Monday, September 25, 2023

National Comic Book Daughters Day!

I am reliably informed that today, Monday, Sept. 25, is National Daughters Day! As you may know, I have two of them. Also, in another twofer for me, it is also National Comic Book Day! WOW! 

I am in the rare position of being able to celebrate both events simultaneously by sharing examples of my daughters appearing in comic books--not coincidentally, mine. Happy Comic Book Daughters Day, Robin and Laura! You've already been drawn into the next one, too.

Celebrating Mom's birthday in Mom's Cancer.

Inside the Perisphere at the 1939 World's Fair, in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.

Swooning over the Cosmic Kid with the rest of my coloring team, Kelly and Kristen, in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow.

Providing refuge in A Fire Story.

Gaping at the magnificence of Sparky the Mad Inventor (in his dreams) in The Last Mechanical Monster.

Sunday, September 24, 2023


The Disneyland train station at the entrance to the park, with two tunnels to the left and right separating the real world from "the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

The family and I are home from a trip to Disneyland and California Adventure (aka "the old parking lot"). No apologies for being a Disney fan. I understand how the world works: I realize I have been conditioned since birth to feel nostalgia for corporate properties designed to take my money in exchange for a warm fuzzy glow. I have no problem with that deal. Warm fuzzy glows are hard to come by and, in my opinion, Disney delivers them better than most.

We had a very nice time.

It had been eight years since our last visit, and both we and the parks have changed. They added some rides and rejiggered some lands, including the new Avengers Campus, a fairly sterile and unengaging chunk of California Adventure even for a lifelong Avengers fan like me; and Galaxy's Edge in the back corner of Disneyland, which everyone calls "Star Wars Land." The latter is a brilliant and immersive environment that I still think was put in the wrong park. But nobody asked me, so I'll enjoy it where it is.

I saw three neat innovations in ride technology. First, more sophisticated use of projectors in ways large and small, from giving characters completely animated faces to adding a bit of background visual interest to creating an entire universe (e.g., Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway, which places riders into an animated world much like Toon Town in "Roger Rabbit").

Second, they've somehow figured out how to simulate a 3D environment without glasses. It's not quite full 3D but it's close: call it 2.5D, such that when you look out a spaceship window in Galaxy's Edge, you're not just watching a big TV screen. The other ships and planets and such have some dimension and distance from you. Kind of like those old lenticular bubble-gum cards? I don't know how they do it, but it's pretty keen.

Third and most impressive, they've got trackless ride vehicles that can travel anywhere within a space, giving each group of guests a unique experience. The tech was put to good use in both the Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride, in which escape pods full of riders careen through an Imperial spaceship pursued by Kylo Ren, and Runaway Railway, in which what appears to be three linked train cars separate from the engine and cartoony hell breaks loose.

As I alluded to in my book "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," I think Disney is important. I don't think you can understand 20th century America without grappling with Disney, both good and bad: risk-taking entrepreneurship, technological innovation, evolving labor relations, the invention of the teenager, historical myth-making (pro and con), TV and film history, futurism, culture, entertainment, intellectual property law. All of that is distilled into a few square miles of Anaheim, California, the only Disney park with Walt's fingerprints all over it. Or you can just forget about that and ride "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Haunted Mansion," still delightful gems of peak 1960s Disney. 

In addition, in our experience last week, Disney still earns its reputation for terrific customer service. Several cast members went above and beyond the call of duty to solve problems and make sure all our needs were met. There's a story that Walt Disney nearly fired an executive who told Walt he didn't need to pick up a piece of trash because a custodian would get around to it. Walt thought that park quality and guest experience were everyone's business. That work ethic and company culture still seems widespread.

Just a few representative photos that have no images of Karen, Robin or Laura because I think at least some of them would rather I left them out of it.

The Matterhorn in the background, submarines (recently re-themed to a Little Nemo ride), and a Monorail track circling to the right.

For a few months around Halloween, the Haunted Mansion gets a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay. It's fun, but I still prefer the classic 99 Ghosts and Paul Frees narration.

Walking through a tunnel into the immersive Galaxy's Edge, a hive of scum and villainy. The full-size Millennium Falcon (not in this pic) is stunning.

