notes I took the day my house burned down to webcomic to print. And then we had a nice conversation about trauma, grief, empathy, comics as a storytelling medium, and such. Thanks to Matt, Mathew, Faith, and Pop Culture Classroom for naming my book the best adult nonfiction graphic novel of 2019, I appreciate it a lot!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Comic-Con Post-Mortem

This article in Variety may be the stupidest piece of journalism I've read in a long time. It concludes that Comic-Con@Home, the San Diego con organizers' valiant attempt to salvage something good from the plague flames, failed because the YouTube panels didn't draw millions of hits.

What the article misses is that Comic-Con International is a lot more than what happens in Hall H, the large auditorium that hosts the major movie panels and such. I've been to Comic-Con many times and never once set foot in Hall H. What *I* see is that the panel I did, "Comics During Clampdown," has been viewed 1288 times. I guarantee you that the same panel live in San Diego wouldn't have drawn one-tenth that. I've seen and done panels that had more people on stage than in the audience. I also hear that the Cartoon Art Museum's "Sketch-a-Thon" fundraiser I participated in did as well or better than it would have live.

My takeaway is that Comic-Con@Home was an admirable success. In a couple of months they put together not just 350-plus Zoom panels but long-distance versions of art exhibitions, cosplay displays, vendor outlets, the Eisner Awards, and everything they could short of the $5 rubbery pretzels. It was free and open to all, and the videos are online to view at your leisure.

No, Comic-Con@Home wasn't the same as being there. That's obvious. But I think it did a lot to keep the spirit and community of Comic-Con alive.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Comic-Con 2020: Virtually Like Being There

It's Comic-Con Week! In some parallel non-plague universe, 100,000 people are gathering in San Diego to celebrate comics. Just not in this one.

BUT! The Comic-Con folks are doing their best to throw a virtual convention, including literally hundreds of panels with hundreds of comics experts talking about hundreds of topics, including one that I'm on! Andrew Farago invited me to join a panel on "Comics During Clampdown: Creativity in the Time of Covid," with Keith Knight, Mari Naomi, Ajuan Mance, Thien Pham, Jason Shiga and Gene Luen Yang! We recorded it a couple of weeks ago and it went live on Thursday at noon.

What a line up! Despite all of us orbiting the San Francisco Bay Area, the only one I'd met before was Keith (comics people don't actually all know each other, it only seems that way). But I like and admire all their work so this was very cool for me. I also think we had smart and interesting things to say, but I'm biased.

Check it out, or one of the other 350 or so (no kidding!) panels available online HERE. Thanks Andrew!

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Matter of Perspective

"Beats Digging Ditches" Work in Progress: Some of my "Sixty-Second Sticky Doodles" that got the most feedback were on Perspective. Here's an example of two-point perspective that I did this morning. It'll be a nighttime cityscape in stark black and white.

The photo below shows the page on my drawing board with the two vanishing points, the dots on the pieces of white tape to the left and the right. Except for the lines that go straight up and down, every line in the drawing leads to one of those two vanishing points.

This is the pencil drawing. Next I'll ink it in black ink. I pencil in light blue pencil so I don't have to bother erasing; when I scan the art after inking, it's easy to make the blue color disappear, leaving only the clean black lines.

I really enjoy drawing perspective like this. It's a pretty mechanical--almost meditative--process, but it looks cool when done.

Here it is inked. This isn't finished: I'll add color (mostly shades of yellow in the windows), I plan to blacken many windows in a "crossword puzzle" look, and there's something in the sky I can't show you.

I wanted every building's structure and window pattern to be slightly different, like they were designed by different architects. I also wasn't too particular about every line being perfect. If you scrutinize, you'll find a lot of wonky lines. That's OK! I don't go out of my way to mess up, but I do think art should look like it was done by a human and not a CAD program. Little imperfections give art subliminal warmth.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 60: Lettering

Lettering used to be a core part of every commercial artist's and cartoonist's training. Technology has made it obsolete--everywhere except comics. Today's supersized Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is about the lost art of letters.

Also: if you're a fan of my doodles, please don't miss the last half of this one. All 60 of the Sixty-Second Sticky Doodles can be accessed by clicking on the "Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle" link under "Labels" in the column to the right. Thanks!

For my money, nobody did more to stretch the limits of lettering than "Pogo" cartoonist Walt Kelly. His lettering gave characters voices that you could hear clearly in your head. This is P.T. Bridgeport, a blustery barker who spoke entirely in circus poster script.

