Sunday, January 29, 2023

LumaCon 2023

My favorite event on the comics convention calendar did not disappoint! LumaCon 2023, the best free little con I know, put on by librarians in Petaluma, Calif., was a hoot. I'll dump some photos below, but short version: I had a good time with old friends, made a couple of new ones, talked to some very talented and driven kids about comics, and surprisingly sold more books than I think I have at any other con.

Seriously. I was telling Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum, how surprised I was to see my books selling out, and he pointed out that people attend an event like, say, Comic-Con International in San Diego for a lot of reasons: movies, TV shows, video games, cosplay, the grand spectacle of it all. Whereas people go to a convention run by librarians largely because they like to read. I don't do well with a crowd that's there for Wolverine, but with people looking for something kind of interesting and different, I can do all right. 

My spread. I had a couple of very creative and entrepreneurial kids sitting beside me and "Kid Beowulf" creator Lex Fajardo behind me. Surrounded by talent.

In addition to Andrew and his wife, cartoonist Shaenon Garrity, and their son Robin, other friends with tables included cartoonist Tom Beland, cartoonist/illustrator Emily C. Martin, and cartoonist Lex Fajardo, who sat right behind me. Everybody told me I had to meet Gio Benedetti, a cartoonist who also does workshops and puts together anthologies of teens' comics, so I did and he was great. Nathan Libecap, librarian at Casa Grande High School, and his team of colleagues and volunteers made all the pros feel very welcome and ran a smooth show. Other friends dropped by, including writer/teacher Jason Whiton, cartoonist Denis St. John, librarian/gallery wrangler Loretta Esparza, and friends Kathy Bottarini and Kristin Hendricks. Best of all, my daughters Laura and Robin helped staff my table for a couple of hours, which was wonderful because they're much better salespeople than I am. 

Plus LumaCon still has its bake sale. If your comics convention doesn't have a bake sale, you're doing it wrong.

The Bake Sale. Oh yeah.

In some press promoting LumaCon, Nathan had made the point that its focus is on young creators and the pros are pretty much invited as bait to lure people in (he put it nicer than that). I teased him a bit about that, and he reassured me that I would always be welcome but also told me something very interesting: since the first LumaCon in 2015, some of the artists who started out on the amateur kids' side of the room have begun to migrate over to the professional adult side. As they aged, at least a few of them kept their passion, grew their skills, and are now getting real pay and recognition for their creative work!

Holy Moley! How wonderful is that? I can only imagine how gratifying it must be for the LumaCon organizers to see the seeds they planted with their first mini-convention years ago begin to bloom like that. Nathan also confirmed that LumaCon has become a model that other cities, libraries and schools are looking to emulate, which I can confirm because I've been invited to one of them later this year.

Nathan was easy to find because he was everywhere all at once.

Most years I can count on having an "Only at LumaCon" moment, and this is this year's:

One of the tables was selling work from Alchemia, a local program to "nuture the creative expression of individual with disabilities as a vehicle for personal growth and accomplishment," says their website. One of their artists, Justin, came by my table with his staff supporter Andy, and was absorbed by a couple pages of original artwork I'd brought because I like to talk to young artists about the process of turning drawings on paper into pages in a book. These particular pages were the two-page spread of skyscrapers on the title page of The Last Mechanical Monster, and Andy asked Justin if he'd like to talk to his art mentor about drawing something like that himself. I had an idea.

Those pages.

I figured that if they went to Justin's art mentor, they wouldn't even know what to ask for. I also figured I couldn't teach Justin how to draw skyscrapers in two-point perspective in just a few minutes. But if I could sketch it out for Justin and Andy, and then if they took that sketch to Justin's art mentor, it might be something they could work on together and really master. So I took a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle of it, then put two dots on the line, then drew a bunch of lines radiating from those dots, then drew a box and drew some windows on it and said, "That's exactly how I made those drawings, and you can, too."

Justin leaned in real close, gave me a warm, firm, two-handed handshake, and said, "You're the best artist on Earth."

I didn't argue the point.

Here's some pictures.

An overview of about half the Artists' Alley room, which was the heart of LumaCon. There were several vendors set up out in the lobby, and different activity rooms scattered around the Petaluma Community Center.

The other side of the room, showing me with my daughter, Robin, so I deduce this photo is by my other daughter, Laura.

Andrew Farago, Shaenon Garrity, and Robin the Boy Wonder.

Lex Fajardo

Emily C. Martin

One of my favorite art stylists, Tom Beland

Alchemia, with Justin and Andy

The Schulz Museum came, too!