I got my first Avengers comic at age 10 and at one time had a collection of every issue of the Avengers starting with #1 (guess what happened to that collection?). So it actually meant something for me to pose as superheroically as I could muster wearing cargo shorts and my dork hat. One reaches an age when vanity is outweighed by the wisdom of preventing skin cancer, particularly when one is a pasty person with thinning gray (silver?!) hair.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Willingham Frees "Fables"

This is the most interesting and paradigm-shifting (by which I mean it changed the way I think) publishing-related news I've seen in a long time. 

Short version: Bill Willingham created a popular and successful comic book series called "Fables" 20 years ago. It was published by DC Comics but, unlike writers and artists who work on Superman and Batman, Willingham owned the intellectual property and copyright to his work. There's no dispute about that.

After years of being (as he describes it in the linked piece) frustrated, lied to, and cheated by his publisher, today he dropped a nuke and made "Fables" public domain. That means anyone in the world has the right to use "Fables" characters and tell "Fables" stories however they want--prose, comics, cartoons, movies, puppet shows--anyone but Willingham himself, ironically, who's still bound by his contract to only publish "Fables" with DC. "Fables" now belongs to the other 8-billion-minus-1 people on the planet.

Wow. Geez. I've never heard of a creator doing that,* but can't think of a reason it's not legal, ethical, and the biggest middle finger Willingham could possibly flip.

To me, it highlights the power creative people have and are often willing, even eager, to give up. My literary lawyer explained it to me like this: when you create something, you hold ALL the rights to it. If someone such as a publisher wants it, they will negotiate to pay you for YOUR rights. More rights should cost more money. YOU hold all the cards, even though it sure doesn't feel like it when you're desperate for your first book deal and it's the only offer on the table. It's hard to believe, but they really do need you more than you need them--as long as you're willing to walk away with nothing. It's even harder to believe, but no deal is better than a bad one, as I've learned from friends who've made bad deals.

A publisher isn't your boss. They're your business partner.

(*Tom Lehrer, whose smart, satirical songs were very popular in the 1950s and '60s, recently made his entire catalog public domain, but not because of a dispute with anyone. He's apparently just a really cool guy.)

Friday, September 8, 2023

NNLM Book Club!

My graphic medicine friend Matthew Noe tells me that the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) has named A Fire Story one of its three September reading club selections! This month's theme is "Disasters and Emergencies." 

This is a big deal! Also a big honor, since I assume NNLM doesn't often focus on graphic novels. They provide a link to the discussion guide and other neat stuff. 

I imagine the odds of a NNLM Bookclubber seeing this post are low, but I'm always happy to speak to groups like that if they want me. Thanks for the selection!

Sunday, September 3, 2023

Rocketeer on the Block

Hey, this slipped by me! The Rocketeer art I made as a fundraiser for the Cartoon Art Museum and Hairy Cell Leukemia research in memory of Dave Stevens is now up for auction! As I write this, the eBay auction has 3 days 20 hours to go, and the current bid is $510 (which flabbergasts me--thank you, mysterious bidder!). I wrote a blog post about drawing this piece back in February.

The artwork is 3 feet high by 1 foot wide and shows our hero rocketing into the sky above the Bulldog Diner, with his faithful gal and mechanic standing by. It's one of many pieces CAM has been auctioning all summer, and which I believe are now on exhibit at the museum in San Francisco. I need to check that out!

Thanks again!

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Family Style & Buzzing

A few weeks ago, cartoonist Thien Pham, writer Samuel Sattin, and artist Rye Hickman did readings and book signings at the Charles M. Schulz Museum. I've just finished their books, Family Style and Buzzing, and have some thoughts--less rigorous than reviews, but maybe helpful to someone thinking of buying them.

I know Thien a bit--enough to call him a friend, but only because he's so darned friendly--and his Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam just makes me gape at him with newfound respect, thinking "How did this guy survive all that?!" 

Pham and his family escaped from Vietnam on a rickety boat, overloaded to bursting, when he was a child. Hope for rescue turns to sinking dread when pirates attack, and Pham's mother tells him to close his eyes. For several pages, we see the raid through young Thien's eyes--that is, his closed eyes, so we see nothing, our imaginations picturing more than Pham could draw. As a HUGE proponent of less-is-more and the idea that negative space is one of the most powerful things a cartoonist can put on the page, I think Pham's choice to publish page after page of black, broken only by the desperate reassuring words of his mother, is one of the gutsiest things I've seen a cartoonist do in a long time. It worked for me. The suspense was tremendous.