Also in "Pogo," Deacon Mushrat's Gothic lettering gave him the voice of an old stone cathedral, if old stone cathedrals had voices.
And I just like this simple example of "Pogo" chugging down a railroad track because the variation of size and weight in his lettering tells you exactly how this sounds. Imagine how much less interesting and informative this text would be if it were typed out in 16-point Comic Sans.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

My Robot Army Grows

This makes me very happy! Got an email from Cameron Jones, who just found and read "The Last Mechanical Monster" after seeing the Superman cartoon it was based on, and took me up on my invitation to build a papercraft Robot using the pattern I created. Cameron not only did a fine construction job, but also set up a little tableau putting my Robot face to face with his nemesis. Check out these pics (posted with permission)!

Wonderful! Made my week! Thanks, Cameron.

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 59: A Flour Sack

Cartoonists give ink lines the illusion of life, sometimes even if the things they draw were never alive at all. Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle sees what it can do with a sack of flour.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 58: Pikachu

There are bigger, stronger, faster, fiercer and more powerful Pokemon than him, but when push comes to shove he's the one indispensable member of your squad. Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is Pikachu.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 57: Rain

Like the good book says, "Rain falls on the just and the unjust" in today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle. I'm rooting for the just.

Rain by Will Eisner
Rain by Charles Schulz

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 56: My Daughters

My daughters don't always appreciate it when I post photos of them, but they never said I couldn't draw them. Ah ha! The Doodle Loophole! Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is of two important characters in "A Fire Story" and in my life.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 55: Figure Drawing Inks

Resolving the cliff-hanger we left on yesterday, today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle talks about the often-misunderstood art/craft of inking, an important part of the traditional cartooning process.

And here's the completed doodle:

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 54: Figure Drawing Pencils

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is part one of a two-parter, describing the two-part process of penciling and inking. It's also a two-parter because there are some things that even I just can't finish in a minute.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 53: A Brick Wall

It's been said* that some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story; others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe. Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle looks at a brick wall.

*By Lex Luthor

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 52: Chewbacca

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle asks two important questions: who's the best copilot in the entire universe, and who owes some kid out there $10 for selling him a terrible drawing? Answer: Chewbacca and me.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 51: Snow

What better to doodle at the unofficial start of summer than snow? As I try to show in today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle, sometimes the best way to draw something is to draw nothing at all.

Snow by Bill Watterson. Notice how he omits even the panel borders to make the snow extend beyond the edges of the page. Wonderful.

Snow by Walt Kelly:

Snow by Charles Schulz:

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Twain in the Sandwich Islands

Longtime friends and readers know I love Twain (Mark, not Shania, although she's OK too). I just finished reading his Letters from Hawaii, a series of reports he wrote for the Sacramento Union in his early thirties before he'd become a literary big shot.

Twain was about as fair-minded and humanitarian a writer as you'd find in the mid-19th century, but read from 150 years later he's still pretty racist. Not a criticism--he was a man of his time, not ours--just an observation. He's quite pro-colonialism and pro-missionary, seeing them as having saved the native Hawaiians from their benighted savage ways. Even when he's complimentary to native people or culture, it's in terms of their simple innocent naivete.

At the same time, he acknowledges that something very precious has been lost, and mourns the ancient paradise corrupted by commerce and Christianity. I was reminded of present-day people who moan, "Oh, Hawaii is ruined now, you should have seen it in the 1960s!" According to Twain, it was already mostly ruined by the 1860s (just as Italians have been complaining that tourists have ruined Venice since at least the 1700s).

Still, Twain is Twain. Nobody else would write: "At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down and sat on their clothes to keep them from being stolen." Or: "...the red sun looked across the placid ocean through the tall, clean stems of the cocoanut trees, like a blooming whiskey bloat through the bars of a city prison..." That's good stuff.

A note on the edition I read, pictured here. I bought it cheap: cover price $5.95 marked down to $3, and I barely got my money's worth. It was bad, with transcription errors and chopped-up paragraphs. This particular book was poorly put together and I don't recommend it, which is too bad. One of the beauties of old public-domain work is that it can be republished inexpensively, but it still ought to be done right.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 50: Iron Man

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is Tony Stark's bodyguard, the Golden Avenger, old Shellhead (as comic-book Hawkeye called him) himself: Iron Man.

When I was a kid, THIS was the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 49: Golden Poppy

Yeah, the color marker smudges up the ink at the end. Please enjoy this Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle anyway! And if you have Golden Poppies in your yard like I do, please enjoy them, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 48: A Rocketship

Ad astra per aspera! Every space hero needs a spaceship, preferably one trailing sparks and smoke. This is mine. From Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is an old-timey rocketship.

Here's a photo of the physical model I built when I was working on the book. Just noticed now that I drew the tail wrong. Such is the nature of doodles.

And here it is on the cover of the paperback. This drawing took more than sixty seconds.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 47: SpongeBob

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is admittedly rough. Sketchy. Unfinished. Such is the nature of a doodle. That's why it's called a "doodle" instead of "oil painting that I carried around Renaissance Europe for 20 years while I finished it." Are you ready, kids?