Separate rooms were dedicated to playing with Legos as well as just sitting and drawing. I love that.

A stage in the Artists' Alley room was set up for crafts. This was very early in the day, they were swarmed later.

Kids outside lopped off each other's limbs with deadly swords. I'm surprised it didn't make the news.

I believe this brave young Jedi single-handedly captured an Empire outpost.

Like I said in my last post, LumaCon is just about the sincerest little con I know. They promise to keep having them, so if you're in the neighborhood next year I recommend it. Chances are good I'll be there, too.

Friday, January 27, 2023

LumaCon's A'Coming!

Sign at the front door in 2019.

Here's a nice article in the local paper about where I'll be tomorrow: LumaCon, my favorite comics convention of them all! That's because, like Linus's pumpkin patch, it's the most sincere comic-con in the world. It's tiny, organized entirely by volunteer school librarians, and free. It exists purely for the love of comics.

Best of all, and a point I appreciate the article making clearly, it's about young creators and their work. The con makes an effort to mix up the kids and pros, and some of my best conversations about comics have been with those kids, whose work occasionally astounds and educates me. There's freedom in the work of someone who doesn't yet know all the rules that encourages a little rule-breaking of my own. Inspiration goes both ways.

An overview of about half the Artists' Alley in 2018.

Two stories about why I love LumaCon:

Because it's free, people who wouldn't normally go to a comics convention drop by just to check it out. Invariably, a kid comes up to the table with a parent or grandparent in tow. While the kid and I talk comics, you see Mom or Dad or Grandma or Grandpa realize that, "Oh, comics are a real thing that adults actually DO!" Their whole attitude shifts from vague embarrassment to beaming pride. That never happens at bigger cons.

This is my favorite con story of all. A boy about 14 came to my table with his father and grandfather. The boy had autism, and I don't recall him speaking to me. But he had a book on "How to Draw Dragonball Z" and had gone through all the exercises, meticulously mimicking their manga style as well as doing some original drawings of his own, and wanted to show me his work. I gently critiqued his pile of loose pages and encouraged him to create more characters and stories of his own. He left happy. Later, his father circled back to thank me and explain that he feared his son would never talk, until one day he discovered comics. His very first words, at something like the age of 8 or 9, were "Superman's cape is red." For that family, comics became more than a fun pastime. They were the key to unlocking and engaging the boy's mind.

Again, that doesn't happen amid a crush of a hundred thousand people at San Diego Comic-Con. "Superman's cape is red." Damn.

In addition, I'm sure to reconnect with cartooning friends. I know Alexis Fajardo, Andrew Farago, Tom Beland, Thom Yeates, Donna Almendrala, the Schulz Museum, and Jason Whiton will be there, and I suspect others may turn up.

I've missed a few LumaCons, what with pandemics and other obligations, and am looking forward to getting back. If you're around Petaluma, Calif. Saturday between 10 and 4, come say Hello.

My favorite LumaCon photo, 2015.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Trump of Doom!

Friday the 13th actually falls on a Friday this month, which was a recurring gag in my favorite comic strip of all time (with apologies to my friends who work for "Peanuts"), "Pogo" by Walt Kelly. Sometimes Friday the 13th fell on a Tuesday or Wednesday, which was bad enough, but when it fell on a Friday HOO BOY you were in for some trouble!

Several years ago I indulged myself by adding this "Pogo" strip to my small collection of original comics art. When I saw its theme, I just couldn't pass it up. This was one of three pieces of art I saved from our fire in 2017; I didn't think to grab any of my own, but I grabbed my Walt Kelly.

(The actual strip isn't stacked 2 x 2, but it fits better on Blogger that way.)

I discovered "Pogo" by reading my Dad's paperback collections from the 1950s. As a pre-teen I didn't get all the topical and political references, but the characters and their world were terrific, Kelly's wordplay and playfulness with the comic strip format were astounding, and his artwork was just about as good as comics could be drawn. If I could ink like anyone, it'd be Kelly (or his contemporary, Gus Arriola). 

If you want to know where I come from as a cartoonist, I'd say my DNA is at least a quarter Kelly. 

Happy Friday the 13th (on a Friday!).

Monday, January 9, 2023

The Orange Chimera

A slice of mutant orange on a light box.

Hey, kids, it's Mutant Monday! 

While working at the food bank last Friday, Karen and I found an orange that was colored half orange, half yellow. I demanded an explanation from the Facebook hive mind, and we settled on two leading possibilities: a botched dye job, occurring when oranges are sometimes dyed a deeper color to make them more attractive for market; or a chimera, a rare mutation in which an organism (it happens in both plants and animals) contains two distinct genotypes--basically, two different critters mushed into one.