Family Style is largely a story of assimilation, seen partly through the lens of food, as the familiar Vietnamese home cooking of Thien's mother gives way to hamburgers and Chuck E. Cheese pizza. Thien's parents go from naive newcomers who don't know how to hail a taxi to small business owners, while Thien grows from a kid who knows a handful of English words to a teenager who's embarrassed by how bad his Vietnamese has become. It's a thoughtful, nuanced, compassionate take.

Thien's story is fundamentally American. It's easy for those of us born here to take it for granted and get a little cynical about our country's ideals, but they're real and sincere to Thien's family, who go through Hell to get here and work hard to succeed. There's an obvious comparison to Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do, which is also about the life of a young Vietnamese refugee, but they have different tones and perspectives. They strike me as complementary, not competitors. You couldn't go wrong reading them both.

Graphic novelist Maia Kobabe interviewing Sam Sattin and Rye Hickman in the Schulz Museum's theater. Thien Pham spoke after this, but I didn't get a photo.

I didn't know Sattin or Hickman before seeing them read from their book Buzzing, a graphic novel about 12-year-old Isaac, who's just trying to get through finals and summer vacation without obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) wrecking his life. We see the main metaphor of the story immediately: compulsive thoughts swarm around Isaac like cartoon bees, droning in his ear that nobody likes him, he's an asymmetrical freak, and his ritualistic behaviors are all that keep his loved ones alive. Sattin draws on his own history with OCD to give insights that only someone who'd been through it could. 

The bees are a great, effective device. As Sattin and/or Hickman (I don't recall which!) explained in their talk, individual bees are essentially harmless. But two or three bees are a distraction, and a swarm buzzing you all day every day is a life-threatening terror. 

A big part of Buzzing involves Isaac finding a group of kids who play a game like Dungeons & Dragons and who accept him as he is, and we see a lot of their imaginary campaigns. The characters the friends create, and the quest they undertake, give some insights into their personalities and how quirks that can be handicaps in one situation can be gifts in another.

A quick word about Hickman's art: I think it's very good, particularly in its thoughtful use of color to indicate place and tone. The fantasy sequences have a style of their own that still fits with the real-world material. Also, Hickman's characters are well-acted; their postures and expressions sensitively reveal their feelings.

Another quick word for my friends in Graphic Medicine: add Buzzing to the reading list.

I was struck by the absence of real villains in both Family Style and Buzzing (aside from Thien's pirates, who are gone quickly). Pham doesn't show us much in the way of anti-Asian racism, and in fact almost all of the neighbors, sponsors, teachers and friends we meet are well-meaning and helpful. Likewise, Isaac in Buzzing finds a crew of caring, empathetic friends with very cool parents. Isaac's mother is overprotective but comes around; his older sister, Miriam, is an overachiever who's sick of all the attention her brother's OCD consumes, but she, too, ultimately supports him. Despite that, the fictional Isaac and real Thien struggle mightily. It's sobering to reflect on how many people with less support turn out all right regardless, and how many don't.

Both books are listed for young adults, but that's just promotional poppycock. If either sounds like something you'd like, give 'em a shot.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Go Go!

I'm pretty sure this is my sister. Honestly, she's looked better.

I've learned late in the day that this is National Power Rangers Day. No, really, you can look it up! I'll celebrate by bragging on my little sister, Elisabeth, whom some of you may know as "Kid Sis" and who, back in the day, was an actor and stunt performer on the early "Power Rangers!"

No, really!

Lis did a lot of work as an extra when she was a young woman in L.A. At one time, I had a sizzle reel of her appearances as a silent background player on a ton of network and syndicated programs. One thing led to another and she found herself on "Power Rangers."

I think most people know that "Power Rangers" originated in Japan. For the U.S. market, the Japanese programs were spliced with American actors, English dialog, etc. What's less well-known is that the Japanese production company also shipped the costumes to the U.S. so that additional action scenes with the Rangers and Monsters could be shot here, and that's where Lis came in.

For her, it was long hot days smothered in foam rubber under the southern California sun. For millions of American kids, it was magic. 

Happy Power Rangers Day, Lis! It's always Morphin' Time somewhere.

Lis taking a breather in half of the Stag Beetle costume, surrounded by her army of Putties.