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 46: A Pirate

Avast! Want to become a famous artist and get rich drawing turtles in turtlenecks, partying mice and fierce pirates? Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle shows you how, and I won't even charge you $5000 for it. Arrrrr!

Friday, May 15, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 45: Two-Point Skyscrapers

Ending Perspective Week (not a moment too soon!) on the Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle drawing some skyscrapers, with a glimpse at the end of how crazy this stuff can make you if you're not careful. Thanks for hanging in there, we'll be back to normal doodles next week!

Here's a look at the pencil sketch for that futuristic city drawing, which shows my construction lines for three-point perspective a little more clearly.

This is the finished version, with ink drawn over the pencil lines:

And these are the two places I used it in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow....

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 44: A Chair in Perspective

OK, time to get serious. A few people have told me that they or their kids have been following along with my Sixty-Second Sticky Doodles trying to draw what I draw. They send me photos of their versions of daffodils and Gerties. THANK YOU! That's wonderful and makes me very happy!

But some of those same people say that they're frustrated because I go so fast and their drawings don't look like mine. Perspective Week is being especially tough for them.

This may sound odd, but I never meant the doodles to be tutorials. If I were really teaching you how to draw things, they'd be 10 or 20 minutes long instead of 1. Also, some of these are hard for ME, too! You just don't see all of my practice and failed attempts.

If you're serious about drawing what I draw, don't even try to go as fast. Take your time! If it's not fun, skip it! And if you really want to learn perspective, consider these doodles a quick introduction and go find better resources. Here are two I found online from Hello Artsy and Rapid Fire Art. Also, my friend Mike Cope has a wonderful series of how-to videos for younger artists.

And thanks again!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 43: Two-Point Perspective

Perspective Week continues on the SSSD! Now that we've all mastered one-point perspective, it's time to take our game to the next level: TWO-point perspective! Ka-pew! I can hear minds blowing all across the Internet.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 42: People in Perspective

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle actually runs about sixty-five seconds. I just couldn't do it any faster. But I'm terrified of "mission creep": soon they'll be two minutes, then ten, and pretty soon a Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle'll take an hour. To make me feel better, you can quit this one five seconds early.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 41: One-Point Perspective

Today, as demanded by absolutely nobody, I begin "Perspective Week" on the Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle! If that doesn't sound like a good investment of one minute per day, come back next Monday. Everyone else will be drawing like Leonardo daVinci by Friday.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 40: Garfield

Kids love Garfield, and he's a great example of solid character modeling and design. I try to explain why on today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 39: A Mountain

Kind of a companion piece to my earlier doodle of trees, today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is a mountain. Look, they can't ALL be adorable copyright violations!

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Karen is All the Agent I Need

Here's a story I meant to tell a long time ago, with a possible follow-up that happened just this morning....

Last July, my wife Karen was one of many California county officials who met in Sacramento to talk about disaster preparedness. On her way out the door, almost as a joke, I handed her a signed copy of A Fire Story and said, “Give this to the most important person you see.”

Later that day, it’s announced that Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to meet with a small group of those county officials to hear their disaster stories. A list is prepared; Karen isn’t on it. She walks up to the aide and says, “I need to be on that list.” The aide says, “Sorry, the governor only has time to hear from a few people.” “I don’t need to tell him my story,” says Karen. “This book is my story.” The aide looks at A Fire Story and says, “That’s YOU?!” and adds her to the list. And that’s how she handed my book to Newsom, who thanked her sincerely and promised to read it.

That afternoon, Karen called me and said, "Guess who I gave your book to."

Today I'm told that the California State Libraries, in cooperation with the Governor's Office, is putting together an exhibition of books about California by California authors, which will be displayed in the Governor's Mansion and then added to the library's permanent collection. They'd like A Fire Story to be part of it.

I can only wonder, and will never know, if Karen's chutzpah back in July had anything to do with this neat recognition now.

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 38: Helen the Librarian

Today I'm doodling Helen the librarian, my favorite redheaded action hero (no offense Jimmy Olsen), from my webcomic "The Last Mechanical Monster."

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Sixty-Second Doodle 37: A Glass of Water

Weird subject today, but I thought it might be interesting to doodle something simple, like a glass of water. I'm not saying this is the only way or right way, just that drawing the most ordinary things can still give you a lot to think about.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 36: An Ewok

Today, in celebration of Star Wars Day (May the with you), I doodle an Ewok, those murderous teddy bears from a galaxy far far away, and talk about a girl I used to know.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Good News/Bad News

I have good and less-good publishing news today.

GOOD: A Spanish-language edition of "Mom's Cancer" is forthcoming! I've seen the pages and it looks like the translators and designers did a beautiful job, particularly with the graphic elements where text is integrated with the art. I'm honestly surprised there wasn't a Spanish version years ago, but am astonished and gratified that a book that's now about 15 years old still has a lot of life left in her. That's incredibly rare.