Today we cut it open and . . .  it's a chimera! The color contrast goes all the way through to the core. It's a more subtle difference than the skin, but four segments are lighter orange and six segments are darker.

Unfortunately, if Professor Xavier calls asking if our orange can join the X-Men, we will have to decline on account of we ate it. In our final experiment, the two colors of flesh tasted the same.

As an indicator of how exciting my life is, this orange is the most fun I've had in quite a while.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

The Intellectual Life #16

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 16:

We had pancakes for breakfast this morning. Karen started to get a bit peckish around 1 p.m.

Karen: "Pancakes just aren't very filling."

Me: "What you you mean? They're delicious and hearty and full of magical fairy wings."

Karen: "Fairy wings aren't filling."

Me: "You have to eat about 3000 of them."

Karen: "Are they mostly protein or carbs?"

Me: "I suppose they're really meat, so . . ."

Karen: "Ugh."

Me: "But I always figured they were made of spun sugar."

Karen: "So pure carbs. No wonder I'm hungry."

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

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Donkey Bonny Brays a Carol

As long as I've been writing this blog, and the blog before this blog, which dates back to 2005, I've marked Christmas Eve by posting the best Christmas carol ever by one of the best cartoonists ever, Walt Kelly, the creator of "Pogo." It is my gift to you, or perhaps a curse, because now it's in your head.

All my best for the little fiddly tail end of this year and all of the next.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The Intellectual Life #15

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part 15:

Me: "I just found something interesting. For the past couple of days I've felt something scratching my leg. Turned out I had a nail sticking through the bottom of my jeans pocket."

Karen: "How could you not know you had a nail in your pocket?"

Me: "Only the head was in my pocket. The rest of it was poking out the bottom, scratching my leg."

Karen: "And you felt it for days and didn't investigate?"

Me: "I scratched the itch, it went away."

Karen: "I'm going to start experimenting by putting things in your pockets and seeing how long it takes you to notice them."

Me: "Like a live possum?"

Karen: "Like a dry bean."

Me: "Oh, I'd never notice that."

Karen: "You need to change your pants more often."

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

Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Occult

Photo by Ethan Chappel, used with permission because asking is the right thing to do.

Last night the Moon glided between Earth and Mars, an event called an "occultation." Lunar occultations of planets are kind of rare but not really significant, except as a reminder of what my astronomer friend Sherwood called the "beautiful, graceful minuet they've been practicing for billions of years." I have thoughts.

My neighbor Mari took these photos before and after the occultation, with a regular camera. Mars is the speck at lower left (left) and upper right (right).

Photos by Mari Haber

I was trying to explain the Moon's motion to Mari's husband Ron, and said something like, "The Moon actually moves from right to left (west to east), and it's going to pass Mars pretty fast." It occurred to me later how confusing that is, because the Moon obviously rises in the east and sets in the west (left to right in the Northern Hemisphere), just like the Sun and stars, so how can it also move from west to east?

It does both at the same time.

Because Earth spins once a day, everything rises in the east and sets in the west. But on a slower time scale, from day to day or week to week, the Moon and outer planets meander in the opposite direction, from west to east (the word "planet" means "wanderer")*. 

The Moon's motion is actually incredibly complex. Since its orbit isn't a perfect circle, from our point of view the Moon gets slightly larger and smaller, and moves slightly faster and slower, over time. Its orbit is also tilted with respect to Earth, so from month to month it bobs north or south, similar to how the Sun moves higher or lower from season to season.

All these different motions--wheels within wheels within wheels--repeat in a 19-year rhythm called the Metonic cycle (or the slightly more accurate 76-year Callippic cycle). Whatever spot and phase the Moon is in today, it'll be in that exact same spot and phase 19 years from today. Ancient astronomers knew all about it. The Babylonians, Hebrews, Celts, and perhaps Polynesians all built calendars around it. 

The Metonic cycle depicted in a 9th century manuscript from St. Emmeram's Abbey in Bavaria.

Here I'm approaching something like my point: marvel at how smart they were! Ancient astronomers didn't have Newtonian physics or what we'd call modern scientific discipline, but they were careful and brilliant observers. A civilization that can watch, track, document, and mathematically express the motions of lights in the sky over decades is working at a very high level. It was somebody's job to do that, and probably one they passed down to generations of apprentices because some celestial cycles last longer than one astronomer's lifetime.