One of my favorite photos because it tells a whole story in itself. This is Lis and her fellow performers, anonymously toiling on a rainy day with a barebones production crew almost literally in the shadow of the "Hollywood" sign. The glamour of showbiz, kids!

Gettin' Figgy

First figs of the season! Our fig tree is still small--about six feet high and wide--but looks to be putting out dozens of figs this year. People have a lot of good ideas and recipes for using figs, but we just like to eat 'em.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Peanuts Memories

Today's "Peanuts" strip, copyright 1976, brings up a couple of nice memories. Peppermint Patty muses about a shopping center with a bookstore and ice cream shop next door to each other. I remember that shopping center, bookstore, and ice cream shop, which were in Santa Rosa, Calif., the city Mr. Schulz and I both called home.

Schulz's studio is about half a mile from a mall called Coddingtown. In 1976, it had a Books Inc. shop next door to a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop, and the signs Peppermint Patty mentions were actually posted in their windows. Both shops are long gone, but in the '70s I spent a lot of time in both. In particular, Books Inc. was a terrific independent chain that's still around--just not in Coddingtown. Remember when malls used to have bookstores?

That reminisce brought up another memory in the same mall. Later, maybe in the late '80s, I was in a Hallmark store standing in line behind Mr. Schulz, who looked to be buying a few small gifts. He handed his credit card to the cashier, who looked at the name on the card, looked up at him, looked down at the card, looked up at him, and then pulled her eyeballs back into their sockets to ring him up. Neither of them said anything but, as I remember it, he just quietly sighed.

I haven't thought of any of those things in years. It was nice to have the Sunday paper bring them back to mind. And I can't explain the potato chip deal.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Steve Lieber's Portfolio Review


This advice is making the rounds of cartooning circles. Steve Lieber is a successful graphic novelist and comic book artist, mostly superheroes but also other genres. I'm sharing because I think it packs a lot of wisdom in one tight package and I don't disagree with any of it. 

A great deal of comics craft is similar to filmmaking, and I find it interesting that the art forms developed on parallel tracks at about the same time (origin in the late 19th century, explosion of artistic innovation in the 1920s and '30s, etc.). We pull from the same toolbox.

For example, the "180-degree rule" says that you draw a line through the scene or the characters, and the artist's point of view--the "camera," if you will--always stays on one side of that line to avoid radical changes of perspective that confuse the reader/viewer. 

Lieber's tips about composition, establishing shot (a wide view that shows the reader where they are and who's in the scene), and depth of field also apply to filmmaking. Making a comic is very similar to directing a movie, and a young cartoonist could learn a lot from a film studies course. 

The tip I would emphasize, and the one I always encourage young artists to do myself, is Number 6: Draw from Life. Cartoonists simplify and stylize, it's what we do, but that simplification and stylization should still be rooted in reality. My main complaint about the manga-flavored stylization I see MANY young cartoonists adopt is less about the style itself, which I have no real beef with, than the fact that they're drawing someone else's version of a car or a cat or a face, not their own. Sit down and draw a cat from life as accurately as you can, then simplify it and polish it until you can't possibly draw the cat with fewer lines, and that's a cartoon cat in YOUR style that I bet won't look like anyone else's.

Number 11 is important. Whenever a drawing isn't working for me, and I just can't figure out how to arrange the characters and background, often it's because I haven't defined where they are in space. Establish a horizon line, draw a grid if you have to, and everything usually falls into place.

Number 12 I would amend to advise cartoonists to place the lettering first. Then you don't have to worry about leaving enough room for the words, you're drawing the art around them. Text pulls the reader's eye through the page, it guides them and sets the pace. If a reader gets lost, very often it's because you've placed the text wrong (the other big reason readers get lost is because you've laid out the panels wrong). 

Making comics involves a surprising depth of craft that, when it works, should be invisible. Almost everybody learns by doing it wrong. I still do it wrong, just less than I used to.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

The Intellectual Life #17

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 17:

(I made pancakes for breakfast today. Later this morning, Karen and I will visit friends, a wife and husband who both happen to be Superior Court judges.)

Karen: What's that white powder on your shirt?

Brian: Cocaine.

Karen: (Unamused glare.)

Brian: I probably shouldn't wear my cocaine shirt to a judge's house.

Karen: TWO judges!

Brian: It could be pancake flour.