LESS-GOOD: My publisher, Abrams, and I have been working on a paperback version of "A Fire Story," with 32 new pages of art describing our rebuilding process and fleeing yet another wildfire, to be released in the fall. It now looks like Covid-19 has pushed that release into spring 2021.

Here's the deal: the publishing industry releases books in two seasons, spring and fall. Because bookstores are closed, authors can't tour, etc., many of the books that were supposed to be released this spring--right now--are being pushed into the fall. Editor Charlie felt that it would be better to delay my paperback's launch so it doesn't get drowned in the glut of books gushing from the pipeline after the clog is cleared. Besides, there's no guarantee that bookstores will be open by this fall, either!

Compared to everything else the pandemic has screwed up, my book launch is trivial. Abrams's strategy makes sense. But I'm still disappointed.

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 35: Gertie the Dinosaur

Today's doodle is an animation pioneer you may have never heard of, Gertie the Dinosaur, by the man that many (me) consider one of the three or four greatest cartoonists who ever lived, Winsor McCay. McCay made a short film with Gertie in 1914, for which he and an assistant did more than 10,000 drawings of Gertie and a full background on sheets of rice paper (since animators hadn't yet thought of using transparent cels over background art). I'm lucky enough to own one of those drawings.

Here's McCay's film, including a little prelude setting up the premise of McCay making the cartoon on a bet.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 34: Wimpy Kid

Today's doodle is Greg Heffley, the Wimpy Kid, created by Jeff Kinney. Jeff and I have the same book editor, and very early in his career I gave him the worst, most wrong-headed career advice possible. He hasn't held it against me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 33: Moon Phases

Today's doodle pokes at a personal peeve. Artists, especially cartoonists, often draw a crescent Moon to signify "night time." Almost as often, they draw it in the wrong place or facing the wrong direction. Only one person out of a hundred would ever notice or care. I am that one person.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Authors Uncovered Podcast

I was scheduled to do two public book talks with Sacramento Public Libraries in April. Didn't happen. Instead, the library graciously offered to do a podcast with me for its "Authors Uncovered" series, which I was happy to record several days ago and was just released.

Host Casey Manno and I had a good chat, lightly edited here to 35 minutes. If you've seen or heard me speak before, you've heard some of these stories (I'm always aware that every time is most listeners' first time), but Casey also asked some new and good questions I haven't been asked before. Thanks to Sacramento Public Libraries, which I hope to visit in person soon!

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 32: Teenage Brian

For today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle I travel back in time to when I was 16 or so, to draw teenage me from a little zine I self-published in 2012, "The Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian."

(I only made 50 and they're gone, so you can't have one, sorry. However, you can read some of the comics by clicking the "Adventures of Old Time-Traveling Brian label in the column to the right).

The only inaccurate part of this drawing is there aren't enough zits.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 31: Batman

On today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle: the second most famous orphan in comics, Thomas and Martha Wayne's implacable baby boy, and a clear copyright violation on my part: Batman.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 30: A Hummingbird

I didn't grow up with hummingbirds. We didn't have them in my part of South Dakota. So when we moved to California when I was 10, I thought they were the most magical creatures in the world. Still do. Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is that hovering fluorescent fairy-flyer, the hummingbird.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 29: Snoopy

On today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle, my friends at the Charles M. Schulz Museum teach me how to draw Snoopy.

The museum offers a lot of fun homebound activities like this on its "Schulz Museum at Home" webpage. Check 'em out!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 28: Trees

The joy of drawing happy little trees, on today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle. Happy Earth Day!

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 27: Dr. Xandra

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is one of my favorite evil geniuses. No, not that one, the other one.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 26: USS Enterprise

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is a tall ship with a star to steer her by: the best make-believe vehicle this side of a Tardis, the USS Enterprise. Second star to the right and straight on til morning.

In today’s doodle, I call the Enterprise’s design “iconic” and say that a child could draw it. I want to explain that better. I don’t mean that a child could get the tricky perspective right, nor get all the fiddly spaceship bits in their proper places. I mean that any sketch of three cylinders and a disk arranged in about the right way will instantly read as “Enterprise” to a lot of people around the world.