Never underestimate the intelligence of ancient peoples. They had the same physical brains, the same cleverness and insight and genius, that we do. They had their Newtons and Einsteins. Could you observe the Moon every day for 19 years and discover the Metonic cycle? I couldn't. But people did, thousands of years ago, in many cultures independently throughout the world.

The Metonic cycle is an example of why I hate any ideas of "ancient astronauts"--for example, that the Egyptian pyramids are too perfect and complex to have been built without the help of aliens. Baloney. We are very clever apes who excel at finding patterns. We use language, writing, and mathematics to describe the patterns to others, who can then build on them. What an insult to all those ancient geniuses to claim they were too stupid to do it without outside help.

Related: here's a page from a book-length science comic I was working on before my 2017 fire destroyed my research and documentation for it. We hadn't come up with a title yet, but the working title in my head was Don't Be A Dumbass. I think the project is dead, and some of it is already obsolete anyway, but don't be surprised to see bits and pieces of it float up in my stuff from time to time.

* Footnote: Yes, I know about retrograde motion. Go soak yer head.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Shocking Secrets Revealed!

Comics friend Tom Heintjes reminds us that "The Mechanical Monsters," the Superman cartoon on which my new book The Last Mechanical Monster is based, premiered on this date in 1941. To mark the anniversary, I'm sharing A SECRET I DIDN'T TELL MY EDITOR!

As Editor Charlie and I gave our presentation at the Miami Book Fair, there were a couple of times he said, "I didn't know that," or "You never told me that." One example: even though our book couldn't mention Superman, I gave considerable thought to what a world that had had Superman in it would be like. For instance, I figured he, and whatever other superheroes existed, would influence fashion. People would dress like their heroes.

There's a convention in comics that heroes wear primary colors--blue, red, yellow--while villains wear secondary colors--green, purple, orange. There are exceptions--Green Lantern springs to mind--but it's a guide. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four: primaries. The Joker, Lex Luthor, Galactus, Doctor Doom: secondaries. One of the smart things Jack Kirby and Stan Lee did to define the Hulk as an anti-hero was make him green and purple, a hero in the colors of a villain. [Edited to add: In a comment on Facebook, Editor Charlie attributed the Hulk's palette to Stan Goldberg and offered more insight into Marvel's creative process in the early '60s.]

In my book, the inventor Sparky's tuxedo has purple highlights and his cavern lair is green and purple (as it was in the cartoon). Lillian wears Superman's colors: blue jeans, yellow t-shirt, red shirt. (Superman Blue isn't 100% cyan ink, by the way; it has a bit of magenta in it, which leans it toward purple). Helen the librarian wears Batman's colors: blue, gray, yellow. The boy in the library, who was unnamed in the webcomic but whom I called Dwayne in the book after the late African-American comic book writer Dwayne McDuffie, wears Green Lantern's green, gray and white.

So near the end of the book, when Sparky trades his tattered purple tuxedo for a blue (with a bit of magenta), red, and yellow sweatsuit, it's a subtle signal that a change is afoot. Similarly at the end, Lillian adopts a version of Sparky's purple suit--not meant to hint that she's turned evil, but maybe a little of him has rubbed off on her.

I try to be thoughtful about how I use color. Every book I've done has a different "color philosophy." Honestly, I don't know if it makes a difference, but I have to believe these choices have a cumulative effect on the reader, even if they're not aware of it. Color is a tool that can convey meaning or evoke emotions subtextually. My challenge is to understand that subtext and use it with purpose.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Miami Book Fair

I'm home from the Miami Book Fair with a quick photo dump. It was a good trip! 

My panel with my editor Charles Kochman of Abrams Books went all right. We've known each other for 17 years (!), and have that history and comfortable telepathic patter that leads to an interesting discussion, I think. I was especially happy to meet a husband-wife pair of writers who seemed like they got some practical value out of it. 

I always count on meeting someone great completely out of the blue, thanks largely to Charlie, who knows everyone. This year's highlights included writer Brad Meltzer, whose work I know and admire; and WAY out of left field, Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore and his partner Eva Prinz, a book editor who's a good friend of Charlie's. 

But I think my favorite new acquaintance was photographer James Hamilton, who shot the New York creative scene in the '70s and '80s for magazines like Rolling Stone, Harper's Bazaar and Vanity Fair, and who casually begins stories with sentences like, "When I spent the afternoon with Alfred Hitchcock, I walked into the room and his wife Alma poured me tea." A very low-key, friendly, and self-effacing man who was genuinely interested in my work as well.