Karen: That's our story and we're sticking to it.

Karen (Looking over a griddle full of flapjacks): This is when my mom would put a pat of butter on each pancake.

Brian: I always liked the idea. Didn't love the execution.

Karen: You didn't like melted butter on your pancakes?

Brian: It just makes a wet puddle in the middle of your pancake.

Karen: A wet puddle of BUTTER!

Brian: My mom didn't do that.

Karen: If she really loved you, she would have.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.

Thursday, August 10, 2023


My heart's breaking for victims of the Maui firestorm, which at this writing has killed at least 36. I didn't post earlier because I didn't think I had anything novel or interesting to say about it. This morning I decided I did.

I chose this photo, from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, of flames racing over the hills toward houses below because it could have been taken of my neighborhood in 2017. I was them. Right now, those people don't know what hit them. As I described in A Fire Story, they're living in a tiny bubble, focusing on themselves and their families, trying to meet their immediate needs for shelter and food. They're trying to figure out this afternoon, not next month. In time they'll look up and their focus will expand to other people and longer goals, but not yet. 

If I could advise them, I'd say: Set your priorities. Structure helps. Wake up every day and make a list. Check off what you can, then get up the next day and make another list. Put one foot in front of the other. You will breathe and even laugh again.

Don't be too embarrassed or proud to accept help. I can't tell you how many people I saw who had literally nothing but still declined aid, saying "Give it to someone who needs it more." Right now, that's you. Later on you can pay it forward. Take the help.

If I could advise their relatives and friends, I'd say: ask the victims what they need and really listen. They probably don't need piles of clothes, or teddy bears, or pots and pans, or canned food from the back of your pantry. For the next few weeks they'll be living on a cot or a friend's couch and have nowhere to put that stuff anyway. 

Honestly, for all the good intentions and generosity of people who tried their best, what we really appreciated and used were gift cards to places like Walmart, Target and Safeway (all stores that I see Maui has). Say what you want about big-box superstores, but in our disaster they were the only businesses that stayed open and had everything we needed in one place.

Don't fret about getting back to normal because you never will. The old normal is gone. But you will make a new normal; in fact, you're already making it without even realizing it. Someday, I hope, you'll be able to gather with the people who pulled you through, and who you helped pull through, and say, "Can you believe we did that?" It will feel like a different lifetime ago because it was. Look forward to that.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Robbie Robertson

Singer-songwriter Robbie Robertson died at the age of 80. I was a casual fan who knew his greatest hits, was aware of some of the drama that broke up The Band, and had a lot of respect for his artistic integrity. Safe to say he never sold out. 

I never spoke to, corresponded with, or breathed the same air as Robertson, but I did have an opportunity to work with him a while back. He wanted to write a graphic novel--an insider's history of rock-and-roll kinda thing--and needed an artist. I was asked if I wanted to pitch. As I recall, I doggedly sketched and doodled and drew through a long weekend, and on Monday reported back that I had nuthin'. I couldn't crack the nut. Robertson's concept was fine, I just wasn't the right person for the job, and said so. 

I guess his graphic novel never happened. I don't regret declining. The prospect of committing to 200 pages of art you have no idea how to do would be a special kind of torture, plus I had ideas of my own I wanted to focus on. But sometimes I think it would've been very cool. I bet Robertson would have told a hell of a story.

EDITED TO ADD: My editor, Charlie Kochman, tells the rest of the story on Facebook, much of it new to me. It's better than I told it. Click on that embedded link to read it.

Yeah, the story I tried to develop art for was Robertson's Billy and Mojo idea. I'd forgotten that it was meant to be a children's book, probably because I don't really write or draw differently for children and adults. Deciding which shelf it goes on is someone else's job. 

The nut I couldn't crack was integrating Billy and his cat Mojo into the story. I couldn't just draw Billy meandering through history saying, "Gee, Mojo, here we are at Sun Records!" "Golly, we're on Abbey Road, do you think we'll see any Beatles?" That would have been a terrible comic. But I couldn't think of any other way to do it. Maybe nobody else could, either, and that's why it didn't happen in that form, although Charlie describes how it morphed into a later and very different Robertson book.

To hear Charlie tell it, I never really had a shot anyway. Which is fine. I had fun playing in Robertson's sandbox for a couple of days, which is all it was meant to be.