Here’s an example I cropped from an old “New Yorker” cartoon by Jack Ziegler (no need to show the whole thing; suffice to say the gag’s set in a sci-fi fan’s room). That’s the Enterprise, everybody knows it, and a child could draw it. Iconic.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 25: A Minion

Juvenile, always cheerful, with the sense of humor of a 6-year-old boy. What's not to love? Today for your Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle: a Minion.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 24: Mom

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is a drawing of the person without whom I would literally not be here today.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 23: A Superhero

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is a bust--you know, a drawing of someone's head and shoulders. In this case, a superhero's.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 22: More Cartoon Expressions

You thought yesterday's doodle faces were expressive, just wait until we add mouths! Again, feel free to try this yourself: draw some simple circle faces with different combinations and permutations of eyes, eyebrows, mouths and other features, and see what emotions they suggest.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 21: Cartoon Expressions

The doodles are a bit more "How To" than usual today and tomorrow. If you're at all interested in cartooning, I'd encourage you to do this yourself: draw a bunch of circles on a piece of paper, add two dots to each circle for eyes, draw a bunch of eyebrows over the eyes in different positions and angles, and see what emotion that "face" looks like it's expressing. You'll probably surprise yourself.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 20: The Easter Bunny

(A conversation with my wife, exaggerated for humorous effect.)
Karen: You should draw the Easter Bunny next Friday.
Me: I already have something planned for Friday.
Karen: But it's the Friday before Easter!
Me: Yes it is.
Karen: And it's the Easter Bunny!
Me: Curse your infernal Vulcan logic.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 19: A Daffodil

In case you've lost all track of time, it's spring! Which means the return of one of my favorite flowers, not least because it's a bulb that pops up year after year with no effort on my part: daffodils! Right now our yard is full of daffodils that we dug up after the fire and replanted around our new home. That's another reason they're one of my favorites.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 18: Karen

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle: my wife Karen, as seen in my graphic novel "A Fire Story" and not necessarily real life. Watch the one-minute doodle to see what I mean by that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 17: Return of the Robot

Today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle continues yesterday's appreciation of the Robot from my webcomic "The Last Mechanical Monster," a sequel to a classic Fleischer Brothers cartoon from 1941, which is still considered one of the most beautifully drawn and lushly produced cartoon shorts ever.

Here is that original cartoon, "The Mechanical Monsters," still considered one of the most beautifully animated and lushly produced cartoons ever. Among their other good qualities, these Fleischer shorts are credited with giving Superman the power of flight. In the comic books to this point, Superman could only jump great distances, but the animators couldn't figure out how to show him doing that without looking ridiculous. Very influential on generations of creators...

...including the animators who did beautiful work like this in the 1990s...

...and the filmmakers who made movies like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and other retrofuturistic fare.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 16: The Robot

From my webcomic "The Last Mechanical Monster," based on a classic Fleischer Brothers cartoon from 1941, today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is a deadly engine of destruction (or unexpected compassion): the Robot.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Future Memories

A few friends have done something I really liked: they've written Facebook posts describing how they're doing, with the idea that in one or two or ten years, when Facebook suggests that post as a "Memory," they'll reflect back on what this whole pandemic/quarantine experience was like.

Here's a status report for posterity from the Fies Bunker.

We're fine. I've worked from home for 20 years and am used to solitude. Karen's an "essential worker" but still able to work from home about four days out of five. We walk the dog. Our daughters are hunkered down at their place, one of them very busy working and the other furloughed. They'll be all right.

We eat well. In the Crock Pot this morning I put a chicken breast, crushed tomatoes, white wine, bell pepper, celery, onion, garlic and spices. It smells fantastic. We'll throw in some spinach at the end, spoon that over rice, and probably get two meals out of it.

I miss going out to lunch.

To inject a little color into the day, I am trying to wear the most colorful, gaudy shirts I own. Today it's rainy so I put on a robot sweater. I smile every time I catch it in a mirror.

I don't know anyone who's died from COVID-19, but I know people who know people who have. I expect that degree of separation will shrink from two to one in the coming months.

I have posted videos for 15 "Sixty-Second Sticky Doodles" and recorded another five for next week. We'll see what happens after that. They're a lot of fun to do, although they take more time than you'd think.

I am not planning to make a graphic novel about COVID-19.

I sliced the tip of my finger with a kitchen knife a few days ago. It's healing fine but I wonder if the little divot will be permanent.

We're getting a lot of reading done. I read David Sedaris's "Naked," and while his darkly funny essays with heart are usually right in my wheelhouse, this book wasn't entirely satisfying. "Darkly funny with heart" didn't mesh with my mood. I'm currently reading Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking," a memoir of her grief and mourning after her husband died while her daughter was gravely ill, and wondering if I made a terrible mistake. I think after this I'll go back to "darkly funny with heart."

I've had to cancel three book-related appearances but pulled off one, a keynote speech for a graphic medicine conference, via Zoom. Funny how we've all become overnight experts at Zoom.

I'm impressed that our local grocery store has taped off the floor to keep customers six feet apart as they line up at the register. I hear they're installing plastic shields to protect the cashiers from us.

Karen and I wore face masks to the supermarket for the first time yesterday. We have a small stock of N-95s left over from the fire. I've been joking that COVID-19 is not the scariest thing I've ever faced; it's not even the scariest thing I've faced in the past two and a half years. But I think that joke is tired now and I should retire it.