So I went to a book fair and wound up hanging out with a celebrated photographer and a rock star. Go figure. When I left at crack-o-dawn Sunday, it had begun to monsoon. Rain in Florida; go figure that, too. I hope the rest of the day went well for everyone. Many thanks to Mitchell Kaplan and the Miami Book Fair for inviting me!

An overview of a bit of the Fair, with a large stage at the end of the street lined with colorful vendor tents. Most of those tents held small publishers, self-publishers, second-hand booksellers, and such.

Charlie and I found a quiet corner in the library to strategize our "spontaneous conversation." We work hard to make it look easy.

Outside the room where our panel was held, the Fair set up a table to sell speakers' books. They even had some copies of "A Fire Story," which was a nice surprise. Of course they all got signed before I left. Sorry I didn't catch the bookseller's name, but he was a cool kid.

At a signing table with Charlie after our talk. I don't have any pics of the talk because I was in it, but take my word for it: we were amazing.

Met writer Brad Meltzer and his wife Cori in the authors' lounge. We had a good long conversation. I also saw humor writer Dave Barry hovering over a chafing dish, but did not pester him.

At a late Friday panel on the Velvet Underground with Thurston Moore of "Sonic Youth," photographer James Hamilton, and actor Michael Imperioli, who all have books related to the band and its leader, Lou Reed.

Looks like I picked the wrong day to wear a rival book fair’s hat. People are cursing me in five languages and hurling half-eaten empanadas at me. Nobody ever talks about the ugly side of literature.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Toon Talking at the CAM

Hey, look who's doing a Toon Talk and book signing at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco next Saturday! Spoiler: me! At 1 p.m. I'll be speaking about The Last Mechanical Monster, then hanging around talking to folks and signing books until 3 p.m. 

Best of all, it's free and open to the public, so if you just want to say "Howdy!" it won't cost you a dime. However, an ice cream sundae at the nearby Ghirardelli Chocolate shop will set you back $14 or $15, so keep that in mind as you budget for the trip.

CAM is a great institution that's been very good to me, and is always worth a stop even when I'm not sitting in it. Which I will be, next Saturday.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Professional

This story will probably reveal more about me than I intend.

Yesterday I went to a terrific local art supply store that offers a professional discount. I don't bother with it for my usual small purchases but yesterday I spent a chunk of change, so I approached the counter and said these exact words, verbatim:

"I would appreciate the professional discount, please. Because that is what I am."

A 17-year-old buying a six-pack with a fake I.D. would not have sounded shadier.

I'm not insecure about my bona fides. Although I have the usual neurotic share of Imposter Syndrome, I do consider myself a confident professional cartoonist. I'm just terrified that someday they'll ask for proof. Nobody issued me a license. What am I going to do, Google myself while standing at the register? How pathetic. And what are they gonna say?

"You call yourself a professional? Your color sense is pedestrian at best."

"Is that a figure drawing or a crime scene?"

"Sir, when we say 'professional' we're really thinking of oil painters, sculptors, printmakers, kindergarten teachers . . . you know, real artists."

Anyway, the clerk said "Sure" and rang me up without a grilling or even, really, a glance. So if you're looking for art supplies in the North Bay, I recommend Rileystreet. Because they get me.

(Photo nicked from the Sonoma State Star.)

Friday, October 21, 2022

A Gorgeous Love Letter

"A family-friendly adventure with a surprising amount of heart and timeless themes..."

A new review here from Sam Stone at Comic Book Resources, a leading online source for comics news. It's a very good one.

"After crafting numerous tales that ventured headfirst into considerably different subjects, Fies’ The Last Mechanical Monster is a refreshing read without coming off as overly lightweight. A gorgeous love letter to the Golden Age of superhero comics and animation, Fies uses the genre to touch on themes of friendship and legacy borne from a lifetime of cynicism and spurned ambition. A solid collection of the original webcomic in a gorgeous format, Abrams ComicArts continues its recent high-profile winning streak with its publication of Fies' Eisner-nominated graphic novel."

I'm especially happy to see that nod to my publisher, Abrams ComicArts, which I think has put out a tremendous body of work I'm proud to be a part of.

The cool-kid writers aren't supposed to care about reviews, but I guess I'm not that cool. One person's opinion doesn't carry a lot of weight with me, but one good or bad review can translate to a lot of people who do or don't buy your book, and that matters. It's also true that one bad review seems to outweigh a hundred good ones, and stick in your brain a lot longer. At the same time, not everything is for everyone, and you've got to be OK with that. I am.

Anyway. Here's a good review.