Spring is coming. The roses are budding and the hummingbirds are humming. I'm looking forward to sitting in the sun and watching the flowers and birds find each other. Maybe next week.

Take care. Wash your hands!

Friday, April 3, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 15: Feet

Nobody asked for it. Nobody wanted it. Well, that's not true, one person did ask for it, but I think they were being sarcastic. The subject of today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle: feet!

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 14: Superheroine Part 2

Finishing the superheroine I began yesterday on today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle. Plus some additional references below! (No, I'm not giving you homework.)

Here's a superheroine I recently drew. She took more than one minute.

An illustration of what I was talking about re: heroic proportions. On the left is Christopher Reeve, about 7.5 heads tall. On the right is Superman, more than 8 heads tall. No matter how good the costume, it's hard for real people to look like superheroes because superheroes don't look like real people.

The ancient Greeks gave their gods disproportionately large bodies and small heads.

The Hulk is really, really, really strong. Look how small his head is. His fists are twice the size of his head! It can get pretty ridiculous when you learn to look for it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 13: Superheroine Part 1

Honestly, what I usually doodle when I'm bored and my hand is mindlessly sketching whatever it wants are superheroes. If you looked into my recycling can, you'd see a dozen little scraps of paper that look just like today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 12: Cap Crater

On today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle: the Galactic Guardian, the Boy Scout from Betelgeuse, your spacey best buddy--Cap Crater, from my book "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 11: Lillian

Not a hand in sight today, as my Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle features Lillian, from my webcomic "The Last Mechanical Monster" and one of my favorite characters ever.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 10: Hands Finale

If you're new to the blog after reading about it in the Press Democrat or elsewhere, welcome! I'd suggest scrolling down to the earlier, more entertaining Sixty-Second Sticky Doodles further down (they're numbered), then working your way back up. And thanks.

Today is the last day of Hands Week (Karen: "Thank goodness")! All I'd add is that if you want to get better at drawing hands, most of us have the perfect model sitting right at the end of our non-drawing arm. No excuses.

 Also, I end this Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle with my fundamental advice for any artistic challenge: do whatever works for you.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 9: Hands and Other Useful Appendages

I'll be honest: today's Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle is my favorite of the week. I just think the subject matter is really cool. Hope you do, too!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

An Excellent Finalist

Neat! "A Fire Story" has been named a finalist for Pop Culture Classroom's Excellence in Graphic Literature (EGL) award in the category of "adult nonfiction." I share the category with excellent creators, including my former friends and now hated nemeses Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick for their book "Hawking" about some obscure math professor.

This nomination is particularly sweet because I was a guest of Pop Culture Classroom at last year's Denver Pop Culture Con and had a great time. It's a unique combination of educational non-profit and flamboyant comics convention that I found pretty interesting.

Winning titles will be announced in early April and honored with a beautiful trophy the evening of Saturday, July 4, assuming the con isn't canceled or postponed. The nomination is a great honor, thanks!

EDITED MUCH LATER TO ADD: Son of a gun, I won!

Above, the EGL Saga trophy for Excellence in Graphic Literature.
Below, some photos I took at the 2019 Pop Culture Con.

On a panel with Schulz Museum Education Director Jessica Ruskin
and very popular young adult graphic novelist Nathan Hale.

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 8: Hands, Balloons and Mittens

A conversation I had with Karen, exaggerated for humorous effect:

Her: How many days are you going to draw hands?
Me: Every day this week!
Her: Why?
Me: It's Hands Week!
Her: I mean, Why? Nobody wants that.
Me: Viewer request?
Her: They didn't request it every day!
Me: It's cool?
Her: (facepalm, sigh)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 7: Hands and Hot Dog Fingers

Man, whoever asked me to talk about drawing hands is probably really starting to regret it now! Here's another one. No regrets.

BTW, "hot dog fingers" is a call-back to an episode of The Office (US) in which the Dunder-Mifflin employees list it among the mock diseases they want covered by their new health plan. My comics are full of little references meant to amuse no one but myself.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 6: Hands

By viewer request, here's a Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle about drawing hands! If you don't like this one, come back tomorrow. Spoiler Alert: you won't like tomorrow's, either.

Warning: do not take anatomical advice from cartoonists, unless they also happen to be MDs or RNs or something like that. I am not.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 5: More of My Dog Riley

One more one-minute distracting doodle before the weekend, this one a light-hearted precis on canine osteology (that'll draw a crowd!).

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 4: My Dog Riley

Y'know, I'm burning through sticky notes like crazy. Each of these doodles consumes 15 or 20 Post-Its--you just don't see the outtakes. It's hard to draw and talk at the same time, make a drawing I'm not ashamed of, and finish in exactly a minute!

Luckily, sticky notes are a lot easier to find than toilet paper. HEY...!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 3: The Inventor

"Again?!" I hear you sigh. "What is wrong with this guy?" Evidently I had a minute to kill so I did another doodle. I may not be hooked up right in the head.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Monday, March 16, 2020

Sixty-Second Sticky Doodle 1: Self-Portrait

I can't solve any of your problems, but I can take your mind off of them for exactly 60 seconds. There may be more of these coming.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Shooting Stars

A Facebook friend messaged to ask more about my experience pitching stories to Star Trek and why I never wrote about it. First, I did write about it--14 years ago! Whatayawant from me?! Mostly, I don't think about it much because it was a long time ago and I failed. I never sold Star Trek a story. But I learned a lot that's stayed with me in all my subsequent work, and that's what's got me revisiting it now.

Backstory: Star Trek was unique among TV shows in that it accepted story ideas from the public. Nobody else did or does that. Producer Michael Piller started the policy and it opened the door for a few writers who went on to great careers. In the sixth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I wanted to be one of them. I wrote two scripts, filled out the release forms, and sent them off. A few months later, I got a call: Star Trek couldn't use either of my stories, but they showed enough promise that they invited me to come in and pitch more.

As part of the pitch process, Paramount sent me packets
full of tech manuals, scripts, character breakdowns, and
all kinds of cool stuff.
I pitched a couple of times to TNG, but by that time it was winding down after seven seasons and Paramount was starting a new series called Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In my last pitch to TNG, I asked the TNG producer if he thought I might be able to pitch to DS9 as well. "Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked, but he set it up and I spent the next seven years unsuccessfully pitching stories to them. About the time DS9 was wrapping up and Paramount was starting a new series called Star Trek: Voyager, I asked the DS9 producer if I might be able to pitch to Voyager as well. "Why would you want to pitch to those guys?" he asked, but he set it up and I did that for a couple of years until it became evident to both Star Trek and me that we were done.

Over the years I pitched probably 40 or 50 stories to a half dozen different writer-producers. Most couldn't have been kinder or more sympathetic. They were all young and remembered being in my shoes. There was only one who I thought was kind of a blockhead, but maybe that was me. I was a bad pitcher. I took too long to get to the point. A pitch should grab the listener in the first sentence; I spent the first two minutes winding up.

I wish I knew then what I know now, because I would have crushed it. The paradox is that I wouldn't know what I know now if I hadn't made those mistakes then.

I only remember one of the stories that piqued their interest and got me in the door. This was in the early '90s, when the dissolution of the Soviet Union was still fresh. One thing that intrigued me about the USSR's break-up was that not everybody wanted to leave. I'm thinking of little countries like Estonia, in which (as I remember it) a significant portion of the population said, "No, we're good, thanks!" I thought that was fascinating.

So in my story, for reasons I don't recall, the Klingon Empire is giving up control of a planet it had conquered 200 years earlier. Klingons being Klingons, they'd strip-mined the world of anything valuable and left it a polluted wasteland. Captain Picard and the Enterprise show up to help the natives transition to their new freedom and are surprised to find themselves fighting an underground movement that doesn't want it. They've been part of the Empire a long time; though not biologically Klingons, they are socially and culturally. It's all they know.

My story was very Worf-centric. He was the bridge to help these folks see that you could keep what you liked about being a Klingon, rediscover your own forgotten heritage, and still be welcome in the Federation. At the same time, the situation brought up a lot of conflict within Worf, who (as I'm sure you all know) was adopted by humans and never really felt like a full-fledged Klingon himself. So it was a look at his Imposter Syndrome against this political allegory that Star Trek always did so well.

The producers said they liked it because it focused on Worf, and they always wanted to find more for him to do. They liked the allegory. A flaw in the story is that, although I did try to develop Worf's character, it was still about the Enterprise showing up and solving a planet's problems, a trope that everybody was tired of at that point.

What I didn't realize until later was that it also would have been impossibly expensive to shoot. My story would have required several new sets and probably some alien world exteriors as well. As I got more experienced, I tried to offer more "bottle shows" that took place entirely on existing sets. Those are money savers that always made them happy.

I think the closest I came to a sale was with Deep Space Nine. DS9 was a space station on the rough frontier of Federation space commanded by Ben Sisko, who had been an officer on the starship Saratoga until it was shot out from under him by the evil Borg in a battle that killed his wife Jennifer.
The tough little battleship Defiant.

In my story, it's a few years later and Sisko is hosting a reunion of some of his Saratoga crew on DS9. The story's about veterans returning home from war, transitioning to civilian life, dealing with PTSD. One of Sisko's best buddies arrives with an ulterior motive: hijack the station's tough little battleship, the Defiant, and go back in time to stop the Borg from destroying the Saratoga. Sisko's duty-bound to stop him but deeply conflicted. This isn't like killing Hitler and changing centuries of history in unpredictable ways. The Borg battle just happened a few years ago. Surely a chance to save thousands of lives is worth rearranging the recent past? The story ends as it must, with Sisko and company sitting in the cloaked Defiant watching the Borg cube fly by on its way to kill Edith Keeler--I mean, Sisko's wife--and blow up their beloved Saratoga.

The producer liked it a lot. He said, "I'm going to hold onto this one. We're working on another story that's similar, but if we don't do that one we might do yours."

Months later, DS9 aired the episode "Trials and Tribble-ations," in which a disgraced Klingon spy hijacks the tough little battleship Defiant and goes back in time to stop Captain James T. Kirk from uncovering his plot to poison a grain shipment that millions of tribbles gorged themselves on. Combining the modern DS9 cast with old footage of the 1960's cast, it was a love letter to the original series on its 30th anniversary and one of Star Trek's best episodes.

As a minor footnote, it also ensured that no one would ever again hijack the tough little battleship Defiant to go back in time and try to change the past.

Lessons Learned

Even as a failure, my experience pitching stories to Star Trek made me a better writer. I realized that the stories they quickly rejected focused on some science-fiction high-tech premise or plot twist, while the stories they liked focused on the characters. If I said something like, "Captain Picard faces a crisis that takes him through an arc from A to B," I had their attention. I had to be hit over the head several times to realize that a good story isn't about spaceships or aliens or ripples in the fabric of space-time, but about people.

Audiences care about characters.

That sounds obvious, but I realized how unobvious it was as I talked to friends and family who couldn't wait to share their story ideas. And literally without exception, every idea I heard from someone else was about a spaceship, alien, or ripple in the fabric of space-time. Not one that I recall even mentioned a character, how they'd react to the situation, or how they might be changed by it. Once I learned to see it, it was striking.

Another lesson learned: ideas are common. What matters is execution.

More than once, I got two sentences into a pitch and had a producer stop me: "We started filming an episode like that this week." And sure enough, months later I'd see the episode and think, "That's my story!" except I never had a chance to tell them my story and no one ever heard it but me. No matter how outlandish the idea, even in a fantastic sci-fi universe where almost anything can happen, it's probably not as original as you think. What makes your idea different is what you do with it. How you express it. The unique twist or flavor you bring to it.

I learned that the stories most worth telling are the ones that nobody but you could tell.

I learned that stories are often not about what they seem to be about. Good stories have subtext that strikes a deeper chord with an audience even if they don't quite know why.

These were lessons I internalized as best I could and took into my future writing. I often fall short but they're always in the back of my mind. They're also qualities I look for in other people's writing.

I think readers and viewers like to see a writer's mind working. They enjoy making connections and solving puzzles that a writer leaves for them to find. They respond powerfully to authenticity: an audience can tell when a writer is telling the truth or making stuff up. When people tell me, "I like the part in your book where . . ." it's always a part where I took a little risk and tried to be as honest as I could.

I'm pretty sure those lessons are correct. Failing to write for Star Trek helped me learn them.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

OK, Boomer

Then and Now.

Keep in mind that I've only seen the first episode of the new Star Trek "Picard" series and don't plan to pay to see the rest. But I read the synopses and reviews, and see the reactions of my friends who seem pretty evenly split about it. Also, I've been a fan of "Star Trek" as long as there's been "Star Trek."

And I'm sad to say that it's lost me.

At its core, "Star Trek" was aspirational. It said that people could get smarter and better, and build a tomorrow that's better than today. Oh, we had to go through a Third World War to get there, but when we finally set aside prejudice and hate we could make Earth a paradise. "Star Trek" argued that humanity was perfectible.

For at least the last 10 or 20 years, "Star Trek" hasn't believed that. From what I read and hear, "Picard" certainly doesn't.

That optimism made "Star Trek" unique in mainstream science fiction. Take it away, and it's just another gray and gritty "Blade Runner" "Planet of the Apes" "Firefly" "Battlestar Galactica" "Expanse" "Dark Matter" Et Cetera Et Cetera dystopia in which humanity is awful and the future is terrible. Some of those are excellent stories. But they're not "Star Trek."

As a writer, I understand why dystopia makes an attractive storytelling sandbox. I get why actors would be interested in playing in it. It's probably even more honest; I don't actually think we can make Earth a paradise within 200 or 300 years.

But wouldn't it be lovely to try? To imagine it might be possible?

Strip away "Star Trek's" optimism and it becomes ordinary--indistinguishable from all the other TV shows and movies about people in clanky spaceships eking out miserable lives and little Pyrrhic victories against the overwhelming forces of oppressive darkness. And much, much less interesting to me.

I'm tired of cynicism. It's laziness disguised as sophistication. These days, I think the bold, daring, groundbreaking choice is sincerity and hope. That'll set you apart! It used to set "Star Trek" apart.